The Protestant Reformation is justifiably known for recovering the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. But one further benefit of this movement was the translation of the Bible into contemporary languages making it accessible to all. We may perhaps take it for granted that we have several outstanding English versions today, which makes me reluctant to appear to undermine them when they occasionally need correction. Yet translators are not themselves inspired. For the New Testament, the inspired text is contained in the original Greek documents that we have embodied in many thousands of hand-written copies.
One of the places in the New Testament where a correction of popular English versions is necessary is Hebrews 12:14. Our English versions have chosen to render one Greek word here in a way that leads to a lot of unnecessary confusion and even fear in Bible readers. The verse reads (in the English Standard Version): “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” I have italicized the word we need to examine here, holiness, which is sometimes given as “sanctification” in other versions. Read in isolation, this verse seems to say that a believer needs to attain to a certain level, or, more terrifyingly, to complete personal holiness; otherwise, he or she will not be saved and see the Lord. Undoubtedly, countless exhortations have placed the great weight of this view on the backs of poor Christians who are struggling the best they can to grow to be more like Jesus in purity and holiness but always with the nagging dread that it might not be quite enough to see the Lord at the end of their lives.
Common English translations thus raise the question: How much holiness do I need in order to see the Lord? Need I be just 10 percent holy? Or does holiness have to just outweigh my sinful self, so that I can scratch my way into heaven? But there’s a huge problem here. The phrase “holiness without which” in our verse is not a statement of degree but an absolute. One has this “holiness” or not. This is confirmed by the same word for “without” elsewhere in the New Testament and in Hebrews, for example in Hebrews 4:15 where Jesus was “without sin,” meaning that he had no sin at all. He was “devoid of sin” (a proper rendering of the word in question). Hence, the idea in Hebrews 12:14 is that one either has this “holiness” or not. There is no degree here. You either have this thing entirely or not at all.
It is at this stage that a very serious error has crept into the discussion in the church’s history. If we must have complete and entire personal holiness to see the Lord, then we can only attain to it if we redefine sin and holiness away from the Bible’s own definition. For instance, holiness might be recast as avoidance of tobacco or dancing or drinking alcohol. If you simply avoid these things, you are holy and destined for heaven. But now, in fact, the biblical gospel is entirely compromised and sunk into the abyss of works-righteousness. If the Protestant Reformation with its deep expertise in biblical interpretation has taught us anything, it is that we are saved through grace alone by faith in Christ alone, with nothing of our own works entering into our justification or acquittal on the last day. If our personal holiness enters into the balance—even as the most minute grain of sand—of God’s forensic judgment, we have abandoned the Protestant understanding of justification, and we may as well abandon the gospel and vainly hope that our good works will outweigh the bad at the final judgment. But there is no gospel or grace here (e.g., Gal. 5:2–4).
All of these problems arising from Hebrews 12:14 are caused by translation of one Greek word hagiasmos as “holiness” or “sanctification.” The problems go away, though, by rendering hagiasmos properly, as I will argue, with “consecration.” The opposite of “holy” can be “sinful” but the opposite of “consecrated” is “profane” or “defiled.” The background of Hebrews 12:14 is the priestly system with its focus on purification and consecration through sacrifice. The forgiveness of sins is involved in that they are “remembered no more” (Heb. 8:12; 10:17; from Jer. 31:34). But the infallible basis of our forgiveness is the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ with nothing of our own works or sanctity. Our good works invariably flow from this source, but they are not part of the spring from which the river flows from the Rock (1 Cor. 10:4).
Now let me state my thesis: In Hebrews 12:14, the author exhorts the professing church to pursue peace and to persevere in faith in order to hold fast to the consecration that comes from Christ’s atoning sacrifice required to enter God’s presence. The exhortation here is to persevere in faith in Christ; it is not focused on striving for personal sanctification. The author talks about personal holiness in different places and different ways, as I will mention below. But let me defend my thesis now by considering just three of the many factors that lead to a proper interpretation of Hebrews 12:14.
The Unity of Hebrews
First, it is vital to understand that Hebrews is just one thing from beginning to end (or to about Heb. 13:18). This is a very complex book that covers a lot of ground, but the author never strays from his central concern; the book is a unity—it is “one thing”—a unified sermon. Accordingly, Hebrews 12:14 must fit in with other things the author says throughout his work, because he has been building a case, and his earlier or later teaching in the sermon is part of the immediate context of anything he says in any one place. This means, for example, that the immediate context of Hebrews 12:14 is not only the surrounding few verses but also passages several chapters away that may seem quite distant to us, yet they actually are not when we remember that this is a work meant to be read and heard in one sitting. The author tells us what he means by hagiasmos by how he speaks of this concept elsewhere, because it is one of his central themes.
And for Hebrews, hagiasmos comes not through our personal actions or efforts but through the blood of Christ in sacrifice. The author has been building a case that one cannot abandon Christ’s once for all high priestly sacrifice, even for what was once divinely instituted in the Old Testament. To do so is to apostatize back into the “dead works” we openly abandoned when we confessed our faith in Christ (Heb. 4:14; 6:1, 4–6; 9:14; 10:23).
Now one small point of Greek needs to be established before concluding this point with the other key passages that bear on Hebrews 12:14. The word hagiasmos is a certain kind of noun that ties in with a verb. It points to an event or to the result of an event designated by the related verb. In English, it is like the noun “consecration” rooted in the verb “to consecrate.” Here, I could say that I have “consecration” from Christ, which is tantamount to saying that Christ “has consecrated” me. Greek hagiasmos relates to the verb sometimes rendered “to sanctify,” but I would render this verb throughout Hebrews as “to consecrate.”
In the unity of Hebrews, then, here are places relevant for the meaning of hagiasmos in Hebrews 12:14. The whole word group is clearly rooted in the sacrifice of Christ:
For he who consecrates [Christ as high priest in context] and those who are consecrated [i.e., by him and his high priestly sacrifice] all derive from one [Father]. (Heb. 2:11)
And by that will [of the Father for the Son to become incarnate as high priest] we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ just once. (Heb. 10:10; cf. 10:14, 29)
Wherefore also Jesus, in order to consecrate his people through his own blood, suffered outside the gate. (Heb. 13:12)
The Old Testament background for this consecration through Christ’s blood is mentioned in Hebrews when he says:
For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies [i.e., consecrates] for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Heb. 9:13–14 ESV)
Notice that “consecration” here relates to purification of defilement (relevant below) and that our consecration is rooted in Christ’s one sacrifice bringing eternal purity reaching even to our conscience. This all fits the examples from the Old Testament flowing out of Hebrews 12:14, to which we turn now.
The Textual Flow
The translation of ancient Greek into English is fraught with many more challenges than simply how to render individual words. This is especially so in Hebrews, which is a fine example of a carefully crafted work that follows ancient compositional guidelines for powerful rhetorical presentation. But one feature of ancient Greek (and Latin) literary compositions like this is what are sometimes called their long “sentences,” as if ancient authors lacked editors (see the commentary on Hebrews by the Puritan author John Owen for examples of this style in English).
Without going into too much detail, let me simply state that a style like this worked in antiquity, because written documents like Hebrews were meant to be presented orally and not read silently in isolated chunks as we typically read the Bible today. Oral texts have a flow to them in their contexts that allow for bigger compositional units to fit together based on the presenter’s need to take a breath, intonation, and varying lengths of pauses between units.
The importance of this point is that Hebrews 12:14 is grammatically and compositionally an integral part of a larger unit. It is a serious mistake to read verse 14 in isolation, because the author moves immediately into three examples of what he means by “consecration without which no one will see the Lord” in verses 15–17. This is clear in Greek because there is just one participle at the beginning of verse 15 that controls these three examples in verses 15–16 (with an expansion on Esau in v. 17). The participle acts as a kind of hinge between verse 14 and verses 15–17 that connects them together.
Next, the author uses “anaphora” in verses 15–16 that shows the three Old Testament references to be parallel. Anaphora is and was common in public speaking by repetition of a lead word or phrase. “By faith” repeated in Hebrews 11 is a most notable example of this, but it is present in Hebrews 12:15–16 too, even if it might not be obvious in translation: “See to it lest any . . . lest any . . . lest any.” The parallelism is actually quite clear because literary Greeks loved conjunctive particles (“and,” “but,” “furthermore,” “yet,” etc.), and there are none here between these three statements opening with the “lest any” (mē tis) phrase.
The point here is that the anaphora helps us to see clearly that the author clarifies what he means by this “consecration” required to see the Lord in verse 14 by giving three negative references to someone who does not hold fast to it and apostatizes in verses 15–17. And this is our next and final point.
The Three Old Testament References
The most obvious example of an apostate our author points to is Esau (Heb. 12:16–17). Hence, the author of Hebrews calls him “profane” (KJV; “unholy” ESV; “godless” NASB and NIV). This is not a generic term for “wicked” or “evil,” but it has an Old Testament background of something polluted, such that Esau became disqualified for divine service (e.g., Lev. 10:10; 1 Sam. 21:5–6). He did not seek the consecration found only in Christ’s sacrifice, represented to him by his birthright, but sold it for a bowl of mush. He was apostate and consequently profane as one exiled from the covenant community.
The issue then in seeking consecration is to hold fast to Christ and not to apostatize; this is the general theme of Hebrews that the author addresses from different angles throughout his sermon. The other two “lest any” parallels in verse 15 confirm this view when we see the fact that failing “to obtain the grace of God” describes an apostate who has made a profession of faith but falls along the wayside. This is clear because the “root of bitterness” in verse 15 is a clear allusion to Deuteronomy 29:17–18, which describes someone who turns away from the Lord into idolatry and becomes a poisonous canker through whom “many become defiled” in the covenant community.
The conclusion, then, is that seeking the consecration through which one will see the Lord means to hold fast to Christ the High Priest of our confession of faith and to his sacrifice through which alone our sins are forgiven, and we are brought out of the defilement of sin and death and washed clean. This exhortation is made throughout the epistle, but it is summarized quite clearly in Hebrews 10:19–23, which I encourage you to read in this connection.
Finally, do we reject any thought of exhorting people to personal sanctification? Never! Our author has just done this by pointing to God’s own involvement in our lives as a loving Father who disciplines us so that we can bear the “peaceable fruit of righteousness” and share in his own holy character (Heb. 12:7–11). Personal sanctification is such an important topic, though, that we will have to address it in a future column.
S. M. Baugh (PhD, University of California, Irvine) is an Emeritus Professor of New Testament at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
2. Hebrews 12:14 is the only place where hagiasmos itself occurs in Hebrews (cf. esp. 1 Pet. 1:2), but the cognate verb appears seven times in Hebrews. Other nouns of this sort are “sprinkling” from the verb “to sprinkle” (Heb. 12:24), “cleansing” from “to cleanse” (Heb. 1:3), and “sharing” or “partitioning” from “to share or portion out a share or portion” (Heb. 2:4).
3. In the ESV, for example, these words appear as “that no one . . . that no [root] . . . that no one.”