The Peril of Spiritual Apostasy
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The Peril of Spiritual Apostasy

Hebrews 6:4–8  (ID: 1915)

The question of whether believers can lose their salvation frightens many and has sparked debate for centuries. Thankfully, the Bible directly addresses the experience of those who once professed to follow Christ but then fell away. After identifying the traits of such individuals, Alistair Begg unpacks what causes them to forsake their profession of faith. Their example serves as a warning to true believers.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Hebrews, Volume 1

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

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you once again to take your Bibles and turn with me to Hebrews chapter 6, where we resume our studies now at 6:4. You perhaps recall that having introduced this subject of the high priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ, we said that the writer has gone into a moment or two of parenthesis, addressing three issues of pastoral concern: one of these, at the end of chapter 5, which we referred to as the problem of spiritual infancy; and then another in the opening verses of chapter 6, whereby he encourages his readers to walk what we said was the pathway to spiritual maturity. And then, beginning now at the fourth verse, he calls us to a consideration of the peril of spiritual apostasy.

And beginning here at 6:4, we encounter what may well be the most striking warning in the whole of the New Testament. Certainly, I think we would conclude that it is the most striking warning in Hebrews itself. And the real question which confronts us—or the two questions which confront us—are these: Who are the people that are being described here? And what is their spiritual condition? These individuals whom he says are finding themselves in the impossible position of being restored to repentance: Who are they, and what is their spiritual condition?

Three Views on Apostasy

Now, there are largely three views which have been espoused over the years, and I’m not going to take time with each of them, but I do want simply identify them for you.

Jesus said no one can snatch the believer out of his hand. The fact of the matter is, we are not strong enough to jump out when God is determined to hold us in.

Some people, in responding to these verses, would say that these people were genuine Christians who began as sincere followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, but they fell away and lost their salvation. And this is one of the key passages in the New Testament which is employed by those who teach the idea that it is possible for someone who has been genuinely converted to lose their salvation. It’s a particular problem for them, because it actually forces them to wrestle with the fact that in losing it, the writer says, it’s impossible for them to get it back. And that ought to be a real dilemma, because most who teach that it is possible to lose your salvation teach at the same time that, having lost it, you can reclaim it again. You may lose it again a couple of days later, but you can always get it back. And so they stumble and bumble their way down the pathway of profession.

This we would address by asking, “Well then, what does the balance of Scripture teach concerning such a notion?” Is it possible to teach, for example, from the words of Jesus that those who are genuinely born again of the Spirit of God, those whom God has appointed to salvation, will they ever be lost? And we would do no better than to turn, for example, to John 10:28–29, where Jesus, in his teaching on the shepherd and the sheep, says, “I give them eternal life … they shall never perish; [and] no one can snatch them out of my hand.”

I remember having big debates when I was a theological student with one of my friends, who was very Arminian in his theology, and when I used to turn him to John 10:28, he would always say—and he happened to come from America—he would say in a very strong American accent, “Yeah, but it also doesn’t say that they can’t jump.” And the idea that you can’t be snatched out, but you can jump out, and he thought this was a great coup de grâce. The fact of the matter is, we are not strong enough to jump out when God is determined to hold us in. In verse 29: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

Now, this is in concurrence with all that Jesus had to teach. He addresses the fact that when days of great difficulty come, when the signs point to the end of the age, in Matthew chapter 24, he says, “At that time”—in Matthew 24:10—“many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other.” He’s not naive to that. And there will be “many false prophets” who “appear and deceive many people.” And “because of the increase of wickedness, the love of many or of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”[1] In the midst of declension and discouragement and the disheartening sight of droves and droves of people walking away from their professions of faith, there will be those, says Jesus, who will hold firmly to the end and be saved. So the idea that somehow or another we can employ and press into usefulness these verses from Hebrews 6 to teach that an individual, once genuinely converted, can lose their salvation demands that we make the Bible contradict itself—which, of course, the Bible doesn’t do.

So, some teach that it is an expression of those who were genuine Christians, lost their salvation, and that’s it. The second idea is that the description is again of genuine Christians who are being confronted by a hypothetical warning: “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, [and] tasted the heavenly gift,” etc.—verse 6—“if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance.” And the idea is, it begins “if” because it means if: if they were ever to do this, then this would be the case, but, of course, they’re never going to do that. And, for example, the commentary in the IVP series on the New Testament done by Thomas Hewitt takes this position. And there are a number of Christian teachers and pastors whose names you would identify who would teach that the way to expound Hebrews 6:4 and following is to expound it as a hypothetical warning; it’s not a realistic warning.

The third view, and the view to which I subscribe—which will become obvious in a moment—suggests that the description here is a description of individuals who have been influenced by the gospel, who have shown outward signs of being Christians, but who in fact are not Christians. Now, for those of us who immediately say to ourselves, “Well, I just read this, and I can’t believe that this could be a description of anyone other than the genuine article,” let me just sow one seed of thought in your mind. Let me give you just one name: Judas Iscariot. Okay? For there is an individual who is a classic, chilling reminder to all who profess faith of how close it is possible to be to the action without actually being included in the family of faith.

So I suggest to you that these warnings—as I’ve done before—are not somehow or another fictional warnings, and that the description here is of individuals, as in 1 John 2, who have gone out from the family of faith because they never really belonged to it in the first place. Sinclair Ferguson, with whom I had the privilege of serving in Orlando in the last few days, says of this, the New Testament warns us by precept and example that some professing Christians may not persevere in their profession of Christ to the end of their lives. And the Bible warns of it, and experience confirms the fact of it.

Caution for the Complacent

Now, the warning here—and indeed, the warnings in these apostasy passages—are not given in order to induce despair in the souls of the sensitive. The tenderhearted believer who is most pressingly aware of their own waywardness may well be haunted by a passage like this and may press it to undue application in their lives. And that’s why, I think, the writer quickly comes to the ninth verse, to which we will come this evening, prior to communion. But the warning is there in order to produce caution in the complacent and to cause the professing believer to take stock of where they are.

For example, if they are locked in infancy, with no apparent interest in spiritual maturity, then they need to pay very careful attention to what is conveyed in this brief, riveting passage. Because it has something to say to those who want a Christian reality without the reality of a Christian walk. And all through the Bible, it clearly affirms that all who are drawn to Christ, who come in faith to him, who are eternally delivered from sin and from condemnation, will not then live in moral carelessness.

Now, this is a very, very important point. The idea that being brought to genuine faith in Jesus Christ, being made aware of my sin, being delivered from its condemnation, that somehow or another this is some eternal insurance policy which introduces individuals to a life of moral carelessness cannot be taught from the Bible. When a man or a woman is born again of the Spirit of God, they will give evidence of it, in part, by striving to live a holy life.

In holding steady to the end, we show ourselves to be held.

For example, Paul writes to Timothy, and he says, “Let those who name the name of the Lord depart from iniquity. The Lord knows them that are his.”[2] So if you name the name of the Lord, depart from iniquity, and as you depart from iniquity, you bear testimony to the fact that your naming of the name of the Lord is a reality and not a fiction. John Brown, writing in the nineteenth century outside of Edinburgh, Scotland, says, “No saint behaving like a sinner can legitimately enjoy the comfort which the doctrine of perseverance is fitted and intended to communicate to every saint, acting like a saint.”[3] No saint acting like a sinner should seek to derive comfort from the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. And I hear it with frequency: “Oh yes, he or she has no interest in the gospel. No, they never attend church. No, they never share their faith. They have no interest in worship. But after all, it’s a good thing we believe in eternal security, isn’t it?” the people will say. Well, I don’t know what kind of eternal security such individuals believe in, but it sure isn’t the eternal security propounded in the pages of the New Testament.

And so the writer, in accord with the other New Testament writers, does not provide a doctrine of eternal security so as to suggest that God’s keeping of us takes place irrespective of the conduct of our lives. We are not kept by God’s power in a vacuum. We are kept by God’s power—1 Peter 1:5—“through faith.” Those two key words are key words: “Born again to a living hope to an inheritance that will never spoil, or perish, or fade—reserved in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power.”[4] In other words, our persistence is concurrent with our faith. There is no persistence without faith, and where there is faith, then you will find persistence. Now, it is not that we retain our salvation on the basis of our persistence, but it is that we give evidence of our salvation by our very continuance. In holding steady to the end, we show ourselves to be held.

Let me just give you the words of Jesus again, this time from John 8:31:

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

[And] they answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be free?”[5]

And when they go on with their conversation, they begin to show the fact that their belief is not matched by the continuance which speaks of reality.

Now, these are not easy verses, and some of you are wavering already, I can see in your eyes. And I’m not attempting to make them any more difficult or demanding than they are, but you’ll need a special portion of help if you’re going to stay to the course and the end of this.

I need you to keep in mind, very importantly, that these individuals here described are not just drifting away, as it were, willy-nilly, but rather their apostasy is deliberate, it is public, and it is continuous. They are willfully and totally renouncing Christ, and they are taking their place alongside his enemies. That’s the significance of verse 6: “They are crucifying the Son of God all over again and [they are] subjecting him to public disgrace.” Renouncing Christ, now. They’re individuals who have had their minds exercised; their emotions have been stirred by the good news. A bit like Herod, who, when he listened to John the Baptist preach, it says that he liked to hear John the Baptist preach, and “he did many things.”[6] We’re not sure what the phrase “he did many things” refers to, but at least one possible notion is that when he listened to John the Baptist preach, it stirred him up to action. And for a little period of time, he said, “You know, I’m gonna have to get serious about this business.” But in the long haul, he delivered up John the Baptist’s head on a plate, seduced by the activities of women around him.[7]

These individuals described here may have convinced themselves, and indeed, persuaded others, that they truly belonged to Christ. But as time has gone by, their professions have proved empty. They’ve enjoyed temporary privileges, but their profession was not possession. They professed Christ, but they were not possessed by Christ. They were skating along the surface of faith, but they were not embraced by faith.

Characteristics of Those Who Fall Away

Now, let me explain to you why I believe that to be the case. Let’s go through these statements that are made of them. What are we told about these people for whom repentance is an impossibility? Well, once of all, they have been enlightened. They “have once been enlightened.” What does it mean to be enlightened? It means to be exposed to the light. You’re living in darkness, and someone turns the light on, you’re exposed to the light. Indeed, the Gospel record says that “the people … in darkness have seen a great light,”[8] referring to the coming of the Messiah. And into the darkness of their lives, the light of the Messiah has dawned, and they have experienced something of its enlightening influence. They have clearly, in concurrence with this, been instructed, and they have been informed. They have had some kind of encounter with the principles of Christianity. And having heard about Christianity, having been enlightened by its truthfulness, they have determined, apparently, that they prefer it to Judaism and they prefer it to paganism. And that when people ask them what it is they believe, they say, “Well, we’re Christian in our belief. We have rejected Judaism, and we have rejected paganism.” Their perception of the truth, perhaps, is intellectual, having determined that certain facts appeal to them.

Now, loved ones, this is no different from many who sit in churches all across America, and some who sit in church this morning. You have determined to reject materialism as being a dead-end street. You have amassed a number of things, but it hasn’t satisfied your soul. You have assumed that the New Age mysticism and paganism which is on offer is too vacuous to be substantive enough to believe, and you have rejected that also. And you have determined to put yourself in the enlightened position of Christian influence, and perhaps even Christian profession. But you’re on the outside looking in, as were these individuals.

Secondly, they “have tasted the heavenly gift.” They have tasted the heavenly gift. Now, if we’re right to understand the heavenly gift as the gospel, which I believe we are, then we have to say that they’d had a taste. And so people say—they look at this, and they say, “You can’t say that someone has tasted the heavenly gift and they’re not really a Christian! Because to taste the heavenly gift must mean that you’re a Christian.”

Well, have you ever tasted sushi? How much of a taste did you have? One bite? Just a wee taste? Just enough to know what it’s like? But never really ordered the rest of the meal—immediately went to the rest of the menu, and said, “That’s enough of that for me. I’m going to proceed along the journey that I am most familiar with.” Of course you have! We’ve had a try at all kinds of things. We’ve had a wee taste of this and a wee taste of that, without ever knowing the benefit and the blessing that that taste brings. And Peter writes, he says, “If so be that you have tasted of the kindness of the Lord…”[9] And the evidence that the taste has been a life-transforming taste is once again revealed in the spiritual hunger for the Word of God, and the desire to propound the truth of God, and the desire to live the life of God. But it is clearly possible to have a taste of something without benefiting from its personal experience.

And these individuals had grasped something of the meaning of Christianity. They had enjoyed the sensations that accompany it. And they are like those whom Jesus described in the parable of the sower, in Luke chapter 8; they are like the second kind of soil that Jesus described, those who received the Word of God for a moment or two. Luke 8:13: “Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.” They had a taste! But it wasn’t a life-changing taste.

They had a little lick of the ice cream, but they never finished the cone. They didn’t want one for themselves; no, they said, “Nah, aah, I don’t really like that, now I come to think about it. I wish I’d never got that. Phoo! That’s terrible. Whoo! Forty-nine flavors, and one like that? That’s amazing.” And they’ve gone around; they’re spiritual tasters. They’ve gone around the various varieties that are on offer on the Christian smorgasbord. You find them one Sunday here and another Sunday there. One day they’re into this, the next day they’re into that. They follow here, there, and everywhere. They’ve had a taste of all kinds of things, but there’s no change in their lives. They’ve received the Word with a fleeting passion, but they’re not rooted, there’s no steady growth.

Thirdly, they “shared in the Holy Spirit.” Well, you say, “This is getting harder by the phrase. Surely somebody couldn’t have shared in the Holy Spirit without being a genuine believer.” Yes, I believe so! What does it mean? I think it simply means that they had known the influence of God’s Spirit on their lives. They had sat and listened to the Word of God, and they had been convicted of their sin—shared in the influence of the Holy Spirit. They’d never, ever been convicted of their sin. They thought self-esteem was the answer. They thought they were going happily along their days. They had no interest in the things of Christ. And all of a sudden, they find themselves under conviction of sin. But they shake it off, they get down the aisle, they get on with their life, and they’re gone. They’ve shared in something of its impact.

They may even have been convinced by the Spirit of God of the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And they may have upped the ante of their intellectual perception to the level of the devil and his demons, who, in fact, believe orthodoxly everything that the Bible has to say about Jesus of Nazareth. And as a result of the Spirit of God working within their lives, they determined that they were convinced of these things. They may even have been involved in the manifestation of spiritual gifts. You say, “Well, surely not. It’s not possible to speak with the tongues of men and of angels, is it, and have not love,[10] which is the evidence of genuine Christian experience? It’s not possible to do all these dramatic things, is it?” Yes, it is.

Now, if we were in any doubt about that, we need only, again, to listen to the words of Jesus himself. Matthew chapter 7, when Jesus speaks of those who will come to him, and he’s just given a very stirring warning concerning false prophets, who “come to you in sheep’s clothing,” and “inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”[11] And so he follows up, and he says, “Listen, let me just make something real clear to you folks: not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.”[12] In other words, not everybody who’s got the language down, not everybody who knows the jargon, not everybody who can say it either privately or publicly from a pulpit, not everyone who has got the lingo right, is going to heaven. So don’t be bamboozled by people—television people or anybody else—just because they say these certain things. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name …?’” Doesn’t that sound like somebody who believes himself to be sharing in the Holy Spirit? “‘And in your name drive out demons and [in your name] perform many miracles?’ [And] then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. [Get] away from me, you[’re] evildoers!’”[13]

Now, you see, in our tolerant society, where the subtle influences and tendencies of our culture, which rejects the notion of truthfulness, which rejects the idea of true truth, which rejects in the moral and spiritual realm the notion that there can be rightness and wrongness, and embraces the notion that really, everybody’s just fine, irrespective of what they propound—that they don’t like this stuff. But Jesus doesn’t share that sense of ambivalence.

Just like the people in John chapter 6, after the feeding of the five thousand. They were astonished by the signs and the miracles. What does Jesus do? Turns around to the crowd, says, “Listen, listen, listen! Hold up here! You folks are just following me because of the fish and the loaves. You don’t understand!”[14] And then he lays the gospel on them and the demands of discipleship, and they start to drift away—tons and tons of them.[15] And eventually he comes to his disciples, and he says, “How ’bout you guys? Do you want to go as well?”[16]

There are plenty of people who are following in the crowds of the miraculous and the spectacular because it appeals and intrigues. And they are moving in the realm of the Holy Spirit. Let us make no mistake about it: we baptize upon profession of faith, not on assurance of salvation. I shared in your baptism here; I hope you don’t think that because I was in the tank with you that somehow or another that conveyed something to you. I was just listening to what you said, and I was helping you to bear testimony to what you profess. You can answer correctly—and so can I—to the orthodox questions, and you can go down the line to which any local church encourages you, and you can share in the influence of the Holy Spirit, and still not be genuinely saved.

Fourthly, they “tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age.” What does this mean? Well, this is probably the hardest of all of the phrases to get our hands around. “They tasted the goodness of the word of God.” I think this means that they had found that God is faithful to his Word, and that his Word was always pointing to the Word who would come. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,”[17] so that the prophets were always pointing forward to the provision of the Messiah, and recognizing the fact that when the Messiah came, the powers of the coming age would be projected into the present age, through the ministry of the Spirit of God through the proclamation of the Word of God.

And you get that, for example, with Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth. And he takes the scroll of the prophet, and he reads from it, biographically, and he says, “The Spirit of the Lord is now upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor and freedom and recovery of sight to the blind.”[18] And here are individuals who said yes to that as well. But it is these individuals who have fallen away—verse 6. And therefore, it is impossible for them to be brought back to repentance.

Why Would This Be?

Now, why would this be? Well, the answer is because they had resolutely turned their backs upon the very truths which would be the means of bringing them to repentance. What does God use to bring people to repentance? He uses the enlightenment of his Word, he uses the convicting influence of the Holy Spirit, he uses the inbreaking of the power of his Word and the identification of the coming age. And here are individuals who now say, “Oh yeah, I heard all that. I used to do that. Ha! I used to believe what you believe,” they’ll tell you if you meet them. “Goodness gracious, I was in the Bible class. In fact, I even taught a Bible class. Oh yes, I attended the church when it was over on such-and-such a place. I was actually baptized there. But don’t give me the gospel anymore. I have no interest in the gospel. Don’t tell me about the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ cleansing from sin. I have no interest in the blood of Jesus Christ. Don’t try and enlighten me with the truths of the Word. I simply have no interest in it whatsoever.”

Says F. F. Bruce, “God has pledged himself to pardon all who truly repent, but Scripture and experience alike suggest that it is possible for human beings to arrive at a state of heart and life where they can no longer repent.”[19] I remember how this used to chill me as a kid in Scotland, listening to people preach and hearing them say, “O God, help us to hear your voice while it is still today, for we know that your Spirit will ‘not always strive with man.’”[20] And that is why, you see, loved ones, if you are convicted by the Spirit of God, and he shows you your sin, and he brings you to an end of yourself, and he points you to the wonder of the atoning death of Jesus Christ upon the cross, today is the day of salvation. Because you may never experience the reality of the convicting power of the Spirit of God in your life again. You can never presume upon it! So you cannot say, “Oh, well, once I graduate, once I get out of high school, once I finish my degree,” whatever it is, “I’ll deal with all of that then.” You never know what a day brings—either ushering us immediately into eternity or producing within our hearts absolute deadness of our souls.

Those who sit regularly under the sound of the gospel must face the fact that there are eternal consequences to hearing.

I, when I came to this church—without mentioning any names—encountered a whole host of people who encountered me. And in a group of young men who were present at that time in 1983, there was one who stood out as a ringleader. And he was a very vociferous character, and he would challenge me on this and address me on that, and he had a phase in this and a phase in that, but he was keen for the things of God, and he was keen to be around others who were keen for the things of God, and he wanted to encourage them along the journey. And then he began to fall away and to drift, and it appeared that he was a backslider and that we needed to pray for his restoration. And the last I heard of him, he was speaking in a Unitarian church in Shaker Heights, denying the truth of the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ.

So what you have here is a sorry description of individuals who at one time professed a knowledge of the gospel, experienced something of its influence, were identified with Christ, but who have now abandoned openly and totally their profession of Christian faith. It is vitally important you understand that. He is not here describing the occasional falling into sin, which is a description of the backslider. If you don’t understand “backslider,” go out and get a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress and read it. And you realize there how easy it is for us to get ourselves in By-path Meadow, to listen to the seducing voices of those around us, and to, instead of going wholeheartedly towards the goal, find that we’re slipping back.

He is not describing that experience. He is not describing the experience of Romans chapter 7, with which I can so readily identify: “The good that I want to do, I don’t do, and the bad that I don’t want to do—this I find myself doing.”[21] That is common Christian pilgrimage experience. These individuals whom he here describes have renounced Christianity altogether. They reject its ordinances, they openly deny its divine origin, they live in a habitual ungodliness, and they cry for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. That’s the description of the apostate. If the crucifixion of Christ were to take place today, they would be on the side of those who cried for Barabbas and cried out for his crucifixion.

Now, let me draw this to a close with a couple of thoughts. First of all, what then does this mean? Well, simply and strikingly, that individuals who return to sin with enthusiasm, who renounce their Christian profession, who display a total absence of remorse in doing so, and who continue in that way to the end of their lives were clearly, despite initial appearances, never truly born of God. They were those described in 1 John 2:19: “They went out from us, [because] they were not of us … if they had been of us, they would … have continued with us.”[22]

And the logic here, I think, is inescapable. If, as this sixth verse teaches, they openly proclaim Jesus to be an imposter and identify themselves with his crucifiers, then they were trampling underfoot the only hope of redemption. That’s why it says it’s impossible for them to come back to repentance. ’Cause the only way that they can come to repentance is on the strength of what God has provided as the means of repentance. And if they have trampled underfoot and kicked out as irrelevant all the means of repentance, they’re stuck.

Now, in verses 7 and 8, a little illustration from agriculture, and with this we finish. A striking little two-verse couplet: “Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it…” Those who sit regularly under the sound of the gospel must face the fact that there are eternal consequences to hearing. Although all may be present and hear the same Word, the result is not the same in each case. One field produces blessing, another field produces only thorns and thistles. One life produces a genuine response to the Word of God, and another life just allows it to pass by them.

That’s Matthew 7 again. The foolish man built his house upon the sand, and the wise man built his house upon the rock. And Jesus says, “Here’s the deal: both of these guys were hearing the Word, both of them were present in the same context, both of them determined that they would establish a building project on the strength of what they heard. But in one case, the guy’s house fell flat and was obliterated. And in the other case, it stood firm.” And what was the difference? Not that one heard and one didn’t. Not that one wanted to build and one didn’t, for they both heard and they both wanted to build. What was the difference? The man whose house stood firm was “the man who heard my word and put it into practice.”[23] And the other guy heard the Word, and as in Hebrews 4, did not combine it with faith,[24] and it was of no value to him at all.

Where in the world, loved ones, did we get this Christian gospel from that suggests to people that all they have to do is make a tacit intellectual response to certain truths which even demons believe, and then just go out and do what they want? So we’ve got thousands and thousands and probably millions of people all across evangelical Christianity, and the reason that they’ve no interest in going on with God, the reason they never read their Bibles, the reason they’re not involved in evangelism, the reason they’re not excited about worship, the reason they only attend sporadically, is because they’re not converted! They’ve been enlightened. They’ve had a wee taste. They kind of like what it offers. But no radical change. They’ve been dating, but they never fell in love. They’ve gone out for a few meals, but it never made them different. They may even have got the kind of paraphernalia that the professors have—the kind of book, and the Bible, and the leather binder, and the two handles, and the whole business. And they walk around. What a perilous position to be in! They enjoy the privilege of sitting regularly under the teaching of God’s Word, and they bear no fruit. They’re in a dangerous position.

Remember, Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches. If a branch remains in me, if a man or a woman remains in me, and I in them, they will bring forth much fruit. If they don’t remain in me, I’ll take the branch, I’ll cut it off, I’ll throw it away, and we’ll burn it.”[25] You say, “I don’t like the sound of that.” Well, what do you like the sound of? Easy believism? What do you like the sound of? Cheap grace? See, the real question at the end of the century is this: Are we gonna have the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, or are we gonna have the gospel of twentieth-century America? And they’re not the same thing.

What an unhappy experience for a farmer to work so hard and see such a meager result. What an unhappy experience for the pastor to work so hard and see such a meager result. What about the field of our lives this morning? You say, “Well, I don’t think I’m as fruitful as I ought to be.” Now, there you go. That’s good. I like that. ’Cause neither am I.

But that’s not the issue. The issue is not, Are you a walking botanical garden? The issue is, Are there some shoots? You know, when you sow the grass seed, and you get up every morning, and you look out, and it just looks like a pavement, morning after morning. And then, all of a sudden, you notice it, just a slight tinge. And you get down on your hands and knees, and you see these tiny, wee things. And you look at that, you say, “I don’t think this is ever going to be a lawn.” That’s how I feel, regularly, about my Christian life. One or two shoots here and there, and I say to myself, “I don’t know if this’ll ever be a lawn.” But I bless God for one or two shoots. ’Cause the apostate and the unbeliever are not even looking for shoots. They don’t care. They’ve ditched. They’re gone. You’re still here. What about your field?

Let me quote in conclusion from John Brown—again, of Haddington. He says,

It may be that some conscience-struck, Gospel-hardened sinners may be disposed to say, “What is to be done in our fearfully alarming circumstances? [We’ve just had ourselves described.] What must we do to be saved?”

Says Brown,

My answer is, Be in reality what you have so long professed to be. You have professed faith in Christ. [Well then,] “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and [you will] be saved.” [You] have professed repentance towards God. [Then] “Repent, and be converted, every one of you.” “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him [to return] to the Lord, and He will have mercy [up]on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.”[26]

While the apostate remains in open, willful, settled defiance, it is impossible for him or her to be reclaimed. That’s what the Bible says. But I want to notice in prospect of this evening this very important truth: that it is only as long as the individual remains in that settled, willful rejection of the means of repentance and faith. But if that individual should ever, like the Prodigal Son, come to their senses, then what would we say to them? Say, “Oh no! You’re an apostate! It is impossible for you to believe!” No, that would be the worst and most damning and most unbiblical response. Because it is only in the working of the Spirit of God that a man or a woman is wakened up to flee from wrath. And the Prodigal Son, as he partied and fooled around and left his father’s house and his brother and the whole operation, he never had a thought for any of that stuff. And in the pigsty of his life, “when he came to his senses,”[27] he said, “I will arise and I’ll go to my father, and I’ll say unto him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Just make me as a hired servant.’”[28]

It is only in the working of the Spirit of God that a man or a woman is wakened up to flee from wrath.

If no apostate ever was saved, it was on account of the fact that they chose to continue in their apostasy, not that they perished because they sought in vain the mercy of God through faith in Jesus Christ. So even with the stirring nature of the warning, there is about to come the compassionate and affectionate encouragement of the pastor’s heart in verse 9. And there is a sense in which you daren’t listen to this morning’s message without listening to the addendum that forms this evening—or at least to get the tape to close the circle of the instruction of God’s Word.

Let us bow together in prayer:

O God our Father, these are difficult verses, both to speak and to listen to. We pray that the main things may be really plain, and that the plainness of the call to repentance and faith may elicit the same in the lives of some that are present in this congregation even now. And that some of us who have slid into rebellion and disinterest may find that this flashing warning sign stirs us and returns us to the foot of the cross, so that we may not trample underfoot the offer of the gospel, but that we may bow down in penitence and in faith and receive your mercy. Stir our hearts in these days, we pray. We thank you for your Word. May it dwell in us richly. For Christ’s sake we ask it. Amen.

[1] Matthew 24:11–13 (NIV 1984).

[2] 2 Timothy 2:19 (paraphrased).

[3] John Brown, Hebrews (1862; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1994), 296.

[4] 1 Peter 1:3–5 (paraphrased).

[5] John 8:31–33 (NIV 1984).

[6] Mark 6:20 (KJV).

[7] See Mark 6:23–28.

[8] Matthew 4:16 (NIV 1984).

[9] 1 Peter 2:3 (paraphrased).

[10] See 1 Corinthians 13:1.

[11] Matthew 7:15 (NIV 1984).

[12] Matthew 7:21 (paraphrased).

[13] Matthew 7:21–23 (NIV 1984).

[14] See John 6:26–27.

[15] See John 6:66.

[16] John 6:67 (paraphrased).

[17] John 1:1 (NIV 1984).

[18] Luke 4:18 (paraphrased).

[19] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 124.

[20] Genesis 6:3 (KJV).

[21] Romans 7:19 (paraphrased).

[22] 1 John 2:19 (KJV).

[23] Matthew 7:24 (paraphrased).

[24] See Hebrews 4:2.

[25] John 15:5–6 (paraphrased).

[26] Brown, Hebrews, 304–5.

[27] Luke 15:17 (NIV 1984).

[28] Luke 15:18–19 (paraphrased).

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.