In John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress the main character, whose name is Christian, finds himself resting on his journey to the Celestial City at the House of Interpreter. While at this house Interpreter takes him around to different rooms, and in these rooms he learns different life lessons.
In one of the rooms he entered he found a man sitting in an iron cage.
It was Bunyan’s picture of an apostate. The man in the cage was descriptive of the one who had committed the unpardonable sin. The iron bars represented the man’s inability to be saved. He was trapped in his sin and unbelief. His despair was indicative of his being forever doomed.
Christian spoke with the man and asked him how he came to that state. The man in the cage responded by saying, “I failed to be watchful and sober. I sinned against the light of the word and the goodness of God; I have grieved the Spirit, and he is gone; I tempted the devil, and he came to me; I have so hardened my heart, that I cannot repent.
Christian sought to encourage the poor wretch. He said, “Is there no hope for you? Why, the Son of God is full of pity.”
The man responded by saying that there was no hope. He said, “I have crucified him to myself afresh; I have despised his person. I have despised his righteousness; I have counted his blood an unholy thing; I have done malice to the spirit of grace. Therefore I have shut myself out of all the promises and there remains for me nothing but dreadful threatenings and certain judgment.”
Christian still urged: “But can you not now repent and turn?” The man said, “God has denied me repentance and his word gives me no encouragement to believe.”
Christian and his host turned to exit the room. As they did so Interpreter said to Christian, “Let this man’s misery be a reminder to you and let it be an everlasting caution to you.”
To be sure, what is depicted here is an allegory. We know that as long as a man has breath in his lungs he has the opportunity to repent and find salvation. Bunyan was simply using the man in the cage as a symbol; a tool for teaching. He was a warning sign indicating the danger of apostasy and how careful we must be to maintain a lively faith.
In sum, Bunyan’s depiction of the man in the cage provides us with a good commentary on what is found in the earlier section of Hebrews 6. He captures well the idea of the unpardonable sin and the watchfulness that must characterize our lives.
And the question that faces us today is the same question that faced Christian in Bunyan’s book: Where do we really stand in relation to God? Are we one who is in danger of apostatizing, or are we one who will have a faith that perseveres to the end?
We shouldn’t gloss over the fact that there have been many good Christians throughout the years who have struggled with this kind of thing. They’ve felt like they have lost faith. Maybee they’ve even thought that they committed the unpardonable sin. There have many people who have lost the assurance of their salvation and they have felt that they have essentially become this man in the iron cage.
That can be something you experience in your life. And we recognize this: You can’t lose your salvation, but you can lose the assurance of your salvation.
Or, on the other hand, you might be like one of these Hebrews who have become sluggish (as Mark talked about a few weeks ago). You’ve been backsliding and your faith is not going in the right direction. Now, after having heard this, maybe you are starting to wonder: Am I in that cage? You could find yourself wondering if you actually have committed the unpardonable sin.
But how do we answer that? What do we do if we find ourselves in this kind of situation? What if you are asking these kinds of questions; what do you do?
Well, the answer that pastors and theologians often give is that if you are concerned you have committed the unpardonable sin, you probably haven’t. That’s because people who have committed the unpardonable sin have no real regret about it. They don’t care about Christ, so they could care less about having offended him.
But God’s word gives us an even better answer. The passage before us gives some stronger benchmarks that we can use to determine whether or not we have persevering faith. If you are questioning whether or not you have a “make-it-to-the end kind of faith,” our passage says that you should do two things. If you want to have assurance of salvation all you have to do is consider the life you’ve led and the promise you’ve received. Or, to put it another way, you can say that assurance is grounded in work God has done in you and the Word he has spoken to you.
Now, if you are one who wonders about the stability of your faith, the first thing you should do is think back over your life. That’s because one of the grounds for your assurance is based on the work God has done in you.
I. It is grounded in God’s work in us [9-12]
Look at how our passage starts out. In verse 9 it says, “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.” Another way to read this would be to say, “Yet in your case we are persuaded of better things—things that belong to salvation.”
Do you see what he’s saying here? The author is convinced that these Hebrew Christians have not committed the unpardonable sin. He is persuaded that they are believers.
But how does he know this? Upon what does he base this conclusion? Is it because he has some divine window into their hearts and he can see that their faith is true? Of course not. He says he is confident of this because he has witnessed their love.
Look at verse 10. He says, “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.”
What is it that convinced him? It was the way they had been living. These people had been serving the Lord. They’ve been serving one another. They had been making meals for people who were sick. They were contributing money to help their brothers and sisters who were down on their luck. They had been encouraging one another and sacrificing for one another. And all of this was a clear demonstration that God was at work in them. God’s grace had truly touched them and was moving them to minister to each other. And that was all the proof that he needed. They were obviously people who Christians because they were doing Christian things.
We see this reiterated in verse 11. He goes on to say that he desires each of them to “show the same earnestness.” Now, obviously, things have tailed off a bit. They were backsliding. But at one time they were earnest.
Some of you will have the word “diligence.” I actually like the Greek word: spoude. The word once had the idea of pushing something. It implied the use of force to move either people or things from one place to another, and going through a bit of trouble to do it; maybe having to overcome some obstacle along the way. Then it began to have a more metaphorical meaning of doing something with heart. So in Bible times it carried the idea of haste, zeal. We might say today, “they had a real go get’em kind of spirit.”
All that’s to say that these Hebrews were earnest servants of God. And again, that demonstrates that God was doing something in them.
And that’s a good gauge to use in measuring your faith. If you have true faith, then you should be able to look back and see earnestness and diligence. Real faith will be demonstrated in serving the brethren; and serving them in such a way that you are really exerting yourself and seeking to overcome personal obstacles to do so. If you can see that kind of thing, then you can rest assured that God’s grace has been working in you. And you can be sure that your faith is a genuine faith.
This is really important too. Because a lot of people romanticize their faith. You ask them, “do you love the brethren.” And they will say “O, of course I do.” Then you ask them, “When was the last time you were in church?” Well, you know, it’s been a while.
I love this one: Sometimes I’ll ask people what church they go to and they will struggle to remember the name of it. Or I’ll ask them who their pastor is and they will say, “Well, it used to be So-&-so, but he left years ago. And I don’t remember the guy’s name who is there now.”
So make sure you don’t romanticize this. This passage is asking you to look back and see if there are real instances of practical service. It is not asking if you felt like you loved God in the past, it’s asking if you have actually served him and ministered to the body of Christ.
How about this: Use 1 Corinthians 13 as a guide. It starts off by saying love is patient, love is kind. Have you served Christ’s church with patience? Can you think of examples where you were patient with God’s people? Maybe it was in a time when you were actually mad at them. There was conflict and you were offended. Were you able to be patient and kind? Did you serve them that way? Or did you just go your different ways, ignoring the problem and ignoring each other.
That’s the kind of thing that’s being spoken of here. Is there a pattern of service that you can see? Is there a legacy of love that you can detect? If so, then you may be persuaded that your faith is genuine; just as this author was persuaded of the true faith that dwelt in the Hebrew Christians.
If you can see a legacy of love, then you can be assured that God has been working in you. And if God has been working in you, then you may have an assurance that your faith is real.
But you’ll notice that the passage doesn’t stop there. It not only points you to God’s work in you, it also points you to God’s promise to you.
II. It is grounded in God’s promise to us [13-30]
The last portion of the chapter deals with the promise that God gives you. Really, it deals with the soundness of this promise. It goes to great lengths to say that God’s promise is so sure that you don’t need to worry about anything else. This is something that even trumps all that we just covered. Even if you can’t see a track record of good works, all you have to know is that God’s promise will not fail.
In verse 13 the author focuses your attention on the promise that God made to Abraham. If ever there was a man who had persevering faith, it was Abraham. Here is a guy who had to live by faith.
God came to Abraham when he was 75 years old, and He said, “Abraham, I’m going to multiply you. Kings and whole nations are going to come from you.” And you might think that Abraham was pretty excited about that. That sounds great. But nothing happens for 15 years. If you were living simply by the emotional high of a divine experience, that would have worn off rather quickly. So Abraham had to live by faith.
After 15 years, God comes to him again and God reaffirms this promise. You remember the whole cutting of the animal ceremony. That was God’s declaration that he was going to carry out his promise. And that instance was solely for the purpose of boosting Abraham’s confidence.
But still, no kid; not for another 10 years. Now, after 25 years of waiting, Abraham is 100 years old and he finally gets one boy (definitely not the multitude he was probably expecting).
But not only that, but God told him to take Isaac and offer him up as a sacrifice. A lot of children’s story books depict Isaac a little boy. But there are scholars who say that Isaac has to be at least a teenager—and maybe even a grown man—because he was had to carry the wood up the mountain.
I was over in Israel this past year. It would have been quite a trek up that slop without any kind of burden on your back, let alone a pile of wood. So hefting that stuff up there required someone old enough to have enough strength to do that. So let’s add another 13-15 years.
And how does Abraham respond to the call to sacrifice his son? He responds with faith. He knows that the promise of a multitude is to come through Isaac. Sacrificing him seems to go against all reason. But he believes God’s promise. He lives by faith because he knows that God is true and his word is unbreakable.
Now there is something really neat in that story that our passage picks up on. And it is the oath that God made to Abraham. You may remember that after God stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, he made an oath. He said, “by myself I have sworn. I will surely bless you and multiply you.”
Our passage picks up on that. In verse 17 it says that God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, [and so he] guaranteed it with an oath. Now we have two unchangeable things: God’s promise and his oath.
What I want you to see is how God sought to help Abraham. Abraham needed persevering faith. So God gave him an oath to help boost that faith.
Now, I know that there are some who object to oath taking. But I believe that the Bible says it is okay in some instances-- when you need to give veracity to your word. And certainly, oath taking is something that only exists in a fallen world. Why do we have oaths? It’s to give weight and power to our word, right? You know that we’d never have oaths if Adam had never sinned. But since sin entered the world (and many people tend not to keep their word) we have oaths. It’s our way of saying, “Hey, I really, really mean this.”
When you go into a court of law and you put your hand on the Bible, you are taking an oath. In doing that you add an extra sense of gravity to what you are doing. You are actually saying, “May the God of this book strike me down if I tell a lie.”
When you get married, you make public vows. The whole marriage ceremony is designed to add a sense of gravity to the vows you make. A lot of people think it is so you can have a nice little party and get dressed up and act like a princess for a day. That’s not the reason though. A wedding ceremony is for the purpose of bringing solemnity to the covenant that is being made before God and these witnesses.
So we understand the power and significance of an oath. It is for the purpose of strengthening our promise and our resolve to keep our word.
And that’s what God did for Abraham. God doesn’t need to make vows, does he? No. It is impossible for him to lie, right? He can’t go back on his word because it goes against his nature. But to accommodate Abraham’s faith he added an oath saying, “By myself I have sworn, I will surely multiply you.”
That’s why our text goes on in verse 18 to say that “We who have fled for refuge might have a strong encouragement to hold fast the hope set before us.” God is impressing upon us the sure certainty of his promise to save.
If you want to be saved, all you have to do is trust God. He cannot break his word. So his promise is more sure than even the chairs you sit on today.
The imagery here in these last few verses is really good too. He says in verse 18, “We who have fled for refuge may have a strong encouragement.”
Do you know where the imagery for “fleeing for refuge” comes from? It comes from the OT and the cities of refuge. If you happened to accidentally kill someone, you became a fugitive. You were going to be hunted by the next of kin. But you could flee to the city of refuge, and once you were within those walls, you were completely safe.
It is a picture of what we have in the saving promise of Christ. Once you flee to Christ, you have a perfect refuge. The wrath of God cannot touch you anymore.
Then, in verse 19, it uses the imagery of an anchor. “We have a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” What is an anchor? It is what keeps a ship from floating away. If you don’t anchor your ship, the wind and waves will carry you out to sea. But once you drop anchor, you are immovable. The anchor provides security.
That is what our passage says we have in Christ. God’s promise is anchored in Christ and his having gone into the presence of God. There he secures the promise.
Have you ever had one of your children do that to you? You made a promise and when it came time to keep that promise you were not inclined to do it. But then your son or daughter said, “But daddy, you promised.”
We take promises really seriously at our house. And when one of our children comes out and says, “But you promised!” that is like their trump card. They don’t have a lot of power in our house—they are kids, after all. But if they can say, “You promised” they can pretty much seal the deal. We as parents pretty much have to follow through at that point.
You can think of Jesus’ ascension into heaven in that way. He has gone there as a forerunner, and He stands before God with the scars on his hands and feet calling out, “You promised!”
All that is said here is simply to reinforce how sure God’s promise is. And it is here to remind you that if you trust his promise, you have no reason to doubt your salvation.
Earlier I spoke of Bunyan’s book, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Christian’s experience with the man in the cage. Later on in that story Christian becomes imprisoned himself in Doubting Castle. An ogre, whose name is Giant Despair, catches him and beats him repeatedly.
This was Bunyan’s way of depicting a believer who struggles with the assurance of salvation.
In that prison Christian is miserable. He agonizes that he has lost faith because he strayed away from the path that led to the Celestial City. He sits there day and night, forelorn with his sin and his backsliding.
A brother named Hopeful is there with him though. And hopeful tries to minister to him by pointing Christian back to his earlier zeal. He tries to get Christian to remember how earnest he was in fighting the Lord’s battles. Unfortunately, it does little to help Christian.
It wasn’t until Christian remembered that he had a key in his pocket called “Promise” that he begins to rise out of his despondency. This key is what enables them to escape that gloomy dungeon.
Again, Bunyan captures well what is said in Hebrews 6. He reminds us of two things: the life we’ve lived for the Lord and the key of God’s promise. On these two things we may rest our assurance.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.