Back again? How kind of you! Today I am going to discuss an issue of great practical importance. Every person longs for assurance of salvation. God has promised that those He knew and loved before the foundation of the world will not only be justified, but also sanctified and glorified. They will persevere to the end.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.
Christians who hold to the view of soteriology known as monergism believe that those who are elected by God for salvation will most certainly be brought to life spiritually by the power of the Holy Spirit. They will just as assuredly be united to Christ and justified by His imputed righteousness. However, one disagreement among monergists comes in regard to the nature of the Old and New Covenants.
The confessionally Reformed believe these covenants have the same substance: that is, they are both saving covenants and part of the Covenant of Grace. Before Christ’s death, salvation was received through the Old Covenant. After His death, it is received through the New Covenant. However, even as the Old Covenant contained people who were not united to Christ through faith and were thus cut off for their unbelief, so the New Covenant also contains people who do not receive the substance of the covenant. These individuals are in the outward administration of the covenant, receiving the sacraments and participating in the life of the church, but they are in fact unregenerate. They are not among God’s elect.
The Particular Baptists believe that every person who has ever been saved has been united to Christ through the New Covenant. Thus, the Covenant of Grace does not include those other covenants that were made in the Old Testament. According to this view, the Covenant of Grace was made between Christ and the elect, and while it was not formally inaugurated until Christ died His atoning death, it was nevertheless applied to all the elect who lived in the Old Testament period. Therefore, the New Covenant does not include both regenerate and unregenerate persons—that is, some who are saved and some who are not. It only includes those who are actually elect, and thus it will never be broken, for their union with Christ ensures that they will persevere to the end.
My challenge today is to determine which of these two views is correct by answering the following line of inquiry.
Can the New Covenant be broken?
There is no question that those who lived under the Law (i.e. the Old Covenant) could fail to keep its righteous demands and be cut off from the covenant blessings, receiving instead the covenant curses. The first form of Law given to the Jewish people was the command for all males to be circumcised. “But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” (Genesis 17:14) The Abrahamic Covenant contained a Law and lesser promises for his physical descendants, but greater promises for his spiritual descendants. While the greater promises would never fail, the Law certainly created generations of covenant breakers.
The Mosaic Covenant threatened those who violated its commandments with the same penalty: they would be cut off. See, for example, the rules governing the Feast of Unleavened Bread. “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses; for whoever eats anything leavened from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.” (Exodus 12:15) The same warning was given with regard to the Sabbath laws. “Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people.” (Exodus 31:14)
Again, there is no question that the Old Covenant could be broken. While God’s faithfulness was never in doubt, the nation of Israel was unfaithful for so long that it reaped the covenant curses. The people were sent away from the Promised Land and forced to endure a difficult period of exile. Therefore, no one who holds to Reformed covenant theology (in the broadest possible sense) disputes that there were individuals under the Old Covenant who never had faith and were therefore cut off from God’s covenant people. Likewise, those who hold to monergism all agree that the elect will be united to Christ by faith, and they will never be cut off from the greater promises.
I will not spend time arguing for the general principle of the perseverance of the saints. Rather, I will focus on four passages that the confessionally Reformed point to as proof that a person can be in the administration of the New Covenant without actually receiving the substance. That is, you can be in the covenant without being united to Christ through faith, making you subject to the same covenant curses as those under the Mosaic Law.
The first passage I will examine occurs in John’s account of the Last Supper.
I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.
Christians throughout the centuries have interpreted Christ’s words in various ways. Some conclude that all the branches that are said to be “in” Him are people who are truly united to Him by faith, and thus it is possible to lose one’s salvation without the necessary amount of sanctification. Monergists typically argue that the branches that do not bear fruit were never really united to Christ. If they had saving faith, fruit would have necessarily followed. There is a further argument that the Greek word translated as “takes away” actually mean “takes up”, and thus could refer to propping up a branch so it can grow better. I looked at all the instances where that Greek word appears in the New Testament, and I concluded that this final theory is quite weak. “Takes away” is a proper translation, and the rest of the passage leaves us in no doubt that these branches are indeed thrown away and cast into the fire.
There is a third interpretive possibility favored by the confessionally Reformed: that being attached to the vine means one is in the New Covenant. Those who have faith are the branches that abide in Christ and bear fruit. Those who do not are the branches that bear no fruit and are cut off. This interpretation similarly relies on a figurative understanding of “in Me” that is not identical with saving union with Christ. However, in this case, to be in Christ refers to a general sense in which those who are only in the administration of the New Covenant are outwardly identified with Him.
I believe that our understanding of this passage should be dictated by two things: 1) the significance of vine or fruit analogies in scripture, and 2) what it means to “abide” in Christ. As for the first point, we find that the nation of Israel was referred to as a vineyard in the Old Testament, most famously in these verses.
“Let me sing now for my well-beloved
A song of my beloved concerning His vineyard.
My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill.
He dug it all around, removed its stones,
And planted it with the choicest vine.
And He built a tower in the middle of it
And also hewed out a wine vat in it;
Then He expected it to produce good grapes,
But it produced only worthless ones.
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
Judge between Me and My vineyard.
What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it?
Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones?
So now let Me tell you what I am going to do to My vineyard:
I will remove its hedge and it will be consumed;
I will break down its wall and it will become trampled ground.
I will lay it waste;
It will not be pruned or hoed,
But briars and thorns will come up.
I will also charge the clouds to rain no rain on it.”
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel
And the men of Judah His delightful plant.
Thus He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed;
For righteousness, but behold, a cry of distress.
The other passages in the prophetic books that refer to the nation of Israel as a vineyard are Jeremiah 12:10 and Ezekiel 19:10-14. God declared that Israel was a vineyard that He had carefully cultivated, but which failed to bear fruit. We can safely interpret this in the following manner: God made a covenant with Israel and showered them with blessings, but they displayed neither faith nor repentance. Compare this with how John the Baptist responded when some of the Jewish religious leaders requested baptism.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The ax is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Notice the similarity with Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. That which does not bear good fruit “in keeping with repentance” is “thrown into the fire”. The other interesting element is that the Pharisees and Sadducees were evidently relying on their status as Jews. John tells them it is not enough to be physically descended from Abraham. When he says “from these stones God is able to raise up children of Abraham”, it is a prophetic word regarding Abraham’s spiritual progeny, whether Jewish or Gentile.
Plenty of other passages discuss the need for good fruit. There was the time that Christ said, “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:18-20) There was also the time He cursed a fig tree for providing Him with nothing but leaves (Matthew 21:18-19), then told a parable in which a vineyard is entrusted to tenants who symbolized the leaders of Israel. (Matthew 21:33-46) The following parable seems quite relevant as well.
And He began telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.’”
We must remember that parables were never meant to be completely literal in every respect. In this case, the owner of the vineyard represents God in a certain way. However, he is not a perfect reflection of God’s character. The Lord does not have to wait to see the fruits of faith in our life to know that we have faith. This parable represents a human perspective on the matter. I will come back to this point later, but suffice it to say that we have many instances in scripture where Israel is described as a vineyard and fruit is described as proof of saving faith.
Let’s return to Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. He starts off by describing Himself as the “true vine”. This was the first time He had ever referred to Himself that way. Previously, the vineyard was symbolic of the nation of Israel: Abraham’s physical descendants who were under the Mosaic Covenant. Now it is Jesus Himself who is the vine. In this, He is the better Israel. He kept the covenant that they broke, fulfilling its demands and taking the curse upon Himself. Now He tells us it is not enough to be in the vineyard of Israel—that is, to be physical descendants of Abraham. Every one of us must be united to Him through faith.
We should also examine the word translated as “abide”. The Greek term is menō, which means to abide, remain, stay, or endure. It is particularly common in the books written by the Apostle John. Here are a few examples:
- “You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent.” (John 5:38)
- “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” (John 6:56)
- “So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine…’” (John 8:31)
- “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.” (John 15:16)
- “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.” (1 John 2:19)
- “As for you, let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father.” (1 John 2:24)
- “Now, little children, abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming.” (1 John 2:28)
- “The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.” (1 John 3:24)
- “By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.” (1 John 4:13)
- “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son.” (2 John 1:9)
These verses have some important things to tell us about people who abide in Christ, and an equally important thing to tell us about those who do not. Those who abide receive the teachings of Christ in faith and live by them. They are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. They are united to Christ through His body and blood which were given for them. Such people have no reason to be ashamed at Christ’s coming, for their salvation is assured.
Then there is 1 John 2:19, which describes the opposite situation: people who do not abide. “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.” That word translated “remained” is menō. In this case as in many others, it implies not only a location, but also a state of being. Although the verse does not specifically mention union with Christ, I think it is not much of a stretch to say that the ones who “went out” were never truly united to Christ. They were not abiding in Him. The Apostle John says that such people “were not really of us”.
Therefore, in the analogy of the vine and the branches, I conclude that those who “abide” in Christ are those who are united to Him in a saving manner. They are justified, receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and persevere in their faith, bearing fruit. The branches that do not bear fruit are people who never had faith, for true faith necessarily produces fruit. These people were among the others, but they did not really belong. They proved by their lack of fruit that though they may have once appeared to be in Christ, they never were. They did not abide in Him.
Does this mean that those people who were broken off were actually in the New Covenant? I do not believe that the passage requires us to reach that conclusion. We must understand the phrase “in Me” as somewhat figurative whether it refers to being in a covenant relationship or not, for the branches broken off were never united to Christ. Only those who abided in Him were truly united to Him. However, we should examine another passage that is often raised in defense of the substance/administration distinction: a closely related analogy made by the Apostle Paul.
Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? If the first piece of dough is holy, the lump is also; and if the root is holy, the branches are too. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?
This passage presents us with a similar concept as the one in John 15. In this case, it is an olive tree that takes center stage. There is also a contrast made between Jews and Gentiles. Speaking to a primarily Gentile audience, Paul tells them that some branches were broken off of this olive tree, symbolizing the unbelief of many of the Jewish people. The Gentile believer was then “grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree”. It is implied that this occurred because of their faith. Furthermore, Paul says the branches that were broken off may someday be grafted in again if they cease their unbelief. More frighteningly, he adds that those who are currently joined to the tree may at some point be “cut off” if they do not “continue in His kindness”.
The interpretive options appear to be very similar to John 15, but there are actually some important differences between the two analogies. In the analogy of the vine and the branches, Christ was clearly the vine. However, there is reason to believe that Christ is not the olive tree. I say this because of the context in which this passage appears. Throughout the book of Romans, Paul establishes a distinction between Abraham’s physical descendants (the Jews) and his spiritual descendants (all who have faith and receive the righteousness of God).
Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised. For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.
After discussing the basis and benefits of our justification by faith, Paul begins an extended passage (chapters 9-11) in which he examines the status of the Jewish people past, present, and future. He mentions that many of his countrymen had rejected Christ and then states the following.
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.
Again, the “children of the flesh” are Abraham’s physical progeny: the Jewish people. The “children of the promise” are his spiritual progeny. They are the ones to whom the better promises were made, not for a physical inheritance, but a heavenly one. (Revisit the articles on types/shadows and the Law for a more extended discussion of this point.) Paul does assure us that there was preserved from Israel “a remnant according to God’s gracious choice” (11:5), and in regard to God’s grace, “those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened”. (v. 7)
That brings us to the olive tree analogy. I conclude that the tree represents Abraham. We initially see that some of the branches representing his physical descendants were broken off for lack of faith. They had stood for a time as a type of what was to come, but with the ending of the Old Covenant, those who did not have faith were cut off and no longer had any claim upon the promises made to Abraham, whether physical or spiritual. Gentile branches were then grafted in so that the tree consisted solely of Abraham’s spiritual progeny—the true Israel. At this point, every branch connected to Abraham was connected to him through individual faith and not collective descent.
Abraham’s physical descendants were connected to him through the Law. They were therefore subject to the temporal promises that came with the Old Covenant, including God’s provision of the land of Canaan to be their home. When the Law was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, that link with Abraham was broken. Those who had only been connected to him through the Law were cut off, for they had not obtained the righteousness that was by faith. Abraham’s spiritual descendants were and are connected to him through faith. They receive salvation through the New Covenant. The bond to Abraham by faith was never broken, and those better promises regarding salvation are eternal, not temporal. That is why those grafted to the tree through faith remain.
If we are to understand the bit about Gentile branches being broken off, then we must also take note of the overall message of this portion of Romans. Paul has described God’s choice of the Jewish people and explained that many of them did not have faith. As a result, the gospel went out to the Gentiles. “I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!” (11:11-12)
The danger Paul sees is that the Gentiles might become arrogant and say, “God has rejected the Jews in order to bring us in, so we must be superior.” Paul wants them to know that God’s choice is not based on any kind of inherent merit, and He does not forsake it once it is made. “I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew.” (11:1-2a) He says later in the same chapter that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”. (v. 29) Therefore, God continues to show His gracious choice of the nation of Israel by preserving a righteous remnant remains united to Abraham through faith (v. 4-7), and we are given reason to believe that even more of the Jewish people will come to saving faith in the future. (v. 24-32)
Some conclude from the olive tree analogy that Gentiles in the New Covenant can be broken off for unbelief. I would counter that according to Paul’s other writings, if a person is part of Abraham’s spiritual progeny, then it is because they have the faith of Abraham. That faith will certainly persevere. Paul’s main concern seems to come to the fore when he says “do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you”. (v. 18) I believe that when Paul states “if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either” and warns “you also will be cut off” (v. 21&22), he is not suggesting that a person can lose their salvation, nor is he suggesting that the New Covenant contains people who will not persevere. Rather, he is attempting to show that one’s ethnicity does not gain them favor in the eyes of God. The Jews were not kept in the covenant promises without faith, and the Gentiles will not be let in without faith.
My interpretation arises from my belief that the Gentiles grafted in are Abraham’s spiritual progeny, to whom the promises regarding salvation were made. If you hold that the Gentiles grafted in are akin to Abraham’s physical progeny, then you can arrive at an interpretation that allows for the New Covenant to be broken. However, Paul never suggests in the Book of Romans or elsewhere that Gentile believers are linked with Abraham’s physical descendants. Rather, they belong to the separate group of spiritual descendants: those who are individually grafted into the olive tree by faith.
It is because of my beliefs regarding Abraham’s spiritual progeny—which Paul discusses in both Romans and Galatians—that I cannot accept that a person to whom these saving promises were made could ever fail to continue in God’s kindness and receive a covenant curse. Christ has already taken the curse and been cut off on their behalf. I conclude that Paul’s warning is a rather hypothetical one. People who are grafted into the promises given to Abraham by saving faith cannot then fail in that faith. That would put at risk the entire doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. The point that is being made in all of these analogies is not that those who have faith can be cut off, but rather that those who do not have faith are cut off. If the only Gentiles grafted to the tree were grafted in by faith, then we may be certain that they will not be cut off. However, Paul does not want them to be arrogant.
The Book of Hebrews also presents us with a number of passages that have caused some to conclude it is possible for genuine believers to lose their salvation. However, upon further reflection, we discover that the individuals described in those warning passages were not people who had faith and were abiding in Christ. Rather, they only appeared to be believers. The writer of Hebrews was anxious to stress the importance of faith, most especially in chapter 11, commonly known as the “hall of fame of faith”. Those who are united to Christ through faith have every reason to be confident that they will persevere to the end. In general, the warning passages can be explained by keeping these things in mind. However, there are two that we need to consider in greater depth, as they have an effect on our understanding of the New Covenant. Here is the first.
Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. And this we will do, if God permits. For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame. For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned. But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way.
This is another passage that some use to argue that it is possible to lose one’s salvation. After all, the author says that such people were “partakers of the Holy Spirit” before eventually falling away. Elsewhere, the Holy Spirit is described as the seal of our redemption on the final day. (Ephesians 4:30) Should we then conclude that salvation can be lost? I think not. There are several things that lean against this interpretation. First, the language here is not of one who abides, but rather one who initially hears the Word and participates in the life of the church but is not fully invested. Such a person has merely “tasted” or “partaken”. The author goes on to compare such a person to ground that produces thorns and thistles rather than vegetation. This is very reminiscent of the Parable of the Sower. (Matthew 13:3-9) The lack of fruit and flourishing proves that saving faith was never there. Therefore, the author is speaking from a human perspective when he suggests that these people were “enlightened”. God knew they did not have faith.
Secondarily, this passage appears to be hypothetical in nature. The author says that “they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame”. Is that really possible to do? No, and that is exactly his point. Christ cannot be sacrificed for sins again and again in the same manner as the animal sacrifices under the Old Covenant. As the author writes later,
Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
Christ’s one sacrifice for sins, once applied to a person, is thoroughly sufficient for their sanctification. They will not fail to continue in faith. They will not fall away. The language about crucifying the Son of God again is meant to show the impossibility of the situation. Furthermore, note how the author closes out that passage: “But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way.” (6:9)
The confessionally Reformed have adopted another method of dealing with such passages, once again applying the substance/administration distinction. The person who has tasted of the heavenly things and partaken of the Holy Spirit is only in the administration of the New Covenant. If they fail to be united to the substance in faith, they will be cut off and it is impossible to restore them. I personally believe this explanation creates as many problems as it solves. It is meant to ensure that we need not take anything in these verses hypothetically or figuratively. Are we then to conclude that people can receive the Holy Spirit but only be in the administration of the New Covenant? That people who have truly repented can then fail to continue in faith, at which point we cannot “renew them again to repentance”? (v. 6) This would force us to move some parts of the substance into the administration, which is essentially to remove the distinction between the two and make the New Covenant thoroughly dependent on human working. I do not believe the Reformed would teach such things (with the exception of certain aberrant groups), but I do feel that their chosen interpretation forces us to consider whether they are being thoroughly consistent.
This brings us to the other passage that is frequently mentioned in this conversation. It occurs in chapter 10 of the same book.
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
These verses have sent commentators into all sorts of exegetical gymnastics. The punishments mentioned are certainly severe. However, there is no reason to suppose that the person in question was actually united to Christ, except for these words: “the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified”. The confessionally Reformed point to this phrase as proof that it is possible to be in the New Covenant and still receive eternal condemnation. Indeed, it is the only passage I am considering in this article that actually contains the word covenant.
The interpretation would be as follows: The individual in question was part of the outward administration of the New Covenant. The blood of the covenant therefore sanctified them in some way, but they were never actually united to Christ. They had the administration, but not the substance. Therefore, when they rejected God and continued willfully sinning, they were insulting the sacrifice of Christ by which they ought to have been cleansed through faith. They were therefore cut off from the covenant blessings and reaped the same covenant curse as the ancient Israelites. Such a person could never have had the substance of the New Covenant, or they would have persevered to the end.
I understand why the use of the word “covenant” would lead one to this interpretation, but it has always troubled me. I feel that it proves too much. How can a person be sanctified by Christ’s blood if they are not in the substance of the New Covenant? This seems to lessen the effect of that blood, so that it no longer sanctifies a person sufficiently for all time. On the other hand, if the sanctification mentioned here is only hypothetical or figurative, then why should we conclude that the person was literally in the New Covenant?
Some scholars have suggested that the structure of this sentence in our English translation is misleading, and that one of the following two things is the case: 1) The thing that is sanctified is the covenant itself and not the individual without faith. 2) The person that is sanctified is Jesus Christ. Either of those interpretations would be possible under a system in which everyone in the New Covenant was covered by the blood of Christ—that is, everyone who was truly in the covenant had the substance. Is there warrant for either of them?
I cannot speak to the Greek grammar involved here. Those who have studied Greek for years disagree among themselves, and I do not think I am smarter than them. What I can do is look at the scriptural witness and determine if either of these two things—the covenant or Christ—were sanctified by His atoning sacrifice. I can then evaluate whether these theories have any merit.
The Greek word that is translated as “sanctified” in Hebrews 10:29 is hagiazō, which means to sanctify, hallow, or make holy. In the following block quotes, any word in bold is a translation of hagiazō. I want to begin by considering whether “the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified” could actually mean “the blood by which the covenant was sanctified”. The structure of the Greek sentence actually leaves in doubt the object that is being modified, i.e. whether it is a “he” or an “it”. The Book of Hebrews certainly suggests that the New Covenant itself was made holy and redemptive by the sacrificed blood of Jesus Christ.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives. Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment had been spoken by Moses to all the people according to the Law, he took the blood of the calves and the goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you.” And in the same way he sprinkled both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry with the blood. And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be cleansed with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; nor was it that He would offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.
Therefore, the theory about the New Covenant itself being sanctified through blood seems to at least make theological sense, whether or not it makes grammatical sense. What about the other theory: that Jesus Christ was the one who was sanctified? This sounds odd, because unlike the rest of us, Christ was always sinless. He did not need someone else’s blood to cover Him. For this reason, I did not initially set much store by this suggestion, but there is some evidence in scripture that it could be correct. Jesus referred to Himself in John 10:36 as the one “whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world”, using the word hagiazō. On the night before He was crucified, Jesus prayed to His father, “As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.” (John 17:18-19, again using hagiazō) Therefore, there was a sense in which Jesus Christ was sanctified.
Either of these theories—that the covenant itself was sanctified or that Jesus was sanctified—could be correct on a theological level. However, I am hesitant to conclude that our English translation is incorrect, even though the translators were by no means infallible. I would still like to consider if there is some way that the phrase can be true while applying to the individual who has rejected God. In order to do that, I must examine how this concept of being sanctified by Christ’s blood appears in scripture, particularly in the Book of Hebrews.
In general, scripture links sanctification with divine calling (1 Corinthians 1:2), the work of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:16), and justification (1 Corinthians 6:11). All these verses use the same word hagiazō, and they all seem to be referring to those who are God’s elect. Under the confessionally Reformed system, this would mean that sanctification is linked with the substance of the New Covenant and not the administration, because only the elect have the substance. It is therefore one of the benefits of union with Christ. There is one case where sanctification could refer to something that occurs by means of association, and that is in Paul’s discussion of marriages between believers and unbelievers. (1 Corinthians 7:14) In my article on covenant members, I discussed how the Greek word in that case likely means the individuals were espoused to one another rather than implying that they were actively sanctified by the Holy Spirit. I therefore consider that passage an outlier.
How does the author of Hebrews use the word hagiazō? What kind of power does he assign to the blood of Christ? Let’s take a look at a few verses.
- “For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren…” (Hebrews 2:10-11)
- “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:11-14)
- “By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:10-14)
- “Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:19-22)
- “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:22-24)
- “We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach.” (Hebrews 13:10-13)
Every other time that the word hagiazō appears in Hebrews, it speaks of something that occurs for those who have truly and finally been saved by the blood of Jesus Christ. In the verses above, we find that those who are sanctified are children of God the Father, are cleansed from dead works to serve God, are perfected in righteousness, are allowed to enter God’s presence with confidence, have Jesus as their mediator, and will be among the firstborn in heaven. This is not a description of the visible Church that is only in the outward administration of the New Covenant. This is a description of the invisible Church that has the substance of the New Covenant and will persevere to the end.
Therefore, in the case of Hebrews 10:29, if the phrase does indeed mean that the individual in question was sanctified by Christ’s blood, I am forced to conclude that the author of Hebrews abandoned the definition of sanctification he used in the rest of the book and adopted one that is merely symbolic. The same blood cannot perfect for all time those whom it covers and also leave them subject to fail. I think it is safe to assume that the author of Hebrews was not suffering from cognitive dissonance, so either he switched to a new definition of sanctification for this single verse, or he meant that the covenant was sanctified, or he meant that Christ was sanctified.
Ah, but there is one more possibility, and I think it a rather likely one. The author might have been speaking in a hypothetical manner. We saw earlier in chapter 6 how he wrote of people partaking of the Holy Spirit and re-crucifying Christ, when in fact neither was meant literally. In 10:29, he writes that the sinful individual has “trampled under foot the Son of God”. This is a symbolic or metaphorical way of speaking.
Moreover, as in some of the earlier warning passages, the author assures his audience that he does not expect them to end up in such a predicament. The preceding paragraph had spoken of the readers having “confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus” (v. 19) and possessing “full assurance of faith” (v. 21). In the paragraph immediately following his warning, the author says, “Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward,” (v. 35) and, “But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.” (v. 39) Therefore, while I am hesitant to ever label a passage of scripture hypothetical, this seems like a good candidate for such treatment.
I admit that I do not know which of these theories is correct. All of them have things to recommend them, but all have drawbacks as well. The negative aspects of the interpretation typically favored by the confessionally Reformed—that the author speaks of a person who is only in the administration of the New Covenant—seem to me to be the greatest of any of the four options. That is why I consider it a poor proof text for the “mixed nature” of the New Covenant. My general sense is that the person who goes on willfully sinning is rejecting the covenant, the blood, the Savior, and the Spirit. They were never part of the New Covenant.
It is true that I come to all of these difficult passages with certain presuppositions. I have a wealth of scripture passages that cause me to believe that salvation is monergistic and the elect of God will persevere. I furthermore have a wealth of passages that associate the New Covenant with Christ’s saving blood, His role as Mediator, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The attempt to divide that New Covenant into two groups, one regenerate and the other unregenerate, is largely based on four passages, only one of which uses the word “covenant”. Moreover, every one of them can be explained without adjusting our understanding of the New Covenant.
There is no question that these passages present exegetical difficulties. By no means do I wish to ignore the plain meaning of scripture or dismiss anything that does not fit my own system as hypothetical. However, I must also let scripture interpret scripture. When I have a wealth of passages suggesting one thing, and one or two verses suggesting another, then I must be just as careful not to allow the few to overturn the many as I am not to let the many overturn the few.
Consider that the author of Hebrews always presents the New Covenant as superior to the Old Covenant. “But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second.” (Hebrews 8:6-7) The fault of the Old Covenant was that it could be broken. While it contained promises of temporal blessings, it provided no such promise of heavenly things. In this, the New Covenant is thoroughly different.
For, on the one hand, there is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness (for the Law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God. And inasmuch as it was not without an oath (for they indeed became priests without an oath, but He with an oath through the One who said to Him,
“The Lord has sworn
And will not change His mind,
‘You are a priest forever’”);
so much the more also Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.
The former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing, but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.
It is precisely because Jesus is the Mediator of the New Covenant that is cannot be broken. Scripture never suggests that Christ was a mediator for anyone in the other covenants. By the same token, it never suggests that there is anyone in the New Covenant who does not have Christ as their Mediator. Now, the great problem of our existence is what was spoken of by the prophet. “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, / And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.” (Isaiah 59:2) But see what the author of Hebrews says: the Law made nothing perfect, but Jesus Christ does. His blood has the power to truly and finally sanctify us. He allows us to enter the presence of God. He offers us a better hope and better promises, all of which are contained in a better covenant. His word is not “yes” and “no” to us, but rather, we have confidence that we will persevere. “For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes; therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us.” (2 Corinthians 1:20)
The various covenant promises of God throughout scripture often cause confusion. Promises of temporal blessings are treated in the same manner as promises of heavenly blessings, but that is a serious category error that can wreak havoc upon our assurance of salvation. The promises that were made to Abraham’s physical descendants were no less certain than those made to his spiritual descendants, and yet they were weak, for they did not have the power to save.
What does it mean when God says “I will be your God”? Is He not the God of all who live? Yes, of course He is. That is one sense in which He can be your God. However, when He entered into a covenantal relationship with Abraham’s physical descendants, He meant it in another way. It was not unlike an exchange of marriage vows. When the people broke that covenant, they acted like an adulterous spouse. The Lord said to the prophet Hosea when his wife gave birth to a child of adultery, “Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not My people and I am not your God.” (Hosea 1:9b) Therefore, it was a special covenant relationship, but it did not guarantee that its participants would persevere.
There is a third sense in which God can be a God to you, and that is reserved for Abraham’s spiritual descendants: those who are united to Christ through faith. To them, He has given an eschatological promise that they will persevere and dwell with Him forever. They are the heirs of the better promises who receive the adoption as sons.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”
Therefore, the question is not simply whether or not God is your God, but exactly how He is your God. Is He simply your judge, or both your judge and your savior? Will Jesus Christ stand before God to deny you, or to mediate for you? Is your federal head Adam or Christ? These are the questions that truly matter, for there are only two ways through life: the Law or grace. A Covenant of Grace is not of the Law, for it grants its members the righteousness of Christ. The Covenant of Works has no atoning sacrifice to offer. Now, the Old Covenant was of the Law and the New Covenant is of grace. That is why those in the New Covenant will persevere, for they were chosen by God before the foundation of the world. They are the bride which Christ purchased for Himself with His blood. That blood is not without effect.
I conclude that the New Covenant cannot be broken, for in it the righteousness of Christ is imputed by grace through faith. The conditions have all been met. No sinful human being has the capacity to keep a covenant based on works righteousness, but the New Covenant is based on the righteousness that is credited by faith. “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.’” (Romans 4:3-5)
The New Covenant, which was made with Abraham’s spiritual progeny, cannot be broken, for in it we receive the imputed righteousness of Christ. It is thoroughly unlike the Old Covenant, which said, “Do this and live.” That is why it is not possible that the elect, with whom the Covenant of Grace was made, should fail to keep it, for it has already been kept. The work has already been done, and the victory has already been won. The Lord who brings you into the New Covenant by faith will not fail in His purposes, “for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”. (Romans 11:29) Therefore, know most assuredly that those who abide in Christ will persevere, for they are united to Christ. They will overcome the world by the blood of the Lamb, and they will dwell with their God forever and ever.
All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.