A Warning against Entrenched Unbelief (Hebrews 10:26-31)
Here we are at the fourth warning against apostasy in this epistle. The three previous are found in 2:1-4, 3:6-4:13, and 6:1-8. The final warning will come in 12:25-29. We’ve noted that these warnings which punctuate the letter to the Hebrews indicate that at least some of the recipients of this epistle were on the verge of apostasy, and that this letter was sent to keep that from happening. To that end, the author not only gives them positive reasons for remaining faithful (the superiority and sufficiency of the Son of God as our great high priest) but also warns them as to the consequences of leaving the faith.
Now I don’t think that our church is in the same place as the church to which this letter was initially sent. Of course, I can’t see into everyone’s heart, but from what I can see, I am encouraged to think that our church is by and large in a good place, and hopefully we are all growing in grace together and headed in the right direction. In other words, the purpose of my preaching through Hebrews is not because I think you are all on the brink of leaving the faith! So why preach through a letter like this, especially when there are 65 other books in the Bible?
Well, there is the obvious reason that whatever is in the Bible is for our profit. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable (2 Tim. 3:16). But still, that doesn’t in itself answer the question why this particular book? And there are several of answers to that. The first one is something that I said at the beginning of our series, which is that Hebrews is the best one book summary of both the Old and New Testaments in the entire Bible. If you want one book that gives you the essence of both testaments, and how they relate to one another, this is the place you want to go to. That in itself is a good enough reason to tackle it.
A second reason is that there are few books in the Bible that deal at such length and depth with the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Since the author’s intention is to show the superiority of Jesus to the Mosaic Law and the Levitical priesthood, he deals at great length with the person and work of Jesus, and he does this at a depth that is possibly unrivaled by any other book in the Bible. In it, we learn that he is the Son of God and the true high priest who offers a once-for-all sacrifice that truly purges our sins before God. Again, that in itself would be a good enough reason to preach through this book.
But there’s a third reason I’m doing this, and this does have to do with the warning sections. And that is that although we may not currently be in the place or on the brink of apostasy from the faith, yet it is still good and instructive for us to take heed to these warnings. In other words, by considering the folly and the hideousness and the danger of spiritual drift, we should be motivated to deepen our own walk with the Lord so that this doesn’t eventually happen to us.
In other words, we have to be careful that we don’t become presumptuous. Listen, even though that hardness which comes through the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:12) doesn’t happen overnight, that makes it all the more dangerous. It comes in little steps, until we are no longer in the right path. Think, for example, of the church at Ephesus. Here was a church founded by the apostle Paul; and we know from the book of Acts that he spent several years just at this one place. Later, when he wrote his epistle to the church, it doesn’t deal with any particular problems in the church, by which we can surmise that it was a good and healthy church at the time. And yet, around forty years later, in the book of Revelation, Jesus rebukes the church by saying that they had left their first love, and if they didn’t repent, he was going to remove their lampstand (Rev. 2:1-5). If it can happen to an apostolic church, it can happen to us. Let us be forewarned – and let the one who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:12). To be forewarned is to be forearmed, and that surely is a good thing.
Now I have argued before, and will argue this morning, that apostasy – permanently repudiating a previous profession of faith in Jesus – leads to eternal destruction. Some would argue that since the elect can’t be lost (and I agree with that statement), it is wrong to tell people that they should beware of apostasy, since certainly the elect can’t be lost and therefore the elect can’t apostatize. On the other hand, the non-elect are going to be lost anyway, so what’s the point in warning them? How is it right to warn people of an eternal danger, when either no such danger exists (as in the case of the elect), or it is inevitable anyway (as in the case of the non-elect)?
Well, it is right to warn people of the danger of eternal destruction, even the elect, if for no other reason than the Bible does so. It does so right here. Paul does it in Ephesians (of all places) when he says, “Let no man deceive you with vain words, for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6). The wrath of God that falls on the children of disobedience is meant to function as a motivation not to follow them in their sins.
In any case, here is how it works (I am repeating myself here, from messages we gave in the second and sixth chapters): we are not called in these warnings to believe a lie; we are simply called to believe that those who apostatize will be finally lost. That is a Biblical truth. Second, this is meant to motivate us to not pursue the path of apostasy by helping us see the need for perseverance. The more convinced we are that we must persevere, the more deliberate we will be to do it. And that is not only a Biblical motivation; it is one of the means God uses to bring about the steady faith and obedience, especially in the face of opposition, that constitutes perseverance in the faith.
This is what we want to deal with this morning. And as we look again at one of these warning passages, my hope is not to discourage you, but to encourage you to keep on the way of faith and holiness. I don’t want to put a weight on your shoulder, but rather a hopeful determination in your step. My goal in this message is to help all of us – myself as much as anyone else – to fall out of love with sin and to become more deeply committed to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To that end, I want to consider three things that this paragraph invites us to consider. In it, we are given a description of apostasy, which I am calling “entrenched unbelief.” Then we will look at the danger from entrenched unbelief. Finally, we will consider our duty with respect to entrenched unbelief.
A Description of entrenched unbelief
The way that apostasy is described in this passage is primarily in the phrase to “sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth” (26). This is amplified in verse 29 in three ways. First, those who sin in this way are described as treading underfoot the Son of God. Second, they are described as those who count the blood of the covenant by which they are sanctified an unholy thing. Finally, they are described as those who despise the Spirit of grace.
But why am I calling this “entrenched unbelief”? I am calling it unbelief because to sin after receiving the knowledge of the truth means to fundamentally reject the truth, and this is the essence of unbelief. And it is entrenched, because we are not talking about a temporary lapse into unbelief, but something that persists, something for which there is no sacrifice for sins (26), and which will result in falling into the hands of an angry God (31). One writer describes this as “a calculated, persistent renunciation of the truth.”i
It is entrenched because of the attitude that is behind this species of unbelief. The word “willfully” (26) is particularly important here. It denotes “a conscious expression of an attitude that displays contempt for God.”ii This is akin to what is spoken of in the Mosaic Law of presumptuous or high-handed sin: “But the soul that doeth ought presumptuously, whether he be born in the land or a stranger, the same reproacheth the LORD; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people” (Num. 15:30). In his letter to the Galatians, Paul talks about folks who are “overtaken in a fault” who can then be restored (Gal. 6:1). But the kind of sin that the author of Hebrews is talking about is not like that. This is not being overtaken in a sin. This is the deliberate, conscious, and persistent rejection of the truth of the gospel. This is not talking about someone who walks away from the faith for a time but then comes back. This is talking about a kind of person who walks away and never comes back.
When you compare this to Hebrews 6, what we see is that we are getting another description of what I there called “Judas Christians.” Judas Christians are not people who lose some temporal blessings of salvation because they messed up. Rather, they are people who professed to be Christians but were never really born again. They didn’t lose their salvation in any sense, for they were never saved to begin with.
Let’s look down at verse 29 and see further how these people are described.
They tread underfoot the Son of God.
Of course, no one can literally do this. Jesus was crucified once at the hands of wicked men, but he will never again be dishonored in this way. Instead, this is talking about an attitude that treats Jesus with utter contempt. This reminds us of what the author had said in chapter 6: “If they fall away, [it is impossible] to renew them unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame” (6:6). This does not describe someone who is just plagued with doubts or is struggling with sin; this is a description of someone who hates Jesus. And that is not the description of a saved person. As the apostle Paul would put it to the Corinthians, “If any man love not the Lord Jesus, let him be Anathema” (1 Cor. 16:22) – “anathema” is Aramaic for “accursed.” If you don’t love Jesus, you are cursed, not saved. Or as he will put it to the Ephesians, “Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity” (Eph. 6:24). Who are the recipients of grace? Those who truly love Jesus. Those who do not love him cannot count themselves as the recipients of his grace: it’s as simple as that.
They count the blood of the covenant as an unholy thing.
There is terrible irony here. If there is anything holy in this world, it is the blood of Christ, by which he brought into being the New Covenant along with all its blessings. The apostle Peter calls it “the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:19). But here are people who consider that which is holy as unholy.
Now there is this phrase, which has given some folks considerable trouble: “wherewith he was sanctified.” This is sometimes used to argue that a person can lose their salvation. Some folks say it proves a person can lose their eternal salvation. Other folks say it proves that a person can permanently lose temporal blessings this side of heaven. Both are certainly wrong.
You can’t lose your salvation because you can’t lose what you don’t have. As we’ve already argued, this is not talking about people who were truly saved, but people who professed Christianity when they had never been really born again. But because they had professed faith in Christ, they had at one time professed to be sanctified by him (see 10:10, 14), even if they hadn’t been sanctified in reality. This is again where the irony comes in. The author is wanting us to see how incredibly sad this is. They were treating as unholy that which is most holy. And when they did this, they were rejecting the only thing that could sanctify them. This is why in verse 26 the author had said that for these people there remains no more sacrifice for sins. This is because they have rejected the only thing that could truly take away their sins.
They despise the Spirit of grace
When Stephen confronted his religious opponents, he said that they were “stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears,” and that they “do always resist the Holy Ghost” (Acts 7:51). In a similar fashion, here were people who had experienced some of the blessings of the Spirit (cf. Heb. 6:4), and yet afterward rejected and resisted him. They had seen “signs and wonders, and . . . divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost” (2:4). And yet for all that, they still turned away. Not because they were saved, but precisely because they were not saved.
This is a terrible place to be. To despise the person of God’s own Son, his blood, and his Spirit, to treat him with contempt, is horrific. It is to be blind and deceived. It is to be spiritually deranged. It is to be foolish and spiritually reckless. It is to reject the only one who can save us. As Paul would say to those who rejected the gospel in Pisidian Antioch, “seeing you put [the word of God] from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46). To turn away from the word of God, as these people had done, is to turn away from everlasting life.
I hope you can see that this is not a description of a backslidden Christian. That is a genuine thing, I know, we all know, because every Christian experiences times when we are going backward instead of forward. But what is being described in these verses is in an altogether different category. This is not a Romans 7- like description of the struggle every believer has with sin. Rather, this is a description of persistent, entrenched unbelief – a species of unbelief that brings with it terrible and irremediable consequences.
And that brings us to our next point.
The Danger from entrenched unbelief
There is a real sense in which we can say that we reap what we sow. Sometimes our sins carry with them their own punishment. But we must not take that too far. For there is also the reality of an objective, future judgment at the hands of God (cf. Heb. 9:27). And that is what is being warned about here. There are at least five things that are highlighted here with respect to God’s judgment upon apostates.
It is a certain judgment (27).
“There remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries” (26-27). It may be future, and something which is looked for, but it is certain. We can be sure that, just as God’s promises for good will come to pass, so will his promises for justice. We must remember that God is holy, and that the height of sin is sin against God. It must be punished, and it will be punished. Thus, those who set themselves against God as his adversaries will be surely devoured by his judgment and fiery indignation.
It is a fiery judgment (27).
It is described as “fiery indignation.” In the Scriptures, fire is often associated with God’s judgment. It is not incidental that Sodom and Gomorrah perished when fire reigned out of heaven upon those cities. In fact, the apostle Jude says that this is a foretaste of that future and final judgment: they are “set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire” (Jude 7). John the Baptist said that those who do not bring forth good fruit for God will be hewn down by God’s judgment and thrown into the fire; indeed, that the chaff will be burned up “with unquenchable fire” (Mt. 3:10-12). The apostle Paul, in speaking of future judgment, describes it in terms of “flaming fire” by which God will take “vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power” (2 Thess. 1:8-9). In the book of Revelation, we read that those who worship the beast “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: and the smoke of their torment ascendeth up forever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name” (Rev. 14:10-11).
Now it is true that fire is perhaps a metaphor for the judgment of God which, like fire, will “devour the adversaries.” But that does not make the future punishment of the wicked any the less severe; if anything, the reality is certainly more terrible than the metaphor. In other words, we shouldn’t read this and not tremble. It is indeed a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
It is an eternal judgment (28-29).
How do we know this is not just describing some temporal judgment? Well, for one thing, because this is a description of people who are not saved. These are people who, to use our Lord’s words (Jn. 8:24), will die in their sins; there is no sacrifice for them (Heb 10:26). But another way to see this is how this is compared to punishments under the Mosaic Law: “He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God?” (28-29). The punishment that belongs to this entrenched unbelief is compared with punishments under the Mosaic Law. How is it compared? It is “sorer.” It is worse. Worse than what? Worse than physical death. In fact, worse than being stoned to death. This tells me that this is not some temporal judgment, for the Mosaic Law did that. This is something not only worse, but far worse, something from which you cannot escape by physical death. It is, therefore, an eternal judgment. Our Lord reminded his disciples of this reality, when he said, “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both body and soul in hell” (Mt. 10:28). And that is terrifying. And for those who are teetering on the brink of apostasy, it is meant to be, I assure you.
It is a predicted judgment (30).
It is not as if God has hidden this. In some sense, the reality of future judgment is even embedded in our consciences, for the apostle Paul says of the pagan society of his day, that they know the judgment of God (Rom. 1:32). But he has made it even more plain in Scripture. Here, in verse 30, the author quotes from Deuteronomy 32:35-36. The two verses read, “To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste. For the LORD shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or left.” (Interestingly, the phrase “their foot shall slide in due time” was the text that Jonathan Edwards took for his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”). The remarkable thing is that in these verses, God is speaking about the children of Israel.
They were his covenant people, under the Mosaic covenant. They had so many privileges. And yet many of them sinned in the wilderness and were destroyed (as we have seen in Hebrews 3-4). God’s judgment, his vengeance and his recompense brought about their calamity. The application is both obvious and pertinent. In the congregation to which the author is writing, there were those who were outwardly at least part of the New Covenant community and yet they were also poised to depart from the faith. Make no mistake, the author is saying, you can expect God to bring his judgment upon you as well.
It is a fearful judgment (31).
This paragraph ends with the sobering comment, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” When we look at the danger to which entrenched unbelief exposes people, we too should fear. Have you ever looked over the edge of a cliff and felt the chills go down your spine? Well, here we have been invited to look over the cliff and to imagine what it would be like to throw yourself over. Which is what apostates do, in a sense. It is a terrifying thought.
Please listen: everyone is on a path, and that path will end before God. He is the one inescapable reality that we will all eventually face, one way or another. And God will be for every son and daughter of Adam either eternal blessing or he will be for them eternal destruction (Mt. 25:48). According to our Lord, there are only two paths: the narrow path and the broad way (Mt. 7:12-14). The narrow path leads to life and the broad way to final and eternal destruction. We should be sobered by a reflection upon that reality. We should feel that chill going down our back. And if we don’t, it doesn’t mean that we have attained some level of spirituality that makes us immune to such fear; it really means that we have become spiritually insensitive to the holiness of God and the danger posed to everyone who flaunts their sin in the face of this holy God.
I think it is worth pausing at this moment to consider why these individuals will be judged rather than saved. Why is it that for them “there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins”? Is it because the blood of Jesus didn’t take the first time? Of course not! What we need to see here is the connection that there is between faith and forgiveness. What the argument here assumes is that because they did not believe, they did not receive the benefits of Christ’s death. No faith, no sacrifice, no forgiveness.
This does not mean that our faith, in and of itself, is what makes us righteous before God. But God saves us, and justifies us, and forgives us, when we believe. This is why the Scriptures uniformly say that we are saved by faith. Not on the basis of faith, not on the grounds of faith, but through faith. Faith is the means by which we personally appropriate the benefits of Christ’s death. And God guarantees that his elect will receive the benefits of Christ’s death by giving them faith. This is one of the implications of Eph. 2:8, “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
Now that we’ve seen a description of entrenched unbelief as well as its danger, what should be our response? For this was written to elicit a certain response from the readers, and it should have the same kind of effect on us as well. But what kind of response? This leads us to our next and final point.
Our Duty with respect to entrenched unbelief
I think there are at least five responses that we should have to the picture which has been painted in these verses with respect to apostasy.
If we love Jesus and remain faithful to him and to his gospel, we should be thankful to the Lord for preserving us from the fate and end of unbelief. If you are not where these people were at, then you have the Lord to thank for it. He is the one who is able to keep us from falling (Jude 24). He is the one who keeps us in the faith (1 Pet. 1:5). He is the one who restores us, like Peter, when we fall away. He is the one who is effectually praying for his elect that they might be kept, and that their faith fail not (Luke 22:32; John 17:15).
Moreover, you might be there, and the Lord can often use warnings like this to wake us up and turn us from a course of self-destruction. These warnings are not just meant to be descriptions of non-elect apostates, but they are meant to awaken slothful and slumbering Christians to the fate of those who do fall away, so that they won’t. God knows our personalities, and he knows that some of us need to be awakened from sleep. And these warnings are sometimes what we need. This is not, therefore, an indication of God’s harshness, but of his kindness in turning us from sin to a greater commitment to him. And for that we should be very thankful, as well as encouraged, that our Father will never let us go. If he has to warn us, he will. If he has to chastise us, he will, and it will yield in time the fruit of holiness in our lives (cf. Heb. 12:11).
We should be comforted in light of the fate of the wicked. One of the reasons it is important for us to contemplate God’s judgment on those who walk away from the faith is to remind ourselves that our own sufferings in this life aren’t a reason to join them in turning our backs on God, because no matter what we endure here, it is to be followed by eternal glory, whereas the wicked will have their temporary ease replaced by eternal destruction. This is the argument of Psalm 73, for example. The psalmist saw the ease and the riches of the wicked, and it tempted him to think that his faith in God was useless. But this all changed when he was reminded of the end of the wicked. I think that is one of the things we should be reminded of when we read passages like Heb. 10:26-29. However bad it might be for us now, we need to have an eternal perspective, and passages like this can help us to maintain that. It helps us to live in light of our future hope, and to be comforted in the expectation of the coming glory.
We should be disgusted and repulsed at the thought of what entrenched unbelief does. What does it do? It despises the person of Christ, his blood, and his Spirit. If you love Jesus, that ought to disgust you. It ought to repulse you. It ought to make you never want to get there, or even get close to there. It ought to make you jealous over your heart, that you reverence Christ, value his atoning work, and grieve not his Spirit. So one of the strategies for this is by seeing the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ. But another strategy for this is by seeing the ugliness and vileness of unbelief.
We should be afraid at the thought of where entrenched unbelief leads. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying a believer can’t have assurance of their salvation. Nor am I indicating that the elect can be lost. What I am saying is that something is wrong with us if we can contemplate the end of the wicked and not feel something of fear. There is something wrong with us if this does not motivate us to flee from the wrath of God (cf. Mt. 3:7; Eph. 5:6-7). It means that we have not really reckoned with the extent and the intensity and the severity of God’s judgment. We are not only meant to behold the goodness, but also the severity, of the Lord: one should lead to a godly and holy joy and the other to a godly and holy fear (Rom. 11:22). And this fear ought to motivate us even further to be rid of every inroad that sin has in our hearts and lives.
We should hate the thought of what entrenched unbelief makes us. It turns us into the adversaries of God! I can’t think of anything more foolish. What are the wicked like? They are like chaff which the wind will blow away (Ps. 1:4). The ungodly will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous (5). The way of the ungodly will perish (6). Entrenched unbelief makes a person the object, not of God’s love, but of his derision (Ps. 2:4). We should hate that.
But at the same time, though we hate the idea of ourselves ever becoming like that, this doesn’t mean that we ever look down on others. We should rather grieve for those who remain in unbelief, and like the psalmist, let rivers of water run down our eyes when we see those who do not keep God’s law (Ps. 119:136). For we know that if anyone cannot see the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ, it is because they are blinded and as of yet the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ has not shone unto them (2 Cor. 4:3-6).
This passage is meant to have an effect on us. It should make us more thankful for the Lord who saves us, and more disgusted with our sin. It should draw us closer to Jesus and put distance between us and the world and the devil. It should help us to see how hateful sin is because all sin is sin against Christ, the Son of God, and the only one in whom we can be saved. Let us resolve, brothers and sisters, to love Jesus more and to hate sin more, to be more holy, to persevere in the faith, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.
i William Lane, Hebrews 9-13 [WBC], p. 292.