A theological system that cannot take seriously the warning passages addressed to believers is itself not to be taken seriously.
Hebrews 10, for example, contains perhaps the clearest, most stern warning in all of the Bible about God’s wrath and the danger of willful sin. The entire book of Hebrews is clearly directed toward Jewish Christians. But most contemporary evangelical commentaries go to great lengths to concoct a rationale under which some Christians can consider themselves exempt from the warning.
Certainly, the congregation of God’s people is a mixed assembly. Under the Old Covenant, not all were faithfully obedient about walking in God’s ways. Undoubtedly, the same is true under the New Covenant. In every Christian congregation, you can identify some who have no intention of living holy lives and making disciples. But only specious reasoning can pretend the warnings do not apply to “the elect” among God’s people because “the elect” will always “take heed and persevere in faith and holiness.”
Circular reasoning always begs the question: Since you didn’t fall, you obviously were one of the elect, which requires an accompanying arrogant declaration that if you did fall, you obviously were not among the elect. It requires that salvation be relegated to a state of being that has been achieved in the past. It wrings out all meaning from the process of sanctification and the eventual reward reserved for those who endure until the end.
Consider the text of the chapter. We will begin by rejoicing over vv.1-18. We have a better sacrifice in Christ for our sin, because he chose to obey God, canceling the first covenant and putting the second one into effect. “For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time.” (v.10) The author (I believe it was Paul), then goes on to assert: “And when sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices.” (v.18)
Clearly, he is writing to a group that included those who had been made holy and whose sins had been forgiven.
And that is why the warnings in verses 19-39 have meaning. His message is addressed to those who
— “can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus.” (v.19)
— can “go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him” because “our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean.” (v.22)
— have had their sins covered by Christ’s sacrifice. (v.26)
— have been made holy by the blood of the covenant. (v.29)
— have “remained faithful even though it meant terrible suffering.” (v.32)
— “knew there were better things waiting for [them] that will last forever.” (v.34)
The fact he is speaking to such people is precisely what makes verse 29 so jarring: “Just think how much worse [than death without mercy (v.28)] the punishment will be for those who have trampled on the Son of God, and have treated the blood of the covenant, which made us holy, as if it were common and unholy, and have insulted and disdained the Holy Spirit who brings God’s mercy to us.”
The fact he is speaking to such people is precisely what makes the exhortations to perseverance relevant:
— “Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise.” (v.23) This makes no sense if it is spoken to those who have not affirmed the hope and therefore cannot be holding to it tightly.
— “Do not throw away this confident trust in the Lord. Remember the great reward it brings you!” (v.35)Why warn someone about throwing away what they do not possess (or cannot throw away)? Why encourage them to remember the great reward of faithfulness when they are not being faithful in the first place?
— “Patient endurance is what you need now, so that you will continue to do God’s will. Then you will receive all that he has promised.” (v.36) Why would those not doing God’s will need patient endurance so they can continue doing it? Why connect receiving the promised salvation with continuing to do God’s will, if receiving salvation is a matter of election and not persevering obedience?
— “’I will take no pleasure in anyone who turns away.’ But we are not like those who turn away from God to their own destruction. We are the faithful ones, whose souls will be saved. (v.38b-39) How can we turn away from the Lord if we were not in the first place turned toward him? And, again, why connect salvation to faithfulness, if it actually is a matter of election?
Election and predestination are precious truths of Scripture. Paul told the Roman believers that “God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory.” (Romans 8:29-30)
Salvation is for those God knew in advance and predestined for conformity to Christ’s image. But it must also be about faithful obedience to walk in God’s ways and make disciples. The entire point of Hebrews comes down to the danger of throwing away the amazing gift purchased for such an awful price. But the elect do not in any meaningful sense “take heed” of the warnings and “persevere in faith and holiness,” if it is impossible for them to ignore the warnings and fail to persevere.
Because the warning is not meaningless, the exhortation and promise are powerful: “Do not throw away this confident trust in the Lord. Remember the great reward it brings you!” (v.35)
All Scripture quotations are from the New Living Translation.