"Watch out, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God!" Hebrews 3:12
In the context, the apostle had brought before his readers the solemn case of the most privileged of all the generations of Israel—namely, the one which had by Jehovah's mighty hand been delivered from the cruel bondage of Egypt—and yet which failed to enter the land of Canaan! That generation perished in the wilderness, because of their unbelief. They were the fathers of those to whom he was here writing, their "type" (1 Corinthians 10:2), and they are held up as a warning example unto us—for "the best of saints—need to be warned against the worst of evils" (John Owen).
"Watch out!" says the apostle—be on your guard, walk circumspectly with regard to danger. There is a great need for Christians to be constantly watchful, for they are menaced on the right hand and on the left, both from without and from within; and a careless profession is certain to end in making shipwreck of the faith.
The Christian life is not likened to lying down upon "flowery beds of ease," but to a warfare; and if our armor is not worn, and we are not vigilant in guarding against our enemies, we shall assuredly fall prey to them. Blind confidence and reckless presumption in a course of profession are a ruinous principle, and inevitably leads to disaster.
It is "with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12) that God bids us to work out our own salvation. While we are left here below, we are in the Adversary's territory, for "the whole world lies in wickedness" (1 John 5:19). Moreover, sin indwells us, and our corruptions are ever seeking to dominate us. God has faithfully warned us in His Word against our perils, and it is the part of wisdom to lay those warnings to heart. Only the presumptuous fool will disregard them, only the silly trifler will raise quibbles and make objections against them. If God has issued cautions, it is because we stand in real need of such.
The particular peril which our text warns against is "lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God" (Hebrews 3:12). We take it that all of our readers will allow that unbelief still remains in the Christian—but it is probable that some of them will be ready to exclaim, Surely it is not possible for a real Christian to so yield thereto that he could justly be described as one having "an evil heart of unbelief"! Others are likely to at least raise the question and ask, Is it possible for one truly born again to so give way to his native unbelief in departing from the living God, that he can only be characterized as a person with "an evil heart of unbelief"? Really, it seems to us almost like asking, Is it possible? Or to go further, is it likely, that a rational and well-balanced person will commit suicide? Deliberately and by premeditation, No; but by carelessness and recklessness, Yes. Many a person reputed to be sane and sensible has neglected a bad cold and died from pneumonia!
One does not have to totally abandon his profession in order to make shipwreck of the Faith—he will do so just as surely if he heedlessly disregards the warnings God has given and pursues a course of blind indifference to the consequences. Perhaps the reader replies, But one who acted thus would make it manifest he was only a dead professor. To which we answer: There are degrees of carelessness and recklessness, and who is competent to draw the line and say when fatal presumption has been reached? It may be said, We are not required to "draw that line," or define what degree of recklessness would prove fatal; sufficient for us to know that God will preserve His own people from reaching that stage. Granting that—yet it must also be insisted upon that God preserves His people—not in a mechanical way—but in a moral way—by enforcing their responsibility, by giving to them, "the spirit…of a sound mind" (2 Timothy 1:7) and causing them to use the same.
The fact is that the eternal security of the saint has so often been presented in such a lopsided way, that the accountability of the Christian has been implicitly—if not explicitly—repudiated. It is true, blessedly true, that God "will keep the feet of his saints" (1 Samuel 2:9). But how? Not by preserving them on prohibited territory—but by keeping them in the paths of righteousness; and when they wander therefrom, by restoring them thereto. It is true, blessedly true, that God delivers His people from following a course of recklessness.
But how? Not by assuring them that all will be well in the end, no matter how negligently they conduct themselves—but by causing them to take heed to the warnings which He has given them, by moving them to avoid the perils that menace them. A small leak will not immediately sink a ship, hut it will eventually —if it be not stopped! The presence of unbelief in the Christian will not at once destroy him—but it would if he offered no resistance thereto and continuously yielded to its inclinations.
"An evil heart of unbelief" (Hebrews 3:12) is a heart in which unbelief entirely predominates, a heart which is not only under the prevailing power of unbelief—but against which no contrary principle makes opposition. Such is the heart of every unregenerate person, such was the Christian's heart before he was born again; and it is against such a deterioration of his heart that he is here warned. It is this evil heart of unbelief which makes the unregenerate close their eyes and ears against the Truth. "And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil" (John 3:19). The love of sin is the immediate cause of their unbelief. When they discover that the design of the Gospel is to part them from their sins, they will have no more to do with it. But there is also a rejection of the Truth of the Gospel after it has been received and professed. In many cases, those who come under the general operations of the Spirit are temporarily impressed—in some cases, deeply so—of the truth of the Gospel, are convicted and brought to acknowledge the same; yet since no supernatural principle or new nature was communicated to them, there is no lasting fruit.
Like the promising blossoms and buds on the trees in the spring, which are blown off by unfriendly winds or nipped by the frost, the beneficial effects produced by an illumined understanding and an aroused conscience, sooner or later, wear off. The temptations of the world and the corruptions of their hearts either stifle their convictions, or cause them to deliberately cast them out, and the sequel is that they either avowedly or practically repudiate the Faith they have owned. They may not go so far as to openly disclaim and renounce Christianity—but they cease to maintain practical godliness. Such are those described in Titus 1:16, "They profess that they know God; but in works they deny Him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate." The power of sin in their affections and over their wills, is more influential than the light of their understandings. They are regulated neither by the rewards promised in the Gospel to obedience, nor the evils which it threatens against disobedience; but are swept downward by their own lusts. And that is the condition of great multitudes in Christendom today—they are controlled by "an evil heart of unbelief" (Hebrews 3:12).
Not only is there the principle of unbelief in the saint—but he is also in more or less close contact with men and women, who, though they bear the name of Christians, are nevertheless completely dominated by this evil principle—the Divine gift of faith never having been communicated to them. It is those two solemn facts which make the exhortation of our text so pertinent to us. Unless the Christian earnestly seeks grace to steadfastly resist the workings of unbelief within him, and to mortify the root from which they proceed—then that antagonistic element will become uppermost and gain full control over him. And unless he is much on his guard against the pernicious influence which unregenerate church members will have upon his spiritual life, and has as little to do with them as possible—then he will soon be corrupted by them and conform to their ways. Then "take heed brethren," first, to the workings of your own hearts, and particularly to the initial oppositions made against the exercise of faith.
Second, "take heed" to those you allow yourself to become familiar with—if they do not help you toward a closer walking with God—they will inevitably draw you back unto a "departing" from Him.
"Watch out, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God" (Hebrews 3:12). In view of what was pointed out above, it is of great importance that the reader should have a right and clear conception of what unbelief really consists. It is a far greater evil than many are aware. Unbelief is not a mere negation and passive thing as the prefix of the word might suggest. Unbelief is much more than a lack of believing or failure to assent unto the Truth; more than an error of the judgment. It is not simply an infirmity of human nature—but a wicked and culpable thing! Unbelief is a virulent and wicked principle of opposition to God. So far from being passive, it is an operative and active principle. It has a rooted aversion of God: "They did not like to retain God in their knowledge" (Romans 1:28). It is that which causes the wicked to say unto God, "Depart from us; for we desire not the knowledge of your ways" (Job 21:14). It has an inveterate hatred against a life of holiness (Proverbs 1:29; 5:12, etc.).
Take the case of Adam. His unbelief was more than a negative failure to believe the Divine threatening. It was a species of self-will and self-pleasing: "By one man's disobedience many were made sinners" (Romans 5:12).
Consider Israel in the wilderness who never entered Canaan "because of unbelief" (Hebrews 3:19). In their case, it was not only that they failed to accredit the good report of Caleb and Joshua—but as Moses told them, "you would not go up—but rebelled against the commandment of the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 1:26); their unbelief was a positive thing of self-will and defiance.
Examine the condition of the Jewish nation in the days of our Lord. They "received him not "(John 1:11). But that was only the negative side of their unbelief—they "will not come to" Him (John 5:40), because they "hated" Him (John 15:25). His holy demands suited not their carnal desires, and therefore, they declared, "We will not have this man to reign over us!" (Luke 19:14). Unbelief with them, too, consisted of a determination to please their own selves at all costs.
Now, this unbelief operates in various ways and takes different forms in people, according to their several temperaments, training or temptations. But in one and all, unbelief consists of, and acts itself by a dislike against the things of God. We have but to read through the first four books of the New Testament to discover what a common thing this was in those who attended on the ministry of Christ. Some found fault with this or that in His doctrinal preaching, others found His practical teaching distasteful. When He read to them from the opening verses of Isaiah 61 and declared, "This day is this Scripture fulfilled in your ears" (Luke 4:21), they "bore him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth" (Luke 4:22)—but as soon as He pressed on them the sovereign and discriminating grace of God—they sought to kill Him! (Luke 4:28, 29). The young ruler had such respect for Christ that he came to be instructed by Him—but when faced by His searching requirements, "he went away sorrowful" (Matthew 19:22).
This unbelief expresses itself in a dislike against the purity and simplicity of Gospel worship. Noticeably was that evidenced by the Jews of the apostles' time. They greatly admired the pompous worship of the temple, and would not be drawn off from the same, to the plainness of evangelical institutions. It was the principal objection of Pagans, that the early Christians worshiped God without temples or altars, a ritualistic priesthood or elaborate ceremonies, and therefore, they regarded them as atheists. It was this dislike of the purity and simplicity of Gospel worship which gave rise to and fostered the progress of the Papish apostasy—for fallen human nature preferred the glitter and tinsel of what appeals to their senses. "Watch out, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God" (Hebrews 3:12) through a dislike of that worship which must be "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:23, 24), rather than in outward forms and fleshly display.
This unbelief expresses itself in dislike against the doctrines and mysteries of the Gospel. When Paul preached Christ crucified, it was "unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness" (1 Corinthians 1:23). Some ridicule the imputed righteousness of Christ, and other mock at the imperative necessity of following the example which He has left us. Others rave against the doctrine of God's absolute sovereignty and His predestinating grace, whereby He chose certain ones in Christ unto salvation—and passed by all others.
Others refuse subjection to God's moral Law as the believer's Rule of life, and thereby display their enmity against Him (Romans 8:7). Some scoff at there being three distinct Persons in the unity of the Godhead, while others reject the truth of eternal punishment because it does not square with their idea of the Divine character. We know of a denomination, which long boasted of being "sounder" than any other, now rent asunder by some of its preachers rejecting the future resurrection of our bodies. Brethren, beware of refusing anything in Scripture because you find it contrary to your reason, or humbling to your pride.
This unbelief expresses itself in a dislike against the precepts of the Gospel. The flesh does not like to be placed under restraint—and rebels against the strictness of Christ's demands. The great work and duty of faith is to influence the soul unto universal obedience and an abstinence from all sin, out of a regard for the precepts, promises, and threatenings of the Gospel. But where faith languishes and its efficacy begins to decay—the power of unbelief sets the soul on self-pleasing. The Gospel requires us to mortify our corruptions and lusts, and while the soul is in communion with God, it desires and resolves to do so; but when communion is severed, indwelling sin endeavors to drag the soul down again into the mire. "Watch out, brethren, lest there be in any of you, an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God" (Hebrews 3:12) by failing to deny self, take up your cross daily, and follow Christ. Refuse to gratify your lusts—by opposing their first risings.
Not only is the principle of unbelief still in the Christian—but it is operative, and ever seeking to bring him under its complete dominance. All of God's children are to some degree influenced by "unbelief," and are in danger of yielding more and more unto its potency. It is for that reason God here calls upon them to take heed of this menace. To be fore-warned is to be fore-armed—if we duly attend to the warning.
The warning, as we have said, is pointed by the solemn example of that generation of Israel who were delivered from Egypt and yet never entered Canaan. We, too, are still in the Wilderness—and the wilderness is the place of temptation, of testing, of danger! This warning is also pointed by the case of those described in 2 Peter 2:20-22, who "escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," but who afterwards turned from "the holy commandment delivered unto them," and like the dog, "turned to his own vomit again." Brethren, beware! Take heed to yourself! "Keep your heart with all diligence" (Proverbs 4:23). Cry mightily unto the Lord, "I believe; help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24).
A final word on the execution of this duty: "Watch out" is a word of caution, calling for circumspection, being alert and watching against the danger warned against. It is a call to be especially on our guard against temptations, opposition, and the difficulties of the way. We are so to "heed" as to avoid being ensnared by this peril. Our distinctive avocation, our personal circumstances, certain times or seasons each has a tendency to occasion unbelief in some particular direction; and since it is there and then, we are most likely to fail, it is at that point, we need to exercise the greatest caution and care. We are not only to consider those special occasions and causes when they are about to assault us—but to watch against all the means and ways by which they are likely to do so. And we are to consider these dangers so as to definitely oppose them—by being wide awake, by seeking delivering grace, by exercising our graces. The more faith is in exercise, the less power has unbelief over us; the closer we cleave to the path of obedience, the further removed are we from the baits and traps of the Destroyer!