The Security of the Believer
the Falling Away in the Book of Hebrews

For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. (Hebrews 10:26, 27)

The immediate context of Hebrews 10:26 confirms that what is in view is rejection of the Way and not simply some kind of moral failure.

Hebrews 10:26 is linked to what precedes by the word "for:" "For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth . . ." What precedes is a summation of the great privilege that is ours under the New Covenant, a climax of the previous ten and a half chapters, and the application never to let go of it. (Hebrews 10:19-25) It begins with the affirmation, "Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus," (Hebrews 10:19) and ends with the warning about "not forsaking our own assembling together." (Hebrews 10:25)

The actions of "sinning willfully" and "forsaking our own assembling together" are connected; they are separate parts of a whole decisive action. To cut oneself off from the means of grace, unlike sins such as murder and adultery, cuts oneself off from Christ himself, for the Lord Jesus ordinarily communicates his grace not immediately but mediately, through baptism and the supper, the preaching of the Word, the singing with grace in the heart and praying and fellowshipping with the body of Christ, the Messianic Assembly.

Eugene Peterson paraphrased this section this way in The Message: "So, friends, we can now -- without hesitation -- walk right up to God, into 'the Holy Place.' Jesus has cleared the way by the blood of his sacrifice, acting as our priest before God. The 'curtain' into God's presence is his body.

"So let's do it -- full of belief, confident that we're presentable inside and out. Let's keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. He always keeps his word. Let's see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.

"If we give up and turn our backs on all we've learned, all we've been given, all the truth we now know, we repudiate Christ's sacrifice and are left on our own to face the Judgment -- and a mighty fierce judgment it will be! If the penalty for breaking the law of Moses is physical death, what do you think will happen if you turn on God's Son, spit on the sacrifice that made you whole, and insult this most gracious Spirit? This is no light matter. God has warned us that he'll hold us to account and make us pay. He was quite explicit: 'Vengeance is mine, and I won't overlook a thing,' and, 'God will judge his people.' Nobody's getting by with anything, believe me."

Again I would add that the sin of apostasy is a real danger to all those who profess faith in Jesus Christ, but no one who is truly saved will ever completely and finally commit this sin. The temptation to revert to the way of the Old Testament, especially for a person who grew up in it and now faces severe persecution within the larger social community because he has rejected the Old way for the New, was very great, and the danger very real. But those who were given to the Son by the Father are preserved from it. They "work out" their "own salvation with fear and trembling," because "God is at work in" them "both to will and to do of his good pleasure." (Philippians 2:12, 13)

The "falling from grace" described in Hebrews six and ten is a total rejection of everything the Lord Jesus Christ means. It cannot be compared to a situation of lapsing into some sin. Nor would I call it "a complete renunciation of all godliness," for a person may commit this act and remain a very moral individual. It is not sinning per se that is in view here at all; rather, it involves a religious shift, a "re-conversion," which is a total thing, the adopting again of a system that is now alien to the gospel.

What is in view is the total forsaking of the Christian Church and her Savior for the religion of Judaism. It is an attempt to return to the religion of the Old Testament by positing religious reality back into the Temple system. But this system has been fulfilled in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is why Hebrews 6:4, 5 uses all of those eschatological terms: "heavenly," "Spirit," "powers of the coming age." The writer is saying that the Messianic era has now arrived, and the Old World Order has passed away, "because of the weakness and unprofitableness of it." (Hebrews 7:18)

The Old Order with its Temple and sacrifices was "a figure for the time then present. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience . . ." (Hebrews 9:9) When God foretold through Jeremiah and Ezekiel the inauguration of a New Covenant, "he made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear." (Hebrews 8:13) Jesus, through his agent Titus, the son of Vespasian, utterly removed that system that foreshadowed New Covenant realities. But even prior to 70 A.D., that system had lost its function, because the fulfillment had come in the person and work of the Lord Jesus, climaxing in the chain of events between Good Friday and Pentecost of 30 A.D.

One may then see that these dire words are used to emphasize the reality, not so much of the spiritual experience of the man who has forsaken the gospel, but the fact that the Rubicon of Redemptive history has been crossed in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The point is that these elements of the Old Testament sacrificial system no longer represent and communicate grace. The Spiritual reality has gone from them, for Jesus, the true reality has at long last come. This is similar to what Paul said, "If you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you." (Galatians 5:2)

Therefore, should anyone leave the Way for the Old Testament sacrificial system, he will not find there what he once could have found. There no longer remains any efficacy in the sacrifices of that system, "there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins." (Hebrews 10:26) That spiritual Rubicon cannot be crossed back again. To go back to it after having tasted of the heavenly reality is as a man returning home from war to find that the old way of life is gone: Tara, Margaret Mitchell's fictional plantation of the antebellum South, has very much Gone with the Wind.

In effect, what the writer to the Hebrews is saying is this: What we Jewish believers left in coming to embrace Jesus of Nazareth as our Messiah is no longer there; it cannot be returned to for the simple reason that it no longer exists. It is vital to read these two sections, Hebrews 6:4 ff. and 10:26 ff., in their context: the Old has passed over into the reality of the New in Jesus Christ.

The roadside is littered with dying people who have been told that they are beyond hope. The vicious lie that once someone has fallen into sin, "there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins" has been mightily used of Satan to keep people from looking to the Savior and living. We must preach grace: electing grace, calling grace, regenerating grace, converting grace, justifying grace, adopting grace, sanctifying grace, preserving grace, glorifying grace.

We must say to people who used to profess faith in Christ, but who now despair of hope, having fallen into murder, adultery, sexual perversion, theft, abortion, drug or alcohol bondage, staying away from the means of grace because of a twisting of "there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins:"

"Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30)

The question remains, can a person ever leave Christ in this way and return to the ruins of the Old Testament system? Hebrew's answer is yes, but not if that person has ever been born again and truly become part of Christ. (Hebrews 3:4, 14) John's answer to the question settles the matter once and for all: "They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us." (1 John 2:19)

For further thoughts on this subject, click here.