Calvinism: My History 6

Everything about the Warning Passages in Hebrews hinges upon the audience:

Who are they? Are they believers or not?

I begin with this observation: in the history of the Church many have made a distinction between a genuine believer and a nominal believer. I find such categories useful in some contexts. The issue in reading Hebrews is whether or not the author uses such a category to explain his audience. And, this means we have to ask if it is meaningful to use in Hebrews or an imposition, designed perhaps to protect our theology.

Again, there are plenty of things to consider.

First, the author often includes himself with the audience by using the term “we.” 2:1-4; 3:14; 4:1, 11, 14-16; 6:1; 10:19; 12:1-3, 25-29.

Second, the author calls his audience “brothers.” 3:1, 12; 10:19; 13:22. Perhaps 3:1 needs to be quoted: “holy brothers who share in the heavenly calling.”

At 2:11-17 we have the following thread about what “brother” means: “For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers [and sisters], 12 saying, I will proclaim your name to my brothers [and sisters], in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers [and sisters] in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.”

Third, at 4:3 he calls his audience “believers.” This text is not distinguishing genuine from false, but believers from non-believers. Believers, it says, enter into the rest. [Yes, it needs to be noted: a believer who enters the rest perseveres. But, this does not mean that those who do not persevere were not believers, but that those who do not persevere will not enter the rest.]

Fourth, sometimes the author sees his audience as “you.” This suggests he thinks some of them will not make it. See 3:12; 5:11; 12:18-24.

Fifth, 10:29 needs to be read carefully: “How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace?” Here the “you” have spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood, and were (already) sanctified by the blood, and are outraging the Spirit.

Sixth, at 2:3-4 the author recounts their conversion experience; at 6:10 they are those who have showed love in the name of Christ; at 10:22 they have had their hearts sprinkled and been cleansed of a guilty conscience; at 10:32-34 we see evidence of their enduring persecutions.

Put together, this all indicates a full Christian experience: conversion, gifts and manifestations of the Holy Spirit, the work of the death of Christ, and a Christian community commitment.

Seventh, now briefly on 6:4-6: the author claims that those who have reached a certain level and turn back cannot be restored unto repentance. (This is a singular comment; it is grave.)

Enlightened: see 10:32. An early Christian conversion term.
Tasted…: see 2:9; 6:4, 5. This does not mean “taste” as in dabble, but is a metaphor for “experience.” See at 2:9 — one does not merely “dabble” in death; it means to die.
Partaken in the Spirit: refers to early Christian experience of the Holy Spirit.
Tasted Word… again, experienced the powers of God’s Word.

Again, these verses put it all together: a full Christian experience.

Here’s my summary: indeed, the author sees his audience as mixed. Mixed, in the sense of those who will persevere and those who will not. Not mixed in the sense of frauds and genuine. There is no suggestion in the book of the latter category, but plenty of the former. There is all kinds of evidence that he thought some would persevere and some would not; he never suggests those who do not persevere are frauds. There is a big difference.

My conclusion is this: the author of Hebrews saw his audience as believers but knew that some would fall away, or had fallen away, or might fall away. For those who did, there would be no final rest. The implication is that a believer can fall away.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • mick

    Thoughtful, sobering, fear and trembling come to mind and heart.

    Do you think this line can be crossed only once? A point of no return seems indicated.

    If only once, do you belive this is only final in death or can it be reached before the end of one’s lifetime?

  • Paul W

    It would never had thought that the author was concerned with “frauds” masquerading as believers especially given the pressure that individuals were experiencing to disassociate with the body.

    The audience, I agree, is a mixed one. There are those who will persevere in faith and those who might not– those who have a temporary experience with faith.

    I would demur with the contention that the experience of the audience with its gifts and manifestations of the Holy Spirit and a Christian community commitment indicates a FULL Christian experience.

    For those without a persevering faith there is no experience of the final benefits of salvation. It seems, to me, more than a little bit of strecth then to describe an experience which suffers the consequences of apostasy as a “full” Christian experience.

    A “full” Christian experience would seem to include a persevering faith and salvation to its final eschatologcal end. Undoubtedly, those who temporarily experience faith enjoy many of the same benefits and gifts in common with those who persevere. They enjoy, for a time, some of the benefits of belonging to the people of God, common experiences of the Spirit’s operations, being “delivered” or “saved” for a time from the way of the world and coming under the influence of the kingdom. Such an experience is still a far cry from the fullest experience being Christian and obtaining final redemption.

    Is it fair to call such “temporizers” Christian? Yes. Is their involvement in faith a ‘full’ one? No. Is their exposure/reception of the benefits of salvation a full one? No. Is theirs a full Christian experience. No. A Christian experience yes; a full Christian experience; hardly.

  • Jerry

    Paul W,

    Doesn’t this set up a false dichotomy? Christian vs Full Christian?

  • Jerry

    Scot, thank you for this helpful summary. As an Arminian this has been my position all along but I usually avoid getting into it with people because so many have been programed that the only correct answer is OSAS.

  • Paul W

    @3 Jerry

    The distinction I meant was simply with the fullness of the Christian experience. If someone does not experience final salvation it can hardly be said of them that they have experienced the benefits of being a Christian to the fullest.

    If someone is persevering in belief they should be considered a Christian. If they stop believing then the consideration that they are a Christian should stop as well.

  • http://www.steeple-envy.com Vic

    Scot, well said. This has been my position for years. And to Mick’s question, the text certainly indicates that the line can be only crossed once. The writer says that it is “impossible for them to be brought back to repentance.” Therefore this doesn’t seem to indicate the ability to “lose your salvation” as a person loses their car keys or something like that. I would say that this person makes a conscious choice to reject that which he has known, tasted, experienced etc. The text indicates that once this happens there is no chance for repentance. Could this verse tie in with the whole question about blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, the unpardonable sin?
    With that, I would argue that when a person makes this choice, their heart is hardened and has no desire to return. So people who are scared that they might have blasphemed the Holy Spirit or lost their salvation, probably by haven’t, since they desire repentance and continue following Christ.
    Just my thoughts on a Friday morning before a cup of coffee :)

  • PLTK

    Paul, since you’re argument is that by definition of “full” Christian includes the persevering faith, your rejection of Scott’s thesis is circular.

    A full Christian has preserving faith,
    Those who fall away didn’t have persevering faith,
    Therefore, they were not full Christians.

    While this may be true (although I don’t agree)to argue starting from this premise is faulty.

  • Ken Ritchey

    How many of us who consider ourselves to have a “full” christian experience have ever come close to their commitment shown in 10:32-34 – very few, I suspect.

  • ScottW

    This is in concert with the Parable of the Sower (and its interpretation) in the Gospel tradition:the word of God is “stolen” by Satan from some, some fall away for various reasons, and some bear fruit of various measures.

  • Paul W

    @7 PLTK

    That doesn’t represent my thoughts at all. I think either someone is a Christian or they are not. Some one has faith or they do not. Someone is a member of the church or not.

    Isn’t being saved from the consequences of your guilt and sin part of a full experience of being Christian? Isn’t the consequences of apostasy something “less than” that?

    Do you think that someone who has forfeited final eschatologcal salvation through apstasy has had as full of an experience at being Christian as the person who does not experience final eschatologcal salvation?

  • http://virtualclaritymagazine.org Phil Schomber

    I have enjoyed the series on Hebrews and agree that the description of the audience here poses a difficulty for Calvinism. But, I’m not sure the determination that believers were being addressed completely settles the issue. Doesn’t it still depend on one’s understanding of God’s providence? Wouldn’t a compatabalistic understanding fit with the audience being made up of believers in the sense that the dire warning here is one of the means God uses to ensure believers persevere in their faith. In essense, the Holy Spirit helps the person understand the consequences of a decision to turn away from Christ and that is part of what convinces them not to do it. Additionally, Arminians would seem to have to grapple with the fact that the person who turns away here can never repent. What “fixes” this result?

  • Paul W

    PLK

    If my thought we reduced to a syllogistic form it might look as follows:

    A full experience at being Christian includes a full experience of salvation (e.g., final salvation)

    Those Christians who fall away have only partially and temporarily experienced salvation.

    Therefore, their experience is not full.

  • EricW

    Scot McKnight wrote:

    Seventh, now briefly on 6:4-6: the author claims that those who have reached a certain level and turn back cannot be restored unto repentance. (This is a singular comment; it is grave.)

    Can you or will you comment on the significance (or lack thereof) of the use in 6:6 of the present infinitive ἀνακαινίζειν (anakainizein) with the qualifier πάλιν (palin “again”) [and perhaps the present participles ἀνασταυροῦντας (anastaurountas) and παραδειγματίζοντας (paradeigmatizontas)]:

    6 καὶ παραπεσόντας, πάλιν ἀνακαινίζειν εἰς μετάνοιαν, ἀνασταυροῦντας ἑαυτοῖς τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ παραδειγματίζοντας.

    While their behavior/experience(s) related to their conversion and growth in the church/in Christ in 6:4-5, as well as their “falling away” in 6:6a, are all described with aorist participles and the qualifier ἅπαξ (hapax “once for all”):

    4 Ἀδύνατον γὰρ τοὺς ἅπαξ φωτισθέντας, γευσαμένους τε τῆς δωρεᾶς τῆς ἐπουρανίου καὶ μετόχους γενηθέντας πνεύματος ἁγίου 5 καὶ καλὸν γευσαμένους θεοῦ ῥῆμα δυνάμεις τε μέλλοντος αἰῶνος, 6 καὶ παραπεσόντας,

    4 ἅπαξ (hapax)
    φωτισθέντας (phôtisthentas)
    γευσαμένους (geusamenous)
    γενηθέντας (genêthentas)
    5 γευσαμένους (geusamenous)
    6 παραπεσόντας (parapesontas)

    here the author refers to the impossibility of again (as if he’s done it before?) renewing them (ad infinitum?) to repentance.

    The author starts at the end of chapter 5 telling them that by now they should be teachers, but they instead need someone to again (the same πάλιν palin “again”) teach them the basics. Then the author says that for those who have “once [for all]” experienced these things (or maybe the “once” only modifies “been enlightened”) and have “fallen away/apostasized” (assuming that’s the proper translation of παραπίπτω parapiptô), one is unable to again keep renewing (a possible translation of the present infinitive) such persons since/because or while they continue to (a possible translation of the present participles) recrucify Christ (i.e., deny or fail to believe in and act on the once-for-all nature of His sacrifice).

    My apologies if this takes things a bit off track.

  • Justin B.

    Scot,

    Thanks for looking at these warning passages. I have a question about the passage in chapter 6: how would a person ever know that they’ve reached the point of no return? Is it a point of no return because God won’t have them again, or because their heart is so hard that they wouldn’t accept another chance?

    I used to believe in “once saved, always saved,” but I’m coming around to the view you’ve put forward here, and I was curious for your thoughts.

  • http://johngreenview.wordpress.com John Thomson

    As I have said previously,rather than speaking of false and true believers, the NT writers tend to work with sovereignty and responsibility. That is, sometimes the perspective is principally that of God’s will and action, when it is, salvation is always assured and certain. God’s counsels prevail. At other times the perspective is principally from that of human experience and profession. When it is the outcome is contingent on human response.

    In the former the emphasis is likely to be grace while in the latter it is likely to be faith. In the former salvation is already realized, a present possession, while in the latter, salvation is a future prospect.

    Hebrews belongs to the latter category. The writer defines ‘believer’ from the perspective of profession (a claim to be a believer)and the demands on faith this makes. Here, only perseverance in faith ensures salvation; this perevering is contingent because it is man’s responsibility. The human element trumps the divine(Peter’s epistles are similar). In books such as Ephesians or Romans the opposite is the case; salvation is ensured because perseverance is God’s work.

    Our categories of thinking need to align with those of the NT. When they do much of the contention is taken out of the calvinist/arminian debate.

  • Scot McKnight

    EricW, too intense for a blog post … I don’t take tense theory the way you do, but that’s for another day.

    Justin B, our ability to know about someone else, or even ourselves, is not capable of certainties. It seems to me these people don’t want any part of returning.

    John Thomson, I do agree that perspective is important though I’m not sure Romans can be assigned that simply to one category or another — and I’m not bothered with various angles on these issues being present in different authors in the NT. One of my seminary professors told me he thought the author of Hebrews was an Arminian while he wasn’t certain Paul was and thought Paul was a blend. This pushes these issues deeper into different levels of continuity … and the big one for me…

    This debate is driven by a soterian framework of everything; I don’t want to deny the viability of NT soteriology, and developing that even, but when it becomes the driver then this issue rises for certain questions. When another framework, say the Story, then this issue will not be as central. Since I have myself shifted from a soterian framework (Embracing Grace, A Community called Atonement, and even Jesus and His Death) to a Story gospel framework (King Jesus Gospel), then I am not as pressed by this stuff as I once was… but I want to think through this more before it becomes public.

  • EricW

    @Scot McKnight 16.:

    and I’m not bothered with various angles on these issues being present in different authors in the NT.

    I’m not sure the NT is as homogeneous, nor the canonical documents and their authors as consistent with each other, so as to be able to say assuredly “what the Bible teaches” re: salvation. And I’m not sure the two views and the apparent divergences in the NT can be simply explained as one being [from] man’s perspective and actions and the other being [from] God’s perspective and actions.

    [SMcK: I understand my verbal aspect question may be too intense for a blog post, but it's something that I think might have some bearing on the interpretation of the passage, but unfortunately none of the commentaries I have or have access to address this. I'll keep searching.]

    This is and has been a thought-provoking series. Thanks for doing it.

  • http://johngreenview.wordpress.com John Thomson

    The thing is Scott, the soteriology is very much part of the story. I don’t think ‘story’ really gets away from these questions. They simply arise again in the context of story. A central part of the story involves ‘covenant’ and this alone raises unconditional/conditional questions. Grace and faith are never far from the heart of the story.

    I agree that Romans does not sit ‘simply’ in one category or another. I don’t think any book does though I do think books stress one above the other. Thus in Roms 9-11 the responsibility of faith is there, but is subordinate to the primary narrative which is the covenant faithfulness of God. The narrative of redemption in these chapters is the triumph of grace (indeed, in the whole book). This does not remove human responsibility (it is present in the need for faith) but it is subordinate to the soveriegnty of God’s grace – which is, for Paul, the big story.

    In Hebrews, by contrast, the primary purpose is a call to perseverance in faith thus the emphasis lies more on responsibility of the believer.

    All of this, as I say, I find as part of the tension of say the Abrahamic covenant which is IMO unconditional in essence (God will do it in grace) but conditional in experience (it requires faith).

    Don’t you think, if writers come from different perspectives we ought to take it into account?

  • LexCro

    With respect to the finality of apostasy I’ll provide something that’s a touched-up retread of something I posted to part 3 of this Hebrews discussion:

    Some Arminians who hold to conditional perseverance (some of us being those who hold to OSAS/perseverance of the saints) believe that repentance after apostasy is impossible. Additionally, there are those of us (like myself) who hold to what we call “lesser apostasy” and “greater apostasy”. For us, greater apostasy constitutes
    a definitive, heartfelt denial of Christ. Hebrews speaks to this in 6:6 and in 10:29. This kind of apostasy is final and irrevocable. Along with others in this Hebrews series, I would point to Bart Ehrman and Charles Templeton has examples of this kind of apostasy.

    With lesser apostasy, believers give way to a disposition of practical unbelief, incrementally throwing away their inheritance in Christ and living sinfully. Some may believe themselves to be “saved”/”eternally secure” even as they persist in this blindness, all the while being reprobate. The difference between these folks and the greater apostates is that there is still hope for them in this life. They are blind to their state, “asleep in the light” (to re-work a Keith Green-ism). And if they die in this state, they will be judged as unbelievers (with all the ensuing consequences) upon death. This lesser form of apostasy is captured in the following teaching from James:

    “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19-20, NASB).

    Here, James assumes that strays can be turned back to Christ, and he exhorts believers to do so. This assumes that such rescue is still possible. However, the fact that rescue is still possible doesn’t negate the fact that “death” is the penalty in view. And this death is not merely the deprivation of the spiritual blessings of following Christ; what’s in view here is the second death (which the loss of temporal blessings prefigures). This is a great description of lesser apostasy.

    Embracing greater apostasy and lesser apostasy allows one to

    (1)Be exegetically responsible with regard to the Heb. 6 and Heb. 10 material (which plainly teach the irrevocable nature of apostasy)

    (2)Take to heart passages of Scripture that teach on the possibility of repentance for the lapsed believer while simultaneously warning of eternal ramificaitions if said lapsed believers continue in their sins. This allows us take the Hebrews warnings of final apostasy seriously
    while acknowledging that God graciously and patiently extends grace to the uttermost as in the following biblical examples: the Galatians (Gal. 5:3-4); the Corinthians (many of whom Paul warns about apostasy, most notably in 1 Cor. 5:1-5 with restoration in 2 Cor. 2:4-8; 2 Cor. 13:1-5); certain heretics and other lapsed believers in 1 Tim. 1:20, Jude 22-23, and Rev. 3:1-6.

    The blog that first turned me on to this idea can be found here: http://arminianperspectives.wordpress.com/2011/08/10/does-scripture-describe-two-types-of-apostasy/

  • http://www.truthmill.com C.S. Countryman

    @10 Paul W

    “Do you think that someone who has forfeited final eschatologcal salvation through apstasy has had as full of an experience at being Christian as the person who does not experience final eschatologcal salvation?”

    The answer to that would have to be “no”, but I think that probably isn’t the right question as regards this issue in Hebrews.

    Consider a true believer that dies at the age of 14 vs. one that dies at the age of 90 – both of them being saved for most of their life. Has the younger one likely had “as full” of an experience being a Christian as the other. Not very likely. But it doesn’t matter – they were both Christians (saved).

    How about one person who has been a Christian for decades but has impaired their sanctification because of sin in their life, vs. someone similar that has hastened their sanctification by being more readily obedient? Is one more of a Christian than the other? I wouldn’t say so. One may be a “better” Christian, but the other is no less a Christian. Christianity is determined by faith in God’s revealed grace, not by subsequent performance at various acts of piety. As long as the faith that God demands and enables is present, salvation must be present or God has stated a falsehood – something He cannot do.

    The issue is that when someone is saved, they are saved. They move from death in Adam to life in Christ. One cannot be partially alive. One cannot have bits and pieces of Christ and be “in” Christ. I believe that Scripture teaches that the question of salvation is a boolean (true false, either or). I don’t see anywhere in Scripture that it is a gradient.

    As Scott W mentioned above, we see this in the parable of the soils. All of the soils got the same seed, and that seed contained the same thing for all: a dormant, potential life (seeds are alive – but it is a suspended life) that could only truly realize its full potential for life if accepted and nurtured by the soils in question.

    In each case where the seed was accepted, the potential life became actual (real). There aren’t different kinds of life because of the fact that there is only one type of seed. There are just different outcomes for that one kind of life. Now there are different lengths to the life, different maturity levels and thus different levels of harvest (bearing fruit (or not)), but the life is the same.

    So I think the question should be, is the “nature” of the life that a finally saved Christian possesses the same “nature” as the life of an eventual apostate?

    I believe the answer must be yes because the only life in question is what Christ bestows, and there is only one Christ and only one life in Christ. There is only one Spirit through Whom that life is given. There is only one sacrifice (on the cross) by which this life was purchased.

    And I would add too, one cannot be an apostate from something that isn’t genuine. The very idea of apostasy assumes something concrete and genuine that is being rejected. To become apostate from something that isn’t an example of the genuine article is not to be an apostate. It’s to be an invalid from the start that just obviates their status in a new and perhaps interesting way.

  • http://www.truthmill.com C.S. Countryman

    @15 John Thompson

    Hi John, I sure understand that type of thing because that’s the belief that I used to hold to as well! :-) I know a lot of people do, including some folks that I respect very, very highly (Alistair Begg for one – I got saved through his ministry in 2005).

    What happened to me (your mileage may vary), is that I realized I was holding to a definition of God’s sovereignty that I hadn’t learned from God. I had instead learned it from men in a Calvinistic tradition.

    What I believe now is that God’s Sovereignty doesn’t mean that He determines all actions – and by that I mean the “puppet master” view of this subject. If that view is true, then I believe God would have to be the author of evil – something that I believe Scripture shows to be impossible because of God’s Holiness. Consider Jeremiah:

    Jer 7:30 “ ‘The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the LORD. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it.
    Jer 7:31 They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.

    Here we have God saying very plainly that a will has acted to do something that never even entered His mind – at all. So clearly God is not behind the eventuality of these children being sacrificed. He didn’t command it. It never even entered His mind, thus He couldn’t have even suggested it.

    But of course when we have events brought about by volition (as God indicates has happened here), a will must be involved. Who’s will here in Jeremiah is active?: It clearly is the will of humans only. God has played no part in this action as far as causality is concerned. He tells us that plainly.

    Thus God’s sovereignty doesn’t mean He causes all things that happen to happen. It means that God, because He is God and sovereign, gets to decide what happens. It therefore is in our best interests to look into God’s revelation and see if He has told us what it is that He has decided.

    When we do that from an agnostic position (meaning relying only upon God’s Word and the witness of the Spirit), we see that what He has shown us in Scripture is that He has decided to delegated to mankind a level of sovereignty over our own actions. He has given us a will. This entire topic is one part of what it means to be made in the image of God. We are moral creatures, but a moral creature cannot so exist without a will that can truly make its own decisions (as we see here in Jeremiah).

    An automaton cannot be moral. It can be beneficial or detrimental, but it cannot be moral. To be moral requires a will acting in acceptance or denial of a revelation from God.

    We get to make choices in which the only part God has played in causality is in letting us have the choice. Therefore He is always sovereign because He decides what gets to happen, but we remain culpable because in His control He has given us a measure of control. Our possession of a will that can make decisions determined by us and not God in no way undermines or sets aside God’s sovereignty. It instead obviates it because this is what God has shown us He has decided to do.

    I always see arguments that put God’s sovereignty on one side and human responsibility on the other, and then proceed to weight the teeter-totter of thought in the direction that suits them. I certainly have done this and still have podcasts out there on the ‘net to that effect.

    In actuality, mankind’s responsibility is embedded within God’s sovereignty, because it is part of God’s sovereign will that we have the ability to make decisions that aren’t determined by God.

    The choices we make are real, with real consequences. The choices are not ruled by God, they are ruled by us because that is God’s choice. This doesn’t conflict with God’s sovereignty, it shows that it is functioning correctly.

    What I love is that God, because He is God, is sovereign over the consequences of our actions because He has decided to act in that way. We rule in certain actions by exercising the will He has given us. But He “overrules” the consequences to bring about His will. For those of us in Christ, it is always to the benefit and furtherance of God’s plan of salvation and our growth in Christ – all things work together for good… (Rom 8).

    To those outside of Christ that will never come to Him, it is for the benefit and furtherance of His justice against sin. God also uses obstinate people as a warning to others. I believe that this is so that we can learn that indeed, God is just – as well as being the one Who justifies those that turn to Him in repentance and faith.

    Love ya’ll. I also love all the comments on this blog. I’m sort of an isolated little nerd preacher and I’m enjoying the continued education!

  • Henry

    Scot,

    Regarding Hebrews 10:29 which says: ‘the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified’.

    Do you believe that ‘sanctified’ clearly means the persons in view are saved? What about the use of that same word in 1Cor7:14:

    For the unbelieving husband is because of his wife

    Here it clearly does not mean the ‘unbelieving’ husband is saved.

  • Henry

    don’t know why it didn’t come out, but it meant to say:

    For the unbelieving husband is sanctified because of his wife.


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