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Calvinism and the Warning Passages: A Brief Reply to Scot McKnight

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.

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