Can a Christian walk away from God? To help work through this question, we must recognize that Christianity is not neat, and sin has never been respectful of our preferred categories. The Hebrew writer is suggesting there can be this kind of Christian–a believer, who for whatever reasons, spurns the grace he once received.
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I recently counseled a man who is addicted to a sin, which comes with a self-centered, self-serving lifestyle that keeps Christ from ruling his heart (Colossians 3:16). His sinful choice to love his sin has now become a controlling preference that dominates him (Romans 1:2; Galatians 6:1).
It was not that long ago when he professed Christ. Of course, a few people who know him would say he was never saved: “He made a profession, but did not have the possession of Christ.” It is true a person can acknowledge the facts about Christ while not possessing the transforming power of the gospel (Romans 12:1-2).
This problem has been called intellectual assent–a person giving consent to the truth claims of the gospel, but not being regenerated by them (John 3:1-7). Indeed many people are Christianized, but not truly transformed (Matthew 7:21). But let me ask you a few questions about that.
- Can this be the only answer for my friend?
- Is there only one category for a person who persists in a sinful lifestyle while tacitly hanging around the Christian community?
- Can a person walk away from genuine faith?
- How do you make sense of a person who once walked with Christ, but has since fallen away?
- Is there any responsibility on the believer regarding the perseverance of the saints?
No doubt, God perseveres for you (primary cause), but aren’t you supposed to cooperate with Him (secondary cause) by persisting in your sanctification? In the book of Hebrews what does the call to hold fast mean if the imperative is not for us to hold on to our faith?
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
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. – Hebrews 4:14
So that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. – Hebrews 6:18
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. – Hebrews 10:23
These are some of the most explicit passages in the New Testament that speak to our call for active obedience. The Hebrew writer was observing his brothers and sisters turning and walking away from their faith, and he did not mince words.
He gave stern warnings to those who did not want to follow the Savior any longer. He was willing and able to live in the theological tension of “for by grace you are saved” (Ephesians 2:8-9) and “you must hold fast to your confession of faith” (Hebrews 10:23).
Hold On To What You Can’t Lose
There seems to be no question the Hebrew writer is talking to genuine Christians. His language in Hebrews 10:26-39 points to the prior redemptive work of God on behalf of his audience (Philippians 1:6).
- Vs. 26–If we go on sinning. (Note the use of the pronoun we–he includes himself with them.)
- Vs. 26–They have received the knowledge of the truth.
- Vs. 29–They were sanctified.
- Vs. 32–They were enlightened.
Not only does the writer lump himself in the group of people who could walk away from the faith, but he uses robust, salvific language (salvation) to talk about God’s past regenerative work in their lives (Romans 8:29-30).
He is not leaning into vague or arbitrary profession language. This is possession language. The kind of writing he is using is the kind of communication I would use for myself or any other born again (John 3:7) follower of Christ.
The author of Hebrews is doing for them what he wants them to do for each other–bring stern warnings regarding the danger of choosing sin, while walking away from Christ (Hebrews 10:24-25).
This situation, however, creates a tension as we ask, Can we be eternally secure and in danger of walking away from our faith? We all know how the Christian is saved by grace, through faith in the works of Jesus Christ.
For us to be justified (Romans 8:29-30), we exercised faith, not works, as seen in many passages throughout the New Testament, e.g., Romans 1:17; Ephesians 1:3-14, 2:8-9; Titus 3:5. Salvation is not lose-able. We all know this.
But the writer of Hebrews is bringing a strong warning to those God sanctified, enlightened, and gave the knowledge of the truth, and he includes himself in the number of those who need to be warned (Hebrews 10:26).
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins. – Hebrews 10:26
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. – Hebrews 10:31
But my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him. But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. – Hebrews 10:38-39
He does not say God condemns us, as though we would go to hell for walking away from God, but he is clear: The Lord is not pleased when we mock His gospel. He is not happy about people who continue in willful sin.
The text and context of 10:26-39 clearly show how the writer of Hebrews considers his readers to be genuine believers who are in grave danger of God’s discipline (Hebrews 12:8) if they shrink back into their old way of life as Jews. – Charlie Boyd
If you turn your back on Christ and go back to your former ways of religious sacrifices, there is no forgiveness back there because it all has been fulfilled in Christ alone.
Presuming On God’s Grace Is Perilous
This kind of sinning tramples the Son of God underfoot. It is an insult to the Spirit of grace who enlightened you to see the Son in the first place. The writer is making a strong appeal, hoping they will see how this kind of stubborn refusal to walk away from sin will cause God’s anger to come down on them.
It would be a travesty, insult, and mockery to show no gratitude, humility, or obedient response to the One who gave His life to save us. This concept was my appeal to my counselee, who was more in love with his sin than his Savior.
To willfully, stubbornly, and selfishly persist in what we know to be sin is to spit on the cross of Christ and treat His blood shed for us with the greatest disrespect. – Charlie Boyd
How can you say there is more life in your sin than there is in Christ alone? There is no place in the Bible where it means there is grace for the consequences of sin. There will be severe consequences for a defiant believer.
God disciplines His children harshly when they continue in willful defiance. And He does so in one of two ways. Either He takes their lives, or He judicially sentences them to live out their lives experiencing the consequences of their sin. – Chuck Swindoll
Insulting the Spirit of grace, who is trying to draw you back, but you do not care and refuse to walk away from your sin, is to trample under foot the grace of God that can save you from the consequences of your stubbornness.
My friend was in a perilous place. He came to counseling buzzed (he was high) from what he was taking, and he was flippant, snarky, sarcastic, and comical about the content of the counseling session. His wife was crying, and my soul was sad for both of them.
I am not ready to say he was unsaved. I did not feel God or His gospel needed theological protection by me causally categorizing him as having made a profession, but did not indeed possess Jesus. This kind of thinking could be a gospel-travesty.
Warning Against Gospel Abuse
Maybe there are more than two Christian types:
- Those who authentically believe in Jesus and never walk away.
- Those who say they believe in Jesus and can walk away.
Christianity is not that neat, and sin has never been that respectful. The Hebrew writer is saying there is a third Christian type–a believer, who for whatever reasons, spurns the grace he once received.
The writer did not want to dilute the gospel by protecting it from the possibility of this kind of abuse. To not embrace this third type of Christian is to presume against God’s grace (Psalm 19:13).
It may keep our Christianity and our theology in tight and neat packages, but it can be a massive disservice to the body of Christ. You and I are tempted to sin every day. We are under pressure while suffering the ebb and flow of victory and defeat throughout our lives.
No one is exempt from the cursedness of life, whether the curse comes from our hearts or from the world we live–even the believer’s heart. The believers at the time of the writing of the book of Hebrews were under persecution.
They did believe Christ by faith and maybe even enjoyed a time of refreshing through Christ and their community. In time, the cares and troubles of life began to mount, and some of them decided to walk away from Christ.
The Hebrew writer was not going to categorize them willy-nilly as false converts. It would have been easy, but it would not have served them.
- The ones who walked away would not have received the warning of the impending danger of spurning their faith.
- The ones who were still persevering needed to know the dangers of this kind of thinking and living.
Call to Action
Can you see how dangerous it is to not warn a person of the consequences of walking away from God? To wipe your hands of them does not help them or those who may yet choose sin over Christ.
The Hebrew writer was not going to check the theological box of “God never saved them in the first place” and move on to the next thing. His heart was broken, which is why his language was so severe.
He gave you and I a threefold call to action regarding your friends. You see this in the passage–Hebrews 10:19-39: Consider, confront, and to comfort. His first point was to consider those in your immediate community of faith.
Consider – Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another. – Hebrews 10:24-25
- How much time do you spend during your day considering those you can impact by the gospel?
- Do your friends feel “considered” by you?
There is no question these Hebrew believers felt considered by the writer of this book. He could not have been more clear. He understood them, their history, their lifestyles, and their temptations.
He did not hold back from giving them careful consideration while laying out a clear plan for them to keep persevering in the faith God had granted to them.
One of the big disappointments in the church today is how brothers and sisters will not give up the time needed to consider how to stir up each other to love and good deeds. It would be a joy to be in the Hebrew writer’s small group!
Confront – 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. – Hebrews 10:26-27
- Have your friends experienced your carefully considered corrective care?
- Do your friends clearly understand the consequences of their actions because you have warned them?
There is no place for harshness within the Christian community. If you want to know how to warn without being mean-spirited about it, spend some time carefully reading this passage.
You feel the writer’s affection for the people. He says some of the sternest and most direct things you can say to a person, but you do not feel talked down to or verbally assaulted in any way.
He loved those people enough to warn them about the possibilities of their actions. He was like a father to them. Any good father would warn a son or daughter about the dangers in our world and the consequences for choosing those risks (Luke 11:11).
Comfort – 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. – Hebrews 10:32-33
The Hebrew writer was not like a hit and run driver. He was with them, willing to stick it out for their good and God’s glory. He confronted, and he comforted. He reminded them of the efficacious grace of God that was evident in their lives.
He wanted them to know how God will be with them in the future by reminding them how He was with them in the past. He clearly identified evidence of God’s gracious activity in their lives.
- When you consider and confront your friends, do they also experience your comfort?
- Would you be categorized more as a critical corrector or a comforting confronter?
It is possible for a Christian to turn his nose to God and walk away from the faith. That does not mean he has a broken relationship with God, though he may sever his fellowship (1 John 1:7-10) with God and others. It also means there will be consequences for taking God’s grace for granted (Galatians 6:7-10).
May we all be warned. May we all respond by graciously seeking to change ourselves while carefully considering others within our communities of faith.
If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. – Hebrews 12:8
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It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. – Hebrews 10:31