Diligent Looking

And we desire that every one of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end:
~ Hebrews 6:11

Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy sons’ sons;
~ Deuteronomy 4:9

Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.
~ Proverbs 4:23

Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness,
~ 2 Peter 3:11

Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God.
~ Hebrews 3:12

And ye, in any wise keep yourselves from the accursed thing, lest ye make yourselves accursed, when ye take of the accursed thing, and make the camp of Israel a curse, and trouble it.
~ Joshua 6:18

And he shall give Israel up because of the sins of Jeroboam, who did sin, and who made Israel to sin.
~ 1 Kings 14:16

Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.
~ Luke 21:36

A Commentary of Hebrews 12:15, by John Owen.

Hebrews 12:15. Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble (you), and thereby many be defiled.

What is required of us in our own persons was before prescribed in positive duties; here is declared what is our work and duty towards others, with respect unto sins contrary to those duties. For this and the ensuing instructions concern the body of the church, or society of the faithful, as unto what is mutually required of them and amongst them. And although the practice be always lost in the world, the rule abides for ever.

There are two things in the words:

1. A duty enjoined, “Looking diligently.”

2. A double evil cautioned against, to be prevented by the exercise of that duty:

(1.) “Any man’s failing of the grace of God: “ wherein we must inquire,

(1.) What is meant by “the grace of God; ”

(2.) How any man may “fail” of it.

(2.) A “root of bitterness springing up,” etc: and hereof we must inquire,

(1.) What is this “root of bitterness;”

(2.) What is the progress of the evil contained in it; as,

1 st . It “springeth up;”

2 dly . It “troubles all;”

3dly . It “defiles many.”

And there is a progress in evil intimated, from the less to the greater. It is a less evil for any one to “fail of the grace of God” in his own person, (though the greatest of evils unto himself,) than to be a “root of bitterness to trouble and defile others” also. And the apostle would have us obstare principiis, to hinder the entrance of this evil, and so effectually to prevent its progress.

1. The duty prescribed is, to “look diligently” after this matter. The word is only twice used in the Scripture, here and 1 Peter 5:2. And in that place of Peter it denotes the discharge of the office-duty of the elders of the church, in their care and oversight of the flock. Here it respects the common charitative duty of all believers, as they are called unto it by occasions and circumstances. So there are sundry other duties, which are given in charge unto the officers or guides of the church, to be authoritatively attended unto, and discharged by virtue of their office, which yet, being in themselves of a moral nature, are incumbent on all believers in a way of love or charity. But this looking diligently unto the good of others, and to prevent their evil, is not here prescribed as a moral duty, whereunto we are obliged by the light of nature and royal law of love, but as that which is also an especial institution of Christ, to be observed in his church. The Lord Christ hath ordained, that the members of the same church or society should mutually watch over one another, and the whole body over all the members, unto their edification. This therefore is here prescribed unto these Hebrews; and that the practice of it is so much lost as it is, is the shame and almost ruin of Christianity.

The word signifies a careful inspection unto a certain end. And hereof there are two parts: first, The promotion of spiritual good; secondly, The prevention of all that is spiritually or morally evil. Hereunto it is peculiarly applied by the apostle in this place. And he instanceth in four things in this and the following verse:

(1.) Failing of the grace of God;

(2.) The springing up of a bitter root;

(3.) Fornication;

(4.) Profaneness: wherein he compriseth the principal sins of the flesh and of the spirit which professed Christians are in danger of.

And he doth it in a regular gradation, from the lowest declension from grace unto the highest contempt and defiance of it; as we shall see in the opening of the words.

2. (1.) The first evil to be obviated by this church- inspection, is failing of the grace of God: “Lest any man fail of the grace of God.”

(1.) By the “grace of God,” God’s gracious favor and acceptance in Christ, as it is proposed and declared by the gospel, is intended. Herein all spiritual mercies and privileges, in adoption, justification, sanctification, and consolation, do consist. For these things proceeding from the love, grace, and goodness of God in Christ, and being effects thereof, are called “the grace of God.” The attaining and participation of these things, is that which in the faith and profession of the gospel men aim at and design; without which both the one and the other are in vain.

(2.) This grace, under all their profession of the gospel, men may “fail of;” which is the evil cautioned against. The word ὑστερέω , signifies sometimes “to want, or be deficient in any kind,” Matthew 19:20; Luke 15:14; Luke 22:35: sometimes “to come behind,” 1 Corinthians 1:7; 2 Corinthians 11:5: sometimes “to be destitute,” Hebrews 11:37: sometimes “to fail or come short of,” as Romans 3:23; Hebrews 4:1. See the exposition of that place. It nowhere signifies to fall from: so that the inquiries of men about falling from grace, as unto these words, are impertinent. Wherefore, to “fail of grace,” is to come short of it, not to obtain it, though we seem to be in the way thereunto. See Romans 11:7; Romans 9:30-31. So also to “fall from grace,” Galatians 5:4, is nothing but not to obtain justification by the faith of Christ.

This, therefore, is that which the apostle intimates, namely, that there were, at least there might be, in the church, some or many, who, under the profession of the truth of the gospel, yet, through their sloth, negligence, formality, unbelief, or some other vicious habits of their minds, might not attain unto the grace and favor of God, exhibited therein unto sincere believers. For this comes not to pass without their own guilt. And the mind of the Holy Ghost in the words may be comprised in the ensuing observations.

Obs. 1. The grace, love, and good-will of God, in the adoption, justification, sanctification, and glorification of believers, is proposed unto all in the gospel, as that which may infallibly be attained in the due use of the means thereunto appointed; namely, sincere faith in Christ Jesus.

Obs. 2. The outward profession of the gospel, with the performance of the duties and enjoyment of the privileges thereunto belonging, will not of themselves instate any man in the grace of God, or an assured interest therein Men deceive themselves when they rest in these things. And multitudes do so; yea, the most are angry if they are told that there is any more required of them.

Obs. 3. There is no man who, under the profession of the gospel, comes short of obtaining the grace and favor of God, but it is by reason of himself and his own sin. The proposal of it, on the terms expressed in the gospel, is sure, and none shall ever fail of it who embrace it on these terms. This is included in the word, which hath a charge in it of a vicious deficiency in seeking after this grace.

Obs. 4. Negligence and sloth, missing of opportunities, and love of sin, all proceeding from unbelief, are the only causes why men under the profession of the gospel, do fail of the grace of God.

Now this is the first thing which the apostle enjoins believers to exercise their church-inspection about, namely, lest there should be amongst them unsound professors; such as, through their negligence, carelessness, and fostering the love of some sin, or of the world, were not like to attain unto the grace of God, on the terms of the gospel. These they were to consider in all their circumstances and temptations, to instruct, exhort, warn, and admonish, that they might be brought unto sincerity in faith and obedience. This was their charitative episcopacy; this was the duty, this was the practice of the members of churches of old: and it is not to be admired if many churches now come short of them in faith and holiness, seeing the very duties whereby they might be preserved and promoted are lost or despised. Whatever is pretended to the contrary, if any one should endeavor the reduction of some such known duties into the practice of churches, he would be laughed to scorn.

This is the first and the least degree of men’s miscarriage under the profession of the gospel; yet is it that from whence all the rest of the evils mentioned do arise and proceed. For of this sort of men it is, from them that fail of the grace of God under the profession of the gospel, as unto a real interest therein, that those who fall into the ensuing crimes do come.

(2.) The next evil cautioned against, is the “springing up of the root of bitterness.” And we must inquire,

(1.) What is this “root of bitterness;

(2.) How it ‘springeth up;”

(3.) How it “troubles” all;

(4.) How it “defileth many:” which is the progress here assigned unto it by the apostle.

(1.) As to the first, all agree that the apostle hath respect unto the words of Moses, Deuteronomy 29:18, “Lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood.” Gall, or hemlock, was a poisonous weed in the eastern countries, as Hosea 10:4; and these names are applied unto poisonous sins, Amos 6:12; Deuteronomy 32:32. Now it is evident, that, in the words of Moses, by this “root,” a person, or persons inclining to apostasy and departure from God are intended. So the foregoing words do make it manifest, “Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the LORD our God, to go and serve the gods of these nations;” that is,

“Lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood.”

‘Be it one or more, “man or woman, family or tribe,” that is thus affected, it is a “root of bitterness” among you.’Hence it is evident what or who it is that the apostle intendeth. It is not any evil in the abstract, any heresy or sin, but persons guilty of this evil, which he intends. And this is that which in another place he expresseth by “an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God;” which he cautioneth these Hebrews to exercise their mutual inspection about, as he doth in this place, Hebrews 3:12-15. See the exposition. Wherefore this “root of bitterness,” is persons in the church whose hearts are inclined and disposed unto apostasy from the gospel, on one pretense or another, with a return either to Judaism or sensuality of life, as the following instances do also intimate. And this exactly answers the sin condemned in Moses, of a “heart turning away from the LORD our God.” And it is evident that there were many such at that time among the professing Hebrews.

And this evil is called a “root of bitterness:”

(1st.) Because at the beginning it is hidden in the hearts of men, where it cannot be discovered. So speaks Moses, “Whose heart turneth away.” So it is with roots, until they discover themselves by springing up.

(2dly.) Because from hence, from this “evil heart of unbelief,” doth the whole evil of apostasy in every way proceed, as fruit from its proper root. And

2dly. It is called a root of “bitterness,” because of its noxious and poisonous qualities in them in whom it is, and unto others also.

(2.) Towards the completing of the evil intended, it is said that this root “springeth up.” This is the natural way whereby a root discovers itself, both where it is and of what nature. Generally, when men’s hearts are inclined unto apostasy from the gospel, as then to Judaism, and now to Popery, they conceal it for a season, like a root in the earth; but as they have opportunity they begin to discover what is within. And several ways they do so. Commonly they begin the discovery of themselves in the neglect of church assemblies and duties, as the apostle declares, Hebrews 10:25; Hebrews 10:25; thence they proceed to perverse disputings, and contentions against the truth, 1 Timothy 6:5; and so go on to manifest themselves in practices, as occasions, opportunities, and advantages are ministered. This root will not always lie covered, this evil heart will manifest itself: which is the springing up which is here intended.

(3.) The first effect hereof in the church is trouble springing up; “do trouble you.” It doth so, it will do so, in and upon its springing up. The word is nowhere used in the Scripture but in this place. It is “to give trouble by bringing things into disorder, tumult, and confusion.” And a threefold trouble is, or may be, given unto the church by this means:

1st . A trouble of sorrow and grief, for the evil, sin, and eternal ruin, of those who have been united with them in the same society of the profession of the gospel It is no small trouble, unto them who have the bowels of Christian compassion, to see men wilfully ruining their own souls, as they do in this case, Hebrews 10:26-29.

2dly . When those in whom this root is are either confident or many, they will trouble the church, disorder it, and cast things into confusion, by wrangling disputes, speaking perverse things, endeavoring to draw disciples, to corrupt and deceive; as is the way and manner of all apostates.

3 dly . They trouble the church, by bringing an evil report upon it, for divisions, contentions, and instability; ofttimes also, by one means or another, exposing it to external trouble and persecution. This is the first effect which the springing up of this root of bitterness in churches, or among professors of the gospel, doth produce; it troubleth them. And herein the apostle includeth an argument unto the diligent inspection which he exhorts unto, namely, the prevention of this trouble in the church.

(4.) The last effect of it, the utmost of its progress, is, that “many be defiled” by it. “And thereby,” by this root, so springing up, and bearing this fruit of trouble. A dangerous thing it is to have such things fall out in churches; namely, that there be amongst them a man or woman, a family or tribe, few or more, that on any pretences incline unto a departure from the truth of the gospel. It seldom stops with themselves. The ignorance, negligence, darkness, but especially the want of experience of the power of the truth of the gospel, are easily imposed on by them, and thereby they are defiled. And thus it often falls out, not with one or two, but with “many.” Ofttimes whole churches have been ruined by this means; yea, hereby a fatal apostasy was introduced in all the visible churches of the world.

There is no difficulty in the expression of the apostle, of their being “defiled;” as though it were not proper to be defiled by a root springing up. For the apostle doth not speak of the manner of its operation and infection, but of the effect it produceth; and this is, that men who have been cleansed by baptism, and the profession of the truth, should be again contaminated with abominable errors, or filthy lusts, as it is fully declared, 2 Peter 2:18-22. And we may observe,

Obs. 5. That the root of apostasy from God and the profession of the gospel may abide invisibly in professing churches So our apostle declares it at large, 2 Timothy 2:16-21; with the reason of it. And we may hence infer,

1. That we ought not to be surprised when any such root discovereth itself by springing up; it is no more but what we are warned of.

2. That in such a season it is divine election that secures true believers from apostasy and defilement, 2 Timothy 2:19, Matthew 24:24.

Obs. 6. Spiritual evils in churches are progressive. From small, imperceptible beginnings, they will grow and increase to the worst of evils, 2 Timothy 2:17; 2 Timothy 3:13. And it will hence follow, that it is the duty of churches to watch against the first risings and entrances of such evils amongst them; which is here given them in charge.

Obs. 7. It is the duty of churches, what in them lies, to prevent their own trouble, as well as the ruin of others.

Obs. 8. There is a latent disposition in negligent professors to receive infection by spiritual defilements, if they are not watched against, “Many will be defiled.”

Obs. 9. That church-inspection is a blessed ordinance and duty, which is designed by Christ himself as a means to prevent these contagious evils in churches. And the neglect of it is that which hath covered some of them with all manner of defilements.