Robert M. Thompson, Pastor
Corinth Reformed Church
150 Sixteenth Avenue NW
Hickory, North Carolina 28601
(© 2011 by Robert M. Thompson. Unless otherwise indicated, Scriptures quoted are from The Holy Bible, New International Version, Copyright 2011 by New York International Bible Society.)
As I begin today’s sermon, I am reminded of some bulletin bloopers our Office Assistant, Jan Ketcham, read to the staff this past week. I have heard them before, and you may have as well, but listen to a few of them again.
The low self-esteem support group just hung their heads even lower and breathed a deep sigh. I somewhat fear that a sermon titled “Warning!” may have the same effect on those with low spiritual self-esteem. So as we begin let me just ask you to choose which of these mental situations comes closest to where you are right now.
Situation #1: I’m struggling right now with self-doubt, spiritually and every other way. I’m not doing a very good job at anything I do, and I feel like I’m letting a lot of people down. I’m letting myself down. I don’t even think God likes me very much right now because of what I’ve done and what I do. I’m even afraid of God.
If this describes you, I need to tell you in advance that today’s sermon is not directed to you.
I preach messages from time to time that are for people in your situation, but this is not one of them. I wish we had the technology to give you a set of headphones and let you switch the channel to provide you the word you need today. Since we don’t have that technology, I can only hope you will try to filter this message.
Situation #2: I’m totally good with who I am and what I do. A lot of people may not like it, but it’s their problem. There may be some things that God doesn’t like either, but I think it will all work out all right in the end. There’s more good about me than bad and I don’t really need anyone else to tell me what to believe or how to live my life. I’ve got it pretty much figured out. I’m not afraid of anything of anyone.
This sermon is for you, or about those you know who may fit that category.
There is a third alternative, and we’ll come back to that at the end.
The Bible itself sometimes seems to give mixed messages. An example would be the quotes on the front of your bulletin, both from Jesus.
Both messages are central and oft-repeated in the Bible. Both need to be heard. It’s just that we tend to hear the wrong message. Those in Situation 1 tend to hear the warning, “Don’t take God’s grace for granted,” as another body slam to their sense of being loved and accepted. Those in Situation 2 tend to hear the assurance, “You are secure in God’s grace,” when it isn’t for them.
Hebrews 6:4-6 is hard to interpret. William Barclay says this “is one of the most terrible passages in Scripture.” When I’m done with it, you’re not necessarily going to feel better about this text. A simple clarification has eluded pastors and writers for two thousand years. Nobody seems to be able to explain everything in the text to everyone else’s satisfaction. I won’t be the first.
Sometimes it’s dangerous to oversimplify. Last week I told you about a new and controversial book, Love Wins, by megachurch pastor Rob Bell. I read the book this past week, and posted my thoughts on my blog, www.corinthpastorbob.com.
Rob Bell’s primary complaint is that Christians take “complex and multilayered” stories and teachings of the Bible (for example, Jesus’ story about Lazarus and the rich man) and create a simplistic theology of heaven and hell: there are two places, one of them with perfect people walking on golden streets and playing harps, and the other one a place of eternal, conscious torment for all those who don’t accept Jesus in this life. The Bible, Bell argues, presents a picture far more multifaceted.
The point is well-made in the book. But what does Rob Bell do in response? He reacts to the oversimplification of others with two words: “Love Wins.” Coupled with the subtitle of the book (“the fate of every person who ever lived”), isn’t that a rather dismissive, condescending, and one-dimensional way to summarize the Bible’s “complex and multilayered” teachings about heaven and hell?
“Love wins” doesn’t account for the phrase “eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:3) in last week’s text. “Love wins” takes all the Holy Wind out of this week’s warning in Hebrews 6:4-6. It’s too simplistic in dealing with all the Bible’s warning passages.
Nevertheless, interpreters of the Bible for two thousand years have struggled with the meaning of Hebrews 6:4-6, so you should not expect that in the next 15 minutes or so I will answer all your questions.
Hebrews 6:4-6 goes back a long way for me. As a junior in high school, I was President of the Bible Club at Manor High School in Portsmouth, Virginia. We were a small group of students who met weekly to discuss or even debate the Bible. As I recall, members of our Bible Club were mostly Baptists, of two varieties. I was a Southern Baptist, but the Bible Club from Manor often met at the church around the corner from the school, Collinswood Freewill Baptist Church. Many of our Bible Club members were Freewill Baptists. Freewill Baptists believe you can lose your salvation. We Southern Baptists proudly and adamantly swore by the slogan, “once saved always saved.”
I was curious the other day when preparing this sermon and found the web site of Collinswood Freewill Baptist Church. “Freewill” is no longer part of the church’s identity, at least on the sign and on the web site, and, perhaps more significantly to me, their statement of faith on the web site is a paraphrase of Question 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Their core belief is that “My only comfort in life and in death is that I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.” I’m so proud – they’re practically Reformed now.
But not in those days. Hebrews 6:4-6 was a primary weapon for the Freewill Baptists. Listen again to what it says – “It is impossible for 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, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.”
The main clause is that it is impossible to bring back to repentance those who have fallen away. If you’re in, and you leave, it’s like leaving the Carolina Panthers stadium during a game. No re-entry. You’re like one of these trees out front of the church that’s been cut down. It’s impossible to reattach the tree to its stump.
“Impossible” is a strong word. The writer of Hebrews uses it three other times. It’s impossible for God to lie (6:18). It’s impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to remove sin (10:4). It’s impossible to please God without faith (11:6). By impossible, he means impossible.
That’s exactly what makes this passage so difficult. He’s telling us that for certain people, if they fall away, it’s impossible to repent.
Who are they?
He describes them. They are those who have…
Because he says it is “impossible” for them to repent if they fall away, biblical interpreters fight over whether these people are true Christians. If they are, my Freewill Baptist friends were right. These people had God’s light shine on them. They enjoyed the gift of God, the goodness of his word, and his power. They were partakers of the Holy Spirit. They were all the way “in” and now they are out. For good.
John Calvin didn’t like that interpretation, because he taught “the perseverance of the saints.” So he said the writer is describing people who only dabbled in the fringes of the Christian community. They “tasted,” but they didn’t actually “eat.”
Still others suggest this is all hypothetical. The writer isn’t describing any actual people. He’s just saying IF true Christians turned away, it would be impossible for them to repent.
What do I think? I just think this passage is a warning, and we probably miss its point by reducing it to a supporting argument for or against our theological pet peeve. If you are in Situation 2, don’t take God’s grace for granted. Repent from your arrogance before it’s too late. Your chances are limited. Do not turn away. You are risking your soul if you do.
The author further illustrates his point in verses 7-8 with agriculture. You can be like good land that soaks in the rain and produces a crop or worthless property that is rejected and cursed because it’s good for nothing.
This is not the only passage in the New Testament that gives a warning not to take God’s grace for granted. We will come to an even stronger one in a few weeks. As with many passages in the Bible, it’s one aspect of teaching that must be understood in light of other passages. But sometimes we make that comparison too quickly, and lose the force of the text we’re reading at the moment.
Last Thursday I came out of my study behind the pulpit in this corner of the building just as the Preschool kids were loading up in cars to go home. I heard a woman’s voice sharply rebuking her grandson in a voice that was harsh and strong. As I turned to look, I realized it wasn’t a Mom but a grandmother. For an instant I thought she sounded like a mean Granny, until I realized why she was speaking that way to a 3- or 4-year-old child. “Don’t run out in front of those cars,” she said sternly to a laughing, carefree, footloose child. “It’s not funny.”
Our Preschool teachers are very diligent in watching for the safety or our children, and I’m sure the child was not in danger. But the grandmother wanted to teach a broader lesson. At that moment the child might be thinking, “Where’s that sweet grandmother who lets me sit in her lap and takes me to get ice cream and tells me I’m the greatest little boy in the whole wide world and she loves me sooooooo much?” Well, this parking lot situation doesn’t call for “blessed assurance” from Grandma. This situation calls for a warning.
So it is in Hebrews 6. The writer’s intent, however, is not to move people from Situation 2 to Situation 1, to a point of spiritual low self-esteem, of terror and despair.
There’s a third possible situation, and the writer describes it beginning in verse 9. He refers to his readers as “beloved,” completely changing his tone. He says he is “confident” that his readers are not among those who will fall away. He is persuaded of “better things” in their case, and more to the point, “things that accompany salvation.”
He sees evidence in them that their faith makes a difference in their lives. They work, they love, they help God’s people (10). That throws some light on that earlier group in vv. 4-6. It looks like all they did was soak in. They didn’t give out at all.
“God is not unjust,” the author tells his readers. He will not forget what you have done. That’s comforting.
But not to the point of spiritual overconfidence. He wants them to live in balance. What he doesn’t say is what we used to say when I was growing up: “once saved, always saved” – i.e., you’re in, so don’t worry about it.
Instead, he shifts the focus back to what you do to give you assurance. That’s where he continues to go in verses 11-12 –
He is not saying you inherit salvation by what you do. You inherit God’s promise by faith and patience. Jesus has done all that is necessary, and he promised that his Father will keep you.
The Bible nowhere gives spiritual assurance to those who take their salvation for granted, who think they can reject God’s Word of disregard his Law and still feel they are “in.” If you are losing your spiritual confidence, then “show the same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure.” Stay strong. Persevere. Step up in discipleship. Learn. Grow. Serve. Give. Witness. Think. Teach. Forgive. Invest your life and resources in kingdom work. The more you do so, the more your heart will rest assured.
Situation 3 sounds like this: I know I don’t measure up. I fail every day. But I’m on this road for good. I have chosen by faith to put my life now and forever into God’s hands through Jesus Christ, who died and rose again for my salvation. But I’m not stopping there. Work must be done, mouths must be fed, the gospel must be preached, and I am a work in progress. I’m not quitting on him, because he hasn’t given up on me.