Hebrews 12:14-29

David H. Linden  University Presbyterian Church, Las Cruces, NM  USA    (September, 2011)


The race of the Christian may result in fatigue and discouragement with drooping hands and lame legs (12:12-13). Quitting the race is a temptation. Forgetting the big picture and seeing only what is immediate and tangible is a grave danger. A classic example is found in the choices of Esau who treated eternal things as worthless. He is a negative example, the opposite of all the examples of true faith in chapters 11 & 12. Judas is not mentioned. Hebrews has chosen Esau the classic OT apostate. In this section appear the last two warnings of the sermon. As is typical in Hebrews, they are combined with encouragement of what we already have in Christ (12:22-24). It is one thing to be discouraged, which happens with believers, but it is eternal peril to turn away from Christ, disregarding God’s promises while hoping for an easier life now.  


The Structure of Hebrews 12:    12:14-29 shifts from suffering as beneficial chastening in 12:1-13 to the danger of apostasy.  We must not reject the God who speaks (vv.19,20,24,25). These verses are a unit, but those who read the NIV are deprived (yet again) of a missing conjunction at the beginning of v.18.  That conjunction indicates that the words that follow are related to the example of Esau. The preaching is very direct – unlike the “Let us” language in 10:19-25.  It uses the second person in verses 14,18,& 25; the last paragraphs are linked by the repetition of “speaks” in vv.24,25.


Chapter 13 is a large footnote worthy of the book, but it is here in the strong preaching of chapter 12 that the sermon reaches its climax.  Twice in 12:1-13 & 12:14-29 it follows a pattern of exhortation (either as appeal or warning) followed by exposition (explanation) and then exhortation again.


A Summary:     A number of themes throughout Hebrews are mentioned in the concluding segment of the sermon.  Such repetition provides a way to discern the great burden of the writer and the response he was seeking:


  • Forfeiting blessings through carelessness: 12:15-17 …             (see also: 2:1-4;  4:1,2,11;  10:24,25; 35,36).
  • Mutual responsibility for each other:  12:15 …                              (see also: 3:12,13;  4:1;  10:19-25).   
  • The unchangeable finality of the apostate’s loss: 12:16,17 … (see also: 3:7- 4:11; 6:4-8; 10:26–31;


  • The contrast of covenants: 12:18-24 …                                          (see also:  8:5-13;  9:1–28;  10:1-18) 
  • The contrast of mediators (Jesus and Moses): 12:18-24       (see also 3:1-6; 7:22;  8:6;  9:15; ).  
  • The unapproachable God vs. access to Him: 12:18-24        (see also 4:14-16;  6:19,20;  7:19,25;  9:11-14;

                                                                                                                                                9:24; 10:10,12-14, 19-22).

  • The blood of Christ: 12:24 …                                                            (see also 9:11-28;  10:19,29;  13:12,20). 
  • Hearing the God Who speaks: 12:25-27                                  (see also: 1:1,2;  2:1-4;  3:7-4:14;   5:11-14;

  6:13-20;  8:8-13;  10:36-39).



12:14-17  The Example of Esau   This opens with an appeal for peace and holiness. Both words may refer to a relationship with God. We have the peace of reconciliation through Christ (Romans 5:1-11).  We have been granted the holiness (or perfection) of the purging of our sins by the blood of Christ (9:14; 10:10,14).  Such blessings are the kind of thing that mattered so little to Esau.  12:14 cannot mean that our pursuit increases reconciliation through Christ’s blood, for we add nothing to His blood. The peace called for is with others, so the pursuit is for living in harmony and holiness (2 Timothy 2:22). Esau never had such a pursuit. Pursuing holiness is pursuing a gift not found in any source but Christ. Hebrews is not telling us to chase after our own morality in order to see the Lord. To forsake Christ is also to turn from all the results of His salvation, which includes ttrue holiness.


12:14 Without holiness no man will see the Lord. (See Appendix J: Is Holiness a Factor in Justification below.)


12:15  There is no way to see to it that no one misses the grace of God unless there is some kind of accountability among believers and the mutual encouragement of 3:13. We are to confess Christ together (3:1; 4:14).  The appeal of 10:19-25 is for a life shared with others.  Hebrews surprises those of us conditioned by the individualism of Western culture when it moves so naturally from supportive communal life to missing the grace of God and becoming like Esau. One rejects the grace of God by rejecting the Son of God. A life without holiness shows this has already happened. Esau had other pursuits than holiness. We miss the grace of God by unbelief, no matter how much exposure we may have to His grace. God knows those who are His (2 Timothy 2:19); we do not. The church cannot see a relationship known only to God, but the church can observe conduct and respond accordingly. 


For “bitter root” see Deuteronomy 29:18.  Bitterness here does not refer to a poor attitude in an unhappy person; it is the poison of having in the congregation an individual whose heart [like Esau’s] turns from the Lord to idolatry. Left unrestrained, it will only grow to cause much trouble; others will also defect. Esau is an example either of sexual immorality (assumed because he had two wives), or it may be a metaphor for his defection from the Lord. Covenantal unfaithfulness is often stated in the OT in terms of sexual unfaithfulness, as in Ezekiel 16 & 23. Esau was sensual in his choice of a meal over his birthright. He thought little of the Lord God he could not see, caring only for this life, a man so different from the faithful saints of 11:6,10,27. Esau’s life was godless.


Esau gave up his privilege as the firstborn. Later when it was taken from him and he sought to gain it back, it was too late. His remorse was over his loss, not his sin. The apostate cannot be brought to godly sorrow and true repentance again (6:4-6). When the apostate finally learns loss and seeks to “repent” in a self-serving way, it is too late. The ESV says, “he found no chance to repent”. Isaiah 34 speaks of the great loss of the descendents of Esau, the great apostate of the OT.  From the same womb came Jacob, i.e., Israel, a father of God’s people.  Jacob was a wicked man whose life was changed in God’s gracious salvation. He became a man of faith who pursued holiness (11:21) and gave thanks for God’s grace. Esau spurned the covenant with his God and lost its blessing and his birthright inheritance.     


12:18-24 The Contrast of Two Covenants  


This is one of my favorite passages in God’s Word.  It is astute in making a clear distinction how we approach God, either with or without Christ as our mediator. It presents the end of our race and the glory of the coming kingdom as the present possession of the believer. No matter what suffering we may face – and the people who first read Hebrews faced much trouble – we have before us the life of heaven. We have come to the Judge Who has not judged us in our sin but in our covenant Guarantor. Being judged in this way, we are accepted in Him.


Here we see a fully unified worship of heaven and earth in which every saint of God who has ever lived is included. All the rebel angels are absent. It is all very God centered. The writer moved by the Holy Spirit to write it, does not mention the Spirit, but He too, with the Father and Son, is here as the living God.


I urge all who study these notes to read and ponder this marvelous description of the divine reality the world cannot see and would not enjoy. It is like the conclusion of Romans 8 with a sense of triumph. Here is a most satisfying remedy for all who feel the temptation to give up the race.


12:18-21, the Unapproachable Scene of Mount Sinai      Hebrews does not intend to give the history of the event at Sinai when the law was given.  It has a deliberate perspective; the writer is emphasizing the difference in two situations. God was unapproachable at Sinai; even Moses, the mediator of the old covenant trembled. God is not even mentioned in vv.18-21!  Everything described here was what they could sense by touch, sound, and sight. Their experience was vivid but with no encounter with the Lord.   [Note that mediator is used in Hebrews only of Christ; though Moses was a mediator briefly, only Christ remains our Mediator.]


The scene is one of terror. The words chosen are the imagery of danger: fire, darkness, gloom, storm, and a loud trumpet blast. They begged for relief. Few today present God in terms that frighten, but Hebrews does.  There is nothing more terrifying than a holy God announcing His law to sinners who must then face His justice for breaking it. God rejects sinners; He is unapproachable by us, unless we have the Son of God as our Priest Intercessor. If Christ is out of the picture, we live in the dread of 12:18-21. The gospel is that Christ has taken our sin and death for us; thus He brings sons to glory. Unlike the scene at Sinai, the glorious Presence of God is no longer a threat to us. Christ does not serve only to change our status; He brings the law breakers He saves to holiness (2:9-11). Moses could do none of these things.




12:22-24, Seven Encouraging Facts Related to the Presence of the Lord in Mount Zion    


1.   You come to Mount Zion. At Sinai they could not approach even the base of a mountain. In the new covenant, sinners made perfect are welcomed to Mount Zion without a barrier, to the heavenly Jerusalem,  the city of the living God – not three places, but one.  We do not come to a law that accuses us and declares us guilty for our sin.  Those described here have already come to the Lord Who has forgiven their sins and remembers them no more (10:17). Those who hold to continuing sacrifices could find them on earth in the Jerusalem below (Galatians 4:24-26). That Jerusalem would soon be destroyed, leaving those who reject Christ in favor of obsolete offerings, with no Christ and no sacrifice of any kind (Hosea 3:4), no altar, and no access to God. The joy of forgiven sinners is in the language of a new exodus in Jeremiah 31:1-30 when redeemed sinners come to Zion. Then at Jeremiah 31:31, the promise of a new covenant is given.  


2.   You come to angels in vast numbers. Early in Hebrews, the writer clarified their subordination to the Son. Angels worship and serve (1:6,7).  In the city of the living God, we do that together in joyful assembly.  Their joy joins the joy of the redeemed. 


3.   You have come to the church comprised of God’s firstborn. (Esau treated his right as the firstborn carelessly and lost it.) The “firstborn” is a term used for Christ (1:6; Colossians 1:15-17).  With others, it indicates those consecrated to God as in the first ones born of man or animals (Exodus 13:2,12,13).  Among the nations, Israel His chosen (Deuteronomy 7:6) was His firstborn. “Israel is my firstborn son,” (Exodus 4:22). The church in this text is the holy nation of all the redeemed (1 Peter 2:9). Their names have been written in heaven. (A strong verb is used here for enrolled, found also in Luke 10:20 and Revelation 21:27.)


No Esau’s   No beneficiary in the new covenant is like Esau; none is apostate. The real citizens of Zion cannot apostatize, since no sins will be held against them (10:17), and no such sin can occur among them (10:16). It is impossible to bring apostates back to repentance (6:4-6), but because of the Spirit’s effective work, it is impossible for those on whose hearts the law is being written to turn away (Jude 24,25; 1 Peter 1:3-5). The blood of Christ has redeemed them; He is the personal guarantee (7:22) of their inheritance (9:15). He always lives to intercede for them (7:25), and never fails in what He seeks for us. There are no Esau’s in the church of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven. For all those the Mediator of the new covenant represents, the Lord will surely be our covenant God, and we will surely be His people – with no exceptions to render the new covenant ineffective like the one mediated by Moses.  


When v.22 says, “you have come,” it is not an assertion that all in the visible church are surely saved. It speaks of the true church within the professing church as in 6:9-11 where the writer expresses confidence in the genuineness of their salvation. (See also 10:39 and 3:1). Yet he does this, always aware that there may be someone among them who turns away from the living God (3:12) and so cannot come to the living God (12:22-24).


4.   You have come to God.      Such words must ring in our hearts as evidence of the ultimate goal of our salvation.   This is the hope of Job 19:26 and Matthew 5:8. The wicked have no interest in Him (Romans 8:7; John 14:17) while the believer waits for Him (9:28) and loves His appearing (2 Timothy 4:8).  It is to God, the Judge of all, they have come. Being positioned in the middle of the seven items, means in the writing of that culture that it has been given greatest emphasis. In the old covenant, they came to a mountain without coming to God. In the new covenant, we have come to God already. The writer dares to present God as Judge without any overtones of fear! God was also Judge in vv.18-21.  The difference is that the Judge has no condemnation (Romans 5:16; 8:1) for the person justified in Christ. If the Judge accepts us we are not guilty, and if He accepts us we are righteous. As a boy I heard Christians sing with joy:


The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do;

My Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.  


5.   You have come to the spirits of righteous men made perfect. This refers to those who have died; their bodies were buried, and their spirits are now with Christ, not passively or unconsciously, but actively  in the joyful assembly.  


Is Justification Limited to Forgiveness?     The righteous men of 12:23 were justified not only in the sense of purification, which is a characteristic of Hebrews, but these are righteous persons. Righteousness always involves obedience. It is not possible to be justified only in the limited sense of sins removed. Every covenant with man demands righteousness, and in the new covenant we have a Mediator Who meets our need (7:26)! Righteousness is as much ours in Christ as the cleansing of the conscience. No one can be justified in a bare declaration that means we are not guilty of sin unless there is a corresponding and inseparable verdict of righteousness. Unless we are righteous, we are sinners! God is incapable of an irrational decree. A man who lacks righteousness is sinful (James 1:22-25). Genuine forgiveness must address this need of righteousness. The demand of obedience is an ever-present factor in the judgment of God when He pronounces men perfect through the blood of Christ (10:14).


Some suppose that the overriding preoccupation in Hebrews on purification from sin means we have perfection apart from the judicial demand for righteousness. 12:23 makes explicit that the spirits of those who died in Christ are indeed righteous.  It did not use the word perfect. They were not perfect in righteous conduct when they died. With incomplete sanctification, their necessary righteousness can only be acquired from Christ, and it was essential for their entrance into the heavenly Jerusalem. Without perfect righteousness, we can only face God in the fear of Sinai. The teaching of purification from sin without the simultaneous imputation of righteousness is a false and impossible distinction. Righteousness also comes by faith (11:7) as surely as purification does. [Note that 11:7 is in Hebrews!] The positive requirements and negative sanctions of the law have both been fully met for us by our covenant Mediator. What God has joined together in one Scripture, theologians in other texts should not seek to separate.


6.   You have come to Jesus the Mediator of a new covenant. In the other scene on Mount Sinai, Jesus was the Lord God of Israel giving the law, the law His people broke and were helpless to obey. The law was mediated by Moses (John 1:17), but the new covenant, effective to meet every demand on us, came when the Lord the Law Giver came to help us (2:14-18).  The Law Giver became our human Law-Keeper (1 Corinthians 1:30). Then He was willingly charged and killed in our place as the Law Breaker (2 Corinthians 5:21).  Now in Him, believers are considered by God to be law keepers.  We are treated accordingly as He brings many sons to glory (2:10), right into the Presence of the Judge of all with confidence (4:16). The Mediator of the new covenant delivers all His children. He says, “Here am I, and the children God has given me” (2:13). He destroys their enemy, leaving none in Satan’s control. He sets them free and, as their priest, has satisfied God for their sins (2:17). 


No member of the new covenant can have Christ as his Mediator and fail to arrive in the city of the Living God. Our priest has no failures. All in Christ have right of access already. The way has been opened (10:19,20) by Christ. Hebrews does not teach that our access depends on some further condition that falls on us. The perspective of 12:22-24 is not that here is what you might come to if you keep covenant, but here is what you have come to since you have Christ as your Mediator.


7.   You have come to His sprinkled blood.  The sprinkled blood was often a threat to the one entering a covenant. He was reminded of the penalty of sin. In the new covenant, the threat has been taken by the Mediator Himself, something Moses as mediator never did.  The sprinkled blood shows the application of all the benefits of the priestly work of Christ has begun. 


Abel’s blood cried for vengeance concerning his murder by his brother Cain. Jesus’ blood speaks peace to us, because He became a man that He might save His sinful brothers. He speaks a better word than justice imposed on us. He speaks a word of justice satisfied for us. Christ speaks in His church declaring the Name of the Lord and singing His praises (2:12). Our Great High Priest does not worry whether His mediation is effective for His children.


12:25-29  In my opinion, there are three paragraphs in 12:18-29, each beginning with a “you”. The teaching that “you have not come” and “you have come” follows the issue whether we will be like Esau who missed the grace of God. That issue is whether the grace of the new covenant will be rejected. This possibility provokes his stern warning, the last of six.    


“The One Who Speaks” is God.  Only His Word shakes heaven and earth.  The Lord Who spoke on earth is the same One speaking from heaven “Today” (3:7,13; 4:7). He has spoken in His Son (1:2) and spoken on oath, appointing Him Priest forever. We are given access to these words. He spoke again in the promise to Israel of a new covenant. The Holy Spirit was speaking when he had David say the words from Christ in Psalm 40. Hebrews is rich in what God speaks. To reject what He says is to reject Him.   


Those in the church can be careless like Esau. They can drift from the message first spoken by the Lord (2:1-4). He is the God Who has spoken of His pleasure in His Son.  The Father showed this after Jesus had obtained eternal redemption (9:12) when He told Him to sit while He made Jesus’ enemies His footstool (1:13; 10:12). In this way God speaks to us of Jesus’ work as finished and successful. To detract from it is to refuse Him Who speaks the gospel from heaven. Apostates refuse the God Who speaks, but those who have come in true faith to Mount Zion listen. If God is ignored, there is no escape (2:3); salvation comes in heeding His Word.


The apostate in the church and in his high exposure to the gospel, comes to Mount Zion in one sense only; he has come to the real thing, but has never entered in.  Like the ones promised the land of Canaan who would not enter, the apostate rejects, but it is the real thing he rejects, and so he is lost.  He is a covenant breaker like Esau, who never entered into the life, inheritance, and blessing of the covenant.


12:26   On Sinai, God’s voice shook the earth, but only the earth. That was not the final shaking. The great shaking to come, quoted from Habakkuk 2:6 is the Day approaching (10:25). That day is the terror of God shaking heaven and earth; the people of earth will flee in fear from the wrath of the Lamb with no place to hide (Revelation 6:15-17). Yet for those who do not refuse Him now, it is a day we are eager to see (9:27,28; Revelation 22:12,20).


12:27,28     Some things can be shaken (1:10-12)  – created things – and that includes the mountain that can be touched (v.18) and everything related to it. Some things cannot be shaken, such as the oath of the Lord that Christ is a Priest forever.  The obsolete covenant (8:13), obsolete sacrifices (10:18), and the obsolete priesthood (7:12,18) are also shakable and will disappear. How foolish to refuse Him Who speaks from heaven in favor of what will vanish from the earth. 


The “you who have come to Mount Zion” is now the we who “are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken”.  Thus He sternly warns those who waver, without taking the view that those in Christ are in jeopardy.  “We are receiving” shows the same family kinship with them as the “you have come” in v.18.  The constant concern over apostasy does not hinder family language in chapter 2 and throughout the letter, yet brotherly speech does not restrain warnings of apostasy. 


The call is to be thankful for what God has provided and promised in Christ.  By His blood we have access so we can worship acceptably in this Mediator. Every other kind of worship is unacceptable. The Son learning obedience by what He suffered, the work of our Priest, His entrance into heaven with the way opened to us as well, plus the loyal assembly of saints in heaven, and a lasting city to come – all this makes us worship with deep gratitude, reverence, and awe.


Esau’s in every age will trample the Son of God underfoot and treat the precious blood shed for Christ’s church (Acts 20:28) with disdain.  The One Who speaks from heaven will be answered with contempt. Then sinners will find the God they denied is the God Whose holy fire consumed our sin-offering on Calvary. The covenant God (“our God”) will be a consuming fire against all who decline the only Mediator able to rescue from His wrath (John 3:36).  



Appendix J   Is Holiness a Factor in Justification?


 Some say 12:14 shows that since we cannot see the Lord without holiness, our holiness must be a condition we meet in order to see the Lord. Such a view holds that our justification will be determined finally by our holy living. This means justification rests not only on Christ, but also on our contribution towards a hoped for, favorable, final verdict on the Judgment Day. It also means once a person is justified initially, there remains a question whether he will eventually be justified at all. Some say our justification must be ‘maintained’. Those who teach this, teach a justification by our faithfulness not by faith alone. They argue that justification is by a faith that works (i.e., justification is received by faith and OUR obedience), rather than a faith that simply receives the gift of justification in its completeness.


They further confuse the righteousness of justification by including OUR holiness as what is necessary to obtain it. Ours is added to the holiness of Christ! Since our righteousness is always defective, only an unholy God could ever pronounce it acceptable.  This view is a grave error.  Only faith apart from all attempts at righteousness is consistent with justification being a gracious gift of God. It must be by faith alone and not by our holiness in order to be by God’s grace (Romans 4:16). 


12:14 teaches that holiness is always present in a true believer.  Esau, in spite of his covenant privilege as a child of Abraham, did not truly believe in the God of his fathers. Jacob believed but Esau went his carnal way. His lack of holiness was rooted in his unbelief. Those without holiness do not have the Spirit, and do not belong to the Lord (Romans 8:9-11), whatever covenant privilege they may have had.  Hebrews teaches we cannot live like Esau and see the Lord, but it is not teaching that we will see the Lord as a result of our holiness.  Rather, it is the blood of Christ alone which gains access to the Lord for us (10:19). Holiness results, and access to God is provided, when Jesus’ blood has been sprinkled on our sinful hearts (10:22).  Jesus is the full Guarantor of the new covenant (7:22) Who has already met all covenant conditions for us. Only by His mediation do we receive the promised eternal inheritance (9:15). In fact, such is the complete nature of His accomplishment that Hebrews teaches He has already made holy (10:10) those He is making holy (10:14; 2:11). (See Appendix I: The Present Perfection of Imperfect People in Hebrews 10.)


Justification by holiness is not taught in Hebrews or any Scripture. The devilish device we must be careful to discern is the error of taking some result of justification, such as holiness in believers, and turning that result into justification’s cause. This often happens whenever a description of transformed sinners is read as a condition of justification. It is the old error of suggesting that the way to become a Christian is to be one. This is the irrational claim that an effect can be the cause of itself. Every baby will cry, but that cry does not produce a baby. The result of its new life is not the cause of its life.  Those who cannot distinguish between the perfect obedience of Christ and obedience found in us as a result, do not have a clear sense of the gospel.


Another Hebrews text mistreated in a similar fashion is 5:9, where Jesus is the source of salvation for all who obey Him. Here Christians are again described in terms of salvation’s virtuous effect. It does not teach this effect is the cause. Morality is a result of salvation, never a means to it, because if it were, no sinner could ever attain to it. 



Appendix K  The Views of William L. Lane on Covenant


I have tried to make my notes simple for those who do not have English as their first language. I have usually avoided complicated questions.  This appendix is included because it is relevant to Hebrews, but I have not attempted to maintain simplicity.  Many will skip it, but I hope the pastors will read it.


Since I am indebted to the two-volume commentary of Dr. Lane, I must acknowledge that in these notes.  His work is to me utterly amazing in its detailed research and exegetical ability.  For me it has been a published work worth far more than I paid.  He has helped me immensely and I recommend his work with enthusiasm but with reservation. The fly in the ointment relates to covenant obligation in relation to justification. The essay above, Is Justification Limited to Forgiveness?, is a partial response to Lane.  I believe the issues are of such importance that I ought not to release my notes nor post them on the Internet without expressing my difference with him.


I intended to send my remarks to him so he could clarify his words and even correct any misunderstanding. However, I learned just before writing this that he passed away in March, 1999. Thus what I write lacks the benefit of a response from him. I hope some person with a better handle on his position can respond. If I find anyone clarifies Lane’s published words, I will gladly revise my remarks. My reaction to his position concerns the nature of faith/faithfulness; what it means to be in the new covenant; and whether Christ secures salvation for all in the new covenant.


Hebrews deals with early indications of apostasy in the church. There are baptized pseudo-Christians who are part of the church. Their unbelief will result in disobedience and departure from the living God. We consider professing persons as in covenant and label them as Christians because of their profession of faith. We too have both Jacob’s and Esau’s who profess the Lord as their God.  Thus Lane will refer to apostates at times as Christians. That is not what I am objecting to. We call all in the church Christians even when we know that not each one is. The Lord alone knows.


Lane says people may renounce their heavenly calling (p.459) and lose covenant status (pp.444, 488).  This sounds as if he is saying that one with salvation may lose it. Esau and all the apostates of ancient Israel can be described as those who lose covenant benefits. I do not differ with Dr. Lane for that, provided he does not mean that one has been united to Christ in a saving union by spiritual rebirth, and then that that kind of covenantal bond may be broken. Regrettably, among ministers today who profess to be reformed, even in very confessional federations, some think we can be united to Christ and still be lost. It is a contradiction to hold that believers are secure in Christ, and yet those in a living covenantal bond with Him may apostatize and be lost. This is more than mere ambiguity; it is error.


At this point, Lane is not specific enough, in my opinion, to make certain he is in the clear on this. He holds that one may lose covenant status, and apparently new covenant status. Can we have Christ as our Priest Who atoned for us; and can we have the new covenant mediation of Christ interceding for us, and can we have the Spirit writing God’s law on our hearts, and then can we still lose all this? Any Calvinism that says so is simply Arminian.  Lane also speaks of the “invalidation of a sacrifice for sin” (p.488). This raises questions that desire resolution.  It is one thing to say Christ secures certain things for us, but we must be clear whether these benefits are secured to us. What is merely available does not save. Salvation delivered is also our hope. It is not just blood shed on the cross, but blood sprinkled on us. In the new covenant (Hebrews 10:15-18), there is no doubt whether the salvation is applied. Lane says, “The session at the right hand is the guarantee of the absoluteness of Christ’s exaltation and the utter security of those who have placed their hope in him…” (p.415).  This is very sound. There are many more to match it.[1]   The problem comes when things are stated in terms of covenant.   


Hebrews does not teach a doctrine that Moses as mediator failed to have all his people enter the promised land and that Christ also, even as the Guarantor of the new covenant, may fail to have all those He saves “completely” enter into God’s rest. Lane translates 7:25, “He is able to save absolutely those who approach God through him” (p.174).  He says further that Jesus’ saving includes being “utterly certain” (p. 176). My question for him would be, if Christ really saves with utter certainty, is our covenantal faithfulness is a factor for entrance into the heavenly Jerusalem?


Lane is in safe territory to present Esau’s loss as a covenantal loss.  The promises to Abraham were also to Esau, but Esau gave up his inheritance. My major objection is this: In terms of the new covenant – where all sins are forgiven and the heart is made by the Spirit to be obedient – how can those in this covenant in Christ, represented by Him in His death for sin and represented by in His covenantal obedience  – how can such a soul be lost?  Is Christ’s saving work invalidated by man so that the gift of eternal life depends on a combination of Christ’s objective work and also on our faithfulness? 


That current issue on the nature of faith is whether justifying faith has become faithfulness. We are justified by a simple faith that receives, not by our covenantal faithfulness.





Note the progression of Dr. Lane’s thought on pp. 490,491, especially paragraph 3.  I have arbitrarily assigned numbers to the paragraphs:


¶ 1                  The new covenant encounter with God signifies access to God in the presence of those who gather for the festive acclamation of his “worthship.”  Christians come to God, the Judge who is the God of all, the one from whom Israel felt estranged at Sinai and fled. They meet him in joyful assembly, together with angels, the faithful men and women of God under both covenants, and Jesus himself. It is the writer’s firm conviction that the high priestly work of Jesus in his death and heavenly exaltation has secured for Christians in the present time a living relationship with God, which fulfills the promises of the new covenant.  Expressed in terms of the vision of vv 22-24, the Christian’s experience with God now is the pledge of his ultimate transfer to the actual presence of God in the heavenly city.


¶ 2                  The final two images in the writer’s vision (v 24), which focus on Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, and the efficacy of his sacrificial death, serve to situate the entire vision of the heavenly city in a salvation-historical and covenantal perspective.  The eschatological encounter with God is mediated through the encounter with Jesus and with the message of salvation that he proclaimed (2:3-4). The emphasis in v 24 falls on the activating of the final covenant through the death and exaltation of Jesus.  It demonstrates that Jesus’ death, which secured for the community the objective blessings of the new covenant, is to be interpreted as covenant sacrifice.    


¶ 3                  This pervasive emphasis upon the covenant is not incidental to the writer’s pastoral strategy. Covenant privilege calls for allegiance and obedience. The clear implication of the central paragraph in this section [12:14-29] is that entrance into the city of God is conditioned ultimately on the acknowledgment of covenantal obligation.  Loyalty and compliance with covenantal stipulations are grateful responses to the objective blessings secured by Jesus. The privileged status of the Christian community as the people of the new covenant has as its consequence the greater obligation to the voice of the covenant-God.


¶ 4                  The sharpness of the warning addressed to the community in 12:25-29 is thus fully justified in the light of the promised blessings by which Christians are to regulate their lives.  Those promises, reviewed in vv 22-24, are fully warranted by the new covenant.  However, life under the new covenant is conditioned not only by promise in the sense of future blessings but by promise in the sense of future scrutiny.  That aspect of the present and future is explored in terms of the promise in Hag 2:6 LXX [This is an error; he means Habakkuk 2:6] that a divine “shaking” will profoundly affect the new covenant community. Those who carelessly ignore the revelation of the eschatological salvation of God through his Son and who show contempt for the blessings of the new covenant cannot possibly escape detection. A discriminating judgment will remove from the community those who through apostasy have denied their character as men and women consecrated to the service of God.


¶ 5                  In the final paragraph of the section [i.e., 12:14-29] the developed contrast between the old and the new covenants, which is elaborated in the distinction between warning on earth and warning from heaven, is transformed into the opposition of shaking and unshakable, the removed and that which remains (vv 26-27).  This subtle change is significant. It serves to shift the emphasis in the section from the essential difference between the old and new covenants to the crucial distinction between those who are faithful and those who are not within the new covenantal community.  The repeated exhortations to faithfulness and warnings against apostasy that have appeared throughout the homily find their culmination in vv 25-29, which express a final, urgent warning based on the proximate nearness of a definitive judgment. 


¶ 6                  Christians under the new covenant are to enter into an experience of maturity in which all of life becomes an expression of worship…



My response to Dr. Lane’s explanation of Hebrews 12:22-29 


Re ¶ 1      I can only wonder in what sense Lane uses the label Christians. I note that 12:23 speaks of the spirits of righteous men and Lane has spoken of them as faithful.  I have yet to find any indication that he believes we have the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. Further, what did Christ secure for us, a definite admission into the Presence of God from which we cannot be expelled with Christ as our Priest, or a living relationship? He has indicated that we can lose covenant status, presumably he means the loss of new covenant status, and that means the new covenant is not really a relationship of absolute safety, even though Jesus is its Guarantor and Mediator.  Having a living relationship with God (which is rather vague) does not adequately describe new covenant promises. The promise that God will “remember their sins no more,” gives a secure status that cannot be invalidated. The new covenant is not that our sins are forgiven for now but that later in the Judgment Day our destiny will be reopened when God scrutinizes our faithfulness.  That would make confidence, one of the great themes of Hebrews, impossible.


Re ¶ 2      It is proper that Dr. Lane should affirm that this vision is in covenantal perspective.  V.24 makes that clear. I wonder what the covenantal perspective is. Many assume covenants are all alike with promises from God and covenantal stipulations on us. These stipulations of covenantal allegiance and obedience are conditions of God’s promised blessing. If nothing is added, this slant with a crucial omission, greatly distorts the covenantal perspective for salvation.  We must always keep in view the covenantal obedience of Christ Who has been made “a covenant for the people” (Isaiah 42:6; 49:8). Here many are lost in confusion. The pathetic error is that Christ’s meeting covenant stipulations for us, is omitted from the formula except for forgiveness of sins!  I ask my reader to follow this sequence carefully:


  1. God always requires obedience.
  2. Obedience is a requirement for covenantal blessing, no exceptions.
  3. The obedience in our lives can never satisfy God and obtain the ultimate blessing of eternal life.
  4. That is, we do not relate to God in a covenantal way identical to the demands on Adam.  Our sin, and only one sin will do it, means we are already covenant breakers.   
  5. Yet all hope for a functioning covenant with God that gains His blessing requires perfect obedience. The standard of absolute obedience is unyielding.
  6. The needed obedience is supplied to us graciously by God as a gift.
  7. This obedience is the perfect righteousness of the entire lifetime of Jesus living as a man under the law.
  8. He obeyed for us in human flesh as our substitute.
  9. He has met all covenant obligation upon us for our salvation.
  10. As obedient children we must obey.  God never permits us to sin.
  11. If we do not obey it reveals that we have not received the justification that comes in Jesus’ obedience.
  12. The obedience in us will be rewarded (graciously) but it is imperfect and could never gain justification for us.  We are not to be passive about obedience.
  13. Our covenant obligation in the new covenant is different from Christ’s.  It is simple faith to receive the gift and righteousness of God in Christ.
  14. Our further new covenant obligation to God is obedience. This He works in us, requires of us.  Our righteousness does nothing to gain the status of righteous for us.
  15. Our obedience is an active response of gratitude to and worship of the Lord.  This covers all our service and all of our good works.  It never merits eternal life.
  16. Our only hope of covenant acceptance and eternal life lies entirely and exclusively in the mediatorial work of Christ Who has represented us in both His life and his death.
  17. Having simple faith in Christ secures (since God has so promised) all the blessings of the covenant.
  18. Entrance into the city of God is conditioned on the covenantal obedience and vicarious representation of Christ, and received by a receptive faith. 


Re ¶ 3  Note what Lane has said,   “Covenant privilege calls for allegiance and obedience. The clear implication of the central paragraph in this section is that entrance into the city of God is conditioned ultimately on the acknowledgment of covenantal obligation.”   Unfortunately Lane has unmistakable reference to our covenantal obligation.  If he had said we will enter heaven by means of our good works, then many would see the error quickly. Instead he said the same kind of thing in the language of covenant. For many that makes the error plausible.  Lane makes no reference here, or elsewhere that I have read in his writing, of the vicarious righteousness of Christ securing our entrance into the city of God. Much that he said earlier in Hebrews about free access by Jesus’ sacrificial death (p.284) is undermined by the necessity of our meeting covenantal obligation. Apparently, Jesus by His human faithfulness did not fully meet the every condition for us. Something more is left for us to do. In the view of covenantal moralists, our covenant Mediator does not quite get the job done.


Re ¶ 4 The future judgment will reveal but not decide, who has been blessed by the Father previous to the judgment. The good works show that the Father has already owned us (Matthew 25:34) and produced them in us. If the new covenant is conditioned on some future scrutiny, a scrutiny that in Lane’s view can only be a scrutiny of our faithfulness, then justification is not a settled decree; it awaits a future review. This is more than a deflection from the work of Christ; it simply destabilize the effectiveness of Christ bringing all His sons to glory. Jesus does not bring us part way. Christ has already made perfect those who believe. The One who brings to glory also makes men holy (2:10;11).  The making perfect and the making holy are not identical. One (justification) is a complete saving act that occurs at the moment of faith in Christ, and the other (sanctification) is a variable work that commences with our union with Christ. The notion that one can be made perfect by Christ but enters heaven by meeting his covenant obligation, makes Christ a partial Savior!


If entrance into the city depends on us, we can forget the joyful assembly we have supposedly come to in 12:22-24, for it is a mirage of things hoped for but still in doubt.  The appropriate feeling, if entrance is based on our “loyalty and compliance with covenantal stipulations,” is the abject fear and trembling of those who stood before Sinai.  Hebrews 12 is teaching the opposite of this. The answer to all uncertainty is that we do have a Great High Priest, and the one issue for us is whether we really believe in Him. For all our failure and sin, we come in confidence to our Priest, as persons already admitted into the Presence of God because of His offering. Jesus’ sacrifice has been accepted for us, and nothing more is needed. The gospel in Hebrews is my answer to Dr. Lane’s otherwise wonderful commentary. I am sad to say that as far as I can tell, it has in it the bitter root of a false doctrine. This error is promoted lately in the name of covenant and covenantal obligation. 


On p. 471, Lane retains no room that made perfect might refer to a verdict of righteous. He limits this benefit of being perfect to: sin being purged by the death of Christ, and thereby consecrating the believer.  In this way he takes what is rightly the dominant emphasis on perfection in Hebrews to exclude the verdict of righteous. It is an odd verdict if it is one of sin removed while an intolerable absence remains – the absence of acceptable righteousness. (See above: Is Justification Limited to Forgiveness?)  Since God requires absolute faithfulness of us, and Adam lost all for all in one sin, the sinner needs to know where he will find the righteousness he needs. How being made perfect can leave this out is a major vacuum Lane did not fill.  


On p. 340, with reference to 11:7 that speaks of Noah becoming heir of the righteousness that comes by faith, Lane says,  The Biblical description of Noah as a righteous person is thus subsumed under the aspect of faith. Noah responded to God with a full measure of faith, and this accounts for the attestation of Scripture that he was righteous.”  In short, Noah’s righteousness was his faithfulness. The righteousness received by faith and the righteounsess of Noah’s later life after the flood are not the same. By faith Noah received righteounsess as an inheritance from God because of Christ. Hebrews 11:7 does not teach that the inherited righteousness bestowed is identical to the righteousness produced in his conduct. It is nonsense to say that Noah inherited his own righteousness. In this same context, Lane speaks of “the righteousness God bestows upon persons of faith” (p.341). Those good words remain undeveloped in his commentary and thus they are vague. It would be good to hear him expand on this, but I do not see how they can be reconciled with all the ways he has excluded the imputation of righteousness in his commentary. 


Re ¶ 5  The unshakable is the accomplishment of Christ.  The danger now is changing the question from what is truly unshakable in 12:22-24, to whether our faithfulness is unshakable.  What remains and what is unshakable is what Christ has done to bring us to Mount Zion.  What is unshakable provides reason for us to hold firmly to the faith we confess (4:14). To make in this part of Hebrews 12 say that the crucial distinction to be those who are faithful and those who are not, is to move everyone to shaky ground. It is crucial whether we believe, and faith will be shown in faithfulness, but making our place in Mount Zion to be the result of us meeting covenant stipulations of allegiance and faithfulness, moves our hope away from the objective work of Christ to the health of our faithfulness. Hebrews does not do that to us. Our hope, even in weakness and with numerous sins, is always in Christ. Our hope is never in the consistency of our response, but in Christ, the object of our faith. Those who refuse Him Who speaks from heaven are those whose hearts have been turned from Christ, and those are not ones who believe (10:39). That is the danger and that is the warning.  We must not have faith in Christ confused with faith in our faithfulness, even though Lane does not state his point so crassly.    


I reject Lane’s suggestion in ¶ 5 that the warning from heaven is a warning that rises from the new covenant.  The threat of bloodshed for sin in the new covenant was a threat directed only to Christ and not us in the very moment the new covenant was inaugurated. It is a terrible distortion to think that THIS covenant, which only blesses, is like others that pronounce a curse. Such a view of the new covenant misses that Christ is the surety of the new covenant. Hebrews 12 is showing how unlike each other the two covenants are!  When the Lord’s Supper was instituted, Jesus held that the new covenant members had sin worthy of death, but His role as mediator of a different kind of covenant was to take that all on Himself. The cup is His bloodshed for our sins, not ours. God does not threaten His children with hell. He does threaten all who reject the new covenant, but that is a threat extended to those who have no status in Christ as members of it. He warns those who reject the new covenant, not those who come without fear to Mount Zion because of Christ.  


So, I must sadly report that I find Dr. William Lane, who was a notable New Testament scholar and even a graduate of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, to be deficient in his view of covenant. This deficiency is not widespread in his commentary, and his reflection on the work of Christ is excellent, but if he thinks entrance into heaven is conditioned on our faithfulness, then this is a serious inconsistency in his teaching.

[1] Another is: Re the motif of “the unique self-offering of the high priest Jesus as the ground of Christian certainty: Jesus is our eternal high priest who has opened for us the true presence of God (cf. 10:19-21). His presence behind the curtain is the firm pledge that we also shall pass through the curtain and enter within the inner sanctuary” (p.154).