This can be a difficult passage of scripture that has a lot of controversy. However, if you read the book of Hebrews as a whole, the passage makes a lot more sense. It is good to put it into context. In the words of Joseph Prince, “If you take a text out of its context, you are left with a con.”
Many people have been troubled over this passage in Hebrews 10.
“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.28 Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] and again, “The Lord will judge his people.”[e]31 It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
One of my close friends was deeply convicted by this verse and fell into condemnation and looked miserable. He thought it was the Lord. When he preached about this verse it sent a chill of dread into the listeners, and one man asked, “But what sins aren’t willful?” That statement was echoed in the hearts of everybody, and it was the belief that convicted my close friend into condemnation. This is not the spirit of grace.
Robbing Your Peace
We would probably all agree that if we don’t know its a sin or realize that we are doing it then its not willful. However, you and I are both aware that the majority of our sins do not fall into that category, or at least it would seem. At what point do you have the audacity to say that you weren’t committing a willful sin? When can you be convinced that you’ve tried hard enough to not sin? You may try to resist, but that thought in the back of your head will say, “You only tried a little in order not to feel bad. But you didn’t try hard enough, it is still willful.”
These aren’t the kind of questions we need to be asking ourselves, but I use it to make a point, that almost no matter what angle we look at it, our hearts and consciences know the majority of our sins can be seen as willful. And if that can pull us away from God, either through one sin or many, there is no hope for the Christian. As long as you look at this verse as talking about sinning to much or too strong you will have no peace with God and it won’t be in line with the gospel. So what could this passage be saying?
Talking about Unbelief
Keep in mind that the message to the Hebrews is written to Jews whom he is encouraging to persevere in their faith. He warns them against falling away as the Israelites did in the desert. In Hebrews, the author heavily equates sin with unbelief.
Hebrews 3 and 4 “12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.14 We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.15 As has just been said:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion.”[c]
16 Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? 17 And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies perished in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? 19 So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.“
Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. 2 For we also have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed. 3 Now we who have believed enter that rest…
6 Therefore since it still remains for some to enter that rest, and since those who formerly had the good news proclaimed to them did not go in because of their disobedience… 11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.”
The author uses the words sin and unbelief interchangeably. The Israelites were tempted to doubt God’s promise of entering his rest in the promise land. But, these Hebrews were being tempted by pious Jews to turn back to the law and the animal sacrifices and doubt the salvation of Jesus Christ. Just before the passage this article is written about he is talking about how the new covenant is superior to judaism and how Christ’s sacrifice is superior to the law or animal sacrifices.
Hebrews 10 – “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
6 with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
7 Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—
I have come to do your will, my God.’”[a]
8 First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. 9 Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. 10 And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. 14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
15 The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:
16 “This is the covenant I will make with them
after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.”[b]
17 Then he adds:
“Their sins and lawless acts
I will remember no more.”[c]
18 And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.
He is encouraging these Hebrews, that Christ has become the end of animal sacrifices. That God was not pleased with them and they have Jesus as their once and for all sacrifice. Then he gives a beautiful statement how we are freed from guilt and may enter God’s presence boldly. Afterwards he gives this warning.
“26 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.”
What deliberate sin is he talking about? Lust, pride, selfishness? He is talking about ritual acts of unbelief. If Jesus’s sacrifice covered your sins once and for all, then offering an animal for your sins becomes an act of unbelief and is actually an insult to Christ’s work. Remember how earlier in Hebrews he equates sin with unbelief? He is talking about those pious Jews who continually turn away from faith in Jesus, rejecting His new covenant, refusing to enter his rest, and instead hold on to the law for justification.
Talking about Unbelievers
I believe the phrase, “have received the knowledge of truth,” does not necessarily imply that they were saved, only that they were given the message and then rejected it.
1 John 2:19 “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.”
Hebrews 10:26 is talking about unbelievers. But to illustrate this, I must explain more thoroughly what God’s rest is. God’s rest is closely tied to salvation.
Isaiah 30:15 “In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength,”
They are not perfectly the same, but God’s rest is a natural extension, product, benefit, or integral part of salvation. The very statement of the Christian faith, that Jesus died for my sins so that I could be forgiven, shows us what this rest may look like. If I have been forgiven by Jesus once and for all, what else do I need to do to remain forgiven? What Hebrews is saying, is that any work we add to the finished work of Christ in order to remain forgiven becomes a dead work, a useless labor. Those works only serve to mock what Jesus did and they show that we don’t really believe we are forgiven. Thus the natural consequence of being saved and properly instructed, that if you really honor Christ’s work, is you will inevitability stop performing these and enter God’s rest.
Hebrews 4:3 “Now we who have believed enter that rest”
The defiant and willful sin the author is referring to, is not amoral acts as we think of it, but is defiant and willful sin like the Israelites who fell in the desert, through ignoring God’s words and failing to enter his rest.
Now, throughout Hebrews the author is warning christians who are continuing to perform these dead works in ignorance. They genuinely want to honor Jesus’s sacrifice, but because they were not properly taught the message of grace and the word of righteousness, they continue performing these, not knowing that they serve to insult christ and make their faith seem worthless.
Hebrews 5 “11 We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. 12 In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”
Hebrews 6 “1 Let us go forward, then, to mature teaching and leave behind us the first lessons of the Christian message. We should not lay again the foundation of turning away from useless works and believing in God (entering his rest); 2 of the teaching about baptisms and the laying on of hands; of the resurrection of the dead and the eternal judgment. 3 Let us go forward! And this is what we will do, if God allows.” (Parenthesis are mine)
This is what I believe Hebrews 6 leans toward. But Hebrews 10 tells us a different story. We are no longer seeing someone act in ignorance, but someone who has no honor for Christ’s work whatsoever. Though they have heard that Christ defeated sin once and for all and has made us clean, these pious jews treat it as though it were worthless and willfully and defiantly continue to offer their sacrifices and dead rituals in insult to Christ work. Thus by their very deeds they show they were never saved. For if they did believe Christ’s work was effectual, would they not realize the error of their way and put their faith in God instead? No, but we see that the reason they do not enter God’s rest is because they don’t believe in Christ at all!
Matthew 7:16 “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?”
No more sacrifice for sins?
When he says, ‘there is no more sacrifice for sin,‘ he is not saying that Christ’s sacrifice becomes void, though you could see it that way from one perspective, but rather what he is saying is that since Christ has become the end to animal sacrifices, you cannot find a sacrifice in any other place besides the one you rejected in Christ. If those who have heard the good news of the gospel preached to them continually and deliberately ignore it for their own rituals, there is no other sacrifice left to cover them, they are under the judgment of God.
Enemies of God
These pious Jews have no more sacrifice because Jesus has done away with it (one can’t be forgiven on that basis anymore) and they are considered enemies of God. So its clear he is not talking to Christians. A christian cannot be an enemy of God because Christ’s sacrifice has reconciled him.
Romans 5:10 “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”
How are we saved? Through his life. This is because Jesus’s life is a guarantee of the righteousness he’s given us. Because he’s died to the imputation of sin once and for all and cannot die again, you also have died to the imputation of sin once and for all and cannot die again.
Romans 6:11 “The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Is he talking about the power of sin in the sense of living holy? He talks about that shortly after. Actually you must ask, how did Christ die to sin? Did Christ die to sinful desires? Did he overcome the lust that was in him? No! Christ was perfect. He died to the reckoning and punishment of your sin. We have died in the same manner. Now his life is a guarantee that we are forever righteous.
1 John 2:1 “My dear children, I am writing this to you so that you will not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate who pleads our case before the Father. He is Jesus Christ, the one who is truly righteous”
Colossians 1: “21Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because off your evil behavior. 22But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation”
Now let get back on track. If he is calling these deliberate sinners “enemies of God”, then it stands to reason that they were never reconciled to him through Jesus. You may say when he says,
“26 If we deliberately keep on sinning…“
that he is talking about believers themselves. But I believe he is using “we” here in the sense of humanity, not in the sense of we christians. He might even be further specifying “we” as in “we Jews”, for in context he’s talking about problems that are almost specifically Jewish.
“If we humans/jews deliberately keep on sinning…”
However, the result is an ‘expectation of judgement and of raging fire.‘ This is perhaps being used to allude to the future destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. Meaning, that that judgement that Jesus had prophesied would come on those who would be found serving in the temple at that time, continuing to offer their sacrifices in unbelief.
Rejecting a covenant
“Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses”
You can see he is talking about rejecting a covenant. The old covenant was based on the law of Moses, but the new covenant is based on belief in Jesus and the resulting rest.
“How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?”
How do you trample the Son of God underfoot? By considering his sacrifice worthless (which is a picture of what these pious Jews were doing by continuing to offer up animal sacrifices). How do you treat as unholy thing the blood of the covenant? Act as though it didn’t matter or couldn’t save you. How do you insult the spirit of grace? Through disobeying too much? Of course not! That’s why there’s grace to begin with! The only way you can insult grace is to reject or belittle it. Then he quotes from the old testament,
“It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] and again, “The Lord will judge his people.”
You might think by “his people” he is referring to Christians, but in fact he is not talking about Christians, but Jews, who were called all through the old testament “his people.” This passage was written about Jews under the old covenant and the author is giving it to Jews here in this letter.
These unbelieving pious Jews are trying to pull these young christian jews away from Christ by convincing them that they need to continue doing these rituals and labors. The author is talking about these “unbelieving role models” saying, those who live like that are going to their own destruction, therefore don’t follow them. You are not among those who are destroyed but among those who are saved.
Hebrews 10:39 “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.”
These christian Jews will not come under the same judgement, though they themselves struggle with dead works to some degree. And God will purify their conscience of these dead works so they can serve him appropriately. Read my blog hebrews 6. Even if you commit the sin of dead works, you are saved, although you will have missed the rest of God and toiled in vain. So Hebrews 6 is referring to believers (or possibly unbelievers) (it’s not clear which) who are missing God’s rest. Hebrews 10 is referring to the tempters (pious unbelieving Jews) who deliberately disregard what Jesus did and are pulling these christian jews into dead works.
So even though the author is guiding christian jews to enter God’s rest from their dead works, he is only speaking destruction on those who reject Christ altogether. So don’t let this verse destroy your confidence, we have a great high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses.
Hebrews 4-5 “14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. 1Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. 3 This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people.”
You need to make sure your understanding of this verse does not contradict the rest of the scripture. For instance,
2 Corinthians 5 “17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:19that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”
John 5:24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
As Joseph Prince says, ‘Do not let obscure passages rob you of the truth and joy of clear passages.’ This obscure passage in Hebrews is talking about the sin of rejecting a covenant entirely. We must be patient with our fellow christians who struggle to enter God’s rest. They think that what they are doing what honors the Lord, but they act in ignorance, even though sometimes it seems like they are stubborn and willful about it. We must pray for them and teach so that God may give them a revelation of his rest and that they would not find themselves angry that all their work was useless.
Thanks for reading!