Read Study Introduction
The book of Hebrews has been a cause of confusion, spiritual doubt, and unrest for many Christians. It contains a number of very challenging “warning passages” which seem to suggest at times that it is possible to lose your salvation. Let’s just say up front that we do NOT believe that is possible. God calls it “eternal” life for a reason—if you have it, then you have it forever! I believe the challenge in interpreting those passages lies somewhat on understanding the perspective and issues in the lives of the original readers that the writer of Hebrews is trying to address.
Here is the challenge addressed by the author of the book of Hebrews: he wrote to a group of ethnically Jewish Christians who had suffered well in the past but were threatened with even more suffering in the present. He now feared that they might turn away from Christ to avoid this further persecution.
Hebrews 10:32–36 — 32 But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33 sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. 34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. 35 Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.
It is important to see that the writer is addressing salvation from the standpoint of its final earthly product—a life lived for God, amid suffering and reproach, but that endures to the end.
We often view the New Testament through the filter of a modern evangelical, “conversionist” grid. To the extent that we believe that one’s salvation is determined by whether we “pray the prayer,” or “accept Jesus into our heart,” we will have a hard time hearing the words of warning in Hebrews that are designed to exalt the preserving power of God for those who truly believe. It may, in fact, be this very conversionist grid that also makes it difficult to sort out the seeming contradiction between the apostle Paul, and the words of James.
Paul makes his point very clear!
Galatians 2:16 — yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, … by works of the law no one will be justified.
James says, “Well, hold on there now!”
James 2:24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
While admittedly difficult, there is no contradiction here. The difficulty is resolved when we consider the perspective and particular error that each author is addressing.
Paul is speaking about the initial point of true faith in Christ alone—that moment where faith is exercised and God declares the sinner righteous. He is defending the truth of the gospel from the legalist (who says we can be saved by works). He boldly proclaims that works do not, and cannot ever, bring us to God.
James, on the other hand, is looking at the life of the justified man—the ongoing life of faith. He tells us “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17). He is defending the truth of the gospel from the antinomian (who says a person could have saving faith but not live a life of ongoing obedience, trust, and fellowship with God). He is teaching that someone who has true faith is transformed and actually walks in the good works God prepared beforehand (just like Paul; Eph. 2:10).
There is no contradiction. Paul is looking at the beginning of our salvation. James is looking at salvation’s ongoing expression in the present.
Where does Hebrews fit into this discussion?
While Paul addresses faith’s beginning, and James addresses faith’s ongoing expression, the writer of Hebrews is looking at salvation from the perspective of its divinely appointed end.
Hebrews is saying eternal life is not only given freely initially (Paul), and evidenced and sustained powerfully along the way (James), but ultimately preserved fully unto the end.
There is no contradiction in these perspectives. Whenever one author speaks of the perspective emphasized by the others they are consistent with one another.
I believe many people find Hebrews difficult because they think of faith or assurance primarily in terms of profession (did they “pray the prayer” or “accept Jesus into their heart”), and not in terms of perseverance. In the same way that James says, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17), the writer of Hebrews is saying “faith (profession) without perseverance is dead.” James says, “faith is completed [reaches its end/goal] by works” (James 2:22). Hebrews simply speaks about that end or goal that James sees in his sights—a living, working, persevering faith.
It's fair to say that any book as long and complex as the book of Hebrews is written with many different purposes in mind. But for this introduction, we are primarily interested in summarizing the overarching purpose of the book. Each part of this book has its own emphases which adds to the overall understanding of the overarching purpose. We will explore together these emphases in each lesson, and how they relate to that larger purpose.
Interpreters have summarized the overarching purpose of the book of Hebrews in a variety of ways. But for this study, we'll describe the original purpose of Hebrews in this way:
The author of Hebrews wrote to proclaim the supremacy and excellency of Jesus compared to the former Jewish teachings they were tempted to return to, so that these professing Jewish believers would run the race with endurance, faithful until the end.
I am excited to dig into this important book together as we are striving to be faithful to our great God, who has given us “so great a salvation” (2:3) through His Son, and who is calling us to endure in the expression of our living, working, persevering faith!
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