Apostasy (3): What the Apostate Deserves
Reformed Free Publishing Association
The following is Part Three in the Apostasy series. Read the last section, Part Two, here.
“For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10:26-29)
WHAT THE APOSTATE DESERVES
There is no mercy for the apostate, for the apostate never seeks the mercy of God: he rejects the Son of God, he despises the cross, and he insults the Spirit; there is no sacrifice for his sins.
In verse 28 the writer calls attention to transgressors under the Mosaic covenant. “He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses.” For deliberate, willful sins, such as apostasy from Jehovah, there was no mercy: the penalty was death. You read that refrain in the Old Testament: “Thou shalt not spare him, neither shall thine eye pity him. Thou shalt surely put him to death” (see, for example, Deuteronomy 13:8-10).
The Hebrews knew that. Now they are asked in verse 29: “Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy?” If the penalty for despising the Law of Moses was death, what is the punishment for despising Christ, the cross, and the Holy Spirit, by one who sinned after receiving the knowledge of the truth?
The writer to the Hebrews does not leave us to guess or to surmise.
There is no easy or nice way to say this: the apostate is doomed. The apostate has despised the Son of God; the apostate has despised the work of Christ on the cross; the apostate has insulted the Holy Spirit of grace; and the apostate has sinned willfully after having received the knowledge of the truth.
The apostate has nothing to look forward to except the wrath of God. “There remaineth,” we read in verse 26, “no more sacrifice for sins.” Because there is no other sacrifice, except the one that the apostate has rejected and despised, there is no forgiveness possible. God will not forgive the apostate who rejects the blood of Jesus Christ as the only deliverance from sin.
There is only one alternative to the sacrifice for sins. That is punishment for sin. Either our sins are forgiven, or they are punished. If we are forgiven, we are not punished. If we are not forgiven, as the apostate is not forgiven, we are punished.
The punishment is mentioned in verse 27: “judgment” and “fiery indignation.” Judgment is condemnation: it is the verdict of guilty followed by the infliction of the penalty. Fiery indignation is zeal, fury, or vehemence of fire. Indignation is God’s holy, righteous, and just wrath against sin and sinners. When Daniel’s friends refused to obey wicked King Nebuchadnezzar, he responded in fury: “Then was Nebuchadnezzar filled with fury and the form of his visage was changed… and he commanded that they should heat the furnace seven times more than it was wont to be heated” (Dan. 3:19). Nebuchadnezzar’s wicked rage is nothing in comparison to the righteous wrath of God against the apostate who has despised his Son, rejected his Son’s sacrifice, and insulted his Son’s Spirit. As it were, God commands hell to be heated seven times hotter before the apostate is cast into the lake of fire.
The “fiery indignation,” we read in verse 27, “shall devour the adversaries.” The apostate is an adversary or an opponent of God. The apostate is God’s enemy—even worse, the apostate is an enemy of God who earlier professed to be a friend. The apostate is a traitor, a turncoat, and a treacherous person. God’s fiery indignation shall consume him: it shall eat him up; it shall swallow him whole, as he descends ever deeper into the pit of hell. And yet the apostate shall never be annihilated—annihilation would be relief for the apostate. Instead, the apostate suffers conscious torments of soul and body forever in the lake of fire. Words cannot express the horror of that: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (v. 31). It is fearful to fall into the hands of the living God when he is angry (Ps. 76:7).
In addition, the apostate anticipates the judgment of God, so that even in this life he has a foretaste of it in his conscience from which there is no escape. In verse 27 we read of a “fearful looking for of judgment.” The apostate expects the judgment of God, which thought torments him. Have you ever dreaded something? You know that something bad is going to happen soon. You say, “The anticipation is killing me. Can’t we just get it over with?” The apostate feels that in his soul. The guilt of his conscience oppresses him: he knows that judgment is coming. He attempts to put on a “brave face.” He tries to suppress his conscience by turning to sinful pleasures, to stimulants, to drugs, or to alcohol. He dives deeper and deeper into sin in an attempt to escape from God, but the more he wallows in the mud, the more filthy he feels, the more guilty he feels, and the more judgment he dreads. Sometimes, he ends up like Judas Iscariot, who could not live with his guilt in betraying Jesus, and who ended his own life.
This has been a difficult text to consider, a difficult topic to treat, a difficult blog post to write, and a difficult blog post to read. We cannot—we must not—end without hope. There is no hope for the apostate, but there is hope for us.
First, (I assume that I am writing to believers) we are not apostates. The Holy Spirit did not give this Word in order to terrify us so that we would wonder, “Am I—could I be—an apostate?” The Holy Spirit did not give this Word so that we would begin to doubt our salvation, as if every sin that we committed brought us closer and closer to apostasy. If you feel anxious after reading these words, if you wonder whether you have been guilty of the sin of apostasy, I assure you, beloved believing reader, in the name of God, that you are not guilty of this sin. If you were guilty of this sin, you would not care: you would be hardened against the truth; you would despise Jesus Christ, as the apostate does.
Second, apostasy is a serious danger about which we need serious warnings. The Spirit placed these warnings in the epistle to the Hebrews exactly because of this temptation. That is why he writes, “If we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth” (v. 26). Without the grace of God apostasy could happen, but because of the grace of God we do not apostatize. God preserves us through means. The means by which God preserves us from apostasy is the warning against apostasy. The means by which a parent preserves his child from perishing on the road is his warning—a sharp warning—not to run on to the road. When a parent sees his child straying, he shouts even more sharply and urgently, “Stop—watch out! There is danger!” When we become lax in our attitude to sin, God warns us: “Stop, repent, turn: that’s the road to destruction.” By God’s grace, we heed the warning. The hypocrite and the apostate despise the warning.
Third, apostasy often begins when we forsake the assembling of ourselves together (v. 25), when we neglect the means of grace. Apostates always leave the church. They cannot stand the preaching. They will not listen to the admonitions of the members. They leave and go somewhere with less accountability, to a false church or into the ungodly world.
Fourth, and finally, the warning against apostasy makes us prize Jesus Christ as more precious than ever before. When the apostate despises the Son of God, we delight in him. When the apostate despises the cross, we seek our salvation in the work of Christ. When the apostate insults the Spirit of grace, we rely on the grace of the Spirit. And by God’s grace we never depart.
Read the next section, Part Four, here.
Martyn McGeown is a pastor in the Protestant Reformed Churches. He is also the editor of the RFPA blog and the author of multiple RFPA publications.