Perhaps you are familiar with the “warning passages” in the book of Hebrews.The Hebrews 6:4-6 warning passage may be the most debated passage in the New Testament. Evangelical scholars come to a multitude of different conclusions, with variable nuances even among similar views. I wrote a paper on the Hebrews 6:4-6 passage, but wanted to share some broad or general points in this two-part post that can apply to all the warning passages, as well as other similar passages on perseverance in the New Testament.
A book I read by Schreiner and Caneday, entitled The Race Set Before Us, A Biblical Theology of Perseverance & Assurance (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2001) gave me a whole new perspective. I used their approach for the paper I wrote and got praise for taking a creative, new approach instead of one of the standard, traditional ones. By the way, I absolutely love this book and highly recommend it, especially if issues related to biblical perseverance and assurance concern you. It is academic, but definitely readable for the interested layperson.
What are the traditional ways to interpret this passage? The major interpretations fall within two general categories, based upon whether the people in question are believers or unbelievers. Briefly, one interpretation is that these are Christians who have lost their salvation so this denies the eternal security of the believer. Another interpretation is to see these people as Christians who lose eternal rewards, but not their salvation. While another viewpoint is that these people are non-genuine believers or “professors” who never had genuine faith to begin with. Etc.
The primary approach in most of the interpretations is to focus on whether these people are believers or unbelievers, and related issues like eternal security. Perhaps part of the interpretive struggle is due to this approach. The questions we ask (or don’t ask) as we approach a text bias our conclusions. Our theological presuppositions also influence our interpretation.
While it is impossible for anyone to be completely objective, perhaps we need to re-consider the typical approach to this and other similar texts. It seems we might be approaching these verses with the “wrong” questions. Our questions bring a retrospective focus, while the book of Hebrews as a whole has a prospective focus. Perhaps the key is to try approaching these verses more prospectively.
The typical approach looks back, to consider whether these people were genuine believers who began the race of faith. Yet, is this focus in harmony with the general message and emphasis of Hebrews? No, it is not. The purpose of Hebrews is to lead believers into a more mature knowledge of Christ and a more mature Christian life. Hebrews has an overwhelming prospective or future focus.
The recipients had begun well (6:10; 10:32-34) and the focus is on running the race set before them (12:1). They were in danger of receding from Christianity back into Judaism and not maturing in the Christian faith. The recipients are warned, exhorted, and encouraged to keep moving forward in their faith.
Salvation itself in Hebrews is also future oriented. Verses such as 3:11-14; 6:12; 9:15, 28; and 10:36 look to the eschatological completion of our faith. We look to the future when we will receive our spiritual inheritance or what has been promised. We wait for the second coming of Christ and the completion of our salvation at that time.
The warning passages need to be considered in this light. Perhaps the focus should be on the purpose or function of the warnings. What is their purpose or function? More in post two.