Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. —Hebrews 3:12-13
2019 held no lack of headlines trumpeting the fall of evangelical personalities. Multiple popular, influential, well-loved, and much-followed leaders in Christian circles made national news with their public distancing from the church and Christianity. It’s only natural to ask “how did this happen?” This passage in Hebrews helps us answer that question, admonishing us to be aware there is a pernicious heart condition that becomes evident in time— that of an evil, unbelieving heart. Scripture warns that within the church not everyone who outwardly appears to be a Christian is actually believing the Gospel. This is a call to each one of us to examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5). Do we have only “head-knowledge” of the Gospel, or are we truly and fully trusting in Jesus? His sufficiency? Am I trusting in my good works or in His grace?
A Warning and Instruction
The author of the letter to the Hebrews is concerned for his audience that the pressures of persecution and unconfessed sin may lead them to become hardened to the deceitfulness of sin. This is why he insists that they “take care”—take heed in the language of King James. He knows the risks they—and we—face, and he is passionate for them to not be among those who reject the living God, rather those who fully trust in Christ, our High Priest who has promised perseverance in the faith.
Scripture often urges believers to pay attention to—take heed of—themselves and one another (see Hebrews 10:23-25, Acts 20:28, Colossians 4:17, 1 Corinthians 10:12). These warnings echo Jesus who told his disciples to “stay awake” lest any be caught unprepared for His return to earth in His second coming (Matthew 24:42).
What happened in 2019 is no anomaly. Scripture is full of accounts of disastrous disobedience, not so that we can observe how far we’ve come, or how much better we are than those forgetful Israelites, but shockingly, so that we won’t be just like them and do what they did. It’s easy to spot their patterns of rebellion; to read about their grumbling in the desert and marvel at how quickly they forgot God’s faithfulness. But we are prone to do the same thing. We are more like the Israelites than we care to admit. God doesn’t give us room to deny it. He tells us in His Word why all of their failures were written down: “for our instruction” (1 Corinthians 10:1-11).
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:12-13 to take their example to heart:
…let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
Take heed. It’s the same exhortation we read in Hebrews 3: take care. Pay attention. Be alert to. Attend to. What is it we are to notice on purpose? The condition of our hearts, our thoughts, and our beliefs. And not ours only. The author urges us to take care of one another by exhortation. To exhort someone is to strongly urge him to do something. In this case, we are to urge fellow believers to put off sin, to keep on believing in God’s promises, to persevere in faith in Christ Jesus, to keep trusting in His sacrifice for our sins, and to put no confidence in ourselves. It’s when we think “we’ve got this” that we are most prone to fall.
Embrace The Local Church
When we think “we’ve got this,” we’re more likely to pull away from the commitments of belonging to a church, the place where God has designed the vital exhortation from other believers to take place. God has given us the local church, in part, to help us persevere. Albert Mohler writes in his commentary on Hebrews, that “Immersing oneself in the community of saints, in the care and watchfulness of the local church, in the preaching of God’s Word, and in the exhortation of fellow believers remedies an evil, unbelieving heart. These things protect us from falling away.”1
Membership in a faithful local church is one of God’s means for staying faithful. The covenant of membership binds believers together under the authority of God’s Word, securing their commitment to meet together, to pray for one another, to help in times of need, and to chasten in times of disobedience. Watching elders exercise church discipline, weeping over a members’ unconfessed sin, participating in a vote of excommunication, and welcoming a fallen believer back into fellowship following his repentance and restoration is both encouraging and sobering. Such times powerfully remind all of the members that “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13, emphasis added). This verse is not meant as a justification for doing what is common, but rather as a warning that any confidence that we are immune to what is common, is foolish. One of the main benefits of church discipline is the way it calls all the members to audit our own hearts and lives—to take heed—lest any of us fall into the same temptations and sin.
Christ Will Sustain His Own
It is right that we are grieved by news that someone in the church is abandoning the faith. Let us add to grief, self-assessment. Let us, in faith, renew our commitment to life in the local body of Christ. And let us not lose heart. Paul reminds us in his prayer for the rebellious Corinthians that Jesus is the One who strengthens us to obey Him:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus,… so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:4, 7-8).
Let us use all the means God provides to take heed. And as we do so, let us take comfort in the strength of the One who will sustain us to the end.
What is your first thought when you read about the fall of a Christian leader?
Consider asking a trusted fellow believer if he/she sees any patterns of sin in your life that you may be blind to.
Take the opportunity of upsetting news reports of sin being exposed in the church to pivot quickly to prayer, both for the one(s) affected, as well as for yourself and the members of your church to persevere in faith.
The next time a fellow church member talks about struggles in life, take the opportunity to move beyond empathy (“Oh, that must be hard!”) to prayer and exhortation to keep on trusting God in the midst of suffering.
1. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Christ-Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in Hebrews (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2017), 52.↩