Calvinism: My History 5

Calvinism: My History 5 December 14, 2011

Dimensions of Calvinism stand and fall with whether or not humans can resist and then ultimately throw away one’s redemption. The Warning passages in Hebrews, since they seem to suggest some can forfeit their redemption, feature prominently in that discussion. And the issues in these passages eventually come down to (1) what the sin is that the author is so concerned about and (2) who the audience is. In this post, I’ll look at the sin today.

We all agree (generally) with the consequences spelled out (eternal judgment) and the exhortation (perseverance). But, the sin is not as susceptible to agreement; there’s some serious discussion. When I lectured on these passages, I found most students did agree with me on this. I can also say that the issue of the nature of this sin vexed me and it vexes many others.

The list of the words the author uses for the sin he fears they may commit is long, and I want to give a complete listing just to be fair to the text and so we can have a better view of what we are trying to grapple with:

2:1: slip away
2:2: violation
2:2: disobedience
2:3: disregard one’s salvation
3:8: harden your hearts
3:8: rebellion
3:8-9: test
3:10: wander
3:10: did not know my ways
3:12: sinful, unbelieving heart
3:12: turning away from the living God
3:16: embitter
3:17: sin
3:18: disobey
4:1: fall short
4:2: was of no value… did not combine it with faith
4:11: fall
6:6: fall away
6:6: recrucify Christ.. making a public display of him
5:11: sluggish
10:25: not meeting together
10:26: deliberate sin (cf. Num 15:22-31)
10:27: enemies of God
10:28: reject
10:29: trample the Son of God
10:29: regard the blood as common
10:29: treat with the contempt the Spirit of grace
10:35: throw away confidence
10:39: shrink back
12:1: sin that entangles (? is this part of it — not sure)
12:3: not be wearied; lose heart
12:5: forgotten the word of encouragement
12:15: miss the grace of God
12:15: bitter root (?)
12:25: refuse the One who speaks
12:25: turn away from

An imposing list, to be sure. We should observe that the author chose to avoid a single term for this sin. Some of these terms are more metaphorical than others, but when we study them fairly I think we can say this:

The sin the author is warning about is a willful rejection of the triune God — Father, Son, and Spirit — and an open denunciation of this God’s moral standards. This sin is deliberate. (It does not grab the person when the person is not expecting it.) Second, it is Trinitarian. Third, it is moral in manifestation.

For many, the sin about which the author is concerned is a return to Judaism. There is precious little evidence for this, and many are wisely saying today that the author is concerned with Whom [God] they are leaving not where [Judaism] they are headed. Those interpretations that are based on a return to Judaism are, in my view, misguided.

The term I prefer for this sin in Hebrews is apostasy. This is a sin committed by those who are Christians — and Friday I’ll blog on what that might mean. This sin is abandoning the Christian faith, abandoning active trust in Jesus Christ, etc.. I am impressed (exegetically, not morally) by 10:29: these people “mock” (hybris is a good translation here) Christ. This is not about those who “wonder” if they’ve committed this sin; this is something these folks know they have done and are proud of it. It is deliberate, conscious and proud rejection of Christ. Think of folks like Chuck Templeton or Hitchens.

I’d like to make a method point: a synthesis of the Warning Passages yields light on understanding the issue of what the sin is because together these terms yield a reasonably clear idea.

Will it help us understand the Audience? I think so. It was this issue and my students’ response to it that most surprised me.

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  • Paul W

    Scot, a helpful listing indeed. Thanks.

    Perhaps we should be a bit cautious in assuming that the list encompasses a singular sin. Is such an approach is open to criticisms of being reductionistic?

    Nonetheless, “apostasy” (as a blanket term) is as good as any for list. Delineating that there is a deliberate, Trinitarian, and moral component to the contours of apostasy is also quite helpful.

    However, I would think that it is important to specifically note that in Hebrews “apostasy” contains an upfront phenomenological feature. Apostasy is (at its most obvious, practical, and observable level) a succumbing to the pressures to dissociate from the church.

  • Paul W

    “dissociate” (ugh). I meant ‘disassociate.’

  • DanS

    I studied this for years because as a teen I feared I had committed the unpardonable sin.

    I would agree that apostasy is the sin, not specifically a return to Judaism. But I don’t agree that there is “precious little” to suggest a return to Judaism was a big part of the context here. The entire book of Hebrews constantly elevates the priesthood of Christ over the Levitical priesthood, the sacrifice of Christ over the sacrifice of goats and bulls, the heavenly temple over the earthly tabernacle. Hebrews 10:26-31 seem to be pivotal in this regard. It is a rejection of the new and better covenant (which can be for any reason) that is a trampling of the blood of Christ. At that time, Paul was regularly battling “Judaizers” (New Perspective or not). So I think a return to Judaism was a pressing concern.

    While hardly anyone today would be likely to leave Christianity for Levitical Judaism, it is possible to reject the efficacy of the New Covenant of which Christ is priest and paschal lamb. Apostasy is probably the best word. So “once saved always saved” seems incorrect, but only in the case of willful apostasy.

  • gingoro

    ” So “once saved always saved” seems incorrect, but only in the case of willful apostasy.”

    High Calvinists would claim that the apostate never was a Christian in the first place. Thus preserving “once saved always saved”.
    Dave W

  • DRT

    I take it that some are saying that these warning passages only apply if they actually convert to Judaism? Even today? Do the Calvinists say that?

  • Norman


    “The Sin” IMO is both: leaving Christianity and a return to Judaism (or remaining in it), both positions you outline appear to be correct. One can’t say categorically that there is no Gentile context but the Jewish apostate theme begun in the OT and carried forth into the NT appears to be the same, a rebellious attitude toward Jehovah that resonates throughout scripture. Paul enhances this position in his discussion in Romans 5-8 on what exactly constitutes “the Sin” which 1 Cor 15 also illuminates as the “law” contrasted to life through the “spirit”.

    1Co 15:56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.

    Hebrews therefore appears to be no different than much of Paul’s and John’s epistles in outlining that the faithful derive from Judaism as its origins base but that old Covenant Jewish base is being changed, rolled up like a Garment and Shaken. (Heb 1:10-12 & 12:26-28)

    Judaism and the covenant of Law being left in the “dust bin of history” appear to be the consistent theme throughout the writings of the NT including and especially Hebrews.

    Remaining in old covenant Judaism then is likened to returning and remaining in Egypt under bondage and sin. (Heb 3-4 & Acts 7)

    In fact the Hebrew writer drives this changing theme home in chapter 8, yet previously in chapters 3 & 4 the author reviewed the Jewish historical propensity to fall away and not stay the course

    Heb 8:8-9 For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, (9) not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.

    The theme of bondage to Judaism, Law and thus sin appears the same we find throughout the NT and we shouldn’t expect Hebrews to deviate from that same ideal.

    Heb 8:10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. … 13 In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

    Again Paul makes the connection between Judaism, the Law/commandment, sin and death.

    Rom 7:9-10 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.

    However he declares what the remedy is for those under “the law” of “sin” and “death” and Paul like the Hebrew writer (wink, wink) also exhorts the faithful to remain faithful just as Hebrews is doing.

    Rom 7:24-8:2 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

    Rom 8:35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

  • scotmcknight


    The large picture approach you suggest for the return to Judaism is the whole basis. Not once in those sins does the author suggest that particularity, and that is why I say precious little. We can read that return to Judaism idea into the sin texts but the author doesn’t bring the idea to the surface.

  • Paul W

    @4 gingoro

    I would agree that a broad agreement would exist (among Calvinists) that those who apostate are not among the eternally elect. But that is due, in part, to how election is defined by them. By definition one who is elect will persevere in the faith.

    I also think that there is more diversity among Calvinists on who they would be willing to label with the term “Christian” then some seem to acknowledge. To my understanding the confessional theologies of the 16th and 17th centuries did not go about addressing their concerns in such a way as to doctrinally define the term Christian.

    Popular understandings of Reformed Confessional literature and its magisterial voices have come down to the present through many filters (e.g., Puritainism, revivalism, 19th century Calvinism, American evangelical culture), debates (the Old/New Side, Old/New School etc.) and groupings (e.g., Covenanters, Southern Presbyterians etc.). It shouldn’t be suprising then to find (at the popular-level) presentations of Calvinism with all sorts of diverse and even idiosyncratic understanding of that tradition.

    All that is to say that I don’t believe that there is a Calvinistic defined orthodoxy on how the word ‘Christian’ is used in the same way that there is for example with the term ‘elect.’

  • No doubt, the sin of apostasy is in falling away from God, regardless of what it is one is falling away to. But was the author of Hebrews speaking generically about apostasy, or was there something he particularly had in mind? The warnings might be applied to any kind of apostasy, but might the context (historical, cultural, etc.) offer any clue about what the author might have particularly had in mind in his own particular location in history?

    Also, when the author takes considerable portions of his letter to show how the priesthood of Christ is superior to the Aaronic priesthood, and how the new covenant in Christ is superior to the old Mosaic covenant, and how the heavenly sanctuary is superior to the earthly temple and its service, and the sacrifice of Christ is superior to the sacrifices prescribed by the Mosaic law — does that have anything to do with apostasy the author is speaking about? Might one legitimately suppose that the apostasy he warns Hebrew believers in Jesus about just might, somehow, be related, in some way, to Judaism? Noting how those things are interspersed with the warnings, I’m thinking that the author was making some sort of connection between those and his warning against apostasy. Or is that just a wild stretch?

  • Scot McKnight

    For several commenters,

    I find it next to impossible to think the author would call a return to Judaism to be called abandoning the living Gid as is done in 3:12. Which brings up a method: think about if these sins would describe the so-called return.

  • John W Frye

    I think Dr. McKnight makes a clear and nuanced point. If the return to Judaism was the specific sin, then in light of the framework of the superiorities of Christ over the OT system, you’d would think that the writer, in view of the serious of the issue, would *state it plainly.* The listing of sins has nothing to do with where the apostates are headed, but the God Whom they are abandoning. Granted the framework of the superiorities of Christ and the New Covenant are delineated, the exegete still makes *an assumption*, not a text-based observation/interpretation that the sin of apostasy in Hebrews is returning to Judaism.

  • TSG

    “….I cannot believe that he who called himself the son of man was the true, eternal God;I cannot believe his death was a vicarious atonement”. Schleiermacher to his father 21Jan1787.

    But more subtly this….”Committing ourselves to what Jesus called the greatest commandments- loving God and neighbor-is at the center of what it means to be a progressive Christian- a center that is not de-centered by Copernicus, Darwin, Freud, or Einstein”. This type of progressive Christianity is championed by Marcus Borg, Mathew Fox, Diana Bass, John Shelby Spong, others. It unashamedly, in the name of Jesus, places man at the center. Yes, Calvinism gives you a bounded set, which is a perversion of a centered set. But to me, they still have Jesus, as the Christ, at its center.

  • Scot, the sin of apostasy is in the turning away from God, regardless of what one is turning away to. I don’t think, in this case, it was necessarily a return to Judaism, per se, but given all the content about the superiority of Christ to the components of the Jewish system (i.e., priesthood, sacrifice, temple), it certainly appears to me that the apostasy the author has in mind has something to do with Judaism. It would seem quite a stretch to me to suppose that the apostasy in mind had nothing whatsoever to do with Judaism and that the author we merely introducing extensive material comparing Christ to the components of Judaism.

    The warnings had nothing to do with Judaism, how do you deal with the presence of that extensive material in the book?

    The Jewish system was about to be judged because it rejected the Messiah. In Matthew 23 and 24, Jesus prophesied that coming judgment, the destruction of the Temple and the desolation of Jerusalem because they were not willing to receive Messiah. That destruction, of course, happened in AD 70, and the years preceding saw the situation heating up to that terrible fulfillment.

    Perhaps I am stretching again, but it is not hard for me to think that turning away from the Messiah anointed by the Living God would be tantamount to turning away from the Living God. Returning to the failed and rejected Jewish system would not be a return to the Living God but a turn away from Him.

  • Jayflm

    I agree that the underlying sin is apostasy – turning/falling away from faith in Christ Jesus (or perhaps more correctly, in light of the King Jesus Gospel, citizenship in His Kingdom). But I disagree in that the specific motivation for apostasy that is tempting those to whom the letter is addressed clearly seems to be Judaism, albeit a highly politicized form, emphasizing ethnic purity against the secularizing pressures of Rome. In that sense turning back to Judaism is abandoning the living God because what they would be turning to is nothing but empty rules and rituals that prove ethnic purity against a perceived secular onslaught.

    That being said, the same principles of standing firm vs. apostasy would take a very different form in a letter written to those living in a pagan culture, whether of the first century or today. The comparisons which exalt Christ over all other ‘deliverers’ or revelations would not have the distinctively Jewish flavor of Hebrews.

  • TSG

    Just one more point, which places me out of this discussion. Raised as Lutheran, the sticky point for me with Calvinism is unconditional election(which is where Lutherans are in agreement with TULIP). Once I had wrestled with that belief, and found Arminianism, limited atonement, irresitable grace, and perserverance fell by the wayside. To me unconditional grace is deplorable-makes God a monster- and can be shown to be so on myriad levels. It was THE issue for me where Calvivism stood or fell. I can see where believing in the perserverance of the saints could also be an similar issue for others, but to me it always seemed true that apostacy is possible in two forms, as I stated in my previous post.

  • John W Frye

    Scot, you’ve primed the pump well. We ALL want to know who the audience is! 🙂

  • Joe Canner

    Gingoro #4: I have heard this same argument from non-Calvinists (the dispensationalists I grew up with, for example) and I have always found it to be very unsatisfying. The point of the warning verses in Hebrews is not to identify who is “elect” or “saved”, it is to encourage believers to persevere and stick with the faith.

    Calvinism is at its best when it encourages and reassures believers that random sins and doubts cannot separate us from God. When it is used to give post-hoc assessments of the eternal destiny of an apostate, I find that less helpful.

  • Cindy C

    I think you’re right to link the audience to the sin in question here; if the audience is a group of Palestinian Jewish Christians, as opposed to a church of recently converted Romans, then perhaps we need to look at Judaizing as a more serious option here. That being said, I agree with you that I don’t think that is the general problem the author was addressing, though it might have played a part. I notice you didn’t mention the author’s use of “considered the blood as common” and other mentions of the community not meeting together. Is it possible that the author is chastising the community for not meeting together to share Eucharist? I’ve found studying the patron-client system to be extremely illuminating on this subject.

  • Norman

    @Jeff#9 & #13

    I think you have framed the concepts correctly. A new covenant order was being implemented and those who remained in the old order were in essence abandoning the revealed God of Israel.

    I also think we underestimate the background knowledge that many of the Jews and God fearing Gentiles would have concerning the messianic times language. The judgment language of second temple Judaism permeated their first century literature and the idea of those who were judged to be unworthy were often equated with unbecoming language. Those apostates in historical Judaism were often portrayed in language that befitted pagans who didn’t know God. This theme again resonates throughout the NT and yes sometimes you have to understand the language and read between the lines to comprehend these associations. Those familiar with judgment literature though would tend to have a leg up on us in recognizing these themes.

    In other words the authors didn’t have to rebuild the background details for an audience that would have been expected to comprehend these issues. Unlike most of us moderns who are vaguely familar with that periods context and need more explanations

  • Bill

    The author of Hebrews presents a grace that is not grace; an atonement that was not finished, and thus a ‘bubble’ theology much like Peter’s before his experience with Cornelius – useful in many ways, yet incomplete. All this begs the usual question, must we assume that all books of the bible be read as equivalent in theological maturity? Has not the discussion then become a ‘straw man’ argument built upon an assumption about the nature of inspiration that is questionable to begin with?

  • I’ve not really weighed in on this series because I think it’s largely overstated. Calvninian understandings of covenant haven’t factored into to the discussion much, as far as I can tell, which brings into question the prudence of leaving something behind if it hasn’t been fully grappled with or understood at the start.

    To be sure, popular-level, modern Calvinism suffers from several of the critiques denoted herein; no one ought to deny that, nor ought they judge an entire trajectory of thought based on its popular-level manifestations.

    Everybody interested, especially Scot, should read this chapter on Calvin’s concept of apostasy.

  • Percival

    Why are we so afraid to admit that falling away is in fact very common?

  • PaulE

    I agree with you that the sin is apostasy. I do think the recipients of the letter are moving back towards Judaism, especially because of verses like 7:12 and 10:1-2; but I think the author’s concern would be the same if they were Gentiles reverting to paganism.

    So, I’ve been thinking about this discussion in light of the parable of the soils in Luke 8. If a plant shoots up from the soil, but then withers in the heat of the sun, we might ask, “Did the seed fall on good soil or rocky soil?”

    One view says, “Well, considering that it didn’t survive the heat, it must have been rocky soil.”

    Another says, “Well, maybe it started out as good soil, but then through neglect became rocky soil.”

    Can we conclude from the evidence given, who has the correct answer?

  • i have only read this series with a cursory glance so if i am out in left field then please excuse this. i have never heard of this return to judaism theory and the thing is these are jews who have found their messiah so they cannot return to something they never left. if you want to say they have returned to living under the law that is something else. a jew does not leave judaism when they follow yeshua.

  • Josh

    Recently Ive been thinking the Hebrew audience were predominately of Jewish background and of wavering Christian faith. I don’t think continuing to live as a Jew was necessarily bad for Jews who became Christians, nor something the early Christians stood against (Rom 3.31).

    Yet there were some Jewish practices Jewish Christians must never ever practice again. One of these would be to offer a levitical sacrifice for their sins. This is a willful and ‘deliberate’ rejection of the atoning death of Christ (Heb 10.26-31).

  • DanS

    Scot. The sin is not returning to Judaism as if the Judaism is itself sin. It was, after all, God’s covenant through Moses. The sin is willfully rejecting God’s new covenant and the return to the Levitical covenant was the particular manifestation. I think the reformers saw an overwrought sacramentalism and the sacrifice of the Mass as a similar insult to the one sufficient sacrifice of Christ, so that was to them another manifestation of rejecting the New Covenant.

    The sin is rejecting Christ for another faith, another Gospel. Common New Testament theme. But I still think the overall context of the contrast between the earthly tabernacle and heavenly temple has to be part of the particular picture. That is also consistent with much of the New Testament. The old sacrifices did not cleanse, the new replaces the old. There no longer remains a sacrifice for sins if one tramples the blood of Christ.

  • Craig Wright

    Well known people are used as examples of falling away (Templeton and Hitchens). I put my own testimony on a previous blog. I am a 65 year old active, devout Christian. I accepted Jesus as my savior when I was 5. I lived a sincere Christian life throughout high school and then in my 3rd year at BIOLA College (a Christian school), I rejected my faith. After getting through Viet Nam (injured and decorated) I did not have a fox hole experience, but came back to the Lord after 4 years of what I guess would be called “apostasy.” I don’t understand the part about not being able to renew someone to repentance again.

  • MarkR

    The sin is the rejecting of the calling of the Holy Spirit. I don’t believe that the people spoken about were Christians. That would not make sense in the context of the text. These people had been called continually by the spirit and had not yet received Christ as savior after being continually called. Their hearts had become hardened, therefore they could no longer find their way to christ and returned to their previous ways, Judaism.
    They could not have been Christians because the scriptures tell us that they could never return to find repentance. Why, because their hearts had become hardened to the Gospel message from continually rejecting the calling of the Holy Spirit that was upon them. If, as Christians, we have fallen away and truly repent, God is faithful to restore us, so never is not in the equation for a child of God. Isaiah 55:6 “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call on him while he is near”.

  • Stone R

    In view of Heb.3:12 and the warning against “an evil heart of unbelief in falling away from the living God” perhaps we should replace “once saved, always saved?” with “once a believer, always a believer?” God is the Savior. I am the believer. These passages are concerned with MY choices/actions that reflect my commitment to Jesus or my rejection of Jesus. Not point action sins that every believer commits in the midst of their walk of faith….but the abandonment of the object of faith, Jesus. Thanks Scot for a much needed look at these things.

    BTW. I’ve been an under the radar teaching missionary to the largest nation on earth for the past 20 years. A question that I never got asked for 15 years is now being asked with some regularity, i.e. “Are you reformed?” A “no” answer and explanation is met with some confusion and in one case a rejection of me as a welcomed teacher. The simple and beautiful unity among believers I’ve witnessed there over the years is being challenged by this. Very sad.

  • Hi all,

    Regarding the nature of the destination of the apostacy mentioned in Hebrews, let’s not forget the name given to this book because of Hebrews 1:1 among other places.

    This was written to Jews so it isn’t surprising that we find ourselves with a great and very probable example of how a hebrew exposed to and saved by Christ might commit apostacy.

    But of course in laying out the specific we also can discern the general. This is because of the very nature of salvation being “in” Christ. All it takes to commit apostacy is to decide to be “outside” of Christ. Salvation is by grace through faith. To apostate one simply has to stop exercising faith in Christ. It really is that simple.

    Who would do such a thing? One who decides they love the world more than Jesus – following Jesus is costly. One who decides that striving to save themself is preferable to being reduced to a beggar and accepting a handout – following Jesus is humiliating. One who tires of the stress and strain of spiritual warfare that the obedient Christian encounters – following Jesus means battle againt forces that would happily and easily destroy us save God holding their leash. One who tires of denying themself continually so that they can submit to God – following Jesus is a continual battle against one’s self. The list goes on and on.

    But what I also hold in full conviction is that the God of the Bible that uttered the promises is the same God that uttered the warnings. Because of God’s nature, and the nature of the Word He has communicated to us, if the promises are true, then the warnings are true as well. Would it not be foolish to hold to one while ignoring or diminishing the other? Can God be so easily divided?