In a recent article, we considered various interpretations of the warnings in Hebrews while noting the ways that one particular interpretation—the means-of-perseverance view—makes the most exegetical and theological sense of these passages. In a following article, I argued for the pastoral superiority of the means-of-perseverance view by demonstrating that only this view can promote and provide the basis for genuine assurance of salvation. The warnings do not teach that a genuine Christian can lose their salvation, nor do they teach that a person who falls away from Christ will only lose some heavenly rewards. The warnings are not addressed to unbelievers, nor are they hypothetical.
Rather, these passages are to be read as (1) real warnings; (2) addressed to Christians; (3) that threaten eternal judgment for the one who falls away from Christ. But just as importantly, these passages do not describe something has that has already happened, nor do they indicate that the there are people among the author’s audience who are presently falling away from Christ. These warnings are statements of what will occur if the condition is met.
How, then, are we to understand and apply these warnings? We are to see them as God’s means to enable his chosen people to persevere in the faith and inherit final salvation.
For some of us, these categories may challenge how we’ve typically thought about eternal security. If the warnings are for Christians, we conclude that this must imply that we can lose our salvation. I addressed this question with some exegetical and theological detail in the last two articles (especially the most recent article). In this article, I want to help us think about the function of the warnings by way of an illustration. Sometimes, a carefully-crafted illustration helps us to finally see how all the biblical pieces come together into a coherent whole.
The Warnings in Hebrews: A Swiss-Alps Illustration
Say you are in the Swiss Alps on a long, multi-day trek, and you come to a suspension bridge that spans a massive valley. The bridge is exceedingly long, quite old, and in great disrepair. Some of the slats are missing, the guard ropes are tattered, and the bridge is vulnerable to wind gusts through the valley and generally unstable in even the smallest breeze. But this bridge must be crossed in order for your team to make it to your destination and enjoy a glorious view of Monte Rosa.
Now, given its reputation, you would never attempt to span this bridge on your own. You’ve heard first-hand reports of how dangerous this bridge really is. Indeed, many people have died crossing this bridge without a guide. Thankfully, your team has been traveling with a guide who has been leading trips in this area for decades and who has a reputation throughout the region for protecting travelers during these hikes. In fact, over his storied career he has guided over 5,000 people across this bridge without ever losing one person.
Your guide is known as a generally warm and gentle man. He likes to talk with those whom he guides, and he always provides hikers with a wealth of knowledge about the Alps and about craft of mountaineering as they traverse the varied topography. But he also has a reputation for being quite stern with each groups he leads, especially as they cross the bridge. Reports from travelers say that as you are making your way across the bridge, he will often yell, rather loudly, at everyone in the group, regardless of their gender, size, weight, height, general athleticism, or present vitality or lethargy. He will call out foolish behavior and careless steps with sharp exhortations. It’s been said that he will even turn around and look at people directly in the eye and tell them with dead seriousness that if they keep up their silliness and don’t start listening to his instructions and heeding his warnings, they will fall off the draw bridge and be dashed to pieces on the valley floor. When people get tired and try to sit down, he raises his voice to such a pitch and shouts warnings so loud and serious that the person who was trying to rest immediately snaps out of their stupor and keeps on moving.
Now, he also regularly encourages his followers with promises of how amazing it is on the other side of the draw bridge. He tells them of the beautiful peaks they will see and the view of the valley they can enjoy and how good their lunch will taste once they get to their destination. But interspersed with these encouragements are a fair amount of warnings of what will certainly happen if they stop walking or turn around or make foolish missteps.
Now, in this scenario, the guide knows that all of the team will make it across the bridge. He’s never lost anyone. His encouragements and warnings are carefully tailored to get his followers to do exactly what it takes to get them to the other side. But in order for the warnings to have their desired effect, they must be real warnings, not hypothetical warnings. And as a traveler heeds the warnings, their obedience does not suggest that they could be the first of this guide’s followers to fall off the bridge. Actually, by attending to the warnings, that person ensures that they will make it across the bridge and not become a statistic. Taking the warnings seriously also indicates that the hikers trust the guide and believe his reputation and believe that he will keep them secure and get them all the way to the other side of the bridge.
Applying the Warnings
This is how we are to understand and apply the warnings. We must make our way to the end of our Christian race to inherit final salvation. As Jesus told his disciples, “The one who endures until the end will be saved” (Matt 24:13). The road is dangerous and fraught with temptation to give up or to make foolish, hasty missteps. But we have a trustworthy guide who has never lost any of his people. But this guide, knowing the danger of the bridge we must traverse, has given us sharp warnings that are specifically designed to help us keep our eyes on him, our feet sure, and our mind attuned to the seriousness of our travels
As you can see, how you interpret the warnings in Hebrews has significant pastoral ramifications. It is my prayer that these articles have helped you better understand and apply these warnings for the eternal benefit of your soul.