Have you ever stopped to read the warning labels on the products you buy? My bottle of cat shampoo says, “Caution: The contents of this bottle should not be fed to fish or children.” An electric drill I got for Christmas says, “Not intended for use in dentistry.” And here’s a children’s birthday card that says, “Keep away from small children.” The world is full of warnings. Some we can safely ignore. But there are others we ignore at our peril. This is true of the five warning passages in Hebrews (2:1-4; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:12; 10:19-39; 12:14-29).
Evangelicals are divided over what they mean. Arminians generally interpret them as warnings to believers that they will lose their eternal salvation if they persist in sin and unbelief. Calvinists either interpret them as warnings to false professors that they’ll be eternally lost if they don’t believe in Christ, or as exhortations to the elect warning them of a hypothetical loss of eternal salvation. Significantly, both Arminians and Calvinists agree that the warnings are about eternal life or eternal death.
What is the best way to understand these crucial passages?
In this article, I will present a Free Grace interpretation of the first two warnings in Hebrews, showing that they warn believers about God’s discipline in this life and about a potential loss of rewards in the Messianic kingdom to come.
Were the Hebrews Believers?
One of the disagreements between Arminians and Calvinists is over whether or not the Hebrews were believers or whether they were false professors. In order to settle that question, consider that the readers are described as:
• Holy (3:1)
• Brethren (3:1, 12)
• Companions (or partakers) of the heavenly calling (3:1)
• God’s house (3:6)
• Companions (or partakers) of the Messiah (3:14)
• People who should have been mature enough to be teachers (5:12)
• Enlightened (6:4)
• Having tasted the heavenly gift (6:4)
• Companions (or partakers) of the Holy Spirit (6:4)
• Having tasted the good Word of God (6:5)
• Having tasted the powers of the age to come (6:5)
• Having loved the Lord’s name (6:10)
• Sanctified (10:10, 29)
• Perfected (10:14)
Can these terms apply to unbelievers? Are unregenerate people holy? Are they God’s house? Should they be Christian teachers? Do they partake of the Holy Spirit? Do they love the Lord’s name? Do they have a confession to hold fast to or to depart from? Are they enlightened, sanctified, or perfected?
These questions answer themselves. There can be little doubt the warnings in Hebrews were addressed to regenerate people. In fact, the inspired author included himself in the warnings he was giving (the “we” of Heb 2:1-4), and there is no doubt that he was regenerate.
So who were the Hebrews? They were a community of Jewish believers the author hoped to visit (13:23). They were at risk of apostatizing from Christianity and returning to Judaism, so the author wrote to convince them of the superiority of Christ over Moses, and of the superiority of the New Covenant over the Old Covenant. Their faith may have been wavering, but there is no doubt they were believers.
The First Warning: Don’t Drift Away From Faith in Christ (Heb 2:1-4)
In chapter 1, the author explained how vastly superior Jesus was to anything in creation, especially angels. In chapter 2 the author drew an inference (beginning with Therefore [Dia touto]), from Christ’s superiority, arguing that since Christ is greater than the angels, the Hebrews should give earnest heed to what they have been taught about Him lest they drift away from faith in Jesus. The Greek word for drift away (pararreō) also appears in Prov 3:21, where it suggests a gradual departure from the truth. David Allen points out that it is a nautical term (cf. Heb 6:19) that evokes the image of a boat that has become unanchored and is slowly drifting away at sea.1 The author could see that the Jewish believers were at risk of slowly drifting back into Judaism, which would put them in danger of God’s judgment. In that way, there’s analogy between the law and the gospel, for if disobeying the law (the word spoken through angels) incurred consequences (a just reward), then so would neglecting the great salvation of the gospel. The question is, what kind of “salvation” were the Hebrews neglecting?
First, we shouldn’t take salvation as a technical term meaning salvation from hell. If you check your concordance for the uses of save (sōzō) and salvation (sōtēria) you’ll find that all the Old Testament uses, and the majority of New Testament uses, refer to deliverance from life-threatening dangers, not to salvation from hell. For example, Heb 11:7 speaks of Noah’s household being saved from drowning in the Flood. But salvation could also refer to future events like the Second Coming: “To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation” (Heb 9:28, emphasis added; cf. Rom 13:11; 1 Pet 1:5). So we shouldn’t assume that salvation always means being born again. The nature of the great salvation needs to be identified from the context.
Second, the salvation the author had in mind was still future. We know that everlasting life is a present possession (John 3:16). But the author said the salvation he was speaking of would happen in “the world to come” (Heb 2:5; cf. Heb 1:14). That future expectation would align with his statement that Christ’s Second Coming is a salvific event (Heb 9:28).
Third, the Old Testament quotes leading up to this warning and immediately following it emphasize Jesus’ future Messianic kingship. Hebrews 1:5a quotes Ps 2:7, a royal enthronement Psalm that ultimately points to the enthronement of the Messiah. Hebrews 1:5b quotes 2 Sam 7:14, which refers to the Davidic covenant and the promised heir to the throne, which is also a reference to the Messiah’s rule. Hebrews 1:6 quotes Ps 97:7, which refers to the future reign of the Lord, when He will vanquish His enemies and be worshipped by all. Hebrews 1:7 quotes Ps 104:4, which is a creation Psalm, and points to the Son’s power and sovereign rule. Hebrews 1:8-9 quotes Ps 45:6-7, which describes a royal wedding, the Messiah’s eternal throne, and introduces the important concept of His “companions” who share in his rule (see below). Hebrews 1:10-12 quotes from Psalm 102, which speaks of the Lord appearing in glory to rebuild Zion and ruling forever over the nations (vv 12-17, 25-26). Hebrews 1:13 quotes Ps 110:1 to once again emphasize the Messiah’s right to rule (being at God’s right hand) and His victory over His enemies. As you can see, there’s no mistaking the point the author is making. All these verses point to the glory of the Messiah, His rule, His victory, and His future kingdom.
Fourth, Hebrews introduces the concept of believers as “companions” (metochos) of the Messiah. This is a key theme throughout the epistle. The Hebrews are called companions of a heavenly calling (3:1), of Christ (3:14), of the Holy Spirit (6:4), and of God’s discipline (12:8). As F. F. Bruce suggests, calling believers companions carries a special meaning in that it points to their participation in the Messianic kingdom, i.e. ruling with Christ.2
Given these reasons, there is a strong case to be made that the great salvation the Hebrews were neglecting was not the message of how to be born again, but the good news about Christ’s future kingdom, which was the main subject of the Lord’s teaching between His resurrection and ascension to heaven (Acts 1:3). If believers become indifferent to that future salvation, there will be consequences they can’t escape. However, the author does not yet tell us what those consequences may be.
The Second Warning: Be Diligent to Enter God’s Rest (3:7–4:13)
The second warning concerns the concept of entering “God’s rest.” The author drew a parallel between the Hebrews’ current situation, and the dark events described in Numbers 13–14, when Israel rebelled against God.
You’ll remember how the Lord commanded that men be sent into Canaan to spy out the land, only to have ten of the twelve men come back with a negative report, warning about the imposing size and strength of the Canaanites (as if the Lord was not greater than all). Fear gripped the Israelites. They refused to enter the land to take possession of it. They wished they had died in the wilderness (Num 14:2). Some even wanted to find another leader to take them back to Egypt (Num 14:2, 4).
For God, that was the last straw.
Israel had murmured and grumbled before, but now they had made an irrevocable decision. Although God forgave the Israelites their sin (Num 14:20), they still had to face a penalty for their rebellion. God decreed that, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, everyone over the age of twenty would die in the wilderness instead of entering the land (Num 14:29-35).
By recalling this event, the author of Hebrews invoked a principle about God’s judgment. Arnold Fruchtenbaum explains it this way:
The principle in Scripture is that once a point of no return is reached, the offenders are subject to divine judgment. The judgment is physical, not spiritual; it does not mean loss of salvation. In fact, Numbers 14:20 does say that the people repented; it even goes on to say that God forgave the sin. It did not affect anyone’s individual salvation, but the physical consequences of their sin did need to be paid. Once a point of no return is reached, no matter how much repenting one does thereafter, the fact of coming physical judgment cannot be changed…[I]n the Old Testament, the issue is physical death and loss of temporal blessings but not loss of salvation.3
Like Israel, the readers of Hebrews risked facing a similar penalty because they were on the verge of their own irrevocable rebellion, as described in Heb 3:7–4:13. So the author warned them that since Jesus is greater than Moses (3:3-6), the penalty for rebelling against Him would be worse than that experienced by Israel. The Hebrews were warned that they should not harden their hearts as in the rebellion. The Israelites did not enter God’s rest, and the Hebrews risked the same fate if they departed from the living God (3:12).
The big question is, what is “God’s rest”? Does it mean the Hebrews were at risk of not entering heaven? Does it mean they were going to miss out on eternal life?
The evidence strongly suggests that once again this is a reference to the Messianic kingdom. There are three reasons for taking it that way.
First, the concept of rest had a Messianic meaning. The Israelites who entered Canaan never possessed it fully so they developed a Messianic expectation that God’s promises to them would be completely fulfilled in the future. That’s why the author explained if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day (4:8, HCSB). There was another day coming, when the Messiah would establish His kingdom in the land, finally providing an ultimate rest for the people of God (4:9; cf. Isa 11:10).
Second, the gospel that was preached to the Hebrews, and which the Israelites did not believe (not being mixed with faith), was not the message of how to be born again. The Bible mentions several different gospels, one of the most important being the “gospel of the kingdom,” which was the good news that the Messiah had come and was offering the kingdom to Israel. That is the gospel being referred to here. The Israelites didn’t believe the rudimentary message about God’s promise of inheriting a land of milk and honey (Exod 3:17). Likewise, the Hebrews were at risk of missing God’s promise of a Messianic rest if they neglected what they heard about His future reign (1:1-14).
Third, the rest being spoken of is conditioned on something other than faith, which suggests it is related to eternal rewards, not to eternal life. As we know, we receive everlasting life as a gift, apart from our works (Eph 2:8-9). God credits righteousness to the ungodly who simply believe and do not work (Rom 4:5). By contrast, eternal rewards are earned by being faithful (1 Cor 3:11-15; Rev 22:12). So when the author of Hebrews warned his readers they will be companions of Christ if they hold steadfast to the end (3:14), and they may not enter the rest because of disobedience (4:6, 11), he was using the language of eternal rewards. Remaining Christ’s companions who will share in His rule is entirely conditional on whether or not their faith has become profitable (4:2). A believer’s faith must be put into action in order for it to be profitable (e.g., maintaining one’s confession during persecution or providing for the physical needs of the poor, cf. Jas 2:14-16). Paul Tanner points out that if the Hebrews didn’t put their faith into action, if, instead, they actually apostatized, they wouldn’t lose their eternal salvation, but they would risk being disciplined by God and losing rewards in the kingdom, such as being a companion of the Messiah.4 They needed to understand that once the kingdom came, and the rest was entered, believers will have ceased from their works. The rewards will already have been given at the Judgment Seat of Christ and there will be no more opportunity for eternal rewards.
In sum, this warning compares Israel possessing Canaan with the believer entering the “rest” of the Messianic kingdom, where Christ’s enemies will be vanquished. However, not every believer will share in Christ’s eternal victory as His companions. If the Jewish believers left Christ for Judaism, they would suffer God’s temporal judgment and miss ruling with the Messiah in His kingdom.
If we interpret the first two warnings in Hebrews as being about a possible loss of everlasting life, we not only deny Jesus’ promise of eternal security (John 10:28-29), but we also fail to do justice to the rich Messianic imagery of Hebrews and the promise of a kingdom still to come. Believers should derive hope from the fact that one day soon, if we are faithful, we will rule with Christ as His companions. But we should also realize there will be consequences if we rebel against Him in this life.
1. David L. Allen, Hebrews, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 191-92.
2. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 20-21, 68.
3. Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, The Messianic Jewish Epistles: Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, Jude (San Antonio, TX: Ariel Ministries, 2005), 43.
4. J. Paul Tanner, “Hebrews,” The Grace New Testament Commentary (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 2:1044.