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