Leaving our theological baggage at the door is crucial to the faithful exposition of Hebrews. This book seems fraught with hurdles that incite passionate arguments and questions from faithful preachers on all sides of the fence. What is the spiritual estate of the original readers? What am I to do with all of these warning passages? And of course, Hebrews 6, what in the world is the author saying? What is he NOT saying about what he is saying?
No doubt, this book is certainly one of the most challenging to preach. As evangelicals committed to sola fide who fervently hold to “once saved, always saved,” it is tempting to bring our “theological Samsonites” to the text. Our tendency is to force our presuppositions into the pericope, much like we do with our overstuffed carry-ons at those “baggage sizers” in the airport.
But we know better, don’t we? Expositional preachers let the text drive our framework, not the other way around. As my Hebrews professor used to say when I was tempted towards hermeneutical gymnastics, “But Rod, what is the plain meaning of the text?” Any pointers here will simply be to stand on the shoulders of the giants before me and echo the same, “Preach the plain meaning of the text!” With that as our guide, here are a few encouragements…
Don’t get bogged down with the spiritual estate of the original hearers. The author is writing to Christians who have come out of Judaism and suffered as a result of the gospel (10:32-34). Are they really believers? The severity of the warning passages and the free grace of the gospel tempts us to relegate their conversions to intellectual ascent. Don’t go there. The author is preaching pastorally, just as we are called to do. He takes them at their word. They are wearing the team’s jersey and showing up for practice, so he assumes they are on the team. Time in the game will show the truth.
We pastor the same way. When our people have a credible profession of faith, we treat them as such, encouraging them to stay the course, yet warning them of the cost of discipleship (Mark 8:34) and the consequences of turning their back on Christ. God is the one who knows if they are genuinely saved, and time will show a life of genuine repentance, or the lack thereof. It helps to remember repentance is only visible in the rear view mirror. Genuine fruit takes time to identify. Just preach the text, love your people and shepherd them to follow Christ.
Don’t take the teeth out of the warning passages. Sure, they are uncomfortable. Sure, they don’t fit neatly into our tight systematic theology. But let these warnings bite with the teeth intended to get our attention as souls headed towards eternity. Hebrews 2:1 is a great example, “For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.” Unbelief often starts with the neglect of the word.
Some time ago, a well-known preacher started a firestorm with the tweet, “Election is unconditional, glorification is not.” Though it sounded confusing, and even offensive, he was right. Now, before you throw the heresy flag and plug your ears, please understand I am in no way advocating a works-based salvation. I am simply saying we must remember that the grace that saves us is also the grace that will persevere us until the end (Phil 1:6). Paul, like the coach that he is, calls us to, “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” but then quickly reminds us that it is actually God who is working in and through us to stay the course. Genuine Christians persevere because it is the Holy Spirit who perseveres through us. The Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11 is an encouragement for us all that this gift of faith doesn’t just save us, but carries us amid the most impossible of circumstances!
In light of this, we remind our people that heaven awaits those with genuine faith, and genuine faith evidences itself by following Christ to the end. The bite of these warning passages may be the most loving thing an unbeliever in your congregation hears. Their eternity depends upon it (Heb 3:12-14)!
Encourage perseverance in the perfection of Christ. As my good friend, Matt Harkey explains, we spur others on, not by calling them to grab at their own bootstraps, but by persevering in His perfection. He is the one who sympathizes with our weaknesses. He was the One who was tempted in all things, yet without sin! He is the One who stands daily interceding for us as our Great High Priest (Heb 4:14-16, 7:25)! If there is hope for us who have been given the kind of faith that denies ourselves, picks up our cross and follows Him, it is incumbent upon us to remind our congregations that He is the one who sees us through. Don’t quit!
Finally, remind the saints that a weak faith is not a dead faith. Peter is our great example. Stumbling does not define us, but punting the faith does. If faith and repentance are truly gifts of God, and they are, then we are to strengthen that faith through His word (Rom 10:17). It involves a life of both mortification AND vivification. Dying to sin and self AND living for Christ. When Christians are discouraged, we as pastors are to strengthen their faith, not with excuses, but with gospel hope (cf. Heb 10:23, 11:1). It is when we are desperately dependent upon Him that we are strong. He is better than anyone or anything we could imagine. He has purchased us with His own blood (Heb 9:12), will He not see us through to the end?
Rodney C. Brown, Jr. is the Senior Pastor of Metro Bible Church in Southlake, Texas and holds a M.A. in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary. His passions are expositional preaching and discipleship. Metro Bible is a Southern Baptist Church that offers internships whereby you can earn 18 hours towards your M.Div. at SWBTS.