By Thomas Schreiner –

Scot McKnight has written some fascinating posts on Calvinism and the warning passages in Hebrews over at Jesus Creed. It is not my purpose to give a full response (see Thomas R Schreiner & Ardel B. Caneday, The Race Set before Us). These posts accord with an outstanding article that Scot wrote for Trinity Journal in the early 1990s: “The Warning Passages of Hebrews: A Formal Analysis and Theological Conclusions,” TrinJ 13 (1992): 21-59. In reading Scot’s posts I remembered how helped I was by his article and the extent of our agreement.

So, let me begin with where we agree. First, Scot is exactly right in saying that all the warning passages must be read together and that they must be read synoptically. The warning passages mutually shed light on one another. How many interpreters and preachers fail to follow this simple principle! The author has one main point in the letter: don’t fall away! His whole sermon is designed to drive that point home (Heb. 13:22). 

Second, I agree with Scot that the consequence of the sin described in Hebrews is final and eternal judgment. The author is not just talking about losing rewards. He is talking about going to hell.

Third, Scot shows that the warning passages are addressed to believers. The writer addresses the readers as “you” and includes himself in the warnings with words like “us” and “we.” The readers are called “brothers” and identified as “believers.” Yes, this is even true in Hebrews 6. I agree that it is special pleading to say that those who are partakers of the Holy Spirit are unsaved.

Fourth, the sin warned against is: apostasy. That is, the author warns his readers about the danger of falling away from the faith, of denying Jesus and his atoning work. It makes sense that the sin is apostasy since the consequences are final judgment.

Fifth, Calvinists and Arminians, as Scot points out, hold something very important in common. We both believe that one must persevere to the end to be saved. We both believe that one is not guaranteed of salvation by an initial “decision” of faith. In the midst of our theological agreements, we shouldn’t forget where we agree and rejoice in that agreement. To a remarkable extent we preach the text the same way!

So, where do we differ? We must remember that the passages are warnings and admonitions. They say nothing about whether believers will actually fall away. They are not declarations but warnings. The common response is that the warnings are beside the point if believers can’t fall away. What a silly waste of time! But that objection fails if the warnings are a means by which God keeps his elect. I would argue that the warning passages are always effective in the lives of the elect, i.e., those who are truly saved always heed the warnings, and it is precisely by heeding the warnings that they are preserved until the end.

Space is lacking here to provide a full defense (see The Race Set before Us). But I would like to close by quoting Charles Spurgeon, for he argued for what I am saying here long ago in his memorable and striking way.

First, then, we answer the question, WHO ARE THE PEOPLE HERE SPOKEN OF? If you read Dr. Gill, Dr. Owen, and almost all the eminent Calvinistic writers, they all of them assert that these persons are not Christians. They say, that enough is said here to represent a man who is a Christian externally, but not enough to give the portrait of a true believer. Now, it strikes me they would not have said this if they had not had some doctrine to uphold; for a child, reading this passage, would say, that the persons intended by it must be Christians. If the Holy Spirit intended to describe Christians, I do not see that he could have used more explicit terms than there are here. How can a man be said to be enlightened, and to taste of the heavenly gift, and to be made partaker of the Holy Ghost, without being a child of God? With all deference to these learned doctors, and I admire and love them all, I humbly conceive that they allowed their judgments to be a little warped when they said that; and I think I shall be able to show that none but true believers are here described.

Spurgeon then goes on to respond to the objection that the warnings are unnecessary if believers can’t fall away. He argues that the warnings are a means by which believers are preserved until the end.

But,’ says one, ‘You say they cannot fall away.’ What is the use of putting this ‘if’ in, like a bugbear to frighten children, or like a ghost that can have no existence? My learned friend, ‘Who art thou that repliest against God?’ If God has put it in, he has put it in for wise reasons and for excellent purposes. Let me show you why. First, O Christian, it is put in to keep thee from falling away. God preserves his children from falling away; but he keeps them by the use of means; and one of these is, the terrors of the law, showing them what would happen if they were to fall away. There is a deep precipice: what is the best way to keep any one from going down there? Why, to tell him that if he did he would inevitably be dashed to pieces. In some old castle there is a deep cellar, where there is a vast amount of fixed air and gas, which would kill anybody who went down. What does the guide say? ‘If you go down you will never come up alive.’ Who thinks of going down? The very fact of the guide telling us what the consequences would be, keeps us from it. Our friend puts away from us a cup of arsenic; he does not want us to drink it, but he says, ‘If you drink it, it will kill you.’ Does he suppose for a moment that we should drink it. No; he tells us the consequences, and he is sure we will not do it. So God says, ‘My child, if you fall over this precipice you will be dashed to pieces.’ What does the child do? He says, ‘Father, keep me; hold thou me up, and I shall be safe.’ It leads the believer to greater dependence on God, to a holy fear and caution, because he knows that if he were to fall away he could not be renewed, and he stands far away from that great gulf, because he know that if he were to fall into it there would be no salvation for him.

Thomas Schreiner joined the Southern Seminary faculty in 1997 after serving 11 years on the faculty at Bethel Theological Seminary. He also taught New Testament at Azusa Pacific University. Dr. Schreiner, a Pauline scholar, is the author or editor of several books including, Romans, in the Baker Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament; Interpreting the Pauline Epistles; The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law; The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance; Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives of Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, co-edited with Bruce A. Ware; Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of I Timothy 2:9-15; Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.



  • How comforting to know that the good Rev. Spurgeon agrees with me! When I teach on these warnings, I connect them to the great promise in 1st Thessalonians 2:13 which states, “the Word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.” (NASB) The Word of God does God’s work and His will. It is the means by which God keeps His elect unto the day of salvation!

  • I can see how it is “to keep thee from falling away.” But the warnings hardly presuppose that believers *can’t* fall away. Dr. Craig’s response to the Calvinist objection continues to go unanswered, “if the warnings themselves bring about perseverance, then is it not true that the believer is *capable* of falling away, even though, because of the warnings, he will not? For warnings do not seem to act as efficient causes upon the will, forcing one to act in a certain way; they can be disobeyed.”

    It would be helper if Dr. Schreiner can biblically prove what he assumes, namely: (1) the efficient cause of perseverance lies not in the grace of God, but the means themselves, and (2) where does scripture itself define the nature of the warnings in the way Dr. Schreiner sees them? It seems he just assumes this to be the case but has yet to provide biblical support for this.

  • Hi Tom,

    Thanks for the article, someone just sent this link to me. I like points 1 and 2, however on point 3 I think you are going too far, or taking too polemic of a stand.

    I’m not sure why folks feel that we must say the book itself or the warning passages are addressed specifically to regenerated believers. Is not the hearing congregation made up of both sheep and goats? Are not there unsaved “listeners” or “seekers” with us every Sunday morning? Hebrew’s is speaking to just that: Hebrews, the noted people of God! Jews who had heard the message of the Gospel, but were being tempted to pull back to the Hebrew culture and religious system. Do we think they were all saved? Why would we? Some no doubt had not yet exercised saving faith, so just hearing the Gospel did not benefit them.

    ” For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened” (Hebrews 4:2 ESV)

    So, some heard and believed unto Salvation, and some heard and were still on the fence, so they did not get the “benefit”. Those guys were certainly not saved, and thus are being warned by the author of the Hebrews that if they refused to accept the new revelation, there remains no other sacrifice for sins! In other words, there is no where else to go other than to the greatest High Priest of all!

    Point 1 here observes that we have to understand the warnings all together, or that they complement each other and “fill” each other out. Absolutely correct. So, if we go back to the first warning, it’s really important to see what the author is talking about “drifting away” from. Here’s the passage:

    2:1 – Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
    (Hebrews 2:1-4 ESV)

    So, logically, what do we need to pay attention to? What we have heard. What did we hear? The Message! It was declared, attested to, and borne witness to, and if we don’t accept it, if we drift away from it, then we will not escape! The message then, is news of this salvation! But notice, it’s the message that he is pointing to! And rightly so, as brother Paul tells us that “The Gospel is the power of God unto Salvation!” The Scripture complements itself once again. So drifting away from the Gospel or falling away from the Gospel, is not the same as falling out of salvation, or losing salvation. He is not talking about losing your salvation, he’s talking about letting the Gospel go, “neglecting” the message, and thereby never getting regenerated as a result. These folks were “partakers of the Holy Spirit” as they were “witness to signs and wonders…of the Holy Spirit”, and being Hebrews they were not bereft or ignorant of the Spirit of God. The power of the Holy Spirit was demonstrated in their midst! All the more reason they need to pay attention to what they’ve heard. But it does not mean they have yet entered into the New Covenant, and that’s the warning. And so it is with each of the other warnings. Losing salvation is not the issue, but “entering into the rest” and “not letting your heart become hardened” to the Gospel is. Today, while you HEAR his voice, respond! Call upon His name! Beware, lest an evil heart of unbelief keeps you from entering! Hardly an admonition to a believer.

    I know I’m apparently disagreeing with Spurgeon here, but I am grateful for God’s Word, it’s simplicity, and it’s unity.

    Thanks and peace to y’all.

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    I must disagree with Spurgeon & Schreiner also, though it surprises me to do so! A PASTOR SPEAKING TO A BODY OF BELIEVERS. I say to Spurgeon – would a Jewish 5yr old child read Hebrews and plainly see what he claims? John MacArthur preaches on this in a most convincing way. The six elements of 6:1-3 are easily identifiable with Old Covenant elementary teaching – the foundation about the beginnings of THE Christ.

  • People make this too complicated, intellectualizing it to the point that they miss it altogether. These warnings in Hebrews are there for a reason. And no matter how much you juggle all these ‘schools of thought’ around in the 8 x 10 skull God gave us all, it still boils down to the fact that these warnings are again, placed there FOR A REASON. These heavily persecuted Jewish believers were tempted to renounce this new and novel ‘salvation’ message, received at conversion, and the author is simply warning and encouraging them not to give up. It’s something whereby if you don’t “get it”, it can’t be explained to you.

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  • Warnings are God’s means of keeping the Elect? Wow! So you admit that the warnings are needed in order for God to do what He has already settled! We humans (including and sometime especially us Christians) are very creative in our explanation of doctrine!

    My problem with Calvinists (and I have problems with Arminians, too, just so you know I’m not one), is that they typically avoid these warnings or try to explain them to fit their Calvinistic views. In fairness to the author of this article, at least you acknowledge that these warnings “keep the elect” (whatever that means!). Here’s the issue: Can’t we just read and preach the whole Gospel and the total counsel of God’s word? Then, let the Spirit of God take control of the audience’s hearts as we pray over them and the message. After all, He is the Teacher who is to guide us into all truth. He’s the anointing we have received from God Himself. The word of God is not so complicated after all.

    Another point I will commend this author on is that, in admitting that these are warnings for believers, he breaks from many Calvinists who will tell their hearers that it does not matter how Christians behave after conversion. If they prayed the prayer and meant it, that’s all that matters! They are saved anyway. This does not line up with the Scriptures, of course, but we creative humans can really twist things around! The Lord help us.

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  • The problem with this interpretation is that it ignores the fact that, in the Greek, there is no “if” in Hebrews 6:6. It doesn’t say, “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened … if they fall away…” Rather, it says, “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened…and have fallen away…” So the text does indeed indicate that some actually did fall away.

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