Commentary on Hebrews 12:15-17
AW Pink (1886-1952)
Copyright: Public Domain
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A Call to Examination
We had first thought of giving a brief exposition of this verse at the close of the preceding article. But we felt this would scarcely satisfy some of our more critical readers. Nor is it our custom to dodge difficulties, and this presents a real difficulty unto not a few. Those Arminians who are ready to grasp at a straw have appealed to it in support of their favorite tenet “falling from grace.” On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that the replies given by Calvinists thereon have often been unsatisfactory. It seems therefore that a more careful consideration and fuller elucidation of its contents are called for. Following, then, our usual practice, we shall endeavor, as God assists, to bring out the meaning of its several terms and apply them to our consciences and lives.
The following are the points upon which our attention needs to be concentrated. First, the connection between our present verse and its context. Second, the duty enjoined: “looking diligently.” Third, the danger to be avoided: “lest any man fail of the grace of God.” Fourth, the evil warned against: “lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you.” Fifth, the resultant consequence if the evil be tolerated: “and thereby many be defiled.” In considering these points it will have to be carefully ascertained what it is about which we are here exhorted to be “looking diligently.” What is signified by “lest any man fail of the grace of God,” and if that be the correct translation, or whether the Greek requires us to accept the marginal alternative of “falling from the grace of God.” And finally, what is denoted by the “root of bitterness springing up.” May wisdom be granted us from on High.
First, then, the connection between our present verse and its context. We will first consider its more general and remote relation, and then its more specific and immediate. The link between Hebrews 12:15 and that which precedes may be thus exhibited: if the afflictions which fidelity to Christ occasion and the chastenings of the Father are not duly improved by professing Christians they are almost certain to become a serious stumbling-block in the way of personal piety, yea, a temptation to apostasy itself. This, we believe, is the first reference in the “looking diligently.” Unless professing Christians are duly “exercised” (verse 11) over God’s disciplinary dealings with them, they are very apt to misconstrue them, chafe against them, call into question the Divine goodness, and sink into a state of despair, with its accompanying inertia.
What has just been pointed out above receives confirmation from the verses which immediately follow, for verses 16 and 17 are obviously a continuation of our present text. There we find a solemn exhortation against apostasy itself, pointed by the awful case and example of Esau. Here we are warned against that, which if neglected, has a fearful tendency unto apostasy. Most of us know from painful experience how easily we become discouraged when things do not go as we want, how ready we are to “faint” (verse 5) when the rod of adversity is laid upon us, how real is the temptation to compromise or forsake the path of duty altogether when trials multiply or opposition and persecution is all that our best efforts meet with. Real, then, is our need for heeding this exhortation “Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God.”
It is unspeakably solemn to note that in the case of Esau his temptation to sell his birthright—apostatize—was occasioned by his faintness, for we are told that he said to Jacob, “Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage, for I am faint” (Gen. 25:30). And is it not when we are faint in our minds, cast down by the difficulties of the way, disheartened by the lack of appreciation our efforts meet with, and crushed by one trial on top of another, that Satan bids us give up the fight of faith and “get what pleasure we can out of life” by indulging the lusts of the flesh? Looked at thus our text points out the spring of apostasy—”falling of the grace of God;” the nature of apostasy—a “root of bitterness springing up;” and the result of apostasy—”many be defiled.”
Considering now the more specific and immediate connection of our verse with its context. First, unless the hands which hang down be lifted up and the feeble knees strengthened (verse 12), there will be a “failing of the grace of God;” and unless straight paths are made for our feet and that which is “lame” be prevented from “turning out of the way” (verse 13), then a “root of bitterness” (an apostate) will spring up, and in consequence, “many will be defiled.” Second, in verse 14 we are exhorted to “follow” two things, namely, “peace” and “holiness;” while in verse 15 we are warned to avoid two things, namely, “failing of the grace of God” and suffering “a root of bitterness to spring up.” The opening “Looking diligently” clearly denotes that our avoidance of the two evils of verse 15 turns or is dependent upon our earnest pursuit of the spiritual graces inculcated in verse 14.
We are now ready to contemplate the duty which is here enjoined: “looking diligently.” This is a call to examination: first, to self-examination. Its immediate force is derived from the closing words of the preceding verse, where the solemn and searching statement is made that “without which (namely ‘holiness’) no man shall see the Lord.” No matter though I am in fellowship with the people of God, a member of a scriptural church, a regular attender upon the means of grace, a firm believer in all the doctrines of the Word; yet, if I have never been sanctified by the Spirit of God, if I am not diligently and earnestly cultivating practical holiness, both of heart and life, then I shall never enter Heaven, and enjoy the beatific vision. Hence the pertinency and urgency of this exhortation, “Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God.” There is far too much at stake to remain in uncertainty upon such a vital matter, and only the religious trifler will disregard this imperative summons.
The call to careful self-examination receives its urgency from the very great danger there is of self-deception. Sin darkens the understanding, so that man is unable to perceive his real state before God. Satan “hath blinded the minds of them which believe not” (2 Cor. 4:4). The deep-rooted pride of our hearts makes us think the best of ourselves, so that if a question is raised in our hearts, we are ever prone to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. A spirit of sloth possesses us by nature, so that we are unwilling to go to the trouble which real self-examination calls for. Hence the vast majority of religious professors remain with a head knowledge of the Truth, with outward attention to forms and ceremonies, or resting on a mere consent to the letter of some verse like John 3:16, refusing to “make their calling and election sure.”
God has warned us plainly in His Word that, “There is a generation that are pure in their own eyes and yet is not washed from their filthiness” (Prov. 30:12). He has set before us those who say “I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing,” and who know not that they are “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). And let it be duly noted that those were in church association, and that at a time before the last of the apostles had left the earth. Christ has told us that “Many will say to Me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name? and in Thy name have cast out devils? and in Thy name done many wonderful works?” yea, that they affirm “we have eaten and drunk in Thy presence” (Luke 13:26); yet will He answer them “I never knew you: depart from Me, ye that work iniquity” (Matthew 7:23). How such words as those should make each of us tremble! How it behooves us to be “Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God.” Alas that such words—written first to those who had been addressed as “holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling” (3:1)—should, for the most part, fall upon unheeding ears.
The fact is, that our diligence and honesty in self-examination will largely be determined by the value which we set upon our soul and its eternal interests. Alas, the vast majority of professing Christians today are far, far more concerned about their bodies than their souls, about carnal pleasures than spiritual fiches, about earthly comforts than heavenly consolations, about the good opinion of their fellows rather than the approbation of God. But a few—and O how few—are made serious, become in deadly earnest to examine well their foundations and test every inch of the ground they stand on. With them religion is not something to be taken up and laid down according to their fitful moods. Where will they spend ETERNITY is their all-absorbing concern. Every other interest in life sinks into utter insignificance before the vital consideration of seeking to make sure that they have “the root of the matter” in them.
O my reader, can you be satisfied with the cheap, easy-going religion of the day, which utterly ignores the clamant call of the Son of God “Agonize to enter in at the strait gate” (Luke 13:24)? Can you rest content with the “smooth things” now being proclaimed from well nigh every pulpit, which assures those who are at emnity with God they can become Christians more easily than a youth can join the army, or a man become a ‘free mason’ or ‘odd fellow’? Can you follow the great crowd who claim to have “received Christ as their personal Savior” when no miracle of grace has been wrought in their hearts, while the Lord Himself declares “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto Life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:14)? Dare you rest upon some “decision” made when you were deeply stirred by some anecdotes addressed to your emotions? Have you nothing more than some change in your religious views or some reformation in your outward ways to show that you are “a new creature in Christ Jesus”? Slight not, we beseech you, this pressing word, “Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God.”
But the word “Looking diligently” has a wider signification than self-examination: it also points out our duty toward each other. The Greek term means “overseeing,” exercising a jealous care for one another. This seems to have misled Owen and several others who confined the exhortation unto “the body of the church or society of the faithful” in their mutual relation. But as Spurgeon pointed out on the text, “In the church of God each one should be on his watchtower for himself and for others. The first person who is likely to fail in the church is myself. Each one ought to feel that: the beginning of the watch should therefore be at home.” Our text is very similar to the exhortation found in Hebrews 3:13, 14, which is first unto the individual and then to the assembly—”Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily.”
Earnestly endeavoring to look well unto my own going, it is then both my duty and privilege to exercise watchfulness over others. “How many persons might be saved from backsliding by a little oversight! If we would speak to the brother kindly and considerately, when we think he is growing a little cold, we might restore him. We need not always speak directly to him by way of rebuke, but we may place a suggestive book in his way, or speak generally upon the subject. Love can invent many ways of warning a friend without making him angry, and a holy example will also prove a great rebuke to sin. In the church we ought to bear one another’s burden, and so fulfill the law of Christ, exercising the office of bishops over one another, and watching lest any man fail of the grace of God” (C.H. Spurgeon).
How little of this loving solicitude for the spiritual well-being of our fellow-pilgrims is in evidence today! How little earnest and diligent praying for one another! How little faithfulness in counseling, warning, exhorting! Probably one principal reason for this is the hyper-touchiness of so many professing Christians in this generation. No matter how tactfully the counsel be tendered, how faithfully the warning be given, or how lovingly the rebuke be administered; no matter though it be given by an experienced senior to one he is on familiar terms with, yet in nine cases out of ten his efforts are resented, and he is told—by attitude if not in words—to “mind his own business.” Never mind, even if a single ear be gained and a single soul helped, it is worth the disappointments of being repulsed by the others. Only one leper out of the ten appreciated Christ’s kindness!
“Lest any man fail of the grace of God.” This is the clause which has occasioned controversy: though really it affords no warrant for it, nor will the Greek permit of the marginal rendering. The root word which is here rendered “fail” occurs many times in the N.T., but never once has it the force of “fall from.” It means “to lack” or “be deficient of.” In Romans 3:23 it is rendered “come short of,” in Luke 15:14 to “want,” in 2 Corinthians 12:11 “come behind,” in Matthew 19:20 “lack,” in Philippians 4:12 “suffer need,” in Hebrews 11:37 to be “destitute.” Thus there is no room for uncertainty as to the meaning of this exhortation: “Looking diligently lest any man fail—come short of, be deficient in, lack—the grace of God.”
But to what does “the grace of God” here refer? That is not quite so easy to answer, for sometimes “grace” is to be regarded objectively, sometimes subjectively; in some passages it refers to the free favor of God, in others to His benevolent operation within the heart, in still others to the effects produced thereby. In our present passage, it seems to the writer, to be used more abstractly, having a comprehensive scope as it is applicable to widely different cases. We feel it safest to regard the clause thus, for God’s commandment is “exceeding broad” (Ps. 119:96), and very often a single word has a twofold or threefold reference, and therefore we need to be constantly on our guard against limiting the meaning or restricting the application of any utterance of Holy Writ. According to our light we will endeavor to show some of the different cases to which this exhortation belongs.
“By ‘the grace of God,’ God’s favor and acceptance in Christ, as it is proposed and declared by the Gospel, is intended. Herein all spiritual mercies and privileges, in adoption, justification, sanctification and consolation, do consist. For these things, proceeding from the love, grace, and goodness of God in Christ, and being effects thereof, are called the grace of God. The attaining and participation of these things, is that which in the faith and profession of the Gospel, men aim at and design; without which, both the one and the other are in vain. This grace, under all their profession of the Gospel, men may fail of, and this is the evil cautioned against” (John Owen).
Men may “fail of the grace of God,” then, by not submitting themselves to the terms of the Gospel. Those terms are repugnant to the natural man: they are distasteful to his carnal lusts, they are humbling to his pride. But it is at the former of these two points that the majority “fail.” The Gospel calls upon sinners to repent, and they cannot do that with sincerity unless they throw down the weapons of their rebellion against God. The thrice holy God will pardon no man so long as he is determined to please himself and continue in a course of sinning. Again; the Gospel calls on sinners to receive Christ Jesus as Lord: to give Him the throne of their hearts, to bow to His scepter. The holy Redeemer will save no man who is unwilling for Him to “rule over” him (Luke 19:14).
Second, to “fail of the grace of God” is to be satisfied with something short of Divine grace communicated to and ruling in the heart. It is to be contented with a religious substitute for it. How many are deceived by “a form of godliness” who know nothing of its “power” (2 Tim. 3:5). How many mistake a head-knowledge of the Truth for a miracle of grace wrought in the heart. How many substitute outward forms and ceremonies for an experimental acquaintance with the substance of them. How many confuse an external reformation of life with the Divine regeneration and transformation of the soul. Alas, of how very many does it have to be said, “He feedeth on ashes; a deceived heart hath turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul” (Isa. 44:20). O how few there are who know “the grace of God in truth” (Col. 1:5). Do you, my reader? Do you?
“Some have maintained an admirable character to all appearance all their lives, and yet have failed of the grace of God because of some secret sin. They persuaded even themselves that they were believers, and yet they were not truly so; they had no inward holiness, they allowed one sin to get the mastery, they indulged in an unsanctified passion, and so, though they were laid in the grave like sheep, they died with a false hope, and missed eternal life. This is a most dreadful state to be in, and perhaps some of us are in it. Let the prayer be breathed, ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’ Are ye earnest in secret prayer? Do ye love the reading of the Bible? Have ye the fear of God before your eyes? Do you really commune with God? Do you truly love Christ? Ask yourselves these questions often, for though we preach the free Gospel of Jesus Christ, I hope as plainly as any, we feel it to be just as needful to set you on self-examination and to excite in you a holy anxiety. It ought to be often a question with you ‘Have I the grace of God, or do I fall short of it? Am I a piece of rock crystal which is very like the diamond, but yet is not diamond?’” (C.H. Spurgeon).
Third, multitudes “fail of the grace of God” by not persevering in the use of the outward means. They are very earnest and zealous at first, but become careless and slothful. “There are some persons who for a time appear to possess the grace of God, and for a while exhibit many outward evidences of being Christians, but at last the temptation comes most suitable to their depraved tastes, and they are carried away with it. They fail of the grace of God. They appear to have attained it, but they fail at last; like a man in business who makes money for a time, but fails in the end. They fail of the grace of God—like an arrow shot from the bow, which goes straight towards the target for a time, but having too little impetus, fails to reach the mark. There are some who did run well, what doth hinder them that they should not obey the truth?” (C.H. Spurgeon).
Finally, genuine Christians themselves “fail of the grace of God” by not improving that which God has already bestowed upon them. Faith has been imparted to them, but how little they exercise it. There is an infinite fullness in Christ for them, but how little do they draw upon it. Wondrous privileges are theirs, but how little do they use them. Light has been communicated to them, but how little do they walk in it. They fail to watch and pray lest they enter into temptation (Mark 14:38). They fail to cleanse themselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit (2 Cor. 7:1). They fail to grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus (2 Pet. 3:18). They fail to keep themselves from idols (1 John 5:21). They fail to keep themselves in the love of God (Jude 21). And by so failing, their peace is disturbed, their joy is diminished, their testimony is marred, and frequent chastenings are brought upon them.
“Lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you.” This is the evil warned against. Observe how abstractly this also is worded: it is not “lest any root of bitterness spring up in you,” or “among you,” but simply “springing up.” The reference, we believe, is again a double one: first to the individual himself, and then to the corporate company. This second “lest” is obviously related intimately to the first: if we “fail of the grace of God” then “a root of bitterness springing up” is to be surely expected. Nor can there be any doubt as to what is signified by this figure of a “root of bitterness springing up”—the uprising of evil is evidently that which is in view. This is what we are here to guard against: failure to do so will bring “trouble” upon us and occasion a stumbling-block to others.
The first thing to be noted here is the expression “root of bitterness.” Now the root of a tree is that part of it which is underground, hence the reference is to that which is unseen. It points to indwelling sin, which continues in a man even after he is regenerated. That is why the Christian is exhorted, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof” (Rom. 6:12). And if that is to be obeyed, then it is imperative we heed the word “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23). Every stirring of sin within is to be resisted, every defiling effect of it confessed to God. If the weeds be not kept down, the flowers and vegetables will be choked. If the Christian fails in the work of mortification then the cultivation of his graces will be arrested.
“Lest any root of bitterness springing up.” The “springing up” is the appearance of its stalk above the ground. It is the open manifestion of sin in the life, issuing from an unmortified lust in the soul, which is here in view. What is unjudged before God in secret usually ends in becoming open before men. “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23) is a solemn word for each of us on this point. “Lest any root” emphasizes the need of constant watchfulness against every sin, for many branches and sprigs are ready to issue from the main trunk of indwelling corruption. Our safeguards are to yield ourselves wholly to God without reserve at any point, to be well instructed in practical godliness, to preserve a tender conscience, to be more distrustful about ourselves, to cultivate closer daily communion with God, to fix our affections upon things above.
“Lest any root of bitterness springing up.” By nature, sin is pleasant and delightful to us, but in the end it “biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder” (Prov. 23:32). Particularly is this the case with the Christian. God will not long suffer him to indulge his lusts, without making him taste the bitter consequences of the same. The lashings of his conscience, the convictions of the Spirit, the wretchedness of his soul, will cause him to say, “He hath filled me with bitterness, He hath made me drunken with wormwood” (Lam. 3:15). As our text says, “lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble.” That which is contrary to God’s holiness and offends His majesty, He makes a source of trouble to us, either in our minds, bodies, estates, or families. “And many be defiled:” sin is like leaven—its influence spreads: “evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Cor. 15:33).
The second half of our text also refers to the local church: in it there is, no doubt, an allusion to Deuteronomy 29:18. Great watchfulness needs to be exercised and a strict discipline maintained therein. Unregenerate professors are ever seeking to creep into the assembly of the saints. If God’s servants sleep, the Enemy will sow his tares among the wheat. When the suspicion of church officers is aroused, prayer for discernment and guidance is called for. Where the one suspected breaks out in corrupt doctrine or in loose living, he is to be dealt with promptly. Delay is dangerous. The allowance of a “little leaven” will soon corrupt the whole lump. At no point does the local church fail more deplorably today than in its refusal to maintain Scriptural discipline.
A Warning Against Apostasy
(Hebrews 12:16, 17)
The verses which we are now to consider are among the most solemn to be found in the Word of God. They present a most pointed warning against apostasy. They bring before us what is to all tender consciences a terror-provoking subject, namely, sin for which there is no forgiveness. It is indeed to be deplored that recent writers have dealt with it like they do with most matters—very superficially or quite erroneously. Either they have limited themselves unto two or three passages, ignoring many others directly relating to the theme, or they have wrongly affirmed that no one can commit “the unpardonable sin” during this present dispensation. On the other hand, most of the old writers seem to have devoted their efforts to re-assuring weak and fearing Christians that they had not committed this awful offense, rather than in making any attempt to define the character of the transgression itself.
The subject is admittedly a difficult one, and we believe God has permitted a measure of obscurity to rest upon it, and that in order to deter men from rashly venturing too near the brink of this terrible precipice. It therefore becomes us to approach it in fear and trembling, with modesty and humility, seeking grace and wisdom from on High to deal with it in a faithful, clear, and helpful manner. For this is no easy thing, if we are to avoid error and preserve the balance of truth. Two extremes have to be guarded against: a blunting of its fearful point so that the wicked would be encouraged to continue trifling with God and sporting with their eternal destiny, or failing to write with sufficient definiteness so that awakened and contrite sinners would not be delivered from sinking into despair beneath Satan’s lying misuse of it against them.
Before turning to the positive side it seems necessary to briefly point out wherein they seriously err, who insist that no one ever sins beyond the possibility of Divine pardon during this present era of grace. There are quite a number of passages in the N.T. epistles which clearly show the contrary. In 2 Thessalonians 2:11, 12 we read, “For this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie; that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” In Hebrews 6:4, 6 it is said of some that” it is impossible to renew them again unto repentance.” In Hebrews 10:26, 27 it is said, “For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries;” while in 1 John 5:16 we are expressly informed “there is a sin unto death.” In our judgment each of these passages refers to a class of offenders who have so grievously provoked God that their doom is irrevocably sealed while they are yet here upon earth.
Against the testimony of the above scriptures an appeal has often been made to, “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin.” But the Word of God does not contradict itself, and it is an evil practice which cannot be too strongly condemned to pit one passage against another: any attempt to neutralize one text by another is handling the Truth deceitfully. With regard to 1 John 1:7 three things need to be pointed out.
First, the precious blood of Christ was never designed to cleanse from every sin—was it designed to cleanse Judas from his betrayal of the Savior! Its application is no wider than its impetration: its virtue does not extend beyond the purpose for which it was shed. Second, it does not say “the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth from all sin;” instead, it is strictly qualified: “cleanseth us from all sin,” that is, God’s own people. It is dishonest to appropriate these words to unbelievers. Third, the promise is further limited in the preceding clause, “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light.”
Nor do we at all agree with those writers who, while allowing that “the unpardonable sin” may be committed during this present dispensation, yet affirm it is a very rare occurrence, a most exceptional thing, of which only one or two isolated cases may be found. On the contrary, we believe that the Scriptures themselves dearly intimate that many have been guilty of sins for which there was no forgiveness either in this world or the world to come. We say “sins,” for a careful and prolonged study of the subject has convinced us that “the unpardonable sin” is not one particular act of committing some specific offense, like maliciously ascribing to Satan the works of the Holy Spirit (which, no doubt, is one form of it), but that it varies considerably in different cases. Both of these conclusions of the present writer will receive illustration and confirmation in what follows.
The first human being who was guilty of unpardonable sin was Cain. He was a professor or outward worshipper of God, but because Abel’s offering was accepted and his own rejected, he waxed angry. The Lord condescended to expostulate with him, and went so far as to assure him that if he did well he would not lose his pre-eminence as the firstborn. But so far from doing well, he persisted in wickedness, and his enmity against God was evidenced by his hatred of His child, ending in the murder of him. Whereupon the Lord said unto him, “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto Me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth… A fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth” (Gen. 4:10-12). To which Cain answered, “Mine iniquity is greater than it may be forgiven” (Gen. 4:13, margin).
The record of Genesis 6 makes it clear that a whole generation of the world’s inhabitants had transgressed beyond all hope of remedy or forgiveness. “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts if his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that He had made man on the earth. And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth” (Gen. 6:5-7), which was duly accomplished by the Flood. The whole of mankind in the days of Nimrod sinned so grievously (Rom. 1:21-23) that “God gave them up” (Rom. 1:24-26), for His Spirit “will not always strive with men.”
A whole generation of the Hebrews were also guilty of “the great trangression.” In Exodus 23:20, 21, we read, “Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Beware of Him, and obey His voice, provoke Him not; for He will not pardon your transgressions: for My Name is in Him.” Alas they heeded not this solemn word: “our fathers would not obey, but thrust Him from them, and in their hearts turned back into Egypt” (Acts 7:39). Consequently the Lord said, “Wherefore I was grieved with that generation, and said, They do always err in their heart, and they have not known My ways. So I sware in My wrath, They shall not enter into My rest” (Heb. 3:10, 11).
It seems evident to the writer that there have been some in every age who have gone beyond the bounds of Divine mercy. Passing by such individual cases as Pharaoh, Balaam, and Saul, we would observe that the Pharisees of Christ’s day—the bulk of them at least—were guilty of sin for which there was no forgiveness. It is clear from John 3:2 that they recognized Him as “a Teacher come from God” and from John 11:47 that they could not gainsay His miracles. Nay more, it is plain from Mark 12:7 that they knew the righteousness of His claims: “But those husbandmen said among themselves, This is the Heir: come, let us kill Him.” Thus they acted with their eyes wide open, sinning against their own confession, against light and knowledge, against the strong conviction His miracles produced, and against His holy life spread before them. Therefore did Christ say to them, “I go My way, and ye shall seek Me, and shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come” (John 8:21).
“Keep back Thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me; then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression” (Ps. 119:13). Here the unpardonable sin is denominated “the great transgression.” It is called such because this is what a bold and audacious defiance of God necessarily culminates in, unless sovereign grace intervenes. “Presumptuous” sins are committed by those who, while professing God’s name and avowing a claim upon His mercy, persist in a known course contrary to His Word. Such rebels, presuming upon God’s patience and goodness, are mocked by Him, being suffered to go beyond the bounds of His forgiveness. It is also called “blasphemy against the Spirit” (Matthew 12:31), “resisting the Spirit” (Acts 7:51), “doing despite unto the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:29). The “new testament” or “covenant” is “the ministration of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:8), which far exceeds in glory the legal dispensation. To be guilty of the great transgression is to sin willfully against and to speak maliciously of the Holy Spirit, who is revealed and promised in the Gospel; it is a quenching of His convictions, resisting His enlightenment, defying His authority.
It is called “a sin unto death” (1 John 5:16) because its perpetrator is now out of the reach of the promise of eternal life, having made the Gospel, which is a proclamation of Divine grace unto those who will submit themselves to its requirements, a “savor of death unto death” to himself. He was convicted by it that he was legally dead, and because of his impenitence, unbelief, hardheartedness, and determination to go on having his own way, he is left spiritually dead. Unto others God grants “repentance unto life,” (Acts 11:18), but when once “sin unto death” has been committed, it is “impossible to renew again unto repentance” (Heb. 6:4-6). By his opposition to the Gospel and refusal to receive Christ’s “yoke,” the guilty rebel has trampled under foot the blood of God’s Son, and as that alone can procure forgiveness, there is now no pardon available for him.
The very fact that it is designated “a sin unto death” rather than “the sin unto death” confirms what we said in a previous paragraph, namely, that it is not some specific offense but rather that the particular form it takes varies in different cases. And herein we may perceive how the sovereignty of God is exercised in connection therewith. God allows some to go to greater lengths of wickedness than others: some evil-doers He cuts off in youth, while other workers of iniquity are permitted to live unto old age. Against some He is more quickly and more strongly provoked than others. Some souls He abandons to themselves more readily than He does others. It is this which renders the subject so unspeakably solemn: no man has any means of knowing how soon he may cross the line which marks the limits of God’s forebearance with him. To trifle with God is hazardous to the last degree.
That the sovereignty of God is exercised in this matter appears very clearly from the cases of those whom He is pleased to save. What fearful crimes Manasseh was guilty of before Divine grace renewed him! What dreadful sins Saul of Tarsus committed ere the Lord Jesus apprehended him! Let the writer and the reader review their own unregenerate days: how dreadfully did we provoke the Majesty on high; how long did we persevere in a course of open rebellion; against what restraints, privileges, light and knowledge, warnings and entreaties, did we act! How many of the godless companions of our youth were cut off in their guilt, while we were spared. Was it because our sins were less crimson? No, indeed; so far as we can perceive, our sins were of a deeper dye than theirs. Then why did God save us? and why were they sent to Hell? “Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Thy sight” must be the answer.
A sovereign God has drawn the line in every life which marks the parting of the ways. When that line is reached by the individual, God does one of two things with him: either He performs a miracle of grace so that he becomes “a new creature in Christ Jesus,” or henceforth that individual is abandoned by Him, given up to hardness of heart and final impenitency; and which it is, depends entirely upon His own imperial pleasure. And none can tell how near he may be to that line, for some reach it much earlier in life than others—according as God sovereignly decreed. Therefore it is the part of wisdom for each sinner to promptly heed that word “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found” (Isa. 55:6), which plainly denotes that soon it may be too late—as Proverbs 1:28-31 and Matthew 25:8-12 plainly show.
This solemn distinction which God makes between one case and another was strikingly shadowed out under the law. We refer to a remarkable detail concerning the jubilee year, a detail which seems to have escaped the notice of those who have preached and written on the subject. Those in Israel who, through poverty, had sold their possessions, had them restored at the year of jubilee: see Leviticus 25:25-28. That was a wondrous and beautiful figure of the free grace of God towards His people in Christ, by which, and not because of anything of their own, they are restored to the Divine favor and given a title to the heavenly inheritance. But in connection therewith there was an exception, designed by God, we doubt not, to adumbrate that which we are here treating upon. That exception we will briefly notice.
“If a man sell a dwelling-house in a walled city, then he may redeem it within a whole year after it is sold; within a full year may he redeem it. And if it be not redeemed within the space of a full year, then the house that is in the walled city shall be established forever to him that bought it throughout his generations: it shall not go out in the jubilee” (Lev. 25:29, 30). We cannot now attempt an exposition of this interesting passage or dwell upon its leading features. No part of the “land” could be sold outright (see 5:23), for that was the free gift of God’s bounty—there can be no failure in Divine grace; but houses in the city were the result of their labor human responsibility being in view. If the house was sold and not repurchased within a year, it passed beyond the reach of redemption, its forfeiture being irrevocable and irrecoverable! Symbolically, the “house” spoke of security under the Divine covenant, for in all generations God in covenant has been the “dwelling-place” of His people (Ps. 90:1). To part with his house typified a professor selling himself to work presumptuous wickedness (1 Kings 21:20), and so selling his soul, his God, his all. To such an one the Spirit will never “proclaim liberty” of the Jubilee, for Satan holds him fast, and Divine justice forbids his discharge: when God “shutteth up a man, there can be no opening” (Job 12:14).
In view of all that has been before us, how softly we should tread, how careful we should be of not provoking the Holy One! How earnestly we should pray to be kept back from “presumptuous sins”! How diligently should the young improve their privileges: how they should heed that warning, “He that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy” (Prov. 29:1)! How careful we should be against adding sin to sin, lest we provoke God to leave us unto final impenitency. Our only safeguard is to heed the voice of the Lord without delay, lest he “swear in His wrath” that we “should not enter into His rest”! How we need to beg God to write those words upon our hearts, “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God” (Heb. 3:12), for there is no hope whatever for the apostate.
A word now unto those with tender consciences that fear they may have committed sin for which there is no forgiveness. The trembling and contrite sinner is the farthest from it. There is not one instance recorded in Scripture where any who was guilty of “the great transgression” and had been given up by God to inevitable destruction, ever repented of his sins, or sought God’s mercy in Christ; instead, they all continued obstinate and defiant, the implacable enemies of Christ and His ways unto the end. While there be in the heart any sincere valuing of God’s approbation, any real sense of His holiness which deters from trifling with Him, any genuine purpose to turn unto Him and submit to His requirements, any true fearing of His wrath, that soul has not been abandoned by Him. If you have a deep desire to obtain an interest in Christ, or become a better Christian; if you are deeply troubled over sin, if your heart grieves over its hardness, if you yearn and pray for more tenderness of conscience, more yieldedness of will, more love and obedience to Christ, then you have no cause to suspect you have committed “the unpardonable sin.”
“Lest there by any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who, for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (Heb. 12:16,17). These verses continue what was before us in the preceding one, and complete the series of exhortations begun in verse 12. As we pointed out at the close of the previous article, the ultimate reference in verse 15 is first a warning against that which if disregarded would end in apostasy, and second, a caution against suffering one who evidences the symptoms of an apostate to remain in the assembly—its language being an allusion unto Deuteronomy 29:18. That warning and caution is now exemplified by citing the fearful example of Esau, who, though born among the covenant people and receiving (we doubt not) a pious upbringing, committed a sin for which there was no forgiveness, and became an apostate.
First of all, two particular sins are here warned against: “fornication” and “profanity,” each of which is “a root of bitterness,” which if permitted to “spring up” will cause “trouble” to the guilty one and “defile many” with whom he is associated. Both “fornication” and “profanity” are opposed unto the holiness exhorted unto in verse 14. Fornication is a sin against the second table of the Law, and profanity a breach of its first table. As in verse 14 the apostle had enjoined the Hebrews to “follow peace” which has respect to man and “holiness” which regards our relation to God, so now he forbids two sins, the first of which would be committed against man, the second against God. The two sins go together, for where a course of moral uncleanness is followed, profanity almost always accompanies it; and on the other hand, profane persons habitually think lightly of immorality. The forsaking of either sin by sincere repentance is exceedingly rare.
The term “profane” has a more specific meaning and a wider application than it is commonly accorded in our speech today. “Holy things are said to be profaned when men take off the veneration that is due unto them, and expose them to common use or contempt. To ‘profane’ is to violate, to corrupt, to prostitute to common use things sacred, either in their nature or by Divine institution. A profane person is one that despiseth, sets light by, or condemneth sacred things. Such as mock at religion, or who lightly regard its promises and threatenings; who despise or neglect its worship, who speak irreverently of its concerns, we call profane persons, and such they are, and such the world is filled with at this day. This profaneness is the last step of entrance into final apostasy. When men, from professors of religion, become despisers of and scoffers at it, their state is dangerous, if not irrevocable” (John Owen).
An instance of this evil is given in Esau, and a fearfully solemn case his is, one which would warn us not to put our trust in external privileges. “He was the firstborn of Isaac, circumcised according to the law of that ordinance, and partaker of all the worship of God in that holy family; yet an outcast from the covenant of grace and the promise thereof” (Owen). The particular offense with which he is here charged is that “for one morsel of meat” he “sold his birthright.” Now the birthright or privilege of the firstborn carried with it the following things: the special blessing of his father, a double portion of his goods, dominion over his brethren, and priestly functions (Num. 3:41) when the father was absent from home. The “birthright” was regarded as a very special thing, being typical of the primogeniture of Christ, of the adoption of saints, and of a title to the heavenly inheritance. All of this Esau despised.
The historical account of Esau’s sin is recorded in the closing verses of Genesis 25: the heinousness of it is exhibited in our text. Esau preferred the gratification of the flesh rather than the blessing of God. He relinquished all claims to the privileges contained in and annexed to his being the firstborn, for a trifling and temporary enjoyment of the body. Alas, how many there are like him in the world today. What vast numbers prefer carnal pleasures to spiritual joys, temporal advantages to eternal riches, physical gratification to the soul’s salvation. By calling Esau “profane,” the Holy Spirit reveals that he placed no higher value upon sacred things than he did upon those which were common. That which he received at the price of his wickedness is termed “meat,” to indicate that satisfying of the flesh was his motive; and a “morsel,” to emphasize the paltriness of his choice.
The enormity of the sin of “profanity” is determined by the sacredness of the objects to which it is opposed: let the reader carefully compare Leviticus 18:21; 21:9; Nehemiah 13:17; Ezekiel 22:26. The “profane” are guilty of trampling God’s pearls beneath their feet. To spurn the Scriptures, to desecrate the Sabbath, to revile God’s servants, to despise or ridicule the Gospel, to mock at the future state, are all so many forms of this unspeakable wickedness. As helps against it we would mention the need of being well instructed from the Word, so that we may know what are “holy” things. To bring our hearts to realize the superlative excellency of holiness. To meditate seriously and frequently upon God’s indignation against those who slight what He highly esteems.
“For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (verse 17). This takes us back to the closing section of Genesis 27, where we learn the consequences which his sin entailed. Isaac had pronounced the patriarchal benediction upon Jacob, which, when his brother learned thereof deeply agitated him: “He cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry” (Gen. 27:34). It was then that his “tears” were shed: but they proceeded not from anguish of heart because he had sinned so grievously against God, rather did they flow from a sense of self-pity—they expressed his chagrin for the consequences which his folly had produced. Similar are the lamentations of probably ninety-nine out of a hundred so called “death-bed repentances.” And such will be the “weeping and wailing” of those in Hell: not because God was so slighted and wronged by them, but because of the eternal suffering which their sins have justly resulted in.
Esau’s “tears” were of no avail: “he was rejected.” His appeal came too late: Isaac had already bestowed the blessing upon Jacob. It was like an Israelite seeking to recover his property eighteen months after he had sold it: see again Leviticus 25:30. Isaac, who was a prophet of God, His mouthpiece, refused to be moved by Esau’s bitter wailing. In like manner, the Lord says of those who have sinned away the day of grace “They shall call upon Me, but I will not answer; they shall seek Me early, but they shall not find Me” (Prov. 1:28); and “Therefore will I also deal in fury: Mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity: and though they cry in Mine ears with a loud voice, yet will I not hear them” (Ezek. 8:18). O what point that gives to the call “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near” (Isa. 55:6). Reader, if you have not yet genuinely responded to that call, do so at once; delay is fraught with the utmost peril to your soul.
The apostle was here addressing professing Christians, and the fearful case of Esau is set before them (and us!) as a warning against departing from the Narrow Way, of exchanging the high privileges of the faithful for the temporary advantages of a faithless world. The doom of the apostate is irretrievable. To lightly esteem, and then despise, sacred things, will be followed “afterward” by bitter regret and unavailing anguish. To reject the terms of the Gospel in order to gratify the lusts of the flesh for a brief season, and then suffer forever and ever in the Lake of Fire, is the height of madness. No excuse could palliate Esau’s profanity, and nothing can extenuate the wickedness of him who prefers the drudgery of Satan to the freedom there is in Christ. Esau’s rejection by Isaac was the evidence of his reprobation by God. May it please the Lord to use this article to search the heart of every reader.