Hebrews 12:15 and the Question of Eternal Security
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Monday, August 15, 2011 at 11:44am
QUESTION: A typical translation of Hebrews 12:15a is this, from the NASB: “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God.” The word translated “of” is the Greek apo, which, when followed by the genitive, means “from, away from.” This raises a question concerning the people being addressed: are they not yet within God’s grace, and are thus being warned not to fall short of attaining it or missing out on it? Or are they now within grace, and are thus being warned not to fall away from it or out of it? The usual meaning of apo would suggest the latter, though most translations seem to assume the former. This is important, since the latter meaning would contradict the “once saved, always saved” doctrine and would support the concept that it is possible for any Christian to fall from grace and be lost.
ANSWER: The key to the right answer to the main question is indeed the issue of WHO is being addressed here. To resolve this issue we must examine not just the immediate context of Heb. 12:15 but also the message of the entire epistle. We call it an epistle or letter, even though it does not bear all the marks of a typical letter of that time. Especially, it does not specifically name either its author or its intended recipients. Thus the question of its recipients must be answered by a careful reading of the letter as a whole.
Those who have done this have come to the general consensus that the “Hebrews” to which the letter was written were an unidentified group of serious-minded Jews who had converted from their Judaism to a sincere Christian faith. For some reason, however, they were now in a position of questioning whether they should have converted, and were seriously considering abandoning their Christian faith and returning to their previous commitment to the Mosaic system of worship. The point of the letter, then, is to show these Hebrew Christians what a terrible mistake it would be to return to Judaism. Since it would involve a rejection of Jesus as their Messiah and Savior, such a return would cause them to lose their salvation.
So the fact is that throughout the entire epistle, there are many warnings and exhortations related to the possible imminent loss of their salvation (e.g., 2:1-3; 3:6-14; 4:1, 11; 6:4-8, 11-12; 10:23, 26-31, 35-39; 12:12-17, 25). Regardless, then, of our interpretation of the one verse, 12:15, the message of the entire letter utterly destroys the false doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” If this doctrine were true, the entire epistle would be a sham.
With these things in mind, when we turn to the immediate context of 12:15, we must conclude that those being addressed here (as in the entire letter) are Christians who are living within the saving grace of God. We must also conclude that they are being warned that if they follow through on their inclination to abandon Christ and return to Moses, they will indeed be separated from the grace of God and thus lose their salvation.
The question, though is whether the vocabulary and grammar of 12:15a are consistent with such a conclusion. First we may look at the main words. The Greek word translated “miss” (NIV) or “come short” (NASB) or “fail to obtain” (NRSV) is hustereō (from which we get our word “hysteria”). Its early meaning in Greek literature was “to be late, to arrive late” for something, to be left behind and thus to fail. In the NT its basic meaning is to lack something, either by never having achieved it (Matt. 19:20) or by having given it up (Luke 15:14). Thus technically it could be used either for someone who was never included within grace, or someone who fell away from it.
The second word is the one mentioned in the question above, the preposition apo, translated “of” in the NASB (and in some versions not translated at all). It seems to be almost always used with the genitive case, as it is here; so this is not an issue. It basically refers to separation from something, to come out of something or be the result of something. I believe the questioner is correct to say that the use of this preposition favors the view that it is possible to fall FROM grace.
The last relevant term is the word for grace itself, namely, charis. This is the usual word for saving grace, as in Romans 5:2 and Ephesians 2:8, for example. It is also used for many other kinds of grace, such as spiritual gifts (1 Peter 4:10) and spiritual strength (Heb. 13:9). I think it is clear, though, that in Heb. 12:15 it is referring to saving grace.
It also seems that the writer of the letter is referring to a specific aspect of grace in this verse. When he speaks of “coming short of” or “missing” the grace of God, he is speaking specifically of the final aspect of our salvation, namely, the attainment of our future glory. The model for our grace-journey is the experience of Israel as delivered from Egyptian slavery and brought ultimately to the Promised Land (see chapters 3 and 4 of Hebrews). We have already been saved; we are on our way to heaven; but some will fall short of that final goal. Parallel to Heb. 12:15 is Heb. 4:1, “Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short [hustereō] of it.”
When we put these words together in 12:15a, we find that the writer of Hebrews is exhorting the wavering Jewish Christians be on guard against the possibility that they may ultimately find themselves left behind [hustereō], separated from [apo] God’s saving grace [charis]. Taken in the context of the book of Hebrews as a whole, those to whom this exhortation is addressed are, at the time of the writing, true Christians; and they are being warned that if they follow through on their developing unbelief, they will become lost.
I close this note with a few thoughts from the commentary by the Lutheran R.C.H. Lenski, one of my favorites: “The calamity ever to be guarded against is first of all ‘that anyone may drop away from the grace of God,’ literally, ‘fall behind’ and thus be separated ‘from the saving grace of God.’ We should say ‘lost the grace of God.’ The picture is that of believers being carried forward to eternal salvation by God’s grace, and instead of being carried forward to heaven like the rest this individual is left standing behind and is thus lost.”
“To have that grace and then to drop away from it is calamity indeed. Yet the readers were in danger of doing this very thing by shrinking from persecution and thus being inclined to think less and less of Christ and again falling in love with their former Judaism.”