An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
A Call to Examination
We had first thought of giving a brief exposition of this verse at the close of the preceding article. But we felt this would scarcely satisfy some of our more critical readers. Nor is it our custom to dodge difficulties, and this presents a real difficulty unto not a few. Those Arminians who are ready to grasp at a straw have appealed to it in support of their favorite tenet "falling from grace." On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that the replies given by Calvinists thereon have often been unsatisfactory. It seems therefore that a more careful consideration and fuller elucidation of its contents are called for. Following, then, our usual practice, we shall endeavor, as God assists, to bring out the meaning of its several terms and apply them to our consciences and lives.
The following are the points upon which our attention needs to be concentrated. First, the connection between our present verse and its context. Second, the duty enjoined: "looking diligently." Third, the danger to be avoided: "lest any man fail of the grace of God." Fourth, the evil warned against: "lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you." Fifth, the resultant consequence if the evil be tolerated: "and thereby many be defiled." In considering these points it will have to be carefully ascertained what it is about which we are here exhorted to be "looking diligently." What is signified by "lest any man fail of the grace of God," and if that be the correct translation, or whether the Greek requires us to accept the marginal alternative of "falling from the grace of God." And finally, what is denoted by the "root of bitterness springing up." May wisdom be granted us from on High.
First, then, the connection between our present verse and its context. We will first consider its more general and remote relation, and then its more specific and immediate. The link between Hebrews 12:15 and that which precedes may be thus exhibited: if the afflictions which fidelity to Christ occasion and the chastenings of the Father are not duly improved by professing Christians they are almost certain to become a serious stumbling-block in the way of personal piety, yea, a temptation to apostasy itself. This, we believe, is the first reference in the "looking diligently." Unless professing Christians are duly "exercised" (verse 11) over God’s disciplinary dealings with them, they are very apt to misconstrue them, chafe against them, call into question the Divine goodness, and sink into a state of despair, with its accompanying inertia.
What has just been pointed out above receives confirmation from the verses which immediately follow, for verses 16 and 17 are obviously a continuation of our present text. There we find a solemn exhortation against apostasy itself, pointed by the awful case and example of Esau. Here we are warned against that, which if neglected, has a fearful tendency unto apostasy. Most of us know from painful experience how easily we become discouraged when things do not go as we want, how ready we are to "faint" (verse 5) when the rod of adversity is laid upon us, how real is the temptation to compromise or forsake the path of duty altogether when trials multiply or opposition and persecution is all that our best efforts meet with. Real, then, is our need for heeding this exhortation "Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God."
It is unspeakably solemn to note that in the case of Esau his temptation to sell his birthright—apostatize—was occasioned by his faintness, for we are told that he said to Jacob, "Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage, for I am faint" (Gen. 25:30). And is it not when we are faint in our minds, cast down by the difficulties of the way, disheartened by the lack of appreciation our efforts meet with, and crushed by one trial on top of another, that Satan bids us give up the fight of faith and "get what pleasure we can out of life" by indulging the lusts of the flesh? Looked at thus our text points out the spring of apostasy—"falling of the grace of God;" the nature of apostasy—a "root of bitterness springing up;" and the result of apostasy—"many be defiled."
Considering now the more specific and immediate connection of our verse with its context. First, unless the hands which hang down be lifted up and the feeble knees strengthened (verse 12), there will be a "failing of the grace of God;" and unless straight paths are made for our feet and that which is "lame" be prevented from "turning out of the way" (verse 13), then a "root of bitterness" (an apostate) will spring up, and in consequence, "many will be defiled." Second, in verse 14 we are exhorted to "follow" two things, namely, "peace" and "holiness;" while in verse 15 we are warned to avoid two things, namely, "failing of the grace of God" and suffering "a root of bitterness to spring up." The opening "Looking diligently" clearly denotes that our avoidance of the two evils of verse 15 turns or is dependent upon our earnest pursuit of the spiritual graces inculcated in verse 14.
We are now ready to contemplate the duty which is here enjoined: "looking diligently." This is a call to examination: first, to self-examination. Its immediate force is derived from the closing words of the preceding verse, where the solemn and searching statement is made that "without which (namely ‘holiness’) no man shall see the Lord." No matter though I am in fellowship with the people of God, a member of a scriptural church, a regular attender upon the means of grace, a firm believer in all the doctrines of the Word; yet, if I have never been sanctified by the Spirit of God, if I am not diligently and earnestly cultivating practical holiness, both of heart and life, then I shall never enter Heaven, and enjoy the beatific vision. Hence the pertinency and urgency of this exhortation, "Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God." There is far too much at stake to remain in uncertainty upon such a vital matter, and only the religious trifler will disregard this imperative summons.
The call to careful self-examination receives its urgency from the very great danger there is of self-deception. Sin darkens the understanding, so that man is unable to perceive his real state before God. Satan "hath blinded the minds of them which believe not" (2 Cor. 4:4). The deep-rooted pride of our hearts makes us think the best of ourselves, so that if a question is raised in our hearts, we are ever prone to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. A spirit of sloth possesses us by nature, so that we are unwilling to go to the trouble which real self-examination calls for. Hence the vast majority of religious professors remain with a head knowledge of the Truth, with outward attention to forms and ceremonies, or resting on a mere consent to the letter of some verse like John 3:16, refusing to "make their calling and election sure."
God has warned us plainly in His Word that, "There is a generation that are pure in their own eyes and yet is not washed from their filthiness" (Prov. 30:12). He has set before us those who say "I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing," and who know not that they are "wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked" (Rev. 3:17). And let it be duly noted that those were in church association, and that at a time before the last of the apostles had left the earth. Christ has told us that "Many will say to Me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name? and in Thy name have cast out devils? and in Thy name done many wonderful works?" yea, that they affirm "we have eaten and drunk in Thy presence" (Luke 13:26); yet will He answer them "I never knew you: depart from Me, ye that work iniquity" (Matthew 7:23). How such words as those should make each of us tremble! How it behooves us to be "Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God." Alas that such words—written first to those who had been addressed as "holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling" (3:1)—should, for the most part, fall upon unheeding ears.
The fact is, that our diligence and honesty in self-examination will largely be determined by the value which we set upon our soul and its eternal interests. Alas, the vast majority of professing Christians today are far, far more concerned about their bodies than their souls, about carnal pleasures than spiritual fiches, about earthly comforts than heavenly consolations, about the good opinion of their fellows rather than the approbation of God. But a few—and O how few—are made serious, become in deadly earnest to examine well their foundations and test every inch of the ground they stand on. With them religion is not something to be taken up and laid down according to their fitful moods. Where will they spend ETERNITY is their all-absorbing concern. Every other interest in life sinks into utter insignificance before the vital consideration of seeking to make sure that they have "the root of the matter" in them.
O my reader, can you be satisfied with the cheap, easy-going religion of the day, which utterly ignores the clamant call of the Son of God "Agonize to enter in at the strait gate" (Luke 13:24)? Can you rest content with the "smooth things" now being proclaimed from well nigh every pulpit, which assures those who are at emnity with God they can become Christians more easily than a youth can join the army, or a man become a ‘free mason’ or ‘odd fellow’? Can you follow the great crowd who claim to have "received Christ as their personal Savior" when no miracle of grace has been wrought in their hearts, while the Lord Himself declares "Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto Life, and few there be that find it" (Matthew 7:14)? Dare you rest upon some "decision" made when you were deeply stirred by some anecdotes addressed to your emotions? Have you nothing more than some change in your religious views or some reformation in your outward ways to show that you are "a new creature in Christ Jesus"? Slight not, we beseech you, this pressing word, "Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God."
But the word "Looking diligently" has a wider signification than self-examination: it also points out our duty toward each other. The Greek term means "overseeing," exercising a jealous care for one another. This seems to have misled Owen and several others who confined the exhortation unto "the body of the church or society of the faithful" in their mutual relation. But as Spurgeon pointed out on the text, "In the church of God each one should be on his watchtower for himself and for others. The first person who is likely to fail in the church is myself. Each one ought to feel that: the beginning of the watch should therefore be at home." Our text is very similar to the exhortation found in Hebrews 3:13, 14, which is first unto the individual and then to the assembly—"Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily."
Earnestly endeavoring to look well unto my own going, it is then both my duty and privilege to exercise watchfulness over others. "How many persons might be saved from backsliding by a little oversight! If we would speak to the brother kindly and considerately, when we think he is growing a little cold, we might restore him. We need not always speak directly to him by way of rebuke, but we may place a suggestive book in his way, or speak generally upon the subject. Love can invent many ways of warning a friend without making him angry, and a holy example will also prove a great rebuke to sin. In the church we ought to bear one another’s burden, and so fulfill the law of Christ, exercising the office of bishops over one another, and watching lest any man fail of the grace of God" (C.H. Spurgeon).
How little of this loving solicitude for the spiritual well-being of our fellow-pilgrims is in evidence today! How little earnest and diligent praying for one another! How little faithfulness in counseling, warning, exhorting! Probably one principal reason for this is the hyper-touchiness of so many professing Christians in this generation. No matter how tactfully the counsel be tendered, how faithfully the warning be given, or how lovingly the rebuke be administered; no matter though it be given by an experienced senior to one he is on familiar terms with, yet in nine cases out of ten his efforts are resented, and he is told—by attitude if not in words—to "mind his own business." Never mind, even if a single ear be gained and a single soul helped, it is worth the disappointments of being repulsed by the others. Only one leper out of the ten appreciated Christ’s kindness!
"Lest any man fail of the grace of God." This is the clause which has occasioned controversy: though really it affords no warrant for it, nor will the Greek permit of the marginal rendering. The root word which is here rendered "fail" occurs many times in the N.T., but never once has it the force of "fall from." It means "to lack" or "be deficient of." In Romans 3:23 it is rendered "come short of," in Luke 15:14 to "want," in 2 Corinthians 12:11 "come behind," in Matthew 19:20 "lack," in Philippians 4:12 "suffer need," in Hebrews 11:37 to be "destitute." Thus there is no room for uncertainty as to the meaning of this exhortation: "Looking diligently lest any man fail—come short of, be deficient in, lack—the grace of God."
But to what does "the grace of God" here refer? That is not quite so easy to answer, for sometimes "grace" is to be regarded objectively, sometimes subjectively; in some passages it refers to the free favor of God, in others to His benevolent operation within the heart, in still others to the effects produced thereby. In our present passage, it seems to the writer, to be used more abstractly, having a comprehensive scope as it is applicable to widely different cases. We feel it safest to regard the clause thus, for God’s commandment is "exceeding broad" (Ps. 119:96), and very often a single word has a twofold or threefold reference, and therefore we need to be constantly on our guard against limiting the meaning or restricting the application of any utterance of Holy Writ. According to our light we will endeavor to show some of the different cases to which this exhortation belongs.
"By ‘the grace of God,’ God’s favor and acceptance in Christ, as it is proposed and declared by the Gospel, is intended. Herein all spiritual mercies and privileges, in adoption, justification, sanctification and consolation, do consist. For these things, proceeding from the love, grace, and goodness of God in Christ, and being effects thereof, are called the grace of God. The attaining and participation of these things, is that which in the faith and profession of the Gospel, men aim at and design; without which, both the one and the other are in vain. This grace, under all their profession of the Gospel, men may fail of, and this is the evil cautioned against" (John Owen).
Men may "fail of the grace of God," then, by not submitting themselves to the terms of the Gospel. Those terms are repugnant to the natural man: they are distasteful to his carnal lusts, they are humbling to his pride. But it is at the former of these two points that the majority "fail." The Gospel calls upon sinners to repent, and they cannot do that with sincerity unless they throw down the weapons of their rebellion against God. The thrice holy God will pardon no man so long as he is determined to please himself and continue in a course of sinning. Again; the Gospel calls on sinners to receive Christ Jesus as Lord: to give Him the throne of their hearts, to bow to His scepter. The holy Redeemer will save no man who is unwilling for Him to "rule over" him (Luke 19:14).
Second, to "fail of the grace of God" is to be satisfied with something short of Divine grace communicated to and ruling in the heart. It is to be contented with a religious substitute for it. How many are deceived by "a form of godliness" who know nothing of its "power" (2 Tim. 3:5). How many mistake a head-knowledge of the Truth for a miracle of grace wrought in the heart. How many substitute outward forms and ceremonies for an experimental acquaintance with the substance of them. How many confuse an external reformation of life with the Divine regeneration and transformation of the soul. Alas, of how very many does it have to be said, "He feedeth on ashes; a deceived heart hath turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul" (Isa. 44:20). O how few there are who know "the grace of God in truth" (Col. 1:5). Do you, my reader? Do you?
"Some have maintained an admirable character to all appearance all their lives, and yet have failed of the grace of God because of some secret sin. They persuaded even themselves that they were believers, and yet they were not truly so; they had no inward holiness, they allowed one sin to get the mastery, they indulged in an unsanctified passion, and so, though they were laid in the grave like sheep, they died with a false hope, and missed eternal life. This is a most dreadful state to be in, and perhaps some of us are in it. Let the prayer be breathed, ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’ Are ye earnest in secret prayer? Do ye love the reading of the Bible? Have ye the fear of God before your eyes? Do you really commune with God? Do you truly love Christ? Ask yourselves these questions often, for though we preach the free Gospel of Jesus Christ, I hope as plainly as any, we feel it to be just as needful to set you on self-examination and to excite in you a holy anxiety. It ought to be often a question with you ‘Have I the grace of God, or do I fall short of it? Am I a piece of rock crystal which is very like the diamond, but yet is not diamond?’" (C.H. Spurgeon).
Third, multitudes "fail of the grace of God" by not persevering in the use of the outward means. They are very earnest and zealous at first, but become careless and slothful. "There are some persons who for a time appear to possess the grace of God, and for a while exhibit many outward evidences of being Christians, but at last the temptation comes most suitable to their depraved tastes, and they are carried away with it. They fail of the grace of God. They appear to have attained it, but they fail at last; like a man in business who makes money for a time, but fails in the end. They fail of the grace of God—like an arrow shot from the bow, which goes straight towards the target for a time, but having too little impetus, fails to reach the mark. There are some who did run well, what doth hinder them that they should not obey the truth?" (C.H. Spurgeon).
Finally, genuine Christians themselves "fail of the grace of God" by not improving that which God has already bestowed upon them. Faith has been imparted to them, but how little they exercise it. There is an infinite fullness in Christ for them, but how little do they draw upon it. Wondrous privileges are theirs, but how little do they use them. Light has been communicated to them, but how little do they walk in it. They fail to watch and pray lest they enter into temptation (Mark 14:38). They fail to cleanse themselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit (2 Cor. 7:1). They fail to grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus (2 Pet. 3:18). They fail to keep themselves from idols (1 John 5:21). They fail to keep themselves in the love of God (Jude 21). And by so failing, their peace is disturbed, their joy is diminished, their testimony is marred, and frequent chastenings are brought upon them.
"Lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you." This is the evil warned against. Observe how abstractly this also is worded: it is not "lest any root of bitterness spring up in you," or "among you," but simply "springing up." The reference, we believe, is again a double one: first to the individual himself, and then to the corporate company. This second "lest" is obviously related intimately to the first: if we "fail of the grace of God" then "a root of bitterness springing up" is to be surely expected. Nor can there be any doubt as to what is signified by this figure of a "root of bitterness springing up"—the uprising of evil is evidently that which is in view. This is what we are here to guard against: failure to do so will bring "trouble" upon us and occasion a stumbling-block to others.
The first thing to be noted here is the expression "root of bitterness." Now the root of a tree is that part of it which is underground, hence the reference is to that which is unseen. It points to indwelling sin, which continues in a man even after he is regenerated. That is why the Christian is exhorted, "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof" (Rom. 6:12). And if that is to be obeyed, then it is imperative we heed the word "Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life" (Prov. 4:23). Every stirring of sin within is to be resisted, every defiling effect of it confessed to God. If the weeds be not kept down, the flowers and vegetables will be choked. If the Christian fails in the work of mortification then the cultivation of his graces will be arrested.
"Lest any root of bitterness springing up." The "springing up" is the appearance of its stalk above the ground. It is the open manifestion of sin in the life, issuing from an unmortified lust in the soul, which is here in view. What is unjudged before God in secret usually ends in becoming open before men. "Be sure your sin will find you out" (Num. 32:23) is a solemn word for each of us on this point. "Lest any root" emphasizes the need of constant watchfulness against every sin, for many branches and sprigs are ready to issue from the main trunk of indwelling corruption. Our safeguards are to yield ourselves wholly to God without reserve at any point, to be well instructed in practical godliness, to preserve a tender conscience, to be more distrustful about ourselves, to cultivate closer daily communion with God, to fix our affections upon things above.
"Lest any root of bitterness springing up." By nature, sin is pleasant and delightful to us, but in the end it "biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder" (Prov. 23:32). Particularly is this the case with the Christian. God will not long suffer him to indulge his lusts, without making him taste the bitter consequences of the same. The lashings of his conscience, the convictions of the Spirit, the wretchedness of his soul, will cause him to say, "He hath filled me with bitterness, He hath made me drunken with wormwood" (Lam. 3:15). As our text says, "lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble." That which is contrary to God’s holiness and offends His majesty, He makes a source of trouble to us, either in our minds, bodies, estates, or families. "And many be defiled:" sin is like leaven—its influence spreads: "evil communications corrupt good manners" (1 Cor. 15:33).
The second half of our text also refers to the local church: in it there is, no doubt, an allusion to Deuteronomy 29:18. Great watchfulness needs to be exercised and a strict discipline maintained therein. Unregenerate professors are ever seeking to creep into the assembly of the saints. If God’s servants sleep, the Enemy will sow his tares among the wheat. When the suspicion of church officers is aroused, prayer for discernment and guidance is called for. Where the one suspected breaks out in corrupt doctrine or in loose living, he is to be dealt with promptly. Delay is dangerous. The allowance of a "little leaven" will soon corrupt the whole lump. At no point does the local church fail more deplorably today than in its refusal to maintain Scriptural discipline.