Pastor Mark Musser has written a unique commentary on the warning passages of the epistle to the Hebrews called “Wrath or Rest: Saints in the Hands of an Angry God (see Mark’s “Wrath or Rest” webpage on his personal website at www.rmarkmusser.com). Hebrews is one of the most difficult books in all of the New Testament to interpret precisely because it contains five most serious warnings that have taxed Bible commentators and pastors for many centuries. Does Hebrews warn its readers they can lose their salvation? Or does Hebrews demonstrate who is really saved and who is not through the perseverance of the saints, i.e., that those who listen to the warnings show themselves true believers while those who do not were never saved in the first place? Or is there another alternative somewhere in between the classic Arminian and Calvinist views on the subject?
The book of Hebrews is Mark’s favorite book in the New Testament. His strong interest over the Hebrews’ warning passages were instilled in him by Dr. Duane Dunham (now retired), his Greek professor during his seminary days at Western Conservative Baptist Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Though a strong five-point Calvinist, Dr. Dunham (who wrote his doctoral dissertation for Grace Theological Seminary on the warning passages of Hebrews) did not hold to the typical perseverance of the saints’ approach to Hebrews precisely because the warnings are clearly directed against believers throughout the entire book. While Dunham points out that what is at stake is not the perseverance of the saints, but rather sanctification in general, Mark approaches the warning passages from a slightly different point of view. While still borrowing much from Dunham’s seminal work, Mark points out the divine injunction to persevere in the faith in Hebrews (Hebrews 4:1-13; 6:9-12; 10:32-39) is not to gain heaven or ultimate salvation (as those who hold to the perseverance of the saints teach) but to inherit eternal reward based on faith obedience (Hebrews 3:7-4:13).
At the conclusion of his book, Mark compares the warnings of 1st Corinthians with Hebrews since both books contain five warnings. The longest warning in both books also revolve around the failure of the Exodus generation (Hebrews 3-4; 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:13) to inherit God’s rest or prize. The only difference is that 1st Corinthians deals with Gentile sins while Hebrews deals with Jewish sins. The author of Hebrews therefore uses the term “rest” for his Jewish audience rooted in the historicity of the Exodus generation relative to the forfeited abundant blessings of the promised-land of Israel, while Paul uses the term “reward” and “prize” for his Gentile audience (1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 9:24-27), borrowing from the Olympic games and other sports events in the Greco-Roman world when athletes were sometimes disqualified.
While the title “Wrath or Rest” sounds ominous indeed, “wrath” in Hebrews is not a technical term implying ultimate judgment against unbelievers and their subsequent abandonment in Hell that is a common feature in Paul’s epistles in the New Testament. In Hebrews, “wrath” is much more general term derived from Israel’s history in the Old Testament where it simply means God’s anger against sin. In particular, its meaning derives from the historicity of the Exodus generation where God wrathfully sentenced them to die in the wilderness (Psalm 78:12-53; 95:1-7; Hebrews 3:7-4:3), not from the Pauline corpus of New Testament books that details God’s ultimate judgment against an unbelieving world that is seen in Romans and 2 Thessalonians, or even in the book of Revelation. “Wrath” in Hebrews means severe divine discipline. Even though countless passages refer to the fact the Exodus generation was redeemed out of the Egypt, yet just as many verses refer to their failure to enter God’s rest of great blessing and abundance in the promised land because of faithless disobedience.
Yet, even though God sentenced them to die in the wilderness through a wasted 40 years of wandering, He still forgave them (Numbers 14; Psalm 78), and never abandoned or forsook them, but took care of them for those same 40 years (Nehemiah 9:9-21). As such, neither can the author of Hebrews be warning the recipients of the letter about the unpardonable sin that all too many have presupposed precisely because God did pardon them. God was only angry with the Exodus generation for 40 years (Hebrews 3:17-19), not all of eternity. This also strongly suggests that God’s forgiveness toward the disobedience of the Exodus generation means that not all punishment or divine discipline was completely removed as God did indeed sentence them to die in the desert without any rest or reward. Though redeemed, they were still disqualified from the prize of entering God’s so great Sabbath Rest.
THE EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS’ BIBLE WORKSHOPS
Mark has designed a special curriculum on the book of Hebrews that can be taught anywhere, anytime with proper planning. This curriculum was already taught in both Baryshivka, Ukraine and then also in Olympia, Washington at Grace Redeemer Bible Church. More Bible workshops are being planned as people invite us to help them plow through what the author of Hebrews calls, “a word of exhortation (Hebrews 13:22).”
Hebrews 1-9 Baryshivka, Ukraine – October 2015
Hebrews 1-9 Olympia – Christmas 2015
WRATH OR REST:
SAINTS IN THE HANDS OF AN ANGRY GOD
The Pun on the Perseverance of the Saints
The most famous sermon in North American colonial history was delivered by Jonathan Edwards, perhaps the greatest American theologian of all time. The title of his well-known sermon was, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” Although this sermon was delivered in a church setting, with great interest and very consistent with Calvinistic views on perseverance, he presumed the many of his congregation were not saved. As such, he warned many people in his congregation about the dangers of hellfire. The title therefore, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God,” reflects how Calvinists characteristically use the church to warn sinners who really do not comprise the church, a somewhat odd state of affairs. In other words, in this very graphic sermon, Jonathan Edwards was not warning saints in his church, but sinners who were outside the church, though they attended the church. He was sure that a very large part of his congregation was unsaved.
In colonial days however, this should not be surprising. Going to church was something that the American colonialists simply did even though they were not necessarily Christians. It was a way of life due largely to the fact that cultural religious peer pressure was very strong. Under such conditions, religious nominalism actually flourished. This in turn left colonial churches with a religious cultural moralism, sometimes even associated with deistic views, rather than with a genuine supernatural spiritual life. This was especially true with regard to Jonathan Edward’s church. Jonathan Edwards inherited a church which believed that participation in the Lord’s Supper was a means by which God imparts saving grace. The church also followed the Congregationalist tradition in New England of the Half-Way Covenant where they practiced infant baptism, even if the parents were unbelievers. In addition to this, Half-Way Covenant churches also allowed both believers and unbelievers to participate in the Lord’s Supper. As such, these types of church traditions were largely responsible for creating and promoting a nominal Christian atmosphere wherein pews were filled with believer and unbeliever alike. Thus Jonathan Edwards preached fire and brimstone messages to his church to awaken the spiritual slumber of those who were regular parishioners, but very nominal in their faith.
While this certainly was a real problem in colonial churches, and is also very evident today as well, it also reflects an attitude which Calvinists have typically foisted upon the New Testament church. The nominal faith atmosphere of Colonial America is far removed from the beginning of the New Testament church. In turn, this has clouded their interpretation of the New Testament in general, especially with regard to the warning passages. When Jonathan Edwards and other Puritan Calvinists interpreted the New Testament, they always assume that there were many people in the New Testament church who were not saved, exactly like the churches of their own day. In short, they presume the religious cultural problems of their own day, i.e., that since churches were full of a mixed multitude of believers and unbelievers, this must have also been true of the early New Testament church as well. This, of course, is not a good starting point for exegesis. Current human religious experience becomes the basis for interpreting Scripture rather than the other way around. In this way, the behavior of nominal Christians of their own day leads to a rather peculiar understanding of the warning passages of the New Testament. Sola Scriptura, the hallmark of the Reformed faith, has been left behind because of the present activities of nominal Christians. Worse, nominal Christian experiences became the basis upon which the word of God was interpreted, rather than the text itself. In a word, in the same way that bad cases make bad laws, so bad experiences make bad interpretations.
This has actually led to dubious exegesis on the part of many a Calvinist. Warnings in the New Testament, most notably in the book of Hebrews, and most especially in Hebrews 6, are acutely misinterpreted. While nominalism is certainly an important issue to grapple with in any church, the book of Hebrews was not written to warn so-called nominal believers, but saints who had experienced a once for all conversion (3:1-4:13; 6:1-8; 10:10-31). More to the point, in typical Calvinistic interpretation, even other warnings in the New Testament, which are clearly directed against believers, are conveniently redirected and become leveled against unbelievers instead. Thus almost every time a most serious warning shows up on the pages of the New Testament, the nominal Christian is plucked out of the proverbial hat, even though the New Testament letters have very little to say about such people. Paul and other New Testament authors wrote to the saints, not to professing saints. In fact, the only place where Paul clearly talks about nominal Christians is in 2 Timothy, and even there, he stays out of the arena of judgment, “The Lord knows who are His (2 Tim 2:19).” While Paul clearly delineates in this passage that, “Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness,” he does enter judgment to determine whether people under Timothy’s care are unsaved or not. This Paul clearly leaves in the hands of the Lord. Moreover, throughout the New Testament, Paul gives his congregations the benefit of the doubt with regard to their salvation. As such, he simply warns them as Christians, not as fakes who have a strange ill-defined inadequate faith of some sort. These kinds of discussions simply do not exist on the pages of the New Testament, and one will search in vain looking for passages where authors of Scripture assume that many people in their churches were unsaved. The fact of the matter is that the warnings passages found in the New Testament, especially in Hebrews, are directed against the saints, not to professing unbelievers.
“Saints in the hands of an angry God” is far more synonymous with New Testament teaching than “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” As such, this teaching needs to be revived in the modern church, especially in an age where warning and seriousness is almost always disparaged as something out of touch with the hearts of people, and out of touch with the psychological spirit of the age. With great irony, Calvinists themselves, who are suppose to be known for their spiritual discipline, have played a large role in contributing to the present sloth of modern churches for the simple reason that they never really warn Christians. In essence, New Testament warnings are simply dropped in favor of their pet doctrine, the perseverance of the saints. The so-called real saints are never warned therefore, because of course, real saints are incapable of committing the kinds of continual sins which merit God’s wrath. So-called “real” Christians thus go on with their spiritual lives without ever really getting warned, assuming that these warnings are for unbelievers, rather than for themselves. As such, application of these warnings are sorely lacking in the modern church. The result is that a spiritual indolence has replaced sharp spiritual thinking.
In fact, Calvinism has yet to counter the Catholic and Arminian charge that their once saved, always saved teaching leads to antinomian behavior. Their doctrine of the perseverance of the saints only has confused the issue further, which has resulted in less and less application of these warnings into the church over the last several centuries. How can one teach eternal security and yet still warn the saints? How can one give comfort to the Christian, and yet at the same time warn him of abusing that same comfort? The perseverance of the saints is an inadequate doctrine to handle this most acute problem. By placing the onus on the unbeliever rather than upon the believer, they have essentially created an easy free atmosphere in the church where serious warning is seldom a topic of discussion anymore. Christians simply assume that this or that particular warning is for someone else. After all, all real Christians persevere. The fact of the matter is that the perseverance of the saints is a pat theological answer to very difficult questions and problems that should have been discarded long ago. While it is good that the Calvinism brought back to the church grace concepts like eternal security, it has come with a hidden cost that real Christians never get warned. Ministers of the word of God must learn to teach eternal security and warn the saints about taking advantage of this great privilege at the same time. This is a most difficult balancing act which few seem to really appreciate today. In the end, the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints actually removes the pressure of this tightrope walking.
Such luxury, the sacred writer of the epistle to the Hebrews never entertains. The author of Hebrews knows how to walk a theological tightrope, comforting his readers with eternal security (7:25-28; 10:10-14; 12:22), yet at the same time severely warning them of their spiritual indolence (2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 6:1-8; 10:19-39; 12:4-29). And this the author of Hebrews does very carefully, using the sure history of the Old Testament as a basis for his New Testament doctrines about salvation and warning. The author of Hebrews extensively uses Old Testament historical types throughout his book to exhort and warn his readers, and he most assuredly does not use the doctrine of the inevitable perseverance of the saints to straighten out his readers.
In the book of Hebrews, New Testament interpreters must be far more sensitive to the history of the Old Testament than they are to their textbook theology answers. The historicity of the Exodus generation, the person of Melchizedek, and Esau go a long way in explaining the great difficulties and perplexities of the book of Hebrews. The negative example of the Exodus generation shows how God judges a saved people with loss of inheritance rest, not loss of salvation. From Genesis 14, from the authority of the Pentateuch itself, the historical existence of the king-priest Melchizedek demonstrates there is another authoritative priestly line, not derived from the Mosaic Law, which is not only before the Levitical priesthood, but also superior to it. The author then builds his case throughout Hebrews 7 showing how Melchizedek is clearly a historical type of Christ, and as such, foreshadows a future priesthood far above the earthly Levitical priesthood.
By putting together both Genesis 14 and Psalm 110, the sacred writer strongly asserts to his Jewish audience that they should have expected and known that there would be another priestly Messianic line superior to their Old Covenant priesthood, i.e., the Melchizedekian line, and that this superior priesthood would also entail a change of covenants from the old to the new (Hebews 8). The sacred writer then shows that this decisive change of covenants is based upon the one time offering of Jesus Christ on the cross (Hebrews 9-10). The offering of the Melchizedekian priest, therefore, is a decisive sacrifice which has irreversible consequences, that the Hebrew readers can only ignore at their peril (10:26-31). The historical type of Esau is then used at the end of the book as the final example of warning. Esau forfeited his first-born inheritance rights through disobedience, but this does not mean that he stopped being a son of Isaac, or a brother to Jacob. Thus again, like the Exodus generation after him, the example of Esau shows how it is possible to be in the family of God, and yet lose inheritance rights because of divine discipline, the great thrust of Hebrews 12. These historical types certainly go a long way in illustrating the distinctive doctrines of the book of Hebrews by placing controls on how Hebrews is to be interpreted. The historicity of these examples limits the Hebrew warning passages to mean severe divine discipline, rather than the perseverance of the saints, or hellfire or loss of salvation.
 Deism was fairly strong in colonial America at this time. Deists like Benjamin Franklin attended church regularly for moral purposes, but rejected the supernaturalism of the Bible.
“The Pun of the Perseverance of the Saints” is an excerpt from Mark’s book, Wrath or Rest. Copyright 2010 by R. Mark Musser
Permission is herewith given to copy and distribute by electronic or physical means as long as it is not sold – the copyright notice is included and credits are given to the author.