Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sola5 Wednesday Recap - 5/27/09

This weekly topic is an effort to recap the Wednesday night Bible study I teach at Sola5, my youth group. I hope it serves to help us all in contemplating the ceaseless riches of God’s grace as revealed through the Scriptures.

Last night, we kicked off our summer question and answer series by tackling the question, “Can a Christian really fall away?” To answer the question, we took a hard look at one of the passages most often used to make the case that the loss of one’s salvation is possible – Hebrews 6. We especially zeroed in on verses 1-9, which on the surface can easily provoke that question. After all, the passage seems to discuss the topic of the difficulty of restoring to repentance one who has fallen away from the faith. However, this would seem to go against the overwhelming witness of Scripture that indicates that salvation is a work of God, eternal in nature, for God always finishes what he starts (as seen from such passages as Philippians 1:6, John 6:38-40, Romans 8:28-30, Galatians 3:1-6, Jude 24-25, 1 Peter 1:3-5, Hebrews 7:25 and 10:14). So what do we do? How do we reconcile these passages? Last night, I sought to not only help my students answer that question, but also to show them how to go about answering the question, so that they will be better equipped to handle Scripture well in the future.

So how do we reconcile these passages? The first step is to have a firm trust in Scripture. If we believe that the Bible is the very word of God, and God is trustworthy and true, then we will approach such difficult passages not seeing contradictions, but seeing passages that we are misunderstanding, and thus prompting further study and meditation. Once we have that foundation in place, the next step is to begin to examine the passage in context, both on the book level and the chapter level. So, we must ask the question – what is Hebrews about? In short, it’s a book written to a group of Jews who had been exposed to the gospel and now sat on the fence, tempted to simply go back to the comforts of Judaism. The author thus writes a letter which has as it’s basic premise the idea that Jesus and his new covenant is superior to Moses and his Old Covenant. He argues that the OT finds its fulfillment and true meaning in Jesus. Take a quick glance at the progression of the letter – chapter 1 begins by declaring the supremacy of Christ, chapter 3 speaks of him as superior to Moses, chapter 4 lauds him as our great high priest. The point of the author’s writing becomes abundantly clear. Secondly, we need to zero in on the immediate context of the passage, in this case examining chapters 5 and 6 together, since they constitute one unified argument. In chapter 5, the author says that he wants to draw a further comparison between Jesus and Melchizedek, but his audience is not ready for it, for thought they have heard the message of Christ enough to be teachers of it, they are still ignorant themselves. That reality sets the table for the warning that begins in chapter six.

Now, having seen the passage in its proper light, we are better ready to examine it in detail. In the first three verses, we see the author outlining the situation that the people faced. He tells them that it is time to leave the basics of the doctrine about Christ, not relaying their foundation. Why on earth would he talk like this, speaking so dismissively about the basics of the faith? This seems strange. If we examine his exhortation in the context of the book, though, the meaning becomes clearer. What are the “elementary doctrines” he’s talking about? They are the Old Testament law, which he’s just spent five chapters demonstrating points to and reveals Christ. He’s telling them to leave Judaism and their fascination with the law and move on to maturity by following Christ.

It’s here, then, that the meaning of the passage hangs. The author is not addressing Christians here, but Jews who have been exposed to the gospel message, have understood it, have been around Christians and witnessed the Spirit’s power firsthand, and still cling to the old covenant rather than embracing Jesus by faith. This gives the warning of verses 4-6 an entirely different thrust. Notice that in the descriptions given in verses 4-5 the author never uses terminology that is used of salvation (born again, filled with the spirit [he uses “partakers” instead, which in the Greek carries the connotation of an association with, not an indwelling], justified, redeemed, etc.). He is calling out to those who are on the fence, who are toeing the line, to believe in Jesus, for if they reject what they have been given it is impossible for them to be saved (note as well, that though many people will say that this passage teaches the possibility of losing salvation, almost none will say that it is impossible for the apostate to repent and return – a key inconsistency). Why? Because there is nothing left to see! If hearing and understanding the Gospel and witnessing the Spirit’s work is not enough to call them to faith, what else is left? This is why the author makes reference to them crucifying Christ. They are identifying with the mob that condemned him – a group of people that had listened to Jesus’ teaching and witnessed the miracles and power, but still rejected him.

This interpretation is further strengthened by the illustration used in verses 7-8, speaking of how the rain (which is a representation of the Gospel) falls on the ground, but while it produces good crops in one place in others it may produce only thorns and briars that are gathered up and burned. These people had soaked in the rain, but they were producing no fruit, because they had not been born again. In verse 9, the author expresses hope for better things for them – things that accompany salvation.

In summary, what we have here is a very real and very sobering warning that applies to professing Christian and rank pagan alike. God is warning us of the danger of being an “almost-believer.” We are treading on dangerous ground if we see the Gospel in the fullness of its power and remain unmoved to faith. This is especially dangerous for those of us who have spent our whole lives in the church and know all the answers and all the rules, but may never have put our trust fully in Jesus. Last night, I told my students that I hope they came away from this passage with three things in mind: a serious and sober reflection on whether this warning is one that hits their hearts, a thankfulness in the power of God’s spirit to cause us to stand on the last day, frailty and all, and a desire to dig deep into God’s Word rather than cowering and capitulating when things become difficult to understand. I pray the same for you as well, and I look forward to the questions we’ll ponder together as this series continues for the summer.

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