Hebrews and Assurance

©David Peterson 2009[1]

Hebrews is perhaps best known for its warning passages, which outline the terrible consequences of falling away from Christ (2:1-4; 3:7 – 4:13; 5:11 – 6:12; 10:26-39; 12:14-17, 25-7). These have often been a cause of confusion and even despair amongst Christians, raising doubts about their security and ability to persevere. True to the description of this work as ‘a word of exhortation’ (13:22), the warning passages are not merely asides, but the goal or main point of the writer’s theological exposition. Nevertheless, the dominant note in Hebrews is one of assurance. In the doctrinal as well as the hortatory sections, Hebrews is full of the most wonderful encouragements to enjoy the benefits of a relationship with God in the present and to persevere in faith until the ultimate delights of the new creation are experienced.

In this matter, as in other theological investigations, Hebrews is an important control for the study of the letters of Paul. Many of the same issues are dealt with using different terms and a different style of argument. Even a key Old Testament text such as Habbakuk 2:4 can be somewhat differently employed. Nevertheless, similar conclusions are reached about the realization of the promised End-time blessings in Christ, about the consequent standing of believers before God the judge of all, and about the need to live as those who already belong to his unshakable kingdom (e.g., 12:18-29).

The basis of assurance

Hebrews does not speak about justification by faith as Paul does, although certain key passages establish the link between righteousness and faith. The writer prefers to assure his readers of their standing with God by using the terminology of cleansing, sanctification and perfection. What lies behind the argument of both Paul and Hebrews, however, is a shared conviction about the once-for-all achievement of Jesus for us in his death and heavenly exaltation.

Righteousness by faith

Hebrews 11 affirms that Noah became an heir to ‘the righteousness that is in accordance with faith’ (tēs kata pistin dikaiosynēs, v. 7), apparently using the noun dikaiosynēs with reference to righteousness as a relational and moral quality (cf. 1:9; 5:13; 7:2; 11:33; 12:11). The biblical tradition that Noah was righteous is recalled (e.g. Gn. 6:9; 7:1; Ezk. 14:14, 20), but with the clarification that faith is ‘the way or the condition by which righteousness is actualized.’[2] The righteousness that was bestowed by God in Noah’s case arose from an obedient trust in God’s word. By his faithful response to God’s command, Noah manifested righteousness and so ‘condemned the world’ for its lack of faith and consequent unrighteousness.

Abel is the first person in the chapter who is said to have been attested by Scripture as righteous because of his faith (v. 4). Noah is the next to be so described and is therefore ‘heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith’ (v. 7). This terminology is not used again until the summary note in v. 33, where we are told that by faith many Old Testament saints ‘established righteousness’ (eirgasanto dikaiosynēn).[3] In between these references, the writer presents many examples of those who acted righteously because of their faith.

A critical passage for establishing the relationship between righteousness and faith is 10:37-8. Once again, the writer’s approach is somewhat different from Paul’s (cf. Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11). The latter uses Habbakuk 2:4 as part of his argument that eschatological salvation is available for Jews and Gentiles on the same basis, through faith in Christ and by no other means. In Hebrews 10, however, Habbakuk 2:3b-4 is conflated with words from Isaiah 26:20, as a basis for calling the readers to courageous and faithful endurance, rather than ‘withdrawal’, as they await the consummation of all God’s promises.[4]

The Old Testament text is first used Christologically, so that the subject of Hebrews 10:37 is Christ as ‘the coming one’, who ‘will come and not delay’. In the next verse, however, ‘my righteous one’ appears to be ‘the Christian who demonstrates faithfulness to God as he moves towards the goal of life, eschatologically understood (ie. “eternal life”, cf. 9:15).’[5] What is required by the phrase ‘live by faith’ in this context is the sort of endurance illustrated in vv. 32-4 and then in Hebrews 11. The basis of such endurance is a God-given ‘confidence’ (parrēsia, v. 35), which must not be ‘thrown away’. The nature of this confidence, which is critical to the argument of Hebrews (cf. 3:6; 4:16; 10:19), will be explored below. Here it is important to note that a certain kind of assurance is necessary if God’s people are to persevere in the path that he has set before them.

The quotation from the Greek version of Habbakuk 2:4 in Hebrews 10:38 actually inverts the clauses to make ‘my righteous one’ (ho dikaios mou) the subject of both parts of the verse.  ‘My righteous one shall live by faith’ is applied to the Christian believer, tempted to wonder if Christ will ever return in accordance with his promise. But then, with the same implied subject, the warning about the divine displeasure which rests upon anyone who draws back is applied to the person ‘who yields to the temptation to relapse from his Christian profession into his earlier way of life.’[6]

As in the Old Testament, ‘the righteous’ are those who are in a right relationship with God by faith.[7] One of the characteristics of those who are genuinely righteous is that they persevere in faith. If Hebrews introduces a note of warning about the need for perseverance with the second clause in 10:38, this is immediately balanced by the encouragement of v. 39 (‘but we are not among those who shrink back and are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved’). Consistently throughout this book, the writer warns about the consequences of abandoning faith, while providing every encouragement to sustain and nurture faith.

Note finally that, in the perspective of Hebrews, even those who were righteous by faith (such as Abel and Noah) needed to be ‘perfected’ by the saving work of Jesus, in order to obtain all that God had promised to his people (11:39-40; cf. 9:15). The terminology of righteousness is not used on its own to describe the ultimate status of believers before God ‘the judge of all’. When the writer looks into heaven, he sees ‘the spirits of the righteous made perfect’ (12:23, teteleiōmenōn). Their eschatological standing is clearly related to the achievement of Jesus, ‘the mediator of a new covenant’ and to his ‘sprinkled blood’ (12:24). The language of perfection is used throughout Hebrews in a way that somewhat parallels Paul’s teaching about justification and imputed righteousness.

Cleansing, sanctification and perfection

The terminology that is most used to assure the readers of their standing before God is that of cleansing or purification (katharizein, cf. 9:14, 22, 23, 10:2), sanctification (hagiazein, cf. 2:11; 9:13; 10:10, 14, 29; 13:12), and perfection (teleioun, cf. 7:19; 9:9; 10:1, 14; 11:40; 12:23). The first two expressions arise naturally from the writer’s presentation of Christ in high priestly terms, viewing his work as a fulfilment of the cultic provisions of the Mosaic covenant in the benefits of the New Covenant. Jesus achieved a once-for-all cleansing from sin and a sanctification of believers to God in his sacrificial death and heavenly exaltation. In terms of Jeremiah 31:31-4, this means a definitive forgiveness of sins and a commitment to God from the heart such as was not experienced by Israel under the previous covenant.

Purification is the basis of sanctification in Hebrews. ‘By his sovereign action in Christ, God sets apart and binds to himself those who have been purified from the defilement of sin. This objective, consecrating work of God has profound implications for the attitude and behaviour of those who believe.’[8] Perfection is an even more comprehensive concept, involving purification, sanctification and ultimately also what Paul calls glorification (cf. the sequence ‘called’, ‘justified’, ‘glorified’ in Rom. 8:30).

The language of perfection is closely allied to that of fulfilment and conveys the note of eschatological completion. Perfection for believers is made possible by the perfecting of Christ, through his obedience in suffering, his death and heavenly exaltation (2:10; 5:9; 7:28). ‘By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified’ (10:14). The perfect tense of the verb in this text is most striking (teteleiōken), suggesting that, ‘what will first reach complete realization at the final fulfilment of all God’s promises (11:40; 12:23), is only an unfolding of what is, in principle, even now achieved through Christ’s sacrifice.’[9]

Such perfection is tied in closely with the writer’s presentation of the work of Christ in cultic terms and is linked to the concept of ‘drawing near’ to God (engizein, cf. 7:19; proserchesthai, cf. 4:16; 7:25; 10:1, 22; 11:6; 12:18, 22). Believers can approach God directly through Christ now, in the sanctuary of heaven, and experience in advance the benefits of living in his presence for ever.[10] This approach to God in the present is a means by which we are assured of participation in the ultimate fulfilment of his promises.

What lies behind all this is the objective achievement of Jesus in his life, death and heavenly exaltation. Hebrews, however, is not content to speak about these events as historical accomplishments only. The language of cleansing, santification and perfection is used to describe the present effect of Christ’s work in those who believe. Cleansing, sanctification and perfection can be experienced by God’s enabling in the lives of those who believe the gospel about Jesus and continue to draw near to God through him, ‘with a true heart in full assurance of faith’, with hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and bodies washed with pure water (10:22). The objective promises of the gospel enable that drawing near to God. Those who do so find that assurance is realized by faith.

It should be noted here that the meaning of sanctification in Paul’s writings is very similar to that of Hebrews: believers are set apart in Christ and are purified as a people for God’s own possession. Those who represent justification in Paul’s theology as essentially ‘a declaration that one is in the covenant’ have imported something of the meaning of sanctification into their interpretation, playing down the juridical sense of justification in the process.[11]

The nature of assurance

In most English versions, the word ‘assurance’ is only found in Hebrews 6:11; 10:22 (translating plērophoria) and 11:1 (translating hypostasis). But the concept is conveyed more centrally in the argument when the benefits of Christ’s work are expressed in terms of the ‘confidence’ or ‘boldness’ that is ours (cf. parrēsia in 3:6; 4:16; 10:19, 35). The same Greek word is employed in 1 John to describe the confidence that believers can have before God, both now and on the day of judgment (1 Jn. 2:28; 3:21; 4:17; 5:14).

A divinely-given confidence

In the Greek political sphere, the noun parrēsia was used with three shades of meaning: the right of the full citizen to say anything in the public assembly, openness to truth, and the courage of openness or candour.[12] In the private sphere, it was especially used to describe the freedom of friends to speak the truth and not flatter one another. The LXX went beyond the use of Hellenism in stating that parrēsia could be God-given and that it could be expressed by the righteous towards God.[13] But there is no indication that this rare Old Testament usage of the terminology directly influenced its New Testament application.[14]

In the exhortations that precede and conclude the central doctrinal section of Hebrews (4:16; 10:19), parrēsia is clearly linked with the atoning work of Christ. Foundationally, the ‘freedom of speech’ or boldness of the Christian is a God-given right of direct access to God, in the sanctuary of heaven. This is the Christian’s present possession (echontes [‘having], 10:19), because of Jesus’ ‘blood’ and his opening of the way into God’s presence, where he now sits as ‘a great priest over the house of God’ (10:21; cf. 4:14-15; 7:25; 10:11-14). Here we see a powerful amplification of the perspective found in Romans 5:1-2, that those who have been justified by faith have peace with God through our Lord Jesus, through whom ‘we have obtained access (tēn prosagōgēn) to this grace in which we stand’ (cf. Eph. 3:12). Such access to God’s grace in the present enables us to ‘rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.’

What follows from the gift of ‘confidence to enter the sanctuary’ (10:19) is the encouragement to keep on drawing near, with a true heart ‘in full assurance of faith’ (en plērophoria pisteōs, 10:22). The last expression, which literally means ‘in fullness of faith’, helps to define how the heart can be ‘true’. In the words of Bishop Westcott, a ‘true heart’ (alēthinēs kardias) is ‘a heart which expresses completely the devotion of the person to God. There is no divided allegiance: no reserve of feeling.’[15] ‘Full assurance of faith’ recalls the expression ‘full assurance of hope’ (tēn plērophorian tēs elpidos) in Hebrews 6:11. ‘Both phrases are descriptive of the certainty and stability that are created in Christians as a result of the work of Christ and that enable them to remain loyal to him.’[16] The full scope of faith needs to be expressed and realized in everyday contexts of temptation and suffering.

Prayer for ‘mercy’ and ‘grace to help in time of need’ is clearly at the heart of the confident and persistent approach to God mentioned in 4:16 (cf. 1 Jn. 5:14).[17] The ‘freedom of speech’ that God has given us in Christ is fundamentally expressed in such prayer. Since we have already drawn near to God by coming to Christ (proselēlythate [‘you have come to’], 12:22), that relationship needs to be articulated in a life of ongoing dependence upon God and trusting obedience. It is clear from Old Testament use of such terminology and from Hebrews itself (7:19; 10:1; 12:18) that Israel could draw near to God in a restricted way under the provisions of the Mosaic covenant. But now ‘a better hope is introduced by which we draw near to God’ (7:19). This hope is based on the fulfilment of the promises of a ‘better covenant’, of which Jesus is guarantor (7:22) and mediator (8:6).

The other dimension to the parrēsia that is ours in Christ is a confidence before others, especially those who may by opponents and persecutors. This is also the emphasis when the same Greek word is used in Acts (2:29; 4:13, 29, 31; 28:31), and in some of Paul’s writings (e.g. 2 Cor. 3:12; Phil. 1:20; Eph. 6:19-20). The Christian’s ‘freedom of speech’ in Hebrews has two sides: ‘the free right to approach God, given in the sacrifice of Christ, which is the essence of the Christian faith, and the open confession of this faith, which is an unshakable hope.’[18]

According to 3:6, we demonstrate ourselves to be genuinely part of God’s ‘house’ by holding firm ‘the confidence and pride that belong to our hope’. These words introduce a warning about the danger of hardening hearts in unbelief and rebellion against God (3:7-19). Within this context, the writer affirms that ‘we have become partners of Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end’ (3:14). The same verb ‘to hold firm’ (kataschōmen) is used here as in 3:6. Something of a parallel with parrēsia in 3:6 is probably also intended by the phrase tēn archēn tēs hypostaseōs in 3:14, which NRSV has rendered ‘our first confidence’.

The meaning of this last expression, however, is somewhat more complex. It may also be translated ‘the initial reality’ and refer to that heavenly life inaugurated for believers by Christ’s death and heavenly exaltation. Believers are to hold firm to ‘the initial reality’ that they received by faith and to do so until the end.  H. W. Attridge rightly argues:[19]

As the whole of Hebrews will indicate, faith puts the Christian in touch with what is ultimately true and real. Being in touch with that reality enables the life of fidelity to God that Christ exemplified and made possible.

The perfect tense of the first verb in 3:14 (gegonamen [‘we have become’]) assures the readers that they have become and continue to be ‘partners of Christ’ (NRSV, metochoi tou Christou) or, perhaps more accurately, those who ‘share in Christ’ (NIV).[20] A provisional note is nevertheless added by the use of the conditional clause ‘if only we hold firm’ (eanper kataschōmen). Those who are genuinely partakers of Christ will demonstrate that by maintaining their faith in him and all that he has accomplished ‘to the end’. To put it in dogmatic terms, God will enable the elect (cf. 3:1, those who share in a ‘heavenly call’) to persevere in faith. Consequently, those who are truly ‘the brothers and sisters of Christ’ (2:11-12) and the ‘children’ whom God has given him (2:13) will identify themselves by continuing in the confidence which he has given them.

The basis of this confidence is the promises of God and the fact that Jesus has already realized those promises for us in his death and heavenly exaltation. Such confidence is not simply a human-generated response to the gospel but something which God himself makes possible in believers. There is no explicit doctrine of the Spirit at this point in Hebrews and no mention of regeneration, but the writer clearly implies that God works in us through his word, creating and sustaining faith (3:7 – 4:13). In the context of a genuine inter-personal relationship between God and his people, however, this means that a continuing response is required from our side. Confidence is not automatically maintained in us by divine fiat!

In 10:32-9 the context is more obviously that of persecution, abuse, and perhaps the fading of hope because of the delay of Christ’s return.  Here we are told that confidence (parrēsia) should not be abandoned, because ‘it brings a great reward’ (v. 35). It is our present possession in Christ and we should not cast it aside (mē apobalēte), no matter what the pressure or temptation to do so. A God-focussed and God-inspired confidence is the key to endurance, ‘so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what was promised’ (v. 36). Such confidence in the promises of God and the achievement of our Lord Jesus Christ will express itself in a willingness to confess him, no matter what the outcome. It will mean cheerfully accepting the loss of personal freedom and the plundering of possessions, ‘knowing that you yourselves possessed something better and more lasting’ (v. 34).

Continually exposing one’s life to the word of God and the ministry of his people (3:7 – 4:13; 10:24-5), drawing near to God in prayer as the writer directs (4:14-16; 10:19-22), and boldly confessing the hope that God has given us in Christ (3:6; 10:23; 10:32-5), is the antidote to ‘shrinking back’ in apostasy (10:36-9).

The boldness of faith illustrated

It is important to realise that such teaching about confidence, with its Christological focus and soteriological base, leads into the writer’s exposition of faith and its consequences in 11:1 – 12:4.[21] In this whole section, the writer emphasizes the similarity between the situation of believers in Old Testament times and Christians waiting for the fulfilment of God’s purposes. Nevertheless, it is clear from 12:1-2 that the work of Christ offers a greater certainty to us of obtaining what God has promised than Old Testament believers enjoyed.

Faith is first defined in 11:1, not comprehensively but in a way that prepares for the argument of the section as a whole. Here we discover the essential characteristics of faith from the writer’s point of view: ‘faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ (NRSV). The NIV translation of the first clause (‘faith is being sure of what we hope for’) puts the emphasis on faith as an expression of our confidence in God’s promises—an important emphasis in this chapter. Linguistically, however, the NRSV rendering is preferable (cf. AV [‘faith is the substance of things hoped for’] and NEB [‘faith gives substance to our hopes’]).  This suggests that what we hope for becomes real and substantial by the exercise of faith. Of course, the gospel is not true simply because we believe in it! Rather, the reality of what we hope for is confirmed for us in our experience when we live by faith in God’s promises. In the words of William Lane, ‘faith celebrates now the reality of the future blessings that constitute the objective content of hope.’[22]

The second part of the definition proclaims that ‘faith is the conviction of things not seen’. It is the means of ‘proving’ or ‘testing’ (elengchos) invisible realities such as the existence of God, his faithfulness to his word, his control over our world and its affairs, and the final outworking of his purposes in ‘the city that is to come’ (13:14; cf. 11:10, 13-16). Once again it is implied that there should be an ‘experimental’ aspect to faith: ‘as a positive orientation of life toward God and his word, faith has the capacity to unveil the future so that the solid reality of events as yet unseen can be grasped by the believer.’[23]

If the definition in v. 1 seems abstract, its meaning becomes more concrete in the illustrations that follow. For such faith the ancients were commended (v. 2, emartyrēthēsan, cf. 11:4, 5, 39). In the record of Scripture, God witnessed to their faith, and so made them witnesses (12:1, martyres) of true faith for subsequent generations. Their lives verify the dynamic and forward-looking character of faith that the writer wishes to encourage. He particularly focuses on the capacity which faith gives to endure suffering, peril or death. This has direct application to the situation of the readers, as 12:1-13 reveals.

From one point of view, the doctrine of creation ‘by God’s word’ (11:3) is foundational for persevering faith. The hope of sharing in the promised new creation, which is various represented in Hebrews as the goal of all the faithful (vv. 5-6, 10, 13-16, 26), depends on the belief that God is the architect and maker of all things (cf. 3:4). From another point of view, belief in the revealed promises of God is foundational to the exercise of genuine faith (11:7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 17-19). The latter point is particularly important, given the suggestion in 10:35-9 that some of the recipients of Hebrews may have been in danger of abandoning their confidence in what God had promised. But the essential will of God, as expressed in Habakkuk 2:4, is that his people should live by faith, until all his purposes are accomplished.

The catalogue of heroes and martyrs in Hebrews 11 comes to its climax in Jesus (12:1-3), who is described as ‘the pioneer and perfecter of faith’.[24] In addition to the challenge presented in Scripture by Old Testament witnesses to faith, the Christian has the supreme encouragement that springs from contemplating Jesus (12:1; cf. 3:1). We may have to endure in some measure the contest or struggle that he experienced. We can do so, not simply looking to his example, but with the assurance that ‘the joy that was set before him’ is ours to enjoy because of his unique achievement. Christ is the pioneer and perfecter of faith in the sense that ‘he has realized faith to the full from start to finish.’[25] Because of his faithful obedience, he has become the new ground and means by which we can be maintained in faith, firm to the end.

Assurance and apostasy

The nature of apostasy

A satisfactory treatment of the theme of assurance in Hebrews must deal with the apparently contradictory possibility of apostasy. This is first presented in terms of a ‘drifting’ from what has already been heard and given through Christ (2:1-4) or as turning away with an evil and unbelieving heart from the living God, who calls people into his heavenly inheritance through his Spirit-inspired word (3:7-19).

In 5:11-14 it is implied that those who have been believers for a time can become ‘dull of hearing’ (nōthroi; tais akoais), unwilling to progress in understanding what God has revealed and resistant to the change which such understanding brings. Then follows a challenge to be carried along to maturity, with a warning that it is ‘impossible to restore again to repentance’ those who have manifested signs of conversion and have ‘fallen away’ (6:1-6). The flow of the argument suggests that spiritual lethargy, if unchecked, may lead to a complete loss of faith and hope.[26]

The fearful consequence of apostasy is to face the fury of God’s judgment against his adversaries, according to 10:26-31. Apostasy is first described in this passage as willfully persisting in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth (v. 26). Apostates are then defined as those who have ‘spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace’ (v. 29). Those who abandon their confidence in what God has promised and shrink back from faith in him will be ‘lost’ (vv. 35-9). Apostates are finally portrayed as those who fail to ‘obtain the grace of God’ because, like Esau, they reject their birthright in favour of a life of self-indulgence and godlessness (12:13-17). Various other passages about turning aside from the way of faith and obedience are scattered throughout Hebrews.

Since every major New Testament corpus gives warnings against spurious or transitory faith,[27] it is not surprising to find the same perspective in Hebrews. Nowhere else, however, are the warnings so striking and fearful in their cumulative effect. The writer virtually defines true believers as those who hold firmly to the end the confidence they had at first (3:6, 14). Genuine faith perseveres. Where there is no perseverance, by definition, such faith cannot be genuine (cf. Mk. 4:16-19; 13:13; Col. 1:22-3; 1 Jn. 2:19). The warnings of Hebrews are not hypothetical, neither do they envisage that genuine believers will fall away. They are addressed to a group of Christians about whom the writer can say many positive and encouraging things (e.g., Heb. 6:9-10; 10:32-9). At the same time, he is at pains to point out that in their midst could be one or more who may yet prove to be apostate.

To this end, he consistently uses some variation of the expression ‘any of you’ (3:12, 13; 4:1) or simply the word ‘any’ or ‘some’ (tis, cf. 4:11; 10:25; 12:15-16) in addressing the group as a whole. He fears that ‘some among them who have professed Christian faith, enjoyed Christian fellowship, and engaged in Christian witness may prove to be hypocrites and enemies of Christ and, by turning their backs on the light they have known, show that they do not in fact belong to God’s people at all.’[28]

The antidote to apostasy

Hebrews 6:1-6 envisages a form of ‘conversion’ such as that portrayed by Jesus in the parable of the soils, where the seed sown on rocky soil has all the signs of life but does not persevere (e.g. Mk. 4:16-17).

The Spirit brings initial enlightenment; the person enjoys the word of God (like the one in Mark 4 who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy), and tastes something of the power of the coming age: perhaps old habits fall away, and a new love for holiness and for God and his reign emerge. But according to the description of genuine Christianity already provided by the book, none of this is enough: there must also be perseverance.[29]

In support of this interpretation it should be noted that Hebrews immediately goes on to speak of two different soils, portraying two different classes of people (6:7-8). Only the ground that ‘drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly, and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God’. This implies the need to go on receiving the nourishment that God provides for spiritual life and growth.

The writer suggests that the Holy Spirit will use the Scripture he cites (cf. 3:7-11; 10:15-17; 12:5-6) to challenge and encourage those who are genuine to persevere in faith. We may go further and say that Hebrews itself is envisaged by the writer as a means by which God will address his children and continue to draw them to himself. The word of God, which is described as ‘living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword’ can expose ‘the thoughts and intentions of the heart’ and call us to account before him, here and now (4:12-13). Better to be judged by God’s Word now than on the final day, which provides no further chance for repentance.

Later on, the writer refers to the voice of God, which continues to warn us ‘from heaven’ about the approaching judgment (12:25-7). Once again, Old Testament Scripture is envisaged as the means by which God speaks to his New Covenant people (here citing and applying Haggai 2:6). At the same time, believers are assured of receiving ‘a kingdom that cannot be shaken’ and are encouraged to offer to God grateful service ‘with reverence and awe, for indeed our God is a consuming fire’ (12:28-9).

True to the pattern of the Scriptures he quotes, the writer blends serious warning with assurance and challenge. This is nowhere better illustrated than in Hebrews 6. Immediately following the warning of vv. 4-8, the writer indicates that he is ‘confident of better things’ in the case of his dear friends (v. 9). His confidence is partly based on the recollection of their past and present behaviour and partly on the justice of God, who knows the genuineness of their faith (v. 10). Yet he is still concerned to motivate them to persevere.

Their faithfulness to Christ and their love for one another in previous times of testing were inspired by a compelling hope (10:34). Now, when they are tempted to be sluggish, they need to show the same ‘diligence’ or ‘zeal’ (spoudēn) to ‘realize the full assurance of hope to the very end’ (6:11). This means letting their hope have its full effect in every area of their lives. Those who live in hope will not be overwhelmed by ‘sluggishness’.[30] In fact, they will become imitators of those who ‘through faith and patience inherit the promises’ (anticipating the argument of 11:1 – 12:13).

The basis of Christian hope is not wishful thinking about the future but the solemn promise of God. This is illustrated first with respect to Abraham, who was encouraged to wait patiently for what had been promised (6:13-17). God actually used an oath to confirm his promise to Abraham (cf. Gen. 22:16). It is clear from what follows that those who have fled to take hold of the hope offered in Jesus are the ultimate heirs of that promise (cf. Gal. 3:26-29).[31]

As the high priest in the order of Melchizedek, Jesus has inaugurated the blessings of the New Covenant. Those who rely on him can actually enter ‘the inner shrine behind the curtain’, where he has gone before us and has entered on our behalf (6:19-20). Jesus is literally our ‘forerunner’ (prodromos), opening the way for us to follow! The inner sanctuary of the tabernacle and later the temple represented the presence of God with his people on earth (e.g. Ex. 26:31-34; 1 Ki. 8:6-11). Hebrews uses this language to refer to the heavenly sanctuary, where God is enthroned in all his glory. We can approach him with confidence right now because Jesus our heavenly high priest has offered the perfect sacrifice and sits at God’s right hand (cf. 4:14-16; 10:19-22).

However, the imagery in 6:19-20 also conveys the idea that our destiny is to live for ever in God’s holy and glorious presence. We can literally go where Jesus has gone as forerunner. Thus, the heavenly sanctuary is another way of describing the world to come (2:5), the Sabbath-rest for the people of God (4:9), and the heavenly country or city (11:16; 12:22-24; 13:14), which has been the ultimate hope of the people of God throughout the ages. This hoped-for goal has been achieved and opened up for us by our Saviour. Jesus as our hope has entered the sanctuary and remains there as ‘a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.’

Conclusion

The antidote to spiritual apathy and apostasy is to ‘realize the full assurance of hope’. In practical terms this means letting the Christian hope control our thinking and behaviour in the present. From one point of view, it means boldly drawing near to God for mercy and ‘grace to help in time of need’, and openly confessing what we believe, no matter what the opposition or testing. From another point of view, it means being continually open to God’s word, with the challenges and encouragements it brings to love and care for one another and to persevere, even in the face of suffering and death. Our hope is based on the promises of God, confirmed with an oath. God’s plan for us has already been fulfilled in the death and heavenly exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us, therefore, advance boldly into the promised eternal inheritance, claiming by faith the rights and privileges of citizenship won for us by our Saviour and living as those who already belong to his heavenly realm.


[1] Originally published as ‘The Boldness of faith: Hebrews and Assurance’, in R. J. Gibson (ed.), Justification and Christian Assurance: Explorations 10 (Adelaide: Open Book, 1996), 99-117.

[2] W. L. Lane, Hebrews 9-13 WBC 47B (Waco: Word 1991), 340. P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 464, reads this text in a Pauline way, but H. W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Philadelphi: Fortress, 1989), 320, rightly asserts that the phrase in 11:7 has only a ‘superficially Pauline ring’.  Cf. J. A Ziesler, The Meaning of Righteousness in Paul: a Linguistic and Theological Enquiry, SNTSMS 20 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1972), 135, 143.

[3] Attridge, Hebrews, 348, notes that the expression in 11:33 can refer to ‘acting righteously’.  But in the context it probably has a specific reference to the just government that David in particular exercised (hence NIV, NRSV, ‘administered justice’). Cf. Lane, Hebrews 9-13, 386.

[4] In Heb. 10:39 the noun hypostolēs (‘drawing back, withdrawing’) picks up the note of warning from Hab. 2:4 in v. 38, where the corresponding verb hyposteilētai (‘draw back, withdraw’) is found.

[5] Lane, Hebrews 9-13, 305. Conversely, the one who draws back in v. 38 is the Christian who loses sight of the eschatological goal. Cf. T. W. Lewis, ‘“…And if he shrinks back” (Hebrews 10:38b)’, NTS 22 (1975-6), 88-94.

[6] F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1964), 274.  Note Bruce’s discussion of the textual variants in Heb. 10:38 and Hab. 2:4 (p. 266, note 165; p. 273, note 196).

[7] Cf. G. Schrenk, TDNT 2:185-191.

[8] D. G. Peterson, Possessed by God: a New Testament theology of sanctification and holiness, NSBT 1 (Leicester: Apollos, 1995), 34.  I explore the link between cleansing, sanctification and perfection more fully in Possessed by God, 34-9.

[9] E. Riggenbach, Der Brief an die Hebräer, Zahn Kommentar (Leipzig, 1913), 308.

[10] It therefore seems inadequate to conclude that faith in Hebrews is ‘more a cable which links believers to heaven than a means by which they are already raised to a heavenly existence (Ephesians 2:6)’ (I. H. Marshall, Kept by the Power of God: a Study of Perseverance and Falling Away [London: Epworth, 1969], 133).

[11] I have explored Paul’s use of the language of sanctification in Possessed by God, 40-68.

[12] H. Schlier, TDNT 5:872-3

[13] Cf. H. Schlier, TDNT 5:875-9. Wis. 5:1 asserts that ‘the righteous man will stand with great confidence in the presence of those who have afflicted him’. The context makes it clear that this confidence is fundamentally God-directed (contrast the ungodly in 4:20 with the righteous in 5:15-16). The confidence of the righteous finds particular expression in prayer (e.g., Job 22:23-30).

[14] Cf. W. C. van Unnik, ‘The Christian’s Freedom of Speech in the New Testament’, BJRL 44 (1961-2), 472.

[15] B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews (London: MacMillan, 1914), 324.

[16] Lane, Hebrews 9-13, 286. Discussing the relation between faith and hope in Hebrews, Lane argues that ‘it is the property of faith to render hope secure. The writer finds in faith a substantiation of hopes as yet unrealized and events as yet unseen. Faith celebrates now the reality of the future blessings that are secured by the promise of God.’ (p. 394)

[17] The tense of the verb proserchōmetha (‘let us approach, draw near’) in 4:16; 10:22, is present, suggesting that the exhortation is to continue drawing near for the reasons given.

[18] van Unnik, ‘Freedom of Speech’, 485. Stressing that the two sides of parrēsia are an inseparable unity in Hebrews, he rightly insists that, ‘in the situation in which the Christian live they need it as a gift and a task’. Note how Paul’s confidence in God gave him confidence to speak the gospel in the face of great opposition in 1 Th. 2:2.

[19] Attridge, Hebrews, 119. Patristic commentators took tēn archēn tēs hypostaseōs to mean ‘the principle of the substance or foundation’ of the Christian faith, ‘the principle’ being most commonly identified with faith. Today the phrase is almost universally understood to mean ‘the confidence with which we began’. With Hughes, Hebrews, 152, however, Attridge argues that the patristic interpretation of hypostasis as ‘substance’ is not to be rejected out of hand.

[20] When metochoi is used in Heb. 6:4 and 12:8 it has more the sense of ‘partakers of’. It would seem more likely, therefore, that it is similarly employed in 3:14 and 3:1 (cf. the use of the corresponding verb in 2:14; 5:13; 7:13). Cf. Hughes, Hebrews, 149-51; Attridge, Hebrews, 117-8.  Contra W. L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, WBC 47A (Waco: Word, 1991), 87.

[21] The noun pistis (‘faith’) is found in 4:2; 6:1, 12; 10:22, 38, 39, and extensively in chapter 11. The verb pisteuein (‘to believe’) is found in 4:3; 11:6.

[22] Lane, Hebrews 9-13, 328. Attridge, Hebrews, 308-10, notes the link between 11:1 (elpizomenōn hypostasis) and previous uses of hypostasis in 1:3; 3:14, and argues in favour of the rendering ‘faith is the reality of things hoped for.’

[23] Lane, Hebrews 9-13, 329.

[24] RSV, NRSV and NIV all add the word ‘our’ to ‘faith’ in Heb. 12:2, even though there is nothing corresponding to this in the Greek. However, the writer is talking about faith in its absolute sense, having traced it through from OT examples to Jesus. Cf. D. G. Peterson, Hebrews and Perfection, SNTSMS 47 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1982), 171.

[25] J. Moffatt, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, ICC (Edinburgh: Clark, 1924), 196.

[26] Cf. Peterson, Perfection, 176-187.

[27] Cf. D. A. Carson, ‘Reflections on Christian Assurance’, WTJ 54 (1992), 17-18.

[28] P. E. Hughes, ‘Hebrews 6:4-6 and the Peril of Apostasy’, WTJ 35 (1973), 155. This article gives a helpful exegesis of Heb. 6:4-6 and deals with the problem of apostasy dogmatically, from a Reformed point of view.

[29] Carson, ‘Reflections’, 20.  Cf. Hughes, ‘Peril’, 149.

[30] nōthroi; is used here as in 5:11, but without qualification. Cf. Peterson, Hebrews, 182-3, on Heb. 6:9-12.

[31] 6:17-18 must be read in the light of 7:20-22, where it is argued that God confirmed the high-priesthood of the Messiah in Psalm 110:4 with an oath similar to the one used in Genesis 22:16.

5 Responses to “Hebrews and Assurance”

  1. Ben Mandley says:

    Dear Dr Peterson,

    I’ve been grappling with the relationship between the covenants for a while now, particularly as this year I’ve been working my way through Hebrews. Did genuine Old Testament believers experience definitive forgiveness of sins, or were only their sins of the previous year forgiven on the Day of Atonement? If it’s the former, then in what sense is the new covenant better (apart from the fact that we don’t need to offer the sacrifices)? And, then, how does the comparison in Hebrews between Christ’s sacrifice and Old Covenant sacrifices work if believers experienced definitive forgiveness anyway?

    • David says:

      Dear Ben,
      Thanks for this important question. I do not think that OT believers experienced a definitive forgiveness of sins. Hebrews 9:9-10; 10:1-18 make that point emphatically. So the promise of the New Covenant is remarkable because it implies such forgiveness that ‘sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary’ (10:18). Of course, the writer assures us that the ransom achieved by Christ as mediator of the New Covenant provided redemption from ‘sins committed under the first covenant’ and therefore the possibility for OT believer to receive ‘the promised eternal inheritance’ (9:15). The cross worked retrospectively, if you like, but from their standpoint in salvation history believers did not have the assurance provided for us under the New Covenant.

  2. Kory Capps says:

    Dr, Peterson,

    Helpful article here- thank you. Is it correct, then, to say that the writer of Hebrews is seeking to push his readers forward in persevering faith through both assurance and warning? Pastorally speaking is there a proper time to emphasize one over the other? Or does Hebrews give us a model here of balancing them together? What do you think? Also, are you saying that the warnings are directed toward potential apostates or to genuine believers? Thanks.

    • Kory,
      I think Hebrews is using encouragement and warning together as a pastoral strategy for addressing a mixed congregation. There may be times when individuals or groups need more of one approach than the other, but generally it would seem from a number of scriptural examples that warning should be given within the context of appropriate encouragement. Hebrews uses the expression ‘any of you’ several times, suggesting a concern about the spiritual state of some of those addressed, but he does not suggest that they are all in danger of committing apostasy. Sorry to have been so long in responding to your questions.
      David Peterson

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