An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
A Warning Against Apostasy
(Hebrews 12:16, 17)
The verses which we are now to consider are among the most solemn to be found in the Word of God. They present a most pointed warning against apostasy. They bring before us what is to all tender consciences a terror-provoking subject, namely, sin for which there is no forgiveness. It is indeed to be deplored that recent writers have dealt with it like they do with most matters—very superficially or quite erroneously. Either they have limited themselves unto two or three passages, ignoring many others directly relating to the theme, or they have wrongly affirmed that no one can commit "the unpardonable sin" during this present dispensation. On the other hand, most of the old writers seem to have devoted their efforts to re-assuring weak and fearing Christians that they had not committed this awful offense, rather than in making any attempt to define the character of the transgression itself.
The subject is admittedly a difficult one, and we believe God has permitted a measure of obscurity to rest upon it, and that in order to deter men from rashly venturing too near the brink of this terrible precipice. It therefore becomes us to approach it in fear and trembling, with modesty and humility, seeking grace and wisdom from on High to deal with it in a faithful, clear, and helpful manner. For this is no easy thing, if we are to avoid error and preserve the balance of truth. Two extremes have to be guarded against: a blunting of its fearful point so that the wicked would be encouraged to continue trifling with God and sporting with their eternal destiny, or failing to write with sufficient definiteness so that awakened and contrite sinners would not be delivered from sinking into despair beneath Satan’s lying misuse of it against them.
Before turning to the positive side it seems necessary to briefly point out wherein they seriously err, who insist that no one ever sins beyond the possibility of Divine pardon during this present era of grace. There are quite a number of passages in the N.T. epistles which clearly show the contrary. In 2 Thessalonians 2:11, 12 we read, "For this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie; that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness." In Hebrews 6:4, 6 it is said of some that" it is impossible to renew them again unto repentance." In Hebrews 10:26, 27 it is said, "For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries;" while in 1 John 5:16 we are expressly informed "there is a sin unto death." In our judgment each of these passages refers to a class of offenders who have so grievously provoked God that their doom is irrevocably sealed while they are yet here upon earth.
Against the testimony of the above scriptures an appeal has often been made to, "The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin." But the Word of God does not contradict itself, and it is an evil practice which cannot be too strongly condemned to pit one passage against another: any attempt to neutralize one text by another is handling the Truth deceitfully. With regard to 1 John 1:7 three things need to be pointed out.
First, the precious blood of Christ was never designed to cleanse from every sin—was it designed to cleanse Judas from his betrayal of the Savior! Its application is no wider than its impetration: its virtue does not extend beyond the purpose for which it was shed. Second, it does not say "the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth from all sin;" instead, it is strictly qualified: "cleanseth us from all sin," that is, God’s own people. It is dishonest to appropriate these words to unbelievers. Third, the promise is further limited in the preceding clause, "But if we walk in the light as He is in the light."
Nor do we at all agree with those writers who, while allowing that "the unpardonable sin" may be committed during this present dispensation, yet affirm it is a very rare occurrence, a most exceptional thing, of which only one or two isolated cases may be found. On the contrary, we believe that the Scriptures themselves dearly intimate that many have been guilty of sins for which there was no forgiveness either in this world or the world to come. We say "sins," for a careful and prolonged study of the subject has convinced us that "the unpardonable sin" is not one particular act of committing some specific offense, like maliciously ascribing to Satan the works of the Holy Spirit (which, no doubt, is one form of it), but that it varies considerably in different cases. Both of these conclusions of the present writer will receive illustration and confirmation in what follows.
The first human being who was guilty of unpardonable sin was Cain. He was a professor or outward worshipper of God, but because Abel’s offering was accepted and his own rejected, he waxed angry. The Lord condescended to expostulate with him, and went so far as to assure him that if he did well he would not lose his pre-eminence as the firstborn. But so far from doing well, he persisted in wickedness, and his enmity against God was evidenced by his hatred of His child, ending in the murder of him. Whereupon the Lord said unto him, "The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto Me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth... A fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth" (Gen. 4:10-12). To which Cain answered, "Mine iniquity is greater than it may be forgiven" (Gen. 4:13, margin).
The record of Genesis 6 makes it clear that a whole generation of the world’s inhabitants had transgressed beyond all hope of remedy or forgiveness. "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts if his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that He had made man on the earth. And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth" (Gen. 6:5-7), which was duly accomplished by the Flood. The whole of mankind in the days of Nimrod sinned so grievously (Rom. 1:21-23) that "God gave them up" (Rom. 1:24-26), for His Spirit "will not always strive with men."
A whole generation of the Hebrews were also guilty of "the great trangression." In Exodus 23:20, 21, we read, "Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Beware of Him, and obey His voice, provoke Him not; for He will not pardon your transgressions: for My Name is in Him." Alas they heeded not this solemn word: "our fathers would not obey, but thrust Him from them, and in their hearts turned back into Egypt" (Acts 7:39). Consequently the Lord said, "Wherefore I was grieved with that generation, and said, They do always err in their heart, and they have not known My ways. So I sware in My wrath, They shall not enter into My rest" (Heb. 3:10, 11).
It seems evident to the writer that there have been some in every age who have gone beyond the bounds of Divine mercy. Passing by such individual cases as Pharaoh, Balaam, and Saul, we would observe that the Pharisees of Christ’s day—the bulk of them at least—were guilty of sin for which there was no forgiveness. It is clear from John 3:2 that they recognized Him as "a Teacher come from God" and from John 11:47 that they could not gainsay His miracles. Nay more, it is plain from Mark 12:7 that they knew the righteousness of His claims: "But those husbandmen said among themselves, This is the Heir: come, let us kill Him." Thus they acted with their eyes wide open, sinning against their own confession, against light and knowledge, against the strong conviction His miracles produced, and against His holy life spread before them. Therefore did Christ say to them, "I go My way, and ye shall seek Me, and shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come" (John 8:21).
"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. 119:13). Here the unpardonable sin is denominated "the great transgression." It is called such because this is what a bold and audacious defiance of God necessarily culminates in, unless sovereign grace intervenes. "Presumptuous" sins are committed by those who, while professing God’s name and avowing a claim upon His mercy, persist in a known course contrary to His Word. Such rebels, presuming upon God’s patience and goodness, are mocked by Him, being suffered to go beyond the bounds of His forgiveness. It is also called "blasphemy against the Spirit" (Matthew 12:31), "resisting the Spirit" (Acts 7:51), "doing despite unto the Spirit of grace" (Heb. 10:29). The "new testament" or "covenant" is "the ministration of the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:8), which far exceeds in glory the legal dispensation. To be guilty of the great transgression is to sin willfully against and to speak maliciously of the Holy Spirit, who is revealed and promised in the Gospel; it is a quenching of His convictions, resisting His enlightenment, defying His authority.
It is called "a sin unto death" (1 John 5:16) because its perpetrator is now out of the reach of the promise of eternal life, having made the Gospel, which is a proclamation of Divine grace unto those who will submit themselves to its requirements, a "savor of death unto death" to himself. He was convicted by it that he was legally dead, and because of his impenitence, unbelief, hardheartedness, and determination to go on having his own way, he is left spiritually dead. Unto others God grants "repentance unto life," (Acts 11:18), but when once "sin unto death" has been committed, it is "impossible to renew again unto repentance" (Heb. 6:4-6). By his opposition to the Gospel and refusal to receive Christ’s "yoke," the guilty rebel has trampled under foot the blood of God’s Son, and as that alone can procure forgiveness, there is now no pardon available for him.
The very fact that it is designated "a sin unto death" rather than "the sin unto death" confirms what we said in a previous paragraph, namely, that it is not some specific offense but rather that the particular form it takes varies in different cases. And herein we may perceive how the sovereignty of God is exercised in connection therewith. God allows some to go to greater lengths of wickedness than others: some evil-doers He cuts off in youth, while other workers of iniquity are permitted to live unto old age. Against some He is more quickly and more strongly provoked than others. Some souls He abandons to themselves more readily than He does others. It is this which renders the subject so unspeakably solemn: no man has any means of knowing how soon he may cross the line which marks the limits of God’s forebearance with him. To trifle with God is hazardous to the last degree.
That the sovereignty of God is exercised in this matter appears very clearly from the cases of those whom He is pleased to save. What fearful crimes Manasseh was guilty of before Divine grace renewed him! What dreadful sins Saul of Tarsus committed ere the Lord Jesus apprehended him! Let the writer and the reader review their own unregenerate days: how dreadfully did we provoke the Majesty on high; how long did we persevere in a course of open rebellion; against what restraints, privileges, light and knowledge, warnings and entreaties, did we act! How many of the godless companions of our youth were cut off in their guilt, while we were spared. Was it because our sins were less crimson? No, indeed; so far as we can perceive, our sins were of a deeper dye than theirs. Then why did God save us? and why were they sent to Hell? "Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Thy sight" must be the answer.
A sovereign God has drawn the line in every life which marks the parting of the ways. When that line is reached by the individual, God does one of two things with him: either He performs a miracle of grace so that he becomes "a new creature in Christ Jesus," or henceforth that individual is abandoned by Him, given up to hardness of heart and final impenitency; and which it is, depends entirely upon His own imperial pleasure. And none can tell how near he may be to that line, for some reach it much earlier in life than others—according as God sovereignly decreed. Therefore it is the part of wisdom for each sinner to promptly heed that word "Seek ye the Lord while he may be found" (Isa. 55:6), which plainly denotes that soon it may be too late—as Proverbs 1:28-31 and Matthew 25:8-12 plainly show.
This solemn distinction which God makes between one case and another was strikingly shadowed out under the law. We refer to a remarkable detail concerning the jubilee year, a detail which seems to have escaped the notice of those who have preached and written on the subject. Those in Israel who, through poverty, had sold their possessions, had them restored at the year of jubilee: see Leviticus 25:25-28. That was a wondrous and beautiful figure of the free grace of God towards His people in Christ, by which, and not because of anything of their own, they are restored to the Divine favor and given a title to the heavenly inheritance. But in connection therewith there was an exception, designed by God, we doubt not, to adumbrate that which we are here treating upon. That exception we will briefly notice.
"If a man sell a dwelling-house in a walled city, then he may redeem it within a whole year after it is sold; within a full year may he redeem it. And if it be not redeemed within the space of a full year, then the house that is in the walled city shall be established forever to him that bought it throughout his generations: it shall not go out in the jubilee" (Lev. 25:29, 30). We cannot now attempt an exposition of this interesting passage or dwell upon its leading features. No part of the "land" could be sold outright (see 5:23), for that was the free gift of God’s bounty—there can be no failure in Divine grace; but houses in the city were the result of their labor human responsibility being in view. If the house was sold and not repurchased within a year, it passed beyond the reach of redemption, its forfeiture being irrevocable and irrecoverable! Symbolically, the "house" spoke of security under the Divine covenant, for in all generations God in covenant has been the "dwelling-place" of His people (Ps. 90:1). To part with his house typified a professor selling himself to work presumptuous wickedness (1 Kings 21:20), and so selling his soul, his God, his all. To such an one the Spirit will never "proclaim liberty" of the Jubilee, for Satan holds him fast, and Divine justice forbids his discharge: when God "shutteth up a man, there can be no opening" (Job 12:14).
In view of all that has been before us, how softly we should tread, how careful we should be of not provoking the Holy One! How earnestly we should pray to be kept back from "presumptuous sins"! How diligently should the young improve their privileges: how they should heed that warning, "He that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy" (Prov. 29:1)! How careful we should be against adding sin to sin, lest we provoke God to leave us unto final impenitency. Our only safeguard is to heed the voice of the Lord without delay, lest he "swear in His wrath" that we "should not enter into His rest"! How we need to beg God to write those words upon our hearts, "Take heed, brethren, lest there be in you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God" (Heb. 3:12), for there is no hope whatever for the apostate.
A word now unto those with tender consciences that fear they may have committed sin for which there is no forgiveness. The trembling and contrite sinner is the farthest from it. There is not one instance recorded in Scripture where any who was guilty of "the great transgression" and had been given up by God to inevitable destruction, ever repented of his sins, or sought God’s mercy in Christ; instead, they all continued obstinate and defiant, the implacable enemies of Christ and His ways unto the end. While there be in the heart any sincere valuing of God’s approbation, any real sense of His holiness which deters from trifling with Him, any genuine purpose to turn unto Him and submit to His requirements, any true fearing of His wrath, that soul has not been abandoned by Him. If you have a deep desire to obtain an interest in Christ, or become a better Christian; if you are deeply troubled over sin, if your heart grieves over its hardness, if you yearn and pray for more tenderness of conscience, more yieldedness of will, more love and obedience to Christ, then you have no cause to suspect you have committed "the unpardonable sin."
"Lest there by any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who, for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears" (Heb. 12:16,17). These verses continue what was before us in the preceding one, and complete the series of exhortations begun in verse 12. As we pointed out at the close of the previous article, the ultimate reference in verse 15 is first a warning against that which if disregarded would end in apostasy, and second, a caution against suffering one who evidences the symptoms of an apostate to remain in the assembly—its language being an allusion unto Deuteronomy 29:18. That warning and caution is now exemplified by citing the fearful example of Esau, who, though born among the covenant people and receiving (we doubt not) a pious upbringing, committed a sin for which there was no forgiveness, and became an apostate.
First of all, two particular sins are here warned against: "fornication" and "profanity," each of which is "a root of bitterness," which if permitted to "spring up" will cause "trouble" to the guilty one and "defile many" with whom he is associated. Both "fornication" and "profanity" are opposed unto the holiness exhorted unto in verse 14. Fornication is a sin against the second table of the Law, and profanity a breach of its first table. As in verse 14 the apostle had enjoined the Hebrews to "follow peace" which has respect to man and "holiness" which regards our relation to God, so now he forbids two sins, the first of which would be committed against man, the second against God. The two sins go together, for where a course of moral uncleanness is followed, profanity almost always accompanies it; and on the other hand, profane persons habitually think lightly of immorality. The forsaking of either sin by sincere repentance is exceedingly rare.
The term "profane" has a more specific meaning and a wider application than it is commonly accorded in our speech today. "Holy things are said to be profaned when men take off the veneration that is due unto them, and expose them to common use or contempt. To ‘profane’ is to violate, to corrupt, to prostitute to common use things sacred, either in their nature or by Divine institution. A profane person is one that despiseth, sets light by, or condemneth sacred things. Such as mock at religion, or who lightly regard its promises and threatenings; who despise or neglect its worship, who speak irreverently of its concerns, we call profane persons, and such they are, and such the world is filled with at this day. This profaneness is the last step of entrance into final apostasy. When men, from professors of religion, become despisers of and scoffers at it, their state is dangerous, if not irrevocable" (John Owen).
An instance of this evil is given in Esau, and a fearfully solemn case his is, one which would warn us not to put our trust in external privileges. "He was the firstborn of Isaac, circumcised according to the law of that ordinance, and partaker of all the worship of God in that holy family; yet an outcast from the covenant of grace and the promise thereof" (Owen). The particular offense with which he is here charged is that "for one morsel of meat" he "sold his birthright." Now the birthright or privilege of the firstborn carried with it the following things: the special blessing of his father, a double portion of his goods, dominion over his brethren, and priestly functions (Num. 3:41) when the father was absent from home. The "birthright" was regarded as a very special thing, being typical of the primogeniture of Christ, of the adoption of saints, and of a title to the heavenly inheritance. All of this Esau despised.
The historical account of Esau’s sin is recorded in the closing verses of Genesis 25: the heinousness of it is exhibited in our text. Esau preferred the gratification of the flesh rather than the blessing of God. He relinquished all claims to the privileges contained in and annexed to his being the firstborn, for a trifling and temporary enjoyment of the body. Alas, how many there are like him in the world today. What vast numbers prefer carnal pleasures to spiritual joys, temporal advantages to eternal riches, physical gratification to the soul’s salvation. By calling Esau "profane," the Holy Spirit reveals that he placed no higher value upon sacred things than he did upon those which were common. That which he received at the price of his wickedness is termed "meat," to indicate that satisfying of the flesh was his motive; and a "morsel," to emphasize the paltriness of his choice.
The enormity of the sin of "profanity" is determined by the sacredness of the objects to which it is opposed: let the reader carefully compare Leviticus 18:21; 21:9; Nehemiah 13:17; Ezekiel 22:26. The "profane" are guilty of trampling God’s pearls beneath their feet. To spurn the Scriptures, to desecrate the Sabbath, to revile God’s servants, to despise or ridicule the Gospel, to mock at the future state, are all so many forms of this unspeakable wickedness. As helps against it we would mention the need of being well instructed from the Word, so that we may know what are "holy" things. To bring our hearts to realize the superlative excellency of holiness. To meditate seriously and frequently upon God’s indignation against those who slight what He highly esteems.
"For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears" (verse 17). This takes us back to the closing section of Genesis 27, where we learn the consequences which his sin entailed. Isaac had pronounced the patriarchal benediction upon Jacob, which, when his brother learned thereof deeply agitated him: "He cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry" (Gen. 27:34). It was then that his "tears" were shed: but they proceeded not from anguish of heart because he had sinned so grievously against God, rather did they flow from a sense of self-pity—they expressed his chagrin for the consequences which his folly had produced. Similar are the lamentations of probably ninety-nine out of a hundred so called "death-bed repentances." And such will be the "weeping and wailing" of those in Hell: not because God was so slighted and wronged by them, but because of the eternal suffering which their sins have justly resulted in.
Esau’s "tears" were of no avail: "he was rejected." His appeal came too late: Isaac had already bestowed the blessing upon Jacob. It was like an Israelite seeking to recover his property eighteen months after he had sold it: see again Leviticus 25:30. Isaac, who was a prophet of God, His mouthpiece, refused to be moved by Esau’s bitter wailing. In like manner, the Lord says of those who have sinned away the day of grace "They shall call upon Me, but I will not answer; they shall seek Me early, but they shall not find Me" (Prov. 1:28); and "Therefore will I also deal in fury: Mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity: and though they cry in Mine ears with a loud voice, yet will I not hear them" (Ezek. 8:18). O what point that gives to the call "Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near" (Isa. 55:6). Reader, if you have not yet genuinely responded to that call, do so at once; delay is fraught with the utmost peril to your soul.
The apostle was here addressing professing Christians, and the fearful case of Esau is set before them (and us!) as a warning against departing from the Narrow Way, of exchanging the high privileges of the faithful for the temporary advantages of a faithless world. The doom of the apostate is irretrievable. To lightly esteem, and then despise, sacred things, will be followed "afterward" by bitter regret and unavailing anguish. To reject the terms of the Gospel in order to gratify the lusts of the flesh for a brief season, and then suffer forever and ever in the Lake of Fire, is the height of madness. No excuse could palliate Esau’s profanity, and nothing can extenuate the wickedness of him who prefers the drudgery of Satan to the freedom there is in Christ. Esau’s rejection by Isaac was the evidence of his reprobation by God. May it please the Lord to use this article to search the heart of every reader.