Not Hardening Our Hearts Against the Hard-Hearted: A Pastoral Meditation on Hebrews 3:12–14

heart12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.
— Hebrews 3:12–14 —

Until the day when Christ returns, churches will be faced with the mystery of iniquity. And more, we will be faced with the challenge of responding to erring church members with grace and truth.

Hebrews 3:12–14 gives us a number of things to consider when a Christian acts upon their hardness of heart. What follows is a five-fold meditation on how to address the hard-hearted without hardening our own hearts.

1. We must read Hebrews as speaking to Christians.

The threat of Christians being led astray by sin, the devil, and the world is very real. Verse 12 crushes any notion that salvation makes Christians impervious to sin. The author addresses “brothers,” meaning his words are for Christians, not some other spiritually-mixed community.

Accordingly, we learn the new birth doesn’t—in this age—make us sin-free, even as it frees us to fight sin. Even so, there are times when sin deceives us, ensnares us, and we need the help of the church to free us. Conversely, the church needs to patiently endure the words and actions of its members. It must preach the gospel to them and bear with them as God’s truth brings change.

2. We must remember Christians retain an evil heart.

This is one of the paradoxes of the Christian faith. Even as the new covenant offers a new heart “sprinkled clean from an evil conscience” (Hebrews 10:22), the plaque of indwelling sin still abides within us. Even as the law is written on our heart by the Spirit, the flesh continues to wage war against that new Spirit. Paul speaks most directly to this in Romans 6–8 and Galatians 5:16–25. Hebrews confirms Paul’s testimony: Every Christian possesses a heart that can lead them astray.

3. We must not assume that sin will just work itself out.

While every Christian is immediately culpable before God, our spiritual standing is also dependent on others. In truth, salvation brings us into a family of faith. God uses this family to keep us from destruction through the loving encouragement and corrections of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Yes, it is God’s Word where we hear our Shepherd’s voice (cf. John 10), but God has also ordained local churches as places where individuals can be personally comforted and corrected.

With this mutuality command in mind, let’s consider the application of this truth.

Any time a brother or sister in Christ pulls away from the church, we who are spiritual have a responsibility to pursue them (Galatians 6:1–2). Sin is irrational and causes the sinner to make statements and take actions that are mystifying. These words and actions are not “out of character,” as many like to put it. They are tragically “in character,” as indwelling sin comes to the surface. Hebrews 3 reminds us, every believer has blindspots and chambers in their heart which, when released, exude poison.

In the church, we should not be surprised when faithful members, gifted leaders, or spiritual teachers their evil hearts lead them astray by indwelling sin. Often these well-versed believers will make these steps quoting Scripture on their way. We are a twisted bunch and none of us are immune from deception.

In such cases, those who are spiritual should pursue that brother or sister with gentleness and patience. By God’s grace, the Lord will bring that erring child back to his or her senses through the work of the Spirit and the ministry of the saints. Spiritual correction is not devoid of human means, and thus healthy churches and faithful elders will pursue erring members, with hopes of restoration and spiritual recovery.

4. We must learn the ways sin deceives and respond with compassionate truth.

Sadly, sin is more of a highway than a toll booth. On a tollroad, a car enters the highway by paying a fee at the on ramp. This singular act, however, is only the beginning. The point of the toll is to drive down the road. Many times with sin, there is a singular turning point that puts a person on the road, much like a toll booth gives access to the highway. But sadly, sin never stays at the on ramp. Left unchecked, sin will always go further than we first intended.

As Hebrews indicates, hardness of heart results from a prolonged pattern of sin. Sin is not innocent or accidental, it is the self-willed desire to go our own way and to persist on the road to destruction. Immediately, hardness of heart—anger in speech, isolation in action, unwillingness to listen, self-justification, and personal advocacy—occur. And more than occur, they increase. Like yeast, sin leavens the whole heart. And thus it needs to be opposed—both internally by the Spirit-filled individual but also externally by the church, when that individual is a beloved member of the church.

Again, when a church sees someone hardening themselves, they cannot throw their hands up in despair: “This must be the will of the Lord.” No, the will of the Lord is laid out in Scripture:

“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” (Matthew 18:15 NASB)

“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.  Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:1–2)

“Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:14)

When we see (through verifiable actions and words) a brother or sister giving into sin, we must pursue. When they harden themselves against us, we must pray. In love, our response must not be passivity but wise, repeated strategic appeals to that member of Christ’s body. Matthew 18 is not a quick pitstop that enables churches to get rid of unwanted sinners; it is a long, arduous pathway to restore those who have been and are being deceived by sin.

5. We must trust that genuine Christians will hear these warnings and repent. 

Repentance is a divine gift (2 Timothy 2:24). Therefore, its timing is a mystery. Sometimes God grants his children immediate awareness of sin and the ability to confess wrongdoing, without going far down the turnpike of transgression. But other times, the deception is much longer lasting—only after burning numerous bridges and breaking multiple relationships does the child of God wake up to his or her ways.

With either time table, this truth remains: The sheep of God will hear his voice and turn from their sin. Such turning (read: repentance) is a divine gift, but it is also accomplished through means. Theologically, those who share in Christ cannot lose their salvation, but practically one reason they will not is because God sends their church to pursue them.

Understanding this personal dynamic, churches and elders must not immediately label someone an unregenerate, but neither should we roundly endorse (with membership) a child of God who willfully persists in sin and continues to harden their heart. Again, iniquity is a mystery. When it occurs in our hearts it baffles the believer and when it occurs in another, we can be doubly perplexed. This is why God gives gifted teachers to shepherd the church. They must not only know the truths of Scripture (Titus 1:9); they must also possess an understanding of how sin works and how to treat spiritual maladies.

Such knowledge is never exhaustive. It usually is quite weak and filled with pleas for wisdom. Nevertheless, as the Puritans modeled so well, their are patterns of sin that shepherds begin to recognize, even as every sinner is different. Taken together, churches must pursue erring members and lovingly remind them of who they are in Christ and where the turnpike of transgression will take them.

Such a practice is more of a spiritual art than a rational science. It leans heavily on prayer, the wisdom of many godly counselors, and the clear words of Scripture. At the same time, it must not possess a spirit of arrogance and all-knowing. Rather, with both hands on the Word of God, churches and their elders must know that members will become deceived, they will sin in many public ways, they will push against counsel, and when—not if—we must graciously, patiently, and kindly pursue them with instruction, trusting God will grant repentance.

Indeed, Hebrews 3:12–14 reminds of the condition of our hearts and it explains much of the reason why Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:22–25.

Father, grant your under-shepherds wisdom as they oversee the flocks you entrusted to them. Grant them grace to crucify their own sin and bring self-less aid to the sheep who are afflicted without and tempted within. God, be merciful to your churches, making them shine like lights in this dark world. May your Son be glorified, not only in the conversion of sinners, but also in keeping the saints from their indwelling sin.

May God grant his under-shepherds wisdom as they confront sin and shepherd sinners.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds