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A few nights ago, a friend and I were reading through Hebrews 3 and 4. A few verses in particular caught my attention...

Hebrews 3:11-13 (NLT)
11 So in my anger I took an oath,
   ‘They will never enter my place of rest.’ ”

12 Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters. Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God. 13 You must warn each other every day, while it is still “today,” so that none of you will be deceived by sin and hardened against God.

Hebrews 4:1 (NLT)
4 God’s promise of entering his rest still stands, so we ought to tremble with fear that some of you might fail to experience it.

It seems to me as if these verses taken together imply that a Christian can become unsaved by falling away from following God. Now, I realize that I have to some extent taken these verses out of context, but I don't see any significant contextual change between these verses. So...is my interpretation right? If not, how is it wrong?
Answers from any doctrine acceptable.

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3 Answers 3

No.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. - John 10:27-29 ESV

and

I will not leave you or forsake you. - Josh. 1:5 ESV

and

For the LORD will not forsake his people; - Ps. 94:14 ESV

The logical explanation of the verses in Hebrews is that those who fall away were never truly participators in the covenant to begin with. Indeed, reading the surrounding context in Hebrews is quite helpful:

So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. 2For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. 3For we who have believed enter that rest... - Hebrews 3:19-4:3 ESV

As the author explains, those who did not enter never believed in the first place. This may seem strange considering what appeared to be a strong faith, so it's helpful to go to James on the subject.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? ...You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe - and shudder! - James 2:14, 19 ESV

Typically faith is split into three categories: knowledge, assent, commitment. Most modern day Americans have knowledge (that is, most know of the gospel of Christ, or at least have heard of Jesus). Many believe that He died for their sins. But as James says, "even the demons believe!" Not so many, perhaps, actually trust God for their salvation. It is one thing to think that Jesus died for you, pray a prayer, and move on. It is another to live one's whole life utterly devoted to God, in light of Christ's death and wholly dependent upon that death for Salvation.

So, it seems the people in the church addressed in Hebrews were knowers, believers even. But "faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." (James 4:17). And dead faith is really no use to anyone. With a dead (nonexistent, i'd argue) faith, those people never really trusted in God in the first place - they were never Jesus's sheep in the first place, so they were not snatched out of his hand.

[from the perspective of a reformed presbyterian.]

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Just to clarify, you believe that "rest" means heaven? –  Phil Apr 2 '12 at 5:28
1  
@Phil maybe not heaven so much as an eternal security in Christ - which of course will ultimately culminate in heaven. –  Thomas Shields Apr 2 '12 at 5:29

To add to Thomas' answer, you can also refer to the parable of the sower, Mark 4:3-20, especially verses 16 and 17. Here, Jesus talks about people that are also described there in Hebrews 4:2, who were excited when they first heard the message but who did not (to continue the sower's metaphor) allow it to take root. They weren't transformed by the message, they were only excited about for some shallow, selfish reason (perhaps they believed God would make them wealthy or cure their illness and then leave them free to pursue their own desires again).

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oh yeah, I was going to add this and totally forgot. kudos for adding, +1 –  Thomas Shields Apr 2 '12 at 19:58

Yes.

And that's consistent with the rest of New Testament teaching.

Jesus himself taught that some would abandon their faith:

Matthew 24:10-13 (NRSV)

Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. [emphasis mine]

Note the future tense. This is because, even though Jesus said, "It is finished," as he died on the cross, there is another sense in which salvation is a lifelong process.

Paul dealt with the future aspect of salvation in his letter to the Philippians, stressing God's ongoing work to complete the process:

Philippians 2:12-13 (NRSV)

[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Paul expressed confidence that the readers of this letter would endure to the end:

Philippians 1:6-7 (NRSV)

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.

However, in his own life he recognized there was a lot of work left to do:

Philippians 3:10-12 (NRSV)

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

And in 1 Corinthians he expressed his concern about not being able to endure:

1 Corinthians 9:25-27 (NRSV)

Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

Back to Hebrews. Not only does Hebrews say once-saved Christians can fall away, it warns that the consequences for this deliberate rejection of Christ are severe:

Hebrews 6:4-6 (NRSV)

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.

[from the perspective of a Wesleyan Arminian.]

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