Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Hold Fast to the End

The Letter to the Hebrews is unique among the Epistles both for content and style. There is little relation in either content or style to any of St Paul’s letters, so most likely it was not written by him. That is not a contention merely of modern scholars, but of some of the fathers of the Church as well.

One of the main differences in style is the arrangement of doctrinal matters and spiritual exhortations. Paul’s usual style is to give the doctrinal stuff in the early parts of his letters and the exhortations in the later parts. In Hebrews we find doctrine and exhortations alternating throughout the Epistle. It is with one particular type of exhortation I’m concerned here.

Many times in this Epistle we find the author urging his readers to persevere to the end. “We share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end” (3:14). “Let us hold fast our confession” (4:14). “Show the same earnestness in realizing the full assurance of hope until the end” (6:11). “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (10:23). “You have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised” (10:36). You get the drift, I trust.

If we had nothing but the Letter to the Hebrews, we could easily dismantle any attempt to put forth a “once saved, always saved” doctrine. Not only are there many exhortations to persevere to the end if we want to be saved—“We share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end”—but there are also severe warnings about the real possibility of permanent apostasy, even for those “who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit…” (6:4-8; see also 3:12 and 10:26-31).

But here I don’t want to dwell on that sad fact, but rather to exhort you, while it is still “today” (see 3:13-15), to hold fast to your faith, and the practice of it, until the end. For things are going to get worse in the world before they get better, harder before they get easier, and great demands may be placed on us which will require even heroic virtue and witness to the truth.

The Letter to the Hebrews was written in a time of persecution, when the hope of future blessings had to be made very clear to those who were tempted to fall away because of current calamities. Today we need that same assurance, that same vision of the life of blessedness promised to those who endure to the end. For many have fallen away from the Faith, from the Church—not because of overt persecutions, but because of seductions, distractions, and deceptions that work on people’s moral slothfulness, intellectual drowsiness, and inclinations to self-indulgence.

Therefore the Apostle cries out: “Lift up your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees… See to it that no one fail to receive the grace of God…that no one be immoral or irreligious… that you do not refuse Him who is speaking.” And he presses on to the glorious climax: “You have come…to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant… Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe…” (12:12-28).

Hold fast, then, to the end. Endure patiently, do not give up faith or hope—neither gradually slide away through lack of vigilance or diligence, so that you aren’t caught unprepared when it is time to stand up for what you believe in. “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (12:1), for it is not those who merely begin the race that are crowned, but those who persevere to the end.