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Hebrews 10:26-31 and the Possibility of Apostasy

Here our author describes someone as continuing in willful sin after having “received the knowledge of the truth.” The latter need mean no more than that they have heard and understood the gospel and have given mental assent or agreement to it. Tragically, many people hear the good news and commit themselves to shape their lives by the ethics of Jesus and in accordance with the standards and life of a local church while never experiencing regeneration and placing their personal trust in Christ for salvation. They then turn from what they have heard and understood and openly and defiantly repudiate it as false. There are unsaved theologians and biblical commentators whose “knowledge of the truth” of Christianity, at least in terms of objective data, is more extensive and insightful than that held by some true believers. In this regard, see 2 Peter 2:20-21.

But the troubling phrase in this passage is in v. 29 where this person is said to have regarded as unclean “the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified.” Does this mean a genuine Christian is in view? Those who affirm eternal security have pointed to one of two possible interpretations:

First, some have suggested that the “he” who is sanctified is actually Jesus Christ, not the apostate. This is grammatically possible. It is also theologically possible, as John 17:19 speaks of Jesus “sanctifying” himself. We must remember that “to sanctify” can mean “to set apart for a special purpose or use” without the notion of sin being involved. See also similar language and thought in Heb. 2:10; 5:7,9; and 9:11-12. Noel Weeks argues that

“the whole point of the author has been to emphasize that Jesus has fulfilled the requirements of a High Priest. There is an analogy between the Aaronic ordinances and the sacrifice of Christ. So it is reasonable to suggest that as Aaron was consecrated by the blood of the sacrifice (Ex. 29), so Jesus was consecrated as High Priest through the offering of His own blood” (WTJ, 39 [Fall 1976], 80).

Second, Wayne Grudem and others contend that “the word sanctified need not refer to the internal moral purification that comes with salvation, for the term hagiazo has a broader range than that, both in Hebrews and in the New Testament generally” (177). Grudem points to Heb. 9:13 as an example where the word refers to rendering someone ceremonially clean but not necessarily spiritually (or savingly) clean. See also 1 Cor. 7:14; Matthew 23:17,19; 1 Timothy 4:5. The context in Hebrews 10 appears to support this view, as our author is concerned with parallels between the OT Levitical sacrifice and the better new covenant sacrifice of Christ. Says Grudem:

“the author of Hebrews knows that some may fall away, even though they assemble with the congregation of believers and so share in this great privilege of coming before God [see 10:19-22]. So he says, ‘not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another’ (10:25). The reason to encourage one another is the warning in 10:26, ‘For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth.’ In such a context, it is appropriate to understand ‘profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified’ to mean ‘by which he was given the privilege of coming before God with the congregation of God’s people.’ In this sense, the blood of Christ opened up a new way of access to God for the congregation – it ‘sanctified’ them in a parallel to the Old Testament ceremonial sense – and this person, by associating with the congregation, was also ‘sanctified’ in that sense: He or she had the privilege of coming before God in worship” (178).

Someone who has experienced that awesome opportunity and privilege only then to willfully repudiate the person and work of Christ through whom it was made possible can expect only judgment. Consistent with this, our author then proceeds to distinguish between two groups in 10:39. There are, on the one hand, those who do not have saving faith and thus eventually fall away (“shrink back”) into destruction. On the other hand, there are those who have saving faith and thus persevere to the preserving of the soul. He doesn’t envision a third group: those who have saving faith and later fall away.