By Michael Dewey, Head of School
"That there is so often a wide gap between a knowledge of doctrine and the outworking of it reflects badly on us who ought to be living epistles, “known and read of men.”
-L. Nelson Bell
L. Nelson Bell served as a medical missionary to China from 1916 to 1941. It’s safe to say that his actions matched his beliefs. Not only did he believe that the Gospel needed to be taken to the ends of the earth, as stated by Christ in Acts 1:8, he actually stepped out in faith and took it there himself. It was this example of faith in action that left an indelible mark on his daughter Ruth Bell Graham. Bell was certainly not a man without personal faults, but his words above indicate that every one of us struggles with failing to live in accordance with what we profess to believe.
As discussed in our previous post, educators and parents alike need to work together in helping children close the gap between what they believe and how they live their lives, particularly when it comes to the promises of God. Most of us have no problem echoing a hearty amen every time we hear someone talk about how God keeps his promises. Unfortunately, to Bell’s point, our actions often tell a different story. It is one thing to believe and profess that God’s promises are always true, but quite another to allow that belief to affect how we make decisions and live our lives. How do we move our students beyond the mere intellectual assent that God is faithful, to having the kind of life that demonstrates absolute confidence in God’s promises?
In part one we focused on how the author of Hebrews used the example of Abraham to provide encouragement and motivation for trusting in God’s promises. Picking up where we left off in Chapter 6, our author now lays out a much more powerful line of reasoning: complete confidence in God’s promises only comes when we see them as grounded in his unchanging nature. In verse 17 we are told, “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, …” In plain English, this verse clearly states that God wants to offer more compelling proof of his promise-keeping ability. When looked at in the original Greek, the phrase “desired to show more convincingly” expresses definitive resolve. In other words, God is laser focused on making this point. He has set his focus on convincing his people, beyond all doubt, that he always keeps his word. What’s more, the tense implies that God’s resolve is directed toward the future. Not only is he directing his point to Abraham and the ancient Israelites, he is speaking to all the heirs of the promise, us included. God emphatically wants us to know, with complete confidence and absolute certainty, that his promises can’t be violated.
In ancient times, if you were going to swear an oath, you needed two witnesses. Certainly God is not held to that legal requirement, his word alone is enough. But the fact that God swears an oath by himself indicates that he is bound by his eternal nature. Or put another way, God’s nature is what guarantees his promises. If it’s impossible for God to change his nature, then it’s impossible for him to change his promises; they are absolute and irrevocable. Once he gives a promise, it cannot be taken back or removed. Psalm 110: 4 says very clearly, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind…”
In verse 17 and again in verse 18, we see the word unchangeable used. These are the only two places in the entire New Testament where this word is used, and some Bible versions translate it as immutable. It’s from this word that theologians develop the doctrine of the immutability of God, which is all too often misunderstood by Christians. Immutable does not mean God is muted or silent. It simply means that he never changes. While God’s love and goodness tend to get the most attention in Christian worship songs, it is his immutability that makes these attributes so amazing. The reason why God’s love and goodness are so awe-inspiring is because his immutability guarantees they will never change or diminish.
The root word for unchangeable is sometimes translated as “turncoat” in Greek literature outside the Bible. So when the Bible says that God is immutable, it is saying that God is not a turncoat. He is not at some future date going to change his mind about the promises he has made to his people. To illustrate, let’s explore how most Christians respond to sin.
It’s not uncommon for Christians to feel a great deal of condemnation and guilt whenever they sin, especially when it’s one they have been struggling with over and over again. It’s during these moments that they begin to question the promises of God. “How can God still love me?” “How do I know that at some point in the future God’s not going to take back the eternal life he has promised and decide to cut me loose?” The problem with these kinds of doubts is that they are based upon misconceptions about the nature of God.
Because of God’s immutability, these are things we should never worry about as Christians. While it’s right to feel conviction and sorrow whenever we sin, we should never feel condemnation. Instead of being driven away from God because we doubt his ability to forgive our sin, we should stand upon the promises of scripture (most notably Romans 8:1 and 1 John 1:9) and thank God for the forgiveness we are guaranteed in Christ. God is not a turncoat. He will not change his mind. He will never stop loving us. As our author emphatically reminds us in Hebrews 13, verse 5, “he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’”
Let’s look more closely at Hebrews 6, verse 18.
18 so that by two unchangeable things (his promise, and his oath), in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.
The phrase “might have strong encouragement” is written in a tense communicating that it is a state we are to perpetually experience – we are to keep on having strong encouragement. Added to this is the subject clause “we who have fled for refuge.” At the time Hebrews was written, the word for refuge most commonly referred to armies and fortresses that were positioned to stand against adversaries. Knowing that God is immutable is like constructing a mental fortress around our thoughts, so that when those doubts rise, when the world tells us that we shouldn’t be trusting God and his word, when our circumstances scream hopelessness, we can immediately shut them down.
St. Anselm is considered by many one of the greatest Christian philosophers and apologists of all time. He was born in 1033 in northern Italy and spent the last few years of his life as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Even though he wrote widely on a variety of topics, he is best known for developing the ontological argument for the existence of God. While you may not be familiar with this argument, you have likely heard its most famous line: God is that, than which nothing greater can possibly be conceived.
To this day, philosophers debate and write about the ontological argument, with most agreeing that it fails in actually proving God’s existence. However, as a tool or theological device for better understanding God, it is amazing. So while Anselm’s proof of God’s existence came up short, he provided one of the best definitions of who God is.
You can see this definition reflected in Hebrews 6. While Anselm says that God “is that, than which nothing greater can possibly be conceived,” the author of Hebrews is a bit more succinct: “there is no one greater than God” (6:13). It’s not hard to see that they are essentially saying the same thing – there is no person or thing greater than God; He is a maximally perfect being. It’s impossible to think of anything greater than God. Having that as our conception of who God is should change how we read this passage.
Think of someone who does a pretty good job of keeping promises, someone who is a man or woman of their word, with an exceptional reputation or track record for following through. God is not simply better at keeping promises than that person, he is maximally better. He is not simply better than average. He is the best. Not only does he have a perfect track record when it comes to keeping his promises, he will continue to be perfect. Because God has a maximally perfect nature (that he has sworn by), dishonesty, fickleness, changing his mind, or going back on his word are absolute impossibilities. Thinking of God in these terms, how is it that we ever doubt a single promise of God? God can no more break a promise than he can go against his nature.
Let’s close by looking at the culmination of this passage, verses 19 and 20.
19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.
The anchor is perhaps one of the most enduring and beautiful images in Christian history. Unfortunately, we are often mistaken about what the anchor in this passage represents. Is Christ our anchor?
For those familiar with boating, an anchor’s sole purpose is to help a boat remain fixed. It’s an iron hook designed to grapple rocks on the floor of the sea and prevent a boat from drifting, and ultimately crashing. Waves come, storms howl, but an anchored boat remains steadfast. So when it comes to our faith, what exactly is our anchor? What keeps us from drifting or crashing? It should be no surprise that for our author, the anchor of our soul turns out to be a promise.
I love how clear the ESV is in verse 19: “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor.” The word this refers back to the previous verse which talks about the hope set before us. That hope in verse 18 is that we will follow where Christ has already gone. In other words, the hope that we are to hold fast to is the promise of eternal life. And because we have just been told that all of God’s promises are certain, it is a sure and steadfast hope, acting as an anchor to the soul.
To underscore this point, our author refers to Christ as our forerunner (the only time in all of scripture that this word is used). Forerunners go first; they lead the way. In fact, the very word presupposes that others will follow. When Christ died on the cross paying for our sins, his work of salvation was complete, and he ascended to sit at the right hand of God. By doing so, Jesus became our forerunner. His entrance guarantees that everyone who puts their trust in him will follow. Our eternal reward in Heaven is a sure promise. It is secure not simply because of Christ’s work on the cross, but because he has entered beyond the curtain and has anchored it to the very throne of God.
This metaphor of the anchor is nowhere else used in the New Testament, and yet, the symbol of the anchor went on to become widely used by early Christians. Modern archaeologists have found the image of the anchor no less than 66 times carved or drawn onto the walls of the catacombs under Rome. History tells us that when persecution reached its apex in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, believers would go underground into the catacombs to hold worship services. The prevalence of the image of the anchor in the Roman community proves the impact this passage had upon the early church’s thinking. They got the message. When they were facing their darkest days (literally being forced underground), they clung to the hope of their salvation and carved the image of the anchor into the stone walls that surrounded them. I believe this was their way of proclaiming that they would not lose confidence in the promises of God.
Just as the author of Hebrews was motivated to encourage and strengthen believers beginning to have doubts, we too must do everything we can to help our children stand firmly on the promises of God as they face a culture growing increasingly hostile to people of faith. If we follow the pattern developed here in Hebrews 6, pointing to biblical examples of God’s faithfulness and grounding his promise-keeping ability in his immutable nature, I am convinced it will have the same impact on our students that it had on these early believers. Not only did these beleaguered Christians unite in their belief that God was a perfect promise keeper, but that belief impacted how they lived their lives. God used their faithful witness to eventually transform the pagan-centered Roman Empire in one that enabled the Church to proclaim the Gospel to the entire world.