Holding Firmly to the End — Part One
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Holding Firmly to the End — Part One

Hebrews 3:1–19  (ID: 1906)

The Old Testament journey of the Israelites is a clear metaphor for believers’ voyage through life: like them, we are easily distracted and often forget how Jesus rescued us from the bondage of sin. Offering words of encouragement from the book of Hebrews, Alistair Begg urges us to fix our thoughts on Jesus so that we may avoid the world’s temptations and remain faithful to God. Even though we may stumble like the Israelites, God always holds His people fast.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Hebrews, Volume 1

The Supremacy of Jesus Christ Hebrews 1:1–6:20 Series ID: 15801

Encore 2013

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 25904

Sermon Transcript: Print

Father, we have sung to you our prayer. And we ask you now to do for us what we are totally unable to do for ourselves: to speak and to listen, to hear and understand, and apply the truth of your Word. So come to us, we pray. Close out every distracting influence. Help us in these moments to forget about ourselves, in terms of our own preoccupations, and to turn our thoughts to you, the living God, and to the power of your Word. We believe that when your Word is preached, that your voice is heard. We are listening for your voice. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

May I invite you to turn once again with me to Hebrews chapter 3, to the portion of Scripture which was read for us earlier in our worship. We’ve begun to notice that the writer makes frequent use of Old Testament passages—indeed, that the book of Hebrews is probably the most “Old Testament” New Testament letter that there is. And there is one particular picture which it will be helpful for us to grasp and to keep firmly in our minds as we think of the way in which the writer is urging the readers, both in the initial readership, and then, in turn, those of us who are privileged to read the Word today. And that is that the journey of God’s people in the Old Testament from Egypt to Canaan is a pattern and a picture of the Christian life. The journey that God’s people made, having been redeemed from the bondage of Egypt and set out through the wilderness wanderings towards Canaan, is an illustration of Christian pilgrimage. In the Old Testament, they were moving towards the land of promise, or to the “rest” which God had planned for them; that is referred to in the opening verses of chapter 4. And in the same way, we are moving towards that promised land—namely, heaven—when we will see Christ and will be made like him.

Now, the writer constantly urges his readers by reminding them of the fact that of those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses, there was such a large declension. A huge number of people failed to enter into the land of promise and the land of rest. And he therefore warns us, lest we too, in large numbers, should fall short of our arrival in heaven. For example, 4:11: “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.”

And so you find this recurring emphasis: the warning of Hebrews against going back to the old world. “Don’t go back,” he says. “Go forward.” The pressure surrounding God’s people in the wilderness was such that they were constantly looking back to Egypt—and much to God’s displeasure. “That is why,” he says, “I was angry with that generation” in the wilderness—verse 10. “I said to myself, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, they have not known my ways.’ And I declared in my anger that they would never enter into my rest.”[1] So the verses of chapter 3, which we’ll consider both this morning and then again this evening, sound out a familiar and necessary warning: “Don’t look back, let alone go back. But look forward, and follow the example of those who proceeded right to the end.”

Now, it is a most necessary call to “hold firmly [to] the end.” Chapter 3 and verse 14 contains that phrase; we may take that as a title to today: “Holding Firmly to the End.” If we are to hold firmly to the end, there are certain things to which we need to pay the most careful attention. And there are three particular directives here in this third chapter which I want us to look at throughout the course of our studies today. Before coming to the first of these, however, I want simply to note with you the way in which the believers are described in this opening verse, because it is a source of encouragement.

“Therefore,” he says, “holy brothers…” We might, with fairness and faithfulness, translate that “holy brothers and sisters,” on account of his generic use of the masculine. He’s referring to those brothers and sisters who have been made part of the family of faith—a reminder of what he was saying back in 2:11, that “the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family,” and “Jesus is not ashamed to call them [his] brothers.” This is the great wonder of what it means to be in the Lord Jesus Christ: that not only are our sins forgiven, our record cleared, the Holy Spirit comes to take up dwelling in our lives, but we’re also given a whole new status and a whole new significance.

When Jesus saved us, he didn’t save us in isolation. He saved us as individuals, but he brought us into his family.

Many of us have come out of a background where we have been painfully aware of our own insignificance. Sometimes our human families have offered us little by way of encouragement. We may not have enjoyed the blessings about which others speak. And it has been one of the most amazing experiences for us to realize that when Jesus saved us, he didn’t save us in isolation; he saved us as individuals, but he brought us into his family. And that the most significant factors about us today are to be found in this, a wonderful truth. The Gaithers’ song, “I’m so glad I’m … part of the fam’ly of God,”[2] is a wonderful expression of what it means to be a Christian.

And with membership of the family comes responsibilities. When I call the children for their meals, I anticipate that they will all come—not necessarily on the first call, but that they will eventually show up. Should one or two of them determine that they are not coming, then it would be probably my task—although I may choose to delegate it—but it’d probably be my task to go up and find out where they are and when they will be proceeding downstairs. It is totally unacceptable that they would simply absent themselves without reason. And you would agree with that, I’m sure. You would operate on the same basis in your family, I would imagine.

And so too in the church family, to have been members of the body of Christ, included in the family of faith, identified with a local group of believers, it would be most strange, would it not, if in calling the family to the Project 21, 52 percent were actually to fail to show up for the meal? I think it would be legitimate to think that those who were entrusted with the responsibility of shepherding would have to go and inquire just why it is. “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.” Are there responsibilities? Absolutely. Are there privileges? Without question. Does one outweigh the other? Sometimes. But family is family.

Now, notice too that they’re described not simply as brothers and sisters, but there is an adjective in front of that: “holy.” Holy brothers and sisters. We had a monastery in our town—there still is a monastery in the town—in which I lived in Yorkshire, England. And I used to go up there; I would tell my father sometimes on Sunday afternoons, I was going up with a number of my friends to see “the holy brothers.” And I was, kind of, but it was also an excuse to do a number of other things. But I always thought that it had a sort of wonderful ring to it, that I was going to see “the holy brothers.”

And I thought often about that as a youngster—about what made them holy, as opposed to me being presumably unholy. And it was only as I began to read my Bible and understand it that I discovered that the designation “holy” was not something which attached itself to a monastic priesthood, but it was a designation, again, of the family of faith—that those are described as holy whom God has accepted the sacrifice of Jesus as an atonement for their sins: those who have been made clean and forgiven; those who have access to God; those who have been set apart uniquely to his service; those of whom Peter writes in 1 Peter 2, who “were once not a people, but have now become a people; those who had not received mercy, but now have received mercy.”[3] And having described them in that way, he then urges upon them the most consistent of lives: “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.”[4]

You see, the two truths are there. We are immediately made holy and clean and accepted in the Lord Jesus Christ, and we are at the same time then urged to live out the practical implications of our new status as we say no to sin and as we say yes to righteousness. And so the description here is both an encouragement and a reminder to us: “I thank you, Lord Jesus, that having included me in your family, you have washed my sins away, you have made me one who belongs to you, and also that you have the exclusive rule over my life.”

“Because”—and this is the third area of description—“because you have called me from heaven.” Who are these people to whom he writes? Those who are the brothers and sisters made holy, “who share in the heavenly calling.” Having been called from heaven and called to heaven. The city to which we look is no longer an earthly city but a heavenly city. Moses was leading the people to an earthly and temporal inheritance; Jesus leads his people to that which is spiritual and eternal as he moves us in the direction of the fulfillment of his promises.

Now, will you notice in passing that the basis of unity here is to be found, in the Christian life, in what we share: “Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling…” There’s a tremendous amount of talk about the way churches form themselves and establish themselves, and whether they are this kind of church or that kind of church, or whatever it might be. And there is value in those considerations. But the fact of the matter, loved ones, is that to be put in the family of God is to be brought into a dimension whereby our unity with one another is not on the basis of our material things, or our social background, or our racial background, or our ethnic preferences, or our age, or any of these other things. The thing that should make the church strikingly different when a pagan walks in is the very diversity of the congregation—young and old, rich and poor, fat and thin, daft and clever, black and white, yellow and green, all the stuff—and the pagan is called then to say, “What is this? What is it that unites these individuals?”

Now, the answer that the writer to the Hebrews gives us is that we share in the heavenly calling—that whether we are separated by sixty years in age, the youngster and the elderly gentleman are united in the fact that we share in the heavenly calling. This is what allows us to pursue the same ends. This is what allows us to pray to the same purposes. This is what allows us to unite in the fulfillment of God’s plans.

Now, I’ve taken time on that because I think it is important. Who are the members of the body of Christ? Well, they are the brothers and the sisters. Christ has “suffered death, [in order] that … he might taste death for everyone,”[5] so that we might be redeemed. We’re not just a bunch of people interested in religion. We’re not just sort of hanging around. We are those who have been declared holy and who are pursuing lives of holiness. We’re saying no to unrighteousness, we’re saying yes to godliness. And when we think about the wonder of it all, it is that we share in a calling from heaven itself.

Now, it is to these individuals that he then gives these directives. And there are, I suggest to you, three that I want us to consider. The first one is “fix your thoughts,” the second one is “guard your hearts,” and the third one is “encourage each other.” Now, we’ll come to these in turn.

“Fix Your Thoughts”

The first is there in the opening verse: “Fix your thoughts.” Now, if you think there is a fixity about the verb, you’re absolutely right. This is a strong word that is used. It is referring to something that is more than a casual glance, as it were, at Christ. It is something far more significant than an infrequent or a careless consideration of the things of Jesus. It is something different than an hour a week, as it were, given over to the things of God. “Don’t do that,” he says. “I want you to make sure that you absolutely focus on these issues.” Indeed, if we were trying to translate the Greek, we would translate it something like, “Put your minds down on this one thing.”

The Puritans speak in their writings—in fact they use a phrase, “centering down.” “Centering down.” And they talk about the fact that in relationship to projects, or to family plans, or whatever it might be, they are “centering down” on this issue. In other words, that they are bringing all of their lives and all of their thinking to focus on this one end.

Jesus encourages this on frequent occasions as he speaks to those who are his followers. For example, when in Luke’s Gospel and in chapter 12 he speaks to the crowd around them, and he says, “I want you to consider the ravens,”[6] or “I want you to consider the lilies,”[7] he is not simply suggesting that they would take a little look at them or that they would get into ornithology. He is actually saying, “I want you to look carefully, apply your mind to this, in such a way that, in understanding the significance of what is being taught, it may become a life-transforming principle for you.” And so, in the same way, the writer to the Hebrews is urging the readers, and us this morning, “Whatever else you do, make sure that you fix your thoughts on Jesus.”

Now, if you will do this, a number of things will happen, which we’re about to see. One of the things that happens when we fix our thoughts on Christ is that we gain great confidence in this, that we understand our direction, that we are saved from constantly looking around us and comparing ourselves to one another in a way that is unhelpful or may even be critical. Keep your eyes on the Lord Jesus.

That was the exhortation of Jesus to his disciples: “Follow me.” “Follow me … and I will make you fishers of men.”[8] At the end of John’s Gospel, “Peter, I want you to follow me.” Peter turns around, and he looks and sees the disciple whom Jesus loved, the one who was leaning at his breast at the supper, and he says, “Lord, what about him?” And Jesus says, “Wait a minute, Peter. You’re off-center again. What did I just say to you? Follow me.”[9]

Fix your eyes on Jesus. He is the antidote for our discouragement. ’Cause if you fix your eyes on me or on another earthly leader, ultimately there will be that which will annoy you, disappoint you, discourage you, whatever it might be. Because we are all men, and we are men at best. But when we turn our gaze upon Christ, now we have someone to whom we can look with confidence.

Harvey Penick in his Little Red Book, which a friend gave me some time ago, has this wonderful little section that I’ve mentioned to you before, in which he says, “Take dead aim”: “When my student Betsy Rawls was in the playoff for the U.S. [Women] Open championship, I sent her a one-sentence telegram,” says Penick.

It said: “Take dead aim!”

Betsy won the playoff. …

I … approach my college players before a match and [I] tell them the same thing: Take dead aim.

[It] is a wonderful thought to keep in mind all the way around the course, not just on the first tee. Take dead aim at a spot on the fairway or on the green, refuse to allow any [other] thoughts to enter your head, and swing away.

A high handicapper will [benefit from it]. …

[An] expert player [will not] be surprised. …

I can’t say it too many times. It’s the most important advice in this book.

Take dead aim.

Make it a point to do it every time on every shot. Don’t just do it from time to time, when you happen to remember.

Take dead aim.[10]

Fix your thoughts on Jesus. Not just from time to time when you happen to remember, but all the time.

I get the point. And that’s exactly what the writer is saying: Fix your thoughts on Jesus. Not just from time to time when you happen to remember, but all the time. When we awaken in the morning, what is my priority for the day? First let me get my focus right; let me fix my thoughts on Jesus. I’m going out into the experience of the world, and people are hitting me for this and that and the next thing. What is the feature that is to gain my equilibrium? I fix my thoughts on Jesus.

Now, to fix our thoughts on Jesus is to fix our thoughts on one who is to us an Apostle and a High Priest. As Apostle, he represents God to us, and as High Priest, he represents us to God. He speaks from God to his people, and he represents his people to God. “Before the throne of God above,” says the hymn writer,

I have a strong and perfect plea,
A great High Priest whose name is Love,
Who ever lives and pleads for me.[11]

Now, this Jesus to whom he tells us to turn our gaze is vastly superior not only to the angels but also to Moses, to this great key figure of the Old Testament. And essentially what you have in verses 2–5 is a description of the way in which Moses was faithful and Jesus himself is also faithful. And you have a series of compare and contrast, in the way that you get in English papers at school: “Read this section, and compare and contrast,” you know, “Romeo and Laertes”—although they weren’t in the same play, I know. But they set perverse things like that in English class.

Compare and contrast Moses and Jesus. Well, “He was faithful to the one who appointed him”—that is, Jesus—“just as Moses was faithful in all [of] God’s house.” However, there is a distinction. The faithfulness of Moses was temporary. It was limited by his life. Whereas the faithfulness of Jesus is eternal in its significance, in that he ever exercises these offices for those who are his followers. Moses was a faithful messenger; Jesus himself is actually the message. Jesus has “greater honor than Moses,” in the same way that a “builder of a house has [got] greater honor than the house itself.” Moses was a faithful servant in the house; Jesus is the owner of the house. Moses loved God; Jesus is God. Now, these things are of essential importance.

And Moses, we’re told in verse 5, “was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future.” That’s an interesting phrase, is it not? What does it mean that Moses was “testifying as to what would be said in the future”? Well, it means simply this: that all of the Old Testament bits and pieces, if I may put it in that way—the Mosaic law, the priesthood, the sacrificial system, and the tabernacle—were not only valid in their own time, but they were also pointing forward to a fulfillment in the Lord Jesus Christ. And as we’ve said before, we have this wonderful continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. You have in the Old Testament the promise; you have in the New Testament the fulfillment.

The Old Testament is a Jesus book. Indeed, the real discovery of the Old Testament is the discovery of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And it is wrong for us to think of our Bibles in a kind of divided fashion. Some people think that 2 Timothy 2:15, “rightly dividing the word of truth,”[12] is about finding ways to divide up your Bible. But it doesn’t mean that. It means the rightly discriminating and discovering what the text means. And for some of us, these studies in Hebrews, if they do nothing else, will remind us of the essential continuity between the Old Testament and the New—that the Old Testament is a Jesus book; that indeed, the real discovery of the Old Testament is the discovery of the Lord Jesus Christ. And if we had nowhere else to go than the book of Hebrews, we would be able to affirm this.

For example, when he gets to the tenth chapter, the writer says, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.”[13] So in other words, Moses was dealing with the law, and he was looking forward to a fulfillment that he would not yet see in its fullness, and it was pointing forward to the fulfillment in the Lord Jesus Christ. The gathering of the people in the wilderness; the tabernacle, the dwelling place of God; the Shekinah glory, the descending of God in a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud, and his presence before them, was always leading forward to the day when “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”[14] would walk onto the stage of human history and God would dwell with men.

Now this, I say to you, is very, very important. And you’ll find it all the way through your Bible. For example, on the Emmaus road in Luke chapter 24, when Jesus meets the discouraged disciples who figured that the whole Jesus movement had died in the cul-de-sac of a Palestinian grave, Jesus, in speaking with these characters on the road, encourages them immensely. Eventually their hearts burn, but at the time their minds were just so sad. And in Luke 24:25, he said, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” He says, “Don’t you understand your Bibles? Haven’t you been reading your Bibles? You know, if you read your Bible,” he said, “you would realize that the Christ, the Messiah, was to be a suffering Messiah.” He would have said, “You know, for example in Isaiah 53, it says of him that he is going to bear sin in his own body on the tree.” He said, “You haven’t been reading your Bibles properly.”

And then in verse 27: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” He wasn’t talking about Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians. They never had any of that stuff. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained” the Bible to them. And he takes the Old Testament, and he says, “Do you see this? This is all about me. You’ll never understand this book until you realize that Moses was testifying to things yet to come.”

It’s the same issue that he addresses in John 5:46: “Do[n’t] think,” he says, “[that] I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you[’d] believe me, for he wrote about me.”[15] You want an illustration for Jewish evangelism? It’s all here. I always say to my Jewish friends, “Listen, let’s talk. Let’s talk jigsaws. Let’s talk jigsaws. Pieces in the jigsaw. Here’s a piece, there’s a piece, there’s a piece, piece, piece, piece, piece. But eventually, when we put it all together and we get to Malachi, we are missing a significant piece. You know that, ’cause you’re waiting for a Messiah. Now, have you ever considered the possibility that Moses actually spoke of him? That Moses considered disgrace for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ more significant than enjoying the pleasures of sin for a season and enjoying all the benefits of Egypt?[16] Do you ever think about that?” And most of my friends say, “No, I never, ever thought about that.” These are very, very important things, loved ones. You gotta know your Bible. That’s why we try and teach it the way we teach it.

Yesterday in one of the bookstores in Cleveland, I was standing looking at the list of the new hardback best sellers. And there is one there that is entitled, I think, Talking to God, or Hearing from God, or something like that.[17] It’s the biggest load of nonsense that you ever came across in your life. I mean, you could walk to Timbuktu and never see as much drivel as this contained in 180 pages. And what it is, is a man who in his flights of fancy—presuming that he was not tuned in to the sources of darkness—in his flights of fancy, simply describing God talking to him, and him talking to God. And so he has God saying all manner of things. And people in Beachwood Place are going to go in there—presumably well-meaning pagans—who long to hear from God, who are tired of religion, as Mike prayed, and have a longing for truth. They say, “I would like to hear what God has to say. Give me that book.” And then they’re going to be sitting at coffee time with you, explaining to you that they’re just reading this amazing new book where God talks to people. And to you is gonna be given the challenge and privilege and responsibility of saying, “Listen, guys, the way you can tell if God is speaking is through this book.” And they’re going to say to you, “Well, what do you know about this book?” It’s very, very important.

Now, let me advance it one stage further. Because Christ is the “faithful … son over God’s house,” says the writer, and he wants us to know that “we are his house.” Now, I’m quoting from verse 6: “We are his house.” In other words, we are his family, or we are the members of his family, or we are his people; it’s just a designation. But you’ll notice that it’s not a full stop at the end of the phrase “We are his house.” It’s a comma. And after the comma comes one two-letter word, very important many times in Scrabble, and very important here. “And we are his house, if”—if!—“we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.” The same thing in verse 14, the same two-letter word of vital importance: “We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly [to] the end the confidence we had at first.”

What is the test of the reality of a profession of faith? Continuance.

What is the test of the reality of Christian profession? What is the test that the Bible gives of somebody who says, “I am a follower of Jesus Christ”? Well, interestingly, the test is not giftedness. The test is not, Does this man or this woman possess amazing gifts? Because there were all kinds of people doing all kinds of amazing things throughout the whole of the Bible, and many of them had nothing at all to do with Jesus. So the issue is not, “Well, is this man a wonderful preacher, and can he encourage and exhort a congregation?” That’s not the test. The test isn’t exuberance. It’s not dramatic displays of affection. It’s not great protestations of our devotion. What is the test of the reality of a profession of faith? It is, in one word, continuance. Continuance. That is the New Testament test of how we know whether we are on track: whether we are continuing. And that is why the warnings of this book are so vitally important.

Now, this is distressing to some, and the phones have already begun to ring. Because some of you are saying… Oh, indeed, someone even called from the radio! This must have been on the radio, I guess, last Sunday morning or something, and they called on the radio and said, “You know, Begg’s contradicting himself. Because after all, he told us that if you are truly saved, you’re saved forever, and there’s no one can pluck you out of his hands, and now he’s in the book of Hebrews, and he seems to be suggesting that if we don’t make it to the end, we’ve got real problems.”

Well, what am I doing? Am I not just saying what the Bible says? You see, what’s my responsibility? To say what the Bible says, or to clean it up to make us all feel comfortable? See, what we want is, “But we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast, and, of course, we certainly do.” So you want me to say, “But you are such a lovely group of people, you’re all holding on, and this is not for you; this is for somebody else.” This is for you. You know why I know? Because it’s for me.

And the test is continuance. The question, says one writer, “is not one of the retention of salvation based upon a persistence of faith, but of the possession of salvation … evidenced by a continuation of faith.”[18] I’ll say that for you again. Some of you are reaching for your pens. The question “is not one of the retention of salvation based upon a persistence of faith, but of the possession of salvation as evidenced by a continuation of faith.” In other words, the ground of our salvation is the atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ; the evidence of our salvation is that we continue along the journey of faith. The profession that we are in his house, that we are sharing in Christ, will be proved genuine by our patient perseverance and endurance to the end.

Now, if you think about this, it makes perfect sense. It makes sense of Pilgrim’s Progress, does it not? You read Pilgrim’s Progress—in fact, very few people do, and you would do well to go and buy yourself a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress and start to read it. And in there you will encounter all these people—Pliable and Ignorant and Mr. Timorous and Mr. Worldly Wiseman—and all of these guys who were all saying, “Count me in,” who all start off on the journey. “We’re on our way!”

“Where are you going?”

“Oh. We’re with Pilgrim. We’re going to the heavenly city.”

“You are?”


“Okay, good.”

All of a sudden, …. That’s onomatopoeic for slipping into the Slough of Despond. They end up in the Slough of Despond, and as they find themselves in there, Pliable starts to complain. And he starts to complain to Pilgrim, and he says to Pilgrim, “Hey, listen. This isn’t what I thought the Christian life was about. I didn’t think you got yourself in all this kind of mess. I frankly don’t like this gig.”

Christian says, “No.” He says, “You gotta get through this stuff. We’ve got to keep going. We’re going to the heavenly city.”

Pliable says, “Forget the heavenly city. I’m outta here. I don’t like this. I’m going home.” And Bunyan says, “And Pliable got out of the Slough of Despond on the side that was closest to his house, and he went home, and he was never heard from again.” Was Pliable a Christian? No! Was he a professor? Yes. For a while.[19]

F. F. Bruce puts it this way: “The doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints has as its corollary the salutary teaching that the saints are the people who persevere to the end.”[20]

“Do you believe in the perseverance of the saints?” Yes. “Who are the saints?” The people who persevere to the end.

Now that’s what makes the striking nature of the questions at the end of the chapter so incredible: “Who were they,” verse 16, “who heard and rebelled?” They were the people that got led out of Egypt. And whom was God angry for forty years? They were the people “who sinned, whose bodies fell on the desert,” six hundred thousand of them. “And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest …?” He swore “to those who disobeyed.”

You see, people say to me, “Well, why don’t you have an altar call every Sunday? And why don’t we have the drama of everybody, you know, putting up their hands, and walking down aisles, and doing all those things?” Well, there’s a variety of reasons for that, but one is this: that of all the people who walk those aisles, and put up their hands, and sign the cards, and do all those things, the percentage return of continuance along the journey is so, so dreadfully low.

And people attach significance. People give appeals like this: “Come to the front to receive Christ. Come to the front and be saved.” I don’t even believe that’s how you get saved. I believe that God saves people. You want to come to the front, that’s up to you, but God saves people. So I don’t want people sitting out in Parkside Church, living in blatant sin, with no interest in the things of Christ, simple attenders and professors of religious experience, and hanging it on the fact that on such-and-such a day in nineteen-eighty-whatever-it-was, they did what I told them they needed to do if they wanted to be what I thought they ought to become. I don’t want to give them any loopholes with that. I delight to see my children walking in the truth.[21] For it is as we walk in the truth, as we continue to the end, as we keep our eyes fixed on the goal, that we give testimony to the fact that we are truly in Christ.

So what then of the disobedient Christian? Is it possible to be a disobedient Christian and backslide? Absolutely. The Christian life is a lot of stumblings and bumblings. In the words of Spurgeon, the Christian life is like the guy who, in the midst of the storm, on the deck of the ship, is beaten and thrashed and thrown down onto the deck, but he is not thrown overboard.[22] And the Christian experience is surely that we take waves, that we go forward by fits and starts, that we do not perfectly continue, that we are aware of that experience in our own lives. But somehow or another, here we are again! Somehow or another, we’re back to it again. Somehow or another, we’re back under the sound of the Word, and here we are, being picked up and moved on. Why? Because of the mercy and the grace of God in bringing to completion the things that he has begun. But the person who professes faith in Jesus Christ, apparently backslides, and goes into oblivion should have no one stand at their funeral and speak to the issues of their genuine faith. The individual may stand and say that on a day this man or this woman declared this about Christ, but then sadly point out that there has been no concurrent, progressive change in life which would give evidence of the reality of which they spoke.

Now, some will be immediately saying, “Well, you know, I think the words of Jesus might help us here. I’m not sure that Jesus was just going at it in this way.” Well, let me finish this morning with the words of Jesus. Let me turn you to the parables and to Luke’s Gospel and to chapter 8. And let’s just think about what Jesus had to say concerning these things. And then we’ll pick it up from here tonight with the second of these directives.

Luke chapter 8. A large crowd gathers, verse 4. Luke tells us people are “coming to Jesus from town after town,” he tells them a story, says, “A farmer went out to sow. And when he sowed, some seed simply fell along the path; it was trampled on, the birds of the air came and ate it up. Other parts of the seed went down, but having landed only on rock, when the produce of the seed came up, the plants withered because they’d no moisture. Other seed went down, but it actually happened that the thorns and the thistles and the briars choked out the plants. And other seed went down and fell on good soil, and it came up and yielded a crop a hundred times more than was sown.”[23] And then, interestingly, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”[24] Very similar to the writer of the Hebrews quoting from Psalm 95, is it not? “Today, if you hear his voice, do[n’t] harden your hearts.”[25] Jesus says, “If you got ears to hear, listen to what I’m saying.”

The disciples come to him, and they say, “Can you please explain the parable to us?” And so in verse 11, Jesus says, “Fine. This is the meaning of the parable. The seed is the word of God. So the sowing is the sowing of the seed of the word of God, the proclaiming of the good news of the gospel. The first group,” in verse 12, are “those along the path … the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.”[26]

Now, I don’t think we ought to think of this in passive terms, as if you’ve got somebody sitting, desperately wanting to believe, and somehow or another the devil comes and prevents them from believing. But rather I think the balance of Scripture would urge us to consider the fact that the person may have been stirred momentarily, and yet, just the considerations and concerns of everything else that’s going on in their life, they stand up and they say, “I’ll maybe deal with that some other time.” So in other words, the first description is of the soil in which the seed never gets in—never gets in. But they’re all experiencing the same event; they’re all experiencing the seed being sown for them.

Then in verse 13, we have the seed that gets in but never gets down: “Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy,” but when they hear it, “they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing, they fall away.” Instant bloom, instant fade. We all know people like this. We took them places, we urged them about the things of Christ, they came along, they heard the Word of God, they said, “That’s it!” Some of them even began to memorize their Bibles. They began to sing. They began to get involved. They were taking tracts and leaving them under their plates when they went out for lunch. And now they have no interest in the things of Christ at all. They never darken the door of the church, they never read their Bible, they never pray, they never worship, they’ve got no interest whatsoever. Who are these people? They are the people in whose lives the seed got in, but it never got down.

The third group, verse 14, “the seed that fell among [the] thorns, stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, [and] riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.” The seed got in, it got down, but it never got up. There’s no fragrance and beauty about them. Their profession of faith may be nothing other than a grim determination. They are back and forth and up and down. It’s questionable where they really are in relationship to the things of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And then in verse 15, he says, “But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word [of God]”—the seed got in. They “retain it”—it got down. They persevere—it got up. And they “produce a crop”—it gets out.

But from the vantage point of a thousand feet, looking down on all the soils, they’re all experiencing the same thing. It’s the same sower. It’s the same soil. Preacher preaches, “Here’s the word of God. If you would believe and follow Christ, you will be saved, and you’ll be saved for all of eternity, and no one will pluck you out of his hand, and you’ll never be lost.” “Sign me up for that,” says someone. They put their hand up for a minute, they walk out the door, they do nothing about it. Somebody else comes and says, “Oh, I’m definitely going to follow,” and they’re apparently on the way, and then they’re nowhere at all. Another person stumbles and bumbles along the road, and they’re choked, and they’re pressurized, and they’re diminished in any kind of Christian pilgrimage.

And there are a few—and there are a few—in whose lives the seed gets in, down, up, and out. Now, it is a few. There’s a broad road that leads to destruction; there’s a narrow road that leads to life.[27] What did Jesus say? “A few of you will say on that day, ‘Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and cast out demons in your name?’” That’s not what he said; he said, “On that day many will say”—many will say—“‘We did all these things. We were exuberant. We were gifted. We were preachers. We attended conferences. We were in Bible studies. We did it all.’”[28] Jesus said, “Depart from me. I never knew you.”[29]

What is the test of reality? It is continuance. It’s “a long obedience in the same direction.”[30] It’s not perfection. It’s not getting it right every day, all day. It’s torn trousers, it’s bloodied knees, it’s spikes in the shins, it’s elbows in the ribs, it’s discouragement, it’s “the rising doubt,” it’s “the rebel sigh,”[31] but it’s the fact that still, I’m still going! All these years, after as a tiny boy I say, “Lord Jesus, come into my life and make me the kind of person you want me to be,” all these years later—thirty-nine years later—I’m still here! Any my heart is “prone to wander,”[32] and I am seduced by the material snares. And all the thistles and the thorns look so nice, and could choke the very life out of me! That’s why I want to pay real careful attention to the warnings!

Now, am I unique in this? Or don’t you think you should pay careful attention also? You see, when you travel in Switzerland, the warning signs about going down five thousand feet into oblivion are not there to suck you over! The fact that there is a warning sign there is not an indication that you will inevitably go over. But it’s there to tell you that you might go over.

Better to be a godless pagan, aware of how far one is from God, and to be awakened out of all that sin, than to be a church attender, a religious affiliate, but not a Christian.

Now, we’ll come back to this tonight, but let me give you a quote from A. W. Pink. The Hebrews need to be constantly reminded—and so do we—“that [their] proof of … belonging to the house of Christ was that they remained steadfast to Him to the end of their pilgrimage.”[33] That was the proof: that they were there at the end. You see, the doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints is not overturned by those who fail to continue to the end. Those who fail to continue to the end simply prove that they were never part of the journey in the first place. They were marching alongside, but they hadn’t enlisted. They were wearing the clothes, but they didn’t have a changed heart. They had all of the externals but nothing inside. That is the most dangerous of positions to be in. Better to be a godless pagan, aware of how far one is from God, and to be awakened out of all that sin, than to be a church attender, a Parkside adherent, a religious affiliate, but not a Christian.

Some of you say, “Well, what am I supposed to do?” Well, why don’t you come down the front? Let me tell you what you’re supposed to do. You want to come down to the front any time, you just come. You want to come in our prayer room, that would be fine as well. Let me tell you this: you don’t drift into this. There comes a time in your life where you acknowledge that you are on the wrong road, and that Christ has come in order that you might be placed on the right road, and that in your own heart, in your own words, as an expression of your own convictions, that you would repent of your sin and turn to the Lord Jesus Christ, and ask him to make you all that he desires for you to be, and to make you such that by your very continuance you will reveal the reality of today.

You see, on the sixteenth of August, ’75, in a very sweaty 103-degree suburban Philadelphia, I committed my life unreservedly to Susan Jones. I walked the aisle. I don’t have the certificate in my pocket. It’s somewhere. But I have her with me on the front row. And it is the fact that we continue, day in and day out—good days, bad days, communicative days, not-so-communicative days, the good, the bad, and the ugly—that reveals the reality of the commitment that was made. No continuance, bogus commitment. Bogus!

And the writer to the Hebrews says, “Listen, don’t go making bogus commitments to Jesus Christ. This is too serious. Heed the warnings. Fix your thoughts. Stay on track. Take dead aim. ’Cause there were six hundred thousand that thought they were doing it right in the wilderness, and they never made it to the promised land.” Quite a thought.

Let us pray:

O God our Father, we thank you for the warnings of your Word. They’re not there to tyrannize us and jeopardize us, but in order to remove from our minds irresponsible complacency, smugness, professions minus substance, convictions minus reality.

We thank you that our profession is that we have heard your voice—those of us who know you—and that it called in love to us. And we want this morning to be drawn nearer and nearer to you, Lord Jesus. We’re certainly not perfect. Hasn’t been for all of us a wonderful week. We’ve sinned with our tongues, and we’ve fallen down on the deck of the ship on a number of occasions. But we thank you that you are “the captain of [our] salvation,”[34] that you’ve picked us up, and we’re still on board. May we lash ourselves to the mast in disciplined obedience, in joyful duty, and in loving surrender, lest having preached to others we ourselves should become castaways.[35] Hear our cries, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[1] Hebrews 3:10–11 (paraphrased).

[2] Gloria Gaither and William J. Gaither, “The Family of God” (1970).

[3] 1 Peter 2:10 (paraphrased).

[4] 1 Peter 2:11 (NIV 1984).

[5] Hebrews 2:9 (NIV 1984).

[6] Luke 12:24 (paraphrased).

[7] Luke 12:27 (paraphrased).

[8] Matthew 4:19 (NIV 1984).

[9] John 21:19–22 (paraphrased).

[10] Harvey Penick, Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book: Lessons and Teachings from a Lifetime in Golf (1992; repr., New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012), 45–46.

[11] Charitie Lees Bancroft, “Before the Throne of God Above” (1863).

[12] 2 Timothy 2:15 (KJV).

[13] Hebrews 10:1 (NIV 1984).

[14] John 1:29 (NIV 1984).

[15] John 5:45–46 (NIV 1984).

[16] See Hebrews 11:25–26.

[17] Neale Donald Walsch, Conversations with God (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1996).

[18] Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, vol. 2 (1973; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 80.

[19] John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress.

[20] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 59.

[21] See 2 John 1:4.

[22] Charles H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, revised and updated by Alistair Begg (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), Nov. 12 morning reading.

[23] Luke 8:4–8 (paraphrased).

[24] Luke 8:8 (NIV 1984).

[25] Hebrews 3:7–8 (NIV 1984).

[26] Luke 8:11–12 (paraphrased).

[27] See Matthew 7:13–14.

[28] Matthew 7:22 (paraphrased).

[29] Matthew 7:23 (paraphrased).

[30] Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 13.

[31] George Croly, “Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart” (1854).

[32] Robert Robinson, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” (1758).

[33] A. W. Pink, quoted in Geoffrey B. Wilson, New Testament Commentaries, vol. 2, Philippians to Hebrews and Revelation (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2005), 341.

[34] Hebrews 2:10 (KJV).

[35] See 1 Corinthians 9:27.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.