Hebrews 10:26-31 is one of the most commonly cited passages people use to try to prove that we can lose our salvation. Is that what it teaches? If not, then what is it saying?
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (NIV)
The Nature of the Warning
The passage opens with a condition: “if we deliberately keep on sinning . . .” First, we should note that the continuous aspect of sinning here, while grammatically possible, is probably an improper translation. The KJV better renders these words “if we sin wilfully.” The rendering of the NIV, NASB, and others seems to come from a theological concern. Everyone sins, and whatever the penalty described in this passage is, it is certainly harsh. Thus, since the verb used in the Greek can carry a continuous aspect, then these translations have chosen to see it in that light, thus softening the warning. The passage is not, in this view, warning against sin, but rather it is warning against continuous sin.
The passage itself does not support this view. In the first place, the text speaks of “deliberate” or “willful” sin. We may well ask the difference in a single deliberate sin and multiple deliberate sins. When we choose to sin, in full knowledge of the fact that what we are doing is wrong, there is little difference. Further, in the immediate context, the author of Hebrews warned against “wavering” (10:23) and later against casting away our confidence. These ideas are singular and should be treated as such in our translation of our verse.
The second half of the condition is directed at those who “have received the knowledge of the truth.” Three facts prove that true Christians are in view. First, author includes himself in this warning with the word “we,” and his salvation cannot be questioned. Second, he speaks of receiving rather than simply hearing. Third, what is received is knowledge of the truth, not simply the truth. Nothing can properly be said to be knowledge—especially not received knowledge—if it is not accepted.
Thus, the conditional aspect of the warning may be summed up this way: “If a Christian deliberately sins . . .”
The result of the condition is that “no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” The lack of sacrifice is consistent with the theme of the entire chapter. Heb. 10:1-14 deals with the inability of the old Levitical system to finally deal with sins. Heb. 10:15-25 explains that because Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient, we may have the boldness to walk intimately with God. The entire section, then, is dealing with the importance of the removal of sin if anyone, Jew or Gentile, is to have proper fellowship with God. The Christians’ deliberate sin is particularly heinous, then, because there is no further sacrifice to be made.
Thus, he continues, if there is no sacrifice, there can only be judgment, which is described by as a “raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” There is no warrant for taking this as a reference to Hell as is commonly assumed. Fire is often used to picture tribulation or God’s judgment (cf. Deut. 32:33; Isa. 48:10). We will look more at the nature of the judgment below. In any case, we may summarize the warning this way: “If a Christian deliberately sins, since there is no further sacrifice, there is only judgment.”
The Nature of the Sin
But since all Christians sin, it seems hard to accept the author of Hebrews just had general sin in mind. Otherwise, every Christian would spend every minute of every day under harsh judgment (or, alternately, all would be in Hell!). Likely, general sin is not in view. Apostasy is. That is, the author is warning the reader against losing his faith. This is evident throughout the entire book of Hebrews. The main point of the book is to prove the supremacy of Jesus over Judaism and encourage Jewish Christians to maintain their faith. This is even stated directly twice in our context (Heb. 10:23, 35-36).
Another confirming clue for this idea is found in the word “deliberately.” This same idea can be found in Num. 15:17-36. There, God distinguishes between sins committed in ignorance and those considered deliberately (lit. “with a high hand”). Those guilty of the former were forgiven. Those guilty of the latter were executed. Given that Hebrews goes on to say “Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses” seems to confirm the connection. The deliberate sin the book is consistently warning against is the rejection of one’s faith in Christ.
The Nature of the Judgment
The text does not explicitly state what the judgment will be. Whatever it is, it is worse than mere death. This, again, has caused many to suggest that Hell is in view, but it must be admitted that such a view is at best simply an interpretation. Experience, however, tells us that there are many things worse than death! Being given over to Satan for the destruction of our flesh (1 Cor. 5:5), being flogged by God (Heb. 12:6), being denied by Jesus before the Father (Matt. 10:33), and losing our eternal rewards (Matt. 25:28) all may be far worse!
Again, this all confirms that believers are in view, for the author quotes the OT: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” Whatever the judgment is, it is seen as God avenging Himself by judging His people in their rejection of Him.
In conclusion, this passage is not teaching that salvation can be lost. It is teaching that if a believer loses his or her faith, that they will come under extreme judgment, both in this life and in the next. It truly is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God! While this passage, then, gives us confidence that we may stand before God secure in our salvation, it also serves to remind us how seriously we are to take our faith.