For as we deliberately sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins but some fearful expectation of judgment and a flaming jealousy that will consume the opposition [remains]. Anyone who rejected the Torah of Moses died without mercy on the basis of two or three witnesses. How much worse do you think they will be worthy for punishment, having treated the Son of God with disdain, having considered the blood of the covenant in which they were sanctified to be profane, and having insulted the Spirit of grace?
Reading Hebrews 10.26-27 as a college student always lit a fire of fear in my heart. When I came across the phrase “deliberately sin,” I had this fear that somehow that this was referring to my sins of the past that I had made a choice to do, which at that time I had a highly legalistic picture of sin that wasn’t truly based upon the Word of God. I regularly feared that somehow I had committed some sin that would throw me into the fires of hell.
I am not the only one who has read this passage and feared it. Of course, part of the reason for this is that the rhetoric of the preacher of Hebrews is intending to stoke the fear of God into people’s hearts. The problem is that we misinterpret the connection between vs. 26 and vs. 27, leading us to think it is an if-then state: if X happens, then Y will happen. If I deliberately commit a sin, I will go to hell.
As a consequence of this fear and knowing the confession throughout the Scriptures that God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abundantly forgiving, many translations taking the present participle ἁμαρτανόντων as having a progressive or continuous aspect (“continuing to sin”). Similar to what also happens in the exegesis of 1 John 3.9, there is an attempt to try to translate the present tense as specifically referring to the habitual practice of sin.
While technically possible within the scope of the grammar, it violates the principle that context determines the meaning of the tense; tense does not convey specific meanings so much as it like a piece of clay that the surrounding discourse can mold for its purposes. 1 John 3.9 follows a discourse that transitions from vs. 3, which talks about being pure just as Jesus is pure. Being pure, which conveys an image of wholeness, rules out the act of sin. Similarly, Hebrews 10.26-27 falls soon after the conclusion of the preacher’s discussion on the nature of sacrifices, where he brings forth the conclusion that Christ’s sacrifice has perfected sanctified people. So, when the preach talks about sin in v. 26, he isn’t talking about the continuous activity of sin but deliberate deviance from the entire sanctification that Christ’s offering brings about. In short, entire sanctification is the default perspective for the preacher of Hebrews and conscious deviance from that is the problem.
Yet, we fail to grasp the rhetorical device that is being used in Hebrews 10.26-29. The purpose is not to give a conditional statement of what follows if one deliberately sins. Rather, it is a portrayal of the reality one is walking into when one sins in such a manner.
First, he is not talking about a person making a choice to sin. This is not addressing the internal, psychological reality of making a choice to act in a specific way that is deemed sin. It is something deeper than that. It is done once a person has the “recognition of the truth.” Often translated as “knowledge,” ἐπίγνωσιν refers to something more than just having learned a set of true facts or a doctrine. It is knowledge-in-action, it is the active recognition of something. Previously, the preacher has talked about the cleansing from an evil conscience (συνειδήσεως πονηρᾶς), which reflects the way that a person is actively thinking what is evil and harmful (cf. Matthew 9.4). Once the sanctifying work of the cross has its effect, people’s hearts begin to think about and perceive the world differently. So, the choice to deliberately sin is done against the recognition by the person of the truth/reality that their actions have. They recognize the truth about good and evil that their actions can accomplish and yet they decide to act in the direction of evil. It is like a physician who recognizes and understands the best route to heal a patient, but then actively chooses to commit harm. This is more than our sins done in ignorance, the sins we do under mental compulsions and habits, or even sins we choose to do while we have “theoretical” knowledge in our head about the truth, but when a person sins as they concretely and personally understand the consequences their actions can have.
Second, he makes the point there is not an alternative sacrifice for sins. This isn’t saying that the sacrifice of Jesus is no longer available for them. Instead, the point is that in spurning the sanctification that the atonement of Jesus provides, there isn’t another sacrifice that will be available to address their sin (Cf. Hebrews 10.18). For Jews accustomed to the sacrifices of the OT, they might be tempted to think “another sacrifice will address my sin.” Yet, the point of Hebrews is that now there is only one offering for sin and it purifies believers, not simply procures forgiveness. If one deliberately sins, the implication is that that person is actively working against the only offering for sin that is now available. In the end, the sacrifice of Jesus leads to forgiveness only as it sanctifies. As the offering of Christ has freed the mind to recognize good, to deliberately act against this active consciousness of what is good is to actively resist the sanctification.
Third, the preacher casts a picture of what a person should begin to *expect* in the future (ἐκδοχὴ) as they deliberately sin. He doesn’t say it is a foregone conclusion right there that the sinner will come into judgment. Instead, they cast a mental image of what their actions are leading towards in the future. To deliberately sin as one readily comprehends the truth is to go down the route to actively set oneself against God. A single deliberate sin does not itself create this certain future of judgment, but it is more like a person has deliberately chosen to take a step away from God’s will; the preacher is getting the audience to see what they can expect from that pathway they are stepping.
Fourth, the reason for this judgment is not simply as a judgment of their act of sin. Rather, deliberate sin is to take a step down the pathway towards denigrating the atoning work that Christ and the Holy Spirit has done in the believer. God’s judgment is going to come against those who disregard and insulted the atoning work of Christ and the Spirit that has been done in their lives. A deliberate sin doesn’t equate to such apostasy, but it is a step that goes in that direction.
That the preacher does not think judgment is the present reality for the audience is made clear in 10.32-39. Whatever had happened that made him warn them about deliberate sin, he doesn’t think judgment is their certain future or that they have apostatized (compare Hebrews 6.4-8 with 9-12). Instead, he reminds them of their past when they endured the persecution with the expectation of great reward in the future for their faithfulness. In other words, even in the midst of some deliberate sin that may have occurred that points towards an image of a future judgment, he casts an alternate image of future blessing and reward from God. Two different portrayals of God’s actions in the future are put forward, beckoning those who have deliberately sinned to reverse course from the route that will lead them to apostatize and return to their previous faithfulness and confidence.
The implication of the preacher’s rhetoric isn’t to deny the possibility of Christ’s atonement for the deliberate sinner, but to get them to recognize the route they are choosing to walk down has no other alternatives available to them. The preacher is trying to inculcate the fear of God into their hearts, not as an immediate, terrifying prospect of God’s wrath towards them in that moment, but the recognition that the pathway of deliberate, defiant sin is to begin to set their lives against a God who will judge those who stand in opposition and deliberately spurn Him. God’s grace and mercy are still available, but it will entail the deliberate sinner to stop acting against the sanctifying work of Christ in their hearts and minds (that is, repent). Two different futures are put forward by the preacher, inviting the people to return down the pathway of faithfulness amidst their sin.
What is important to understand here is that this is not putting forward a doctrinal view of apostasy, as if people have come to the wrong ideas about God, Jesus, etc. Nor is it simply about people’s struggles with faith. Rather, it is connected with the resistance against the sanctifying atonement of Christ.
What happens when we commit some sin that we know we shouldn’t do is that we begin to resolve the cognitive dissonance between our knowledge and our actions. Our minds actively endeavor to maintain consistency between what we believe and do. At this point, there are two ways the dissonance can be resolved. On the other hand, one can resolve the dissonance by recognizing one’s actions as wrong, thereby retaining the knowledge and beliefs one has. This is part of repentance, where we take on a disregarding attitude towards our actions. In this case, one solidifies one’s faith and belief.
On the other hand, when we are more concerned about self-enhancing ourselves in our own eyes and in the eyes of others, the dissonance will instead be resolved by rationalizing one’s behaviors, especially through diminishing and minimizing personal responsibility. This in turn leads to actively work against the knowledge of the truth that God has brought to us through the sanctifying work of the cross of Christ. Continue down this pathway, the resolution of cognition dissonance will proceed beyond simply rejecting the truth about what is good and evil, but one will come face-to-face with the possibility of spurning Jesus Himself. The continuous cycle of self-enhancement will lead one down the road that will bring them to the edge of the cliff of apostasy. All this occurs because a person more values the enhancement of themselves over the truth that God has brought to their recognition, thereby resolving dissonance by rationalization, minimization, and distraction. By proceeding down that line, a person is becoming hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3.13).
While the process of cognitive dissonance resolution is ALWAYS at work in us, from the most minor, inconsequential of matters to the most serious of concerns, the more deeply rooted our thinking is and the more deliberate and conscious our actions are, the more powerful the effect that cognitive dissonance resolution will have on us. Hence, deliberate sin would be a much more serious matter than compulsive sins where a person feels at times helpless to stop and sins of ignorance.
This is the psychological reality that undergirds the preacher’s rhetoric about the future possibilities of divine judgment or divine reward. It isn’t a statement about the punishment of hell for a single, deliberate sin. The false, one-sin-deserves-hell mentality has caused so many to misread the preacher’s portrayal of future possibilities as a present reality if one sins, which has lead many people to then try to reread the passage to talk about the habit of sins or as a mere hypothetical. Such a degree of fear leading to unwarranted readings are entirely unnecessary, overlooking and ignoring the patient, forgiving love of God.