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Text body in immediate context:

14 Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: 15 looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; 16 lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. 17 For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears. (Hebrews 12:14-17)

Believers are "saved by grace":

"But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)" (Ephesians 2:4-5)

So when it comes to the phrase: "looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God" Heb 12:15

Do we mean fall short of God's favor/grace in this sense of the concept behind 1 Cor 10:5?:

"But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness." (1 Corinthians 10:5)

Or does the Author of the Hebrew epistle instead refer to the concept behind Romans 3:23?:

"for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23)

The question really boils down to is...

Q: Is the author of the Hebrews warning about displeasing God or falling short of salvation after receiving it?

NOTE: Hebrews 6:4-8 is an argument that relates to regenerate people who fall away and thus cannot be restored to repentance and salvation, thus in effect crucifying Christ anew. Such people cannot be saved again if they fall away, yet there is considerable debate if it can even happen based on Hebrews 6:9. In Hebrews 12:15 it would seem that there is similar language to Hebrews 6:4-8, but I am not certain. It may have 2 main interpretations to it, and the broader context is sober.

Other translations:

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 (KJV)

See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God, that no one be like a bitter root springing up and causing trouble, and through it many become defiled. (NET)

Be careful that no one fails to receive God’s grace and begins to cause trouble among you. A person like that can ruin many of you. (NCV)

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    ὑστερῶν Strong 5302 'come short' 'fail' lack'. Mark 10:21 One thing thou lackest (KJV) ... go thy way ... sell, that thou hast ... take up the cross, and follow me. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    May 11, 2022 at 7:59

3 Answers 3

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The idea of "failing from grace" is taught elsewhere such as:

  • 2 Cor 6:1, “As God’s fellow workers, then, we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.
  • Gal 1:6, I am amazed how quickly you are deserting the One who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—
  • Gal 5:4: "You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace"
  • Heb 10:26: If we(!) deliberately keep on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left

Ellicott correctly observes:

(15) Lest any man fail.—Rather, whether any one be falling back from the grace of God. The defection of one member of the community brings loss and danger to the whole body. The last words of Hebrews 10:26 will show what is implied in this “falling back from the grace of God.”

This is further taught in:

  • Heb 2:1-3, We must pay closer attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every transgression and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?
  • Heb 13:9, “Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace …”

The pulpit commentary is most succinct:

Verse 15. - Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God (i.e. fall short of it; or, ὑστερῶν being here followed by ἀπὸ, the idea may be rather that of falling back from it)

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  • Noted, I guess typical Hebrews language it is.
    – Cork88
    May 11, 2022 at 14:42
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Clarity might come by first getting rid of what God's grace is not. It is not ever earned by humans. Although people such as Noah "found grace in the eyes of the Lord" (Genesis 6:8 KJV), other translations have "favour" instead of "grace". God looked graciously upon Noah, who found favour in God's sight. This was in contrast to the immense evil of all others: "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (vs.5) It did not mean that Noah was perfect, or that he had merited and so earned favour with God. He found grace in God's eyes because there was such a sharp distinction between him and all his compatriots in that day.

Bear in mind that Jesus said that a person doing what they ought to do should not expect thanks from their master - Luke 17:7-10. To do one's duty is not meritorious, in and of itself. However, Jesus also showed the difference between a good servant energetically looking after his master's interests, and a wicked servant who despised his master and did not even do a minimum amount to progress his master's interests - Matthew 25:14-30. Rewards are given to two good servants in that parable but the worthless servant is thrown out into darkness.

In Noah's day, he was outstanding as a good servant of God, surrounded by evil people. God decided to bring judgment on the wicked, but he would not have Noah perish. He enabled Noah, his family and a selection of animals to survive the judgment of the flood, whilst also serving as a warning to his evil generation as he carried out God's instructions. But Noah had found favour with God prior to that. This favour (or, grace) was because he was not acting in an evil way, nor thinking evil thoughts. This applies to your question seeking exegesis of Hebrews 12:15.

Notice how Noah had been mentioned in the previous chapter? His faith is commended. His fear of God is commended. His obedient carrying out of God's instructions to build an ark is commended. Yet prior to doing what God instructed him, he had found grace with God. He did not receive grace from God as a result of building the ark. The grace of God was shown in God deciding to save Noah and showing him what to do, which Noah then did. God did not wait to see if Noah would carry out the instructions and then grant him grace. No, he showed grace to Noah in revealing his plans and in how Noah would be spared the coming judgment on the world.

This is where the point about "failing the grace of God" comes in. Notice how the text in question links failing the grace of God with allowing "a root of bitterness" to defile by growing? If Noah had become bitter with God once he knew what God's judgment of his generation was going to be, then Noah would have failed the grace of God. He might have kept building the ark, but in his heart been angry with God. If so, he would have failed the grace of God's mercy via the divine plan to save him. The next verse gives an example of Esau becoming profane with his disrespectful attitude towards God's birthright provision. He despised that provision. He fell short of the grace of God and suffered as a result, unlike Noah who agreed with the righteous judgment of God and respectfully went along with it.

The Ephesians 2 text speaks of salvation in the past tense: "you have been saved". That is the grace of God - saving undeserving sinners who, nonetheless, maintain faith in God. But the warning is still there, not to become profane, disrespectful, ungrateful, by allowing bitterness to grip our hearts.

Saved believers can become bitter in heart - not forgiving others, for example. Yet when God has been so gracious as to forgive them, they must forgive others. Unforgiveness gives rise to this bitter root. Any Christian allowing that to happen will be warned, but if they don't pay heed to the Spirit's warning, they will be disciplined by him. I speak from experience. Yet restoration comes to those who do repent of this sin.

Therefore, Strong's exegesis shows the meaning to be a failure, or short-coming, on the part of the person to whom God's saving grace has been shown; a person shown grace should be gracious themselves, not bitter or judgmental against others, and certainly never against God. The more a person appreciates God's grace to them, the more forgiving, loving and gracious they will become. Not to respond that way is to fall short of the grace of God in the sense of not appreciating it.

The Romans 3:23 text invoked means nobody is worthy of the grace of God, for we are all sinners, and all sin detracts from the glory of God. We do not glorify God as we should, but those who have received the unmerited grace of God in his salvation of sinners generally do live changed lives that increasingly give more and more glory to God. As long as they don't allow a root of bitterness to corrupt their hearts, that is, for then they can expect discipline from God (but not removal of his salvation, for God does not hold salvation out like a carrot on a stick.)

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What is falling short of grace

Grace refers to a completely unearned gift. And the only way you can "fall short of grace" is to not accept grace but to try to earn the gift. This is done by observing some law, regardless of what that law is.

Paul discusses this in Romans, contrasting gentiles who accepted grace, with jews who did not, because they could never get past the observance of the law as something that established their righteousness:

Romans 9:30–32 (KJV 1900)

What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith.

But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone;

Thus those who sought righteousness by the law did not attain, but they stumbled. Paul calls this a "stumblingstone" and elsewhere, "the offense of the cross", and what he means is the idea that one's sincere efforts at trying to be a good person not only fail, but are an enemy of grace.

Obviously this offends someone who spent their life trying to observe the law much more than someone who understood they could never observe the law. Therefore the gentiles accepted grace but the jews did not.

Paul continues, lamenting Israel's inability to stop trying to rely on their own righteousness:

Romans 10:1–3 (KJV 1900)

Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.

For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.

For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.

Thus attempting to establish their own righteousness means they are rejecting grace, and therefore are not submitting themselves to the righteousness of God. It amounts to saying "the sacrifice of the cross is insufficient".

That is a big deal.

Falling short of grace in the church

But even among believers, preachers started appearing insisting that God's grace needs a little push from them. Thus a large proportion of Paul's epistles were spent swatting away all those teachers who would show up after Paul left and start explaining to the new churches that "yes, you are saved by grace, but you do understand that God helps those who help themselves, right? So you still need to observe X" and that's why Paul had to keep writing these passages, e.g. to Colossians:

And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.

Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ. Col 2.13-17 KJV

Falling short as failing to enter the rest in Hebrews

Hebrews also talks of "falling short" (ὑστερέω) earlier, in chapter 4

Hebrews 4:1–10 (KJV 1900)

Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it.

2 For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.

3 For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.

4 For he spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all his works.

5 And in this place again, If they shall enter into my rest.

6 Seeing therefore it remaineth that some must enter therein, and they to whom it was first preached entered not in because of unbelief:

7 Again, he limiteth a certain day, saying in David, To day, after so long a time; as it is said, To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

8 For if Joshua had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day.

9 There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God.

10 For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.

Here, Hebrews is explicitly making the analogy of "sabbath rest" - which is the distinguishing characteristic of Judaism, with "grace", which is the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity -- in that one ceases from their own works.

In the law there is a death penalty if you work - even if you gather sticks to light a little fire - because even the smallest effort meant that you had not ceased from your own labor.

Those who do not cease from their own attempts at establishing righteousness therefore fall short, and do not enter into God's rest.

This happens because of unbelief -- not unbelief that God exists, or that God provides, or even that God delivered them out of Egypt, but unbelief that God's provision is sufficient for them to enter the Promised Land. This was the sin that kept the Israelites from entering. Moses murdered a man and escaped justice. And he also struck the rock twice, giving God a little help. One of these prevented him from entering the promised land.

Just as the people in the wilderness doubted that God was sufficient for their needs, the one who attempts to establish his own righteousness doubts the same. In both cases, they do not cease from their own labor and so fall short of God's grace.

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  • Makes sense, ironically I’m on chapter 4 on a commentary to Hebrews by F.F. Bruce, it’s a good commentary so far.
    – Cork88
    Aug 3, 2022 at 4:44
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    @Cork88 Thanks for the recommendation!
    – Robert
    Aug 3, 2022 at 5:50

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