Some Calvinists have argued that the frequent references to the wandering Israelites in the desert suggest that the writer of Hebrews is not addressing apostasy from true faith. It is assumed that the wandering generation who failed to enter the Promised Land never had a saving faith relationship with the Lord. Since the writer of Hebrews uses the wandering generation as an example or object lesson for the situation being addressed among his readers, it is argued that this indicates that he does not consider those he warns of apostasy to be truly regenerated believers. In other words, if we have good reason to doubt that the wilderness generation of Israelites who failed to enter the Promised Land was saved, then we have reason to doubt that those the writer of Hebrews warns, while holding up those Israelites as an example, were really saved either. I believe this approach fails for the following reasons:
Whose Hearts Were in Danger of Being Hardened?
The writer of Hebrews sees apostasy as the end result of a hardened heart. This is especially emphasized in Hebrews chapter 3 which is also the primary chapter that makes frequent references to the wilderness generation of Israelites. Who then is being warned not to harden their hearts and to heed the voice of God in chapter 3? In the first verse of Hebrews 3 the inspired writer makes clear that his warning is directed to “holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling” who have confessed Christ. We have already determined that the writer of Hebrews sees holiness in terms of the soul cleansing benefits of the atonement, and we have no reason to believe that he considers their confession of Christ to be anything less than genuine. Therefore, we have very good reason for concluding that the writer of Hebrews sees the very ones that he has determined to warn, while using the illustration of the wilderness Israelites, as truly saved. There is no indication that he shifts his attention away from these “holy brethren” to some potential converts, who have not yet embraced the gospel, in the admonitions that directly follow. In verse 12 he ties the warning directly to these same “brethren”:
Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (verses 12, 13)
What sense would it make to say to unbelievers, “Take care…that there not be in any one of you an evil unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God?” Why shouldn’t unbelievers have an evil and unbelieving heart? Does it make sense to warn unbelievers against falling away from God? This is not a call to conversion but a warning to those who are already converted. We can plainly see this in the fact that the writer of Hebrews then calls on them to “encourage one another day after day…so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Are unbelievers to encourage each other? Are they to encourage each other in unbelief or in a faith that they do not yet possess? Verse 16 then returns to the example of the wilderness generation, “For who provoked Him when they heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses?” It would be wise for us to consider carefully why the writer of Hebrews makes such a statement. I believe it is an important clue for how we should understand the intended parallel between the wilderness generation and those being addressed in this letter which leads us to the second problem with the Calvinist appeal to this OT parallel:
The Parallel of Deliverance and Redemption
We need to notice two things that the writer of Hebrews wants us to focus on in verse 16 (above). First, we see that these Israelites “came out of Egypt.” How does this relate to his present audience? It seems quite clear throughout the epistle that the writer of Hebrews sees his audience as those who, like the Israelites in the desert, have “come out of Egypt.” They have experienced a very real deliverance. The Israelites experienced deliverance from the bondage of Egypt and the intended audience of Hebrews have experienced deliverance from the bondage of sin (and perhaps Jewish ritual as well if we hold to the view that it is primarily Jews that are being addressed). The other important feature of this passage is that these Israelites were “led by Moses.” Just as the Israelites of the Exodus followed Moses out of the bondage of Egypt, so have these present believers escaped the bondage of sin and law by becoming followers of Jesus Christ, Who has been proclaimed Moses’ superior in every way (3:1-6).
The writer of Hebrews never questions the initial deliverance of his audience; rather, he plainly assumes it throughout his epistle. His main concern is that they continue to follow and obey Christ so they will not fail to enter that eternal rest which belongs only to those who endure to the end in saving faith (3:6, 14). The lesson that needs to be learned is that the Israelites initial deliverance did not guarantee them the rest of the promised land, and the initial deliverance of these believers does not guarantee them the eternal rest of the Messianic Kingdom. If these believers cease to heed the voice of God and begin to give way to sin and disobedience then they are in danger of missing the goal of their faith. This is as far as the parallel was intended to be understood. We see further confirmation of this in Chapter 11 where the heroes of faith are held up as examples for these believers to emulate:
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16)
These were commended for dying in the faith without yet fully receiving the promise and for not returning to the country that they left behind (which seems to mean only that they did not fall back into unbelief but held to the promises of God by faith). By faith they continued towards the goal and refused to return in their hearts to that “country” from which they had been led. We see again that the issue is not whether or not they had experienced initial faith but whether or not they continued in their faith journey towards the ultimate goal of their faith. This was the case of the wandering generation of Israelites as well. They had left Egypt in faith but later returned to Egypt in their hearts. It was these same delivered Israelites who later provoked God’s anger in the wilderness through disobedience and unbelief and were therefore denied access into the Promised Land (3:17-19). There is a greater promise for the believers that the writer of Hebrews is addressing to attain, but they too will fall short of receiving that promise if, after being delivered, they return again to Egypt (Judaism?) in their hearts. Like the wandering Israelites they are in a state “between” initial deliverance and final rest (which in their case is the reception of an eternal rest rather than the temporal possession of a promised land). For this reason they are being encouraged to continue in their faith and lay hold of the promise because they have not yet arrived and may, like the Israelites of old, tragically fall short of the promised rest that awaits them (4:1). As believers in Jesus Christ they are in the process of entering that rest, but that process can fail to reach fruition if faith is not ultimately maintained (4:2-11). Grant R. Osborne gives us a concise summary of how the wilderness typology is being used by the writer of Hebrews:
Wilderness typology was quite prevalent in the early church as illustrative of both judgment and reward. Both 1 Cor. 10:1-13 and Jude 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. 95:7b-11, used by the writer as the basis for his splendid midrash here, was sung by Jews as part of their Sabbath worship in the temple. The readers probably understood it in this fashion, especially since verses 1-7a of the psalm consist of a call to worship. The obvious inference is that one must listen to God- “Today if you hear His voice” (vv. 7, 15)- and that listening includes obedience. (Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock)
Exactly. Apathy towards sin, immaturity, and disobedience are all closely connected and will eventually lead to outright unbelief and rejection (2:1-4; 3:17-19; 4:6, 11; 6:1-8; 10:26; 121-2, 15-17, 25). Hebrews 5:11 states that his readers have “become dull of hearing” and verse 12 rebukes them for their lack of maturity which leads to the dreadful warning in Hebrews 6:4-8 concerning those who have “fallen away.” Hence the repeated imperative: “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” (3:7, 8, 13, 15; 4:7) This is the same thing being expressed by the metaphor of the field (6:7, 8). The land that is being described does not begin in a hardened state but begins in a softened and broken state which can absorb the rain and yield good fruit, and is therefore speaking of those who are already believers (vs. 7). However, if the land becomes hardened (due to apathy towards sin and continual disobedience), then that field can no longer soak in sufficient rain for producing useful vegetation (vs. 8). Instead it can only produce weeds and thistles. The hardened land represents those believers who have hardened their hearts to God’s voice to the point of “falling away” from the living God. The thorns and thistles are the evidence of apostasy and evokes the curse of God. There is grave danger for the believer in becoming apathetic towards sin for it can lead to the most dreadful of all spiritual consequences. This is one of the main themes of the entire epistle.
The Wandering Israelites had Experienced True Faith
We need to also point out that there is strong Biblical evidence that the Israelites who had been delivered from Egypt had indeed entered into covenant relationship with God through faith (even though the illustration would still pose no difficulty for the Arminian view if it could be shown that the entire generation had never experienced saving faith). It would be quite the stretch to think that the Israelites putting blood on their doorposts in obedience to Moses’ command was anything less than an act of faith (Exodus 12:28, cf. Hebrews 11:28). They trusted that God was about to deliver them and that He would provide for them since they did not make provisions for their exodus from Egypt (Ex. 12:39). Should we really believe that the Israelites observed the Passover in unbelief (especially since unbelief is correlated with disobedience in Hebrews 3:18 and 19)? They were obedient and they trusted God and God redeemed them as a result (notice especially that in Hebrews 11:29 we are told that, “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land…”).
So we see that the Israelites began their journey in faith; but is there any reason to believe that they exercised faith again after their initial deliverance? After God destroyed the Egyptians in the Red Sea we read:
When Israel saw the great power which the Lord had used against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in His servant Moses. (Exodus 14:31)
And in the song of Moses and Israel we read, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation; this is my God and I will praise Him; my father’s God and I will exalt Him.” (Ex. 15:2)
We also find that the people affirmed their commitment to the Lord and His covenant in Ex. 19:7-9; 24:3, 7-8. What then do we make of Hebrews 3:10 and 11?
Therefore I was angry with this generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, and they did not know my ways'; as I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’
It would seem that the Lord is speaking of a general pattern of rebellion that hardened the hearts of the Israelites to the point of outright unbelief. They refused to believe that God could give them the land of Canaan because there were giants in the land (Num. 13:26-14:10). They were therefore denied access into that land. This does not mean that these Israelites never exercised genuine faith in God. Rather it illustrates the importance of resisting the deceitfulness of sin and continually heeding the voice of God. If we continue to spurn his voice we will harden our hearts and make it harder for us to trust and obey God to the point of unbelief and apostasy. That is what the writer of Hebrews is warning his readers about. We need to be careful not to draw too much from the example of the wandering generation since even though they were denied access into the Promised Land and died in the wilderness (Num. 14:30-35); they were still forgiven by God for their sin (Num. 14:20). Failure to enter the Promised Land did not necessarily constitute loss of salvation (since both Moses and Aaron were denied access), while failure to enter God’s eternal rest certainly does.
Conclusion: The use of OT parallel between the wilderness generation of Israelites and the intended audience of the epistle to the Hebrews poses no threat to the Arminian interpretation. In fact, the Arminian position is supported by the specific way that the writer of Hebrews uses the example of the wandering generation. The intended audience of the epistle had been redeemed from sin just as the Israelites of the exodus had been redeemed from Egypt. They, like the wilderness generation, are considered God’s chosen covenant people who have heard and responded to God’s voice but must continue to hear and respond to God’s voice in order to reach the ultimate goal of their faith: eternal rest in God’s Kingdom.