IF there is a single book of the Bible that is most responsible for my becoming United Methodist and Wesleyan, it is the book of Hebrews. In my high school days, I was a Southern Baptists, where the idea of eternal security, that once you are saved you are always saved, was a basic assumption of Christian faith. So, my freshmen year of college, I start reading through Hebrews and the various warning passages wallop me: salvation is not eternally secure. But with this also came a deep struggle against sin that became expressed in feelings of perfectionism and a fear of ever falling away. I would fall into fear everytime I did something I felt was unfaithful to God. This lead me on a theological exploration, where I landed upon the man of John Wesley and his theology. Eventually, as I got into this theological understanding, I got past these fears that God’s judgment is on a hair-line trigger, but those warning passages always stuck in the back of my mind.
What the problem was is that I was reading those warning passages with the wrong mindset. I had heard them against the background of “one sin condemns you to hell” mindset that is so common in evangelical circles; I thought they a warning simply about bad behavior. And I would say many people hear it that way, which leads people to instinctively push against the possibility of falling away. It is a frightful idea, especially when we all have spiritual weaknesses where sin seems to get the upper hand.
But if we look closely at exhortation in Hebrews, the concern isn’t some bare moralism. The concerns isn’t that you struggle once with whatever sin seems to overwhelm you at a specific moment, but rather the nature of the power that sin can seems to have over the person. in Hebrews 3:13, the preacher exhorts Christians to exhort each other in order to avoid the “deceitfulness of sin” that can harden a person. The rationale for this exhortation is the following verse, saying that people are partners in Christ is they continued to maintain τῆς ὑποστάσεως, which I take to refer to the most fundamental, foundational elements of faith in God. The problem being addressed isn’t specifically that people sin, though that is a struggle we all face and need help from Jesus for as a faithful high priest; the problem being expressed is how sin can deceive people to think and feel the wrong things. We know this today as the resolution of cognitive dissonance through rationalization, where our thinking believes false things and ignores the evidence to the contrary. When we get into a mindset of rationalization, our listening to anything that challenges those rationalized beliefs gets shut out. It makes us poor listeners, if not even actively avoiding anything that would convict us. Rationalization, if it goes on long enough, can make us “hardened” in our present resolve, which is far from the truth.
The preacher of Hebrews is expressing this concern, that his audience not let sin so twist and deceive them that they fail to appropriately hear and listen to the word/Word of God; his concern is that they become like the Israelites who, though they heard God’s word through Moses, were hardened from receiving it. Hence, earlier, he encourages his audience to “pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.” (Hebrews 2:1) He describes the Israelites this way in 4:2: “For indeed the 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.” This echoes a similar phrase of Paul in Galatians 3:1-5: “hearing with faith.” It wasn’t simply enough to hear God’s word, but it is must be joined with a heart that listens with an attitude of faith in God.
So, at the fundamental core of the sermon of Hebrews is the encouragement to keep their faith and trust in God, who has made Himself known through His Son. It is this faith that makes people open and receptive to the voice of God. The problem of sin isn’t that it immediately condemns us to be outside of God’s love; rather, the problem of sin is how it can twist our minds from being receptive to trusting, hearing, and obeying God.
Therefore, in order to try to jolt the audience out from their drowsy stupor, though he doesn’t think they have fallen away, he engages in a close, reading of various texts from the Scriptures, and reading them as they relate to the work and ministry of Jesus. The exegetical work on the Scriptures is done with the framework of hearing with faith. The focus of his exegesis is to explain, essentially, how Jesus is faithful to help people through his ministry as a high priest and his sacrificial death.
Thus, he attempts to draw forth their attitude of faith and hope from a people whose faith seemed to be operating in the margins, but in what is ultimately a sympathetic tone. After all, they seem to have gone through some oppression, which can challenge many people within their faith. As a consequence, they seem to have begun to cease to be a community that showed love towards each other, but their hearts may have been growing cold. It isn’t that they had fallen into some great sin, but that their hearts were growing darker under the shadow of their troubles. Thus, they needed someone who could see the faith that truly rests within their heart and to call it forth, in order to resist the deceitfulness and isolation that can occur from a cold heart.
In many ways, this is my own story. Having endured an onsalught of lies and a painful isolation, I myself had grown cold to others. I was a victim, and while I never pleaded for people to treat me in a special way, I held that in my own heart and I became defensive towards other people, including my fellow Christians. My faith had grown weaker, though never extinguished. But it has been through persons who have, in their own way, exhorted me in such a way that brought my faith back to the forefront. I had so designed myself to be a person of character and integrity that would avoid the warnings of Hebrews, that I overlooked the essential role that faith has in who we are as Christians. By my misunderstanding of Hebrews that trained me to be a person of character, I became a person who was, even though I was wrongly treated, in need of an exhortation in the Hebrews style, for someone to bring that faith that resided in my heart back out. One could say, looking back, that the direction my faith took has been shaped by Hebrews, both in my misunderstood readings and then a new eye to see it later on down the road.