Warnings & Exhortations in Hebrews: Forfeiting So Great Salvation

In the next two articles, we will consider the first of five warnings in the letter to the Hebrews which caution its readers against the dangers of departure and apostasy.

As we progress through the warnings, an important point must be kept in mind. If a person is truly “born from above” (Joh 3:3 YLT) and thereby “saved” (Eph 2:8), there is no possibility of losing salvation. The promise of eternal life is to all who believe in Jesus Christ (Joh 3:16) and this life has no end. A believer, the child of God, shall never perish. The believer’s seal, the Holy Spirit, remains until the day Christ comes for His own (Eph 1:13,14). The believer’s redemption is secure in Christ (Heb 9:12). Every child of God is heir to an imperishable inheritance (1Pe 1:4). God cannot lie and His promises are immutable (Heb 6:18). So sure are these promises that we are to live in faith and hope for that which is to come (1Jn 3:2-3).

It is sufficiently apparent that the writer is addressing children of God. The letter itself is a “word of exhortation” to “brethren” (3:1,12; 10:19; 13:22) and “beloved” (6:9). However, they had not advanced in their faith. They had remained in spiritual infancy far longer than expected (5:11-14). In addition, they endured conflict, sufferings, reproach and affliction (10:32-34). To believers whose spiritual condition was already weak, this persecution presented a serious attack on their profession of faith and created a very real temptation to apostatise. Hence, the real crisis they faced wasn’t physical but spiritual. A searching question for any one of them would have been, “Will ye also go away?” (Joh 6:67).1

Thus, the writer delivers a series of instructions, encouragements, exhortations and warnings so that if they took heed, they would demonstrate the reality of their salvation. If they chose to ignore the warnings, to recant and ultimately abandon their profession of faith in Christ, it would be evident to all that there was no spiritual birth, no genuine root and no divine nature (see Mat 13:23; Joh 3:3; 2Pe 1:4). While our circumstances are likely to be vastly different from those of the original recipients, the earnest Christian desirous of pleasing God will pay attention, absorb, and apply the principles embodied in each warning to their personal circumstances.

The first warning (2:1-4) has two parts. Firstly, verse 1 is an exhortation to pay close attention to what we have heard, because there is a consequence in failing to do so – backsliding. Secondly, verses 2-4 warn against neglecting so great salvation, because there is a solemn implication for such neglect. We will consider the first part in this article and the second part in the next.

Failing to Pay Close Attention Has Consequences (2:1)

“Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip” (2:1).

The word “therefore” plainly means “for this reason” and clearly refers to what precedes. The previous chapter has put great emphasis on the fact that God has spoken. No less than eight times is this emphasised with the words “spake” (v1), “spoken” (v2), “word” (v3), “said” (vv5,13) and “saith” (vv6,7,8). Speaking is the means by which God exercises His authority and power (compare 1:3 with 11:3) and communicates His mind and will (compare 1:1,2 with 2:3). The subject of God speaking is so vital that in excess of 100 verses are occupied with expressing, imparting or transmitting truth, and all three members of the Godhead are involved in it, e.g., Father (1:1,5), Son (1:2; 2:3,12) and Spirit (3:7).

It is no surprise, therefore, that failing to hear and respond to the Word of God is a thread running through the series of warnings. In chapters 3 and 4, the writer repeats three times over, “To day if ye will hear his voice” (3:7,15; 4:7). In chapter 5, we discover that they had become “dull of hearing” (v11). In chapter 10, the warning concerns sinning wilfully after receiving “the knowledge of the truth” (v26). The last warning cautions against refusing “him that speaketh” (12:25). The recipients had heard the Word of God but, evidently, they had not taken it seriously.

God has spoken, and He has revealed Himself perfectly in His Son. Thus, they “ought to” (lit. must) give heed to what He has said. It is an absolute necessity. They must also give “more earnest” heed, or take heed “more abundantly.” They are to pay much closer attention. The writer’s personal application (“we”) serves to emphasise that the exhortation is equally applicable to us. Today, we have the final and complete revelation. But how do we respond? Are we affected by what we read? Do we take God’s Word seriously?

The words “we should let them slip” (or “drift away” or “glide aside”) are from the Greek word pararrhyeo, which occurs only here. It is from the preposition para, denoting beside, and rheo, to flow (see Joh 7:38). The danger is not that the truth drifts away, for truth stands firm (see Mat 7:24,25; 2Ti 2:19). Rather, it is we who drift away. Hence, the consequence of negligence is inevitable drifting or, as we often say, backsliding. Like a ship drifting on water, backsliding is subtle and has many dangers.

Is there such a problem with backsliding? It pays to consider the end to which it leads: “The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways” (Pro 14:14). Our ways are not the Lord’s ways (Isa 55:8). “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Pro 16:25). Hymenaeus and Alexander were examples of those who drifted to a sad and perilous state. They “made shipwreck” of their faith and were caused to “blaspheme” (lit. speak impiously, 1Ti 1:19). Another example is Lot, whose negligence and backsliding led to tragic experiences in the cities of the plain and in the mountain cave (Gen 19).

It is imperative for all believers to pay special attention to God’s Word because habitual and persistent negligence leads to backsliding. May God increase our sensitivity to drifting, and move us to sincerely and diligently read and apply His Word to our personal circumstances.

“Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding” (Pro 23:23).

1 Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.