Monday, June 16, 2014

The Unpardonable Sin in Hebrews?

... What are we to do with these scary verses today?[3] Are they merely hypothetical? They certainly don’t seem so, and the example of Esau relates to someone who was fully a son and yet lost his sonship (12:16-17). Are they about individuals who only appeared to be Christians but who really weren’t? Some point out the word “tasted” in Hebrews 6:5 and suggest that the people in question had only dabbled with Christ, not really committed to him.

But the description of their long walk with Christ doesn’t fit this theory. The author points out that they have long served the Lord, even to the point of great sacrifice (6:9-12; 10:32-35). Besides, if “tasting” in Hebrews only means to dabble, then what are we to do of the fact that Jesus “tasted” death in 2:9? Did he not really die, only considering it?

The verses cause problems for just about every theological tradition. For those who believe once you are saved you are always saved, they are problematic because they indicate a person can lose one’s salvation. For those who believe you can lose your salvation they are problematic because they seem to say that once you are gone, you cannot come back. Scot McKnight has suggested that the author of Hebrews only has one kind of sin in mind, namely, that of apostasy, when someone turns his or her back on Christ definitively with a high hand.[4]

To be sure, Hebrews is not talking about some, “one sin you’re out” kind of deal. The author is talking about a persistent turning away from Christ over a long period of time. Indeed, I have a colleague who suggests this audience was so much closer to Christ than us that none of us could ever commit an apostasy as serious as what it would have meant for this congregation to turn away from Christ.[5] For McKnight, this apostasy would be on the level of “a deliberate and public act of deconfessing Jesus Christ, a rejection of God’s Spirit, and a refusal to submit to God and His will for persons” (54).

Perhaps at this point we should turn to the whole council of God and engage in theology. Theology is where we take the individual passages of Scripture, each produced in a unique context, and begin to work through a more bird’s eye view of things, using the help that the Spirit has given Christians throughout the centuries to work through issues like this one. For example, pretty much all Christian traditions believe that it is the power of the Holy Spirit that enables us to repent in the first place. What this fact suggests is that anyone who can truly repent is not beyond hope. This observation alone settles definitively the person with an overly sensitive conscience who is worried about committing the unpardonable sin of Mark 3:29. If a person can find a place of repentance, a person can be saved.

Of course we should not confuse a place of repentance with merely saying words like, “Lord, please forgive me for my sins” or “I’m sorry for my sins.” Repentance is a true change of heart, a “godly sorrow” (2 Cor. 7:10) that does not merely say the right words but means them. Like Esau pictured in Hebrews 12, we should not assume that we can wait until our death bed to ask God’s forgiveness for a life of rebellion. We may know we need to repent but not find the heart to do so.

It is at this point that we can begin to go theologically crazy. If I am truly right with God at point A, leave God at point B, but then come back to God at point C, does that mean I didn’t truly leave at point B? Hebrews in itself seems to say there cannot be a point C if there is a point B, at least as far as the audience of Hebrews is concerned. McKnight has tried to make sense of Hebrews here by concluding that only apostasy can get you to point B.

Yet, in a sense, after God “justifies” us and makes us right with him, is not the only sin that really counts sin against Christ? “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). If we think this way for a moment, it is not so much adultery any longer that is technically sin for a Christian but the sin against Christ that someone commits if he or she has an affair. In that sense, is not continued, high handed sin a road of apostasy? Are we not disgracing Christ and exposing him to public disgrace with every intentional act of rebellion we commit?

What we know is that those who have gone this far will not want to return, because they will not have the Holy Spirit leading them to repentance. Meanwhile, anyone who comes to Christ in true repentance can be forgiven. We have only then to figure out the puzzling question of the person at point B, who seems to have fallen away but we know eventually returns.

Perhaps our problem here is our linear thinking. There is a famous thought experiment in modern physics called Schrodinger’s cat. It is about a cat in a box that may or may not be dead, based upon a poison gas that may or may not have been let off in the box. Is the cat dead or alive in between time A and time B? In a sense, it is both. Yet you can open the box and immediately see one or the other.

Perhaps, in the same way, it is pointless to ask what the eternal state of the person who falls and then repents actually is when they are “backslidden,” as some used to call such a period. If the person never repents, then the cat was dead. If a person eventually repents, the cat was alive. We don’t have to understand how it all works. “We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know” (John 9:20-21).

[3] An interesting article on this question is by Scot McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews: A Formal Analysis and Theological Conclusions,” Trinity Journal 13 (1992): 21-59. A broader consideration of this passage is Hebert Bateman IV, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional, 2007).

[4] McKnight, “Warning Passages,” 54-55. [5] Dr. Stephen Lennox at Indiana Wesleyan University, who also believes that the audience was Jewish and thus in the unique position of Jews who had accept and then were in danger of rejecting Jesus as Messiah.


Anonymous said...

I have not read Mcknight yet, on my way to read it now, however this is my conclusion as well, the writer of Hebrews, Paul, at least in the manuscript tradition, is specifically addressing the sin of apostasy. Imo, this let's the text be actual instead of hypothetical and also does not force us to believe that every sin separates from God even though we are in Christ. I don't believe this is an interpretation based on reading something into the text but instead, reading these warning passages in light of the rest of Hebrews.


Ken Schenck said...

For the record, I did not mean to suggest that every sin had this effect. Clearly Hebrews pictures a long trajectory to get to this point, at least for the audience of hebrews.

Jason A. Staples said...

I agree that it makes little sense to think of this as hypothetical and that the NT seems to rather consistently regard continual disobedience as akin to apostasy. The rest of Hebrews itself seems to confirm that, as one of the themes of the book is continuing in obedience, with grave warnings of the consequences of disobedience.

I've also long thought that taking a "timeless" view solves most of these quandaries. It is telling that Paul rather consistently uses salvation language in the future tense; he does not present it as something one already has but as something to be obtained at the end. And it is the light of the end that casts its shadow over everything else.

This perspective seems fairly consistent not only in Hebrews but in the NT generally: obedience produces life, disobedience leads to death. And if one persists in the latter after tasting the freedom of the Spirit, what more is there to lead to repentance and obedience leading to life? It seems a rather natural passage in that context.

Tobie said...

Thanks for this, but I have to disagree with McKnight here. The point of the Hebrews author is immensely positive and encouraging, and only becomes clear when we consider these verses against the backdrop of the entire letter.

The key to the passage is the way the author juxtaposes the words "once" and "again" throughout the letter (e.g. 9:25-10:14). "Again" signifies the imperfection of the Old Covenant sacrifice, and "once" the perfection of Christ's. An Old Covenant understanding of the cross would, of necessity, impose a hermeneutic of repetition on it, which would manifest as an understanding of repentance as an associated act that also needs to be repeated again and again (repentance being the subjective response to the objective act of sacrifice).

And so the Hebrew Christians were not advancing towards maturity as they were laying again and again a "foundation of repentance from dead works" (verse 1), in line with their understanding of a sacrifice as something that needs to be repeated again and again. This manifested itself as a need to have the "basic principles" taught to them "again" (5:12) which is, according to the Hebrews author, tantamount to feeding on milk, i.e. the first step associated with growth.

The impossibility of "repenting again" (6:4) is stated to emphasise the doctrinal absurdity of the idea, as unthinkable and impractical as "crucifying once again the Son of God" (6:6; 9:25-26). It is NOT stated as something that needs to happen but is now prohibited by an angry God who has run out of grace. In the New Covenant the repentance of regeneration happens once, because it is not the effortful turning of a human being, but rather the "perfecting for all time those who are being sanctified" 10:14. (This type of foundational repentance should not be confused with daily and ongoing "repentance", which is legitimate and necessary, and not referred to in these verses.)

Pardon the lengthy response, but these "problematic" verses are intended to liberate, not condemn. They have nothing to do with the unpardonable sin, and everything with the glorious reality that to "fall alongside" is not to undo the benefits of the cross, calling for a ritualistic repetition thereof. All that is needed is to get up and carry on, mindful of a secure salvation that has perfected us, even though we stumble and fall regularly. Also, my comment merely scratches the surface and obviously does not deal with any of the questions that will/may arise from it.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for giving another interpretation, Tobie...

Steve Finnell said...


Why does Satan want you to stay away from the the watery grave of baptism?

1. Mark 16:16 He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.

Lucifer wants you dry so you cannot be saved.

2. Acts 8:39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch no longer saw him, but went on his way rejoicing.

Beelzebub wants you dry to prevent you from rejoicing.

3. Acts 22:16 Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.

The Devil wants you dry so your sins will not be washed away.

4. Galatians 3:27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

The prince of darkness wants you dry so you will not be clothed with Christ.

5. Acts 2:41,47 So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. 47 ...And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Satan wants you dry because he does not want you saved and subsequently added to the Lord's church.

6. Romans 6:4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

The prince of devils wants you dry to keep you from walking in a new life with Christ.

7. Romans 6:6 knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin;

Lucifer wants you dry so you will remain a slave to sin.

8. Romans 6:11 Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Beelzebub wants you dry so you cannot be alive to God in Christ Jesus.

9. 1 Peter 3:21 Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you---not the removal of dirt from the flesh , but an appeal to God for a good conscience---through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The prince of the devils wants you dry because he does not want you to be saved.

10. Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Lucifer wants you dry because he does not want you to have your sins forgiven nor does he want you to receive indwelling gift of the Holy Spirit.

11. Colossians 2:12-13 ..buried with Him in baptism...13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions.

Beelzebub wants you dry because he does not want your transgressions forgiven.

12. Titus 3:5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have dine in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by thewashing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,

The Devil want you dry so will remain unsaved.

13. John 3:5 Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

The prince of darkness wants you dry in order to keep you from entering the kingdom of God.

14. Ephesians 5:25-27 ...Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, 26 so that He might sanctify her , having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory , having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.

Satan wants you dry because he does not want you sanctified, cleansed, nor holy and blameless.

15. Revelation 20:15 And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Lucifer wants you dry because he does not want your name written in the Lamb's book of life.He want you to be thrown into the lake of fire.