Perseverance of the Saints Part 9: Hebrews 10:32-39

We finish our exegetical examination of the warning passage in Hebrews 10 with verses 32-39:

[32] But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, [33] partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. [34] For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have a better possession and a lasting 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 will have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised. [37] ‘For yet in a very little while, He who is coming will come, and will not delay. [38] But My righteous one will live by faith; and if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him.’  [39] But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul. (NASB)

Verse 32:  “But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings.”

Here we encounter the word “enlightened” again.  Grudem argued that the term was used only of hearing the gospel in Hebrews 6:4, and therefore had no reference to any saving experience.  Verse 32, however would strongly suggest otherwise.  Here the writer of Hebrews uses the same word to describe those who were truly saved and the fact that they were “enlightened” seems to have reference to conversion rather than just hearing the gospel message.  His audience is instructed to remember that after they had been “enlightened” they “endured a great conflict of sufferings.”  Verses 33 and 34 give us more information regarding what these “sufferings” entailed.  They suffered by being made a “public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations” and they accepted “joyfully” the seizure of property, “knowing that [they had] a better possession and a lasting one.”

These had suffered joyfully for the sake of the gospel and yet we are to believe that this enlightening had reference to only hearing the gospel?  Such a shallow concept of “enlightened” simply does not fit the description that immediately follows.  It makes no sense to say that as the result of merely “hearing the gospel” they endured a great suffering.  Many hear the gospel, reject it, and suffer nothing for it.  It is only those who embrace and appropriate the gospel by faith that are willing to suffer for it.

It should be clear, based on the context, that “enlightened” means far more than just “hearing the gospel” to the inspired writer of Hebrews.  It has reference to conversion itself which only reinforces the contention that the “enlightened” apostates of Hebrews 6:4 were truly saved prior to having “fallen away.”  We also find that these “enlightened” ones gladly suffered the seizure of their property because they knew that they had a “better possession and a lasting one.” (verse 34b)  That can only mean that they were looking forward to the heavenly reward of their faith and proves that they were indeed in the faith since faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1)  They had already passed one test of faith and were now being called on to pass yet another.  The reminder of their past success is for the purpose of strengthening their resolve that they might not “shrink back” from the faith they began with (see comments on verse 38 below).

Verses 35 and 36: “Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.  For you have need of endurance, so that when you will have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.”

Notice that the inspired writer is not admonishing them to gain confidence (i.e. believe the gospel and be converted), but to keep the confidence that they already have.  They are being told to endure in their faith which plainly assumes that their present faith is genuine.  In fact, their faith has been proven so by the way they had responded to prior trials.  However, they cannot rest on what they had done in the past but must continue to press on in the face of present trials to gain the promised reward of final salvation.  They “have need of endurance.”  The inspired writer never questions whether or not his readers have genuine faith.  He only questions whether or not that faith will last.  This is the main concern of the entire epistle.  Verses 37-39 decisively drive this truth home:

‘For yet in a very little while, He who is coming will come, and will not delay. But My righteous one will live by faith; and if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him.’  But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.

Just as Hebrews 6:7-8 conclude as a further description of the apostates in verses 4-6 so do verses 10:37-38 conclude as a further description of the apostate spoken of in verses 26-31.  The point that is very important here is that the servant who “shrinks back” in verse 38b is not a different servant from the one who lives by faith in verse 38a.  It is the same servant, “and if he [that same servant] shrinks back [from the faith that made him righteous], my soul has no pleasure in him.”  Robert Shank quotes Franz Delitzsch:

The subject in both clauses is the same- the just man, the man who is justified by faith; and in the sense in which hupostellesthai is here used is that of not keeping faith, wavering in faith, forsaking the path of faith and the community of the faithful.  The just man, the man accepted before God, lives by faith; but if he loses his faith, and faithlessly draws back from the right path, his acceptance is forfeited.  That such apostasy is possible even for those who have been truly justified, i.e., for Christians who have more than a superficial experience of divine grace, is one of the main points of instruction in this epistle. [Life in The Son, 163]

It cannot be overstated that the servant is described in verse 38a as “righteous” by God Himself.  It will not do to say that the servant only appeared righteous, for the Lord Himself confirms the servant’s justification.  This righteousness is due to a life of faith.  However, if that same righteous servant were to shrink back from the faith that justified him, then the Lord would no longer take pleasure in him.  And why not? Because “without faith it is impossible to please Him”(Heb. 11:6).  What happens to those who shrink back?  Verse 39 tells us that they shrink back “to destruction.”

Adam Clarke is even more frank with his comments concerning the servant mentioned in this passage as well as the erroneous translation of the KJV:

But if any man draw back] kai ean uposteilhtai. But if he draw back; he, the man who is justified by faith; for it is of him, and none other,that the text speaks. The insertion of the words any man, if done to servethe purpose of a particular creed, is a wicked perversion of the words ofGod. They were evidently intended to turn away the relative from the antecedent, in order to save the doctrine of final and unconditional perseverance; which doctrine this text destroys.  (Commentary: Hebrews pg. 209, Wesleyan Heritage Collection CD)

This is detrimental to Grudem’s exegesis.  If Heb. 10:37-38 speaks of the same servant, then we have even more reason to believe that Hebrews 6:7-8 has reference to the same land.  The servant of 10:37-38 shrinks back from the faith which had made him righteous, and the land which once bore fruitful vegetation in 6:7-8 later bears thorns and thistles upon “falling away” from the faith.  These are not descriptions of irrevocable reprobates who rejected the gospel message upon hearing it; these are descriptions of true believers who have turned away from the truth that they had once fully embraced.

It is significant that the writer of Hebrews altered the text from which he drew this warning.  The LXX reference in Habakkuk speaks of one who is puffed up in pride shrinking back contrasted with the righteous one who lives by faith, “See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright-[Septuagint: And if he shrinks back I will not be pleased with him.] but the righteous will live by faith.” (Simon J. Kistemaker, Hebrews, pg. 302)

Donald A. Hagner explains the significance of the altered reference:

The author also transposes the clause of Hab. 2:4 (which the LXX begins with the words, ‘but if any of them shrinks back’) so that it is the righteous one who must directly confront the possibility of turning back and experiencing the displeasure of the Lord.  The author thus accepts the messianic understanding of the passage (as in the LXX) but applies Heb. 2:4 to the Christian believer (despite the singular, my righteous one). (NIBC Hebrews, pg. 176, emphasis his)

If the writer of Hebrews was trying to express what Grudem believes he was trying to express (that the apostate never had justifying faith) then the Habakkuk text would have better served the author’s purpose left as it was originally penned.  Instead, the author of Hebrews deliberately changed [inverted] the reference to describe a single servant who shrinks from the faith which had previously justified him before God.  That the writer of Hebrews changed the reference in such a way further demonstrates that he understands and defines apostasy as the decisive repudiation of justifying faith once held.

In verse 39 the author expresses confidence that his intended audience has not presently abandoned the faith and is given as positive encouragement in order to complement the negative encouragement of the previous warnings.  The inspired author is not expressing infallible confidence that they will persevere since even in Calvinism no such infallible assurance can be given to another.  While he is supremely hopeful that these “justified servants” will not shrink back, he cannot be certain.  Such uncertainty is the basis for the dire warnings and urgent encouragements which preceded verse 39.

Conclusion:

We have found in verses 32-39 further confirmation that our exegesis of Hebrews 10:26-31 was accurate.  One who is both justified by faith and sanctified by the blood of Christ can yet shrink back from the faith and face eternal punishment as an enemy of God.  We also gained further insight into the warnings expressed in Hebrews 6:4-8 by confirming that “enlightened” has reference to the experience of conversion and not just exposure to the gospel message.

We have also discovered that the metaphor of the land in Hebrews 6:7-8 parallels the description of the righteous servant who shrinks back from the faith in Hebrews 10:38.  This undermines Grudem’s main thesis which was built on the errant assumption that the metaphor in 6:7-8 had reference to two lands rather than one.  Just as it is the same justified servant who shrinks back from saving faith in Heb. 10:38; so it is the same productive land which ceases to bear fruitful vegetation and instead bears thorns and thistles upon “falling away” from the faith.  The servant (10:28 ) and the land (6:7-8 ) are both “destroyed” and “burned” as the result of  falling away from faith once held.

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