Several days ago I received an email asking about Hebrews 10:26, the last (and strongest) of the "warning passages" in Hebrews. It happens that the writer is a soldier serving in Afghanistan. Here is how he put his question:
One of the guys on my team and myself started a Bible study. We are actually talking about salvation. We also brought up Hebrews 10:26. We discussed this for awhile. I think it is nearly impossible to quit deliberately sinning. If we think about all sin, and that in God's eyes it's all the same, 3/4 of our churches would be going to Hell. Have any opinion on Hebrews 10:26? About the prodigal son, does it mean that maybe you can repent once, but after that...? Is that how some of the other preachers get around the moral of that story? I know I was saved when I was younger and I backslid on purpose, I was tired of living the Christian life alone. I realized my mistake years later, but I know I was saved before.
Lots of issues here, and I begin by acknowledging the fierce debate surrounding the proper interpretation of the "warning passages" in Hebrews. For our purposes, let's focus on Hebrews 10:26, "If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left." Context here is all-important. The whole idea of "deliberate" sin doesn't involve things like saying a swear word or skipping church or being in a bad mood or missing an appointment. Hebrews 10:26 envisions something much more serious-a deliberate, premeditated rejection of Christ. Here's a relevant example. We know how hard it is for a Muslim to give up Islam and become a Christ-follower. Such a person faces ostracism, opposition, ridicule, and maybe even death. But suppose that a Muslim becomes a Christ-follower and not only follows Jesus but begins to grow, to learn, to deepen his faith. Suppose he joins a Christian church, endures the opposition, faces the ridicule, knows that his family despises him but continues to grow in grace. Let's further suppose that he becomes a pastor and preaches the Word of God. But one day he begins to have doubts. One day he begins to think, "Maybe I was wrong about Jesus." One day the price seems too high for him. So he starts to read and think and lets his mind wander. And the mosque starts looking good to him. Maybe he misses the daily calls to prayer. Maybe he misses his family. Maybe he is just tired of the pressure. So he gives in, gives up his pastorate, leaves the church, "de-converts" and returns to Islam and makes a big show of it. You might call such a person a Prodigal Son in reverse. That sort of thing does happen from time to time.
10 is not talking about normal Christian growth and the struggles we
all face. In my judgment it's not talking about what we call
"backsliding" into sin. It's about renouncing Christ after knowing him
and following him and then decisively turning your back on him. When
Hebrews 10:26 says "no sacrifice for sins is left," it means "If you
reject Christ after claiming to know him, there is no place else for you
to go." If you turn your back on Jesus, going back to the synagogue
(the situation faced by the first-century readers of Hebrews) or the
mosque (as in my example) will not help you. If Jesus isn't enough for
you, then nothing your old life offers will satisfy and there is no
other way your sins can be forgiven.
The heart is not like Play-Doh that you can continually shape any way you like. Play-Doh hardens eventually. If a person openly and decisively turns away from the Christian faith he once professed, the heart hardens and for that person in that situation, there really is no other hope. Now you and I may say, "But God can soften that clay again." Yes, but that's not on the writer's mind at this point. He doesn't bring that up because he wants the warning to stand by itself. He wants the wavering believer to know what it is at stake.