Saturday, September 25, 2010

Confidence and Caution: Two Harmonious Concepts in the Epistle to the Hebrews

“To be sure, the Reformed insistence on assurance of salvation was seen as a corrective to the extreme ‘desperatio’ that gripped many adherents of later medieval Catholicism. For the Reformed, the recovery of true assurance became not simply a happy consequence of the true proclamation of the gospel, but a necessary component of the Christian life. Under this assumption, to be a Christian is to be assured of personal is here, partly in reaction to the Reformed insistence on assurance, and partly as a result of his own soteriology, that Arminius reconsidered the problem of assurance. The question underlying this revision may be proposed as follows: is it possible to have too much assurance? Is there such a thing as AN UNHEALTHY ASSURANCE? Arminius claimed that there is, and he called it ‘securitas’ or ‘sorgloosheyt’” (Keith Stanglin, “Arminius on the Assurance of Salvation: The Context, Roots, and Shape of the Leiden Debate, 1603-1609.” Leiden, Boston: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2007, page 151).

I know that the title of the post might alarm some of my readership. Many believers are taught, from birth, to see the theme of confidence in Scripture. So was I. I was raised in a church where I was told every Sunday that confidence in God was as tried-and-true as the Great Wall of China or the Taj Mahal in India...actually, more so than either of those things.

In the world in which we live, we often find ourselves without much confidence in the people around us. Many people are dishonest and make and break promises at whim, without little regard for loyalty and pledge. People often lie to get to where they wanna be in life, and others are living lying lives and will soon be exposed. In this year alone, there are quite a few famous individuals that I have lost faith in. I have not lost faith in God, or in God’s ability to raise them up again; rather, what I have lost is the somewhat “immortalized confidence” I had placed in them at first. I guess the verse rings true that says, “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man” (Psalm 118:8, NKJV) and “it is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes” (Ps. 118:9). Whether we like it or not, people will fail us.

And this is why I was always told to trust in the Lord. In a world where people fail and can barely be dependable, God is ALWAYS the same. He never changes. He is always true to His nature and character. His judgments are always just and true, and His ways are always righteous and good.

Now having studied the Calvinism-Arminianism debate for the last fifteen months or so, and having read on the Doctrine of Apostasy, it has occurred to me that my notion of confidence in God is different from many whose works I have read (and even many with whom I live in community here at seminary). I am confident that God is sovereign, God is in control; that God is guiding history to “new heaven and new earth” of Revelation 21:1; that God will always be just in His dealings, including His chastisements and punishments; and that He will also be just in His rewards to those who seek Him and follow Him with all their hearts. But the notion I get from some around me (and even many believers I encounter daily) is that they are confident in a God who will still reward them, no matter how they live...and that they will have a faith which remains, so they need not worry about losing faith in God, or growing cold in their hearts toward God, or becoming bitter and angry with God about certain personal desires that are not materialized, etc. In short, they are on a path that God determined for them, a path which leads to glory. However, if God determined their path, a path which leads to glory, what about the others who will never come to Christ? Some say that unbelievers are sent to Hell because of their own unbelief, but I don’t see how this is consistent when the same God that determined believers to be saved is the same God who does not determine unbelievers to be damned?

Why are believers so “overconfident” in their view of divine security and eternal destination? Because of a misreading and misunderstanding of the Scriptures themselves. So this post will tackle such a misunderstanding by examining Hebrews 6, a text that Calvinists, Molinists, and Arminians are forced to address in their theological systems. Just to brief those who may not know: Calvinists and Molinists believe in eternal security, while Arminians argue for conditional security (that is, on the condition of faith, should faith be in the life of the believer, he or she will remain to the end; however, faith can be thrown away, see Hebrews 10:22). Let’s now approach the text.

Verses 1-2 of the chapter find the writers addressing the Jewish believers, saying, “leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation...” (Heb. 6:1) We know from verse 1 that the readership has had the foundation doctrines given to them (what the Scriptures call the knowledge of the truth). Notice that the congregation is lacking in spiritual maturity, which is why the writers are taking time to admonish them (Heb. 5:11-14). The believers “need someone to teach [them] again” the foundational doctrines (Heb. 5:12), which tells us that the readers have been given the foundation before. The readership is not being given such teachings for the first time, and should even be spiritually mature in the faith (although acting like babes in need of spiritual milk).

The writers admonish them at the end of chapter 5, but exhort them to press on in chapter 6, verse 1. These beginning verses (vv. 1-2), then, are labeled “confidence.” The writers are optimistic about their readership continuing in the grace of God and assume they can.

But alongside this confidence theme, is one of caution. Verses 4-6 state that one who has experienced the blessings of salvation and falls away cannot be restored to the faith, since this would require Christ to be crucified a second time. The blessings of salvation involve enlightenment (“coming to the knowledge of the truth,” 1 Timothy 2:4), salvation itself [“tasting the heavenly gift,” Heb. 6:4b], the Holy Spirit’s indwelling [“partakers of the Holy Spirit,” Heb. 6:4c], spiritual nutrition from the Word of God [“have tasted the good word of God,” Heb. 6:5a], and other spiritual blessings from God [“powers of the age to come,” Heb. 6:5b]. Here, we see that verses 4-6 are a warning to the believers to press forward in the faith. If a person decides, after coming to the knowledge of the truth, experiencing salvation, and learning of the truths of the Word of God (as well as the foundational doctrines of Heb. 6:1-2), to fall away, he has “trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of Grace” (Heb. 10:29).

Verses 7 and 8 give the two options for this group of believers: they can either (1) “bear herbs” and “receive blessing from God,” or (2) “bear thorns and briers” and be “rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned.” Both options involve the ground “drinking the rain,” receiving the blessings of Hebrews 6:4-5...however, one can still bear thorns and thistles (even having been saved). It is this unfruitfulness in the kingdom of God that is of utmost concern. The unfruitfulness places one in danger of being cursed by God and eschatologically sentenced to the lake of fire.

In verses 9-10, the writers express confidence once more: “but, beloved, we are CONFIDENT of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner. For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister” (Heb. 6:9-10, NKJV).

The writers express confidence (“we are confident of better things concerning you...”, verse 9), telling the believers that God knows “your work and labor of love,” how they have served God’s people in the past and continue to do so. They have testified publicly to their salvation through their work for God, and are still doing so at the time of the letter. Their work testifies to their love for God and their salvation, which is why the writers can provide such confidence.

In verses 11-12, however, we see the writers return to their “caution” theme: “we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end” (Heb. 6:11). Even though they are confident of the believers’ salvation, they still desire to push them forward to the end. It seems that, at least in the minds of the writers, one had to endure to the end; if this were not the case, why would they stress the phrase “until the end,” (v.11) and emphasize that the believers “through faith and patience inherit the promises” (v.12)? The writers viewed faith and perseverance as both necessary to the end, and the writers would go on to say the same thing about perseverance in a later chapter to the Hebrews (Heb. 10:35-39).

The writers of the epistle (or chapter at least) weave two themes, the themes of confidence and caution, throughout Hebrews chapter 6. We cannot do the text justice until we recognize both...and emphasizing confidence, for example, might make one confident in his salvation...but it won’t make him faithful to the Word of God.

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