Eternal Salvation by Obedience? Hebrews 5:9i
By Bob Wilkin
Hebrews 5:8-9 says, “Though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.” What does the author of Hebrews mean? It sounds like he’s saying that eternal salvation is only available by obediently suffering for Christ.
Since this is the one and only use of the expression eternal salvation in the Bible, it is important that we understand what is meant. There are two key interpretive questions in this verse, the nature of the salvation and of the obedience. We will begin with the second one.
What Sort of Obedience Is in View?
It is true that believing in Jesus is an act of obedience since God the Father commands us to listen to and believe in His Son (cf. John 5:37-43). There are a few NT texts that speak of believing as obedience (Acts 6:7?) or disbelieving as disobedience (John 3:36; 1 Pet 2:7).
Therefore, Heb 5:9 hypothetically could mean Jesus is the author of eternal salvation to all who believe in Him.
However, the context does not at all support that understanding. In v 8 the obedience Jesus learned was through suffering, not believing. Jesus, at the level of His experience, learned obedience through His trials and His crucifixion.
In v 9 the same Greek word for obedience is used. Thus it is clear that the obedience to which the author is pointing is suffering for Christ by not shrinking back from persecution. The readers, Jewish believers, were being persecuted by Jews in their area. At least some of the readers were contemplating turning away from Christ and going back to the sacrificial system (cf. Heb 10:26-31).
Note that we are told that Jesus is the author of eternal salvation. The word author (aitios) also could be translated as “the source” or “the cause” (BDAG, p. 31B). He is the author, source, or cause of eternal salvation to those who obey Him in the sense that He showed the way. He showed that suffering is the path to glory.
Is that not what Jesus Himself said in Matt 16:24-28? He taught Peter and the others that suffering precedes glory both for Him and for them. The Lord said the same thing to the church of Thyatira (Rev 2:26) and to all of the seven churches of Revelation 2-3 (cf. Rev 3:21).
Hebrews 5:9 is part of a sentence ending in v 10. Then immediately what follows is the fifth warning in Hebrews (Heb 5:11–6:20), which is a call to perseverance in obedience, especially to avoid shrinking back from Christ so to avoid suffering for Him.
The example view of the atonement is the view that Jesus died on the cross to show us how we should live in order for us to be able to enter His kingdom. Thus only if we follow His selfless loving example can we make it to the kingdom. That is heresy. That is working our way into God’s kingdom.
As a result of that tragic misunderstanding, some Free Grace people have become averse to seeing the cross as our example as to how we are to live. But that is exactly what this passage, and the entire NT teaches.
John 3:16 alludes to the cross of Christ and tells us that all who simply believe in Jesus have everlasting life. However, there is another John 3:16. First John 3:16 is a key sanctification verse. It too looks at the love of God for us as revealed in the cross. But this time we are called to follow Jesus’ example. The Apostle John put it succinctly: “By this we know love, because He laid down His life (psyche) for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives (psyche) for the brethren” (1 John 3:16).
Christ’s atoning death is to be our example. Christ’s shed blood should move us to suffer for Christ, to lay down our lives for our brethren, and to persevere in faith and good works.
What Sort of Salvation Is in View?
I’m currently putting the finishing touches on a book about the ten most misunderstood words in the Bible. One of those words is salvation. Sadly most people in Christianity think that the normal use of the word salvation in the NT concerns regeneration. Thus most commentators think the salvation in Heb 5:9 is escaping eternal condemnation.
For example, Donald Guthrie comments on Heb 5:9:
There is something stable and enduring about the salvation which Jesus Christ provides. We might compare the frequent occurrence in John’s Gospel of the idea of eternal life.
It is quite clear that there are conditions laid down for those who wish to avail themselves of this salvation.ii These are summed up as obedience, the counterpart of what the Son has already learned (verse 8). Obedience in this sense involves a complete acceptance of the divine will. As far as Christians are concerned this sums up a man’s response to God’s provision of a means of salvation. It is noticeable that those eligible for salvation are all who obey him, which means all classes of obeyers [sic], Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, learned and uneducated, freemen and slaves (cf. for instance Paul’s statement in Gal. 3:28).”iii
It is a bit jarring to see someone refer to those who have everlasting life as “obeyers,” rather than believers. But confusion about what salvation is in Hebrews leads to this tragic conclusion.
F. F. Bruce’s comments are similar:
Christian salvation is eternal…because it is based on the sacrifice of Christ, once for all accomplished, never to be repeated, and permanently valid. The salvation which Jesus has procured, moreover, is granted “unto all them that obey him.” There is something appropriate in the fact that the salvation which was procured by the obedience of the Redeemer should be made available to the obedience of the redeemed. Once again the readers are encouraged to persevere in their loyalty to Christ, in whom alone eternal salvation is to be found.”iv
Bruce comments that it is appropriate, in light of Jesus’ obedience, that His followers must follow Him in obedience if they are to obtain eternal salvation. That observation is wonderfully correct contextually. But the commentator fails to grasp the type of salvation which the author of Hebrews intends.
The Greek noun soteria, typically translated as salvation in the NT, occurs seven times in Hebrews (1:14; 2:3, 10; 5:9; 6:9; 9:28; 11:7). If one blithely assumes that soteria in Hebrews is referring to who will spend eternity in Jesus’ kingdom, then he ends up with works as a condition for everlasting life.
However, if we simply examine the seven uses in the letter, we quickly see that soteria does not refer to the new birth or kingdom entrance, but to being Christ’s partners (metochoi) in the life to come, which is a reward reserved for the obedient, not a gift given to all who simply believe in Jesus.
J. Paul Tanner’s comment’s, in the new Grace NT Commentary, on Heb 1:14 capture the author’s use of soteria there and in the whole book:
By salvation, our author is thinking not of our Lord’s saving work on the cross, but a future salvation associated with His Second Coming (emphasized in chap. 1). This is quite clear in light of his use of “salvation” in 9:28, as well as his explicit mention in 2:5 of “the world to come.” Although there is a salvation for believers to inherit, this can be jeopardized by their neglect (2:3). Thus before continuing the author will pause in 2:1-4 to warn his readers.v
Tanner’s comments on Heb 2:10 are particularly helpful since the context there is quite similar to that of Heb 5:8-9:
Third, the Father made the captain of our salvation perfect through sufferings. The word captain (archegos) basically means leader, and hence His mission is to lead us (or, safely guide us) to this future eschatological salvation that awaits us (“salvation” being understood the same way as in 1:14 and 2:3). Just as He Himself had to pass through sufferings, so we too must do so on our earthly pilgrimage that leads to His kingdom. The words make perfect translate the Greek verb teleioo meaning “to bring something to its goal.” Jesus was not made more holy (He was eternally sinless). Rather, His endurance of sufferings served to complete the goal for Him to experientially learn obedience to the Father (cf. 5:8).vi
No one will be Christ’s partner in the life to come without obedience. We must confess Him before men, and bear the consequences, in order for Him to confess us before the Father (Matt 10:32-33; 2 Tim 2:12).
We Will Have Eternal Salvation If We Persevere in Obedience As Our Lord Did
That is clearly what the author of Hebrews is saying. As long as we rightly understand salvation in Hebrews as being Christ’s partners, His metochoi, in the life to come, then we grasp the true significance of Heb 5:9. The believer who perseveres in obedience will forever rule with Christ. The believer who fails to persevere in obedience will be in Jesus’ kingdom forever, but he will never rule in it.
There was much at stake for the Jewish believers to whom the author of Hebrews wrote. Would they turn away from Christ and cease suffering for their faith? Would they turn back to animal sacrifices as a way to mollify their persecutors and escape their persecution? Or would they hold fast to their confession, no matter the cost?
The stakes are just as high for us today. We may not face the level of persecution they did. But the principle is the same. Only if we persevere in obedience, especially the obedience of confessing Christ, will we have the eternal salvation, the eternal partnership with Christ, of which the author speaks.
May we keep our eyes on the Lord’s soon return. May we long for His approval and for His “Well done, good servant” (Luke 19:17). This life is but a blink in the scope of eternity. Yet our eternal ability to serve and glorify the Lord Jesus will be determined by what we do in the few short decades we have in this life.
He is the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him. That’s a great life’s purpose.
iThis article is drawn from a message Bob gave at the recent GES annual conference.
iiThis salvation is, according to Guthrie, the reception of everlasting life as spoken of in the Fourth Gospel.
iiiGuthrie, Hebrews, p. 132.
ivBruce, Hebrews, pp. 105-106.
vTanner, S. v. “Hebrews,” in Grace New Testament Commentary, Vol 2, pp. 1036-37.
viIbid., p. 1039.