For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know Him who said, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge his people." 31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
God is a God of Grace and Judgment
If the real world that God has created includes the reality of divine judgment and vengeance and the terrifying, furious fire of God's wrath, then honesty and love and wisdom will all include warnings of danger, not just promises of blessing. We live in a strange time. On the one hand, it's a time that is shot through with agony and catastrophe and tragedy and violence and suffering of every kind. We see it day in and day out in the papers and on the TV news. And those who are thoughtful and large-minded know that we are seeing the barest tip of an iceberg of hate and greed and injustice and brutality around the world, not to mention the millions upon millions of starving and utterly destitute poor in the world and the agonizing situations of tens of thousands of refugees.
But on the other hand, we do not want to hear about it. We are soft people. While most of the world watches death every day without morphine or any medical help, and deals with deep gashes and amputations with no antiseptics or stitches, we gag at the sight of a dead dog and grumble when 911 takes five minutes to respond instead of three. We are soft and we are presumptuous. And, what's most appalling - though very few regard it as most appalling - is that when it comes to God, all we want to hear is the sweet side - the tender side, the warm side.
We believe that the only good motivation comes from hearing about grace, not judgment. And little by little we let that motivational conviction (as unbiblical as it is) creep into our view of God himself, until we have no categories anymore to understand, let alone love, a God whose wrath is a fury of fire against sinners. But the writer of this book of Hebrews will not be silent about the wrath of God.
It is a book utterly devoted to living by faith in future grace. O, the grace of God in this book! Chapter after chapter celebrates the glorious provision of God in Jesus Christ to free us from our sin and turn our future into a paradise of hope. The book begins and ends with Christ making purification for sins and sitting down at the right hand of God - our perfect sacrifice and priest and shepherd, who will never leave us or forsake us. But, like no other book of the New Testament, this book is also relentless in its warnings about the dangers of carelessness in the Christian life. And the warnings are not that we might forfeit a few heavenly rewards, but that we might forfeit our souls in the fury of God's wrath.
So here is a book that stands against the motivational assumption that the only motivating news is good news. There is both the promise of joy and the warning of pain. We saw it in 2:3, "How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation." We saw it in 3:11-12, As I swore in my wrath, they shall never enter my rest. Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God." We saw it in 6:4,6, "It is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened . . . if they then commit apostasy . . . [they are like land that is] worthless and near to being cursed."
The Truth About God's Wrath
And we see it again in today's text - the conviction that it is honest and loving and wise to tell people the truth about the wrath of God. It's at the beginning and middle and end of our text. Verses 26-27:
If we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.
So here you have in verse 27 a picture of God's wrath: there is legal picture, an emotional picture and a physical picture.
The legal picture is that his wrath is "judgment." It is the legal, just act of a judge. The emotional picture is that his wrath is "the fury of a fire." Literally, "a zeal of fire," or a fiery passion. God is not just a little bit angry, but passionate with fury. And third, there is the physical or material picture: the fire "consumes the adversaries." It will swallow up the sinner in the flames of legal and passionate judgment. "Consume" doesn't mean annihilate. Hell is not non-existence. "Consume" means swallow up into suffering forever. Justice will be done and holy anger will be satisfied. That's the beginning of our text.
Then the text ends with another description of fearful judgment in verses 30-31,
We know Him who said, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge his people." It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Whatever your view of God, the Creator of the universe and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, if it does not include this, it is a distorted, unrealistic view. God is a God of vengeance, and to fall into his hands is a terrifying thing. When Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon about 260 years ago, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," his text came from Deuteronomy, but the words for his title came from this text. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
Between these two descriptions of God's judgment at the beginning and the ending of our text there is one more in the middle. After it says in verse 28 that those who rejected the law of Moses were put to death, it says in verse 29, "How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God?" The judgment of God is described as punishment and it is a punishment that is worse than death - because it goes beyond death.
Now this is a portrait of God (from the beginning, the middle and the ending of this text) that our strange age does not want to hear, and does not believe is helpful or true. For most people today, God, if he is there at all, is there to thank after a close call and to question after a tragedy. I got a phone call last week from a man from out of state who said, "I am going through the darkest time of my life, and I would like to come to Minneapolis and talk to you about it." He was willing to drive over twelve hours to talk to me one afternoon. I asked why? He said, "Because I have sought counsel from several sources and everyone starts with the assumption that God doesn't have anything to do with this tragedy. And I know from the Bible that that's not true. I need help from someone who starts with the conviction that God is in control of this situation, as horrible as it is."
This man's response to suffering is not typical, but it is Biblical. Most people today do not tremble at the power and wrath and judgment of God. He is a good old boy. Or a coddling father. Or a doting friend. But rarely a raging fire of indignation and holy anger at sin. God may send rain for the good of farmers, but he certainly doesn't cause flooding. He may give life to babies, but he certainly doesn't take it back again - for sure not if you're under 40. This is a God created in the image of our felt needs, not the God who reveals himself in history and in Jesus Christ and in the Bible.
So we need to hear this text and do a reality check on our view of God. Terrifying expectation of judgment . . . fury of fire . . . consume the adversaries . . . rendering punishment worse than death . . . repaying vengeance . . . with terrifying hands. That too is the truth about God.
When is God a Consuming Fire?
So the question that presses itself on us is: when is he this way?
The answer is that he is this way when "there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins." Verse 26: "If we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins." Then verse 27 begins: "But [instead] a terrifying expectation of judgment." In other words there are two possibilities: 1) terrifying judgment or 2) a sacrifice for sins. This means that sin is what God is angry about. And it means that he has made a provision for escaping his anger, namely, the sacrifice of his Son in the place of sinners. The love of God provides escape from the wrath of God by sacrificing the Son of God to vindicate the glory of God in forgiving sinners. That's the gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ - the essence of Christianity - makes no sense at all apart from the wrath of God. If there is no wrath and no judgment to escape, then Christ was sacrificed in vain.
But he did not die in vain. He died so that you and I and anyone who believes on him might be saved from the wrath of God and have everlasting life in the love of God - in the peaceful eye of the hurricane of his holy wrath. So neither his love, nor his wrath are the whole story of what God is like. He is both, and they are not coordinate - they are not of identical importance - because he has made a way for sinners to escape his wrath and enjoy his love. His glory shines most brightly not in the fire of his wrath, but in the bright, warm, peaceful breezes of his love above an infinitely deserved destruction.
For Whom is there no Longer any Sacrifice for Sins?
So the next question is: For whom is there no longer any sacrifice for sins? If God is a God of wrath and vengeance and judgment and fury, "when there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins," then we must ask - it would be utter folly not to ask - for whom is there no longer a sacrifice for sins? In this text, who are the terrified casualties of God's consuming fire?
The answer is given in two ways in the text. One is to describe what these casualties have become that fits them for judgment, and the other is to describe what they once were which makes their present condition so reprehensible. It's the contrast that makes their guilt so great.
Let's look first at what they had become. How are the casualties of God's consuming fire described? There are at least five descriptions:
Verse 26: they go on sinning willfully. Both the tense of the verb (present continuous action in Greek) - they go on sinning - and the word "willfully" show us that it is not any one particular sin in view here. It is the extent and willfulness that is in view here. The unpardonable sin is not a particular kind of sin, but a particular extent and willfulness of sinning against great grace - until one becomes like Esau and cannot repent (12:16-17).
Verse 27: at the end of the verse they are called "adversaries." The fury of God's fire will consume the adversaries. This means that he is talking about people who have rejected God and are now his opponents. They are what we call apostates.
Verse 29: they have trampled under foot the Son of God. The Son of God laid his life down for them to receive as their substitute, and instead of receiving him as their life and hope, they paused, got some religion, and then stepped on him and went on to other things.
Verse 29b: they regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant. "Unclean" is not quite the right word. They regarded it as common, ordinary, nothing special, not sacred or precious. They drank the cup of the new covenant, said, "Nice juice," and went away to sin - as if it were not the most precious reality in the universe.
Verse 29 at the end: They "insulted the Spirit of grace." They tasted the grace of God in their lives, were influenced by it in some measure, but then they began to turn it into license and used it to justify their love of sinning, and eventually threw it away as unnecessary.
And for these people, the writer says, God is a consuming fire.
What They Once Were
Finally, the writer describes these casualties of God's wrath not just in terms of what they had become, but in terms of what they once were - which makes their condition so much more guilty.
I'll mention just three brief characteristics of such people.
They had received a knowledge of the truth. Verse 26: "For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins." These casualties of wrath who trample the Son of God know the truth. We will all be judged in proportion to the amount of light and truth available to us. These people had received the gospel. They were walking away from Christ in the broad daylight of truth.
They are described, surprisingly to our ears, as part of "God's people." To explain what is happening in the divine vengeance the writer says in verse 30b, "The Lord will judge his people." This seems to mean that the writer sees the visible church - the external church - the way he saw the Old Testament people of God - they are a mixed group. Some of "God's people" will be saved, and some from "God's people" will be lost. For example, in Ezekiel 34:17, God says, "As for you, My flock [= the people of God, the external church], thus says the Lord God, `Behold, I will judge between one sheep and another, between the rams and the male goats."' As Paul says in Romans 9:6, "Not all those from Israel are Israel."
That's the way this writer seems to be thinking. This is very important for understanding the language he uses and the way he warns. Externally, he calls the church the "people of God." He calls them brothers - even "holy brothers" - giving the benefit of the doubt to any who has professed faith in Christ. But he knows that the visible church and the true church of God's elect are not the same. There are many hypocrites. And, as this text shows, many of these eventually become visible by "willfully sinning" and forsaking the gathered body (see verse 25).
Finally, in verse 29 he says that these casualties of God's wrath were "sanctified." "How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean (or common) the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified."
In What Sense Were They "Sanctified"?
Now this third description is very controversial. And I do not claim infallibility for my own interpretation. But I commend it to you as consistent with the rest of the book and the rest of Scripture, I believe. Some take it to mean that you can be truly born again and justified by faith, and on your way to heaven through a life of spiritual sanctification - and yet be finally lost and destroyed by forsaking the truth. Because it says here that these apostates had been "sanctified."
Others say that the possibility raised here of sanctified people committing apostasy will, in fact, never happen, because those who are truly elect and born again will be kept from apostasy by the work of the Holy Spirit. So no sanctified people ever do, in fact, apostatize. And this prospect in Hebrews 10:26-31 never happens. The elect take heed to the warning and persevere in faith and holiness.
The first of these I think to be untenable in view of what this writer says elsewhere and what the rest of the New Testament teaches about the security of the believer in Christ. In Hebrews 3:14 he says, "For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end" - meaning that if we do not hold fast to the end, then we "had not become a partaker of Christ." Failure to persevere in faith is not a sign of losing salvation but of never having been a partaker of Christ. And in this same chapter (10:14), he says, "By one offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified." In other words, there is a kind of true, spiritual sanctification that is sure evidence of being eternally perfected in God's sight - perfected for all time. God's justifying, perfecting work is not temporary. And the evidence that it is done, is that we are being truly made holy - sanctified.
So I conclude that the sanctification of verse 29 is not the same as the sanctification of verse 14. The one proves eternal perfection (verse 14) and the other proves great guilt after apostasy (verse 29). What is this fruitless sanctification? It seems to be the religious separation and outward purification that often happens when a person becomes part of the visible church. They come under the influence of truth in preaching and teaching. They come under the influence of love among the saints. They come under the influence of the ordinances and even eat and drink the sacred emblems of Christ's body and blood. They feel the blowing of God's Spirit of grace and taste his wooing and winning influences. And in all of this, they are visibly set apart from the world - sanctified the way the people of Israel was sanctified among the nations, even though many of them were faithless. And all of this gracious influence was purchased by the blood of Christ, so that verse 29 says, it was indeed "by the blood of the covenant" that these hypocrites were sanctified.
Take Heed to Yourselves
Which leads me to close with a simple and awesome warning. Take heed to yourselves. You have received a knowledge of the truth. The Son of God has laid his life down for you to receive as your substitute. You have come under the sway of many sanctifying influences. Do not trample the Son of God or make light of his blood or insult the Spirit of grace that is blowing over your soul even now.