Warning passages make us confused and uncomfortable. They often cause us to doubt what we know and wonder which side of the text we are on. We ask questions like, “Is my faith strong enough?” or “Am I really a Christian?” or “Have I already lost my salvation?” Perhaps worse, some of us might choose to not face them at all and skip ahead to friendly verses. But this is difficult, because the Bible is full of warnings. One of the strongest places we see these types of passages is in the epistle to the Hebrews:
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. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:26ff)
There are two errors I have seen people make when encountering verses like these.
1. Falling into Anxiety and Despair
When reading a warning like Hebrews 10 there is the temptation to plunge into paralyzing doubt and self-examination. It’s easy to evaluate your fruit (or lack thereof), question the sincerity of your faith, and ultimately doubt God’s grace for you in Christ. Because if yesterday’s failures are any sign of our future walk as Christians, then we are all doomed to despair.
Thus, rather than hearing a warning, my sensitive conscience registers it as a more definite judgement of my fate. And this is because when I only look to myself, with all my meager efforts or flighty attempts to pick up my cross daily and follow Jesus, I cannot really be assured much of anything.
2. Assuming God’s Warnings Do Not Apply to You
Others may jump over these warning passages too quickly, being assured of their salvation, but for the wrong reasons. In my younger years, I tended to sweep over “hard verses” like these because I believed in a doctrine called the Perseverance of the Saints. This biblical teaching says that the true believers in Christ, in the end cannot fall away but will persevere to the end. This good doctrine is founded in passages like Philippians 1:6, where Paul writes, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” or John 10:28, where Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
While such a doctrine is good and true, we have to remember that it is God alone who knows his true children. Indeed, God’s sovereignty over every moment of our lives ought to bring us tremendous peace, but not because we can see behind the curtain, but because God is holy, righteous, and good. My assurance then ought not to come from the fact that I have faith but from the person in whom I place my faith, Jesus Christ. It is not my faith in and of itself that is the source of my assurance, but Jesus’s saving work. That is to say that Jesus himself, not faith itself, provides us with confidence for today and tomorrow.
Thus, when you come across a difficult passage that speaks to the reality of falling away, you must never try to mute the warnings away with your theology. Rather, all of God’s word is for you, both the promises, as well as the threats, and God uses both to keep you to the end.
The Right Way to Read a Warning
Faith does not exclude fear from the Christian life; faith holds fear in its proper place. As we look to Christ, we are freed from the fear of man, the fear of the world, and the fear the Devil. But our faith also teaches us that with God there is forgiveness, that he may be feared (Ps. 130:4).
God did not intend the biblical warnings to plunge you into crippling anxiety and despair, nor did God intend for you to ignore and pass them over. God has provided you with true and serious warnings intended to keep you from stumbling by turning you away from yourself and back to Christ.
You will not find confidence or assurance of salvation in your abilities or yourself. You will not win it by overextending doctrines or stacking Scripture against itself. Your confidence, assurance, and hope is in Jesus Christ. And while the author of Hebrews uses severe language to communicate the importance of our endurance, he is never silent in pointing us back to Jesus, the one in whom our faith is secured:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1ff)