This question just popped into my Inbox:
I’ve noticed there are passages in the Bible that appear contradictory. While some passages talk about grace, other passages speak of obedience. I suspect this is the reason for so much confusion among believers. I’m curious what you make of the following passage: “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…” (Heb 5:8-10).
Did you know that Heb 5:9 is the only place in the entire Bible where the expression eternal salvation is used?
Here is what J. Paul Tanner said in The Grace New Testament Commentary about Heb 5:9-10:
5:9-10. Through His sufferings, Jesus was perfected (teleiōtheis). This cannot mean that Jesus became any more perfect in His nature, for as the Son of God He is eternally perfect. The Greek verb means to bring something to its intended goal. These sufferings served to complete the goal of preparing Him for His role as our High Priest (cf. 2:10).
This accomplished, He became the author (aitios, the responsible cause) of eternal salvation to all who obey Him. If we say that salvation in this verse means personal salvation (or redemption) that comes from believing the gospel, then we have a theological problem, in that the verse seems to condition this salvation on obedience. Yet the NT is elsewhere clear that one’s personal salvation can only be received as a free gift on the sole basis of faith in Christ and thus only by God’s grace (Rom 6:23; Eph 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). Neither does the text say that those who truly believe the gospel and are saved will assuredly go on to live obedient lives. Though one might argue that the obedience to eternal salvation is the obedience of faith spoken of in Rom 1:5, in the context of Hebrews 5 obedience is a reference to works.
The best view is that eternal salvation in this verse does not refer to redemption from sin based on Christ’s atonement. This is seen in several ways. First, of seven occurrences of “salvation” in Hebrews (1:14; 2:3, 10; 5:9; 6:9; 9:28; 11:7), not once does it clearly mean salvation from sin. In several cases (1:14; 9:28; 11:7), it clearly means something else, which should caution us from presuming a soteriological meaning in 5:9.
Second, Christ’s experience in 5:7-8 is meant to parallel that of believers. He suffered, cried out to the Father for help, and was “saved,” i.e., rescued through resurrection to share in glory. The “salvation” of Heb 5:9 cannot overlook the use of this word in regard to Christ’s own experience just mentioned in 5:7.
Third, the context has not been talking about a sinner’s need for salvation from sin. This unit (4:14–5:10) began with the exhortation for believers who already “have a great High Priest” to hold fast their confession and turn to the throne of grace for help.
Fourth, the obedience mentioned in 5:9 must be seen in light of the preceding verse. The verb “obey” in v 9 (from hupakouō) is clearly associated with the word “obedience” in v 8 (from the related noun, hupakoē). Thus the believer’s obedience in v 9 is meant to be seen in comparison with Christ’s obedience in v 8, namely, obedience connected with sufferings in the course of being faithful to God; not obedience in general. Furthermore this call for obedience to Christ stands in contrast to the disobedience that disqualified the wilderness generation from their rest (cf. 3:11; 4:11).
If these verses do not mean justification and personal salvation from sin, then what do they mean? The context has highlighted how Christ was perfected for His role by obedience through sufferings, after which he experienced “salvation.” Now He is in a position to help His “brethren”―those already sanctified―who are being brought to glory (2:10). Through Him, they can attain to eternal salvation (eternal, because it cannot be taken from them). In the context of Hebrews this means an eschatological salvation in which one shares in Christ’s inheritance and reigns with Him. This is not automatic for believers; it is for those who obey Him―not a self-reliant obedience, but one possible through reliance on Christ as High Priest. This includes the obedience of holding fast one’s confession and drawing near to God rather than rebelling (recall 4:14 and compare the issue of rebellion in 3:12).
So the only time when eternal salvation is mentioned, it is talking about eternal rewards, not about regeneration. We sometimes use the expression eternal salvation to refer to regeneration, but that is potentially misleading in light of Heb 5:9.
Obedience is required if we are to rule with Christ in the life to come.
By the way, I think God intentionally gave us revelation which, though clear, is capable of being misunderstood. God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (Heb 11:6). He wants us to seek Him. If we do, we will find the truth (John 5:39-40; Acts 17:11). But if we are not willing to come to Christ, it is sadly possible that we may be duped by those who teach some version of regeneration by works.