Doctrine and Practice
*Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will —Hebrews 2:1–4
Did you notice the “Therefore” that begins this text? What the author of Hebrews is getting at is the perfect marriage between doctrine and practice. If we believe the things that he has declared in the first chapter, that has radical implications for how we live our lives. He’s beginning to show that now when he says, “Therefore we must pay much closer attention.” There’s a little grammatical problem in the words of that particular translation. The tension of these words is because it’s not certain grammatically whether the author is using a comparative or a superlative. And so I would prefer that he would simply say that we therefore must pay the most possible attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.
Think of that image of drifting. Some people go fishing in boats, and they don’t set the anchor down. They allow the boat to move with the current, and they just drift. Where they end up can be somewhat problematic. The Scripture uses this kind of figurative language elsewhere when it talks about an anchor for our soul, which is the hope we have in Christ. Here he is saying, “Don't allow yourselves to drift aimlessly away from what you’ve heard.” Again, he’s speaking about this marvelous comparison that he’s given in chapter 1 about the superiority of Jesus over the angels and over all created things. You’ve heard that. Don’t drift away from it; instead pay the closest possible attention to it. Verse 2 says, “For since the message declared by angels . . .” The author is referring back again to the Old Testament and the idea hinted at in Deuteronomy 33 of the law being mediated by the angels. When Moses received the law from God, there were myriads and myriads of angels present on that occasion.
So he says, “For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution . . .” Again, the comparison continues. If the law that came from the angels was ignored by the people in the Old Testament and received a just retribution, a punishment, how much more responsible are we to that which has come to us directly from Christ? Now, beloved, the central theme of this chapter, or at least this portion of the chapter, is the theme of escape. When you think of escape, you think of some kind of deliverance from a dire and threatening life situation, like escaping from a kidnapper. Or you think of soldiers who are surrounded in battle and finding a way to retreat safely. That’s an escape. But the most common idea with which we associate escape is imprisonment, not just from any jail, but from those prisons that are the most notoriously inescapable, such as the former condition of Alcatraz in this country, or Devil’s Island, or perhaps the most dreadful of all French prisons, the Château d’If.
A Great Escape
You remember the story; it’s my second-favorite novel. Edmond Dantes is falsely accused and unjustly convicted of a crime. He is sent forth to the most dreaded prison, Château d’If. There he suffered for years in solitary confinement, until one day he met a co-prisoner, an aged priest who had been there for decades and had spent much time trying to dig a tunnel to escape. But he didn’t do his math correctly and ended up burrowing into Dantes’s chamber. So the two met and had fellowship together. The old priest became Dantes’s mentor and counselor, teacher of science and philosophy and theology. The priest also told Dantes about a map that led to a vast treasure, hidden under the waters in the sea. The old priest died in prison. Through an extraordinary series of circumstances, the death of the priest led to the possible escape of Edmond Dantes from Château d’If. Dantes found the vast treasure that financed the rest of his life and his nom de plume became the Count of Monte Cristo.
What an escape story that one is. But as dire and as dreadful as the circumstances were in the Château d’If, there’s even a greater and more dreadful kind of captivity. The author of Hebrews speaks of an escape from this captivity when he asks the question, “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” Beloved, this is a rhetorical question. The answer to the question is simple. How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? The answer is, we can’t. Alcatraz could possibly be escaped from, or Devil’s Island, or even the Château d’If. But the one prison from which no one ever escapes is hell. There’s no escape route. You can’t dig under it. You can’t climb over it. No guard can be bribed. The sentence cannot be ameliorated. So the author of Hebrews is saying, “Do you realize what we have heard from the Word of God Himself about a great salvation?” We use that word salvation all the time in the church. What does it mean?
When somebody says to me, “Are you saved?” the first question I want to say is, “Saved from what?” The idea of salvation suggests the idea of some kind of escape or deliverance from a dire circumstance. The Greek verb sodzo in the New Testament is used in a variety of ways. If you are saved from a threatening illness, as people were in the New Testament by the touch of Jesus, Jesus might comment, “Your faith has saved you.” He’s not talking about eternal salvation. He’s speaking about their rescue from a dreadful disease. In the Old Testament it was used as the people of Israel went into battle and God intervened on their behalf and saved His people. He saved them from military defeat. That was rescue from a clear and present danger. This verb “to save” is used in all kinds of ways. In virtually every tense of the Greek verb, there is a sense in which you were saved, you were being saved, you have been saved, you are saved, you are being saved, and you will be saved. Salvation takes all these different tenses of the verb.
There’s salvation in the general sense that has manifold applications. But when the Bible speaks about salvation in the ultimate sense, it’s speaking of the ultimate escape from the ultimate dire human condition. What does it mean to be saved? It means, as the Scriptures tell us, to be rescued from the wrath that is to come. God’s wrath, as we are told in Romans, is revealed to the whole world. But we’re at ease in Zion. We’re not afraid of His wrath because we’ve been told over and over again that God’s not mad, that God’s not angry. We don’t need to worry about God. God’s going to save everybody. All you need to get into heaven is to die. I wish that everybody who died went to heaven, but the Bible makes it abundantly clear that that’s not the case, and that there awaits a judgment. The greatest calamity is to be sentenced to hell. The Château d’If is a luxury resort compared to hell.
The author raises this question: How do we escape? If we neglect that salvation, beloved, there’s no escape. The question is this: to whom is the author of Hebrews speaking? He says, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” He’s not talking about the run-of-the-mill pagan who goes through life, who not only neglects the gospel of salvation but is utterly disinterested in it and may be outwardly hostile to it. We have multitudes of people who live in this country and around the world who despise the gospel; they don’t just neglect it. The author of Hebrews isn’t talking about those people. He uses the word we. That’s us. How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? Again, the answer to the rhetorical question is we can’t and we won’t.
Don’t Neglect the Gospel
Did you pay attention to the beginning of the song that the girls’ youth choir sang this morning? Let me refresh your memory about those words. Listen to what they sang: “O God, you are my God, and I long for you. My whole being desires you. Like a dry land, my soul thirsts for you. Let me see you in your sanctuary, and I will praise. And I will be satisfied as long as I live.” When you listen to these words, do they sound like words that would come from somebody who neglects the gospel? What does it mean to be neglectful? To neglect something is to overlook it, take it lightly, certainly not to devote yourself steadfastly to it. Somebody asked me a question a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about different congregations, and I was telling them how much I love the congregation of Saint Andrew’s. I said, “It’s a fantastic congregation.” And he said to me, “How many people do you think in that congregation are really Christians?” I said, “I don’t know. I can’t read the hearts of people. Only God can do that, but I know everybody that’s a member of the church has made an outward profession of faith. So 100 percent of our people have professed the faith.”
He then asked, “But how many do you think really mean it?” I responded, I don’t know—70 percent, 80 percent. I may be seriously overestimating that, or I may be underestimating. One thing I know for sure is that not everybody in the congregation is a Christian. How do you know if you are? Can you sing the words of this song? “O God, you are my God, and I long for you. My whole being desires you.” How can you be a Christian and neglect so great a salvation? Is the salvation not enough? Maybe you think it’s all right. It’s good, but really not great. Do you neglect it? I can’t answer that question. If you neglect it and treat it lightly, it probably means that you’ve never been converted, that God has never quickened or awakened your soul from spiritual death. This salvation is incredible. It deserves our diligence, our energetic pursuit of it. Certainly it does not deserve neglect.
Don’t allow yourselves to drift aimlessly away from what you’ve heard.
Perhaps the author of Hebrews had in mind what happened in the Old Testament, when the people had their greatest moment of salvation in the exodus. They were slaves. Pharaoh wouldn’t give them any straw for their bricks, and they were brutally beaten and virtually imprisoned by Pharaoh. They cried and they groaned and they prayed. God heard the groans of His people, and He sent Moses to Pharaoh to say, “Let my people go!” God’s people came out, multitudes of people fleeing from captivity. They got to Migdol, where in front of them was the sea and behind them were the chariots of Egypt. There was no escape. It seemed hopeless. Then the wind blew and dried up a pathway through the Red Sea, and Israel escaped.
But the chariots of Pharaoh did not escape. The horse and the rider were thrown into the sea. That was a great salvation. No sooner were God’s people rescued from this tyranny, and they started complaining about the manna that God provided for them. “Oh, I wish we were back in Egypt. We might have been slaves, but we had garlic to eat, and leeks and onions.” They betrayed their freedom. The author of Hebrews has in mind how the people of Israel in the Old Testament neglected and were ungrateful for their salvation. There were few who made it to the promised land. That is where we are right now. We’ve heard the Word of God. It’s a message of good news—not just good news, but great news; not just great news, but the greatest of all possible news that those who believe in Christ will be saved from the wrath which is to come. How can you possibly neglect it in the first place? But that’s not the question the author is asking when he says, “How can we possibly escape?”
His concern is how could we possibly neglect such a great salvation that “was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will” (Hebrews 2:3–4). God doesn’t ask us to believe in His gospel by taking a leap of faith into the darkness, hoping that Jesus will catch us. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and he said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). Nicodemus’s theology was sound. We don’t try to prove the existence of God by miracles. There couldn’t be miracles if you didn’t first understand that God exists. The purpose of miracles is not to prove the existence of God. The purpose of miracles is to prove and attest to the truth of those who are declaring the gospel. God certified Moses by miracles. He certified Jesus by miracles. He certified His apostles by miracles and powers and signs and wonders, and even the spiritual gifts that were given to the church, to show the great salvation that God announced to the world. This is the good news.
Jesus declared it to us, not just the angels. If you neglect what Jesus says, and you neglect what God proves, then we’re back to the theme. There is no escape. Beloved, if you come to church every Sunday, every single Sunday of your life, and go to Sunday school every week of your life, you may still be neglecting this great salvation. Is your heart in it? That’s what I’m asking you. I can’t answer that question for you. You know if you’re neglecting your salvation. I don’t have to tell it to you. I just have to tell you what the consequences are if you continue in that neglect. So I pray with all my heart that God will awaken each one of us today to the sweetness, the loveliness, the glory of the gospel declared by Christ.
Let’s pray: We thank you, O, Jesus, that you are for us the great escape. We’re thankful that because of you and what you’ve done for us, we have nothing to fear from the wrath that is to come. But we pray, O God, that you would feed our souls, cause us to hunger and to thirst after you as the deer pants after the mountain stream. Ignite a flame in our hearts that we may not neglect you but pursue you with everything we have. For we ask you in Jesus’s name. Amen.
This sermon is by R. C. Sproul and appears in R. C. Sproul: A Life by Stephen J. Nichols.
R. C. Sproul loved to laugh. He enjoyed people. He truly knew the generosity of God, and that propelled him to serve people.
In order to make this commitment to Jesus, you need to know the essentials about who he is and what he has done for you. This is the Gospel (“good news”) of Jesus Christ.
Being a Christian—a worshiper of God—entails identifying with God’s worshiping people. You’ve been adopted into his family.
A special one-hour excerpt from ‘R. C. Sproul: A Life’ by Stephen J. Nichols, focusing on the final days of Sproul’s life and the lasting legacy of his ministry.