About a week ago Joshua Harris released a post on Instagram alerting all of his followers that he was walking away from faith in Christ. He wrote, “By all the measurements I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.”1 I didn’t find this news because I followed Joshua Harris’s Instagram alerts. I don’t even have an Instagram account. But Joshua Harris has been a pretty well-known figure in evangelical circles. His first book sold over a million copies, and he started pastoring a prominent megachurch by age thirty. Therefore, his announcement that he was no longer considering himself a Christian made headlines.
The part of his Instagram post that was most painful came near the end. Harris wrote, “To my Christian friends, . . . I can’t join in your mourning. I don’t view this moment negatively. I feel very much alive, and awake, and surprisingly hopeful. I believe with my sister Julian that ‘All shall be well.’”
Let me give you some context as to what was going on when I first read those words. Each week as I prepare to study the biblical text, I diagram the text on big legal-sized sheets of paper. If the text is too long for one sheet, I get another and tape them together. I read Joshua Harris’s announcement on Monday on my computer, which sat about two feet away from me. The reason for that distance between my eyes and the screen was because sitting between me and my keyboard was Hebrews 10:26-39, diagrammed on two large pieces of paper taped together. After I read the announcement, I dropped my head, and my eyes fell upon three descriptions the author of Hebrews uses in telling us what one has done who turns away from Christ. He tells us that he “has trampled underfoot the Son of God, . . . has profaned the blood of the covenant . . ., and has outraged the Spirit of grace,” and all of that just prior to reminding us, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Brothers and sisters, contrary to Joshua Harris’s feelings, all shall certainly not be well if he continues this path. Regardless of feeling “surprisingly hopeful,” he is in a terrifying place. And I have prayed that he’ll repent and the Lord will show him to be his child. But if he doesn’t, this is indeed a moment to mourn, and I want to show us why from our text this morning as we look at Hebrews 10:26-39.
Now, before we dive in, let me give us some prefatory remarks one more time. After all, warning passages written to Christian audiences which warn about being condemned can cause confusion and conversations and emails and more. So, let me give us just a few axioms that we can hold to before diving into this this. I’ll list four.
1. Everyone who is ever justified will be glorified.
This is my way of affirming that if someone ever becomes a believer, he will be saved in the end. Jesus will say to many, “I never knew you,” but he will never say, “I knew you once but no longer. You once belonged to me, but now you don’t.” Or—and this is the reason I worded this axiom as I did—we can think of Paul’s note in Romans 8:29-30 that all those whom he justified he glorified, meaning that there will be no one who is justified who fails to be glorified at the resurrection.
2. Christians, by definition, persevere in the faith.
Persevering faith is a defining mark of a true believer. It is simply intrinsic to what a Christian is. If someone were to ask you, “Who are Christians?” you could answer, “They are those who repent of their sins, believe in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, and persevere in repentance and faith.” In fact, this is so centrally true in the teaching of Scripture that John can watch individuals walk away from the faith—failing to persevere—and conclude (as he does in 1 John 2:19), “They went out from us, but they were not of us.” And we could ask, “How are you certain they were not of you, John?” He continues, “For if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
Do you see? His answer for how he knows these individuals were never true believers is that true believers persevere. He argues that if they had been part of us (i.e. actual believers) they would have continued. They would have persevered. Why? Because Christians, by definition, persevere in the faith.
3. Many professing believers will go to hell.
Let me elaborate on this one just a bit because it may feel shocking. First, I use the word “many”—as shocking as it sounds—because Jesus uses that word when he says, “Many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not . . . do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me’” (Matt 7:22-23).
Therefore we can affirm that there will be many people who profess to believe and even give evidence of knowing Jesus for a season of time who will ultimately show themselves never to have known him. They’ll ultimately refuse to turn from a specific sin or deny Jesus altogether. They will not persevere in repentance and faith. They will go out from us because they were never of us, to borrow a phrase from the apostle John.
4. The Bible gives severe warnings to Christians concerning hell.
This is what we’re going to see in our text today, and it is what we’ve already seen in chapters 2 and 6. We’re completely missing the point of the text when we come to a warning like we’ve seen throughout Hebrews and try to argue that he’s not really speaking to believers. He is certainly speaking to believers. Everyone he’s writing to are professing Christians. Brothers and sisters, these strong warning texts aren’t given to us so that we might examine and try to argue they’re not meant for us to hear them and feel their weight. Our God has given us warning texts so that we might hold up warnings before ourselves and one another. Now, yes, depending on whether someone truly belongs to God or not, these warnings may well have different effects. To the one who professes faith but really doesn’t know Jesus, this warning will be an opportunity for him to hear what awaits him, which our text speaks of as “a fearful expectation of judgment” (v. 27). And for the one who truly belongs to Jesus, these warnings will be used by our Father to pull us back from sin, lead us to repentance, and preserve us in the faith. But either way, the warnings must be issued and they must be issued strongly or we simply aren’t being faithful to the ultimate purpose for which God gave us these texts.
Therefore, with all of that said, let me outline our text in three sections. I think we can sum up the text by saying that walking away from Jesus leads to the merciless, furious, and fearful judgment of God, that looking back at God’s faithfulness is one way we persevere in faith, and that the call to us today is to persevere and endure in faith.
Let’s first start by seeing why walking away from Jesus is a serious and terrible reality (which I claimed in light of the Joshua Harris story earlier), and the answer is as simple as it is painful to consider: Walking away from Jesus leads to the merciless, furious, and fearful judgment of God.
Walking away from Jesus leads to the merciless, furious, and fearful judgment of God
It’s clear from Joshua Harris’s announcement that he is familiar enough with Scripture to rightly say that what he is doing—according to Scripture—is “falling away,” which was actually in a portion of his announcement I didn’t read for us. But there’s no way you can be familiar with our text this morning and suggest—as he did—that one can walk away from Jesus and be hopeful. Rather, our text tells us that what awaits the one who turns from Jesus and abandons following him in faith is a merciless, furious, and fearful judgment.
The author of Hebrews writes, “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 expectations of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (vv. 26-27).
And right off the bat we could go down a wrong path of interpretation, so let’s make sure to stay on track. When the author writes about “sinning deliberately,” he doesn’t mean that if anyone ever professes faith in Christ and then commits one act of deliberate sin, he’s damned. Otherwise, we’d all be condemned. He is referring here to what we term as “apostasy” or walking away from our faith in and commitment to Jesus. He’s talking about not persevering in faith. That’s what this whole letter is about. The author writes in order to keep these Jewish believers from turning away from Jesus and their commitment to him.
The reason he speaks of this in terms of deliberate sinning is probably because he’s drawing on the old covenant notion of deliberate sins not being covered by the sacrifices and instead meriting only hard, merciless judgment. In other words, he’s setting up a comparison. If deliberate sins under the old covenant brought judgment, what do you think turning away from Jesus will bring! That’s in fact what he says. He continues, “Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (vv. 28-31).
Sometimes we can think of the old covenant as a time when we saw the harsh judgment of God. We see, for example, a story like that in Numbers 15:32-36 where a man is stoned to death for being caught picking up sticks on the Sabbath, and we could be tempted to think, “Man, I’m glad that’s gone away.” But the author gives us no hint that somehow God’s judgment has disappeared. Rather, he argues that if that’s the kind of punishment we see under the old covenant, which revolved around flawed priests, animal sacrifices, and the like, the punishment that will be meted out on the one who turns away from Jesus will be much more severe. It’s as if the harsh judgment under the old covenant was just a shadow of the furious, merciless, and fearful judgment that will be poured out at the final judgment.
And just in case you’re missing the seriousness of abandoning the faith, the author says that what we’re doing when we turn away from Jesus is trampling God’s Son underfoot as if he’s worthless, profaning the blood he shed to cleanse us of our sins, and outraging the Holy Spirit. Brothers and sisters, do not think God will take this lightly. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. This is why I’ve said that walking away from Jesus leads to the merciless (v. 28), furious (v. 27), and fearful judgment of God (v. 27).
But it may be easy for us to tune out this warning this morning if we’re thinking to ourselves, “I’m not contemplating abandoning Jesus. I’m not going to turn away from him.” But the reality that you and I need to keep in mind is that the first warning the author of this book gave us was a warning against drifting from faith in and obedience to Christ (2:1). So, this morning, if you’re feeling the pull of sin or the appeal of abandoning Christ altogether, please repent. No matter if, like Joshua Harris, you can say that you don’t view apostasy as negative and even feel alive and hopeful, the reality is that a merciless, furious, and fearful judgment will await you on that final day when you fall into the hands of the living God. So, I plead with you this morning to repent and turn to Christ. And if you’re trifling with sin or even neglecting a pursuit of knowing and loving God more, I plead with you to repent and stop drifting. To say that when we trifle with sin we’re playing with fire is a great understatement. Let us run from sin as if it’s trying to pull us into hell.
And this leads us to the second section. How can we be strengthened to hold fast to Christ in times of struggle or difficulty? We look back at God’s faithfulness.
Looking back at God’s faithfulness aids us in persevering
Now, you’ll see when we look at verses 32-34 that the author is encouraging them to look back to a time when they were faithful. But I think it’s fair to describe this section as exhorting us to look back at God’s faithfulness, and the reason why is because our faithfulness is always a manifestation of God’s faithfulness. This is why we saw in 10:23, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering [our faithfulness], for he who promised is faithful [God’s faithfulness].”
And here’s what the author writes in verses 32-34, “But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you know that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.”
Perhaps their current situation was one where they were saying to themselves (and one another), “It’s just too hard to follow Jesus in this situation. I don’t know that I can keep obeying because I’m lonely, or desirous of certain pleasures, or just want to avoid persecution.” And the author is pointing out to them that they’ve forgotten the power of the Lord’s grace to sustain us through hard, trying, and tempting situations.
Therefore, he urges them to remember what God has brought them through before now. There was a time shortly after they’d become believers when they went through a period of intense suffering. They were publicly exposed to reproach and affliction. Some were imprisoned. They had their property taken from them. And far from shrinking back from their commitment to Christ, they let their persecutors know that they were united with those who had been imprisoned, in a “if you’re after them, then you’re after me,” kind of way. That is boldly following Christ.
And they did all of this, even suffering great loss, because they knew that they had eternity. Who cares if you suffer now if you have eternal life then? Who cares if you lose property now if you’re going to be heirs of the whole world then? That reality upheld them and strengthened them to keep pressing on in obedience to Jesus.
And the author’s point is to suggest that if they walked in faithfulness during that time and saw the Lord graciously uphold and strengthen them, then they will be fine now as long as they trust and keep pressing forward.
You see, one of the things that difficulty and struggle in our lives does is it causes a kind of spiritual amnesia.2 This is why the exhortation in this second section is “recall.” They’d forgotten. I’ve seen it in my own life on several occasions. You face a financial challenge, for example, and all of the sudden, you’re gripped with anxiety and fretting. And people around you can say, “Wait a second, weren’t you the one who told me numerous stories about the Lord sustaining and providing during a season where your need was much greater?” And they’re right. Why in the world, then, are you gripped with anxiety and fear when you are now faced with financial need? Well, what’s happening is a certain kind of spiritual amnesia. You’ve managed to forget the Lord’s sustaining grace in the past, and it is causing you not to trust him in the present.
This means that one of the ways we fight to hold fast and persevere in the faith is by remembering. We recount stories of his grace, telling of how the Lord sustained us so that we walked in faithfulness. We recall these for ourselves and others. Going back to last week’s text, one of the ways that we can stir one another up to love and good works is by making it a practice to gather together and recount stories of God’s faithfulness that led to our faithfulness during difficult seasons. Looking back at his grace creates a trust that he will give us the grace to sustain us in the present and future.
Perhaps next time you have others over for a meal, you can spark the conversation by asking, “Can you share a time or some times when things looked dark and grim and the Lord provided the grace you needed to sustain you so that you persevered?” It may well be that a story like this upholds your brother or sister later during a dark time. And in those moments of struggle, anxiety, and the like, pause and recount to yourself stories of God’s grace and faithfulness. As the author says, “Recall.”
So, this leads us to our last section which answers the question: “What do we then do when following Jesus is hard?” The answer is that we walk forward with enduring faith.
The call to us right now is to keep walking forward with enduring faith
The author writes in verse 35, “Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has great reward." ”Don’t throw it away. Don’t throw away your faithful commitment to Jesus. And then he reminds us why we must not throw it away, writing, “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, ‘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’” (vv. 36-38).
In other words, there’s a promise and a warning. If you endure in faith, you’ll receive what is promised—the blessing of eternal life. That’s the promise. Let it motivate you to press on. And there’s a warning. But if you shrink back, the Lord will find no pleasure in you but pour out his merciless, furious, and fearful judgment. Let that motivate you to turn from sin, even this morning. Let the warning have its effect in your life.
And the author ends on an encouraging note, writing, “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls” (v. 39). That is, he is telling them that he believes they will repent. He believes they’re not going to walk away from Jesus. They’re going to hear all that he’s said in this letter and say, “That’s right. How could I fathom walking away from Jesus?”
And I want to say the same thing to us as well this morning. It may well be that you’ve allowed yourself to drift into sin or dive into sin, and it is pulling you away from Jesus. Maybe it’s abusing alcohol, viewing lustful images, believing things contrary to the Bible, or a multitude of other issues. And maybe the weight of this has failed to this point to press on you. You’ve not realized that these sins are pulling your toward a fearful expectation of judgment. You’ve lost sight that rebelling against our Lord is outraging the Spirit of grace. But this morning the Lord has set up this moment as a warning to turn you back to him. And my prayer is that if that is you, that your hardened heart will begin to feel a little more this morning, maybe beat a little faster, and move you to flee from your sin into the open arms of Jesus. And if indeed that happens, it’s because your loving Father is giving you a severe and terrifying warning, doing what’s necessary to turn you back to him, making clear that he’s not going to let you go.
So, let me urge us this morning to turn from sin, look in hope to the one who died and was raised for us, remember that we have an advocate before the Father, and run back toward Jesus. And I believe that you will. I believe that you’re not one who shrinks back and will be destroyed but one who has faith and preserves your soul.
2 Tom Schreiner notes, “Their current sufferings have given them amnesia about how they responded earlier to the difficulties that beset them.” Commentary on Hebrews, Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation (Nashville: Holman Reference, 2015), 331.