“For if we deliberately go on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire about to consume the adversaries. Anyone who disregarded the law of Moses died without mercy, based on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment do you think one will deserve who has trampled on the Son of God, who has regarded as profane the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know the one who has said, ‘Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever had one of those moments when you knew you had lost, and you were just waiting for the defeat to be completed? I’ve had lots of those moments while playing video games over the years. Honestly, most of the time I responded by simply turning the game off. If I’m watching one of my sports teams lose – especially in a big game – I’ll turn off the TV. Why bother sticking around when you know the results aren’t going to be what you had hoped? In life, though, that’s not an option. And with Jesus, grace and redemption are always possible. What the author of Hebrews is talking about here, however, is a situation when a terrible loss becomes unavoidable. Let’s wrestle today with what may be the most disturbing warning of the letter. Hang on tight for this one, and don’t look away until we reach the end. You’ll not want to miss this.
One of the major areas of study when it comes to the letter of Hebrews is its four warning passages. I’ve noted that before in our journey. I have whole books dedicated to trying to make sense out of them. With this passage, we have finally now covered all of them. The first two (here and here) were mild, if a little uncomfortable. The third was even more uncomfortable with its suggestion that there could be a time when salvation is lost by our refusal to walk in the truth. Like I said, though, this final warning is the most disturbing of all.
The author begins hitting us with some pretty unnerving stuff right out of the gate. “…if we deliberately go on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins…” What on earth does that mean? Let’s start with something it doesn’t mean. The author here does not have in view the person who has started following Jesus and who subsequently committed a sin, is genuinely grieved and repentant over it, and seeks forgiveness right away (or even somewhat later). He is not saying that this person is simply out of luck and will now face an eternity in Hell. If that were the case, salvation would be a meaningless offer because every single person who has ever embraced the truth in Christ has gone on to later commit a sin.
There are a couple of phrases here that we dare not miss. The first is the word “deliberately.” The author has in view someone who comes upon a moment of decision where one path is sinful, the other path is not, and he intentionally, knowingly takes the sinful path. Yet even a single deliberate sin is not really what the author has in mind. That phrase “go on sinning” is significant as well. The concern here are not one-off sins that we commit and then turn back from. The author here has in view a pattern of willful sinfulness that becomes characteristic of a person’s lifestyle.
The one other thing we have to wrestle with is what the author means by “receiving the knowledge of the truth.” Folks who are coming at this passage from the standpoint that someone who has received salvation can subsequently lose it, will naturally see evidence for their position. They will see this as describing someone who embraced salvation, fell back into a pattern of sinfulness, and thereby lost it. After all, if you receive the knowledge of the truth, what could that mean but to receive salvation in Christ? The trouble with this position, though – like we talked about back in chapter 6 – is that these same folks generally hold that salvation, once lost, can be gained again, and yet such an outcome is not anywhere in the purview of these verses. The author here, if he is indeed talking about a person who has had and then lost salvation, does not seem to hold out any hope of their receiving it a second time after a subsequent repentance. The author of Hebrews seems to fairly clearly see salvation as a one-shot deal. You get it, and that’s it. If you leave after that point (again, assuming such a thing is even possible), there’s no going back.
On the other hand, folks who come at these words from the presupposition that salvation, once gained, cannot be lost (full disclosure: that’s me), will not see any such thing. To receive the knowledge of the truth doesn’t necessarily imply that we have embraced it, only that we have learned of it. This is a person who has heard the Gospel but not yet accepted it. I think this is the better understanding of these words. The author here is describing a person who is presented with the Gospel in such a way that she understands it well enough to accept it, but instead of embracing it, continues off in a lifestyle of sin, hoping to find a better deal somewhere else. She has received the knowledge of the truth but has not accepted it for what it is. The trouble with doing this, the author asserts, is that there isn’t a better deal anywhere else. There is only “a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire about to consume the adversaries.”
Of these two positions on the passage here, the first, while probably not theologically correct, is the much more intimidating of the two. The notion that our salvation can be lost is (should be) enough to keep us constantly on the lookout for where or how we might be deliberately sinning and subject to this terrible punishment for it. The second approach (and the one I think is more correct), offers a huge breath of relief for followers of Jesus. The author doesn’t have us in view so we can disregard all of this. Whew! Yet while the goal of the Christian life should be to live without uncertainty of our salvation (indeed, the apostle John wrote his works so that we might know we are saved), we cannot let such assurance lead us in the direction of complacency. Such a mindset reflects a heart that only received knowledge of the truth without embracing it. Someone who has truly received the truth into their lives is not complacent about it. He is gratefully eager to live out the commands of Christ in order to proclaim by His behavior His loyalty and kingdom citizenship.
The rest of the passage here simply adds weight to the warning. If God’s covenant of Law with the people held sinners liable for their sins to the point of death, how much more severely will conscious violators of God’s covenant of life rooted in the death of His Son be held accountable for their choices? The person who receives knowledge of the truth but does not then embrace it with his life is communicating his belief that Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t really all that big of a deal. It definitely wasn’t effective at dealing with sin and reconciling sinners to God. Well, just like you’re probably not going to be all that patient with someone who disparages and belittles something your kid has worked hard to accomplish, God’s not so patient with people who do that to His Son either.
The final part, quoting from Deuteronomy 32 is often cited as an encouragement to not take vengeance ourselves when we have been offended by someone else. To my knowledge, the author of Hebrews uses it here in a way that doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Scriptures. Instead of reminding us to let God handle matters of justice, the author of reminding us that God will handle matters of justice…including ours. As the apostle Peter would later point out, judgment begins with the house of the Lord. God is going to hold people who know the truth accountable first. If you know the truth, but knowingly rejected the truth, that moment of accountability is not going to go well for you.
This brings us to the real point of this warning: Don’t simply flirt with the truth. All of us are on a search for truth because we need something true on which to build our lives. The trouble is, a significant part of us doesn’t want the real truth, but rather the truth as it is most convenient for what we most want to do. We want a “truth” that simply conforms with our desires. Then we can feel free to do as we please without thought of the consequences. This is why the idea that there is such a thing as “your truth” and “my truth” is so popular in our culture right now. We are everywhere encouraged to live “our” truth. The trouble with this is that there’s no such thing as individualized truth. There is only the truth. And we can live our lives in harmony with it, or not.
If we choose not to, if we choose to live in a fantasy world of our own making (or someone else’s making if theirs seems better than ours), that might last for a little while, but eventually our fantasy is going to crash into the walls of reality and reality won’t bend in that moment. Our fantasy will break. The longer we have been living in a fantasy world, the bigger and harder and more painful the break will be. What’s more, if we have chosen to live in a fantasy world in spite of knowing what reality was all along, our pain will be our own fault and we will be responsible for the pain of everyone else we have pulled along with us into our fantasy. I believe Jesus said something about a millstone around your neck and the bottom of the sea when talking about folks who knowingly draw others away from the truth and into fantasy worlds. In any event, the outcome won’t be pretty.
So, when you encounter the truth, embrace it. Embrace it fully and completely without doubt or hesitation. Integrate it into your life and shape all the details of your world around it. Make Jesus not just your Savior and friend, but your Lord and your God. Commit yourself to joyfully doing what He commanded and gratefully advancing His kingdom through your words and actions. Let the Spirit into your heart to convict of sin and sanctify you after the image of Christ. Become with God’s help fully who He designed you to be in the beginning. Then you will enjoy to the fullest the life that is truly life both now and when it comes in full on the day of Christ’s return. And in that moment, you’ll be glad that you did.