Urgently Needed: Book of Hebrews Project!
Bart Ehrman had a born-again experience in high school through Youth for Christ. Driven to learn more about the Bible, he earned a diploma at the Moody Bible Institute and a degree at Wheaton College. Since deconverting and becoming one of the country’s foremost biblical scholars, he has been described by the Gospel Coalition as “a major instrument in countless readers’ downward spiritual trajectory.”
Frank Schaeffer and Bart Campolo are alike in that they were active for many years in the ministries or off-shoot ministries of their famous fathers: Francis Schaeffer and Tony Compolo. Frank Schaeffer is now an author and atheist who repudiates his Christian past in his novels. Bart Compolo became the first humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California and currently lectures around the world about atheism.
Josh Harris was lead pastor of the megachurch Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland for 11 years, council member of The Gospel Coalition, and author on a book on dating that sold 1.2 million copies worldwide. He now profusely apologizes for that book and states that “by all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.”
Judging whether an individual is really a Christian is certainly not an exact science. Only God is able to see a person’s heart (1 Sam. 16:6). In fact, we can be misled by what others say about their spiritual status (Luke 6:64) or even be deceived about our own (Jeremiah 17:9). Thus, we are advised by scripture not to make such judgments about others (Matthew 7:1 and Romans 2:1) and to seek God’s insight regarding our own condition (Psalm 139: 23-24). Of course, when someone publicly repudiates her or his faith and actively works against Christianity, we can make a good guess.
We can know, however, that if we truly believe that Jesus, God the Son, died for our sins and was raised from the dead by God the Father and if we publicly and sincerely commit to Jesus to be our Lord, the controller of our lives, we are saved (Romans 10:9). That is the blessed hope of the Gospel, in this life and for eternity.
Living this saved life is living as sons of God (John 1:12), the creator and sustainer of the universe (Colossians 1:16-17) and greatest lover of this world (John 3:16). It is to live life on a far higher or abundant level (John 10:10) with access to a source of constant joy (Philippians 4:4). There is no logical reason why we would choose not to continue. In fact, the Bible tell us that no external force that life throws at us can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:33-39); no one can snatch us out of His hand (John 10:28-29).
And yet we see scriptures that strongly imply we, perhaps as a group or perhaps as individuals, can foolishly leave this wonderful walk with the Lord on our own volition (Mathew 13:20-22, John 6:66, John 15:1-6, Romans 11:17-21, 1 Timothy 6:20-21, 2 Timothy 4:3-4, 2 Peter 3:14-17, 2 Thessalonians 2:3, and Revelation 3:1-6). The most glaring example is the entire Book of Hebrews. This appears to be an urgent letter to Christians who converted from Judaism but are considering leaving this glorious new covenant by reverting back to the older inferior one.
In reading the towering John Calvin’s Commentary on the Book of Hebrews, one wishes he would have written his monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion only after completing his biblical commentaries. Although his commentary is always impressively sophisticated, reading his attempts to squeeze passages into his already-developed system can be painful. For example, he believes Hebrews 3:1-14 was directed at Jews who were not yet saved, even though the text directs the Hebrews to hold fast to their confidence, encourage each other, not fall away due to deceitfulness of sin, and hold fast to their assurance.
Calvin’s explanation of Hebrews 4:14-16 is hard to grasp. He appears to suggest that the writer’s affirmation that we have a great high priest in Jesus and that we should hold fast to that confession, is an example of what they could experience should they become Christians. Thus, even though the text says we now have these benefits, the word “we” does not include his readers, at least not yet. Then in verse 16, the words “let us draw near” now includes everyone, although drawing near for the Hebrews means first being saved while drawing near for the writer means something different.
Calvin treats Hebrews 6 in a way Reformed teachers traditionally do: as written to people who have been enlightened, tasted of the heavenly gift, made partakers of the Holy Spirit, tasted the power of the age to come, but did not meet the Romans 10:9 threshold of being saved. Thus, when the writer raises the possibility of having “fallen away,” they are not, according to Calvin, falling from faith, but from a temporary encounter that foreshadowed faith. The writer’s praise for their ministering to the saints in Hebrews 6:10 is, for Calvin, really an affirmation not of them but of God’s grace in the “work of His Spirit in them,” even though they are not believers.
This same complex departure from a natural reading continues to the very end. Perhaps it is best displayed in Hebrews 10:26-34 where Calvin seems to imply that these enlightened, but not fully Christian, Hebrews suffered for their not-quite-yet faith and experienced the loss of property for a faith they did not fully possess, realizing they had a better abiding possession, if they would eventually come to faith, and would receive a reward if they did not throw away their confidence, which they did not possess yet, but would if they fully believed.
It would so much easier to be edified by this powerful book in admitting that “yes, as believers we can drift away if we neglect so great a salvation (Hebrews 2:1-3). We need to be warned. But we have determined to lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles. We choose to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 12:1-2). If we do, we can know 100% that nothing can separate us from the love of God or snatch us out of His hands. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit for the day of redemption” That provides all the security one needs and is faithful to all the biblical data. Plus, it resonates with human experience.
Whatever one’s theological commitments are, it is beyond dispute that Christians are decreasing as a percentage of the population in the United States. This is particularly true with younger people.
Percentage Decline in Americans who say they are Christians 2009 to 2018-19
|Silent Generation (born 1928-1945)||-2%||+1%|
|Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)||-6%||+4%|
|Generation X (born 1965-1980)||-8%||+6%|
|Millennials (born 1981-1996)||-16%||+13%|
“Two-thirds (66 percent) of American young adults who attended a Protestant church regularly for at least a year as a teenager say they also dropped out for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22,” according to a study from Lifeway Research. In a survey by the Barna Group there were six broad reasons young (perhaps former) Christians gave for leaving the church:
- Overprotectiveness of the church.
- Experience of faith within the church is too shallow.
- Church seems antagonistic to science.
- Church attitude to sex is too simplistic.
- They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
- Church seems unfriendly to doubt.
Ed Stelzer’s book Lost and Found included research that echoes much of the above. There were some insights, however, that might point the way forward, while pointing the way back to the Book of Hebrews. He found an “unchurched generation that is actually quite spiritual and yet circumspect, open to Jesus but not the church.”
It is the Book of Hebrews that forthrightly presents Jesus as the final word and exact representation of God. It presents him as the highest spiritual being, but one who lowered himself to share in the suffering of death so that we might be delivered from that which enslaves and be brought into a loving relationship with Him. It tells us not to live our lives entangled by this world’s often meaningless pursuits but to fix our eyes on Jesus. It does not sugarcoat the Christian experience but admits it takes discipline and may include suffering. But it assures us a Kingdom that cannot be shaken, unlike any other trend that either is certain to let us down or is often considered passe within a few years.
Of course, the Hebrews were wavering between continuing with Jesus or returning to the Mosaic Covenant. Perhaps the two strongest forces pulling young people away from faith today are an inclusive post-modernism and a militant secularism. Both of these movements find Evangelical Christianity as favorite targets. Often, we make ourselves attractive targets by our behavior.
Thus, given the current alternatives to Jesus, initiating a Book of Hebrews Project today might require illustrating and augmenting the biblical text in ways that speak to the preeminence of Jesus while addressing the Gospel’s superiority to these two competing worldviews. One whose work is well suited for this and provides reasons against falling away is, ironically, the Reformed pastor Tim Keller.
In his book Encounters with Jesus, Keller does not try to give a water-tight argument but presents a water-tight person: Jesus. Each encounter brilliantly explains how Jesus, and no one or nothing else, is the logos for each person, no matter the situation. For those whose concerns focus on the intellectual credibility of the faith, his book The Reason for God dispels some of the myths about Christianity that the church often has not given the time and safe space to address.
Should this Book of Hebrews Project be emphasized from the pulpit, in a small group, or in one-to-one settings? Given the pervasiveness of the problem, the answer is probably all three. Certainly, the demographics of those falling away dictate a focus for the teenage years. The old-fashioned confirmation classes that emphasized rote memory no longer work. A safe place to express one’s real struggles in life, including doubts about Jesus and the church, along with a thoughtful study of Jesus compared with today’s dominant cultural narratives is urgently needed. We can be reassured of one truth, though, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and yes, forever” (Hebrews 13:8).