Continuing from part 1, what is the purpose or function of the warnings? The book of Hebrews frequently intermingles warnings with encouragement. There are admonitions to bold confidence along with the peril of perishing. We can observe this in the Hebrews 6 passage. The opening verses of the chapter (6:1-3) emphasize the importance of moving forward in Christian maturity. Then we see the warning in verses 4-6 of falling away and not being able to be brought back to repentance. The warning moves into verse 9 with a change in tone. It now states, “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case.” It speaks of them being diligent to the end, their hopes being fully realized, so they inherit what has been promised. The warning in verses 4-6 is sandwiched between verses about believers maturing in the faith and the eschatological completion of their faith. It would seem that these are believers, wouldn’t it? But let’s keep going…
A paramount question should be the relationship between the warning and the promises. At first glance, it can seem like a contradiction. How do we fit together a stern warning against permanently falling away with a confident expectation that it won’t happen? Which is it? In this and other passages, the book of Hebrews intermingles warning and assurance without any sense of contradiction. For that matter, we could also list other verses throughout the New Testament, some emphasizing assurance or security, and others the need to persevere.
Part of our problem is that we come with preconceived ideas and we overemphasize one side or the other:
We place our focus on the promises, and gloss over the warnings.
Or we focus on the warnings, and doubt God’s promises.
Rather, we need to view this as a “tension” that serves a purpose. Schreiner and Caneday see this tension as a method God uses. The warning and consolation work together or function in harmony. Warnings extend the initial call of the gospel throughout our lives. God is faithful but uses warnings to keep us in the race. Warnings speak of conceivable consequences (not probable ones) and serve as a caution so that we don’t get slack and take our eyes off of Christ.
Schreiner and Caneday give the illustration of two different rock climbers approaching a cliff. One climber thinks “it is possible I will fall”, while the other thinks “If I fall, the consequences are deadly.” The first climber’s mode of thinking makes her have doubts and an overwhelming fear of falling; while the other climber’s mode of thinking helps her focus, and this instills a confidence born of caution about the deadly consequences of a fall.
They also give the illustration of road signs. When we see a road sign warning against curves in the road or falling rocks, the purpose is not to make us doubt our driving ability or to imply that we will crash. Rather, the signs are a caution concerning road hazards, and the caution appeals to us to imagine the consequence of failing to heed the warning. In a similar way, biblical warnings are a means God uses to preserve his people to the end. God’s warnings and promises don’t conflict, but rather the warnings serve the promises. It keeps us alert and encourages us to persevere in our faith.
The view presented by Schreiner and Caneday resonated with me. The Bible simultaneously assures us and warns us – not only in Hebrews but in other New Testament passages as well – and there is a tension in this which must be maintained. When dealing with a biblical tension, we must accept that there will be a degree of mystery. When we attempt to find more definitive answers, we risk coming to imbalanced conclusions. Strong warnings and confident hope can co-exist and keep us moving forward in the Christian life. Let us leave the unanswered details or concerns in God’s hands.
**I realize these are controversial issues, with equally informed believers coming to different conclusions. The ideas presented by Schreiner and Caneday “work” for me, but may not for you. And please remember that I only summarized key points from a long and detailed book. By the way, Schreiner has since written a brief (128 page) book that addresses this topic in a simpler, less extensive way than the first book – making it accessible to more people. It is called Run to Win the Prize. A review is here.