Be Careful Lest You Fall Away
The following is edited from a message given at the Heart-Cry for Revival Conference in April 2011 at The Cove, Asheville, North Carolina, U.S.A. Used by permission.
A foundational truth underlying this message is the truth that to whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48). Now the church does not believe this truth, at least not in any significant way that affects her conduct. Listen to these words from Nehemiah chapter nine: "Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the sons of Israel assembled with fasting, in sackcloth and with dirt upon them. The descendants of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. While they stood in their place, they read from the book of the law of the Lord their God for a fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshiped the Lord their God" (vv. 1-4).
When was the last time you participated in a meeting of that sort? When was the last time you sat with dirt upon yourself, or in sackcloth and ashes? "To whom much is given, much is required." Who has more, Nehemiah and the people of his day or believers now? Nehemiah had but a fraction of what we have. He did not have a Bible. There was no Cross in his life, though he had a Cross to look forward to. He did not have the Holy Spirit in the same sense that we have the Holy Spirit today. We could make a long list of things that Nehemiah and his people did not have, and yet their response to God was vastly more serious than the typical response to God by the church of today. Do we really believe that to whom much is given, much is required?
Warnings in the Book of Hebrews
The Book of Hebrews stresses this truth and has an urgent and consequential message for us. The book is constructed of two parts intertwined one with the other. There are passages that are clearly doctrinal in which Christ is elevated. These are glorious passages in which Christ is shown to be infinitely superior to angels, to Moses, to Abraham, to the sacrificial system and to the priesthood. Intertwined with these doctrinal passages are warning passages – no less than six warnings of the severest kind. The heart of all of these warning passages is that it is not how you start the Christian life, but how you finish that counts. But many Christians do not really believe this. Instead, they believe that if a person has a moment of faith, he/she is forever saved.
Turn to the Book of Hebrews with me as we focus upon the warning passages. The first three passages are:
1) 2:1-4 which deals with the issue of drifting away;
2) 3:5 – 4:13 which deals with the danger of hardening the heart;
3) 5:11 – 6:12 which deals with the incredible problem of dullness of hearing and sluggishness of spirit.
These three issues characterize the bulk of the church in our land today. There are large numbers of people that if they ever had salvation at all (and ofttimes it is dubious that they really did), they have drifted away to an amazing degree. Everywhere I go I encounter people who have hardened their hearts. They were at one time under conviction, but somehow they refused to respond to God, and in the process of refusing, their hearts were hardened. The bulk of the church is obviously sluggish, dull and lost in terms of the keenness, vitality and passion of true Christianity.
I recently had the privilege of preaching twenty-four sermons on the doctrine of salvation, addressing all the major terms in the New Testament dealing with salvation – terms such as regeneration, justification, conversion, repentance, faith, and so on. I began the series with three messages orientating the people to the theme of salvation. First of all, salvation is a Person. Remember the words of Simeon, "For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation" (Luke 2:30). Secondly, salvation is a passion. When you come into a right relationship with the Lord, you have come into a right relationship with a Person of passion. How can you be a child of the King and lack the passion of the King? Thirdly, salvation is power. How can I claim to be vitally related to Christ as a child of God while absolutely lacking all power to rise above sin and self, as well as power to serve God in a fashion that demonstrates His glory to a lost world? But instead of these things, the majority of people I encounter have been drifting away. They have allowed their own hearts to harden and they have become dull and sluggish.
Apply Truths on Three Levels
Before we look at the warnings, I encourage you to set your mind and your heart to apply the truths of these passages to three realms. First of all, apply them in a very personal way. Ask yourself the question, "Have I in any fashion drifted?" Secondly, apply them in terms of Christian fellowship. Now people often think of Christian fellowship in terms of talking after a service about a ballgame or about lunch plans. But I am talking about Christian fellowship in terms of stepping up to a fellow believer and asking, "Have you in any way drifted? Let me show you the terrible danger of drifting." When was the last time we took Christian fellowship seriously and began to concern ourselves with urgency about our fellow Christians? Thirdly, if you are a spiritual leader, apply these truths church-wide. Has not the time come when we must take these warnings seriously and begin to use them for the promotion of revival in the church?
The Danger of Drifting
The first warning is found in Hebrews 2:1-4: "For this reason we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will."
Warning number one is about drifting. In this passage the author of Hebrews draws a contrast between what those in the old covenant had received and the means by which they received it, with what we have received and the means by which we received it. Clearly the text says they received the law at the hand of angels. Now that is a very significant thing, and their experience on Sinai when the law was given was indeed a powerful experience. But receiving the law at the hand of angels can hardly be compared in a consequential way with the Gospel that we received from the very Son of God Himself. It was then confirmed by those who heard, with God also bearing witness by signs and wonders, miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit. How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? The point is obvious: To whom much is given, much is required.
Now as we consider the issue of drifting, we have to face that fact that a large number of people in our churches could not have drifted from anything consequential because they never had anything consequential. They were falsely taught and drawn into the church on pretenses rather than biblical fact. There are also those in the church who never had a very large dose of salvation. They never came all that near to our dear Savior, and they drifted from the little bit they had.
But what about those who have received the full dose of the grace of Christ and the benefits of His death, burial and resurrection, and at one time felt a great deal more passion toward Christ, a great deal stronger hatred toward sin, and a great deal more love toward God, but have drifted from it? What about you? Has any drifting occurred in your life? Are you less urgent in holiness than you once were, and not as apt to set aside time for serious heart-searching and pleading for the Lord to see if there be any wicked way in you?
Obviously, after having received so much, our response must be vastly greater and more uniform than those under the old covenant. If the Lord dealt with those people with such firmness when they had so little, if "the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense" (v. 2), how can we think for a moment that we can get away with drifting from so much? Surely our heart cry for revival must include the urgent appeal, "O God, help me to live up to the light that I have received! Help me to never in any way drift from what You have given."
Faithfulness Is Essential
The second of the warning passages begins in chapter three verse five: "Now Moses was faithful in all [God’s] house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken later; but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house – whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end" (3:5-6). Let us not glaze over this. Faith without faithfulness is nothing. Moses believed God and held fast. Of course, near the very end of his life, Moses lost his temper, and with his staff struck the rock that God had commanded him to speak to. But God did not strike him dead or send him to hell. However, in order to maintain His own holiness and glory, God did not let the sin go unnoticed. There is always just recompense even as we read in the first warning. God did not allow Moses to finish his life’s work, but He also did not remove him from His kingdom. God demonstrated mercy to him, and Moses was faithful despite his sin. And Christ was faithful without any exception.
The statement we must not fail to realize is that we are His house "if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end" (v. 6). We have pretended that if a person makes a one time declaration with his mouth he is in the kingdom. But God says we must go on and affirm that Jesus Christ is Lord throughout our lives. I repeat, it is not how you start, but how you finish.
Sin Hardens Hearts
Look also beginning at verse seven: "Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tried Me by testing Me, and saw My works for forty years. Therefore I was angry with this generation, and said, "They always go astray in their heart, and they did not know My ways"; as I swore in My wrath, "They shall not enter My rest."’ Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God" (3:7-12).
We have all sorts of people in ministry who are living in the depths of moral wickedness, and according to their own understanding believe they are absolutely safe and secure. I have had men tell me that they have been adulterers all their lives, and yet know that they are Christians. We have a countless number of churches that know their pastor is an adulterer and do not think for a single moment of removing him from ministry.
How about the rest of us? "To whom much is given, much is required." God was intolerant of sin in the Old Testament, and He declares His intolerance of sin in the New Testament, but we pretend that God is so overwhelmed with love and grace that He overlooks our small failures. It is very easy to convince yourself that you are a special favorite of God, and that He is a God of all grace and all mercy and does not hold people responsible for their sin. But that is the god of the imagination, a changing god, and not the unchanging God of the Bible.
When God tells us to not do something and we defy Him, it hardens our hearts. Some folks wonder what is going on in the occasions where it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and other occasions where it says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. What does God have to do to harden your heart? Nothing. He just needs to cease softening it, and within moments a heart can be hardened. People can go throughout a major portion of their lives with their hearts hardened and never even be aware of it. All across our land and around the world there are multitudes of Christians who do not even know that their hearts are hard. So the question has to be asked, "Is there any area in your life where you have hardened your heart?" If there is any area of stubbornness or rebellion where God has spoken to you, and you have failed to respond fully to Him, the consequence is that your heart is hardened.
Disobedience and Unbelief
Let’s look at more of the passage. "Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end; while it is said, ‘Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me.’ For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they should not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? And so we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief" (Heb. 3:12-19).
Some of us have failed to connect disobedience and unbelief. To say that you believe and yet you disobey is obscene. Is God so dumb that He does not see through that kind of idle foolishness? Faith is not passive assent or acquiescence, but active obedience. You have only to look in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews to see that the people described there as having faith were given something to do and they did it. There are multitudes of Old Testament characters who were disobedient and did not make their way into Hebrews eleven. Is there any disobedience in your life in any realm? If there is, hardening of the heart is a grievous danger. To talk about revival without focusing upon the absolute necessity of true and total repentance is indeed a very foolish matter.
The warning continues into the next chapter: "Therefore, let us fear lest, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you should seem to come short of it. For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard. For we who have believed enter that rest; just as He has said, ‘As I swore in My wrath, they shall not enter My rest,’ although His works were finished from the foundation of the world. For He has thus said somewhere concerning the seventh day, ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all His works’; and again in this passage, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’ Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience, He again fixes a certain day, ‘Today,’ saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before, ‘Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts’" (4:1-7).
We have already observed that to hear the Word and unite it with faith means to act upon that Word and do whatever it is the Lord says to do. Any failure to act upon what God says is unbelief. Again I would urge you to ask, "Have I acted in disobedience in any realm and thus hardened my heart?" When we are talking about revival, we are talking about being in such a relationship with God that there are no barriers that keep Him from moving profoundly and beautifully upon us.
Dullness of Hearing and Sluggishness of Spirit
The third warning passage starts in Hebrews 5:11: "Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for some one to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For every one who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil" (vv. 11-14).
Dullness of hearing and stunted growth go together. The American church is characterized by these. Sometimes it can be blamed on dull preaching – and there is plenty of that, shamefully so. There is no burning fire and no genuine passion. Nothing matters enough for many preachers to even exert themselves. But when you consider who the Savior is and His plan for all of His Creation, it seems to me that preachers should rouse themselves and begin to preach in such a way that nobody would dare to fall asleep!
The author of Hebrews goes on: "Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings, and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we shall do, if God permits. For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good Word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame. For ground that drinks the rain which often falls upon it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned. But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way. For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises" (6:1-12).
Many people have become sluggish and believe in effect, "Well, I’m in the kingdom now. I’m just going to enjoy life knowing that heaven is assured." Heaven is assured for all those who have faith, but there is no faith if the Lord says repent and you do not repent, if He says to press on and you do not press on. There is no faith if you are sluggish. If you have faith, you know how vital the kingdom of God is, and how urgent it is that you pour everything you have into its advancement.
The point again is this: It does not matter how you start, but how you finish. In the passage above, the author is saying that if you seem to have had a good start, but you have become dull and sluggish, you have misinformed and deceived yourself.
Take the Warnings to Heart
According to Hebrews 11:1, faith gives substance to things that are hoped for. It provides evidence of things not seen. A believer is a person who is much more affected by the unseen and the hoped for than by the world of taste and touch. So ask with honesty where you stand in terms of these three warnings. Have you somehow slipped into the tragic position of drifting? Have you sinned and refused to repent and thus hardened your heart? Have you become dull and sluggish so that the eternal matters that should profoundly impact all of life have become less consequential to you than the things that you can taste and touch?
Seriousness about revival demands that we pay close attention to these warnings. "To whom much is given, much is required."
[Editor’s Note: Next month we plan to print part two of this message which includes three additional warnings.]
Richard Owen Roberts is the president and a founding director of International Awakening Ministries.