This is second of a two-part post on the most serious warning we find in scripture addressed to believers, the warning to not reject the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Part 1 addresses the warning given by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4 to not live in sexual immorality. Paul says that Christians must not “set aside” the Holy Spirit through living in sin. Here in Part 2, we’ll do a more detailed comparison between the Old and New Covenant, between the covenant people according to the flesh in the Old Testament, and the covenant people of God according to faith in the New Testament. We’ll see how those who set aside the Mosaic Law incurred the penalty of physical death. In the New Covenant, those elect who set aside the Holy Spirit through continued sin incur an even greater punishment, spiritual death.
Parallel Between the Old and New Covenants
Scripture is consistent in regards to the consequence for rejecting or setting aside God’s instructions, whether through the Mosaic Law for the Israelites or the Holy Spirit for the church. This consistency between the Old and New Testaments is reinforced by what we find expressed in the epistle to the Hebrews. The Greek word Paul used in 1 Thessalonians 4:8 for “rejects” is used again in Hebrews 10:28 when it reads “set aside.”
26 For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 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? 30 For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” 31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:26-31)
In the Old Covenant, the consequence for setting aside the Law of Moses was death, assuming you had the legal minimum of two or three witnesses. (Deut. 17:2-6) Of course, this practice wasn’t for Gentiles who did not know the Law. It was specifically for the Israelites who were under the Law, meaning they were members of the chosen people of God. It was for those Israelites who God had saved from slavery. After saving them, they willfully submitted to God’s Law as revealed at Mount Sinai.
Then he [Moses] took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” 8 So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24:7-8)
By submitting to God’s covenant and the Law, they were now set apart as the people of God. To turn their back on the Law through unrepentant rebellion was to turn their back on the covenant, to say they no longer wanted to abide by the covenant. And the consequence of this willful disobedience was death.
Just as verse 28 applies specifically to the people of God under the Old Covenant, so the parallel that follows in verse 29 applies also to the people of God in the New Covenant. Only now it is not those Israelites under the Law of Moses who are the chosen people, but rather all those who have repented and put their faith in Jesus Christ. Those who repent and believe in Jesus are grafted into the people of God. They receive the Holy Spirit, which is the Law of Christ written on their hearts and minds. As a chosen and called people, these believers are those who have willingly submitted themselves to the terms of the covenant, established by Jesus’ shed blood on the cross. They recognize that God has called them out of wickedness into sanctification, to be a people set apart for God’s use.
Clearly, when the covenant people reject God through willful sin there are serious consequences. Under the Law of Moses, the rebellious were put to death. Under the New Covenant, those who continue to deliberately sin against God without remorse face even more severe punishment. This is because something even greater than the Law of Moses has been given. God Himself living within His people in the person of the Holy Spirit, leading and guiding them into holiness.
What is this severer punishment? We know that it is worse than physical death. The Old Covenant dealt primarily with physical defilement. Uncleanness was primarily regarding the physical rather than the spiritual. (Hebrews 9:13-14) In the New Covenant, uncleanness is viewed in terms of the spiritual reality. And just as there were primarily physical consequences under the Law, the consequences in Jesus are conversely spiritual in nature. So Paul here is warning not of physical death, but spiritual death apart from God for all eternity. This is consistent with Jesus’ saying, “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:5). These warning occur repeatedly in the gospels, in Matthew Jesus again warns his disciples, “If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:29). In other words, from Jesus’ perspective, we should be far more concerned about spiritual death than physical death. This would suggest the severer punishment talked about in Hebrews 10 is spiritual death.
Fortunately, we don’t have make educated guesses. In verse 26, it states that “if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” This severer punishment includes the cessation of sacrifice for sins. Jesus died once for all time. We don’t have to offer bulls and goats constantly to atone for our sins. We only need to confess our sins, and he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. However, His sacrifice will only atone for our sin as we abide in Him and turn to Him in repentance. If we cease to abide in Him, we are cut off from the nourishing vine, thrown away and are burned. (John 15:6) Verse 26 simply states that those who continue to willfully sin and thus defile the sanctifying blood have no further opportunity for forgiveness of sin. Jesus’ sacrifice will no longer atone for their sins, they have been cut off from the people of God. Of course, when sins can no longer be atoned for, we stand guilty before God and will be justly condemned along with the guilty. We have spurned the Son of God himself, in whom we have eternal life.
Remember, this warning is specifically for those who have received the Holy Spirit. Just as those who spurned the Mosaic Law through defiant sin were put to death on the basis of two of three witnesses, so those Spirit-filled Christians who repeatedly spurn and reject the Holy Spirit’s leading will suffer spiritual death, eternity in Hell. The Law came with glory, but we now have something far more glorious. The eternal God in the person of the Holy Spirit living within us, a living law that teaches us to walk in greater holiness.
Invariably, the question becomes, how serious of a sin do I have to commit to be cut off from the people of God? Where is the tipping point? God is ultimately the judge, but I would say this. Don’t test God like the Israelites tested God in the wilderness. (1 Cor. 10:9) “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.” (Gal. 6:7) We should not arrogantly presume upon His patience and kindness towards us. Recall Jesus’ parable of the unproductive fig tree. We need to continually abide in Christ, producing fruit of holiness through the Holy Spirit. The patience of God, in all it’s perfection, will not last forever towards those who continue in willful sin.
6 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. 7 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?’ 8 And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; 9 and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9)