True believers are often unsettled by passages such as Hebrews 6:1-8, which really describes an experience of real church life unaccompanied by genuine belief. Some have called this the unpardonable sin. The fact is, texts such as this are designed to act as a warning, and so it is, in one sense, good and healthy for us to be unsettled by them. Sadly, there are often those who ought to be unsettled who are not.
Salvation is a serious matter with serious consequences. Those who are saved are well aware of this. It comes as no surprise to me, then, that I received several assurance-related questions about this text after our previous study. The writer anticipated similar questions, and so he takes some time in vv. 9-12 to offer comfort to the disturbed.
Those who have moved from knowledge to faith, from exposure to experience, prove it by continual self-examination (2 Corinthians 13:5; 2 Peter 1:10-12; cf. Philippians 12:12-13). But self-examination can lead to uncertainty.
In what follows the sobering passage of vv. 1-8 are tender, careful, pastoral words, with the goal of comforting the disturbed. As Lane has observed, “Although it was necessary to warn them sternly of the consequences of apostasy because they had become unreceptive (5:11) and were withdrawing from contact with others (5:12), they nevertheless displayed indisputable evidence of God’s blessing.”1 And so this man, with a pastor’s heart, wants to comfort them now that he has disturbed them. Lane notes, “Pastoral concern for his friends is evident in every line of this extended section.”2
A fellow church member recently told me that he and his family were listening to an audio recording of a sermon I preached recently. At one point, one of his young boys piped up, “Uncle Doug is shouting again!” The father replied, “Don’t worry: He is shouting at us because he loves us.”
This is the essence of vv. 9-12. The author, having “shouted” at his readers (vv. 1-8) now displays tender care for them. This section can be divided broadly into two parts. In vv. 9-10 we find words of affirmation, and in vv. 11-12 we find some more words of admonition. The writer encourages his readers that he is assuming the best of them, but at the same time he is aware of the ever-present need to exhort. Clearly, he was a man with a shepherd’s heart.
When you consider the Christian life, this is precisely the form it often takes. We are at times disturbed, unsettled and rattled, but then God graciously comforts, settles and reassures us. This cycle is repeated often in our walk with God. We hunger and thirst and God gracious fills us, but we can be sure that, at some point, we will find ourselves hungry and thirsty once again.
A few words of review are in order before we jump into our text.
The writer’s pastoral concern was that his readers avoid the sins of presumption and apostasy. Because of some sluggishness on their part, he was concerned that some of them may not have properly grasped the gospel foundation. He addresses some basic doctrines over which some of them were still quibbling: soteriology (justification), pneumatology (sanctification) and eschatology (glorification). These things, he argues, ought not to be up for debate. While they should have been boldly declaring these truths to others, they were making them matters of intramural debate. They were struggling to see how all of this was wrapped up in Christ.
Confused about the foundation, they were unable to “build.” And there was the danger of them so regressing that they would apostatise. It is quite possible, in the light of the larger context, that the writer has in mind those who came out of Egypt and yet who departed from the living God. They indeed had experienced all of the things mentioned in vv. 4-5.
And so, bringing this into a first-century context, he warns of this very real danger. To reject the gospel is to crucify Christ afresh and to put Him to an open shame. Humanly, it is impossible to renew those who have so sinned because there is no other message. Certainly it was not impossible for God to renew those, but humanly speaking, a line could be crossed.
The author then ends with a familiar, agricultural illustration (vv. 7-8). His point is simple: Fruitfulness brings God’s salvific blessings; fruitlessness brings God’s salvific cursings. Depending on how one responds to the gospel, they will be either blessed (v. 7) or burned (v. 8). “The fact is, the life-giving rain of God’s grace falls on all of us in the worshiping community, and if we allow it to bring forth fruit we will be blessed. If not, there is only a curse.”3 They needed to tend to their field (see Proverbs 24:30-34).
We must not miss the sternness of this warning. The author writes that there was a danger of them being “burned.” Clearly, this is language that is meant to evoke images of hell. They were to take this warning seriously. But it is not always helpful to end a sermon with a warning of being burned in hell, and so the author now applies the balm.
Words of Affirmation
In vv. 9-10, we find some words of affirmation. The writer approaches his warning to these Hebrews with a judgement of charity. He assumes the best of them.
But, beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner. For God is not unjust to forget your work and labour of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister.
The writer can give these words of comfort because of two things. First, he saw some evidence of fruit in their lives, and was thereby encouraged. Second, he knew the faithful character of their God. These things ought to be the truthful basis for our encouragement of others who are disturbed. We need to be honest with them as we are honest before God, for such honesty (vv. 9-10) is the only sure foundation for real hope (vv. 11-12).
An Affectionate Affirmation
In v. 9 we read of Paul’s affectionate affirmation. He begins this section with a blessed word of contrast: “but.” He thereby contrasts his opinion of them with his words of warning in vv. 1-8.
The writer further addresses his readers, for the only time in this epistle, as “beloved.” This is in many ways the tenderest description possible of a believer. Jesus Himself was declared to be God’s “beloved” Son. It is incredible to think that God views us with the same love that He has for Christ.
One can almost hear the collective sigh of relief breathed by the readers as they hear this contrast. The writer had been persuaded better things about his readers. What he had said was important for them to hear, though he did not believe that it described them.
Hard things said can be helpful. They stir us to self-examination. Jesus spoke some hard words to those following Him after he had fed the five thousand, and many were so offended that they left Him. Jesus used the opportunity to challenge the Twelve about their commitment, to which Peter replied (on behalf of the group): “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of God” (John 6:41-69).
It is important to note that the writer affirms his readers. Affectionate articulation of affirmation is a Christian responsibility (Philippians 1:6; 2 Corinthians 2:3; Galatians 5:10; 2 Timothy 1:5; Philemon 21). As we witness evidences of grace in the life of others, we should affirm to them what we see.
At the same time, let us note that, apart from astute, caring, relational observation, words of affirmation can be cheap. These words obviously meant something to these readers because they knew, based on prior relationship, that the writer genuinely cared for them.
The writer saw in them “better things that accompany salvation.” Literally, this speaks of “things holding to salvation.” “‘Better things,’” says Hewitt, “suggests a fruitful spiritual life in contrast to a life bringing forth thorns and briars, and a destiny of eternal blessedness in contrast to the curse of perdition.”4
It has often been correctly noted, “We are saved by faith alone, but that faith is never alone.” Simply put, saving faith is fruitful. The writer is encouraged that their profession of faith was visible. They exemplified the words of James (James 4:14-17ff).
Let us take away from this the need to beware of empty professions of faith. Not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” will inherit eternal life, but only those whose profession is accompanied by fruit of obedience (Matthew 7:21-23).
This principle can be seen consistently in the New Testament. Genuine conversion is accompanied by obvious fruit. Take for example, the evidence of saving faith that is described in the early Jerusalem church in Acts 2:41-47. Later, when Barnabas was sent to evaluate the professions of faith in Antioch, he saw evidence of salvation in their lives (11:23)—no doubt the same type of fruit that is described in chapter 2.
A Concrete Commendation
The writer’s commendation is not nebulous. Instead, the writer, as we can see in v. 10, saw some specific, concrete evidence of faith in their lives: “For God is not unjust to forget your work and labour of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister.”
First, the writer saw their “work and labour of love.” These are strong words, which speak of working to the point of exhaustion.
Second, these works were “shown toward His name.” Their works were demonstrably God–centred. They were not mere works of social goodness, but were uniquely God-focused. It is important to note that the believer’s fruit of works are Christian in their motive and, when you dig deep enough, they are uniquely Christian in their manifestation. Paul wrote of such Christian works to the Philippians:
Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or laboured in vain.
Third, these Hebrews “ministered to the saints and do minister.” The word translated “ministered” is the Greek word diakoneo (from which we derive our English word “deacon”), which means “to wait tables.” It often refers to meeting physical, material needs as well as “visiting.”
In sum, these Christians intensely involved themselves with the community of faith. Conversely, those who had “fallen away” had concretely fallen away from the body of Christ. The evidence of them being the real deal was their love for the brethren (John 13:34-35). This is the constant refrain of the New Testament (see Matthew 25:31-36; cf. 1 John 3:16-24; 4:17-21).
Let’s take a moment here to make some important observations.
First, let’s note that, contextually, such demonstrated love was socially risky. Such devotion would define them as different. They would be “standing up” as followers of Christ. Their loyalty to their fellow Christians transcended bloodlines and ethnicity. It transcended religious culture and made them politically vulnerable. It pitted them against those crucifying Christ afresh and putting Him to open shame. It would, as it were, force them “outside the camp” (see 13:13).
This was the major issue behind the epistle: the temptation to retreat from Christ, which is often initially evidenced by retreating from the community of faith (see 10:23-26ff!) The writer is encouraged that they are growing because they are standing up. They are willing to be counted, and hence he is encouraged that they are converted.
This is required in the Christian life. If we deny Him then He will deny us (Matthew 10:33; 2 Timothy 2:12). I was recently reading in my devotions Mark’s account of the healing of Jairus’ daughter, and the included account of the healing of the woman with an issue of blood (Mark 5:21-34). I found it interesting that, after she touched Jesus, Jesus insisted that the person who touched Him own up. It must have been a somewhat embarrassing situation for her. She had perhaps felt that she had been healed without public shame, but now Jesus was calling her out. It would be akin to my doctor standing before the church and relating my medical history. It would be a breach of doctor-patient confidentiality, but that is effectively what happened after she touched Jesus.
As I read, I wondered why He acted in that manner. Why did He call her out instead of allowing her to slip quietly away, content that she had been healed? But there is a wonderful principle here: Believers need to be willing to stand publicly for Christ, regardless of the shame that it may invite from a watching world.
Second, note that these saints had both a history of loving the church as well as a current testimony of loving the church. Church life is messy, but saints persevere through the mess. We call this love!
As a matter of application, once a professing believer is in a good church, we would do well to examine their track record? Are they merely attending or actively engaging? Do they merely sit in the services or actively serve the body? Do they merely listen or do they learn to love? As noted above, the evidence of spiritual life in the early church was vibrant involvement in body life (Acts 2:42-47). It is the same today. Those who contribute to church growth are affirmed in their profession.
Third, we need a proper assessment of one another. Believers are referred to in the Bible as “saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2; etc.). We have been set apart for God’s special purposes, and this ought to help us to persevere in the mess.
A Comforting Consideration
In v. 10, the writer offers some words of encouragement: “For God is not unjust to forget your work and labour of love which you have shown toward His name.” Even if the church did not notice, God did. He is a faithful, covenant-keeping God.
Importantly, this does not teach “meritorious works.” Our “work and labour of love” does not earn God’s favour. As Calvin notes, “The apostle is not referring expressly here to the cause of our salvation, and therefore no conclusion should be drawn from this passage about the merits of works. . . . It is clear everywhere in Scripture that there is no other fount of salvation but the free mercy of God.”5
Instead, this teaches God’s faithfulness to His Word. That is, He reveals the conditions and He honours them. We are not saved by good works, but we are saved in order to do good works (Ephesians 2:8-10). Jesus is the true vine, and we are the branches. Branches that are in the vine bear the fruit of the vine (John 15:16-17ff).
In short, God is for us. Be encouraged. Be confident. Therefore, persevere. Note that there is both an objective as well as a subjective basis to our assurance. We look outside of ourselves to God in Christ, but we also look within ourselves for marks of Christ in us, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).
Words of Admonition
Having offered words of affirmation, the author now turns to some words of admonition. He considered his readers to be true believers, but he was not content to leave the matter without warning them once more of the dangers of apostasy.
And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
A Corporate Concern
The author had a corporate concern for his readers (v. 11a). He wanted “each one” of them to have assurance and to grow up. He wanted each of them to be comforted.
This is what pastoral care looks like: not wanting to lose any. In Jesus’ words, shepherds are willing to go after even one wandering sheep in order to bring them back. They are not content with 99% being safe and comforted. They will do whatever is necessary to rescue the last one, and will rejoice greatly when that sheep is found.
When Jesus told the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin (Luke 15:1-9), it had a double-edged intent. On the one hand, it served to offer comfort to the tax collectors and sinners, who represented the lost sheep and the lost coin. On the other hand, it served to discomfort the Pharisees, who were unfaithful shepherds who could not be bothered with going after the one lost sheep. His point was simple: If you are not concerned about the condition of each one of the flock then you yourself become an object of concern.
The word translated “desire” in v. 11 means “to set the heart upon” or “to long for.” It is translated in Romans 7:7 by the word “covet.” The writer had an overwhelming desire that his readers attain “the full assurance of hope.”
Hywel Jones notes, “Self-examination is one thing but self-preoccupation is another. What is more this activity has regard to others as well as oneself. We are not only to ‘pull up our own socks’ but to ‘help others to their feet.’”6 Sadly, there are plenty of people willing to tell others to pull up their socks, but far fewer who are willing to help others to their feet.
The Bee Gees asked, “How deep is your love?” This is not a question to be relegated to a 1960s pop group. It is a question very relevant to the church. We must love and care deeply for others.
These saints had already “shown” great love “toward His name,” and the author wished that each of them would continue to “show the same diligence.” “Diligence” speaks of eagerness or zeal. It is a translation of a Greek word from which we derive our English word “speed.” He is admonishing each to openly identify with the church—to identify with Christ. Jones comments, “Clutching the comfort is not to be a substitute for complying with that duty.”7
Andrew Murray writes, “My assurance of salvation is not something I can carry with me as a railway ticket or a bank note, to be used, as occasion calls. . . . My assurance of salvation is alone to be found in the living fellowship with the living Jesus in love and obedience.”8
What a blessing when each member is actively, zealously and passionately loving Christ and His church!
A Constructive Concern
The concern was not that they put on a show; rather, the concern was that they would be filled up with confidence in Christ and thus filled up with hope. Fullness of hope was the concern. “Hope was to become full and faith was to become firm so that every promised blessing might become theirs.”9
“Hope” is a promised prospect (see v. 12). In fact, the promise of hope is a consistent theme in this letter (see 3:6; 6:18-19; 7:19; 10:23; 11:13). It is assumed in the New Testament that believers will have hope, and that they will be prepared to answer those who wonder about the source of that hope (1 Peter 3:15).
But note again that our hope is to be corporate. Our hope is to be growing. Our hope is not circumstantial. It is relational. It is theological.
Hope is the issue (see Acts 23:6; 24:15; 26:6-7; 28:20). When we lose our hope, it is because we are hanging on to what is tangible and ultimately fading. I recently read a news report regarding Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, which has (at the time of writing) been missing and unaccounted for for three weeks. Malaysian authorities have declared all passengers dead, even though no debris from the plane has been recovered in the region it is thought to have crashed. Family members are angry that their relatives have been declared dead without any concrete evidence, and many are refusing to believe it. The reporter of the article I read noted that these families don’t believe in an afterlife and so they have no hope or comfort.
For maturing Christians, on the other hand, the future is as bright as the promises of God. Like Abraham (Romans 4:18), they have hope in the face of hopelessness, and this enables them to persevere. Perseverance is empowered by hope (1 Thessalonians 1:3).
Practically, we need to encourage one another to be hopeful, which includes letting go of the world. The cares of the world often kill the sprouting seed of the gospel (Matthew 13:22). We need to look to Jesus and find our life in Him.
A Consistent Concern
In v. 12, the author expresses heartfelt hope that they not lost ground.
Richard Phillips tells of General Patton who once expressed as his reason for always pressing the attack, “I don’t like paying for the same real estate twice.” Phillips notes, “The writer of Hebrews wants us to advance because it is the only way to be sure of salvation and endure to the end.”
Phillips later comments, “Although true believers can be sure of their salvation, they are nonetheless in real and great danger. We live in a world that is perilous to faith in Christ. . . . Therefore, while we know that true believers are kept safe by God’s power, the Christian life takes place within the context of grave danger. While the New Testament speaks of assurance, this is why it never allows for sloth or complacency.”10 So, let us not lose any ground.
This seems to be behind the final exhortation in this passage as revealed in v. 12. The writer did not want his readers to become “sluggish.” This is the same word translated in 5:11 as “dull of hearing.” The passage thus ends with the same issue with which it began. Those who are not sluggish are warned not to become sluggish. “The past had set a standard, and he looks for it to be maintained ‘to the very end.’”11
Bruce notes, “The Scriptures contain encouragement enough and to spare for the feeblest believer, but are full of solemn warnings to those who think they stand to beware lest they fall.”12 So, keep a close watch on your field (cf. Proverbs 24:30-34). “More often than not, sluggish ears go with a sluggish, lazy lifestyle. When the ear becomes dull, everything else follows suit.”13
If they would heed the admonition of v. 11, they would follow in (“imitate”) the footsteps of those who heard and those who hear. “Such imitation was of great practical value to those who had no New Testament scriptures to provide adequate standards.”14 There is too much at stake to become sluggish—namely, salvation (4:1; 6:13, 15, 17; 17:6; 8:6; 9:15; 10:23, 36; 11:9, 11, 13, 17, 33, 39; 12:26).
The author wanted these believers to exercise “patience,” which speaks of longsuffering or endurance. James uses “the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience” (James 5:10). These saints needed to persevere if they would grow up. As Guthrie notes, “Spiritual maturity comes neither from isolated events nor from a great spiritual burst. It comes from a steady application of spiritual discipline.”15 And as Hughes observes, “Faith’s vision will produce patient tenacity.”16
Of course, they had to first believe the promises, “but faith had to be followed up by patient waiting. . . . the long-drawn out patience which is demanded by hope deferred.”17
Not everyone had caved in. The writer wanted his readers to follow the example of the faithful. And we must do the same. We must look around us for those who are faithful and imitate them. We must read Scripture and persevere in what it commands. We can be encouraged to persevere as we read biographies of those who have persevered in the past. And then we can become an example to others who are tempted to fall away.
If we will be comforted then we first need to be made aware of our condition. We must honestly face our sinfulness. We then must be made aware of the cure—Christ. We must be affirmed in our confession. Finally, we must be admonished to continue to be aware. In the end, assurance will grow as holiness is coupled with hope.
- William L. Lane, Hebrews: Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 1:143. ↩
- Edgar Andrews, A Glorious High Throne: Hebrews Simply Explained (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2003), 174. ↩
- R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul, 2 vols. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 1:161. ↩
- Andrews, A Glorious High Throne, 171. ↩
- Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2006), 201. ↩
- Hywel R. Jones, Let’s Study Hebrews (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 38. ↩
- Jones, Let’s Study Hebrews, 63. ↩
- Phillips, Hebrews, 195. ↩
- Jones, Let’s Study Hebrews, 64. ↩
- Richard Phillips, Hebrews, 185-86, 97, 98. ↩
- Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:58. ↩
- F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 122. ↩
- Hughes, Hebrews, 1:167. ↩
- Donald Guthrie, Hebrews: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 152. ↩
- Guthrie, Hebrews, 139. ↩
- Hughes, Hebrews, 1:170. ↩
- Marcus Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 4:302. ↩