Avoiding a Spirit of Lethargy (Part 2)
The previous post in this two-part series began with the problem of spiritual lethargy which led us to the passage in Heb 6:1-12, a passage that is written for the expressed purpose that it would help against spiritually lethargy (v.12).
One might raise the question of how. How does it work? How does this passage about members of the church falling away from the faith help those who experience depressed spirituality? “So you are feeling down. Here, let’s think about everyone your ministry has failed, everyone upon whom your gospel has had no effect.” How was the audience possibly to be benefitted?
For one, it no doubt accurately describes the experience of the Christians to whom the letter is addressed. Like us, they had seen members of the church fall away from the faith, they had wondered what that meant for those people. How were they to understand their friends who once seemed so passionate, so “sold-out” for Christ, but who now seem to want nothing to do with the gospel. Well, says the author of the letter, the problem was not in the gospel but in the lack of sincere faith (see the previous post).
Persistence in the Faith
Secondly, this passage is meant as an encouragement to those who have persisted in the faith. The author of the letter changes his tone in v.9 when he says,
Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.
He is saying, “Yes, I know that these people have fallen away from the Christ, but I am writing to you because you are not them.” He knows that his teaching will benefit them because they are the ones who receive it in faith. They do not need to fear the kind of failure that they see in the apostate believers if they are living lives marked by true faith and repentance. As the Psalmist writes, “God knows the way of the righteous,” (Ps 1:6) and they are righteous in Christ. They can have full assurance that they will inherit the promises. God does not grant faith to some and patience to endure to others, but true faith is a faith that comes with patience. One that relies on the Lord for the inheritance he has promised them, the inheritance of King Jesus.
His teaching echoes the teaching of Paul to “work out your salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). This is not because the Christian life is to be timid and fearful, but because Christians can be confident that God is at work in them and that work moves inevitably toward completion (Phil 1:6). Those who are in Christ can press forward in his word, strive for growth, for discipline, for a deep encounter and celebration of God’s glory in the world. They ought not strive as those constantly living under the threat of failure, but as those who are already breathing the fresh air of the new heavens and new earth.
Evangelism and Costly Grace
Lastly, I cannot help but wonder if this passage is not also here for those in the church who are perhaps still considering the faith. Perhaps they are toying with the idea of belief; perhaps they have been drawn by a friend, by the mystery and beauty of the gospel, but they have not yet committed themselves one way or the other. We know that the early church congregants included those who had yet to be fully catechized. This passage would have implications for them.
The author of Hebrews here lays out two paths, the path of belief and the path of unbelief, and neither are to be taken lightly. This difficult choice is not new to the author of Hebrews. There were times in Christ’s ministry when he seemed to dissuade followers, times when he would remind them that the faith he offers might mean death. Faith might mean losing everything; it might even mean a life of service to others.
Christ knew that there is a gravity to evangelism and we do well to take it to heart. We are not offering membership to a political party, or a social club, or a retreat center; we are offering life and death. Those who hear the gospel and reject it or receive it insincerely heap condemnation on themselves. Those who receive the gospel with faith and repentance receive an inheritance that the world cannot contain.
Either way, we dare not withhold the gospel from them but we should not be careless when we offer it.
German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw many self-identifying Christians fall away from the faith under the pressure of the Third Reich. He writes this about costly grace of the cross,
Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field…It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 47)
For those of us in ministry, it is easy to fall into habit. We can comfortably slide into the dangerous act of rote performance of the duties of ministry. Those in ministry are rarely the ones to receive encouragement and support in the community.
Followers of Christ, remember and yearn for grace, recognizing that it is a costly grace, but a grace that God gives generously to each of us.
Dr. Scott Redd is the president and an associate professor of Old Testament at the Washington, D.C. campus of Reformed Theological Seminary. He got his MDiv. at RTS in Orlando, FL, and then went on to complete his Ph.D. at the Catholic University of America. During his doctoral studies, he taught at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, MD, and ministered at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC. Scott has also taught at Catholic University of America, the Augustine Theological Institute in Malta, the International Training Institute in Turkey, and for Third Millennium Ministries. He is married to the love of his life, Jennifer, and together they have five daughters.