Thursday, December 03, 2009

Can Christians Fall Away?

Once saved, always saved, or can Christians fall away? It's one of the big debates for contemporary Christians, and we came to the issue last night in our Fellowship Group working through the Letter to the Hebrews.

The writer is warming up to his main topic: how Jesus fulfills and surpasses the Jewish systems of priesthood, temple and sacrifice, by his once for all sacrificial death. En route, he mentions Melchizedek in 5:10. But then he takes a massive detour, a big pause for breath, before returning to Melchizedek in 6:20 and the explanation in 7:1. In fact, if you were to remove 5:11 - 6:20, the letter would work perfectly well. Introduction of Melchizedek, then explanation of Melchizedek. Yet that's not what has happened. Instead we have these verses, which may include some of the most fearful and difficult verses in Hebrews. So why are they here? What purpose does this instruction bring?

5:12 reflects on the fact that, even though these guys should be teachers by now, they still need to be taught themselves. There's a growth deficiency, they're not growing up and maturing as they should. They're still in spiritual nappies / diapers when they should be feasting on solid food.

In chapter 6, even though the readers need the milk, the writer is going to feed them on solids, good meaty sound doctrine for their maturing and growth. But it comes with a warning - that to receive the things of God and be under his word is dangerous - that if we fall away there is no restoration, no sacrifice for that sin because you can't crucify Jesus again.
4For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

Shocking words, and a serious warning for us to continue in the faith, to persevere to the end, to not give up. But let's be clear - God's word isn't saying that if you're a Christian and you sin then you're lost. All of us sin, and we need to repent of these ongoing sins, becoming increasing like Jesus, as we are sanctified. The issue here in these verses is that of apostasy - publicly renouncing Jesus and denying God, to publicly and consistently reject God's word.

We see the picture of land in verses 7-8. The rain is God's word, but the land may produce crops or thistles. What fruit are we producing? Are we flourishing under God's word or are we seeing the increase of bitterness within ourselves?

A solemn warning. A serious warning, but it's immediately followed by some serious encouragement. The writer is confident of better things from his readers, because he can see the signs of life in them - he can see the fruits that the gospel is producing in their lives, and God sees it too:
9Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. 10For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

The writer can identify the fruits of faith in them - their work, their love (for God) expressed in their service of God's people. We often can't see the fruits of faith in ourselves - we're too caught up in seeing the weakness and struggle and failures; but we can see other people producing these fruits, and they can see you. So why not encourage someone by whispering quietly - I'm thanking God for ... that I see in you.

But even though the writer to the Hebrews is confident for them to not fall because of these things, they can't and shouldn't find confidence in them themselves - that would be to fall back on works righteousness. Rather, our own confidence comes through having the full assurance of hope, trusting in God's word, imitating others who (like Abraham) waited with faith and patience for God's promises to be fulfilled.

Where does our hope lie? Not in ourselves - we're too weak and sinful. Not in our fruits - they will encourage legalism and self-righteousness (which is no righteousness). Only in the sure and steadfast anchor of the soul - our righteousness is in heaven, through the curtain, the Holy of Holies, where Jesus has gone before, and where we will go to be with him.

Can Christians fall away? Hebrews 6 suggests it is a possibility, but only if we neglect our faith. Keep on keeping on, trusting God and his promise, and we will not stumble. Jesus won't allow it. Our high priest is interceding for us as we speak.

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