Hebrews 12:11–17 (NASB95)
11 All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
12 Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble,
13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.
14 Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.
15 See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled;
16 that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal.
17 For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.
Many Christians take Hebrews 12:14 out of context and conclude that genuine born-again believers need to pursue practical sanctification (i.e., performing good works and omitting evil deeds) while they live on earth, to maintain their salvation. Otherwise, they will not get to see the Lord, meaning they can lose their salvation any moment. I admit this is a difficult verse to interpret in the right way by itself or isolated from its context, and I will explain why is so.
The sanctification referred to in Hebrews 12:14 can be only one of two types. The first type is behavioral and practical sanctification at the level of body and soul. This is progressive and consists of a process of transformation that begins after the new birth and can last a lifetime. The second type is the sanctification or righteousness given by Jesus at the time of being born again at the spirit level. This is no longer progressive but given once and for all. It is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 6:11 where Paul tells the Corinthians in the past tense that they were sanctified. As a general rule, there is much confusion in the Christian community about the work already finished in us and about what is still in the process of completion, precisely because the authors of the books of the Bible alternate the discourse of the body and soul with that of the spirit without announcing the audience. And then it falls on to us and to the Holy Spirit to make this distinction, which is not always simple. But if we have a sincere heart and desire to get to the root of pure truth, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we will succeed.
Let’s suppose Hebrews 12:14 refers to the progressive sanctification of behavior. Seeking such sanctification is a good and desirable thing and it is a process in which we must be constantly involved as Christians, because God is holy and we know that He very much wants us to be holy in our conduct as well, as the apostle Peter mentions in 1 Peter 1:15–16. The fact that the text exhorts us to pursue this sanctification may be an indication that here it is not about justification received only once at the time of salvation. And if the verse had stopped there, perhaps this would have been the best interpretation that would have instilled in us an even greater desire to sanctify ourselves. But when the verse ends with the fact that no one will see the Lord without this sanctification, there can no longer be a question of practical sanctification. Why? Because God is perfect and He only demands perfection, according to Matthew 5:48. He doesn’t accept half measures or progressive quests. Are we ever perfect, after salvation, in all our conduct? Of course not. This means that:
That is why we need to take a closer look both at the immediate context of this passage and the larger context of the whole book of Hebrews. As I mentioned before, the book of Hebrews is written mainly to Hebrew Christians—both genuine and just professing—who were suffering and struggling because of their identification with Jesus Christ and the new way of justification by faith alone. These Christians committed to following Christ, but what that looked like for them was not a glorious road or a journey through Disneyland. Their identification with Jesus has brought them more pain and persecution than they previously had experienced. Up to Chapter 10, the author of Hebrews explains to these people in detail what Jesus did on the cross, the implications of that act, and His superiority to the Law of Moses. Then in Chapter 11, the author enumerates a list of people from the Old Testament who had to fight for their faith in God and endure persecution. In Chapter 12, the author shifts gears from teaching mode and begins to encourage these believers to stay strong through persecution and to fight for faith, as their predecessors did, because that suffering works as their training in righteousness. The discipline described in Chapter 12 is not one in the sense of God’s punishment toward His children, but a discipline in terms of training like military training. Military preparation and instruction is difficult and painful but necessary for success in battle. When someone works out at the gym, the exercises may not be comfortable or easy, but they build the muscles and help make the person fit. Similarly, persecution and suffering for the sake of the faith yield the fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11).
Many of these Christians were weary and tired, spiritually exhausted, and the writer tries to encourage them in Verse 12 by saying, “therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble.” This phrase is quoted from Isaiah 35:3. In Isaiah 34, God announces the righteous judgment and vengeance against all enemies of Israel, represented by Edom. Then in Chapter 35, God shows what salvation will look like and reveals He hasn’t forgotten them. The glory of the Lord was going to be revealed again, but the people of Israel were still in the wilderness and on dry land at that moment, as Isaiah 35:1 illustrates. Isaiah says to that community, “While you are in this hard season, think about all the good things God is going to do for you and in the meantime help each other, strengthen the hands of your brothers who are weak and the knees that are feeble.” Now, coming back to our text in Hebrews, in the same way, in the middle of all kinds of tensions between those of the Law and those in Christ, the writer says to that community of believers to support each other and continue in faith. Then, in Verse 14, he encourages them to try to pursue peace as much as possible with all those who are fighting against them, but without compromise in terms of the truth and sanctification they received from Jesus by faith. In other words, “When your family and relatives come against you because of the Gospel message of grace, don’t get angry. Try to pursue peace but keep firm in your minds the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
The sanctification Verse 14 talks about is the pursuit of the holiness and righteousness of Jesus received once at the time of salvation. The writer tells these believers to not give up on the righteousness they received through faith and so go back to the one received through the Law, just to make things easier for them. And we have a few substantial clues in the context which show that this is what the writer is talking about. First, Hebrews 12:10 says those who go through this training share in Jesus’s holiness. This is given to them. Second, the word “sanctification” or “holiness” in Verse 14 is preceded by the definite article: pursue “THE” sanctification, not just a sanctification, but that type without which no one will see the Lord. That means there was another type of holiness—the one by the works of the Law—that was preventing them from being saved and seeing the Lord at the end. Third, Verses 15 to 17 provide more details of what the writer meant when he told them to pursue that sanctification. He intended to make sure no one comes short of the grace of God and falls away back into the Law. It meant to not allow any root of bitterness and frustration because of the new way to spring up between them and defile each other.
Furthermore, it meant to make sure no one was godless like Esau, who had the birthright that came with many blessings, but he gave it all up quickly just for the comfort of a single meal. Then, when he wanted to get back the blessings, he couldn’t anymore. In the same way, Verse 17 emboldens the Hebrew people, who appeared to have decided for Christ, to not put aside so quickly the new way of salvation through faith for the sake of temporary earthly peace with their Jewish brothers, who were still following the Law of Moses and persecuting them. If they don’t choose Christ and the new birth through faith, they will remain unsaved and not see the Lord.
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