Hebrews 3 and the Question of Perseverance

[Read Hebrews 3]

Rebellion, Sin, Disobedience, and Unbelief [vv.16-19]

In these three verses, we do not encounter four synonyms, as legalists would have us believe, or for that matter the Arminians as well; we encounter four different qualities belonging to those with whom God was not pleased. These four qualities identify those who did not belong to Israel, i.e. these terms identify the people who were traveling with the people of God but who were not of them.[1] Those who traveled with Israel but who did not believe the Lord’s promises were the same ones who rebelled, for between the words “heard” and “rebelled” is the indispensible question: Will they repent and believe, or will they disbelieve and rebel? Needless to say, they did not repent and believe, choosing instead to disbelieve the Lord’s Word to Abraham, in spite of the fact that He had shown them His covenantal faithfulness.

As James teaches us clearly, faith produces certain fruits, as does the lack of faith.[2] And the fruit of unbelief is rebellion, the provoking of God’s wrath (by perpetually abusing the longsuffering of God in not speedily judging sinners), sin, disobedience, and, well, more and more unbelief. The condition of the unregenerate heart can only worsen when it has seen the goodness of God, has heard the Gospel, and has yet chosen not to repent and believe the Gospel but to disbelieve the Gospel and to blatantly rebel against the Lord God. So the four terms used by the apostle in this chapter are not synonyms; they are descriptions of the unbeliever considered as a whole. This is also touched upon by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, as he speaks of the Lord’s judgment of those who were following Moses, but only had an external affiliation with the Lord’s elect.[3]

So, once again, we have to ask: Is my perseverance – be it monergistic or synergistic, we have no space to deal with that question here – a condition to be met in order for me to be saved? Not at all. The present tense and future tense of perseverance, as well as the present tense and past tense of the fixed identity of God’s people, i.e. His house, make any conditional understanding of Hebrews 3 absolutely absurd. We are not to obey in order to assure ourselves of a place in heaven; those who obey have been granted a place in heaven, as they are the chosen inheritors of the promises of God secured for them in Christ Jesus. We are not to conform to God’s law externally, when our hearts are in rebellion against the Lord, in order to “get to heaven,” for that is called legalism.

IIa. They always go astray in their hearts [v.10]

The question of whether or not the book of Hebrews teaches conditional salvation must be inquired into if we are to have a sure and steadfast hope that (i.)all of our sins are forgiven on account of Christ’s perfect work, and (ii.)He has saved us, is saving us, and will save us from the wrath to come. Conditionalist soteriology robs the believer of his joy in the finished work of the cross and is really a veiled form of legalism. The problem for the conditionalist is that this verse, if meant to convey the idea that salvation is conditional, would undermine the very thesis of the book of Hebrews regarding the New Covenant, which is better than the Old, which has been done away with. What I mean is this: The New Covenant promises that God will sprinkle clean water upon His people, put His Spirit within them, and give them a new heart that desires to obey God’s law.[4] Jeremiah also tells us that the Lord “will forgive their iniquity, and [He] will remember their sins no more.”[5] God’s people will not be judged for their sins, for the Lord Jesus will bear the punishment upon the cross.

Security in Christ, therefore, is part and parcel of the New Covenant, in which God promises that “[He] will make with them an everlasting covenant, that [He] will not turn away from doing good to them. And [He] will put the fear of [God] in their hearts, that they may not turn from [Him]” (Jer 32:40). This promise does not say that they will not sin; rather, it promises that God’s elect will not turn away from Him perpetually, as in rebelling in the same manner as the Israelites who died in the wilderness. There is no chance that God’s people, therefore, can ever “always go astray in their hearts” for that would contradict the promises of God’s New Covenant. Considering that the book of Hebrews is given over, in large part, to a discussion of this New Covenant the conditionalist faces an enormous problem: If the New Covenant promises that God’s people will not go astray always in their hearts, but that they will fear Him in their hearts and long to serve Him, and if He promises to never cease to do good to His elect in the New Covenant, then how could the author of the book of Hebrews teach that Hebrews 3:10 can find application for any true believer? According to God’s own Word, it cannot, because He has promised to keep His own and to give them hearts that will not always go astray.

-h.


[1] Cf. 1 John 2:19, where John states that the apostates never belonged to the church (i.e. they were never truly regenerate believers in Christ) because they “went out from us” (i.e. they left the fellowship of the brethren and never came back). Note, again, that their discontinuance of fellowship and their apostasy do not cause them to lose their good standing with God but serve to reveal that these men “were not of [the people of God].”

[2] Cf. James 1:2-3; 1:6-7 & 2:14-26, where we see that the testing of genuine faith produces “steadfastness” which, in turn, produces more fruit (cf 1:4). Faith, according to 2:14-26, produces fruit, and, thereby, stands in direct contrast to doubt/unbelief/the absence of faith which tosses a man back and forth, producing in him instability, and dead religion (cf. 2:14-17, 26).

[3] Incidentally, the fact that both Paul and the writer of Hebrews use the Old Testament example of Israel in the wilderness in order to illustrate that external affiliation is no guarantee of one’s salvation has caused me to think more and more that Paul is the author of Hebrews.

[4] Cf. Ez 36:24-27

[5] Cf. Jer 31:34

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