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COVENANT-BREAKING: DEPARTING FROM THE LIVING GOD (Hebrews 3:12-15) 

All unrighteousness is sin, and sin is the breaking of God’s commandments, transgressing the law of God. However, there is a sin unto death and there is also a sin not unto death. This is a basic distinction which the Bible itself teaches us and which we should ever keep in mind, both for theological reasons and for the sake of our soul’s peace and tranquility. Of this the apostle John writes, “If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.” (I John 5:16, 17) And our Savior Himself signals a sin which is unforgivable: it is the sin against the Holy Ghost. Thus we read “Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speak eth a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world nor in the world to come.” (Matthew 12:31, 32

In the passages which we have just quoted we are clearly taught that we must distinguish, according to Scripture, between sin and sin. Bearing this in mind we shall be in a position to understand the teaching and admonition of the writer to the Hebrews in this section. For, as we have seen, we are partakers of Christ and of the heavenly calling, if we hold fast to the beginning of our confidence and hope firm to the end. He that endureth to the end shall be saved! (Matthew 24:13) We noticed, too, that this did not mean that salvation is based on our persevering, but rather that our persevering shows the genuineness of our faith; it is the infallible proof of true, saving faith. 

Since there is true faith which cannot fall away from the living God, and “temporary faith” which must needs fall away from the living God, it is incumbent upon us to beware lest there be an evil heart of unbelief in us. We have noticed in former essays that we must examine and prove ourselves whether we are in the faith, walk in the faith and cling to the living God in Christ crucified. For it is either clinging more and more to Christ crucified as one who “liveth and believeth,” or it must needs be an evil heart of unbelief which reveals itself in apostatizing from the living God. This is the implication of the teaching of Jesus to Martha in John 11:26, “And whosoever liveth and believeth shall never die. Believest thou this?” For no man can truly believe unless he is made alive with Christ (Ephesians 2:5, 6) For this reason it is also true that none can say in true and humble confession: “LORD, JESUS,” except through the Holy Ghost, and no one, who speaks through the Holy Ghost, calleth Jesus: Anathema! (I Corinthians 12:2, 3

If true faith cannot be lost, why does the writer to the Hebrews admonish the readers to beware lest there should prove to be an evil heart of unbelief in any of them? Why must they beware against falling away from the living God? Is it not simply preposterous to suggest this? Not at all! What does it mean to “fall away from the living God?” As we have suggested above, there are two kinds of sins. There is a sin unto death, and there is a sin not unto death. To fall away from the living God is the sin unto death! It is the sin of an evil heart of unbelief. We must not confuse this sin with the sins of the weakness of the flesh of God’s people in this world—as we all stumble and falter in many ways. These were the weaknesses of the people for whom the sacrifices were intended in the Old Testament. Such as came confessing these sins, pleading the covenant mercies of God, exactly did not fall away from the living God, but clung to him in filial love, ardent hope and earnest expectation. To fall away from the living God was Israel’s sin at the mount when they made the golden calf with the words “These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought you out of Egypt.” It was the sin of the denial of God as their covenant God—a denial of the God who said from Horeb’s brow “I am the Lord, thy God, which have brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” And this is the sin of an “evil heart of unbelief.” 

What is unbelief? The term in the Greek text is “apistia.” It is the very opposite of the faith in Jesus Christ, the certain knowledge and the hearty confidence, that there is for me forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and eternal life, merely for the sake of Christ’s merits. Such unbelief is rooted in an evil heart. It indicates that the tree is evil, and, therefore, can only bring forth evil fruit. For out of the fruit the tree is known! Unbelief can only come forth from an evil heart in which the love of God is not shed abroad. It is because of “unbelief” that the Israel of old could not enter into the Promised Land. (Hebrews 3:19) If faith receives all the benefits of Christ more and more, then unbelief is such that it is ever more rejecting the benefits of the covenant, yea, reveals itself as not sharing in these benefits. It is the peculiar nature of unbelief that it thrives in the very sphere and nurture where faith grows and flourishes. “Unbelief” may not speak in the church! Where unbelief reveals itself there is a hardening of the heart.

The great example of unbelief was that of Israel in the desert, that “generation” with which the Lord was angry for forty years. This generation was hardened through the deceit of sin. That is the key to the understanding of their conduct in the midst of so many manifestations of God’s covenant faithfulness. What great wonders did not the Lord-perform in their midst and before their very eyes. With His mighty arm God laid the Egyptians low by ten great plagues, and he made a path for them through the Red Sea, destroying the Egyptian host when they assayed to pursue Israel. With manna he fed Israel forty years from heaven, and he gave them to drink water from the rock. His cloud was with them by day, and His fiery pillar guided them and gave them light at night. He planted his tabernacle in their midst, and called Israel to the solemn feasts, and the morning and evening sacrifices. He gave them the priesthood of Aaron, instituting the priesthood and sacrifices. But evil hearts of unbelief only departed from the Lord more and more, as an evil and stiff-necked people. 

And it was then that the Lord “said” by himself: always they do err in heart. Seeing they see and do not perceive, hearing they hear and do not understand! Even they provoked God to wrath for forty years, gainsaying the most High! And God therefore swore that they might not enter into the rest. About a million people died in the wilderness! The entire army which was numbered when Moses came out of Egypt perished in the wilderness. (Compare Numbers 1:45, 46) Graves, graves in the desert way where Israel stopped some thirty nine times! (Numbers 33:1-49)

Such was the great lesson of history, written for our example, lest we walk in the same ways of disobedience. (I Corinthians 10:11) It is written for us upon whom the end of the ages has come! 

TWO KINDS OF ISRAEL (Hebrews 3:16-19

Not all who went out of Egypt by the agency of Moses were in the provocation. There were “some” who having heard the word of God were embittered. The rest believed and are accounted for the seed. Such was the history of Israel in the desert and such is the lesson which it teaches us according to the Scriptures.

Since the difference between the two seeds is one of faith and unbelief, and those who could not enter into the promised land in the days of Joshua were not able to enter in because of unbelief (dia apistian), it is the evil heart of unbelief which we must beware of. For unbelief is a sure sign of being reprobate Israel whichcannot (eeduneetheesan) enter into the rest of God. In view of this it is, no doubt, the teaching here of Scripture that this “taking heed lest their be an evil heart of unbelief among you” implies two things. 

First of all, as this pertains to the believers themselves, as believers. Ever there is the danger of being drawn away from the living God, by the devil, the world and our own flesh. Wherefore it is necessary that we exhort one another while it is called “today.” For God works the grace of perseverance in his elect saints through exhortations and threatenings, as a part of the means of grace, the preaching of the Word as the key-power of the Spirit. Always and again the warning must be sounded against unbelief.

Secondly, should it appear that there’ are avowed unbelievers that arise in the church and preach the teachings of unbelief, and deny the Christ, and fall away from the living God and cause others to fall away, these must be put out of the church with the ban of God. Thus Moses instructed Israel of old in the book of the law. For he who leaves the worship of the living God in Christ Jesus surely has turned to serve idols, and falls in the class of those described in the book ofDeuteronomy 13:6-11, “If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods which thou hast not known, thou nor thy fathers; namely the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, not hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him; but thou shalt surely kill him. . . . . and thou shalt stone him with stones that he die, because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the land of bondage. And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall do no more any such wickedness as this among you.” Now surely heretics are not stoned in the New Testament church, but God does tell us to beware lest there be among us any with an evil heart which reveals itself in unbelief. The church must keep watch over doctrine and life in the church, and in that order. 

The writer to the Hebrews thus warns the readers with the warnings of God’s word. Thus we see in ourselves, in holding fast to the beginning of the confidence and hope firm to the end, that we are the house of God built upon the foundations of the apostle and prophets of which Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone!