The author of Hebrews offers some frightening language in the tenth chapter, verses 26-31. Here, the author states that if we continue to sin, deliberately, after receiving the knowledge of truth, the consequences on the Day of Judgment are extreme. Few commentators argue with the severity in which God punishes those who sin yet do not, through grace, have upon themselves Christ’s blood of his merciful atonement. However, this passage raises both alarm and debate about both the identity of who this deliberate sinner might be and the nature of the sin committed. Is this one who at some point embraced and accepted Christ as his or her savior and now rejects that grace? Or has then person never been a regenerate believer. Or maybe this passage is this about post-baptism sin? The author of Hebrews says, “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth. . . .”1 Does the word “we” refer to the possibility of the audience and even the author? Clearly, this passage could have serious ramifications on one’s understanding of the security of the believer. And it may shape one's thoughts about unpardonable sin. There are many differences of opinion regarding this passage. Therefore, this post will merely scratch the surface in an attempt to examine the passage as well as the views of Donald Hangner, F. F. Bruce, and George Guthrie.
OVERVIEW OF HEBREWS 10:26-31
Verse 26 serves to introduce the subject and action in question. The author writes, “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth. . . .”2 The subject is simply 'we' and the action is the willful engagement of sin after the deliberate sinner has received a knowledge of the Truth. For this, the author says there is no sacrifice to cover the sin, and in fact, all this person has to expect on the Day of Judgment3 is a “fury of fire.”4 In addition, this punishment is even worse than if the deliberately sinning person had violated the Law of Moses. “Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of who or three witnesses,” writes the author, “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?”5 It seems this deliberate sin after the receipt of Truth and in some way is spurns or tramples upon Jesus and the the new covenant, and a greatly angers the Spirit of grace. The specifics of this sin raise many questions, but it seems clear that 'deliberate' and 'after' are significant to this problem. To strike fear in his readers, the author quotes portions of Deuteronomy 32:34 and 35. It might be worth noting that in the same manner earlier in the chapter, the author quotes two passages from Jeremiah regarding the new covenant where the law will be written on his peoples' hearts and God will remember their sin no more. The paragraph concludes with the statement, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”6
APPROACH OF HAGNER
There are many aspects of this passage that shape how one views the remainder of the text. Hagner's primary avenue of approach is via sin nature, which in this case specifically includes a falling away.7 He sees the deliberate sinner as an apostate, or one that once had the knowledge of Truth. “But,” writes Hagner, “for those who have turned their backs on the sacrifice of Christ—the sacrifice to which all other sacrifices pointed and upon which they depended for their temporary efficacy—then no sacrifice for sins is left. One who rejects the sacrifice of Christ (v. 29) will find no other answer to the problem of sin.”8 Significant in his statement is that he holds that these individuals once depended upon Christ's sacrifice, suggesting that he concludes that these deliberate sinners were once believers. Taking this further it seems that Hagnar holds that there is a way for a believer to fall away so far that for them there is no longer any hope of salvation. Hagner states, “With resources exhausted, such a person must face the prospect of God's wrath against sin (cf. 2 Pet. 2:21).”9
Hagner makes it clear that rejecting the Law of Moses is serious; “But transgressing the law of Moses, grievous though that may be,” he argues, “is not as serious an offense as rejecting the work of Christ, once a person has received it as the truth.”10 This is so serious in fact, that Hagner argues that it is the unforgivable sin mentioned in Matthew 12:31ff. It is apostasy, which he points to the Scripture to say that this sin deserves to be punished more severely than any of the punishments found within Mosaic Law.11 And it is in this severe punishment that one might see and understand why the author of Hebrews would say that it is fearful to fall into the hands of the living God.
APPROACH OF BRUCE
Bruce examines what he sees as the early incorrect understanding of this passage. Post-baptism is a problematic consequence of miss interpretation and Bruce appears rather concerned. Where Hagner only includes a post note on the topic of post-baptism sin, Bruce uses a large portion of his commentary of this specific text to deal with the matter. “This passage,” writes Bruce, “was destine to have repercussions in Christian history beyond what our author could have foreseen.”12 Walking through some early history, Bruce explains that eventually, some came to understand this passage as dealing with sin after baptism. However, in light of other teaching in the book of Hebrews, Bruce argues that the author “would probably have thought it preposterous that his stern words of warning should in due course give rise to a penitential procedure so similar to that which he dismisses as forever superseded.”13
For Bruce, like Hagner, this passage deals with outright apostasy, that is, the deliberately abandoning reliance upon the perfect sacrifice of Christ. The sin here is not merely sin, or even sin after baptism, it is like the egregious act of sinning with a high hand, which Bruce points out there is no pardon. “To have received the knowledge of the truth and then reject it,” argues Bruce,” is to give up the only way of salvation.”15 Once a believer has done such a thing, there is no further option and no other source for salvation. Much like Hagner, Bruce sees this passage as dealing with the regenerate believer who fell to the point of outright rejecting Jesus, having flagrant contempt for him to the point of spurning or trampling Jesus and the new covenant he ushered in. Bruce states, “The author is not given to wild exaggeration,” so when the authors says it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, the deliberate sinner should be highly concerned.
APPROACH OF GUTHRIE
Where Hagner and Bruce are in agreement as to the identity and nature of the deliberate sinner, Guthrie starts from a different approach. For Guthrie, the issue appears to be the meaning of receiving the knowledge of Truth. Guthrie makes light of this stern warning, seeing the idea of receiving not as some kind of full acceptance and taking upon, but instead he sees it as “receiving a knowledge of the gospel's truth.”16 Therefore, the deliberate sinner was never a believer in the first place, but instead one who heard the gospel message and rejected it. “What the author has in mind,” writes Guthrie, “is a deliberate, sinful lifestyle of high-handed rebellion against the gospel,” but this gives no indication of the salvation state of the person in rebellion. The only difference for Guthrie is between one who has never heard the gospel and one who has, with both cases focused upon the unregenerate person. Guthrie continues, “The distinction between those who sin in ignorance, wandering off the path (5:2), and those who radically rebel against the Word of God may be seen in Numbers 15:27-31, where the latter course is said to be blasphemy.”17 Guthrie does not address the “we” in verse 26.
Starting from a position that the deliberate sinner was never a believer directs the rest of the interpretation toward the idea that the deliberate sinner will have a greater punishment than any other sinner who never comes to a position of repentance and acceptance with Jesus, but both will receive punishment. This deliberate sinner has no sacrifice that saves because Jesus is the only sacrifice with the power to save.18 Guthrie says that those who have turned away from the new covenant are worse off than the apostates of the Old Testament, but he never addresses those who may have accepted the new covenant only to later turn away and greatly, deliberately reject. It is almost as if this is not an option that Guthrie would consider. At one point, he states, “Inherent to the argument is the assumption that those who have heard the message of the gospel have had a greater opportunity and greater resources for a response of obedience (2:3-4).”19 He also argues with examples of those that rejected Jesus during Christ's earthly ministry. And for those who rejected Jesus, and maybe even attributed his power to Satan, Guthrie stipulates that they have blasphemed the Holy Spirit by denying the gospel's true origin and importance. In doing this, according to Guthrie, “They have committed a sin with eternal implications.”20 And it is for this reason that they should be fearful to fall into the hands of the living God.
If one were to interpret the willful sinning in verse 26 as anything other than a complete rejection of Christ and his saving power, it is easy to see the slippery slope that may develop. If this is passage is warning of one kind of sin (other than apostasy), why might it not be another? There is no indication of degree, so might it be any sin? Once the first step is taken, one should be able to see how the idea of unforgivable post-baptism sin might have crept into the Church. We should have sympathy for those who desired to delay their baptism21 out of fear of eternal damnation. Just one sin could do a believer in. However, Bruce makes a sound argument against this incorrect understanding of Hebrews 10:26-31. Clearly the author of Hebrews is not discussing just any sin, but the willful or deliberate act of sin. And it seems that the committing an undefined sin is the problem, but rather the sin is the act of spurning or trampling on the saving power of Jesus. The author seems to identify the sin as profaning the blood covenant. The blasphemy is found in the apostasy. This is where it seems Hagner and Bruce are in agreement.
Guthrie on the other hand, seems to see any sin without the salvation of Christ as the topic of the warning for those who have heard and rejected the gospel message. He neglects that the author hints that the readers (presumably believers) and even the author him or herself could fall into the scenario of which the author warns. But what Guthrie fails to address is why this warning is any different than any other call to repentance and faith in Jesus for salvation. Why the purpose for the passage at this point in the book? And what happens to one who turns away from Jesus after accepting the salvation found only in the gospel of Christ. Guthrie, it seems has skirted the bigger questions by way of making this passage about non-believers.
As difficult as it may be, this passage appears to discuss deliberate sin so serious that it warrants the wrath of God, for which there is no sacrifice left. There is a suggestion of the unpardonable violation in the Law of Moses that was total rebellion or apostasy. And apostasy is not simply a rejection of something one does not have, but a falling away of something already obtained. It seems this warning is directed to the believer. In this regard, it seems Hagner and Bruce do a better job approaching this difficult passage. Guthrie seems to have missed something in the interpretation, causing his approach to view such a stern warning written to believers something of which they need not worry. This author agrees with the compelling approach of Hagner and Bruce.
For believers this is a serious matter. The warning is dramatic and serious and should not be taken lightly. That being said, there is more than one way to view this passage. Careful consideration and prayer should be dedicated to this text if understanding is to be found. There are many other commentaries and journal articles written on this topic, some very technical, some more pastoral. It is the hope and prayer of this author that the Scripture is examined in greater detail and additional commentaries are consulted before conclusions are drawn. This author recommends, William Lane's technical work on Hebrews as well as that of Paul Ellingworth, and for a pastoral perspective Leon Morris's work found in the expositor's bible Commentary is worth consultation.