Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 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. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” (Hebrews 3:12-15 ESV)
It’s so easy to lose focus on the central issue in one’s walk with God – the inward, invisible heart. In the passage above, the one thing we must take care to avoid is a “falling away (literally: departure) from the living God.” We’re told that this departure is a result of an “evil, unbelieving heart,” and that an evil, unbelieving heart is a heart which has been hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. That all sounds great, but WHAT DOES IT MEAN???
I don’t think this was intentional, but I see a general progression given in these verses: deceitfulness of sin → hardened/evil/unbelieving heart → departure from the living God. The starting point seems to be “the deceitfulness of sin.” I think sin remains greatly misunderstood. You can quit or avoid all kinds of bad actions, but still remain in “sin.” Sin isn’t a set of actions, it’s an inward nature or power. For example, scripture says that sin can dwell within us and that it “desires” certain things.1 Under the old covenant, sin was essentially the violation of the law as given through Moses. Sin had to do with behavior. But in the new covenant, Christ has redeemed us from the old way of the law to the new way of the Spirit. He has become our one, final propitiation (sacrificial offering) and “taken away” our sins.2 Sin now has to do with the one’s spirit.
Within the new covenant, sin could be defined as anything which does not conform to the heart of God or the love of the Spirit. Sin is the nature of the flesh, the fruit of the carnal mind. In that light, sin is actually much more broad and dangerous than a bad attitude or behavior. In God’s eyes, sin could look like following the law instead of the spirit, or promoting religion and judgment instead of love and mercy. It could look like refusing to consider or accept another viewpoint, or holding to tradition over revelation. Sin in God’s eyes could be many of the “good” things which religious men promote. A prophet once said: “maintaining truth without revelation is deception.”
Sin and what Paul referred to as “the works of the flesh” are related, but not the same thing. Galatians 5:19 says that the works of the flesh are “evident” or “manifest,” meaning they are easily seen and recognized; things including violence, drunkenness, sexual deviance, jealousy, debauchery, etc. If you see those things, you immediately know the flesh is at work. However, sin is different. Sin is said to be deceitful, meaning that it can be very subtle and difficult to recognize. The serpent in the Garden of Eden was said to be extremely “subtle” or “crafty.” His temptation wasn’t for Adam and Eve to do something outright evil, but simply to be like God!
All that said, let’s look again at the phrase “the deceitfulness of sin.” First of all, in chapters 7-10 of Hebrews you’ll find the most plain statements in the entire Bible that sin (as it was known to a Jew 2,000 years ago) is no longer an issue which believers need worry about. In these chapters we are told things like: Jesus purged our sins, made reconciliation for our sins, that God will not remember our sins and iniquities anymore, that there is no more sacrifice for our sins after Christ, that there is a “remission” of sins, that sin has been “put away” in the offering of Christ, that we need have “no more consciousness of sins,” and that we have been “perfected forever” by the offering of Christ. So, I don’t believe the “deceitfulness of sin” is simply being somehow tricked or tempted into doing bad things (“sinning”). That’s “sin” under a covenant of law. Hebrews 9:15 (ESV) says: “Therefore he (Jesus) is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.”
I think falling away from the living God begins with sin’s subtle nature (deceitfulness) causing us to mislabel and fail to recognize it. Therefore we may remain in sin and darkness, all the while being satisfied with our behavior/performance or preoccupied with issues which God has put away from Himself in Christ. This causes a “hardened heart,” meaning a mind which resists new truth or ways, because we’ve been deceived into thinking we’re following God already. The result is “falling away from the living God,” meaning ceasing to commune with God and walk by fresh spiritual revelation and insight (faith) into current righteousness. Righteousness is by faith, and is maintained by fresh faith. Because our human nature, which is inherently sinful, is always bent toward the natural realm and way, including law and behavior as a means of righteousness or judgment, we are to “exhort each other daily” to live in the new way of the spirit, abiding in Christ, and refuse to return to the natural way of law, fear, and deception.
God bless you, thank you for reading. I hope this was edifying.
- Romans 6:12, 7:20
- Galatians 3:13, Romans 7:6, 1 John 2:2, 1 John 3:5
- Titus 3:9-11