The Danger of Falling Away

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“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it,” says the author of Hebrews (Hebrews 2:1).

Stern warning! It’s the first of five warning passages in the letter (2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; 12:14-29). For instance: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:15).

The writer keeps sounding the alarm: don’t fall away. It’s possible. You may already be on your way. Stay on guard. Help each other.

Don’t fall away. It’s possible. You may already be on your way.

These warnings have confused some. Is it possible for a genuine believer to fall away? Hebrews seems to make it clear: not all who profess faith will persist to the end. Some will fall away.

The ultimate tragedy, he writes, is to profess to believe the gospel of a crucified Savior, only to join in the crowd of sinners mocking Jesus’ death, “crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (Hebrews 6:6). Those who once seemed to worship a crucified Savior join in crucifying him again.

May it never be.

So how do we read these warnings? Doesn’t God promise to preserve all those who truly believe? Yes, but Herman Bavinck helps us understand the doctrine of perseverance. “Preservation of the saints is also both gift and task,” he wrote. It’s a gift: receive it. But it’s also a task: remain faithful. Stay true to your Savior. Don’t take things for granted. Heed the warnings of Scripture so you don’t fall away.

“Preservation of the saints is also both gift and task.” (Herman Bavinck)

Falling Away in Stages

Apostasy, like an affair, happens in stages. We don’t wake up one day and apostatize. We take a tentative step. We don’t deny; we question. We start to open to possibilities we would have previously denied. We pull away from those who would challenge us. We look around and find others who have taken the same journey. We begin to describe our journey as one to freedom, finally free from the shackles that used to hold us.

I’m old enough to have seen this happen in the lives of people I like and respect. It’s happened in the lives of friends, including pastors. It’s happened in the lives of people I’ve pastored. It happens to previously prominent pastors and teachers. Hebrews warns us: it could happen to us too. Stay on guard, and take preventive action so that you don’t fall away.

How to Not Fall Away

Hebrews gives us some practical steps we can take, including these:

  • Pay much closer attention to what we have heard (Hebrews 2:1)
  • Beware of an unbelieving heart (Hebrews 3:12)
  • Encourage one another (Hebrews 3:13)
  • Work hard to enter the rest promised through the gospel (Hebrews 4:11)
  • Move from elementary doctrines to maturity (Hebrews 6:1)
  • Draw near to God (Hebrews 10:22)
  • Hold on tight to the confession of hope (Hebrews 10:23)
  • Live in a community of mutual encouragement (Hebrews 10:24-25)

The whole letter includes truths and commands designed to help us avoid the danger of falling away.

Falling away doesn’t seem to take much effort. It happens automatically. Staying faithful is much harder: we must stay on guard, taken continual, deliberate action, hold on for our lives to God and his gospel, and get help from others.

Run with endurance (Hebrews 12:1). Keep going. Don’t take his blessings for granted. Take heed of the warnings. Help others stay faithful too. Mostly, look to Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). And keep looking to him until the end.

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