Warnings With Teeth

by Austin Duncan



The church today is faced with the same threat that has plagued it in every age—the ever present danger of apostasy. Because this is the danger that confronted the pastor who preached the sermon recorded in the book of Hebrews, Hebrews is an instructive for pastors, as it models how we should alert our congregations of the danger or apostasy.

The cause of apostasy, according to Hebrews, is spiritual lethargy. It follows then that the best counter to apostasy to an unrelenting focus on the preeminence of Jesus. Instead of launching new programs, asserting initiatives, and attending to church growth trends, the preacher serves his congregation well when he invites his church to consider afresh the glories of Christ revealed in Scripture.

But effective warnings against apostasy are more particular than simply proclaiming the glories of Christ. I say “more particular” because the author takes the glories of Christ and uses them to warn the readers about the specific dangers of apostasy. He warns his readers, with real warnings, about the real dangers of the real threat of apostasy. In fact, his warnings are so dire that many contemporary preachers not only refuse to model them, but actually explain them away! In so doing they take the threats of the Bible designed to produce endurance and neuter them in an attempt to remove the danger. But this only increases the threat of apostasy.  

It is true that a regenerate believer cannot lose his salvation any more than he can undo the work of the Holy Spirit. But that truth should not keep pastors from preaching threats and warnings in the same tone that the preacher of Hebrews did. Thomas Schreiner explains:

Those who are elected, called and justified, will certainly be glorified. It’s also true that no genuine believer will apostatize. But these warning passages are clearly addressed to believers. Believers are described here and they are threatened with eternal destruction, not with the loss of reward, if they commit apostasy.

The danger of apostasy is not limited to this single congregation of Hebrews some 2,000 years ago. For one reason, similar warnings are found in Jude, 2 Peter, and Revelation. What should the pastor do with these passages? Well, the warnings that are given here are one of the means that God uses to preserve his peoples’ faith. It’s one of the means that God uses to solicit his people to obedience, or as Schreiner says, “The warnings in the scriptures are intended to arouse us from lethargy and propel us onward in the path of faith.”

Preachers need to hold onto these warning passages as a means to warn your people that if they abandon Christ, it would be proof positive that they never belonged to him. It’s not enough to simply step back and systematize and explain the “P” in the tulip to our people. Instead we should speak with similarly strong language used in Hebrews.

These warning passages are not the place to teach about predestination and election. Just because our Systematic Theology Book stifles these passages by placing them on an ultimate and cosmic level, that’s not what the authors of the Scripture do. Too often young preachers (and specifically young Calvinists) feel the need to deaden the effects of warnings by inserting something the author of Scripture didn’t. Don’t follow the warning passages by saying “Well, actually yes, but…not really.”

This is certainly one of the reasons that we see apostasy in our age. We teach perseverance of the saints. We believe that doctrine, and it is true. But we use that doctrine out of place when it becomes our practical excuse to avoid warning our congregations like the preacher of Hebrews does.

Employing the kind of strong language used in Hebrews shows our confidence in the Spirit of God’s inspiration of a text without, without feeling the need to explaining it from every other angles than the author did.

With every confidence you should be able to read Hebrews 6:4-8 and hear those warnings, and in the same breath do what he did in vs. 9 and say, “Though we speak thus, in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things that belong to salvation.” Do you see that beautiful balance he strikes? He can threaten and warn, and then with every confidence in his flock know that if they belong to God, they will forever belong to God. He has every confidence that his readers will not shipwreck their faith. That they will not commit the sin of apostasy. That they will not fall away from God. That they will indeed persevere.

Before seminary, I attended a Bible College where I encountered a professor who was a rank Arminian. He told us that he knew we could all lose our salvation because he once knew a very faithful Sunday school teacher who later in life become an atheist. He warned us not to emulate her.

While on the one hand, he at least tried to warn us against apostasy. But on the other hand, his warning was less than effective because he started with experience, then moved to application. While the Calvinist might start with theology and then explain away the power of a passage, the Arminian too often starts with experience, then uses that to amplify scripture.  We ought not make either error, but instead we should build a biblical case for perseverance that includes God’s warnings, not excludes them.

Let me put it this way—if your explanation of the warning passages results in the passages having no teeth—no bark, no bite, just empty words—then you are doing it wrong. Understand that the clear preaching of warnings—warnings with teeth!—is of the ways that God keeps his people from falling away, while simultaneously giving confidence in the security of salvation.

These passages are one of the ways that God keeps us from falling. He entices us with the glories of salvation and reward and he threatens us with terrible judgment and destruction.

Let me challenge pastors who read this—aim to speak about perseverance in a more biblical way; preach more like the preacher of Hebrews.