SERMON: “The Danger of Falling Away From Christ” 「キリストを離れる危険」
TEXT: Heb. 6:4-12
Do you know anyone who was once an earnest Christian, but now shows no interest in living a devoted Christian life? Jesus mentioned such people in His parable of the Sower in Matthew 13:20-22. He said, “The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.” In this parable are two types of people who hear the gospel and respond well for a while, but ultimately fall away and do not bear fruit. They are people who seem to be Christians, but they do not continue in their Christian faith. Some, in fact, renounce Christ publicly and turn against their former Christian brothers and sisters. Do you know people who have done this? It is a terribly sad and painful reality that Christians must face. When someone—maybe even a dear friend or family member–turns away from following Christ, we want to do everything possible to bring them back. But what can we do? What should we do? This is the problem the letter to the Hebrews addresses here in chapter 6. Let’s look more closely at the condition of those who have “fallen away” and then consider what our Christian response should be.
II. THOSE WHO HAVE FALLEN AWAY FROM CHRIST (6:4-8)
In the previous verses Hebrews has urged all Christians to press on to maturity, “not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death” (6:1). But in vv. 4-8, we are told that repentance must always continue to be the solid foundation of true Christian faith and life. It is repentance that leads us to seek the Savior Jesus Christ. Until a person truly repents from the heart, he is not conscious of the reality of his sinful, helpless condition before God. Until a person repents, he usually thinks that he can solve his own problems and make compensation for his own errors and evil deeds. It is repentance that brings a “change of heart”; in fact, “change of heart” is the meaning of the word “repentance” in Greek (metanoia). The WSC answer to Question #87 says, “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.” The main point in this excellent description of repentance is that it is a turning away from sin, and turning toward God. In other words, repentance is a fundamental change of heart. Every person who becomes a true Christian experiences this fundamental change of heart. The experience of true repentance shows us that we cannot rely on our own strength or goodness to satisfy the requirements of a holy God. This is the way the word repentance is used here in v. 1 (the Japanese reads「回心」) and in v. 6. I think this is what Jesus meant when He preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Repentance is an attitude of the heart that recognizes its sinfulness and need of redemption. And repentance is necessary for saving faith; because only when we are fully conscious of our own sinfulness will we entrust our lives to the care of our Redeemer Jesus Christ.
For this reason, what Hebrews tells us in vv. 4-8 is extremely important! It says emphatically that when people have “fallen away” from Christian faith, it is “impossible to renew them again to repentance.” In fact, the first word in the Greek sentence that begins in v. 4 and ends in v. 6 is the word meaning “It is impossible.” This is a powerful warning against falling away from your Christian faith, because, if you do, you will not be given a second opportunity to repent! We must be careful to distinguish what Hebrews says about repentance and what the Bible tells us elsewhere about confessing our sins and seeking forgiveness. For example, Jesus taught His disciples to pray, saying, “Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:11-12). Just as we pray for our daily bread, we should pray daily confessing our sins, or “debts,” to God and seeking His forgiveness. Repentance is the attitude of heart that recognizes our sinfulness and daily need of forgiveness. If anyone falls away from Christ, it is because he no longer thinks he needs the forgiveness and the redemption that our Savior provides. In that case, Hebrews tells us, it is impossible to restore them to repentance.
In the early centuries of the Christian Church, there were certain sects (such as the Novatians and Montanists) that claimed that baptized Christians who denied their faith in order to escape persecution could never be forgiven. Even when they repented with tears and begged for forgiveness, some of those churches refused to restore their membership. This passage in Hebrews was sometimes used to support their strict view of church discipline. If repentance was only permitted once—at the time of one’s conversion, then any sins committed after that time could not be forgiven, they reasoned. Therefore, profession of faith and baptism was sometimes put off for many years, even until the very end of life, by some of the most godly saints. Others argued that the blood of martyrdom could pay for one’s sins, so some earnest believers sought to be martyred for their faith, to ensure they would not have sins to carry with them into the next life.
There is reason to believe, however, that Hebrews is not speaking about the confession and forgiveness of “ordinary” sins in this passage. Notice the striking contrast between vv. 4-5 and vv. 6-8. Verses 4-5 show us some of the privileges and graces which those who have now “fallen away” from Christ had earlier experienced. I won’t try to explain right now what all of these expressions refer to. But it is clear that those who have fallen away were once loved and respected as full partners in the richness of the Christian life. They had enjoyed so many of the graces of God through the Lord Jesus, the ministry of the Word, the sacraments, and the power of the Holy Spirit. But in spite of all these blessings, they had fallen away. And now, they are living openly in sin with no remorse. And worse, they are shamelessly opposing the Savior they once had followed. “To their loss,” Hebrews says, “they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” In other words, those who have fallen away are now living in active hostility to the Lord Jesus Christ and His kingdom. And they do not care that they are causing the name of Jesus Christ to be blasphemed.
The next two verses (vv. 7-8) show another contrast. This time the contrast is between the faithful Christians who continue to serve God and those who have now fallen away. The metaphor is similar to Jesus’ parable of the Sower and the soils. Verse 7 describes how faithful believers receive God’s grace—like “Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it.” That is the land “that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed” and, therefore, “receives the blessing of God.” Verse 8 shows the unavoidable consequence for those who have fallen away, because they have not brought forth the “fruit” that God desired. “But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.” It seems clear from this parable that those who have fallen away have not merely “fallen into sin,” no matter how serious that sin might be. Rather, these people have boldly renounced their faith and the Savior they had once professed. Hebrews tells us that it is “impossible” to bring such “former Christians” back to repentance and, therefore, to salvation. In that case, how should Christians treat such former members of their church?
III. HOW CHRISTIANS SHOULD RESPOND TO MEMBERS WHO HAVE FALLEN AWAY (6:9-12)
The verses we have just looked at contain a warning about the danger of falling away from one’s Christian faith, but I think the central message is not for those who are in danger of leaving. I think the main message of today’s passage is for the faithful brothers and sisters who remain in Christ’s Church. It is a message of encouragement and comfort. Notice how tenderly the author addresses his audience in v. 9: “Dear friends, even though we speak like this, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation.” Furthermore, these faithful members of the Christian body should not feel that they have been “rebuked” for the way they have responded to those who have fallen away. They have naturally felt deep sorrow and concern for those who have left. Perhaps they have labored strenuously to try to restore those who have fallen away. But nothing has proven effective. They have failed to restore those who have fallen away. This letter to these beloved Hebrew Christians tells them that they should not blame themselves. No one could have renewed such people to true repentance and salvation. Because “it is impossible” for those who have been so blessed–and yet have fallen away—“to be brought back to repentance.” These words are spoken gently, I think, to comfort the hearts of faithful brothers and sisters who have been unable to persuade their former church members to return to Christ.
Even if these faithful Christians have erred in judgment, because they did not realize the serious finality of the sin of apostasy, they are commended for their zeal in trying to restore “straying sheep” to the fold. We remember how the apostle Paul had grieved, “for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica” (2 Tim. 4:10), and how disappointed he was at the loss of his friends “Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth” (2 Tim. 2:17-18). Yet the apostle urged Timothy, “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” Likewise, James concludes his letter with this word of encouragement: “My brothers, if any among you strays from the truth, and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins” (Jas. 5:19-20).
The writer of this letter to the Hebrews shares the same loving concern that we hear in the words of Paul and James. It is good and necessary for Christians to do everything in their power to persuade fallen sinners to return to the faith and hope they once professed. As we read in Hebrews 6: 10, “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.” These are not words of harsh rebuke for failing to exercise proper discipline. Rather, they are words of exhortation to encourage the church to diligently pursue confused and straying members, so that they may be led back to the safety of Christ’s church family. Certainly, we will not always be successful. Sometimes we will be wasting our time and energy by our endeavors to restore the lost. We do not know the hearts of one another in the church. But God knows us. And He does not forget our work and our love as we try to help one another remain faithful to our Lord and Savior. This, too, is God’s word to his church in Hebrews 6:11-12: “We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.”
As we conclude our examination of this passage, let’s remember the practical encouragement given to all faithful Christians. First of all, let’s remember how precious is the gift of repentance that God freely bestows upon whomever he wishes. It is repentance that opens our eyes to the futility of our own works and the misery of our fallen, sinful condition. It is repentance that opens our heart to seek and receive the Savior Jesus Christ.
Second, let’s remember the law of love that must guide everything that we say and do in Christ’s church. If we love one another we will try to help and encourage one another. We will not remain silent when we see sinful attitudes and behaviors in the church. But we will “speak the truth in love” as we gently try to turn a fellow sinner from the error of his way (James 5:20). Words and wisdom may fail to help, but love never fails.
Therefore, thirdly, let’s pray for one another that the Spirit of God will give us the love and the courage to do this. Please remember to pray for the two of us who serve as elders, so that we will be faithful as shepherds, and not become lazy or timid. And let’s pray for one another, that the Lord will hold us together in the safety of his grace and power. Pray that the Lord Jesus will build up His church to glorify His name!