It is popular within evangelicalism today to think of salvation in terms of a “once saved, always saved” framework. Though a Calvinist variant of this belief posits that God keeps His elect by causing them to persevere to the end, its free will counterpart argues for a faith that, once initiated, does not require perseverance in order to secure final salvation. It is this latter view that is beyond the pale of acceptable Christian doctrine and which the author of Hebrews refutes thoroughly and repeatedly.
There are several lines of argument which the author uses to substantiate the need to persevere, but the strongest and most prominent is the comparison between the Israelites in the wilderness and those in the New Covenant. Whereas Moses was a servant in “God’s house,” Christ is over God’s house (Hebrews 3:1-5). But even though Christ is much greater than Moses, He cannot guarantee our perseverance any more than Moses could guarantee the perseverance of the Israelites in the wilderness:
“But Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (Hebrews 3:6, ESV).
The author of Hebrews goes on to parallel our faith as Christians with the faith of those Israelites, citing God’s words in Psalm 95 as a present exhortation for us:
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest’” (Heb. 3:7-11, ESV).
By way of context, it ought to be stated that prior to their rebellion, “the people believed” (Exodus 4:31, ESV. See also Exodus 14:30-31). This is the key component to the parallel that the author is making—their faith begun did not guarantee that they would finish in it, and it is finishing in faith that allows one to take hold of God’s promises. Our author does not go on to say, “but there are better promises for you,” but, “take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God… For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (emphasis mine. Heb. 3:12, 14, ESV).
If there were any doubt remaining that the author was concerned with the salvation of genuine Christians, such doubts ought to be dispelled by the fate he described for those who had, “been enlightened . . . tasted the heavenly gift . . . shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Heb. 6:4-5, ESV) but had “fallen away” (v. 6): they are like a worthless crop bearing thorns and thistles, set aside “to be burned” (Heb. 6:8, ESV).
If even this is not explicit enough to change the mind of someone holding to a doctrine of eternal security, the author of Hebrews circles back around to it again in chapter 10:
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26-27 ESV).
Notice the parallel rhythms of 6:4-8 and 10:26-31: a person was enlightened (6:4), receiving the knowledge of the truth (10:26); they then fell away (6:6), went on sinning deliberately (10:26); in their present state it is impossible to restore them to repentance (6:6) since there no longer remains a sacrifice for their sins (10:26); and the judgment which awaits them is to be burned (6:8), a fury of fire (10:27).1
After describing the fate of the apostate in 10:26-27, the author appeals to Habakkuk chapter 2, wherein God declares, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him” (Heb. 10:37-38, ESV). This citation not only puts an exclamation point on the fate of the unrepentant apostate spoken of earlier, but also brings up the issue of what living by faith really means.
Thankfully, our writer does not leave the answer to this question up to our imaginations but provides concrete examples of what saving faith looks like throughout the next chapter. He begins by explaining that faith is confidence about things we do not yet see. Though we do not yet see Christ reigning over the world and creation restored, we trust that this will be the case and live our lives according to this trust in what God has said He will do.
Next, he goes on to look at individual examples of faith from the Old Testament scriptures and from Israel’s history. For instance, Noah’s trust in God led him to follow God’s command to build the ark even though he could not yet see with his eyes the need for it. Similarly, Abraham trusted in God’s promise to give his descendants the land of Canaan even though he died not having seen such a promise fulfilled. Such an attitude our author commends, saying, “if they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (Heb. 11:15-16, ESV). Since God has put eternity into the hearts of men and women (Ecclesiastes 3:11), we feel drawn to God even as we feel pulled back into the false security of faithless living. Noah and Abraham resisted that temptation and were therefore commended for their faith, as was Moses, of whom we are told:
“[He chose] rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Heb. 11:25-26, ESV).
If faith in God is made difficult by our limited vision, how much more so when there is an obstruction before our eyes? Though God delivered from oppression and violence many of the pre-Christ saints, this was not the case for all:
“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Heb. 11:35-38, ESV).
And yet despite this obstruction to their ability to see the telos of God’s purposes, they trusted in Him nonetheless. If this is true of them, why should it not be true of us who have obtained the fulfillment of promises they longed to see?:
“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:39-40).
Indeed, Christ was the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. And though many of these promises have not been realized in their fullness, we have more evidence upon which to base our faith than they had. Such a benefit ought to stir up an even greater faith—and a desire to live by it—in what God is going to accomplish for us. And if they could persevere until the end, what excuse can we give for not doing so? For not only do we have resources they did not (the down payment on God’s promises in Christ’s first advent, more of God’s plan revealed to us than was revealed to those who came before, additional power from the Holy Spirit, etc.), we also have their example to follow. The author concludes:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:1-3, ESV).
The cloud of witnesses—those saints who came before us and persevered to the end—testify to us that we can and should persevere. Furthermore, we have not only an example but a great advocate in our Lord Jesus Christ. Though He suffered, he endured because of “the joy that was set before Him.” Faith is not therefore a commitment to suffer because suffering is inherently praiseworthy or noble, but a commitment to follow Christ regardless of the consequences because the reward of such a commitment is participation in Christ’s resurrection and coming kingdom. Our faith, which the author of Hebrews defines as “believ[ing] that [God] exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6, ESV) with the result that we draw near to Him, gives us the strength to endure—for without confidence that God exists and that our present struggles are worth enduring, we would give up the race. Finally, anything which holds us back from finishing the race (what our author refers to as weights) should be cast aside. It is not good for us.
To conclude, the belief that one cannot forfeit salvation even though she abandon Christ is simply not biblical. Not only do we not have any such promises, but such a mindset contradicts the goal of the gospel—our union with Christ and the restoration of all things. If we fail to be interested in these goals, we have no place in the coming kingdom of God. Salvation is not about going to a nice place when you die, but about participation in Christ. Our entry and continued place in Christ’s body is on the basis of faith, and this faith lives (runs the race) on the basis of its confidence in the reward of reaching the finish line.