“But, beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner. For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do no become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” – Hebrews 6:9-12.
I came to faith when I was nine years old, after hearing the Gospel in a Bible program. From that time, I was in Sunday School, and then a youth group in my teens. I was part of a young adult group out of school. Now in those years, there were a lot of invitations to accept Christ. And I can tell you that in my Sunday School class, in an Awana group of over 100, a youth group of over 50, and a young adult group of at least twenty, everyone had prayed to accept Christ.
But as we went through the various grades at school, different ones dropped off. Others would come, and then they would drop off. And by drop off, I don’t mean they began attending another church. I mean they simply stopped going to any church. Today, out of what in the end must have been a few hundred people, probably five people are still serving the Lord. Virtually no one out of that group has persevered in the faith. Now there are three possible explanations for that.
The first is that they were mostly all saved, but at some point, lost their salvation. The second is that they were mostly all saved, and are still saved, but there is simply zero fruit, and hasn’t been any fruit for years. The third is that the faith they had was a man-made, earthly faith, that could only last a few winters before it shrivelled up.
Which of those explanations sounds most likely to you? The first is the most unlikely. Scripture never describes eternal life dying in a person. And as we found out in Hebrews 6, if that were hypothetically possible, then according to Hebrews 6 all those few hundred can never be saved again, and their doom is certain irremediable.
The second explanation is almost equally unlikely. A Christian may have seasons of unfruitfulness, periods of stunted growth, before God’s chastening and conviction brings him out of it. But if you have a tree in your garden that has been dull brown and leafless for ten years, you should probably stop watering it and just admit that it is as dead as the wooden door to your home.
The third explanation finds biblical support. Man-made, earthly, selfish faith does not last because its object is not the life-giving Christ, but something else, like their own safety, their own comfort, their own desires. Earthly faith eventually drifts, doubts, and becomes dull to the things of God. But true faith perseveres. That’s the major theme of the whole book of Hebrews: remaining faithful to the Finisher of the faith. And one of the threats to that faithfulness is a kind of sluggish laziness.
You remember that the writer has been talking to his readers about a kind of dullness and sluggishness that some of them had. That dullness may be benign, and it may be malignant. The benign form is laziness in a true believer that needs to be repented of. The malignant form is laziness in a false believer, that eventually leads to denying the Gospel. One is a true believer who is in a bad patch and now needs to shake off sloth. The other is an almost Christian, whose prolonged spiritual apathy eventually leads to full apostasy: denying the Lord after once having claimed him.
Remember, in Scripture apostates are simply unbelievers claiming to be one of God’s people while denying the Gospel. Unbelievers, apostates, still need to be saved. And saved people, according to this very book, do not deny the faith.
But having taught us both truths that apostates are not saved, and the saved do not apostatise, he now brought them together and said, “And if you still entertaining the idea of dabbling in both faith and unbelief, and want to imagine what would happen if we could mix the two, the answer is you’d need a second crucifixion.” Since that’s impossible, he says, let no man turn back. Let no one who has come to some understanding of Christ now take that knowledge lightly and turn to the world. Wherever you are: true believer, or not, it is a fearful thing to treat the truths of the Gospel lightly. Truth responded to rightly, with diligence endurance will melt and soften your heart. Truth responded to wrongly, with dull sluggishness will harden your heart.
And the remedy for this slothfulness, this spiritual sluggishness is the idea of Christian perseverance. Many Christians from Cassian in the 4th century, through to the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards have recognised something that is called “healing by contraries”. When you have a sinful inclination one way, you oppose that thing with a godly inclination in the opposite way. The thief is cured not simply by stopping his stealing, but by cultivating giving. The angry man is changed not simply by stopping anger, but by practising gratitude. And this is what we see in Hebrews. We deal with drawing back by drawing near. We deal with casting away our confidence by holding fast. We deal with this slothful fading out with diligently persevering in our faith.
This passage is about persevering, enduring, continuing on. Homing in on just the four verses 9-12, we can understand why perseverance is crucial, what it is, how to obtain it. As I think back on those people, I think about perseverance. As you sit here today, I feel what the writer says, desiring that each one of you would show the same diligence to remain faithful to the end. This passage will show us why that matters, what it means, and how to do it.
I. The Momentousness of Christian Perseverance
But, beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner.
From a terrifying warning, the writer moves to a warm and gentle encouragement. In fact, this is the only time in the book he uses the word beloved. He has now turned from the hypothetical to the actual. And to his actual readers, he assures them: I don’t think verses 4 through 8 are true of you. I am persuaded, convinced of better things concerning you. You are not those that fall away. You are not those whose dullness eventually causes them to disown the faith. You are neither the unsaved, nor are you part of that hypothetical group of saved apostates. Later, he will say this, Hebrews 10:39 – “But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to
the saving of the soul.”
In fact, he tells us he is convinced that better things accompany salvation in general. In other words, falling away does not accompany true salvation. The fruits that accompany salvation are not the thistles, thorns and briars of unbelief and falling away. No, it is the good fruit of perseverance.
That’s what makes it so important. Perseverance is the mark of true faith. See, don’t get this backwards. It is not that there is this vague generic stuff called faith, and in some people it lasts, and in other people it dies. No. What Scripture teaches is that when you truly close with the living Christ in saving faith, that faith is Spirit-generated. The bond that is made between Christ and believer is a bond of life. We are His body, and He is our head. That is a bond where the each needs the other. Now I understand God does not need us. But the biblical metaphor of head and body is showing us that our union with Christ is an immersive, indissoluble union of joined lives.
The faith that accompanies salvation is permanent because it is God’s investment in His own body. Remember that Paul tells us this in Ephesians 5:
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” (vv 25-27)
Because false faith does not unite with Christ, it has no work of God to sustain it. It is self-generated, and will finally drift away. And the writer says, beloved, I know this is not the case with you, because I think you are truly saved, and the fruit that accompanies true salvation will be seen in you. So “even though we speak this way”, it is to lovingly caution the converted, and to firmly warn the complacent. Chrysostom said “It is better that I should scare you with words, than that you should sorrow in deeds.” But it is a momentous thing to have faith that endures. It means there is a supernatural bond between you and your Creator.
What is that going to look like? Is Christian perseverance that you claim you’re a Christian all your life? Is it that you keep going to church all your life?
– David De Bruyn, Professor of Church History, Shepherds’ Seminary Africa