Eternal Security: McKnight on the Hebrews Warning Passages

To perform a detailed study of perseverance is to read and analyze numerous academic and theological works. Nearly every article or book written on the topic since 1992 contains a footnote referring to a  lengthy article by Scot McKnight that appeared in the Trinity Journal. McKnight is well known among blog readers as the author of numerous books and articles and for his blog JesusCreed.org. [Sadly moved to beliefnet and diminished by the transfer.] I am a great admirer of Mr. McKnight because he displays that rare combination of scholarly excellence and pastoral sensitivity. This article proposes a way of reading the Hebrews passages so as to address the fear or insecurity that many Christians experience when they are presented with 6:4-6 alone, as though it exists in a scriptural vacuum. His proposed methodology is familiar to any student of scripture; that is, all verses and passages must be examined in context. This context can extend from the surrounding sentences and paragraphs to the book as a whole and on toward the whole of the biblical story. McKnight proposes that the warning passages [2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; 12:1-29] must be read as an “organic whole” and not as unrelated texts in order to understand the message of the author of Hebrews.

In preparation for making his case, McKnight rehearses the four historical views that theologians have taken with regard to the Hebrews passages. They are:

  1. Hypothetical View: The passages are simply a warning against a sin that has not been committed, no can it be committed. This position rests upon the assumption that true believers cannot fall away.
  2. Phenomenological-False Believer View: The passages in view are real and the sin can be committed but, those who do commit the sin are not true believers.
  3. Phenomenological-True Believer: The passages warn against a sin that can be committed by true believers. Thus, the true believer can forfeit their eternal salvation.
  4. The Covenant Community View: This minority position states that those in view to whom the passages are directed are not Christians and refer to a community living outside of God’s will.

McKnight’s conclusion rests in the third category, the phenomenological-true believer who is able to commit the sin referred to and thus lose their salvation.

If it possible to lose one’s salvation, we must ask ourselves what sin or sins could place us in such peril. As we saw in earlier posts on the Arminian views (here and here), it is not a variety of sins or even backsliding that imperils a believer but it is the singular sin of apostasy that commits a believer to perdition. McKnight defines this as “a willful rejection of God and His Son, Jesus the Messiah, and open denunciation of God and ethical standards.” [His footnote is especially helpful: “When we think of this sin pragmatically (how it took, and takes, place), I do not mean to suggest that apostasy is always a single act of sin…it could also be the result of a progressive downward spiral into bad habits, attitudes, and dispositions toward God.”] This sin is not to be read as an accidental fall or momentary backslide; the reader is not to interpret momentary lapses in anger, lust, pride, etc. as threatening their ultimate condition. As referenced in 10:26 [ If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge…], the apostasy is deliberate and considered.

Scot arrives at his conclusions by reading synthetically, that is, reading all of the warning passages together in order to discover a common thread that might appear in each or to see whether each stands on its own with a separate message for unique audiences in each passage. A synthesis of the passages, he contends, provides the reader with a clear answer regarding the two prominent theological issues mentioned above: identifying the subjects of the warning and the sin that imperils. In form, each of the passages shares common elements that he lists as:

  1. The subjects or audiences
  2. The sin
  3. An exhortation to avoid the sin
  4. The consequences of not avoiding the temptation

By aligning these components in each of the passages we are able to better understand the intent of the author of Hebrews in extending the warnings. McKnight contends that in taking this approach we are better able to perform the necessary exegesis for theological conclusions and pastoral care.

Conclusion

McKnight’s article is an extensive commentary on the Hebrews warning passages that displays his dedication to the subject. His work is of value to the theologian and the pastor alike and should be required study for anyone engaged in a discussion of perseverance. His conclusion, already mentioned in detail above, is that the warnings are intended for true Christian believers and that they caution against the penultimate sin of apostasy. This position does not fit neatly into either the Calvinist or Arminian frameworks but he provides a quote that should be considered by those engaged in debating theological correctness:

I suspect that the expressions “losing one’s salvation” and “conditional salvation” are the most distasteful expressions used in the debated between Calvinists and Arminians. I also suspect that “losing one’s faith” is much more acceptable to the same palate since it seems  more congenial to religious affections and is consonant with what many of us have seen when someone deserts the faith.”

His conclusion from the same synthetic view of the entire Bible, and Hebrews specifically, is that the teaching of conditional salvation is the correct interpretation. Given this position, the perseverance of the believer hinges upon their continued faith in Christ. To apostatize is to of one’s own volition turn away from this faith publicly and definitely.

Though Scot’s contribution is a theological gold mine of great benefit to the community of faith, his sensitive encouragement to the assurance of a believer is especially welcome. Many Christians have anxiety over the possibility of losing their salvation to errant sin but understanding Hebrews in this way reminds the believer that their very concern is evidence that they have not turned away from the Savior. His long term view of salvation (the futurity of salvation) further says that salvation is a future event and thus, one cannot lose what one does not possess.

Source: Trinity Journal, Spring 1992, No. 13NS, pp. 21-59

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12 thoughts on “Eternal Security: McKnight on the Hebrews Warning Passages

  1. Good, thoughtful post, though I believe scripture is at odds with Mr. McKnight’s views outlined in #3. So if this is true, Christ’s blood and work on the cross can be negated by my sin? My will over the Father’s? How does this square against passages in John 10 and Phil. 1:6 that specifically address a believer’s security in the Father’s hand and Jesus’ intention to finish the work in the believer’s life? This cannot at all square with the Biblical teaching of the substitutionary death of Christ being sufficient once and for all, can it? I’ll be checking out Scot’s blog, too. Thanks, again for a thought provoking post (which I’m just now reading 3 weeks later!).
    David

  2. Great to hear from you David. A person will respond to McKnight and others who hold the same position based upon their view of election: whether it is conditional or unconditional. Scot begins his article by pointing out the overwhelming scripturally testimony to the need for humans to believe in order for God’s gracious offer of salvation to take effect. If the Christian has chosen to believe and has received the regeneration of the heart that accompanies it, it follows that some may willfully and completely turn away from that saving offer as well. This does not diminish the blood of the savior who made the offer possible in the first place. Nor does it mean that the daily sin that occurs in our lives (hopefully to a lesser and lesser degree!) negate our salvation. John 10, etc. still apply because as we continue to abide in Christ, He alone will continue His work in us, keeping us until our moment of glorification. God bless brother.

  3. Powerful and helpful thoughts. I’m one of those “X Generation” Christians who feel/felt a little insecure about the Hebrews warning passages due to some sex-related sins, and posts like this help. Thanks, Andras (Hungary)

  4. I’ve been studying the Calvinist and Arminian views on “perseverance of the saints” and I have concluded that the Calvinist view virtually eliminates a person’s free will when it comes to the possibility of the truly saved person’s ability to choose to become apostate, reject Christ and turn from the faith. So, it would follow that under the Calvinist position, the truly saved Christian no longer has what might be described as free will, but instead , has a will that is “limited” in scope, does it not? I find no reference in the Scriptures that support such a modification of free will taking place after one becomes truly saved.

    I also find support for the position that remaining in a state of apostasy will result in the loss of one’s salvation. This apostate lifestyle is of course, in contrast to either a Christian’s “momentary” sins of commission or those of omission, both types of which we are all guilty. Thank God for the safe harbor in 1 John 1:9.

  5. Norman Geisler says that the Heb passages are not for unbelievers; ‘beloved’, dear friends 6:9. There is no loss of salvation here, rather it is a loss of maturity 6:1, growth 5:13-14
    In particular Heb 10:26-29 suggest a loss not of salvation but of rewards. They are God’ people, richly rewarded, have a better and lasting possession, possess the light, have a knowledge of the truth, do the will of God, they had the Spirit of Grace to insult.

    They have a fearful expectation of judgement ICor 3:13-14; II Cor 5:10.
    They are believers who will experience death without forgiveness I Cor 11:30; I John 5:16
    They are believers who have “no sacrifice for sins is left” Heb 10:26

    I am not a follower of Geisler’s teaching but here is an interesting perspective.

  6. Charles – Geisler tends to walk a middle line in his perspectives and this would be no different. I concur with McKnight in the need to read the epistle as a whole rather than pulling individual proof texts out of context.

  7. Jim – thanks for commenting. The Calvinist would not be able to envision a true believer becoming apostate since it would be logically impossible given the theological framework.

    I don’t think we can find the removal of the free will either in Scriptures. If that were the case, the repeated calls to believe that we encounter throughout the Bible would be a fruitless demand.

    God Bless

  8. Hey Charles,

    I think Geislers position is very weak. I have written several posts on Hebrews which you might find interesting (even if you disagree), and maybe even helpful. I personally agree with McKnight’s interpretation and believe that theri are other Scriptures elsewhere that confirm and complement McKnight’s conclusions in Hebrews.

    Hebrews 6:4-9

    Hebrews 10:26-30

    Who is Sanctified in Hebrews 10:29?

    What Kind of Sanctification is Being Described in Hebrews 10:29?

    Hebrews 10:32-39

    God Bless,
    Ben

  9. My brothers, please consider my view. It is important to distinguish who the warning of Hebrews 6: 4-6 is addresed to and who it is about. These are two different questions. It is addressed to those in whom the writer is confident of their salvation (v. 9). However, the warning is about an apostate. Those whom the blessings of the gospel has fallen upon without bearing fruit (v.8). Although the writer is confident of their salvation, he is not presumptous, but fears that some of them will not continue to persevere and show themselves to be an apostate (4:1). Thus, he uses the example of what the end will be of an apostate to exhort them not to become lazy (6:11-12), but to “make every effort to make their calling election sure” as Peter exhorts (1 Peter 1: 10). Yes, I believe scripture soundly teaches that God’s elect will believe and will persevere to the end because of His Sovereign work that He starts and finishes. Yet, “the secret things belong to God but what is revealed is for you and your children forever (Deuteronomy 29: 29). Absolute knowledge of who God’s elect is belongs to God. Yet, in His grace His Spirit gives us assurance in accordance with obedience to His commands (1 John 2:3) which stem from faith in the Lord Jesus. I can admit that my faith and thus my assurance is not perfect. Yet may I strive to know the Lord Jesus more and more each day and experience more and more the wonderful peace that only he can give. Being rescued from a life of bitterness and anger, I have experienced enough of His peace to have a burning desire to share it with the world. My prayer is also that I present a balanced view of eternal security that the church can unite around and thus be a testimony to the world (John 17:23.) I am open to any critiques.

  10. THE BIBLE DOES NOT ALWAYS EXHAUSTIVELY COVER EVERY SUBJECT.OUR HUMAN MINDS COULD NOT ABSORB IT ALL.HOWEVER THE BOOK OF REVELATION TELLS US THAT THE FUTURE IS ALREADY HISTORY. THERE IS A FUTURE YOU AND ME. WE ARE ALREADY IN ETERNITY.TIME FLOWS IN ONE DIRECTION AND INTERSECTS AT ALL POINTS. TIME IS BORDERED ON BOTH SIDES BY ETERNITY AND GOD CONTROLS EVERY SEGMENT OF IT. TIME IS A LOCATION NOT JUST A CONCEPT.IT FOLLOWS GODS WILL PERFECTLY.PREDESTINATION,YOU BETCHA.WERE ALREADY IN HEAVEN. WERE ONLY WAITING FOR OUR TIME TO INTERSECT WITH ETERNITY.

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