Below are some comments I made long ago in my perseverance series against the idea that the writer of Hebrews is addressing his warnings of falling away to those whose faith is not genuine, or describing those with non-genuine faith. My comments are followed by more recent comments by Scot McKnight against O’Brien’s false faith interpretation. The specific language of the warnings and the way the believers are described and addressed simply will not allow for the false faith interpretation. The writer of Hebrews is describing genuine believers who have fallen away from faith and salvation and admonishing those with genuine faith to endure less they too fall way and forfeit salvation.
What sense would it make to say to unbelievers, “Take care…that there not be in any one of you an evil unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God?” Why shouldn’t unbelievers have an evil and unbelieving heart? Does it make sense to warn unbelievers against falling away from God? This is not a call to conversion but a warning to those who are already converted. We can plainly see this in the fact that the writer of Hebrews then calls on them to “encourage one another day after day…so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Are unbelievers to encourage each other? Are they to encourage each other in unbelief or in a faith that they do not yet possess?
Notice that the inspired writer is not admonishing them to gain confidence (i.e. believe the gospel and be converted), but to keep the confidence that they already have. They are being told to endure in their faith which plainly assumes that their present faith is genuine. In fact, their faith has been proven so by the way they had responded to prior trials. However, they cannot rest on what they had done in the past but must continue to press on in the face of present trials to gain the promised reward of final salvation. They “have need of endurance.” The inspired writer never questions whether or not his readers have genuine faith. He only questions whether or not that faith will last. This is the main concern of the entire epistle.
Scot Mcknight writes,
Second, if the exhortation is to continue or persevere, how can a person with non-genuine faith be exhorted to continue? In what, their non-genuine faith? The only answer here is that the non-genuine faith person should be urged to repent and to believe or to enter deeper from a spurious and inadequate non-saving faith into a real, genuine saving faith. When this topic arises at the end of Hebrews 5 and the beginning of Hebrews 6 there’s no evidence the author thinks of these people of having spurious faith, but instead of having faith that needs perseverance. In other words, it’s just how the author says it: immaturity (or the “elementary”; 6:1) needs to move onto maturity. The elementary is not “spurious” but an immature version of the real thing. Grade school math is not spurious but immature, especially if the aim is mathematical physics.
The exhortation to continue then can only apply for O’Brien to the genuine saving-faith person (in which case the whole conditionality issue becomes hypothetical or only rhetorical and not real — an issue that needs a different discussion). In O’Brien’s sketch the warning passages are working with their eyes on two different faiths: genuine-faith people and non-genuine-faith people. I contend this is impossible to prove apart from one’s already-at-work Calvinistic assumptions. I see no evidence for two groups until the final day; at the moment of writing they are believers. The writer of Hebrews never suggests anyone has spurious faith; he worries those with faith will not persevere.