Grant Osborne: Salvation and Apostasy in Hebrews

From the book, Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark Pinnock, we find Dr. Grant R. Osborne's excellent treatment of the subject of apostasy -- real, not imagined -- in his article, "Soteriology in the Epistle to the Hebrews." Soteriology is the study and doctrine of salvation. The chapter is here presented in two parts, due to its great length. I found Dr. Osborne's chapter not only intellectually engaging and stimulating, but also spiritually challenging, as he warns the reader against spiritual apathy, that can lead one to eventually commit apostasy, from which there is no spiritual return. Because on this site one can place one's mouse over a blue scriptural link and read the text, throughout this article I inserted the book name "Hebrews" in most places where Dr. Osborne did not, for the sake of convenience.



Perhaps the most enigmatic work in the New Testament is the epistle of the Hebrews. Both authorship and destination are unsolved problems, and the perspective of the book as a whole is vigorously debated. The general view is that it had a Jewish Christian provenance; in fact, the strong dualism and the figures employed (angels, Melchizedek, etc.) have led some to posit an Essenic background. Others have noted an Alexandrian hermeneutic and have hypothesized a Philonic origin. On the other hand, many scholars recently have argued for a Gentile destination, especially since the early church considered itself to be the New Israel, and the Old Testament was authoritative for Gentile as well as Jew.

With regard to the present state of the question, it may be best to assume that the work was written to a mixed group of believers, possibly at Rome (Heb. 13:24). The Essenic, Philonic, and Hellenistic elements are all seemingly present and may be due to the background of the author himself as well as the addresses. The danger to which the epistle speaks, then, would be a relapse into the old way of life, whether Jew or Gentile. In countering this danger, the author points to the overwhelming superiority of Christ. 

Most writers believe the theology of the epistle centers on Christology [the study and doctrine of Christ, His life, ministry, works, atoning death, resurrection, humanity, divinity, relation to God, second advent, etc.], especially upon Jesus' high priesthood. However, we would agree with Marxsen's statement that while "it is true that in many respects [the writer's Christology] is unusual . . . we would be interpreting the author's message wrongly, or at least in an unbalanced way, if we were to assume that he was interested in christological speculations. His approach is far more from the soteriological angle." In this epistle Christology is presented from a soteriological perspective. i.e., with a soteriological purpose.

Indeed, it is the writer's overriding soteriology which determines the contents of his epistle. His purpose has been defined in various ways: to demonstrate the superior priesthood of Christ, to warn Jewish Christians about apostasy, to demonstrate the universalism of Christianity as a world religion, to show that the Christian life is a pilgrimage, to establish the finality of the gospel. All of these, which are legitimate purposes, reflect the writer's soteriological concern. He views the Christian life as a dynamic process, and salvation is seen to be a day-by-day walk with Christ. The believer dares not lapse into an apathetic Christianity, for his very "life" is at stake. This theology will be the focus of this study.

Before we can proceed further, however, we must determine the spiritual condition of the readers: were they actual Christians or not? Many have argued they were not believers; Calvin, for instance, believed they were outward followers but were not among the "elect" [which is such a conveniently specious interpretation: when did any NT writer ever refer to "outsiders" or "false brethren" as "holy brethren" in Christ, cf. Heb. 3:1?] and Kosmala says they were members of Qumran who had not yet accepted Jesus as Messiah [if so, then why is the author warning them against departing from Christ -- one can only depart from that which he belongs]. However, it seems far more likely in light of Hebrews 3:1; 6:4, 9; 10:23, 26; 12:22 that they were believers. They showed every evidence of being Christians, were called "brothers," cf. Hebrews 2:11, 12, 17; 3:1, 12; 7:5; 8:11; 10:19; 13:22, 23, and were in danger of apostatizing "from the living God," cf. Heb. 3:12. It is doubtful that a good case can be made for denying the reality of a faith described in such terms as Hebrews 6:4-6 (see below).


W.C. Linss has noted the presence of divine necessity in the terms of Heb. 2:1 (δεῖ), Heb. 2:10 and Heb. 7:26 (ἔπρεπεν), Heb. 2:17 and Heb. 5:3 (ὤφειλει), Heb. 9:26 (ἔδει), and Heb. 8:13 and Heb. 9:16, 23 (ἀνάγκη). He also finds traces in the warning passages (Heb. 6:4, 18; 10:4, 11: 11:6) which discuss the impossibility of reconversion for the apostate. When we examine the passages teaching sovereignty, we find that the overwhelming majority concerns the necessity of Christ's sacrifice. The only exceptions are Heb. 5:3 (on the old covenant practices) and Heb. 2:1 (on the need for "greater attention" on the part of these apathetic Christians). There is no mention of predestination in a Pauline sense. As Marshall says regarding Heb. 11:40, "The idea here is not that of the predestination of particular people to salvation, but rather of the fulfillment of God's promises in due time. . . . The key word in Hebrews is not predestination but promise. Such promises may be pre-temporal, but their fulfillment depends, in each case, upon the faith and obedience of the recipients (Heb. 4:2; 6:1; 10:36)."

In this epistle we see the God of the covenant, the God who is faithful to his promises. The keynote is reflected in Heb. 13:5, which uses Deut. 31:6, 8, "I will never leave you or forsake you," as the basis for Christian contentment. There God's faithfulness is seen to be more precious than riches; in Heb. 13:6 this becomes the antidote to fearful anxiety. At the same time these promises can only be realized by those who take them by faith. The sovereign power is available, but only to those who appropriate it for themselves. On this basis we see here a perfect balance between sovereignty and free will, with the emphasis being placed on the latter due to the particular problem to which the epistle is addressed, namely the willful apostasy of some from the faith.


The key to the purpose of this epistle is Heb. 13:22, which describes it as a "word of exhortation." The extensive passages on the superiority of the person, ministry and death of Christ all point to this and set the scene for the "exhortation" or warning passages. Bornkamm argues that a familiar baptismal confession has been employed to highlight the present privileges of the readers (cf. Heb. 3:1; 4:14; 10:19), and he may be right. At the very least these are catechetical elements used to stress the foundation of the readers' faith and to provide a further backdrop to the warning passages. 

Pay attention, lest you drift away, Heb. 2:1-4 -- The first chapter had shown that Christ was superior to the angels, who possibly had been objects of worship among at least a segment of the addresses. These verses draw the conclusion from this . . . and show that the purpose for the exalted Christology of chapter 1 was exhortatory. The overwhelming preeminence of the Son demands decision, and the readers must change their lives accordingly. They dare not allow themselves to "drift away" from the teaching of the gospel regarding such a One. This warning is important enough that the author includes himself in it, "We must pay more attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away. ... How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation."

"Drift away" is a nautical term which metaphorically pictures indifference as an uncharted boat drifting out to sea and death on on offshore rocks. Apathetic "neglect" of the Christian truths, which were confirmed by eyewitnesses, "signs and wonders," "mighty works," and "gifts of the Holy Spirit" (Heb. 2:3, 4), lead to a condition from which there is no "escape." The tone is eschatological, looking to the final judgment, and the believer is warned that present indifference will result in final retribution. "Salvation" here is similar to that in 1 Peter rather than Paul . . . looking to the future reward of the people of God. As such, its attainment is based on persevering growth in the truths of the gospel; this is seen in the "pay more attention" of Heb. 2:1. 

Do not harden your heart, lest you fail, Heb. 3:1-19 -- This passage follows the discussion of Jesus' high priestly activity and begins by asserting Jesus' superiority to Moses (Heb. 3:1-6), implying thereby that rejection of Jesus is correspondingly more serious than Israel's rejection of Moses. In keeping with this theme, the author uses the wilderness wandering as an illustration of the danger (Heb. 3:7-19). At the outset, the writer stresses their position as the true Church, the New Israel -- "holy brethren" (Heb. 3:1), "partakers of Christ" (Heb. 3:1, 14), Christ's "house" (Heb. 3:6), "brethren" (Heb. 3:12). These are called upon to persevere, to "hold fast . . . firm unto the end" (Heb. 3:6, 14), and this is to be accomplished by "hardening not your hearts" (Heb. 3:8, 15) and by "exhorting one another daily" (Heb. 3:13). 

He also emphasizes that as a result of "unbelief" one can "fail to enter God's rest" (Heb. 3:19). One must conclude that the reward is conditional upon perseverance in "boldness and pride in our hope" (Heb. 3:6) and in "the beginning of our confidence" (Heb. 3:14). The danger envisaged here is that the deceitfulness of sin can progressively harden one's spiritual resolve and that this evil, unbelieving condition can cause one to "fall away from the living God" (Heb. 3:12-15). In this context this denotes the results of active rebellion against God.

Wilderness typology was quite prevalent in the early church as illustrative of both judgment and reward. Both 1 Cor. 13:1-13 and Jude 1:5 make it a warning against the dangers of sin. The obvious inference in all three passages is that one dare not trust his original "deliverance" from sin and lapse into apathy, but must persevere in his walk with Christ. Ps. 95:7-11, used by the writer as the basis for his splendid midrash here [midrash is a Jewish method of interpretation which is not literal but embellished], was sung by Jews as part of their sabbath worship in the temple. The readers probably understood it in this fashion, especially since Ps. 95:1-7 consist of a call to worship. The obvious inference is that one must listen to God -- "Today if you shall hear His voice" (Heb. 3:7, 15) -- and that this listening includes obedience.

Fear, lest you fall short, Heb. 4:1-13 -- This passage is an extended explanation of the "rest" theology of Heb. 3:11, 19. Here the writer adds the "reward" imagery from the "wilderness" typology of Heb. 3:1-19. To the Jew the "rest" of God referred to his "promises" which were still "open" to his people, i.e., they extended beyond the "Promised Land" of Canaan. Israel failed to appropriate these promises and so failed to "enter" God's "rest." This is an eschatological concept which implies that the believer proleptically [the "anachronistic representation of something as existing before its proper or historical time," FreeDictionary] shares the "rest of God," i.e., the kingdom blessings of peace and security promised for the "last days." This rest is still promised God's people, but they must "enter" it themselves (Heb. 4:9, 10).

In Jewish exegesis, the "Sabbath rest" referred to "the world to come" (Gen. 17:12). Here the writer uses it in the sense of inaugurated eschatology, for the believer lives in a state of tension between the present promise and future realization. It is meant for "today" for those who obey and do not "harden" their hearts (Heb. 4:6, 7 repeating Heb. 3:7-8, 15), and yet it is a heritage which they can only claim by faith and which points forward to the next life. The believer is responsible for his perseverance in that "rest" [though the believer is granted the strength, encouragement, and enabling power to persevere by the Holy Spirit, even though His ministry of sanctification and perseverance can be resisted and hindered]. Therefore in this epistle salvation merges with the concept of rewards, and the realized aspect of the reward (present faith) merges with the final aspect (future hope). Eschatology becomes a part of soteriology.

Press on, lest you fall away, Heb. 5:11-6:12 -- After a further section on Christ's high priesthood, this time centering on his superior qualifications and Melchizedekian office, the writer discusses his readers' immaturity and need for spiritual growth. Hebrews 5:11 and Hebrews 6:12, combined with the plea for hearing/obedience in Hebrews 3:7-8, 15; 4:7, shows that the problem had not yet gone so far as apostasy. What we see here is a spiritual deafness which may be called "spiritual laziness." The readers were not listening to God or seeking to grow nearer to him. This would fit the picture of spiritual apathy we noted in Heb. 2:1-4. Though they had been believers for some time, they were still "babes" in Christ who had not learned even the "fundamentals of the first principles" (Heb. 5:12). Far from being ready for the advanced doctrine of Jesus' high priestly ministry, they needed to be retaught the ABC's of the faith. They had retrogressed rather then progressed and so are given a strong rebuke. 

With this in mind, the author lays down the "foundation" teachings from which they must advance (Heb. 6:1-3). The doctrines mentioned in these verses are taken by many to represent early prebaptismal catechesis, and it seems probable that this is so. The similarities between the doctrines and Jewish teaching . . . may be a deliberate attempt by the writer to remind them that they were little different from Jews in their current state. 

The danger itself is described in Hebrews 6:4-6. There have been many attempts to explain this from the Calvinist perspective, and these fall into two major categories: 1) Calvin himself . . . believes the "tasting" was only partial, and these people were not among the elect; they exhibited many of the characteristics but only externally, never internally [and yet the text also confesses that such persons were partakers of the Holy Spirit -- that is hardly a "taste"]. 2) Others believe the warning is only hypothetical and is not actually possible; due to the severity of the issue, the author overstates his case in order to help them remain steadfast [which is the view that eventually led me to further study the issue, concluding that apostasy remains a reality for some genuine believers: if the consequences are not genuine, then neither are the warnings; like warning a child of punishment for wrongdoing, and then not following through when the child does wrong, that kind of parenting is contrary to prescriptions found in Scripture].

Both of these are doubtful [to say the least]. First, the powerful phraseology used of the endangered ones makes it certain that he believed they were true believers: 1) "once enlightened," a strong phrase describing conversion, with both terms used in the New Testament of the salvation which Christ wrought; 2) "tasted the heavenly gift," which must mean they had fully experienced the salvation blessings (Heb. 2:9); 3) "partakers of the Holy Spirit," which could hardly describe anyone other than believers (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13; 2  Cor. 13:13; Phil. 2:1); 4) "tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come," which must mean an experience of both the Word and the kingdom blessings. "Age to come" is part of the eschatology of this epistle . . . and speaks of the present possession of messianic glory. In conclusion, we must say there is no more powerful or detailed description of the true Christian in the New Testament. 

Against the "hypothetical" theory of many Calvinists [and even some non-Calvinists], we must note that there is no hint of such a possibility in this epistle (nor in the New Testament as a whole!). The language could hardly be more explicit; and while hyperbole is a possibility, this is not equivalent to a hypothetical, imaginary danger. The participial structure of Hebrews 6:4, 6 favor the translation of the NASB, "For in the case of those who . . . and then have fallen away. . . ." The best interpretation is to take the Greek directly, as expressing an actual possibility; in fact, some think the language favors the theory that the writer is speaking of something which had already occurred (although, as we have already pointed out, this is doubtful). 

The question of reconversion is related to the two parallel participles of Heb. 6:6, which are usually taken to be causal, i.e., reconversion is impossible "because they recrucify to themselves the Son of God and expose Him to public shame." The usual explanation by those who accept the possibility of both apostasy and reconversion is reflected in the RV's margin, "the while they crucify. . . ." The present participles are taken to mean "as long as they continue" in such apostasy.

However, this reads too much into the passage, and Bruce correctly says the author "distinguishes (as did the Old Testament law) between inadvertent sin and willful sin, and the context here shows plainly that the willful sin which he has in mind is deliberate apostasy." The point the author makes is that such a person will continue in that state and will enter such a condition that he cannot repent. He says nothing regarding whether such a person can ever cease his apostate state.

Finally, the writer proceeds to a point of encouragement (Heb. 6:9-12), showing his confidence that the readers are headed for "better things." However, he is not overconfident, for this assurance includes his "desire" that each one persevere "in the fullness of hope" by throwing off their "sluggishness" and becoming "imitators" of those who have already "inherited the promises." The eschatological language of this epistle continues the theology of the Christian life as a future-oriented perseverance. The language of chapters 3-4 is repeated in a context of encouragement rather than exhortation. 

Hold fast, lest you die, Hebrews 10:19-39 -- This follows the strong doctrinal section (Heb. 6:13-10:18) on Jesus' high priestly activity both in his person (Heb. 7:1-28, the Melchizedekian priesthood) and in his work (Heb. 8:1-10:18, the perfect sacrifice). Again the conclusion is drawn in terms of strong admonishment. As is common in the New Testament (especially Paul), didactic passages are followed by ethical commands. The same is true here, though the imperatives are couched in stronger modes due to the more serious problem to which the epistle is directed. Many of the same themes seen in Heb. 5:11-6:12 are reintroduced here. The believer's confidence is again combined with his need for perseverance, and the danger of apostasy is repeated, here in the language of Old Testament sacrifice.

Also, we once more have the readers described as actual believers. The first person plural (cf. ch. 6) dominates the exhortatory introduction (Heb. 10:19-25), introduces the warning section (Heb. 10:26), and concludes the closing section on the past suffering for Christ and present need for a steadfast faith (Heb. 10:39). Moreover, they are described as having "received knowledge of the truth" (Heb. 10:26) and "enlightened" (Heb. 10:32). The first phrase is found often in the pastorals (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Time. 2:25; 3:7; Titus 1:1) and the Johannine corpus (John 8:32; 1 John 2:21) and certainly refers to experiencing the salvific force of God's revelation. Moreover, they are described as "sanctified" by the "blood of the covenant" (Heb. 10:29). Both terms in the context of this epistle speak of Christian regeneration. "Sanctified by the blood" in Heb. 9:14 speaks of the power of Jesus' redemption; in Heb. 10:10, of Jesus' "once-for-all" sacrifice; in Heb. 10:14, of the believer's perfection; and in Heb. 10:19, of Christian worship. . . . It is obviously a key phrase in the author's concept of salvation and stems from the verba Christi (Mark 14:24; Matt. 26:28; Luke 22:20; cf. 1 Cor. 11:25). 

Indeed, the whole previous section (Heb. 10:19-25) speaks of the believer's confidence in entering God's presence via the High Priest. Interlaced within this summary statement are a series of exhortatory passages, encouraging the believers to "enter the holy place" (Heb. 10:19), "draw near" to God in worship (Heb. 10:22), "hold fast the confession of hope" (Heb. 10:23), and constantly "encourage" each other in the faith (Heb. 10:24). Hebrews 10:22 is especially crucial, speaking of both outward and inward cleansing in language reminiscent of levitical ceremonial ablutions (Ex. 29:4 for priests, Lev. 16:4 for the high priest) and also of the messianic promise in Ezekiel 36:25, which also combines the two: "I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you. . . . A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you." The author undoubtedly considers his readers to be actual believers who had a vital experience of the living Christ.

The apostasy itself is described in very strong terms as a willful turning to sin. Three phrases stress the severity of the act (Heb. 10:29): 1) "trampled under foot the Son of God," a phrase which shows open contempt and deepest scorn (cf. Zech. 12:3 LXX; Matt. 5:13; 7:6); 2) "considered the blood of the covenant an unholy thing," which may involve eucharistic sins but more likely refers to the attitude of the apostate, who makes Jesus' blood a "common" thing, i.e., of no account; 3) "insulted the Spirit of grace," which is at least as strong as "grieving the Spirit" in Eph. 4:30 and may well refer to the "unpardonable sin" of Mark 3:29 and parallels. [The rest of the phrase, "insulted the Spirit of grace by which he was sanctified," is further evidence that a genuine believer is here in focus, a genuine believer in danger of apostasy] One must say that such a sin involves the complete rejection of Christ, and so the conclusion, like in Heb. 6:4, is that "no further sin-offering remains." In this epistle this must mean that no further forgiveness is possible; the apostate has become an "adversary of God" and all that "remains" is "a fearful expectation of judgment," "a fierceness of fire" (Heb. 10:27).

Again the writer turns after this powerful warning to encouragement (as in Heb. 6:9-12). Heb. 10:32-34 provide the setting for this warning (and probably for the others as well). Under threat of persecution they were being pressured to renounce their faith. They had come through one such experience and were being asked to persevere through another. However, in Hebrews 10:39 he shows his confidence in them: "We are not among those who draw back to perdition; we are of the faith and obtain life." This is taken by many . . . as further evidence for hypothetical thrust of the warnings (cf. Heb. 6:9). However, again this hardly supports such a view, since the argument is simply, "You haven't done this yet; I don't think you will [but you could]," rather than a prophecy regarding their final perseverance. 

Be careful, lest you fall short, Hebrews 12:1-17 -- The best-known passage in this epistle is found in the intervening material between these two exhortation passages. Chapter 11, of course, contains the famous discussion of faith. Again, the doctrinal section has a soteriological purpose, the conclusion is that in the face of the data one must persevere. Most scholars agree today that the "cloud of witnesses" in Heb. 12:1 refers back to the list of faith-heroes in chapter 11. So "faith" also has an exhortatory thrust. . . .

Hebrews 12:1-11 calls for a general submission to God's disciplinary process, and Heb. 12:12-17 is a call for action. The warning passage itself is found in Heb. 12:15-17, but the exhortations in verses 1-14 build up to it. Verse 3b concludes the section on Jesus' example for perseverance (vv. 1-3a) and commands that they "not tire, losing heart" (Montefiore's translation). The imagery continues the athletic metaphor of verse 1, picturing the runner collapsing before the end of the race. The following ten verses compare the sufferings of the readers to the discipline of a father (God) for his children (the Christian). The theology of the passage teaches that God does not superficially allow trials but does so out of love, for the good of his children, so that they may learn discipline. He always has our best in mind, desiring that we might "share his holiness" (v. 10) and that this might "yield the peaceful harvest of righteousness" (v. 11). This section also closes with a general exhortation (vv. 12-14), again based on athletic imagery but couched in Old Testament language (Isa. 35:3). The idea is that the spiritually crippled should brace themselves first and then help the "lame" to come for healing. There is added here the concept of responsibility, not only for one's self but also for fellow believers. 

These general exhortations point to a danger which they must avoid. Again that danger is apostasy (v. 15 -- "fall away"; v. 17 -- "rejected"). The possibility that some will do so is strongly suggested and there are three areas within this danger: 1) "falling away from the grace of God," which echoes the active apostasy of Heb. 6:4ff. and Heb. 10:29ff.; 2) "root of bitterness," which "springs up and troubles you," looking back to Deut. 29:18 . . . and stressing the dangerous results of apostates in the community who "defile" many others; 3) "immoral and unspiritual people, like Esau," which draws upon Jewish tradition regarding his immorality and profane character in selling his birthright as an example of the finality of apostasy (he "had no opportunity to repent"). Therefore, we must again conclude that the writer considers apostasy to be not only a viable possibility but also a definite danger for his readers. Again the severity of the danger is presented in the strongest terms.

Conclusion -- Several points have been clarified in this discussion: 1) the writer was addressing actual believers; 2) these believers were in danger of apostatizing from the faith, probably as a result of pressures placed upon them in the form of persecution; 3) such apostasy, if experienced, is irredeemable, for the person involved places himself beyond the possibility of repentance; 4) the only remedy is a constant perseverance in the faith, and a continual growth to Christian maturity; this latter antidote must be accomplished not only individually but also corporately, i.e., every member must help and encourage one another in the faith; 5) the author is convinced that they would not become apostates and encourages them thereby to further growth in Christ. 

In terms of the last two points, we must note that the major soteriological purpose of the epistle is not warning but encouragement. As Marshall notes, this is accomplished in three major ways: First, they are reminded of the basic gospel truths which they had learned, to which they must cling, and from which they must develop (Heb. 2:1-4; 3:6, 14; 10:35-39). Second, a living faith is made the earnest of the future hope . . . and leads to an obedient perseverance which triumphs over sin. Third, he calls on them "to assist each other by mutual exhortation on their pilgrim journey" (Heb. 3:13; 10:24; 12:12; 13:17). These are all given as means of encouraging them to ensure their perseverance in light of the threat of apostasy. 


In this epistle the atonement is seen as a radical, once-for-all provision given by the sovereign God. This is seen especially in the writer's use of ἅπαξ [once-for-all] (found here 8 of the 14 New Testament occurrences) and ἑφάπαξ [once-for-all] (found here 3 of its 5 New Testament occurrences). Four of the former and one of the latter occur in Heb. 9:7, 12, 26, 27, 28, which centers on Jesus' "once-for-all" sacrifice in contrast to the continuous "once a year" sacrifices of the high priest. "Eternal redemption," according to Heb. 9:12, came through Jesus' "once-for-all" entrance into the Holy Place with [or through, διὰ] "his own blood." Here and in Heb. 11:35 redemption is seen as the eternal gift procured by Christ's once-for-all sacrifice.

The connection between atonement and repentance is seen in Heb. 6:4, where the once-for-all provision is connected to the impossibility of a second repentance. J. Behm says Hebrews "emphasizes the seriousness of the total change implied in conversion when this is considered in relation to the obvious danger that Christians will grow slack in their Christianity and sink into dull indifference." The conclusion is that Hebrews makes repentance a total commitment, a total surrender of the whole person at conversion, and that this can only be negated by a total apostasy. In light of the finality and vast superiority of the redemption Christ provided, repentance must also be a once-for-all decision. 

Due to the nature of the epistle -- it addressed believers in danger of apostatizing -- it says little regarding the "first" repentance; e.g., it does not comment on the nature of repentance, whether or not man's free will plays a part, and whether or not he is sovereignly "elect" of God. All the attention is given to Christian exhortation, and the author's soteriology as a whole must be found in his view of faith and implied from his view of repentance. 


This epistle, like 1 Peter, gives salvation an eschatological ["end-times" or "future"] orientation. It therefore must be seen in light of the inaugurated eschatology already discussed. . . . Many have noted the primitive Jewish-Christian apocalyptic seen throughout the epistle and have argued that it provides the fundamental perspective of the epistle. There is indeed a futuristic apocalyptic here; Christ awaits the day of victory over his enemies (Heb. 1:11; 10:13, 25) when he will "appear a second time" (Heb. 9:28), and God has already "subjected the world to come" unto him (Heb. 2:5). The writer expected the imminent return of Christ (Heb. 10:25, 37) which would see the fulfillment of God's promises for his people. 

Indeed, the word "promise" provides a bridge between eschatology and soteriology, showing that the basic eschatological perspective is indeed "inaugurated" and is seen in a soteriological sense. "Promise" occurs fourteen times and is connected with the rest of God (Heb. 4:1), the inheritance of the saints (Heb. 6:12; 9:15), Abraham and the old covenant (Heb. 6:15, 17; 7:6; 11:9, 13, 17), faith (Heb. 11:33, 39), and the salvation Christ has provided (Heb. 8:6; 10:36). It is therefore a soteriological term which looks to salvation as a present possession of the future hope. It is a "heavenly" promise (Heb. 11:16) which links "the longed-for homeland of Heb. 11:16 and the heavenly Jerusalem of Heb. 12:22," "the unshaken Kingdom (Heb. 12:28) and the city to come (Heb. 13:14)." This is both a future promise and a present experience; Christians "have come" already to these (Heb. 12:22).

A second word which connects the two doctrines is "hope," which adds the present aspect to the futuristic "promise"; the believer accepts the promise as a living hope. As a "better hope" (Heb. 7:19) it is especially connected to the command to persevere in the "confidence of our hope" (Heb. 3:6; 10:23) or "full assurance of hope until the end" (Heb. 6:11; cf. Heb. 6:18). "Hope" is both a present possession and a future possibility; in it there is a tension between the "already" and the "not yet" which illustrates perfectly the problem discussed in the epistle. In our discussion of chapters 3 and 4, we pointed out the present and future aspects of the "Sabbath rest." It appears also in the warning section of chapter 6, where the believer is described as experiencing the "heavenly gift" and "the powers of the age to come" (Heb. 6:4, 5). The heavenly realm, or eschatological reality, has entered this age and become a part of the believer's life.

It is in this light that we will examine the writer's soteriology. It must be understood as the present possession of a future inheritance. W. Foerster says "σωτηρία [salvation] denotes coming salvation. . . . In content this σωτηρία [salvation] is defined by δόξα [glory] . . . but it is typical of Hebrews that the coming σωτηρία [salvation] is viewed as already present." It is seen as both a future inheritance (Heb. 5:9) and a present reality (Heb. 7:25). It is linked to the past provision of redemption through Christ (Heb. 2:10), the present experience of its benefits (Heb. 6:9), and the future finalizing of its rewards (Heb. 9:28). Above all, it is connected with the encounter of Jesus' proclamation of eschatological salvation (Heb. 2:3). 

Foerster . . . connects it explicitly with δόξα [glory]; this is especially true when one combines Heb. 2:3 with Heb. 2:10, in which ἀρχηγὸς τὴς σωτηρίας [salvation, which from the beginning, or at the first: i.e., which at the first was confirmed by signs] is connected with the "glory" which God brings his sons [children]. Note again the juxtaposition of past (Christ as "pioneer"), present (sonship) and future (glory) in salvation. Thus while there is security in our salvation (Heb. 6:9, 10; 10:39) there is no guarantee. It is ours by virtue of repentance but can only be secured finally by means of perseverance.

Moreover, salvation in Hebrews is not separated from the life of holiness. The writer would agree with James' "faith without works is dead" theology. This is seen especially in the writer's use of ἁγιαξω [holiness] in the epistle. Throughout (Heb. 9:13; 10:10, 14, 29; 13:12) the term has its Jewish force of "purify," speaking of the process by which the ceremonially defiled were "cleansed" of their impurity. The Christian's present state as believer is spoken of as a consecration act. As Bruce says, "By His death they are consecrated to God for His worship and service and are set apart for God as His holy people, destined to enter into His glory. For sanctification is glory begun, and glory is sanctification completed." 

Therefore the major motif is the present status of the believer as a consecrated one. It is synonymous with, yet also builds upon, σωτηρία [salvation]. At the same time there is a dynamic element in it. The presence of salvation within must lead to a "holy life" without. In Heb. 12:10, 14 the term is given the meaning it has in the Pauline corpus (cf. Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 1:12; 1 Thess. 5:23, etc.), i.e., holiness of life and conduct. To secure the final salvation, one must continue in a day-by-day holy walk with God.


H.N. Huxhold has written that faith in Hebrews, especially in chapters 11-12, is more like Pauline hope than Pauline faith. In this he is essentially correct, for the concept has an eschatological character in the epistle. No better definition of faith in this epistle could be given than that found in Heb. 11:1: "Now faith is certainty regarding things hoped for, evidence for things not seen." ὑπόστασις, translated "certainty" here, has both an objective and a subjective side in its other two occurrences in Hebrews. In Heb. 1:3 it is used objectively of God's "essence" and in Heb. 3:14 it is used subjectively of the believer's "confidence." Here it has nuances of both, though the latter predominates, and "certainty" seems the best translation. ἔλεγχος, "evidence," employs the metaphor of eyesight to illustrate spiritual faith. In the same way that our eyes provide "evidence" for physical reality, "faith" produces evidence for spiritual reality.

In Paul, while faith and hope are similar and closely connected (cf. Rom. 4:18; 8:24), the basic meaning is personal trust and union with Christ. In John it is faith-commitment and personal belief (John 1:12; cf. John 20:29). "In Hebrews faith is the faculty to perceive the reality of the unseen world of God and to make it the primary object of one's life." The whole of chapter 11 relates to the writer's concept of salvation as a future-oriented gift. He uses the Old Testament faith-heroes as examples of his basic definition in verse 1 and as illustrations of his concept of salvation. They too had to persevere in accepting the future-thrust of salvation as a promise from God. They lived as though the future state was a present reality. Faith was simply accepting God's word, believing it, and living in that light.

The lesson is therefore obvious. Salvation must be secured by a persevering faith which grasps the future salvation and makes it a present reality. Faith must take hold of his promises in the midst of trials and suffering, trusting God in light of the blessings Christ has wrought. The danger was that they might allow their faith to slip, lose sight of God's promises, and therefore fail to "keep their souls" and be "destroyed" (Heb. 10:39). This last warning is couched in the language of encouragement and has led some to conclude that the author is actually certain that his readers will see the end of their faith whatever the persecution, i.e., that he teaches the final triumph of their faith. While this is somewhat true, it cannot detract from the persevering aspect of this faith and the reality of this danger. This comforting thought must be read in the light of the warning passages, not vice versa. The whole pattern of soteriology in this epistle demands the absolute necessity of perseverance for final salvation.


One of the important teachings of Hebrews centers on the development of perfection, first in Christ and consequently in the believer. Heb. 12:2 links the two concepts -- perfection and faith -- in Jesus himself. He is called "the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith." The problem is how Jesus could be the "perfecter" when he himself was "perfected" (Heb. 2:10; 5:9). Käsemann takes a literal view and interprets it in gnostic fashion that the redeemer needed to be perfected himself before he could bring others to perfection. However, as Marshall shows, the dominant idea in both verses is suffering, not perfection. It is not that Christ was imperfect but that he entered completely into the believer's experience of "perfection" through suffering. This was part of his high priestly ministry. 

Behind this whole idea is the pattern of "obedience," a key part of the writer's perfection theology, as seen in Heb. 5:8-9. Obedience to the Father can only be learned through "discipline" (Heb. 12:5), and this is the path to maturity or perfection. Jesus was "perfected" by becoming "obedient unto death" (Phil. 2:8) and suffering as the one sacrifice. It is in this sense that he is "Pioneer and Perfecter." By his perfect sacrifice he brought man to the possibility of perfection (Heb. 10:14). He was both perfect provider and perfect example in bringing men to sonship and glory.

A strong debate ensues over the question whether τελειόω [perfect, complete, fulfill] and cognates are cultic or ethical in thrust. Actually, it is best to note both ideas in the concept. The cultic religious implications are seen in the tabernacle dualism of Heb. 9:9; the Melchizedekian priesthood emphasis (Heb. 5:9); the imperfect law (Heb. 7:19), and the mature-immature contrast (Heb. 5:14). Yet within these very categories there are ethical implications; implicit within these is an ethical-moral sense. This is seen especially in the theological concept of the "pilgrimage" of believers, who are on a "wilderness journey" in search of God's "rest." This is also indicated in the general soteriology of the entire epistle. A march-forward (Heb. 6:1), a perseverance in the essentials of Christian development, is at the heart of the writer's exhortation. Salvation is the eschatological possession of a forward-looking faith. 

Of course, this does not mean there is a total flux in salvation, for there is a once-for-all foundation (Heb. 7:27; 9:12) for the Christian's sanctification (Heb. 10:10). Nevertheless this foundation is not a static fact but rather a dynamic, life-producing force in which the believer must be actively involved "now" (Heb. 2:8; 8:6; 9:24; 12:26).

Therefore perfection is more than an external, cultic experience; it is an internal life-changing "goal." Wikgren defines the concept thusly: "The response of faith by the believer" is "in a sense proleptically [the "anachronistic representation of something as existing before its proper or historical time," FreeDictionary] teleios [perfected] through initiation and participation in that community of faith which also constitutes this ideal goal. . . ." The end is not finally attained or obtained; one must reach it by suffering as he suffered. The idea is the attainment of "completeness" of "maturity," and the Christian is pictured as one in progress toward that end. He must "press on toward perfection" (Heb. 6:1) on the basis of the "greater and more perfect tabernacle" (Heb. 9:11; cf. Heb. 9:9). It is the promise which leads to perfection (Heb. 11:13-40).

Heb. 12:23 seems to connect this with the believer's death, which is the "completion" of his earthly pilgrimage. Therefore we might conclude that perfection, as one of the major terms for salvation in this epistle (see also "repentance" and "sanctified" earlier) has a twofold thrust: 1) it speaks of the crisis experience of salvation, in which one receives the salvific gifts; and 2) it speaks of the eschatological "goal" by which the Christian strives via his spiritual pilgrimage to enter that final "rest" with God. This latter element, which is identified with the doctrine of perseverance in Hebrews, is predominant in this epistle.


Many might argue that the soteriology of this epistle, as presented here, is given a semi-pelagian coloring. This, however, is to misunderstand the perspective from which the author wrote, as well as the "word of exhortation" (Heb. 13:22) within which his purpose is found. The readers were believers who were in danger of failure and apostasy, and so the writer does not spend time discussing their faith-decision. . . . His perspective, then, is the other side of the salvation-coin, salvation as the eschatological goal, not only a present experience but also a future gift, which can only be obtained by perseverance in Christian development. The writer argues against a static Christianity which is content to dwell in the assurance of final inheritance. Such a faith is not faith at all; it inevitably stagnates into immaturity (Heb. 5:13-14; 6:1) and leaves itself open to apostasy (Heb. 6:4). 

Some might also charge that such a doctrine teaches salvation by works; but here we must note that Hebrews presupposes the faith-decision and relates to perseverance in that new condition. Moreover, we would add that there is no sense here of a perseverance by works. The writer frequently connects perseverance with the sovereign power of God, and there is a definite sense of security (see above). However, this security itself is a present possession rather than a future guarantee. Heb. 10:14; 2:11 use "timeless present" participles to describe the perfecting and sanctifying work of Christ. Heb. 12:28 says we have received "a kingdom which cannot be shaken" and Heb. 9:12 says Christ obtained "eternal redemption." However, this must be seen as present "promise" rather than as absolute certainty (Heb. 9:15) and as subject to the dangers discussed in the epistle. Therefore, we would conclude that for the writer perseverance is not a "work" but is rather a yielding to the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit within.

Hebrews and John -- A comparison of these two key works will help clarify the doctrine of perseverance as we have defined it, for the two represent opposite sides of the same truth. Both teach a combination of security and responsibility in salvation, with John stressing the former and Hebrews the latter. In John 6:37-40 and John 10:29-30 the believer's security is stressed in emphatic language (but note responsibility in the present participles of John 6:35, 40 and in the "hear-follow" terminology of John 10:27 [also cf. John 15:-1-11]), while in Hebrews the believer's responsibility to persevere is stressed (but note security in the passages just mentioned as well as in Heb. 6:9 and Heb. 10:30). The promise of God's support provides security, but the Christian must avail himself of this promise "lest he fail to enter God's rest."

New Testament passages on apostasy -- If this epistle was the only place in the New Testament where the doctrine of perseverance and the possibility of apostasy were taught, we would wonder if our exegesis might be wrong or if Hebrews perhaps was not a part of the canon. However, it agrees with many other passages in the New Testament, and we must see it in the light of the theology of the New Testament as a whole.

Several passages teach what we may call "conditional salvation," i.e., salvation which can only be received finally when man meets certain God-ordained conditions. Rom. 8:12-14 makes sonship conditional upon our continual participation in the leading of the Spirit; while the Spirit does the work . . . the believer must continually yield to it. 1 Cor. 15:1-2 says that one must "hold fast" to the truths of the Word, lest his belief be "in vain"; this must mean perseverance is the only guarantee against an "emptying" ("in vain" is "to no avail" rather than "thoughtlessly" or "rashly") of one's salvation in apostasy. John 8:51 makes obedience to his Word the condition for eternal life ("never see death"). Col. 1:21-23 says the believer will be presented "blameless" only "if [he] continues in the faith" and is "not moved away from the hope of the Gospel" (cf. Acts 14:22). 2 Pet. 1:8-11 warns against forgetting the salvation experience (apostasy) and exhorts the readers to "make your calling and election certain." Perseverance is also seen in the phrase, "as long as you practise [sic] these things, you will never stumble." Finally, 1 John 2:23-25 says that one will only abide in the Father and have eternal life "if what [he] heard from the beginning abides in [him]."

There are also several passages stating the danger of apostasy. Matt. 24:4, 5, 11, 13 and 2 Thess. 2:3 prophesy a general apostasy which will precede the tribulation period [or the overall return of Christ]. Only "he who endures to the end" "will be saved." . . . 1 Tim. 4:1, 16 says some will apostatize and exhorts Timothy to persevere so as to ensure his salvation and that of his flock. 2 Pet. 3:17, 18 calls for diligence and exhorts the readers to guard themselves against the error of those who "fall from [their] own steadfastness"; the phrases "led away" and "fall from" show this is a real, not hypothetical, danger. 

In 1 Cor. 9:27, Paul's statement that he may become "castaway" must mean "rejected" rather than just "disqualified"; in Rom. 1:28; 2 Cor. 13:5; 2 Tim. 3:8; and Titus 1:16 it means "reprobate" and refers to those who are outside the kingdom of God. James 1:14-16 and James 5:19, 20 warn against the danger of "erring" and thus "dying" and equate "erring" with "straying." The death here is more than just physical death but must refer to eternal condemnation. 2 Pet. 2:20, 21 is quite similar to Heb. 6:4ff. and Heb. 10:29ff. Those who have "escaped the pollutions of the world by the knowledge of the Lord" and "are again entangled and overcome" [by them] are in a worse state than before. Again these must be believers, and again they have apostatized from the faith. Finally, Rev. 22:19 shows that some can have their names "removed from the book of life." These passages show that the position of the writer to the Hebrews with regard to apostasy fits the mainstream of New Testament teaching.


Grant R. Osborne, "Soteriology in the Epistle to the Hebrews," in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Inc., 1975), 144-61.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.