Getting a Grip on the Warnings in Hebrews

Examining Five Different Interpretations

by Derek Brown

The book of Hebrews contains some of the sharpest warnings found in the New Testament.

The statements found in Hebrews 2:1-4, 3:12-15, 6:1-6, 10:26-31, and 12:25-29 have caused no small amount of consternation and confusion for Christians over the years. Indeed, I experienced both of these during college when I, due to a misreading of the warning in Hebrews 6:1-6 and a few other factors, fell into a spiritual tailspin that took me out of school for eight months. I’ve talked to many others since then who, even if they didn’t experience spiritual instability to the same degree I did, have found the warnings in Hebrews at least perplexing and a bit troubling.   

Bible scholars and teachers have also wrestled over the meaning and function of these warnings over the centuries. The primary tension lies in how to understand the warnings—given their severity—within the greater theological context of eternal security and assurance. There are five major views presently vying for interpretational prominence.

The Loss-of-Salvation View
The first view says that the warnings indicate that Christians can lose their salvation. The argument goes this way. Because the warnings are directed at Christians and speak of the possibility of falling away from Christ and experiencing eternal judgment, these passages must mean that believers can lose their salvation. Proponents of this position rightly assess the audience as consisting of believers, and they correctly understand that the warnings are speaking of eternal judgment. The problem with this view is that it doesn’t recognize the prospective language of the warnings, nor can it reckon with the author’s own view of eternal security. I will address both of these issues a little later.  

The Multiple-Audience View
Another view argues that these passages cannot teach that Christians can lose their salvation because the Bible as a whole is clear that genuine salvation cannot be lost. Proponents for this position will usually point to passages like John 10:27-30, Romans 8:28-39 and other New Testament texts that teach that born-again believers cannot undo or forfeit their salvation. Indeed, this and the remaining three views are in agreement against the loss-of-salvation view that genuine salvation cannot be lost.

The multiple audience view (also called the “Test-of-Genuineness” view1) seeks to solve the apparent tension between these warning passages and the doctrine of eternal security taught by arguing that the warnings are not directed at Christians at all, but to the poser, the faker, the almost-Christian. According to this view, the author of Hebrews is addressing different audiences—believers, unbelievers, the pseudo-believer—and the interpreter must determine, based on clues in the text, who he is addressing in a given passage.

The trouble with this interpretation is that it cannot establish how the interpreter is able to toggle between audiences. The author of Hebrews often groups himself together with his audience with the first-person plural pronoun (“we,” “us”) when he issues the warnings and when gives the promises of salvation. Proponents of this view assume that the warnings cannot be addressed to believers and therefore miss important exegetical clues that lead us to conclude that there is only one audience in view.

Loss-of-Heavenly-Rewards View
A third view argues that the warnings are not about eternal judgment at all, but rather about the loss of heavenly rewards. The argument goes like this. Since Christians cannot lose their salvation, these warnings must not be about a Christian suffering eternal judgment; they are about a Christian forfeiting heavenly rewards when they fall away from Jesus.

Again, while this position is correct in maintaining the doctrine of eternal security and correct in its view that these warnings are addressed to Christians, it simply cannot do justice to severity of the language of these warnings. The warnings are clearly speaking of the eternal judgment that awaits a person who falls away from Christ.

The Hypothetical-Warning View
Yet another view argues that, although these warnings are directed toward believers and are also about eternal judgment, they must be hypothetical. That is, they present the believer with a threat of a loss of salvation if they apostatize. This threat, however, is only hypothetical because a genuine believer cannot and will not fall away from Christ.    

This view is right in holding to the eternal security of believers. It is also right by noting that these warnings are directed to believers. Where it falters is in the idea of a hypothetical warning. As we will see a little later, a hypothetical warning is no warning at all.

While I am more inclined toward the latter three views—the loss-of-salvation view cannot comport with the abundant New Testament teaching on eternal security—I do not believe any of these views adequately describe the nature or function of these warnings. For this reason, they are unable to provide the Christian reader the author’s intended pastoral blessing.

The Means-of-Perseverance View
I believe the interpretation that makes most exegetical, theological, and pastoral sense of these passages is means-of- perseverance view. This view states that the warnings in Hebrews God’s means of enabling his people to persevere to the end and inherit final salvation. I will address the exegetical and theological superiority of this view below. I will discuss the pastoral superiority of this view in a following article.  

The means of perseverance view agrees that the warnings are addressed to Christians, but it is superior to the loss-of-salvation view because it follows the author of Hebrew’s own view of eternal security. The author is confident listeners will heed his warnings and persevere to the end (Heb 6:11; 10:39). God has sealed his guarantee of salvation with an oath so that his people would have “strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before” them (Heb 6:17-18). He has applied the New Covenant to his listeners—a covenant that cannot be broken (Heb 8:8-12; see also Jer 31:31-33). He argues that Christ’s sacrifice has secured eternal perfection (i.e., glorification) for those who are presently enjoying the sanctifying work of the Spirit (Heb 10:14). The author of Hebrews does not believe that genuine believers can lose their salvation.

But the emphasis for the author of Hebrews is not on one’s past experience of salvation, but on their final salvation.

But the emphasis for the author of Hebrews is not on one’s past experience of salvation, but on their final salvation. These two concepts are not contradictory. Scripture consistently teaches that there are both “already” and “not yet” aspects of our salvation. We were saved and justified at the moment we believed in Jesus (Rom 3:26; 5:1; Titus 3:4-7). But we are also looking forward to when we will be brought into our eternal inheritance. This is called final salvation (see Rom 13:11). Throughout his letter, the author of Hebrews places the accent on final salvation and exhorts his readers to persevere in faith to the end and warns them of what will happen if they don’t. These warnings are one of the key ways God keeps his elect believing until the end.

The means-of-perseverance view is superior to the multiple-audience view, as we noted above, because it follows the author’s use of the first-person plural as he groups himself together with his listeners. The author applies the warnings to himself (Heb 2:1-4; Heb 10:26-31) and the hope of final salvation to himself (Heb 10:39). The suggestion that he is addressing the almost-Christian in the warnings is nonsensical because that would be to indict himself as an almost- Christian.

But the means-of-perseverance view is also superior to the multiple audience view because it recognizes the prospective nature of the warnings. The multiple-audience view says that the warnings must be talking about an unbeliever because they are describing a person who has fallen away from Christ (Heb 2:1-4), hardened their heart (Heb 3:12-15), not reached the grace of God (Heb 4:1), who cannot repent (Heb 6:4), who now faces fierce vengeance (Heb 10:26-31) from God who is a consuming fire (Heb 10:25-29).  

However, it is not quite right to say that these passages are describing the “unbeliever.” Indeed, these warnings are not descriptive at all; they are prospective. That is, these warnings speak of a future consequence if the condition is fulfilled. If you fall away from Christ (condition), you will face eternal judgment (future consequence). But the author is not saying that these things have occurred.

Of course, if one apostatizes from the faith, they are, by definition, an unbeliever. But the author of Hebrews doesn’t frame his warnings the same way John speaks of defectors. John says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (John 2:19). John is giving a description of something that happened in the past that provides us with evidence with which we can draw a present conclusion about particular people (the ones who “went out from us”).

The warnings in Hebrews are different. They are prospective of what will happen in the future if the condition is met, not descriptive of what has already taken place. Nor does the author of Hebrews say that these conditions are presently being met by anyone in the group.  

  • “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it…. how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation” (Heb 2:1, 3; emphasis added).
  • “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:12-14; emphasis added)
  • “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (Heb 6:4-6)
  • “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Heb 10:26-27; emphasis added).
  • “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven” (Heb 12:25; emphasis added).

In each warning above, the author explains, not what has happened or is currently happening, but what will happen if the conditions are met. The warnings, therefore, serve as a means of perseverance by exhorting the listeners to make sure the conditions do not obtain in their lives. We can’t draw a definitive conclusion about anyone’s unbelieving status in the audience because we don’t have descriptive information about the actual people in question (like in 1 John 2:19) that should lead us away from the assumption that the author is addressing believers (Heb 6:9-10, 10:39, etc.). 

The means-of-perseverance view is also superior to the loss-of-heavenly-rewards view because it makes better sense of the language used in the warnings, particularly how the consequences are explained.

The means-of-perseverance view is also superior to the loss-of-heavenly-rewards view because it makes better sense of the language used in the warnings, particularly how the consequences are explained. As I noted above, while the means-of-perseverance view agrees that salvation cannot be lost, it also agrees that these warnings are addressed to Christians. However, it disagrees that these warnings are merely about the loss of heavenly rewards because such an interpretation does not do justice to the language of the warnings which clearly indicate that the author is referring to eternal judgment.

Finally, the means-of-perseverance view is superior to the hypothetical warning view because it better understands the nature and function of warnings. In truth, a hypothetical warning is no warning at all. For warnings to have their desired effect—namely, to protect people from experiencing harm—the warnings must present a genuine connection between the condition (if you do this) and the consequence (then this will happen). The means-of-salvation view says that Christians must receive these warnings with utter seriousness. When we do, we are protected from the consequence of eternal judgment. Thus, the warnings protect the faith of the believer and enable them to persevere to the end.

In the next article, I will discuss how this dynamic of taking the warnings seriously relates to the doctrine of eternal security and our enjoyment of assurance.


NOTES

1 See Thomas R. Schreiner and Ardel B. Caneday, The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 29-34.

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