Two dynamics are at work in the Christian. On the one hand, we are at war with sin, the world, and the devil. Satan and evil men are armed for our destruction, and our flesh gives us no reprieve from its assaults and insinuations (Gal. 5:17). It is no wonder that we feel our wretchedness (Rom. 7:24). God’s work in us is not yet completed (Phil. 1:6), and we are prone to wander, as the old hymn says. On the other hand, we have not seen Christ but we love him, desire to be found in him, and sometimes find ourselves saying with the apostle, “For me to live, is Christ.” We are very much between two worlds, indwelled by Christ and strengthened by his Spirit, but also under constant attack from the evil one and from the gasping remains of the old man of sin.
This warning thus captures both sides of our experience. If we are not growing in Christ but become dull of hearing, we need to be awakened and firmly challenged to examine ourselves. Feeling our weakness, we are not discouraged when God warns, for we know that our heavenly Father is alerting us to danger. If the warning leads us to Christ, all is well, and we shall find it true that he loses none of his sheep. No one is able to snatch us away from him – not persecution, or distress, or dangers, or the weakness of our flesh or the attacks of Satan – nothing and no one are able to separate us from his love (Rom. 8:35-37). He is our good and faithful Shepherd.
Falling Away Defined and Distinguished
The primary purpose of this warning is to awaken dull hearers to the peril of falling away from Christ. “Falling away” is not being tempted, falling into sin, or having doubts about one’s faith. It is not feeling strife as the Spirit lusts against the flesh (Gal. 5:17). “Falling away” is a conscious turning away from and renouncing of Jesus Christ. It can only occur after one has professed to be his disciple and become part of his church. It is essentially a repudiation of Jesus Christ, not a denial like Peter’s that occurred in a moment of great temptation and weakness but a knowing, permanent rejection of faith once professed. Someone who falls away is not recoverable by the normal means and is beyond the reach of men (Heb. 6:6). The mention of dull hearing (5:11) leads to this warning against apostasy, for true religion is known by its hearing ears and humble hearts (Ps. 40:6; Isa. 35:5 Acts 28:27). Unrepentant dullness will lead a man to renounce Christ, especially in a time of great trial, disappointment, or persecution. The implication is that God’s grace in his Son must not be received in vain (2 Cor. 6:1). We must use God’s word, or we shall lose it (Matt. 13:12). Thus, “be careful how you hear” is a much more serious warning than we might normally think.
A warning like this given to Christians is jarring to our desire for unshakable security. “Once saved, always saved,” however, does not mean, “No matter what I do, how disobedient I am, or how indifferent I am to following Jesus.” This kind of carnal security is extremely dangerous and dishonoring to our Lord. We are told to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, as well as to make our calling and election secure (Phil. 2:12; 2 Pet. 1:10). This is not to make us morbidly introspective and certainly not to make us suspicious inquisitors of other professing believers. We are in a battle. The flesh fights back against God’s grace, and Satan does all he can to prevent men from coming to Christ in the first place. Failing in this, he encourages the very carnal security that makes our ears dull and may tempt us to renounce our faith altogether. Therefore, as long as we continue in this flesh, we must seek true religion, which is not a “form of godliness without power,” ascetic, man-made rules, or externalism, ritual, and tradition, but in a living union and communion with Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 3:5). Never must we settle for the appearance of true religion or a passing feeling of religion interest, but we must “follow on to know the Lord” and “press forward to be found in him” (Hos. 6:3; Phil. 3:9).
The distinction between the true and the false within the church is found throughout Scripture. Jeremiah denounced those for whom the “Lord was near in their mouths but far from their reins” (Jer. 12:2). This is an echo of the Lord’s earlier warning: “Forasmuch as this people draw near to me with their mouth, and with their lips do they honor me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men” (Isa. 29:13). Those on the “inside” of the church, therefore, can be very much on the outside; not all members of the church visible are members of the church invisible (Rom. 2:28-29). Our Lord spoke of branches that appeared united to him but that would be in fact cut off due to their fruitlessness (John 15:1-2). For outward appearances, they look like real branches, but in fact they are false. They lack a living union with him. Spiritualists do not like these kinds of warnings and distinctions because they require us to weigh experiential claims by God’s objective truth. Followers of forms and rituals do not like this warning, for in their mind it excessively “internalizes” religion and makes the line between those “inside” and “outside” the church thin and shaky. Turning from both, let us rejoice that when the old man of sin is fighting against us from within and the world and the devil lay their schemes from outside, God speaks loudest and clearest: “HEAR MY SON; BEWARE OF CARNAL PRESUMPTION; TRUE BELIEVERS HEAR HIM AND BEAR MUCH FRUIT; HOLD FAST TO MY WORD AND TO MY SON; HE WILL LOSE NONE OF HIS SHEEP.”
True Believers Cannot Fall Away (John 6:39)
Men can misapply and abuse God’s word, but the Holy Spirit knows that we need strong warnings. This particular warning is one of the most challenging to be found in Scripture, yet, nothing in it implies that true believers can fall away from Christ or apostatize from the faith. He keeps his true sheep and will not lose one of them (John 6:39; 17:12). In the councils of eternity, the Father gave to his Son a people, his sheep, his church, and they are eternally secure (John 17:4). For them he laid down his life, and for them he ever lives to make intercession (John 10:11,15). Of them, it is said that “nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35-37). The legitimate way to defend the doctrine of the saints’ perseverance is to build it upon the unassailable foundation of holding fast to Christ our Good Shepherd. In union with him, we are and shall forever be secure in the grace and love of God. Grow dull in hearing, careless in seeking him, and the temptations and sins will come thick and fast. Do not presume that you will be able to pull yourself out of a season of willful sinning and neglect of Christ. True sheep will be recovered, but presumption is dangerous. Christ knows who are his, and he knows us; we do not necessarily know ourselves. True faith is revealed by its tenacious holding fast to God’s promises in Christ and therefore its fruitfulness in Christ by the Spirit.
True Believers Need and Heed God’s Warnings (1 Cor. 10:12)
A true planting of the Lord will respond humbly to this warning. “Lord, Is it I?” This is a healthy question. Self-doubt that leads us to cast ourselves more firmly upon Christ is a gracious work of the Holy Spirit. Presumption, carelessness, and indifference to God’s warnings are a sure sign of dull hearing. If a man is offended – “What! You question me?” – he is at best in the grip of a dangerous pride and does not know himself at all. However sincere we may think ourselves to be and knowledgeable and faithful, we are not more so than the apostle, who almost with his dying breath confessed that he had not obtained the prize, was far from perfect, and sought only to be found in Christ and clothed in his righteousness (Phil. 3:8-14). This believing, seeking, longing is the model spirit and work of God’s grace in the lives of those who persevere to the end. They do not think they are above a fall, a serious sin, even renouncing Christ. These realities lead them to Christ; they flee to him for protection and help. They are thus preserved by his power and persevere in his grace. There is not a time in our lives, even upon our deathbeds, that we do not need the strongest warnings and encouragements to hold fast to Christ and to believe God’s promises. We must become like little children in order to inherit God’s eternal kingdom, and little children need constant shepherding. Let us not be too proud to receive it from our faithful Shepherd and from those whom he sends us to warn us with his gospel.
The Nature of Falling Away (vv. 4-5)
False Branches Similar to True
The greatest challenge to the correct interpretation of this warning is the apparent similarity between the true and false branches. The descriptions of those who fall away can also apply to those who hold fast to Christ. This is intentional. It is not usually possible on the surface to separate those who have been enlightened, instructed in the gospel message, from those who have truly taken in Christ by faith. This is not a list that we may use as a grid or guide, for that reduces the warning to a bland formula. True and false branches may give a good profession as to the substance of the gospel. A false branch may have “tasted of the heavenly gift,” the essential goodness of the gospel and especially the more common operations of the Holy Spirit. Examples of these would be a respect for God’s word, recognition of God’s love revealed in Christ, and even a desire to follow him. It can certainly be said of Judas that he was a “partaker of the Holy Ghost,” in the sense that the blessed Spirit had enlightened him and brought him to see something of the glory of Christ’s person and work. He even worked miracles in Christ’s name. He sided with the eleven in Galilee when all the other disciples departed. He must have agreed with Peter – “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Is this not a “tasting of the good word of God,” even of the “powers of the world to come?” Some are convinced of coming judgment and of God’s power and of heaven’s joys, but they are not necessarily in a saving union with Jesus.
The similarity between the true and the false branches urges us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). The likeness is intentionally thought provoking and perhaps alarming to the dull. We are to take heed, lest we fall. The issues of life and death, heaven and hell, Christ and the gospel are too important for us to tolerate a sleepy shallowness or mindless faith. Satan is so intent upon killing us that we must be on constant alert and use God’s weaponry with great zeal (Eph. 6:10-18). Too many in the church dangerously forget that the wheat and tares grow side by side until the judgment. Does it not stand to reason that they often look like each other in external matters, confessions, and common operations of the Holy Spirit? Even the true branches will in the end be somewhat surprised by Christ’s commendation of them (Matt. 25:37), while the false teachers rich in outward works but empty of heart godliness will persevere in their delusion until Jesus the Just Judge rips off their masks (Matt. 7:21-23). Rather than trying to find a way to draw fine distinction between “tasting and eating,” which may or may not be intended, let us humbly admit that the sheep and goats, the true and false branches, have many surface similarities. This is said to awaken us to accept no half-works of Christ in our life, to rest in no outward confessions and rites. Never must we confuse what men say is true religion with a work of Christ in the soul. We may distinguish these only by using and abiding in our Savior’s word. We must press on to know the Lord, holding fast, as the apostle has already told us, to the “beginning of our confidence firmly unto the end” (Heb. 3:14).
False Branches Missing Key Graces
I pray you are earnestly inquiring – are there no substantial differences between the true and the false, those who hold fast and those who fall away? Surely there must be. Verses 4-5 do not contain a list of traits by which to distinguish the two groups. He says that “if they shall fall away.” Thus, we are not given a “here are the true but here are the false branches” kind of description. Trying to press the paragraph into that mold creates all kinds of interpretive difficulties. The warning is serious and personally pressing exactly because those who fall away may look and be so very much like those who persevere. If there is a missing ingredient in the false and a distinguishing virtue in the true, it is that Christ’s true branches hold fast to him and bear fruit. They persevere in him, as he himself taught (John 8:31-32). They do not have a false and temporary faith but a growing faith in Christ. They rejoice in the word because it leads them to him! They rejoice in coming judgment because our Lord will be revealed in his glory, and his disciples will admire him! Each of the descriptives in vv. 4-5 is good and even saving if they lead you to receive and cast yourself upon Jesus Christ; none of them will save you in the absence of a living union with him. Remember that Christ rejected a certain kind of faith that wanted him only for the externals but rejected his true person and work as the Savior from sin (John 2:23-25).
Seen in this light, the warning is intensely thought provoking. The Holy Spirit does not say, “Be sure you do not have these traits.” We must be enlightened, share in the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit, and know the power of the world to come in our lives. Many of these ideas are gloriously set forth in Paul’s famous “press forward” passage (Phil. 3:8-14). And this is the point. It is the point of the entire letter to the Hebrews. It is not enough to begin well, to have many of the marks of Christ’s true disciples, yet to be thrown off one’s course by temptation or persecution or weariness. That was the danger facing these believers. Perhaps they rested too much in external connections or had too little sense of the supernatural nature of our religion as being focused upon a living Savior. He cannot be turned off and on like a light switch. He is a real person and thus does not take it kindly if after we have received so many of his benefits, we turn away from him in a time of trouble or temptation. His true disciples are known primarily by this: that they continue in his word and hold fast to him (Heb. 3:14). When the heat is turned up, they close with him. When the sword of persecution is unsheathed, they live by the sword coming out of his mouth, his precious word. In other words, their true union with Christ is revealed by their perseverance in Christ unto the end, whatever that end in his providence may be.
The Evil of Falling Away (v. 6)
Apostasy’s Impossible Second Repentance
If those who have enjoyed so many of our Savior’s blessings, even outwardly, shall fall away – the conditional is implied in the participial verb. On the surface, it seems inconceivable that those with such a spiritual pedigree could fall away. A man may not be far from the kingdom of God but never enter into it (Mark 12:34). A man may have kept all the commands of God, but for the love of one sin, turn sadly from Jesus (Mark 10:22). This warning certainly does not warrant us saying that none can ever have assurance of saving faith or that church leadership should always be suspicious of professions of faith. The purpose of the warning is direct – hold fast to Christ. Do not think for a moment that an outward profession or good start in being his disciple will preserve you from falling away – or being enlightened into the doctrines of Christ, or even having a share in the powerful gifts of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 7:23). Just as our only salvation lies in a saving union with Christ, so our perseverance until the end and obtaining of our inheritance depend upon the same – holding fast to him, looking unto him, and his word abiding fruitfully in us.
For those who fall away, bringing them again to repentance – or bringing them to a second repentance – is impossible. The text does not say that it is impossible for God to bring a renouncer of Christ back into the fold, but it is impossible for us in the normal use of the means of grace. In effect, someone who has had these blessings and renounced Christ cannot be brought to another conversion experience. They have renounced Christ and walked away from him. Shall we easily be brought back to him? If we turn from him after his having done us so much good and shown us so much light, can we be easily recovered? Will we listen to the voices of those whom we have already rejected? Had we listened to them, we would have held fast to Christ and thus been strengthened against temptation and emboldened against the world’s threats and protected against the deceptions of our own heart. Listening is so important; it is God’s main message: HEAR HIM. Few things are as dangerous as growing dull of hearing, growing dissatisfied with hearing the gospel, turning from our Savior’s living voice, and not being carried forward to maturity.
Apostasy’s Crucifying and Shaming of Jesus Christ
The last part of the warning is most terrifying. For a man to depart from Christ is such a wicked mockery of him that it is as if he stood at the cross with the Jews hurling insults. Our Lord cannot be re-crucified, but if we fall away from him after having professed him, to be forgiven of such wickedness would practically require him to be crucified again. This is impossible, which is one of the marks of this falling away or apostasy – those guilty of it persevere in it. The mockery of falling away is disturbing. At the cross, the Jewish leaders and the gawking, heartless spectators insulted him with such malice that it was in fact Satan howling from hell at the Lord of glory. If you are the Son of God, come down from there. Then, we shall believe you. He saved others; he cannot save himself. “He trusted in God, that he would deliver him; let him deliver him, seeing he delights in him” (Ps. 22:8; Matt. 27:43). More blasphemous insults cannot be imagined. Yet, willful renouncing of Christ puts him to just such an open shame – he cannot save me through this difficult time. He is unworthy of my love and trust. He is not really the Son of God, or he would not make me suffer like this. How careful we must be in hours of temptation and seasons of persecution! The idols of the heart will then either be put to flight by faith or reassert their true dominance of the heart. Will we have Christ to rule over us when it requires our steadfast, painful allegiance to him, or shall we renounce him and run away to save our skins? Christ is shamed by fair weather friendship of him. He is shamed by demands for easy discipleship. He is shamed by those in the church who will not follow on to know the Lord or grow up into him through using his word. We must recover a sense of wonderment at the shame he endured for us – he, the HOLY ONE, gave his back to the smiters and his cheeks to those who plucked out his beard. He would not hide his face from shame and spitting: the shame our sins have brought upon us and the shameful treatment we deserve not so much from men’s hands but from the avenging and just God. And yet, the only way we can boast in his cross and bear his shame when it matters most is if we are seeking to grow up into him now. We know not when the hour of testing will come or eternity dawn. We must simply be found then as now holding fast to him. He is our Life and our Head. He will lose none of his, and he keeps them by keeping them holding to him by faith.