Avoiding a Spirit of Lethargy (Part 1)

Do I have what it takes? It’s a question that all of us have asked ourselves. Some of you ask it every day. Do I have what it takes to succeed in this life? What if I don’t? What would they say about me? The pressure of the question can be so great that some of us are tempted to fail out of the gate--to undermine our own efforts before we even start. So often those who care the most about success make the least effort.

There is a sort of relief in lethargy, if you don’t strive, you can avoid the pain of failure, you can avoid acute sting of both effort and unmet expectations. The sluggish are often tempted write their own autobiographies with inaction, inertia, and ineptitude.

The letter to the Hebrews is written to a church struggling with a spirit of lethargy. They seem to have settled into a sort of deliberate immaturity that was marked by a thin experience of the glory of God in general, and a thin experience of the glory of Christ in particular. Having received the gospel with faith, the audience of the letter had, collectively it seems, opted for a sustained state of spiritual infancy, nourishing themselves with the equivalent of theological pablum, not because they did not have the intellectual capacity to delve into the deeper teaching of Scripture (Heb 5:13-14) but they lacked the confidence in the Spirit to receive the “solid food” of God’s revelation about himself.

The author of the letter, though unnamed, is clearly acquainted with the teaching of the apostles. Some have speculated that he is Paul himself. Apollos is another candidate. My professor and colleague at RTS Orlando Dr. Charles Hill argues convincingly that the clues the author leaves us lead to Silas/Silvanus who would have preached with Paul and Timothy (2 Corinthians 1:19) and co-wrote with them the two letters to the Thessalonians. Ultimately, however, these arguments rely on circumstantial evidence from the letter and they are not crucial to our interpretation.

What we can say is that the author encourages the lethargic church to whom he is writing with an strong robust theology of Jesus Christ. In the face of their spiritual immaturity, the author gives them a grand, deeply exegetical, portrait of the Son of God, the High Priest, the ultimate prophet, the messianic King Jesus.

The whole letter is fundamentally a Christological tract.

I would argue that this passage is not primarily a warning passage but an encouragement passage. It is not written as a warning of a danger to be avoided, but rather comparison that is meant to encourage the church in Christ.

What About Those Who Fall Away?

Perhaps understandably, whenever this passage is read, the focus immediately goes to the individuals who fall away from the believing community. What are we to make of these individuals described in vv. 4-5? These people who experience some real, unique blessings of the gospel but ultimately turn away from Christ.

First of all, we can confidently say that this book does not teach that salvation can be gained and lost. Rather throughout the letter, the author makes it clear that any who have faith will endure until the end. Here are a few:

  • Heb 3:6 "And we are his house (the house of God) if we hold fast our confidence and pride in our hope."
  • Heb 3:14 "For we share in Christ, if we hold our first confidence (substance) firm to the end."
  • Heb 10:39 “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls”.

The author presents faith and perseverance as inextricably connected. Saving faith is an enduring faith, not a deserting faith. No one who has faith, who shares in Christ, will fall away from him. They may struggle, they may fail, just as every apostle, every father of the church, and every renowned saint stumbled; but over the course of their lives they will reflect the divinely ordained and empowered perseverance that can only spring from true belief. If and when they falter, they will be disciplined by God, the loving Father who cares for and raises up his children in the faith (Heb 12:3-11). This is the experience of every believer in Jesus Christ.

Because saving faith is enduring faith, those in Christ can be confident that God’s word is never condemnatory towards them. It is always loving nurture, because every believer is united by faith with a resurrected and glorified Christ.

As a result, every Christian life is ultimately a comedy and not a tragedy.

Blessings Due to Proximity to the Covenant Community

But clearly, these individuals in vv. 4-5 experienced some measure of blessings. Look at how they are described.

They are described as enlightened. This is strong language used elsewhere to describe those who receive and understand the gospel message. Some scholars have suggested that this term may refer to baptism, though that use for this word is notably later then the letter itself.

They are described as having tasted the heavenly gift of redemption, perceived its glory and blessing for those who receive it in faith. They have shared in the Holy Spirit, possibly also a reference to the sacrament of Lord’s Supper, and they have tasted or experienced in some way the good news of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.

This description seems to include all of the outward blessings of participation in the covenant community. Blessings that seem to have been received with some measure of enjoyment and appreciation by these individuals. They have experienced what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “Life Together” in the covenant community.

Here is the bad news. Those who enjoy such an experience and then fall into a sustained, permanent apostasy cannot be recovered to the gospel by repentance. They have no interest in it. They go to their graves without looking back to the cross of Christ. This does not mean that we aren’t mean to to coax friends back to the faith (see for instance, James 5:19) We cannot know infallibly those who can repent from those who cannot.

What Is the Problem?

So what’s the problem for them. It is not the blessings they receive. It is not that they were enlightened by the wrong gospel. The author gives us no impression that they tasted an errant heavenly gift, nor did they share in a false Spirit. Rather like those unbelieving Israelites who left Egypt in exile only to be swallowed up in the wilderness, these believers are enjoying true but temporal blessings of the covenant by their proximity to the covenant community.

But the problem is the state of their hearts. The author of Hebrews uses a common biblical agrarian image to describe the two different members of the church: some are like soil that receives these blessings and produces a good harvest of faith. Some are like soil that receives these blessings and produces a harvest of thorns, of unbelief. This is a very similar image to the one used by Isaiah in Isaiah 5 to describe the unbelievers in Israel leading up to the Exile, and it is also similar to Christ’s parable of the sower in Matthew 13.

In each of these cases, the image of the soil is used to describe the heart of the hearer of the gospel. Those who are elect and regenerate respond with faith and the fruit of faith. Their soil bears produce. Those who are not, while receiving the same outward blessings, respond with unbelief and the fruit of unbelief which is rebellion. Their soil makes only brambles.

Anyone acquainted with Christian community will have stories about those who for a time received the gospel with joy, only to later fade away from worship and the community. Sometimes they take a few people with them.

We ask ourselves: did they have faith? Did they truly believe? For the author of Hebrews, the proof is in the harvest. Did they bear the fruit of repentance or the fruit of rebellion. Those are the only two options; there is no option C. Christ is either the odor of life or the odor of death, and the gospel only allows for two responses: repentance or rebellion.

Scott Redd