Collin Hansen has an excellent interview with Peter O’Brien which specifically discusses the warning passages in Hebrews. Essentially, O’Brien makes the point that there are two kinds of faith in Hebrews, a genuine faith, analogous to the Parable of the Sower. Some people respond to the gospel, but not fully and therefore recant their faith when a time of persecution comes. Indeed this is usually the case when the gospel is preached, whether in the ministry of Jesus, people may respond positively but not come to real Faith in Jesus. That inadequate response is found in John’s Gospel as well. Nicodemus was positive towards Jesus, even friendly towards his teaching, but in John 3 I think he falls short of “saving faith.”
Scot McKnight has a response to this interview. He does not like this two-kind-of-faith approach, stating that it “strains the very language of the letter to the Hebrews.”In essence, McKnight says that it really does not make any sense to warn someone about apostasy (falling away from faith) if they have no faith to begin with! If someone has “spurious faith” then they really ought not be encouraged to continue in that faith. McKnight does not understand what “spurious faith” means in this context, although late in the article he offers what might be a good definition real faith “perseveres and to salvation” and spurious faith “doesn’t persevere and that leads to judgment.”
I wonder if O’Brien’s parallel to the Parable of the Sower is not a useful way to understand these warning passages. Within a group of followers of Jesus, there is a range of responses to the Faith. They all have heard the real gospel and have some sort of a response to it. They have all responded positively, but only one type of response is “salvation which perseveres.” In the Parable, it is the person who bears fruit. To appreciate the faith, or to admire Jesus and his teaching, or to enjoy the gifts of the Spirit is simply not enough. To be “right with God” one clings tenaciously to the Faith as it has been handed down to them, they bear fruit, and they endure whatever persecution comes their way. In fact, suffering for the faith seems to be a hallmark of “genuine faith” (Hebrews 12:3-11).
If this analogy is useful, then the exhortations in Hebrews are trying to draw those with weak or inadequate faith into a deeper, more full understanding of this “great salvation.” The time is coming, says the writing of Hebrews, when you cannot play at being a Christian – you may have to pay with your life!
Thanks to Brian Small at Polumeros kai Polutropos for these links as well as including Reading Acts on his January Hebrews Carnival!