In my experience, Hebrews has provided a wealth of texts for sermons that call for works and human effort. Pride of place, perhaps, should be held by the Wesleyan doctrine of Christian perfection, for which one of the central texts is Hebrews 6:1. No matter how many times Wesley affirmed Christian perfection as a gift of grace, he was unable to prevent this becoming a basis for performance based salvation, judgment, and self-righteousness. (While I believe in sanctification, and will mention it below, I don’t accept the idea of perfection in this life.)
Hebrews 6:4-6 follows, which is often treated as teaching that if we commit some particular sin or other, we will lose our salvation for doing so. I’ve written about this recently, and I disagree, but I’ve heard it preached.
Then there’s Hebrews 10:26-31, starting with the warning against continuing in sin and ending with what a terrifying thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God.
Or Hebrews 11, so often preached as a litany of great accomplishments and presented against the lack of accomplishments in the congregation. We must, of course, become faithful like these heroes of ancient times and hold up our end of the deal. After all, God needs us and demands our service.
Hebrews 12 starts with the clouds of witnesses, which I’ve heard preached as the “encouragement” of having all these wonderful people watching you from heaven, so you had better not mess up. Don’t want all these holy people watching you mess up, do you?
Of course, you aim to accomplish all of this in fear of the God who is a devouring fire (12:29).
James may be seen as an epistle of works (not an accurate portrayal, in my view, but Hebrews may well have been the source of more sermons on performance righteousness.
But is this approach justified by the text of the letter itself? I don’t think so.
Let me make a couple of assertions that I’m not really going to justify. Knowing that I believe these may help you understand the rest of what I’m saying. The first is that there was never a plan for salvation presented in scripture that did not have as its goal the creation of a holy people. From the invitation to the first couple to walk in the garden with God, to the call in Leviticus to be holy as God is holy, to Jesus asking disciples to follow him, to Paul inviting everyone to put their faith in Jesus, the anointed one, all the plans are part of one plan aiming at that point. The second is that grace is one of the, of not the, most difficult things to accept, because if grace is true, we are not in control. We humans like to be in control.
Hebrews is a book about God making a holy people, and it’s a book about how none of us are in control.
Hebrews starts with the description of God’s gracious gift, himself, in the person of Jesus. Hebrews 1:1-4 lays out this presentation. The one who is sent is sufficient to the task. As we move through the book, we see Jesus presented as one of us, tested as we are, and sharing in our experience. I have been asked whether I see Hebrews as teaching substitutionary atonement. If this is a question of whether Jesus died for us and for our sins, then the answer is surely “yes.” But if we mean “penal substitutionary atonement,” as in Jesus taking our punishment in a judical context, I think the answer is “no.”
In Hebrews, Jesus is presented as becoming one of us. The necessary elements of the sacrifice is that it must be perfect, i.e., fully connected to God, and also fully ours. Then the form of “dying for” is incorporation. We are in Christ who is our king, our parent, and our priest, and we are incorporated in his death. He dies and we die “in him.” It is not a judicial substitution, but rather that the one dies for the nation (John 11:50) as one of the nation, indeed, as the king. The key here is that we become incorporated into that kingdom, that community, and are thus buried in his death and raised into his life (Romans 6). I think Hebrews is closely aligned with this Pauline theological presentation. Everything we are called to accomplish in the book is accomplished in Christ. That’s why Christ is presented first in the book and his superiority is established. (Refer again back to my post on Hebrews 6:4-6 for some backup for this idea.)
So when we are called to perfection, we are called to be carried on to perfection. This is not the perfection of a person who lives a perfect life, and certainly not something we accomplish on our own. That’s clear through the arguments on why Jesus is the perfect high priest. In order to make that argument, one must establish that we are not capable of this on our own. The perfection to which we are called and to which we are carried is not ours, but the perfection of Jesus (Hebrews 5:9). He, Christ, is the source of salvation.
Of course it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, but we can instead be in the hands of the living God through the high priest who is sympathetic to our weaknesses. Of course, there is no more sacrifice for sin. If Jesus has opened a “new and living way” (Hebrews 10:19-20), then the only options are to go through it or not. If we are offered complete access to God and incorporation into his redemption and sanctification, what other option is needed? What other option could possible work?
Then there’s Hebrews 11, which I think provides the key to the view of the message of Hebrews I’m presenting here. Contrary to those who preach Hebrews 11 as a triumph of the saints, it is, in fact, a triumph of grace in action. We err if we read this without adequate consideration of the stories from the Hebrew scriptures of these great heroes. Moses doesn’t fear the wrath of the king in Hebrews 11, but he flees in terror in Exodus. Sarah is rewarded for faith, but in Genesis she laughs. These people were not those who tried to obtain perfection, but those who were carried on to perfection. In 11:40 we are told that God’s plan was that they should attain perfection “with us.”
That perfection, I believe is found in Jesus, and only in Jesus.
These are the witnesses of Hebrews 12. We are being watched as we are carried on by those who have been carried before us. The question is truly simply whether we will truly be carried on. We can miss this both by thinking that we are going to do it ourselves, or by missing that it needs to be done at all. I’ve used the metaphor of a train for the theme of Hebrews. Get on the right train and stay on it until it reaches its destination. You can equally fail by sitting at the train station by never getting on the train, or if you set out to run alongside the train on your own power. Neither one will work. But if you get on the train you’ll move forward. (As with all metaphors, this one has its weaknesses!)
In this view of grace, it is not put against faith. It is not faith vs. works, as though there were two approaches and one was better. It’s not a balance between faith and works. No amount of running, even combined with train-riding attempts, is adequate. But sitting in the station is also not a real option.
What I think Hebrews makes clear is that the grace is available. Jesus opens the way to God. This is grace in action. But rather than being the enemy of true works, works of faith, grace is what opens the door and makes any works, any holiness, and any approach to God possible. Sanctification occurs only on the train, i.e., only when we are being carried on toward perfection in Jesus, our brother, our sacrifice, our high priest, and our king.
That’s why I see grace as the critical key to the entire book of Hebrews, but I also see the book as providing a critical view of grace, a grace that is active, even more, that is God’s action taken in our lives.
In this post I have not provided nearly enough scripture and logic to back this up fully. This is just an introduction. My recommendation is that you consider these ideas while reading the entire book to see what you find.
(Feature image credit: Openclipart.org.)