For some reason texts like the ones we’re going to deal with today can cause us problems. It’s as if a certain avenue in our brains is closed off to accepting what the Scripture says in texts like the one we’re looking at this morning. Let me explain to you what I mean.
We start with a biblical truth in our minds that is indeed true. And that truth is this, “All who ever truly belong to God will always belong to God.” Or we might say, “Everyone who is every truly justified will one day be glorified.” Or again, this time, paraphrasing Scripture, we can acknowledge that “he who [begins] a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Historically this truth has been referred to in terms of the security of the believer or of God’s grace in preserving his people. I doubt many are struggling at this point, but let’s add another truth.
We also know that many will profess to be believers and yet not really be believers. Jesus tells us that not everyone who says to him “’Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” adding, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not . . . do many might works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you works of lawlessness’” (Matt 7:21-23). That is, many who claim to be Christians will be shown on the day of judgment never to have truly been Christians. They professed faith in Christ but they never really had saving faith in Christ. Again, we know that truth.
But it is in putting these two truths together is where we can begin to struggle. Our struggle probably isn’t with the professing believer who is telling you that he’s about to abandon his wife and kids and pursue sexual immorality and leave the church because he says, “I think God wants me to be happy, and I think this will make me happy.” In that case, my guess is that most everyone would say, “Though you call yourself a believer, if you choose to do this, you may well show yourself not to have really known him.” After all, we may remember from Tom’s series on 1 John, that John describes some like this, saying, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” That, of course, is John’s way of saying that he was talking about people who professed faith in Christ but went on to show that they never really were true believers by their actions of denying the faith.
But let’s keep pressing on, perhaps revealing this area in which we can sometimes struggle. How do you address a group of professing believers whom you really think are believers, but they’re really feeling the pull of sin? The answer, I think, is that you that you take their profession at face value. That is, when you speak to them, you address them as Christians, talking to them as if they’re Christians, but then you warn them against running toward sin, potentially showing themselves never to have known Christ, and going to hell. And if we feel uncomfortable about putting those two realities together—dealing with someone as if they’re a Christian and warning them about the real possibility of going to hell—then it may be helpful to see that our text this morning does just that. In Hebrews 3:12, notice the language and the warning given. The author of Hebrews writes, “Take care, brothers.” Now, if we stop there and ask, “Are these people he’s writing to Christians?” It’s easy to say, ‘Yes, they are. Certainly they are. He calls them brothers.” But if we say in an absolute sense that we know they’re justified children of God, then we may find ourselves really confused at the rest of the verse. So, I think a better way to answer it is to say, “We have every reason to think they are at this point, and that is why the author of Hebrews calls them brothers.” Now, let’s continue. He writes, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.”
So, here’s a group he calls “brothers” that he warns, reminding them that they could find themselves with an “evil, unbelieving heart” and facing God’s wrath on the day of judgment. Now, why would he do that? He would do that for two reasons. The first reason is because he can’t be absolutely sure that the people he’s talking to really are believers. They may well be. They profess to be. However, if they actually do end up turning from Jesus and putting themselves back under the sacrificial system of the OT as their hope for salvation, they may show themselves to be among the “many” who once said, “Lord, Lord,” but will hear on the day of judgment, “I never knew you.” They may show themselves to be like those in 1 John 2:19 who went out from us because they really weren’t part of us. So, that’s the first reason. Though they profess faith, they may not actually be believers.
And here’s a second reason: if they are believers, one of the ways that God preserves his children in the faith is by using other believers to give them severe warnings when they’re tempted with sin so that they’re driven to repent and turn back from sin. And this is a key reason that we need to understand that will help guide us throughout this book. God gives real warnings to believers about the reality of hell if they go down a certain path, and he’s using this warning as the very means to turn them back and preserve them in the faith.
Perhaps you’ve tasted this. Have you ever been really tempted with sin, even teetering back and forth about whether you’ll pursue it, and another believer—perhaps even in a sermon—warned you about the seriousness of God’s judgment, and you thought to yourself, “What was I thinking? I’m not going to run toward that sin.”? Well, that warning, given in that sermon, may have been your loving heavenly Father graciously grabbing you and saying, “You’re mine. I love you. And I’m not letting you go.” But the means he used to grab you and pull you back toward himself was that strong warning about God’s judgment. And that warning is real. It’s no bluff. If you had continued down that road, it would lead to hell, but the Lord’s design was to use that real warning to take hold of you and preserve you as he promises his children he will.
Now, if we can hold on to these categories, I think the warning messages in Hebrews will make great sense. We simply need to understand that one means the Lord uses to hold his people fast in the faith is by giving them warnings that say, “If you keep going down that path, you’ll go to hell.” And that warning is the very means, the very instrument, he’s using to grab them, pull them back, and say, “I love you and I’m not letting you go.”
And as a pastor, responsible for a group of people, about whom I’ll have to give an account before Jesus (Heb. 13:17), I’m going to find myself preaching several strong warnings throughout this book, and one of them is our text this morning. And especially in light of the reality that hardness of heart can begin with slight, gradual drifting, I’m going to hold up these warnings before all of us, confident that the Lord will use them if necessary to hold us fast in his grip. So, with that long introduction, let’s turn our attention to the text where the author gives us an exhortation/warning, and then tells us how to do what he’s telling us to do and why it’s so important. First, the exhortation/warning: right now make sure you’re not hardening your heart to Jesus.
Right now make sure you’re not hardening your heart to Jesus
This is where the text starts. The author of Hebrews builds off of what he’d just said in 3:6 where he reminded his hearers that we show ourselves to be genuine believers by holding fast our confidence and hope. That is, we show we have been born again by persevering in repentance and faith. This then leads him to an exhortation/warning, as he writes in verses 7-11, “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’”
This is a quotation from Psalm 95:7-11, but Psalm 95 itself is a reflection on the events that transpired in Numbers 13-14. You’ll perhaps remember the story. The Lord had brought the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, and they had seen God’s provision in miraculous ways. He miraculously delivered them, miraculously provided food for them, and miraculously sustained them. Yet when it came time to obey the Lord and enter the promised land, they wouldn’t do it. Therefore, God decided that an entire generation of Israelites would not be able to enter the land. So he has them wander in the wilderness for forty years until they all die out. That’s the background for Psalm 95.
In Psalm 95 then, David is writing to encourage the present generation of Israelites not to harden their hearts and rebel against the Lord as that generation back in Numbers 13-14 had done. He writes Psalm 95 telling everyone who would hear him “today” not to harden their hearts and provoke the Lord’s judgment against them as their fathers had done years earlier.
And in our context, the author of Hebrews is quoting this text to remind his current hearers in his “today” not to harden their hearts as these ancient Israelites once did. Consequently, the application for us is right now (i.e. our “today”) you and I need to make sure we’re not hardening our hearts. In other words, if we see the slightest bit of turning from the Lord toward sin or the slightest bit of not wanting to let go of sin, we need to repent.
Brothers and sisters, we’ve said this many times, but a Christian is not marked by perfect obedience. Believers can, will, and do sin. But believers are marked by repentance. When confronted with sin, believer’s repent. And the author of Hebrews in this letter is confronting them with their potential sin of turning from Jesus back to the OT sacrificial system. And he wants his hearers right now (“today”) to recognize the supremacy of Jesus to the old covenant and repent. And I want to ask us, is there anything in our lives that we know we need to repent of right now, today? If so, repent. Don’t refuse to repent and allow your heart to be hardened. Hear the Spirit’s voice calling to you in this text saying, “Don’t be like ancient Israel. Look what happened to them. You don’t have to be like them. Just repent.” Right now, you and I need to take stock and make sure we’re not hardening our hearts against Jesus.
But how do we make sure we don’t get there, to a place of hard-heartedness? The text gives us two answers: Let us pay attention to our hearts and exhort one another every day.
Let us pay attention to our hearts consistently and exhort one another daily.
There are two things the author of Hebrews tells his hearers that they (and we) must do in verses 12-13. But before discussing each of these exhortations, let’s look at why he tells us that he’s giving the exhortations. He says in verse 12, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” Then he writes in verse 13, “But exhort one another every day, as long as it’s called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
So, let’s take both of those reasons for his exhortations. We see from verse 12 that we can have an “evil, unbelieving heart” that manifests itself in our lives. Or, taking the description from verse 13, sin can have the effect of deceiving our hearts and hardening our hearts so that we turn away from Jesus.
Let’s think through how this happens. If you sin and just choose to ignore it, and then you sin and choose to ignore it again, one of the things that can happen is that sin simply begins to look less sinful. So, for example, a couple commits sexual immorality together as they’re dating. And the first time they go down that path, they recognize that they’ve just walked in rebellion. Perhaps it really bothers them in the depth of their souls. They feel conviction but try to ignore it. Then they get together again and it happens again, and this time, it might not bother them as much. And the next time it happens they’re convincing themselves it’s not really that bad. Do you see this hardening, deceiving work?
That’s what sin does. It begins to deceive you into thinking it’s not that bad. And as it deceives, it hardens your heart so that you don’t even feel conviction about it the same way you once did. Then, ultimately, your heart grows in hardness and unbelief to the point that you find yourself not believing other claims the Scripture makes as well, and you walk away. To use the language of the text, you “fall away” from the confession you once made to a denial of that faith. That’s the path sin takes. It’s always wants more. It always leads to death. It’s always trying to pull you toward hell.
So, what do you do? Let’s answer that by coming back to the exhortations in verses 12-13. First, he says, “Take care, brothers.” By “take care” the author is telling us to be watchful over our own hearts. That is, make sure you’re not ignoring sin and neglecting repentance. Make sure you’re not conditioning your heart to grow comfortable with things the Scripture forbids.
Make sure you’re not watching things on television, for example, that a Christian should have no business watching. We must not, for example, allow a hint to sexual immorality to be among us. As children, make sure you’re not growing comfortable speaking in ways to your parents that the Scripture forbids as dishonoring to them. We all need to make sure we’re not growing comfortable speaking ill of others so that their character is slandered before our neighbors. And we could go on, but the point is the same in each case. We must be diligent to keep watch over our hearts and ask if indeed our hearts are becoming hardened as we’re bringing sin into our lives. So, that’s the first remedy. We keep watch over our hearts. But that’s not all.
In verse 13 the author tells us to “exhort one another every day.” In other words, you and I need other believers in our lives. And we need to be rubbing shoulders with other believers consistently. There are times when you and I just have blind spots in our lives. We, husbands, may have grown so accustomed to speaking in a less than gentle and loving way to our wives that it would never dawn on us that we’re violating the scriptural command to treat her with gentleness. A wife may completely miss that she’s not acting respectfully toward her husband. But another brother or sister in Christ who really loves you can encourage you and exhort you to deal with her gently and speak to him respectfully—as Aaron will remind us in a couple of weeks from 1 Peter 3!
And that’s just one example, and it’s a corrective example. Perhaps even more powerful is a brother or sister in your life who is simply consistently and faithfully encouraging you to keep on loving the Lord, delighting in him, and worshiping him. That is, instead of correcting you, they’re helping form you. That’s daily exhortation, and the Scripture tells us we need that. We need that to keep our hearts from being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin and growing in unbelief.
So, we need to make sure today we’re not hardening our hearts but repenting if we see clear sin. And then we need to make a practice of keeping watch over our hearts and having others in our lives who might exhort us every day to love and obey our Lord, turning from sin in any area where it is lingering and pursuing even more diligently a heart that loves the Lord above all else. But why? Why is this so necessary again?
Though we’ve already seen it, the answer is given to us again in verses 14-19 where the author reminds us that true believers persevere in repentance and faith.
True believers persevere in repentance and faith.
In verse 14 the author of Hebrews writes, “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” That is to say, believers show themselves to truly be believers not in merely one time professing faith (whether walking an aisle, saying a prayer, or whatever) but in persevering and enduring in repentance from sin and believing in Jesus. Let me say it this way: those who are truly children of God will be persevered by God’s grace, and that preserving work of God will show itself in those believers persevering in repentance and faith. That’s what the author of Hebrews is showing us.
But there is a flip-side to that as well, and it’s the note I mentioned back in the introduction, namely, that one who does not persevere in repentance and faith is showing himself not to have been a believer. And that one will face God’s judgment because he does not believe. That’s the point of verses 16-19. The author asks us again and again, who rebelled, with whom was the Lord provoked, and who faced his judgment of not entering the promised land? And then he answers that it’s those who heard and yet rebelled, those who sinned and were judged, those who were disobedient and unbelieving and faced God’s judgment. That is, he’s reminding us that there were a people in the OT who had every opportunity to grow in love and faith in the Lord, but instead they gave into a path of sinful hardening and rebellion, and they faced God’s severe judgment. That’s the example he’s holding up for us not to imitate.
And this brings us back to the exhortation which he began with and repeats in verse 15, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”
So, let me ask all of us this morning to examine our hearts. You’ve heard the voice of the Spirit in the Scriptures, warning you against hardening your heart, warning you against giving in to the deceitfulness and searing nature of sin, and warning you against unbelief. And you well could ignore it and go on. But don’t. If there is something you need to address in your heart and life, address it today. And then establish a pattern of continual watchfulness over your heart and of walking with others brothers and sisters in Christ who can exhort and encourage you each day.
And recognize that this isn’t the Bible’s way of saying, “Do these things, and then you can become a child of God.” No. The only way to become a child of God is to repent and set your faith on the one who lived, died, and was raised for us—Jesus Christ. Our salvation is all Christ’s work for us. But this is the Bible’s way of saying, “Don’t settle into a pattern of drifting from Jesus, but be watchful and do not harden your heart every time he says to you, ‘Turn back.’” Instead, hear his voice as the voice of a loving Father who is saying, ‘I’m not letting you go.’” And let our response of faith and obedience to his voice be demonstrated this morning as we come to the table. Amen.