An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The Apostates’ Doom
The verses which are now to be before us complete the section begun at verse 26, the sum of which is the apostates’ doom. They fall naturally into two parts, the one containing a description of their sin; the other, a declaration of their punishment. For the purpose of solemn emphasis, each of these is repeated. In verse 26 the sin itself is mentioned; in the last clause of verse 26 and in verse 27 the punishment of it is affirmed. In verses 28, 29 the apostle confirms the equity of the fore-named judgment by an argument drawn from the Mosaic law, under which he shows the terrible character of the sin which is here in view. In verses 30, 31 he establishes the certainty of the punishment by an appeal to the character of God as revealed in His Word. This repetition in a subject so solemn, is well calculated to awe every thoughtful reader, and ought to produce the most searching effect upon his conscience and heart.
As we have pointed out in preceding articles, this section (verses 26-31) was introduced by the apostle for the purpose of enforcing the exhortation found in verses 22-24, the sum of which is, a call unto Christians to persevere in a state and practice of godliness. Grossly has this passage been perverted by theological factions belonging to two extremes. The one has misused it in the endeavor to bolster up their false doctrine of regenerated people falling from grace and being eternally lost. Without now going into that subject, it is sufficient to say that Hebrews 10:26-31 contains not a word which directly supports the chief contention of the Arminians. What we have in this passage is only hypothetical, "For if we sin willingly," i.e. deliberately, fully, and finally abandon the profession of Christianity—not that the Holy Spirit here says any of the regenerate Hebrews had, or would do so. A similar and still more pointed case is found in those words of Christ’s. "Yet ye have not known Him: but I know Him: and if I should say, I know Him not, I shall be a liar like unto you" (John 8:55).
The second party of those who have misunderstood this passage, are Calvinists possessing more zeal than wisdom. Anxious to maintain their ground against the Arminians, most of them have devoted their energies to show that regenerated Christians do not come within the scope of verse 26 at all; that instead, it treats only of nominal professors, of those having nothing more than a head-knowledge of the Truth, and making merely a lip-profession of the same. And thus has the great Enemy of souls succeeded in getting some of the true servants of God to blunt the sharp edge of this solemn verse, and nullify its searching power over the conscience of the saints. It is sufficient refutation of this theory to point out that the apostle is here addressing those who were "partakers of the heavenly calling" (Heb. 3:1), and in the "we" of Hebrews 10:26 included himself! We will not take any notice of a third theory, of modern "dispensationalists," who affirm that none but Jews could commit the sin here mentioned, beyond saying that our space is too valuable to waste in exposing such trifling with Holy Scripture.
But what has been pointed out above presents a serious difficulty to many. We may state it thus: If it be impossible for truly regenerated people to ever perish, then why should the Holy Spirit move the apostle to so much in hypothetically describing the irremediable doom if they should apostatize? Such a difficulty is occasioned, in the first place, through a one-sided conception of the Christian, through considering him only as he exists in the purpose of God, and not also remembering what he still is in himself: unless the latter be steadily held in mind, we are in grave danger of denying, or at least ignoring, the Christian’s responsibility. That the Christian is to be viewed in this twofold way is abundantly clear from many Scriptures. For example, in the purpose of God, the Christian is already "glorified" (Rom. 8:30), yet he certainly is not so in himself! Here in Hebrews 10:26 etc. (as in many other passages) the Christian is not addressed from the viewpoint of God’s eternal purpose, but as he yet is in himself—in need of solemn warnings, as well as exhortations.
Again; the difficulty which so many one-sided thinkers find in this subject is to be attributed to their failure in duly recognizing the relation which God has appointed between His own eternal counsels and the accomplishment of the same through wisely ordained means. There are some who reason (most superficially) that if God has ordained a certain soul to be saved, he will be, whether he exercised faith in Christ or no. Not so: 2 Thessalonians 2:13 clearly proves the contrary—the "end" and the "means" are there inseparably joined together. It is quite true that where God has appointed a certain individual "unto salvation," He will infallibly give him a saving faith; but that does not mean that the Holy Spirit will believe for him; no, the individual will, must, exercise the faith which has been given him. In like manner, God has eternally decreed that every regenerated soul shall get safely through to Heaven, yet He certainly has not ordained that any shall do so whether or not they use the means which He has appointed for their preservation. Christians are "kept by the power of God through faith" (1 Pet. 1:5)—there is the human responsibility side.
Looked at as he still is in himself, the Christian is eminently liable to "make shipwreck of the faith" (1 Tim. 1:19). He still has within him a nature which craves the vanities of the world, and that craving has to be denied, or he will never reach Heaven. He is yet in the place of terrible danger, menaced by deadly temptations, and it is only as he constantly watches and prays against the same that he is preserved from them. He is the immediate and incessant object of the Devil’s malice, for he is ever going about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour; and it is only as the Christian takes unto himself (appropriates and uses) the armor of God’s providing, that he can withstand the great Enemy of souls. It is because of these things that he urgently needs the exhortations and warnings of Holy Writ. God has faithfully pointed out to us what lies at the end of every path of self-will and self-indulgence. God has mercifully placed a hedge across each precipice which confronts the professing Christian, and woe be to him if he disregards those warnings and pushes through that hedge.
In this solemn passage of Hebrews 10, the apostle is pointing out the sure and certain connection there is between apostasy and irrevocable damnation, thereby warning all who bear the name of Christ to take the most careful and constant pains in avoiding that unpardonable sin. To say that real Christians need no such warning because they cannot possibly commit that sin, is, we repeat, to lose sight of the connection which God himself has established between His predestined ends and the means whereby they are reached. The end unto which God has predestined His people is their eternal bliss in Heaven, and one of the means by which that end is reached, is through their taking heed to the solemn warning He has given against that which would prevent their reaching Heaven. It is not wisdom, but madness, to scoff at those warnings. As well might Joseph have objected that there was no need for him and his family to flee into Egypt (Matthew 2), seeing that it was impossible for the Christ-Child to be slain by Herod!
What each of us needs to watch against is the first buddings of apostasy, the first steps which lead to that sin of sins. It is not reached at a single bound, but is the fatal culmination of a diseased heart. Thus, while the writer and the reader, may be in no immediate danger of apostasy itself, we are of that which, if allowed and continued in, would certainly lead to it. A man who is now enjoying good health is in no immediate danger of dying from tuberculosis; yet if he recklessly exposed himself to the wet and cold, if he refrained from taking that nourishing food which supplies strength to resist disease, or had he a heavy cough on the chest and made no effort to break it up, then would he very likely fall a victim to consumption. So it is spiritually. Nay, in the case of the Christian, the seed of eternal death is already in him. That seed is sin, and it is only as grace is daily and diligently sought, for the thwarting of its inclinations and suppressing of its activities, that it is hindered from fully developing to a fatal end.
A small leak neglected will sink a ship just as effectually as the most boisterous sea. So one sin indulged in and not repented of, will terminate in eternal punishment. Well did John Owen say, "We ought to take heed of every neglect of the person of Christ and of His authority, lest we enter into some degree or other of the guilt of this great offense." Or, still better, well may both writer and reader earnestly cry unto God, "Keep back Thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression" (Ps. 19:13). Rightly did Spurgeon say on this verse, "Secret sin is a stepping-stone to presumptuous sin, and that is the vestibule of ‘the sin which is unto death’" (Treasury of David.) To sin "presumptuously" is to knowingly and deliberately ignore God’s commandments, defying His authority and recklessly going on in a course of self-pleasing regardless of consequences. When one has reached that terrible stage, he is but a short step indeed from committing the sin for which there is no forgiveness, and then to be abandoned by God both in this world and in that which is to come.
As this solemn subject is so vitally related to our eternal welfare, and as the pulpit and religious press of today maintain a guilty silence thereon, let us briefly point out some of the steps which inevitably lead to "presumptuous" sinning. When a professing Christian ceases to maintain a daily repentance and confession to God of all known sins, his conscience is already asleep and no longer responsive to the voice of the Holy Spirit. If over and above this, he comes before God as a worshipper, to praise and thank Him for mercies received, he is but dissembling, and mocking Him. If he continues in a state of impenitence, thus allowing and siding with the sin into which at first, he was unwittingly and unwillingly betrayed, his heart will be so hardened that he will commit new sins deliberately, against light and knowledge, and that with a high hand, and thus be guilty of presumptuous sins, of openly defying God.
The terrible thing is that in these degenerate times the consciences of thousands have been drugged by preachers (whom it is greatly to be feared are themselves spiritually dead, and helping forward the work of Satan) that have presented "the eternal security of the saints" in such an unscriptural way, as to convey to their poor hearers the impression that, provided they once "accepted Christ as their personal Savior" Heaven is now their certain portion, that guilt can nevermore rest upon them, and that no matter what sins they may commit nothing can possibly jeopardize their eternal interests. The consequence has been—and this is no imaginary fear of ours, but a patent fact of observation on every side—that a carnal security has been imparted, so that in the midst of fleshly gratification and worldly living it is, humanly speaking, quite impossible to disturb their false peace or terrify their conscience.
All around us are professing Christians sinning with a high hand against God, and yet suffering from no qualms of conscience. And why? Because while they believe that some "millennial crown" or "reward" may be forfeited should they fail to deny self and daily take up their cross and follow Christ, yet they have not the slightest realization or fear that they are hastening to Hell as swiftly as time wings its flight. They fondly imagine that the blood of Christ covers all their sins. Horrible blasphemy! Dear reader, make no mistake upon this point, and suffer no false prophet to cause you to believe the contrary, the blood of Christ covers no sins that have not been truly repented of and confessed to God with a broken heart. But presumptuous sins are not easily repented of, for they harden the heart and make it steel itself against God. In proof note, "But they refused to hearken, and pulled away the shoulder, and stopped their ears that they should not hear. Yea, they made their hearts as an adamant stone, lest they should hear the law, and the words which the Lord of hosts hath sent" (Zech. 7:11, 12).
Rightly then does Thomas Scott say on Hebrews 10:26, "We cannot too awfully alarm the secure, self-confident, and presumptuous, as every deliberate sin against light and conscience, is a step towards the tremendous precipice described by the apostle." Alas, alas, Satan has, through the "Bible teachers" done his work so well that, unless the Holy Spirit performs a miracle, it is impossible to "alarm" such. The great masses of professing Christians of our day regard God Himself much as they would an indulgent old man in his dotage, who so loves his grandchildren as to be blind to all their faults. The ineffably holy God of Scripture is no longer believed in: but multitudes will yet find, to their eternal sorrow, that it is" a fearful thing" to fall into His hands. We make no apology for this lengthy introduction, for our aim is not so much to write a commentary on this Epistle, as it is to reach the consciences and hearts of poor, misguided, and deluded souls, who have been fearfully deceived by the very men whom they have regarded as the champions of orthodoxy.
"He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant wherewith He was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?" (verses 28, 29). Having named the principal means for the Christian’s maintenance of constancy in the faith (verses 22-25), the apostle proceeded to enforce his exhortations to perseverance, and against backsliding and apostasy, by some weighty considerations. First, from the terrible character of the sin of apostasy: it is a sinning willingly after a knowledge of the Truth has been received and assented to verse 26. Second, from the dreadful state of such: no sacrifice avails for them, naught but judgment awaits them, verses 26, 27. Third, from the analogy of God’s severity in the past verses 28, 29. Fourth, from what Scripture affirms of God’s vindicative justice, verses 30, 31.
"He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses." The apostle proceeds to confirm the sentence passed upon the apostate Christian in verses 26, 27, by an appeal to God’s awful but righteous justice in the past. If the despiser of the Mosaic law was dealt with so unsparingly, how much more severe must be the punishment meted out to those who scorn the authority of the Gospel! The Greek word for "despise" means to utterly reject a thing, to set aside or cast it off, to treat it with contempt. The one who thus flouted the Divine legislation through Moses, was he who renounced its authority, and determinately and obstinately refused to comply with its requirements. Such an one suffered the capital punishment. Probably such passages as Deuteronomy 13:6-9; 17:2-7 were before the apostle’s mind.
"Of how much sorer punishment suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy who hath trodden under foot the Son of God?" The apostle’s inspired logic here is the very reverse of that which obtains in the corrupt theology of present-day Christendom. The popular idea in these degenerate times is that, under the Gospel regime (or "dispensation of grace") God has acted, is acting, and will act much more mildly with transgressors, than He did under the Mosaic economy. The very opposite is the truth. No judgment from Heaven one-half as severe as that which overtook Jerusalem in A.D. 70, is recorded in Scripture from Exodus 19 to Malachi 4! Nor is there anything in God’s dealings with Israel during O.T. times which can begin to compare with the awful severity of His "wrath" as depicted in the book of Revelation! Every despiser of the Lordship of Christ shall yet discover that a far hotter place has been reserved for him in Hell, than what will be the portion of lawless rebels who lived under the old covenant.
"Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God?" There are degrees of heinousness in sinning (John 19:11), and so there are degrees in the punishment of their perpetrators (Luke 12:47, 48). Here, this solemn truth is presented in the interrogative form (cf. Hebrews 2:3) so as to search the conscience of each reader. If I have been favored with a knowledge of the Gospel (denied to half the human race), if I have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit (which is more than multitudes of Romanists are), if I profess to have received Christ as my Savior and have praised Him for His redeeming grace,—what punishment can fitly meet my crimes if I now despise His lordship, flout His authority, break His commandments, walk with His enemies, and go on sinning presumptuously, till I end by committing the "great transgression?"
"Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith He was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?" Instead of contenting himself with a general declaration of the equity of God’s dealings with apostates, the apostle here adduces additional particulars of the crime before him. In this verse we have brought before us the awful aggravations of the sin of apostasy, showing what is implied and involved in this un-pardoned transgression. Three things are specified, at each of which we shall briefly glance.
First, "who hath trodden under foot the Son of God." Once more we would call attention to the varied manner in which the Holy Spirit refers to the Savior in this epistle. Here, it is not "Jesus," or "Christ," but the "Son of God," and that, because His purpose is to emphasize the infinite dignity of the One slighted. It is not a mere man, nor even an angel, but none less than the second person of the Holy Trinity who is so grievously insulted! Backsliding and apostasy is a treating of the Lord of glory with the utmost contempt. What could be worse? The figure here employed is very expressive and solemn: to "tread under foot" is the basest use to which a thing can be put. It signifies a scornful spurning of an object as a thing that is worthless, and is applied to swine trampling pearls under their feet (Matthew 7:6). O my reader, when we deliberately ignore the claims of God’s Son and despise His commandments, we are treading His authority beneath our feet!
Second, "and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith He was sanctified, an unholy thing." Here, as J. Owen rightly pointed out, "The second aggravation of the sin spoken of, is its opposition to the office of Christ, especially His priestly office, and the sacrifice He offered thereby, called here ‘the blood of the covenant’." In our exposition of chapter 9, we sought to show in what sense the blood of Christ was "the blood of the covenant." It was that whereby the new covenant and testament was confirmed and made effectual unto all its grace, to those who believe; being the foundation of all God’s actings toward Christ in His resurrection, exaltation and intercession—cf. Hebrews 13:20. Now the backslider and apostate does, by his conduct, treat that precious blood as though it were a worthless thing. There are many degrees of this frightful sin. But O my reader, whenever we give rein to our lusts and are not constrained by the love of Christ to render Him that devotion and obedience which are His due, we are, in fact, despising the blood of the covenant.
Third, "and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace." This is the greatest aggravation of all: "whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but unto him that blasphemeth against the Holy Spirit it shall not be forgiven him" (Luke 12:10). It is by the Spirit the Christian was regenerated, enlightened, convicted, and brought to Christ. It is by the Spirit the Christian is led and fed, taught and sanctified. What reverence is due Him as a Divine person! What gratitude as a Divine benefactor! How dreadful the sin then which treats Him with insolence, which scorns to attend unto His winsome voice, which despises His gracious entreaties! While the grossest form of the sin here referred to is, malignantly imputing unto Satan the works of the Spirit, yet there are milder degrees of it. O my reader, let us earnestly endeavor to keep from grieving Him (Eph. 4:30), and more completely yield ourselves to be "led" (Rom. 8:14) by Him along the highway of practical holiness.
Saith the Lord Almighty, "To this man will I look, even to him that is poor (in spirit), and of a contrite heart, and trembleth at My Word" (Isa. 66:2). Surely if there is a passage any where in Holy Writ which should cause each of us to "tremble," it is the one now before us! Not tremble lest we have already committed this unpardonable sin, for they who have done so are beyond all exercise of conscience, being given up by God to hardness of heart; no, but tremble lest we should begin a course of backsliding, which, if un-arrested, would certainly lead thereto. "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12). O my reader, make this your daily prayer, "Hold up my goings in Thy paths, that my footsteps slip not" (Ps. 17:5).
"For we know Him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto Me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge His people" (verse 30). In this verse further confirmation is supplied of the awful severity and the absolute certainty of the punishment of apostates. Once more we have an example of a most important principle which regulated the apostle in his ministry, both oral and written. In verses 28, 29 he had given a specimen of spiritual reasoning, drawing a clear and logical inference from the less to the greater; yet decisive and unanswerable as this was, he rested not his case upon it, but instead, established it by quoting from Holy Scriptures. Let servants of God today act upon the same principle, and give a definite "Thus saith the Lord" for all they advance.
"For we know Him that hath said." Here our attention is directed unto the Divine character, what God is in Himself. Nothing behooves us more than to frequently and fully consider who it is with whom we have to do. Our conception of the Divine character plays an important part in molding our hearts and regulating our conduct, therefore it is that we find the apostle, in another place, praying that the saints may be "increasing in the knowledge of God" (Col. 1:10). It is a most profitable exercise for the soul to be often engaged in contemplating the Divine attributes, pondering God’s all-mighty power, ineffable holiness, unimpeachable veracity, exact justice, absolute faithfulness and terrible severity. Christ Himself has bidden us "Fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28). The better God’s character be known, the more we heed that exhortation of Christ’s, the clearer shall we perceive that there is nothing unsuited to the holiness of God in what Scripture affirms concerning His dealings with the wicked. It is because the true nature of sin is so little viewed in the light of God’s awful holiness, that so many fail to recognize its infinite demerits.
"For we know Him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto Me, I will recompense saith the Lord." The reference is to Deuteronomy 32:35, though the apostle does not quote word for word as we now have that text. Moses was there reminding of the office which God holds as the Judge of all the earth: as such, He enforces His righteous law, and inflicts its just punishment on willful and impenitent sinners. Though, in His unsearchable wisdom, He is often pleased to forbear for a while—for He "bears with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction" (Rom. 9:22)— nevertheless, God will yet pay to every transgressor the full wages to which their sins have earned. God bore long with the Antediluvians, but at the end He destroyed them by the flood. Wondrous was His patience toward the Sodomites, but at His appointed season, He rained down fire and brimstone upon them. With amazing forbearance He tolerates the immeasurable wickedness of the world, but the Day is swiftly approaching when He will avenge Himself upon all who now so stoutly oppose Him.
"And again, The Lord shall judge His people." A most important example is here given as a guide to teach us how scripture is to be applied. The reference is to what is recorded in Deuteronomy 32:36, but there it is God’s care exercised on behalf of His people, while here it is His vengeance upon their enemies. Some have caviled at the appositeness of the apostle’s quotation. Yet they should not. Each particular scripture has a general application, and is not to be limited unto those first addressed. If God undertakes to protect His people, He will certainly exercise judgment on those who apostatize. He did so in the past (see 1 Corinthians 10:5); He will do so in the future: 2 Thessalonians 1:7, 8. The rule which is established by this quotation from Deuteronomy is, that all Scripture is equally applicable unto all cases of the like nature. What God says concerning those who are the enemies of His people, becomes applicable to His people should they break and reject His covenant.
"It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (verse 31). Here is the un-escapable conclusion which must be drawn from all that has been before us. This word "fearful" ought to make every trifler with sin tremble as did Belshazzar when he saw the Hand writing upon the wall. To "fall into the hands of" is a metaphor, denoting the utter helplessness of the victim when captured by his enemy. The One into whose hands the apostate falls is "the living God." "A mortal man, however incensed he may be, cannot carry his vengeance beyond death; but God’s power is not bounded by so narrow limits" (John Calvin). No, forever and ever will God’s wrath burn against the objects of His judgment. Nor will the supplications of sinners prevail upon Him: see Proverbs 1:28, Ezekiel 8:18.
By the penitent and obedient, God is loved and adored; but by the impenitent and defiant, He is to be dreaded. The wicked may now pride themselves that in the day of judgment they will placate God by their tears, but they will then find that not only His justice, but His outraged mercy also calls aloud for His vengeance upon them. Men may now be beguiled by visions of a "larger hope," but in that Day they shall discover it is only another of Satan’s lies. O how the "terror of the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:11) ought to stir up God’s servants to warn and persuade men before the day of grace is finally closed. And how it should make each one of us walk softly before God, sparing no pains to make our calling and election "sure." It is only as we "add" to our faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly-kindness, and love, that we have scriptural assurance that we shall "never fall" (2 Pet. 1:5-10).