Warning Passages Ahead: Brief Response

Warning Passages Ahead: Brief Response January 16, 2012

Over at The Gospel Coalition Peter O’Brien, a wonderful man and scholar from Australia, has entered into an interview with Collin Hansen on the warning passages in Hebrews. I read the interview because I like the work of O’Brien and because I recently posted on this very issue.

In essence, the interview assumes or argues that there is a distinction between kinds of faith in the letter, namely, those with genuine saving faith and those without it. Those with genuine saving faith will persevere; those without won’t persevere. This is a common approach to Hebrews. Arminians agree that only those who persevere will be saved. Arminians think some who have faith will toss it away and will not be saved. Let it be clear that Peter and I agree on the necessity of perseverance, and it is a doctrine that most evangelicals are afraid to preach. But O’Brien and I disagree on a central element of the warning passages in Hebrews. The big issue dividing us is this:

Are there two kinds of faith? Or, are they people who have (real) faith, some of whom will persevere and some of whom won’t?

I contend O’Brien’s approach, which argues there are two kinds of faith — genuine and spurious — strains the very language of the letter to the Hebrews. I contend … well, read on.

First, if the sin to worry about is apostasy, and O’Brien calls it “irreversible apostasy,” how can a person with non-genuine (spurious) faith be warned about apostasy? What are they apostasizing from? (The only answer can be their non-genuine faith because that is all they have.) I contend this makes no sense. Big question: What does apostasy mean for the one who doesn’t really have genuine faith? (The sin of Hebrews is too violent to be anything other than something profoundly serious; I can’t see it being apostasy from less than real faith.)

Second, if the exhortation is to continue or persevere, how can a person with non-genuine faith be exhorted to continue? In what, their non-genuine faith? The only answer here is that the non-genuine faith person should be urged to repent and to believe or to enter deeper from a spurious and inadequate non-saving faith into a real, genuine saving faith. When this topic arises at the end of Hebrews 5 and the beginning of Hebrews 6 there’s no evidence the author thinks of these people of having spurious faith, but instead of having faith that needs perseverance. In other words, it’s just how the author says it: immaturity (or the “elementary”; 6:1) needs to move onto maturity. The elementary is not “spurious” but an immature version of the real thing. Grade school math is not spurious but immature, especially if the aim is mathematical physics.

The exhortation to continue then can only apply for O’Brien to the genuine saving-faith person (in which case the whole conditionality issue becomes hypothetical or only rhetorical and not real — an issue that needs a different discussion). In O’Brien’s sketch the warning passages are working with their eyes on two different faiths: genuine-faith people and non-genuine-faith people. I contend this is impossible to prove apart from one’s already-at-work Calvinistic assumptions. I see no evidence for two groups until the final day; at the moment of writing they are believers. The writer of Hebrews never suggests anyone has spurious faith; he worries those with faith will not persevere.

Third, it is not accurate to say genuine faith and spurious faith are clear in the book. That, again, is an imposed category: what is clear is that some believe and are saved and others shrink back and are damned. To say there are two kinds of faith requires a text where the author makes that kind of category clear. (And the word “faith” ought to be present with some kind of adjective that shows the author thinks some have a spurious faith.) What is present in Hebrews is an author who thinks his readers/listeners will persevere or not persevere. There are two kinds of people (in the end), not two kinds of faith, in Hebrews. Our question:  What does “faith” mean for the non-genuine or “spurious”?

Fourth, read this carefully:

The descriptions of the audience in vv. 4-5 (“those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age”) point to an initial experience of the gospel. The vivid agricultural imagery of Hebrews 6:7-8, which is integral to the warning of vv. 4-6 and clarifies its meaning, stands between the warning and the expression of confidence in vv. 9-12. It depicts two kinds of responses that can be made to the warning, not simply one, and thus fills out and completes the picture by including both those who do not fall away and those who commit apostasy.

The effects of the rain on each piece of land differ dramatically: in the case of one, the presence of fruitful crops at the end time harvest is evidence of those who had a genuine experience of salvation (vv. 7, 9). But the land that has been well watered and nurtured, and produces only “thorns and thistles” shows that it is worthless, and does not stand the test at the final judgment (vv. 6, 8). The faith of those represented was only transitory (cf.Heb. 10:38-39Heb. 12:25). They were never true believers, whatever signs of life they may have shown initially.

Notice that the author says the audience has an “initial experience of the gospel” and then later says they “were never true believers.” I agree with the first but the last category is imposed from without on the basis of other conclusions, namely that if one does not have perseverance one never really had genuine faith. This is the QED, and it doesn’t work to assume this stance in order to explain one’s view. There are two kinds of people, not two kinds of faith. There is one kind of faith: faith. Some will persevere and some won’t. One faith, one kept and one discarded.

Peter O’Brien says this a different way later:

Given Hebrews’s distinction between authentic faith as that which perseveres to the end, and spurious faith that may initially show some signs of life but does not endure, the person who commits apostasy is not an authentic Christian and never was one, whatever their first responses to the gospel may have been.

Again, the authentic vs. spurious is a way of framing the problem. I prefer it to frame it as “faith” that perseveres and to salvation vs. faith that doesn’t persevere and that leads to judgment. The use of “spurious” suggests it wasn’t the real thing from the beginning, which I think is his point but which is precisely the point that needs to be proven. And this is clear in that O’Brien says in this paragraph “and never was one.” Now that’s the point that has to be shown, and the only way to show this is to assume that genuine faith perseveres vs. ungenuine faith that does not persevere, when the author seems to be using this set of categories: faith that perseveres saves and faith that doesn’t persevere doesn’t save. The issue is whether the “faith” is real in each case; I think so. He needs to show that some people do not really have genuine faith.  What does it mean to have “initial” faith or an “initial experience of the gospel” in such terms if it doesn’t mean to trust in Christ?

Again, in Hebrews 5 to 6 the author brings this up. The initial experience is not spurious, but real; it just needs to move to the level of perseverance and not move back to the world of apostasy.

Fifth, Peter gets very close here to being a classical Arminian. Here are his words:

Since this offense constitutes a total renunciation of everything that is distinctively Christian and which the person had previously professed, it is not the sin of the outsider or the one who is on the edge of church life.

Not an outsider and not one who is on the edge of church life? Where, then, is this person? Do they believe or not? Does this language work for the wilderness generation or for Esau? I say No, what say you?


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  • Paul W


    Your posts on the warning passages have been some of the most interesting articles.

    There have been a few things that have just rubbed me the wrong way in some of these discussions though. I think Evangelically framed discussions would benefit from reassessing some of the following.

    1. Focusing so intently on the genuineness or real-ness of the faith in question. Hebrews simply doesn’t focus on faith that way. It is not interested in distinguishing genuine belief from false. The focuses is on whether one believes or not– on the perseverance of faith not its genuiness.

    2. Fixation on who is “really” saved with “saved” as a status fully experienced now. Hebrews is not concerned to view salvation like that. Hebrews does not share Evangelicalism’s penchant to know who is truly saved and who isn’t. It does not address “frauds” masquerading as believers. And “salvation” language always has a final eschatological component to it.

    3. Bundling the question of apostasy with a near obsession with “eternal security” and “assurance of salvation.” Hebrews isn’t framed with those issues in mind. It is concerned with persevere in faith and commitment to the community of faith.

    4. Addressing the issue through a systematic theological grid. The models typically trying to incorporate Hebrew’s warning passages is all too often overly driven by a “soterian” impulse. Hebrews has its own distinct ways of addressing issues facing its own distinct audience.

  • DZ

    Just wondering how much Jesus’ parable of the sower in Matthew 13 should be informing and framing this issue?

  • DZ

    Just wondering how much Jesus’ parable of the Sower in Matthew 13 should also be informing and framing how we read these passages in Hebrews?

  • Aslan Cheng


    Thomas Schreiner reply there http://www.credomag.com/2011/12/29/calvinism-and-the-warning-passages-a-brief-reply-to-scot-mcknight/

    I hope your effort can make it more clear of this warning passage.

  • scotmcknight

    Aslan, now that’s a nice name to respond to…

    I have one major, and to me it is fatal, problem with the Schreiner/Caneday approach: the author spends a great deal of time in his letter (add up the verses and it’s many) and too much serious language and emotion for this to be impossible. I understand and agree that the author hopes for perseverance and encourages toward perseverance and pastorally encourages … but if apostasy of a genuine believer (and they agree these folks are genuine believers) is impossible, why spend so much time warning? Wouldn’t logic require that if one believed otherwise that one would frame the warning otherwise?

  • I agree, Scot (#5), that Schreiner’s and Caneday’s otherwise very good book (The Race Set Before Us) is unsatisfying on this note. It’s another attempt to soften the serious thrust of the warnings. It identifies a certain function in the rhetorical aim of the letter, but that doesn’t mitigate the fact that the author really means what he says.

    It seems to me that any prior systematic / dogmatic commitment to a kind of Calvinism keeps a person from reckoning seriously with the warnings passages in Hebrews.

    What’s unfortunate is that the actual historical situation that Hebrews addresses is quite different than modern Christians potentially ‘losing their salvation’. But in the effort to comfort Christians who have doubts about their salvation, many have treated Hebrews (esp. the warnings in Heb. 5-6) unfairly. O’Brien’s treatment (and Caneday’s and Schreiner’s) is another case of that, it seems to me.

  • Can I suggest that the warnings in Hebrews can still be necessary (and wonderful) even if they are directed at geniune believers who, by the power of God, are not able to fall away? That is not contradictory, and in fact, is some of the best news in the universe in my opinion. It may not seem logical, but I think it is.

    I would contend that warnings in Scripture of this nature to believers are a means of God’s grace, and the very means by which He holds us to the end, and the very means by which it is possible for us to persevere. The warnings are simply negative encouragement / exhortation. Postive encouragement would be like, “Don’t worry, you’re already saved – you’ll be fine.” That is not what Hebrews, or any of Scripture, says. Negative encouragement is like, “You better be careful! Do you know what will happen if you’re not careful?!” The author of Hebrews saw that the latter was more needed for believers in this case. That doesn’t mean that the implication was that believers could lose their salvation, just that they needed warnings to persevere, which God had promised. So the warnings are a means to what God has already promised.

    For a believer (even a Calvinist) not to take them seriously is crazy. I know I won’t fall into that trap. They are the means by which God is saving me to the end! And my hope is in the fact that I will get there! What better motivation to finish the race, even though I might fall some along the way?! And when I do, the warnings are right there exhorting me to get back up in faith.

    Is that reasonable?

  • scotmcknight


    You join a chorus of folks who see the warnings as rhetorical, and when I say that I mean only rhetorical but good rhetoric. Namely, they are designed to spur believers on …

    … but I wonder if this view doesn’t put the writer of Hebrews into a posture of deceit and violent exaggeration. That is, is not the warning that they will be judged by God false since it can’t happen? Is it perhaps like the parent who says “If you say that one more time I will spank you so hard you won’t be able to stand up again”?

    Unpacked: The parent doesn’t really mean this so the parent ramps up the rhetoric; the child at first believes the parent and changes its behavior; then the child learns it is just rhetoric and so learns to disregard the parent’s warning. Parent has to find a better way.

    In my view, if the audience can’t commit this since then the language is very close to deception or at least false exaggeration. Who would exaggerate about such matters?

  • DRT

    As I read Scot’s article, O’Brian and Schreiner’s response to Scot I am struck by choice that people have to make in Hebrews vs. the choice people have to make today in the United States. In the US, the choice for the current believer is primarily a choice between maintaining ones Christian faith or becoming an Atheist. In the case of the letter to Hebrews, the choice being offered is the choice between Christian faith and Jewish faith.

    The point of that is that in the time of Hebrews you were, ostensibly, choosing between different modes to achieve salvation. So the person there was thinking “do I go back to the real, tangible, tried and supported ritual of Judaism or do I throw all of that rich ritual and history away and go out on a limb with this do nothing approach of Jesus.” That is a very difficult choice indeed!

    For the Christian in the US today, the choice is between the rich tradition, history and support of the Christian church or go out on a limb and not believe in Jesus. I wonder how many conservative sensing oriented people who ascribe to the systematic views of Calvinism would be on the side of going back to Judaism if they were alive in the first century. The choice was not between salvation and not, but between methods by which one attains salvation and which is the true method for being saved.

    So this also brings up the issue of the definition of salvation. Pesumably, in the first century, you are saved here and now by following the correct discipline.

    So, these mindsets play out in O’Brian’s analysis. He can put Christian faith up against a lack of faith and call the one spurious or insubstantial leading to the two types of faith that Scot refers to. But in the first century the choice was not faith or lack of faith, it was faith in all cases, just a choice between which kind of faith one would show. Everyone has faith, the question is, faith in what?

  • scotmcknight



    I’d like to go on record, and not have a discussion about it, but I don’t think there’s evidence in this letter that the “apostasy” was back into Judaism. The author says they would be abandoning the living God (3:12) and I have a hard time thinking moving into Judaism could be described by anyone that way. The back into Judaism approach is very common, and I’m swimming upstream on this one, but I’m unconvinced this is the best explanation of the “sin.”

  • David P

    My thoughts on this question has always been basically that both themes (a tension between very high view of divine sovereignty vs. free will’s application in the life of the individual believer) are in Scripture and perhaps though to us they seem logically incompatible, they are not from the perspective of Our Lord. I often think that the approach of either side tends to flatten out the Scriptures that point one way (the apostasy passages of Hebrews) vs. the others (Ephesians 1, perhaps). Just because, at present, my human understanding cannot reconcile the two does not mean both cannot be true. Not that I do not think we should not attempt to harmonize, but we should never let our attempts at harmonization obscure what we hear the text saying. Maybe what I think might be considered a cop-out, but it’s sort of the perspective I’ve reached over time. (I recognize that most Arminians will immediately jump here and say that they DO have a high view of God’s sovereignty, while Calvinists will say they can allow for some for human responsibility despite an extreme emphasis on God’s sovereignty. I often feel, however, that both sides have to bend certain texts to accommodate their views).

  • DRT

    how can a person with non-genuine faith be exhorted to continue? In what, their non-genuine faith?

    Here are some of my thoughts, though I don’t think these are refined enough for a firm position.

    I sense that O’Brian is believing that Faith should be defined not only as the constellation of beliefs and the attitude toward those beliefs, but the added notion that perseverance in those beliefs is a quality of faith. So, by incorporating perseverance into faith he is able to call un-persevering faith spurious.

    But this also gets played out in the difference with the Catholics in justification. If I am correct, the Catholics talk about justification and equivalent to the protestant justification+sanctification. Isn’t then the justification+sanctification=persevering faith? And if one does not have the perseverance aspect of the faith then it is either the justification (conversion?) that is not right of the sanctification part that is not right.

    This (Catholic) page http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05752c.htm discusses faith as steadfastness in the Hebrew sense. And then, faithfulness which do have a component of perseverance built into the definition.

    So, based on this, one could argue that while one is following Christ that person has the same constellation of beliefs as any other person, but does not have true faith because the perseverance of the faith is not present. The steadfastness or faithfulness is not present.

  • Scot (#10), the consensus that Hebrews warns against ‘returning to Judaism’ was built up before all the work done that demonstrated more complexity in the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity. I’m convinced that Hebrews is a thoroughly 2nd Temple Jewish document written from a Jesus-following Jew to a community of Jesus-following Jews who would have seen no distinction between their Jewish identity and their discipleship to Jesus.

  • Scot McKnight

    Tim, is the apostasy then a return to (non-messianic) Judaism?

  • I’ve always struggled with the sentiment that people who walk away from Jesus never truly believed. As I reflect on the people in my life who have walked away, I can’t help but think, “No, that person expressed real faith!” You’re right when you say that the genuine/spurious faith dichotomy is eisegeted into the text. It just doesn’t make sense for the author to warn people of something for which there is no need to warn them! “Don’t lose your faith! …Because you can’t.” :/

    DRT, #9 That’s certainly the case in Galatians, at least!

  • Tim

    So can an apostate, who really, truly loved Jesus as this young man did…


    …ever return then to the faith? Or is he “cursed ground” who’s judgement is pretty much already sealed?

    What does Hebrews say on this matter?

  • Scot, you may have covered this already, but in your view, can a person turn from apostacy back to genuine faith?

    also, for what it’s worth, “one faith, one kept one not” sounds kind of like two kinds of faith to my ears. Since a non-persevering faith doesn’t save one, what’s the difference between it and non-genuine faith? Seems like semantics as far as the apostate and those who minister to him are concerned.

  • I think the apostasy involves the community’s deliberation about whether or not to obey a clear word they’ve received from the exalted Lord Jesus through a prophet.

    It’s a bit speculative (as is any scenario, since there’s so little 1st cent. evidence for any view), but it may be the prophecy to the Jerusalem church in the late 60’s to uproot and move to Pella (recorded in Eusebius). This would account for much of the exhortation in the letter, including all the examples in ch. 11 who ‘left’, went to Jesus outside the camp, etc.

    For Jesus-following Jews, to leave the city would have felt like leaving the faith! It was unthinkable! But if they have Jesus, they have what is superior to all the ‘stuff’ of Judaism (forgive the crass way of putting that).

    That scenario keeps Hebrews from comparing Christianity viz. Judaism, but also accounts for the seriousness of the warnings — they are considering disobeying “the one who speaks from heaven” in the face of leaving behind everything that’s comfortable and familiar.

    It’s a far cry from “losing salvation.” It’s more like intentional disobedience because the word of God is too challenging.

    My St. Andrews colleague, Carl Mosser, made this case in his unpublished Ph.D. diss.

  • scotmcknight

    Tim, your language is as harsh as Hebrews’, but I would say No and Yes (if he has apostasized).

    Peter G, No. Anyone who apostasizes, like Chuck Templeton, does not want to return. You can play with my terms but you can readily see my point: not two kinds of faith but two persons with faith, one that perseveres and one that does not. It’s not semantics to theologians, and I think you know that.

  • scotmcknight

    Tim, I was going to say “You’ve been reading Carl Mosser.” I’m all for the “may be” but it’s very, very subtle indeed. So subtle that it is hard to see…

  • I agree. You’ve got to hold it lightly in the face of so little evidence. But reading the letter through the lens of some sort of concrete situation in which the community is at an actual crossroads (apart from the return to Judaism one) makes the letter make a bit more sense.

    Further, it makes the pastoral application to contemporary situations a bit more complex, which is as it should be.

    In the end, it’ll continue to be frustrating until someone unearths some evidence that situates the letter more concretely.

  • Nick

    Wow. Scot McKnight is doing systematics!

  • T

    Scot (8),

    Is this really ‘deception?’ I’m reminded of Jonah’s message to Ninevah. His message of judgment didn’t even contain any qualification for their repentance. Yet, Jonah believed that God would relent at their repentance. To whatever extent God also knew this beforehand, was the message of Ninevah’s destruction “deceptive?” I think that label is inappropriate. Similarly, the author of Hebrews talks about what *would* happen to an apostate believer, but follows it with “but we are convinced of better things” for his audience. This is clearly a hypothetical case. Jonah’s preaching seems far more open to the charge of deception, and even there it’s a stretch. I’m not saying that you’re wrong on this passage, but I also not convinced that Joey (and his chorus) is necessarily wrong. Regardless, where it seems you agree (somewhat) is that this passage is intended to warn the believer from letting his or her faith become weak. I agree with that.

  • scotmcknight

    T, conditionality or contingency is one thing; this view eliminates the genuine conditionality. There is a strong line of contingency in prophetic warnings; I embrace that. You will be judged; your cities will go up in smoke, thus saith the Lord. But if folks repent, then it won’t happen. But if they don’t repent, then these things will happen. I see that last sentence as impossible in the rhetorical view.

  • Brian Abasciano
  • Brian Abasciano

    Woops, I somehow posted a link alone that I was thinking of including in the comment I wrote (comment # 25), and I lost the comment.

    Let me try to reproduce the comment I tried to leave:

    Scot, I am with you on your response to O’Brien, and in your comment # 5 to Schreiner/Caneday. But I think you might miss some of the nuance of Schreiner/Caneday, which is fairly represented by comment # 7 (Joey’s). I *think* I agree with your response in comment # 8. But an additional, and more compelling response is that warnings against impossibilities cannot reasonably serve as a motivation to heed the warnings. Therefore, warnings against apostatizing cannot serve as the means to keeping believers from doing so if apostasy is regarded as impossible. They can serve as the means of preserving believers (in a resistible way of course) in Arminian theology (i.e., we heed the warnings in order to avoid what they warn against), but they cannot coherently do so on Calvinistic assumptions.

    The link I left from the Society of Evangelical Arminians explains this point in some more detail, yet still concisely.

  • Scot (#8),

    Thanks for the response. I certainly don’t think it would be appropriate to falsely exaggerate such matters, and likewise, that is not how I understand the exhortations / warnings / “rhetoric” in Hebrews.

    I understand your example, but I think it is unfair to compare the author of Hebrews with a parent using the warning you mentioned. What is the parent’s motivation in that warning? It sounds like a selfish desire to get that child to behave, using made up consequences. If it is instead to encourage their child onto good behavior and maturity, than I don’t believe that type of warning will lead a child to start disregarding it. It should lead to the child realizing the parent will never forsake them, and cares about their growth. I don’t have children, but it seems reasonable to say that proper parental discipline in general is always linked with promise, and that doesn’t make it deceptive. The reason a parent would spank a child, hopefully, is to prevent him from misbehaving again, and so grow into maturity. Just because the parent warns his child does not force the possibility that they will abandon him into lasting disobedience. The warning isn’t dependent on possible abandonment to be “true”, or helpful, or not rhetorical.

    So for me, I don’t see the warnings in Hebrews as just a rhetorical, “you better not fall away! (hint, hint – you actually won’t).” I believe they are the profound means by which God fulfills His promise of preserving us to the end, and any Christian who starts to disregard them at any level should check their understanding of the love, grace, and holiness of God, who is speaking to them through Scripture.

    The debate here I think is most important on the practical level. The two pits I think Christians have to avoid is thinking that their perseverance is automatic (not taking warnings seriously and falling into more and more peace with sin), and thinking they can lose their salvation (falling deeper and deeper into despair and doubt). I think the entire book of Hebrews is an amazing and helpful exhortation to balance the Christian life between these two pits.

  • scotmcknight


    Thanks. Well, I still see a moral problem of a warning with the consequences of hell/eternal damnation that, in fact, can’t happen because it would impugn God’s faithfulness. How can a warning be given with consequences for disobedience be given if those consequences can’t happen — and still be morally justified?

  • Tim

    Scot (#19),

    “Tim, your language is as harsh as Hebrews’, but I would say No and Yes (if he has apostasized).”

    If this is the case (and it does seem to be how Hebrews 6 reads), then I would encourage you to listen to this young man’s testimony given in his videos. And let me know how that is OK. He’s a broken soul. And the idea that any broken soul is beyond redemption just doesn’t reconcile with how I think most Christians think of God.

  • Randall

    Regarding the video Tim refers to in #29, the young man’s video does cast a bleak veil on the discussion. I can relate to having periods such as he describes and wishing I could be as doubtless as some I may be speaking to.

    I happen to believe the ‘sin’ discussed in Hebrews is to return to Judaism to the rejection of Christ even though Scot makes good arguments against it. I agree that the distinctions between feigned faith and real faith seem to arise from an interest to protect a theological conclusion than from the author’s warnings against falling away.

    Given this discussion though, if the young man in the video is your nephew or cousin, how then are we to deal with him? As irredeemable or as someone who has to walk through some dark areas before he can have his faith renewed? It’s that point, where individuals we know is concerned that cause me to sit easy to hard and fast conclusions.

  • scotmcknight

    Randall, I don’t believe we can know if someone has committed apostasy, though at times we can be reasonably confident. Were he (or she) my “neighbor” I would love and pray for that person, and I would certainly hold out in hope for repentance.

  • Scot,

    I understand what you are saying and don’t have a perfect answer. For me the apparent moral problem is reduced when I consider the abundant grace lavished on me in the warnings that keep me persevering.

    I think this whole issue is more complicated than I have been making it though, because of the issues originally addressed in this article.

    At the end of the day, the most important thing I think you said was, “Let it be clear that Peter and I agree on the necessity of perseverance, and it is a doctrine that most evangelicals are afraid to preach.” I am thankful you are not afraid to preach it. My prayer is that those who hear it will, in the process, while never ignoring the warnings, always also be strengthened by the amazing promises of God elsewhere in Scripture, and never fall into crippling despair or fear about whether they will make it.

    Romans 8:31-39
    Philippians 1:6
    Hebrews 10:19-24
    Hebrews 12:1-3

  • Tim

    Scot (#31),

    “I don’t believe we can know if someone has committed apostasy, though at times we can be reasonably confident.”

    With respect to the video link I posted, I could probably fairly confidently say that this young man is an apostate. On his site, he claims not just to be an apostate but an atheist as well. I would have to imagine that it would be very difficult to not apostate from Christianity if you no longer believe that there is a God. But his disposition is hardly “strident” or “angry” as some consider Hitchens. What seems to define him more than anything is just deeply, deeply wounded. But according to Hebrews, perhaps what defines him is damned.

    So then what hope would you hold for his repentance, and how does that hope reconcile with Hebrews? Is the hope only that he is not a true apostate? This seems unlikely, and altogether to easy of a sidestep of dealing with this issue head-on.

  • @Scot (19),

    “It’s not semantics to theologians, and I think you know that.”

    I do. That’s why I added “as far as the apostate and those who minister to him are concerned.”


  • scotmcknight

    Tim, there are a hundred things to ask — and I’ve not watched the video. What is true of someone at, say 25, is not true of the same person at 40. So, I’d say his anger needs to be observed over time so that one can observe the character forming and formed. Hell can begin here and now, I have to admit, and I’ve seen it in some people — and they are greatly diminished human beings. Anger, however, is closer to love than is apathy so anger for me is better than apathy and indulgence.

  • Tim


    Thanks for your response. I think you might have skimmed over the “hardly” in my sentence relating to anger. I’m not claiming he’s angry, just hurt and wounded. He might be angry, but it doesn’t come out in the videos quite that way. Again, just mostly wounded.

    But is what you are saying then that you can categorically reject Christianity in your beliefs, but nevertheless have a heart that isn’t entirely apostate?

  • Cal

    I think we need to hold a balance in terms of meaning:

    The idea of Election and Perseverance of the Saints (as in Jesus saying He will not lose those who are given to Him) was to be a comfort. Emphasized in Calvin, Luther and other reformers, it is comfort to know that no matter what, God has you. This is to stand as a blockade to someone, saying, “Well you messed up! You’re doomed!”.

    The point of warning of apostasy was to be comforted in choice. Every moment, you can choose right, to keep believing and staying the course. This was a blockade to the hyper-calvinist naval gazing, “Am I really one of the Elect? Really?!?”. If you keep following, you will be saved.

    The converse of legalism (vis. work-based, abused arminian fundamentalism) or cold-hearted focus on election (vis. Beza and many rationalist calvinists) strip the comfort that both of these were to provide. One terms in legalistic works-based self-righteousness and the other into fatalistic determinism. The balance, which is the Peace, is key. We need to be Christ-centered in this regard. As Jesus said:

    “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” (John 6:37)

  • scotmcknight

    Tim, as I said, I have not watched the video. I have seen very few instances of real apostasy in my life, but I have read a number — and in my book Finding Faith, Losing Faith I sketch some who have walked away.

    Yes, I would say what you sketch is possible: where one’s “heart” is is often unknown to the person until time makes it clear, so some may disaffirm Christian faith but deeper in their heart have not yet surrendered and will over time come back to the faith. Apostasy is not easy to nuance, in my view, except to give the big image of abandoning the faith.

  • Tim


    I think that’s an interesting perspective, one I know I can appreciate.

    I would encourage you though to take a look at this young man’s videos if/when you have the time. Many have found them impactful and moving. The guy doesn’t seem to hold anything back, and I remember being struck by his honesty, openness, and heartfelt sincerity.

    I think that one of the benefits to paying some attention to the “testimonies” of apostates such as the gentleman I linked to above is to reality-check the (often theologically comforting) depictions many Christians have of them.

    I’ve heard apostates normally presented by Christians as having some very self-serving and relatively unsympathetic motivations ascribed to them. Rejecting the Lordship of Jesus as they don’t want to answer to anyone but themselves. They want the freedom moral relativity can provide, so they reject God’s absolute truth such that comfortably slide into a life of sin. They are too proud in their own understanding, and have elevated themselves above God’s judgement. Maybe they feel let down by God and decide to even “judge” him by crucifying Christ a second time in their unbelief. Pride. Arrogance. Wickedness. Hard-heartedness. Idolatry. You name it.

    But what I don’t often hear from Christians is something like this:

    “Well, you know, they had a real hard time reconciling how a God of love could send people to Hell, just for not being convinced of the truth of the Gospel. They prayerfully struggled with this for years, but eventually found no resolution so they left the faith to continue their spiritual search.”


    “They really wrestled with understanding how some Christian doctrines reconciled with science, and eventually could no longer believe what they were taught as children. They didn’t want to let their faith go, but one day they just realized that they no longer believed.”


    “They had a really hard time with the atrocities in the Old Testament. They read the usual apologetic defenses but didn’t find any convincing. They still believe in God, but they just think that the God of the Bible is too reflective of our own propensity for evil to be the one true God of goodness, love, and true justice. They are still searching.”

    I don’t think that most apostates ever really wanted to be apostates. Christianity offers more to those within its folds than would normally be gained by breaking away. In fact, often the social, psychological, and existential costs can be very painful to the apostate. I think most of them recognize this, and would return to the fold in an instant if they could. But (and I think this is as true a statement as any in life) you just can’t force yourself believe something you don’t honestly believe is true. No matter how much you might want to return to the comforting embrace of the Christianity.

  • Randall

    Thanks for that post #39 Tim, you pretty much summed up my thoughts regarding the video and some of the testimonies I’ve heard. Having someone sitting across a table from you crying that they don’t believe anymore and wished they did isn’t fun and feelings of forlornness and inadequacy describe how I sense it.

    Scot, thanks for the post and you’re thoughts regarding the message in the warnings, I agree with most of what you said in the main with perhaps the minor variation that seems, to me anyway, that the parties written to leave to a faith that has more work-based assurance with a more esteemed pedigree, if you will. Maybe I’m wrong, it happens sometimes.

  • Paul W


    I think you are spot on in noting a (fatal) problem with Schreiner/Caneday’s approach. I would also note along similar lines but to a lesser scale that the appeal to “election” in order to soften the rhetorical seriousness of the warnings rings a bit hollow. Hebrews does not, to my knowledge, ever utilize the language of election in its message. When Schreiner/Caneday use it they are importing it from systematics.

    I also think your point about there being two types of people rather than two types of faiths is crucial. I think though that there is some kind of Evangelical impulse that feels compelled to evaluate the quality of the faith of others. That compulsion regularly derails a helpful investigation of Hebrews.

    I do think that near the core of the issue for many is a deep concern about potential differences in faith commitments between those who persevere and those that apostatize. Is there a substantive difference between the faith of those who receive final eschatological salvation at the end of life and those who only temporarily believe? Is the difference merely a matter of duration and final blessing or is there a more substantive or metaphysical difference?

    The question is an interesting one. Nonetheless, in some ways it is simply the wrong one to ask of Hebrews. I do not think that Hebrews, no matter how thorough we examine it or how attentive to we are to its details, is going to provide any light on it.

  • Susan N.

    Tim (#16, 29, 33, 39) — I tried to watch the video last night, and couldn’t get it to load fully (very slow). I think I got the gist of the young man’s anguish.

    I mean no disrespect to Scot and his careful NT scholarship.

    I had meant to cite Romans 8:31-39, but I see that someone (Joey?) already mentioned it.

    We could go on citing proof texts to support opposing theological positions. That’s the game of competing systematic theologies; it’s a no-win proposition.

    Logically, though, I have to ask myself, if the Bible — no matter how accurately interpreted, and right belief in it, does not “save” us, then how can anyone use the Book to condemn a person as forever lost to God?

    We have talked at length here on Jesus Creed in other posts/series about the foolishness of taking everything we read literally in the biblical text (i.e., OT/ANE mythological genre, even some of the teachings of Jesus which were obscure and mostly relevant to the culture of his time).

    Fear talk is never helpful to a person who is lost and hurting; even angry or apathetic. Love and compassion is a much more powerful way to persuade a person that the love of God in Christ is dependable and trustworthy. Tim, I hear your “heart” for the young man in the video, and it blesses me.

    I recall Jesus once speaking about letting “little children” come to him, and woe to anyone who acts as a gatekeeper, or serves to hinder anyone from coming (back?) to God. I read “little children” not literally, but as those whose faith is small and vulnerable. We who have a strong faith, who are no longer driven to “perform” (I mean, “persevere”), are not commanded to sort out who’s in and who’s out. Just to love. *Be* and tell the Good News.

    One last thought. From my experiences, believing in 6-day / young earth creationism, or that Jonah actually lived in the belly of a whale for 3 days, was not harmful to my faith. (I think the scientists simply take more offense with that.) What hurt my faith as a young adult and to a lesser extent more recently was fear-/shame-based doctrine.

    I wonder who might be reading this post on Jesus Creed and is feeling rejected by God or “church” (the people of God, whether in a particular locality, or universally)?

    My God is a God of second chances. Learn about Jesus, and I don’t see how one can conclude anything different. I read all that from the same Bible, too 🙂 Don’t give up (on yourself, if this is you), or on another person.

    And, surely love is more than protecting biblical truth at the expense of a person’s soul being destroyed. If there’s a hell, and some are already condemned or can choose it in the end, I can roll with that. Let’s just be sure that we’re not condemning anyone to hell right here on earth. Bless and do not curse…


  • RJS


    I agree with your main point in #39. I’ve heard people say or even preach about apostasy or failure to listen in the the first place as an affair of the heart, a desire to be on the throne, arrogance … and more. This simply misses the point much, and perhaps most, of the time. It really misses the point when people struggle in the way the fellow who made the video depicts. And he is far from alone.

    Life is a journey. I agree with your comment – I simply couldn’t force myself believe something I don’t honestly believe is true. And there are “common” beliefs in the church that I simply do not and cannot accept.

  • DRT

    Tim, thanks for sharing the video series. I watched the 5 this morning and it really hit home for me.

    My story, goes more like “I was raised a Christian and love Jesus but felt that the implementation of Christianity in my Western life did not match up to the nature of the message Jesus gives to us. I could not fall in love with the Jesus the religion portrayed, and sought to find the Jesus life outside of Christianity. I left, I searched for 15 years, 5 aimlessly, 10 with earnest.”

    For me, the blatant repression of women, concentration on sin and message that it was about me and my relationship with Jesus did me in. I don’t see that last point discussed much, so I will elaborate a bit. If the point of god entering this life was so that I could go to heaven, while other more deserving people do not, then I have a very difficult time with accepting that. My most esteemed hero’s are those who sacrifice themselves for others without promise for reward, but out of compassion and integrity. And if the sacrifice is just to take my time so they can find the pyramid scheme of Jesus for themselves so they can go to heaven then it is equally shallow and I cannot take part.

    I needed a bigger Jesus, a god who is going to try and save the world, not just me.

    The video’s show a person who is also disenfranchised with the shallow Christianity though from a very different perspective than me. In his case he lived a worship song induced state of ecstasy that he eventually figured out was meaningless in the grand scheme. I feel for him.

    It was not until I read Tom Wright that I found that bigger Savior with a vision that goes beyond the individual. I hope he finds the same.

  • DRT

    BTW, I don’t consider him apostate. I think he has salvation anyway. He is actually more on track to finding Christ than many others, though it is no fault of his own that he did not find Jesus. What he found in his groups and worship, imo, is not Jesus, but group think that substitutes for Jesus. I feel he is actually now searching for the true Jesus because he has recognized that the one he encountered is not real. He is now on the best part of the journey for Christians. I am certain many would not agree with me, but having been there in a different context, I relate.

  • Tim

    Thank you RJS, DRT, Susan, and Randall for your thoughtful responses to my posts. I’m glad we’re able to have these conversations. 🙂

  • really great post scot. i appreciate your taking a stand and explaining so patiently issues that are so hotly contested in the church today. we need more of your approach: more light, less heat.

  • Russ

    I have not read all the comments, so this may have already been said. Calvinist redefine the word Apostasy to mean false conversion. Redefining is frequently found in calvinism. All, world, whosoever, him who, dead, etc…