I get asked two questions every time I teach Hebrews. You can probably guess both. (1) Who wrote Hebrews? That one’s always first. And (2) what are we supposed to do with Hebrews’ warning passages? Does Hebrews teach that believers can lose their salvation? After all, the letter issues warnings like this: “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” (Hebrews 10:26–27). Which of us hasn’t felt the sting of a text like that? And that’s just one of five such warnings in the book (see 2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 6:4–8; 12:25–29).
Unfortunately, I’m not sure we can get very far in answering that first question. (For a start, see here.) But I do think we can make some headway with the second. To that end, I want to suggest three strategies that will help us read Hebrews’ warnings better. I’ll sketch each first and then take a step back and conclude by reflecting on the help each provides.
Read the warnings in light of Hebrews’ structure.
Hebrews is tough to outline. It’s different from the other letters in the New Testament. Paul, for example, often makes his arguments first and only then applies them to his audience. Thus, we get the argument of Ephesians 1–3 and only then the application of Ephesians 4–6. Hebrews, however, breathes a different air. The letter moves back and forth between argument and application or, as these genres are commonly called, between exposition and exhortation. The author is like a preacher who pauses to apply after every main point. It’s an effective rhetorical strategy, but it also makes outlining the letter difficult. And it can hinder us from seeing the developing logic of his argument and feeling the cumulative weight of his applications.
For example, we can struggle to see the connections between what Hebrews says about the “world” Jesus entered in 1:6 and that God subjected to humans in 2:5. Hebrews gives us a clue, telling us the “world” in 2:5 is that one “of which we are speaking.” But the author also interrupts his argument with an exhortation — his first warning (2:1–4) — causing us, if we’re not careful, to lose the trail. Other examples like this could be easily given (see the mentions of Melchizedek in 5:1–10 and 7:1–10, in light of the exhortation of 5:11–6:20).
The point is, the structure of Hebrews invites us to read the letter not only front-to-back but also “genre-by-genre” or, we might say, “side-by-side.” If we don’t, we run the risk of misreading its theology and missing its pastoral force.
Read the warnings in light of Hebrews’ story line.
Hebrews everywhere tells the Bible’s story. We can see this with even a cursory look at the typography of our English Bibles, with page after page of Hebrews punctuated by indented quotations of the Old Testament — one, the longest in the New Testament (see Jeremiah 31:31–34 in Hebrews 8:8–12). Hebrews, however, tells the Bible’s story in two ways or, better, with two distinct emphases. In the author’s arguments or expositions, he emphasizes the discontinuity between the Old Testament story and his audience. What was only promised in the Old Testament has now been fulfilled in the New Testament. In his applications or exhortations, however, it’s just the reverse. In these he emphasizes the continuity between the Old Testament story and his audience. What happened in the Old Testament era is just like what’s happening in the New Testament era.
What’s more, in his exhortations, his analogy of choice is the wilderness generation (see 2:2; 3:7–4:6; 10:28; 12:25). If we miss the analogy, if we fail to feel the continuity, then we’ll blunt the sharp edge of the warnings themselves. After all, it was precisely that former generation — remarkably rescued by God from Egypt, led through the desert by God’s visible presence, sustained in the desert by God’s miraculous provision, and given a law from God himself (see 3:9; compare 2:4; 6:4–6; 10:29; 12:26) — who hardened their hearts and perished in unbelief. There’s a reason, in other words, that Hebrews skips over the wilderness generation in chapter 11’s “hall of faith.” Just like the author’s audience, the wilderness generation lived “between the times,” between the exodus and the promised land, experiencing a kind of inaugurated eschatology. We are not meant to miss the similarities. Thus, the question that hangs in the air exhortation by exhortation and warning by warning isn’t simply “How could they?” but rather “Will you too?”
Now, we must add that this way of describing the author’s storytelling risks oversimplification. After all, while Hebrews emphasizes discontinuity in its arguments, continuity is nevertheless everywhere present. What else are we to make of the author’s consistent focus on the “self-confessed inadequacy” of the Old Testament? Of course, the New Testament era is an advance beyond the Old Testament era, but the advance is precisely what the Old Testament era led us to expect all along with its anticipations, for example, of another priestly order (Psalm 110:4) or a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31–34). Similarly, while Hebrews emphasizes continuity in its exhortations, notes of discontinuity are sounded as well. It’s these notes of discontinuity, in fact, that underwrite the ratcheting-up we see in the warnings: If the wilderness generation suffered for its unbelief, how much more will you (see 2:3, 12:25)? It’s one thing to refuse to believe God’s Old Testament speech; it’s quite another to refuse his superior New Testament speech (see 1:1–2; 2:1–4).
In short, Hebrews invites us to read its warnings “side-by-side” and in light of the continuity between its audience and the wilderness generation. Both lived during incredible chapters in God’s story. But, even here, Hebrews also invites us to see the discontinuity between the two. After all, the author’s audience doesn’t just live during an important chapter in God’s story but during a later and, indeed, better chapter.
Read the warnings in light of Hebrews’ soteriology.
Hebrews’ soteriology — doctrine of salvation — is wonderfully rich, so I can only summarize a little part of it here. It’s important that we see that Jesus’s death has inaugurated a better covenant, one that’s better both because it has better promises — new spiritual abilities for every covenant member (8:6, 10–11) — and because it provides better forgiveness. New-covenant members, Hebrews tells us, are completely forgiven (8:12; 10:17–18). God promises them that he’ll remember their sins no more! Hebrews calls this complete forgiveness perfection. It’s something that wasn’t available for the wilderness generation (10:2–3; cf. 11:39–40) but is now, thanks to Jesus’s sacrifice-ending sacrifice (10:14). This perfection, moreover, is what gives covenant members — Hebrews calls these believers — access to God’s presence, in part now (10:19–22; 12:22) and fully later (12:26–28). Again, this access simply wasn’t available under the old covenant, as Hebrews says again and again (see 9:8–10). Hebrews goes on to assure new-covenant believers that in the interim period, their pilgrimage to the heavenly city is sustained by an indestructible high priest, whose intercessory ministry is described as infallible (7:25), and by a heavenly Father, who not only initiates but also continually energizes their perseverance (13:20).
Thus, if we accept the author’s invitation to read his warnings “side-by-side” and against the backdrop of the wilderness period, we’ll see that his own community lives in a new era of God’s story, an era in which covenant membership means something even better than it meant for the wilderness generation.
With these strategies in place, we’re now in a position to reflect on the warnings. Does Hebrews teach that believers can lose their salvation? And, if not, what are we to make of them? Let’s tackle these questions head-on by looking once more at each strategy, reflecting on them in reverse order.
When we read the warnings in light of Hebrews’ soteriology, we see that the nature of the new covenant implies — guarantees — that its members cannot and will not fall away. New-covenant members cannot lose their salvation. To suggest otherwise risks undoing precisely those features that make the new covenant new and, thus, better.
If we read the warnings in light of Hebrews’ story line, we see that the author’s analogy of the wilderness generation only goes so far. Again, Hebrews’ audience lives in a new and better era of God’s story. This means that the two communities — the wilderness community and the author’s — are mixed but in different ways. Everybody in the wilderness generation was part of the covenant community, but only a few persevered to salvation (for example, Caleb and Joshua). The rest perished in unbelief, as the author’s warnings repeatedly tell us. In other words, old-covenant membership did not guarantee salvation in the way that new-covenant membership does.
The old-covenant community was a mixture of believing covenant members and nonbelieving covenant members. The author’s community, however, is still mixed but in a very different way. While everyone the letter addresses professed to be part of the new-covenant community, only those who persevered actually were. Those who apparently had fallen away (10:25) were, at one point, part of the author’s congregation — part of the Christian community — but never truly included in the new covenant. Otherwise, they would have persevered. Again, to say otherwise risks misreading the Bible’s story and seeing continuity where there is now glorious discontinuity.
In light of all this, when we read Hebrews’ warnings “side-by-side” to feel their collective weight, we may now discern their pastoral function with more precision. I see at least three such functions.
First, the warnings explain the spiritual status of those who walk away from the Christian community. And it’s devastating (see 6:6; 10:26). What else would you expect to happen to someone who’d seen and experienced the goodness of the gospel — God’s new-covenant work — only to deliberately turn away from it? It’s like seeing and experiencing the goodness of the exodus and rebelling on the cusp of the promised land. People like this, Hebrews tells us, neither want nor get a second chance. One doesn’t get to deliberately reject Jesus twice.
Second, the warnings also enable the perseverance of new-covenant members. They are one means God uses to sustain the faith of those he’s perfected. (For others, see, for example, the author’s prayer in 13:20 and his biographical sketches in 11:1–40.)
Third, and finally, the warnings exhort professing covenant members to walk in true repentance and genuine faith by showing them the consequences of turning their backs on what they’ve heard and experienced.
Applying these strategies to Hebrews won’t alone answer every question we have about the warnings, but they will point us in the right direction. They’ll help us, above all, benefit even more from the goodness of this part of our Bibles, to the end that we’re better equipped to do God’s will (13:20), leading to our greater joy and God’s ever-deserved glory.