In a previous article, I outlined four major interpretations of the warnings passages in Hebrews while offering an argument in favor of a fifth view called, “The Means-of-Perseverance View.” In this article, I want to consider how such severe warnings like those found in Hebrews serve our assurance and our perseverance.
I’m a Christian: Should I Take the Warnings Seriously?
I’ve found that when I suggest that all professing Christians must take the warning passages seriously, some folks get concerned that such a stance implies that a believer’s salvation can be lost. “If I take the warning seriously,” some Christians reason, “this shows that I can fulfill the condition of the warning. This means that I could drift away from Christ (Heb 2:1-4) or harden my heart (Heb 3:12-15) or get to a point where I am unable to repent (Heb 6:1-8). But this conclusion contradicts the promises of eternal security. How can taking the warnings seriously actually bolster my assurance?”
This is an excellent question, and I’m grateful when I find believers wrestling with these kinds of queries. Their difficulty demonstrates that these Christians are giving Scripture and their assurance appropriate attention, which is why they are feeling a tension between biblical promises and biblical warnings.
How God Keeps our Salvation Secure
But the tension is often the result of a misunderstanding or a simple lack of awareness about how God keeps our salvation secure. Scripture teaches that we are saved entirely by God’s grace (Rom 3:21-26; 4:5; Eph 2:8-9; Titus 3:4-7) and that salvation cannot be lost (John 5:24; 6:35-44; Rom 8:28-39). This is the glorious doctrine of eternal security: because God is the author of salvation from beginning to end (Rom 8:28-30), the person who has been born again and justified can know with certainty that they can never lose their salvation, because they have been chosen by God in eternity past to inherit salvation (Eph 1:3-14). This means that our salvation is God’s work and not ultimately dependent upon us. Praise the Lord!
Some Bible teachers and theologians have misunderstood these truths to imply that a person who professes faith at some point and then, later in life, rejects Christ, is still saved and heaven-bound because salvation cannot be lost. These teachers are right to say that salvation cannot be lost, but their position indicates that they don’t rightly understand the nature of eternal security. A person who possesses a secure salvation is a person whom God will enable to keep believing until the end. That’s precisely where the warnings come in.
Among the various means that God uses to sustain our faith—the promises of Scripture and various spiritual and temporal blessings—the warnings serve a vital role in spurring us on to keep believing in Christ, repenting from sin, and striving for holiness during our earthly pilgrimage. The warnings, therefore, are not designed to undermine the believer’s assurance, but to deepen and strengthen it. It is no coincidence that the author of Hebrews, immediately after issuing one the letter’s most blistering warnings, that he reminds his listeners that assurance is God’s will for them:
Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.Heb 6:9-12
The author’s desire is that those to whom he issues these warnings exercise “earnestness” in order to walk in “full assurance of hope until the end” (v. 11). Actually, full assurance is a central theme of the letter.
- “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16, emphasis added)
- “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us” (Heb 6:17-18, emphasis added).
- “…and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful (Heb 10:21-23, emphasis added)
- Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward” (Heb 10:35, emphasis added).
It is apparent that the letter is aimed at promoting assurance, not discouraging it. The warnings, therefore, must be read within the context of this overarching purpose. Out of all the interpretations, only the means-of-perseverance fulfills this objective.
Misreading the Warnings Removes the Basis for Assurance
The loss-of-salvation view undermines assurance because it affirms that a genuine believer can lose their salvation. It is not possible for a person to walk in assurance if they believe they can, at some point, lose their salvation. A rejection of eternal security removes the basis by which a person can maintain the assurance of their salvation.
Ironically, while the other three views hold to the doctrine of eternal security, none of them can truly promote assurance. The multiple-audience view cannot promote assurance for two reasons. One, it argues that the warnings are not applicable to believers. Therefore, believers are discouraged from applying the warnings, thus removing one of the means by which God desires to deepen their assurance (similar to the loss-of-rewards and hypothetical-warning views; see below). Two, because the warnings only refer to unbelievers, the Christian doubting their salvation—the very person who is in need of assurance—is left to believe that they have fulfilled the condition of the warning and are thus liable to its consequence. Especially in the case of the warning in Hebrews 6:1-8, the doubting Christian has no basis for any assurance because the warning itself speaks of a person who is no longer able to repent.
The loss-of-rewards and hypothetical warning views cannot provide assurance because they don’t give the warnings their full voice. Without sharpness and severity, the warnings cannot promote the appropriate response—repentance, faith, resolve to never fall away from Christ—and therefore cannot provide real assurance.
How the Means-of-Perseverance View Promotes Assurance
The means-of-perseverance view, however, is pastorally superior to these four views precisely because it provides the basis for assurance and provokes a response that is commensurate with assurance. First, the warnings are addressed to believers in a context that strongly affirms the security of salvation (please see the previous article for a discussion of the author of Hebrew’s view of eternal security). The Christian thus appropriates the warnings, not as a threat to his right standing with God, but as a means to protect it.
Secondly, the means-of-perseverance view reads the warnings as real warnings, thus promoting, by their severity, a response that produces assurance. These warnings are intended to demolish unbelief, provoke heart-felt repentance, thrust the believer out of entrenched patterns of sin and set them back on the straight and narrow path of joy and a solid future hope. This kind of response gives the Christian great confidence in the reality of their salvation because it serves as solid evidence of the Spirit’s work in their life.
So, by taking the warnings seriously, we are not implying that your salvation can be lost. Just the opposite. We are demonstrating that our salvation is secure because God is enabling us by his Spirit to use the means he has provided to keep us believing. In other words, taking the warnings seriously is proof that we possess a secure salvation.
When we hear these warnings and we are humbled and we cry out to God for help to keep believing, and we start following through in the areas we need repent in our lives, that’s God keeping our salvation secure in real time. When we are walking with the Lord in a happy, obedient life, and these warnings strengthen our conviction even more to not drift away from Christ, that’s God keeping your salvation secure in real time.
God’s design in the warnings is to enable his people to persevere in the faith and inherit final salvation. When the warnings are read this way, they promote and deepen our assurance.
In the last article in this three-part series, I will offer an illustration that I hope will help solidify in our minds how these warnings function.