The Danger of Apostasy | Hebrews 3:7-19
Brian Hedges | November 5, 2023
Let’s turn in our Bibles this morning to Hebrews 3.
I’ve now been in the ministry for over twenty years—over twenty years, actually, in this church, and a previous church before that—and I think as I reflect on the years of ministry that my greatest grief as a pastor is when people in the church turn their backs on Jesus and become apostates. I can think of people who have been in the church at one time and were seemingly faithful believers in Christ, even people that I’ve baptized over the years, who no longer profess faith in Christ in any meaningful sense of the word. I still pray for those folks, but it is what grieves me the most.
When people leave our church and they land in another gospel-preaching church, I don’t worry too much about that. But when people leave the church and in leaving they leave Jesus, that’s what burdens my heart. Of course, it makes me reflect on my own failures and ministry to them, but also grieve for them and pray for them and for the Lord’s work in recovering them to himself.
I introduce the message in that way because it is the burden of this passage, for us to understand what apostasy is. What is it that causes someone to become an apostate, and what is an apostate? That’s not a word that we use often, so maybe it will help to begin with a definition.
An apostate is a person who renounces his religion. And apostasy, the doctrine about apostasy, has been controversial in the history of the Christian church. There essentially have been two positions in the past.
If you go back several hundred years you would see that there were some who essentially said that a person who became an apostate, who defected from the faith, who ceased to believe in Jesus and who forsook the church, was probably never a Christian to begin with. Whatever profession of faith they had made was essentially a false profession; it wasn’t a real profession. They were hypocrites or they were pretend believers or they thought they were believers, but they really weren’t believers. That’s the classic Calvinist or reformed position.
On the other hand, you have those who say that if a professing believer became an apostate, then whatever grace they had, they lost that grace. Essentially, they lose their salvation. They were saved, they were in the faith, but now, having turned their backs on Christ, they have lost that salvation, and they can no longer be considered a Christian.
There are actually good arguments for both sides of that debate. I think that the weight of the evidence falls more on the Calvinist and reformed side. But that’s not my concern this morning.
Here’s what I want you to get: both the Calvinists and the Arminians would have agreed with this, that if you became an apostate you were not saved. If you forsake Christ, you are not a Christian. Now, we have a third position. We have a third position now that would have shocked the classic Calvinist and the classic Arminians and Wesleyans. That is this: if you’ve ever prayed a sinner’s prayer, if you’ve ever walked the aisle, if you’ve ever been baptized, if you’ve ever given even five minutes of mental assent to the truths of the gospel, then you’re a Christian. You’ve received the gift of salvation, and “once saved, always saved,” and even if you quit believing in Jesus, even if you become an atheist, even if you become a mass murderer, even if you forsake Christ and the church and never return for the rest of your life, you’re still in, because you got the fire insurance, you prayed the prayer, and you’re okay.
That’s not true, that’s not what the Bible teaches, and no one should rest in the presumption that you can completely forsake Christ and still be saved.
Apostasy is a real thing. There are some people who start well but do not finish well. The Bible says that such are not saved. Jesus himself said, “It is he who endures to the end who will be saved.” So there is a pastoral burden to this message for me, and it’s really the burden of the letter to the Hebrews.
We’ve been studying this letter together, and we’ve seen that the focus of this letter is that Jesus is better. Over and again the author here is holding up for us the beauty and the supremacy, the superiority of Jesus Christ. But along with his exaltation of Christ, this author is weaving in exhortation and warning. In fact, you have five specific warning passages in this letter to the Hebrews. We’ve looked at one of them already—Hebrews 2:1-4—but now we come to the second warning, a much longer, a much more extended warning that begins in Hebrews 3:7 and really extends into chapter 4. Today we’re going to look at the first half of this, Hebrews 3:7-19. We’ll consider the second half of this warning next week in Hebrews 4. Let’s read this passage praying for God’s blessing on his word to our hearts. Hebrews 3, beginning in verse 7.
“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.”’
“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said,
‘Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.’
“For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.”
This is God’s word.
Lord, we pray that the meditations of our hearts and the words of my mouth would be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Bless the word to our hearts, we pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
This is a very sober message and passage. It’s a serious passage. I want us to dig into it by looking at three things:
The Voice of the Spirit
The Urgency of His Warning
The Confidence of Faith
The Voice of the Spirit
Go back to Hebrews 3:7. Notice how verse 7 begins. “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says—” and then what follows in verses 7-11 is a quotation from Psalm 95. “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,” and then you have a quotation from the Old Testament, from Psalm 95.
This is characteristic of Hebrews. Hebrews attributes the words and the message of the Old Testament to the Holy Spirit. It’s not simply that the prophet spoke, it’s not simply that David spoke, it’s not simply that the psalm spoke, but the Holy Spirit was speaking. And he not only says, “The Holy Spirit said,” it’s in the present tense: “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says . . .”
So I say this first point is all about the voice of the Spirit. It’s about how the Spirit speaks to us.
This is characteristic in Hebrews. In Hebrew 10:15 the author says that “the Holy Spirit also, bearing witness to us,” and then he quotes Jeremiah 31. In Hebrews 9:8 we read, “By this the Holy Spirit indicates,” and then he expounds the priestly rituals of the Day of Atonement from Leviticus 13. So, the Spirit speaks through the word. That’s what I want you to get. The Spirit speaks through the word.
Lots of people want to know, “How does God speak to us? How do I know that God is speaking to me? How do I know how God is leading me?” Here’s the answer: it’s through the word of God. He speaks through the word! That’s how he speaks.
You can see how this works in the passage in a chart. This is how the Spirit speaks. You really have three parts of Scripture that are woven together right here. There’s a reflection on this event that took place in the Old Testament. It was the exodus generation, and this is a description of what happened to that generation when they failed to believe the promise of God.
I mean, just remember this. These were the people who had seen the mighty hand of God, the works of God in Egypt, the plagues of Egypt. They had witnessed the first Passover. They had been led through the wilderness. They had seen the Red Sea divided in two and they’d walked through on dry land. They’d been led through the desert by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Yet they come to the border of the land of Canaan, the promised land, and they see the giants in the land, they see how hard it’s going to be, and they say, “No, we can’t do this.” So they pull back, and in unbelief they refuse to obey God.
The consequence was that they then wandered in the wilderness for forty years, until the entire generation died off, with just a couple of exceptions, and it was the next generation that went in, in faith, to inherit the promises.
There’s a reflection on that event, and particularly some echoes here of Numbers 14. But the quotation is actually from Psalm 95. Psalm 95 was written hundreds of years later, and in Psalm 95 the psalmist is taking the language and circumstances of that event and he’s speaking directly to the contemporary people of God, the people of God in his day, the worshiping community of Israel, with this warning: “Do not harden your hearts as in this day of testing.”
Now, the author to the Hebrews is applying this passage to his audience, and it’s showing us how the Spirit continues to speak through the ever-contemporary word of God.
This is so important for us to grasp, that the Spirit speaks to us today through the word. He’s speaking to you today through the word.
We can think of many ways in which the Spirit does this. We might think of how God saves people to begin with, how people are converted and brought to faith in Christ. I love the story of Arthur Pink, a famous author in the twentieth century. When Arthur Pink was a young man was a theosophist. He was not a Christian, but his parents were Christians, and they were deeply burdened for him. He was probably about twenty-one or twenty-two years old; he was still living at home.
He came home one night intending to prepare for a theosophist meeting that was taking place in a few days. He was walking up to his bedroom upstairs, and his father said to him, “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the ends thereof are the ways of death,” quoting Proverbs 14:12.
Pink went into his room, shut the door, and didn’t come out for three days, and when he came out he was a Christian. The word of God arrested his heart, and he couldn’t shake off the warning. When he came out three days later, his father, recognizing what had happened, said, “Praise God! My son has been delivered.” There’s power in the word of God. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
This is one reason why Redeemer Church believes that the teaching of the Bible is so important, because this is how God speaks to us. This was the heart of the Reformation. We just had Reformation Sunday last week, so it’s appropriate to quote Luther. You remember how Luther would sometimes say that the Christians’ only organs are ears—not eyes, but ears, because he wasn’t so much captured by mystical visions and experiences but by the word of God.
One time when Luther was reflecting on what had happened in the Reformation, this is what he said:
“I simply taught and preached and wrote God’s word; otherwise, I did nothing. Then while I slept, or drank Wittenburg beer with Philip and my Amsdorf, the word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing. The word did it all.”
Why? Because God speaks through the word, he works through the word.
Some of you were here last Sunday night when we watched a documentary on revival, Revival: The Work of God. As I watched that, the two things that stood out to me that were central to every revival were, first of all, prayer—people who prayed, laid hold of God in prayer—and then the ministry of the word. It was the word of God that awakened people, that brought people to faith in Christ, so that there were these ingatherings into the church. This is how God speaks; he speaks through the word, the voice of the Spirit. This morning, you and I need to heed the voice of the Spirit, to listen as God speaks to us through his word.
The Urgency of His Warning
The voice of the Spirit, and then secondly, the urgency of his warning. The Spirit speaks through Psalm 95:7-11, and then verse 12 shifts right into application. It’s application to the audience of the letter to the Hebrews. There’s an urgency here. The urgency is signaled by the repetition of this word “today.” Three times the passage says “today.” “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” Verse 7, verse 13, verse 15.
It is a reminder to us of the urgency of daily faith and obedience, versus those approaches to Christianity that are always looking back to something that happened in the past, something that happened in my background.
If I could borrow an illustration—I think I first heard this from John Piper—a lot of times, we tend to think of salvation as something like a vaccination. You’re vaccinated against measles or polio or something like that when you’re a baby; you don’t even remember the vaccination. But you got the shot, so you’re okay. You never think about it again.
A lot of people are kind of like that. They have this experience, this spiritual experience somewhere in their past. They think they got it and don’t really think about it in daily life. Piper said we should rather be thinking about our Christian life in terms of daily therapy. Or where my mind goes, since we have a Type I diabetic in the family, is the necessity of daily insulin. Stephen’s a Type I diabetic; he has to have insulin every day. Every meal requires insulin, so four shots a day. That’s necessary for his health, for his well-being. Neglect that for several days on end and his body would begin to shut down, and eventually it would be fatal.
In a similar way, Christianity is not about a one-time experience that you had twenty years ago, it’s about daily faith in Christ. It’s about abiding in Jesus. It’s about daily dependence on Jesus and trusting in Jesus and living in fellowship with Jesus today. What is the Spirit saying to us today? Are we trusting in Jesus today? There’s an urgency here.
It’s an urgency to a warning, and the warning is a warning against apostasy. When you read this passage, there are so many words used it’s as if the author is searching for every word he can use to describe what this apostasy looks like. You can see a list of the language that’s used from verses 12-19. He warns about having an “evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (verse 12), about being “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” in verse 13, a call to not harden your hearts in verse 15. Then he describes that wilderness generation, who rebelled and who sinned and who were disobedient (verses 16-18), and all because of their unbelief (verse 19). It’s a warning against falling away, which is characterized by all these different things—unbelief, hardness of heart, rebellion, sin, and disobedience.
One of the most vivid illustrations of this in literature is, of course, John Bunyan’s book The Pilgrim’s Progress. I quote it often and have mentioned this often. One of the things that you will notice in this book, if you read Pilgrim’s Progress, is the many different characters. You have good characters—you have characters such as Christian and his companions, Faithful, who is martyred in Vanity Fair, and Hopeful, who journeys with him from there until the end. Of course, it’s all about this journey of Christian from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, and all the different obstacles and hardships and difficulties he faces along the way.
But there are actually a lot of other companions, a lot of other characters that show up in The Pilgrim’s Progress, and they have interesting names. There’s Obstinate. Obstinate is stubborn. He’s self-willed, he’s hard to please, and Obstinate doesn’t last very long. As soon as he comes up against an obstacle, he turns back.
There’s also Pliable, and Pliable is the opposite of Obstinate. Pliable is a really loose person. He changes his opinion with whatever he’s hearing at the moment. He’s weak, he’s unsettled, he’s unstable. He doesn’t have a backbone. Pliable doesn’t make it either.
Then there’s Talkative. Talkative thinks that religion is found in much talk, but not in much action. He loves to talk about theology, but he doesn’t apply it to his heart and to his life.
Then there’s Ignorance, who thinks it doesn’t really matter what you believe. As long as you have a simple faith, it doesn’t really matter what you believe. He’s ignorant of the ways of God in the heart and really ignorant of the gospel itself.
There are even characters called Temporary and Turnback. I mean, John Bunyan—there was no subtlety in this guy. This is on the nose, it’s as clear as it can be. What Bunyan is doing is showing you a true Christian, and in contrast to that many other false types.
The thing that all these other companions have in common is that their interest in Christ was temporary, their commitment was shallow, and they didn’t stay in the journey. They don’t make it to the end. They are apostates.
This passage is warning us about that. It’s warning us not to become apostates.
It’s worth asking, then, how does apostasy work? I think you can see it in the language of Hebrews 3:12-13. Read it again. “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” So, it’s unbelief in the heart that leads a person to fall away, and then in verse 13, “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
How does apostasy work? It works as sin, in its deceptive quality, hardens the heart in unbelief, leading it to turn away from God.
We have to reckon with this, because there is such a thing as partial apostasy as well as total apostasy. The Puritans would distinguish between them, too. Partial apostasy is something that any of us can commit. Any genuine Christian can commit this partial apostasy, where you for a time are deceived by a sin and begin to drift or neglect or turn away from the Lord. This is how it works: sin tells you lies, and you believe the lie, and instead of following Jesus you go with sin. This is what sin does. Sin deceives, inveigles, obfuscates. Sin shows us the bait, but it hides the hook. It shows us the pleasure, but hides the consequences. It makes promises that it will never keep. Every departure from God, large or small, every time your heart begins to grow hard or cold to the things of God and the things of the Spirit, every time that you choose greed or lust or ambition or anger or selfishness or sloth or malic over and against loving God and loving others, what you’re doing in that moment is you are believing the lie that sin is telling you.
If your conscious at any point, as I am—I’m preaching to myself, folks—if you’re conscious of any given moment in the course of the week that your heart has begun to grow hard against the Lord, that you’re not as full of love and faith and hope as maybe you were a day or two ago, and you’re sensing this subtle shift in your heart, this is what you do. You have to think back and trace your thoughts back and maybe trace your choices back to a moment where, in maybe even a very subtle way, you began to give in to the temptations of sin and the flesh, and in that moment you were believing the lie that sin was telling you instead of believing that Jesus is better. You believe that sin is better.
The problem is, we’re not thinking in the moment, “This is better than Jesus.” We’re not thinking about Jesus, that’s the problem. We’re not even thinking about Jesus. We know theoretically that this is not better than Jesus, but at the moment it looks so good, so we go for it. We may do it in a very subtle way, but left unchecked, without repentance, that will lead our hearts further and further away from God. It’s how apostasy begins, including the partial apostasy that can happen in any of our hearts. And it’s how full apostasy begins as well.
The Spirit speaks through the word with urgency, warning us against falling away from the living God. But I don’t want us to end on that note; I want us to see the confidence of faith.
The Confidence of Faith
There is a way to pursue God with persevering faith, and this passage shows us that, the confidence of faith. Give me about ten minutes. “Confidence.” Hebrews uses this word to mean either the objective confidence, the firm foundation upon which our faith rests, or it can carry this subjective note of the subjective assurance and conviction in our hearts. I think both are probably implied, so I mean both here. The confidence of faith; it’s built on a firm foundation and it gives us deep conviction and assurance in our own hearts. I want you to see three things here.
(1) The first is that faith is the crucial element. Faith is the important thing. Don’t hear me saying this morning that you need to add something to your faith. Don’t hear me saying that faith is not enough. There is a sufficiency in faith. But you have to really see the centrality of faith.
I think you can see that in a reverse image when you see how Hebrews 3:12-19 are bracketed by these two references to unbelieve. Verse 12 says, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart . . .” and then in verse 19, “. . . they were not able to enter because of unbelief.” Those two references to unbelief frame everything else; the falling away, the hardness, the rebellion, the sin, the disobedience. It’s a literary device by which the author is showing us that unbelief is what causes the apostasy. In fact, that’s what apostasy is; it is a heart of unbelief.
The Puritans often made much of this. I’ve been reading this year, slowly, devotionally, reading through William Gurnell’s The Christian in Complete Armor. He expounds the various pieces of the armor of God. When he’s talking about the shield of faith he talks about how faith is the most crucial of all the graces of God in the heart. Faith is the grace that leads to every other grace, it strengthens every other grace, it protects every other grace like a shield protects the body.
But along the way, he also talks about unbelief, which he calls the preeminent sin, the preeminence of unbelief among the sins. He gives a number of reasons why this is so. One is because it leads to other sins. He says unbelief is a sin-making sin. Where there is a heart of unbelief it’s going to lead to other sins. Unbelief shuts us out from the gospel. It shuts the gospel out of mind and out of heart. Gurnell says, “All the offers of love which God makes to an unbelieving heart will fall like sparks in a river. They are put out as soon as they fall into it.” Why? Because the heart is not believing, it’s not receiving what God is actually saying and giving in his word.
Unbelief shuts out salvation. No help can come to the sinner as long as unbelief bolts the door of his heart.
If all of this is so, if unbelief is the sin that leads to apostasy, then on the flipside, faith is that grace, the grace by which we are saved and the grace by which we continue, the grace by which we persevere in the faith.
(2) That leads to the second observation here, that the genuineness of faith is seen in its continuance. You see this especially in Hebrews 3:14. I think verse 14 is a crucial verse in this passage. Verse 14 says, “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”
“We have come to share in Christ.” I believe that’s perfect tense. This is something that has already happened and it is an abiding, continuing state of reality. We have come to share in Christ if we hold our original confidence firm to the end.
It’s a parallel with verse 6, which says, “We are his house, if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.” It’s showing us that a genuine union with Christ will be evidenced in an ongoing faith in Christ. It shows that faith is characterized by believing and by ongoing believing.
Do you want to know what a true believer is? A true believer is a person who keeps on believing. But if you stop believing then you’re not a believer. A believer believes, and a believer continues to believe and fights against the encroachment of unbelief in his or her heart. The genuineness of faith is seen in the continuance of faith, the endurance of faith, the perseverance of faith.
(3) So then, how do we continue in the faith? That’s the pressing question, isn’t it? I told you, this is a sober passage. This is a passage that should wake us up and should make us examine our hearts, but it should not leave us discouraged. Instead, it should leave us with a clear understanding of what we need to do to hold onto our confidence to the end. How do we do that? How do we continue in the faith? Let me give you three things.
First, you respond to the word. Hebrews 3:7-11 gives us the word. “The Holy Spirit says…” and quotes Psalm 95. Then verses 12-19 is all application, and it’s an application of the word. “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.”
What he’s calling for here is a response to the word that he’s just spoken in Psalm 95. Here’s the thing that I think we have to understand: faith responds to the word, but it responds to the word in an appropriate way. Faith responds differently to different parts of the word.
I’m drawing this from the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter five, on saving faith. I’ll paraphrase it here. It essentially says that by this saving faith a Christian responds or believes to be true whatever is revealed in the word, but it acts differently upon different parts of the word. Then it specifies three ways: it yields obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come.
That’s a helpful taxonomy. That’s a helpful way to think about how faith responds to the word.
Think about your own life right now. How do you respond to the word? When you hear a command or you read a command in Scripture, is the impulse of your heart, “I need to obey that command, I want to obey that command”? Or when you come across a warning in Scripture is there kind of a trembling, not that you are petrified by fear, but there’s a seriousness that makes you tremble? And then, when you come to the promises, there’s something in you that embraces the promise. You cling to the promise, you cherish the promises of God, the promises of the gospel.
I think the problem with most of us is that we hear the word, we read the word, and it’s in one ear and out the other, and we’re not even stopping long enough to think about, “How am I going to respond to this?” We’re either just rushing through or we’re not reading it at all, or we’re hearing it and then not reflecting on it, but there’s no responsiveness of our hearts.
James says that’s like someone who looks at his face in a mirror, he says that his face needs to be washed, and then he just walks away and does nothing. That’s being a hearer of the word, not a doer of the word. You have to respond to the word of God.
That’s what faith does. Faith responds to the word. Obey the commands, tremble at the warnings, and embrace the promises of God. That’s first. How do you continue in the faith? You respond to the word.
Number two, you exhort one another. You see it in verse 13: “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called today, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
To quote John Piper one more time, eternal security is a community project. We need the church. You need the church. You can’t live the Christian life on your own. You have to have brothers and sisters. You have to have people who are helping you to continue in the faith. And the way that we help one another is by exhorting one another and encouraging one another.
I just want to ask you, is there anybody who’s doing this in your life? If you’re in a Christian family, this is something—it’s not the only thing—but this is one thing that ought to be happening in the Christian family, where we’re encouraging one another and exhorting one another and praying for one another. We’re holding each other up and we’re helping one another to unmask the deceitfulness of sin and to see instead the beauty and the glory of Jesus.
But many of you live alone, and all of us, whether we live in a family or not, we need people from outside our families; we need friends, we need maybe a small group or a Bible study or a shepherd or an elder or someone who’s leading you in discipleship or just a mutual friend who will help by exhorting and encouraging and praying and essentially saying, “Listen, I get the temptation, I understand where you’re at, but don’t believe the lie of sin. Remember, Jesus is better. He is worth it, brother. He is worth it, sister. Keep your eyes on Jesus. These trials are going to pass. They’re not going to last forever, no matter how discouraged you are. God loves you, Christ died for you. This is temporary, eternity is coming, keep your eyes on Jesus!” We need people who are saying that to us. Exhort one another.
Finally, number three, share in Christ. Again, verse 14. This is the essential thing. It’s actually sharing in Christ. “For we have come to share in Christ,” means to be a partaker in Christ or a partner in Christ. It’s the language of Hebrews that is kind of like union with Christ in Paul’s language. It’s to be connected, a sharer in Christ. “And we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”
Again, just to reference the Westminster Confession of Faith, the principle acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for salvation, for justification, sanctification, and eternal life. That’s what faith does.
This is the principle act of faith. It is to receive Christ. It is to rest on Christ. It is to believe and trust in him and in him alone. This is the most important question or set of questions that you could ask yourself today and really any day of your life. The most important thing you can ask yourself is this: “Do I believe in Jesus? Am I trusting in Jesus? Am I abiding in Jesus? Am I following Jesus? Do I depend on Jesus? Will I depend on Jesus in this moment, in this trial, in this test, in this temptation, in this discouragement, with these problems? Will I depend on Christ, and will I follow him? Will I trust him? Am I doing this today?” That’s the question.
Let me end by referring once again to The Pilgrim’s Progress. As Christian goes on this journey he faces so many obstacles along the way. Some of the obstacles he doesn’t face particularly well at first. He sometimes does get off the path, finds himself locked up in Doubting Castle. He finds himself tempted and assaulted in the Valley of Humiliation. I mean, he goes through all these different kinds of things. But he keeps getting back on the path, and he keeps fighting, he keeps enduring, he keeps continuing. He stays on the journey.
There’s a place in The Pilgrim’s Progress where he has just climbed Hill Difficulty. It’s a difficult mountain, and he’s had to climb this mountain. He’s worn and wearied after this climb. Then he comes to this palace; it’s called Palace Beautiful. It is a lodge that was built by the lord of the hill for the relief and security of pilgrims. Really, it’s a picture of the church. And as Christian comes to Palace Beautiful he’s interviewed by these three young women named Prudence, Piety, and Charity. Prudence asks Christian how it is that he has been able to vanquish or conquer the old sins that still annoy him. What are the strategies that he uses?
I love Christian’s answer. He gives the best answer. He says, “When I think of what I saw at the cross, that will do it. And when I look upon my broidered coat, that will do it. Also when I look into the roll [or the scroll] that I carry in my bosom, that will do it. And when my thoughts wax warm about whither I am going, that will do it.”
Bunyan’s instruction here is really masterful. He is telling us that the way to fight sin and persevere in faith is to look to the cross—to remember the cross, what Jesus did for you on the cross. You look to the cross, you remember that you are covered in the righteousness of Christ—that’s the embroidered coat. You cherish the assurance of your salvation; this scroll is his certificate that sealed him as someone who genuinely was a Christian. You cherish that, you hold it close, and you remember your final destiny, so that your thoughts wax warm about where you’re going, the Celestial City—heaven! The new heavens and new earth. Glory and joy, ever-increasing joy forever. That’s where we’re headed!
Where you’re headed is something so, so far superior to the testing and the temptations and trials and sorrow and suffering of this world. You’re headed to a reality where every moment, if we could use the word moment for eternity, every successive experience forever and ever will be more joy, more blessedness, more delight. That’s what the Bible holds out for us. It’s the beatific vision. It’s the vision of blessedness, of absolute joy in the presence of God, where you are finally experiencing what you were made for. When you remember that, that will help you fight. That will help you keep pressing on. That will help you get up after you’ve fallen in the dirt of your sin again, dust off your britches, and get back on the road, and take another step forward.
The voice of the Spirit. The Spirit of God is speaking through his word. Do you have ears to hear this morning? Are you listening to what he’s saying? Are you hearing the urgency of his warning? “Do not harden your hearts.” Ask yourself, what is the state of your heart today? What direction are you moving? Are you moving towards him or away from him?
The confidence of faith. The crucial thing we need is genuine faith, faith that continues, faith that abides, faith that perseveres all the way to the end.
Brother, sister in Christ, don’t stop believing. Instead, cling to Christ, trust in him today. Let’s pray.
Our gracious God, we thank you for your word, even a passage of Scripture like this that is very serious and sobering and causes us to examine our hearts. But we thank you for it, and we ask you now to give us ears to hear it and hearts to respond to it. May we respond as genuine faith responds to the word. May we obey the commands, tremble at the warning, and embrace the glorious promise of rest and salvation and peace and eternal life that is given to us through your Son, Jesus Christ.
As we come to the table this morning, we ask you to work in us what is pleasing in your sight. May there be within each one of us a humble heart that mounts our sins, that sincerely turns away from them, and that once again chooses Christ and embraces Christ as our treasure. As we come to the table to receive the elements, may we by faith in our hearts receive and rest upon Christ and Christ alone. We ask you to draw near to us in these moments, by the power and through the grace of your Holy Spirit working in us. We pray this in Jesus’ name and for his sake, amen.