Question: "Why is it a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31)?"
Answer: The writer of the letter to the Hebrews writes to Jewish believers, in particular, to challenge them to regard highly Jesus the Christ and to continually focus on Him in faith. Throughout the letter, the writer offers warnings to help them understand the seriousness of the failure to focus on Christ (Hebrews 2:1–3a; 3:12–14; 4:1–11; 6:1–8; 10:19–31; 12:14–17; 12:25–29; and 13:4–6). In Hebrews 10:31—at the conclusion of one of those warnings—the writer reminds believers that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).
In Hebrews 10:19–25 the author provides important content that believers should be attentive to. Because those who have believed in Jesus have been cleansed by Him, they can confidently approach Him and hold fast to the hope He provides (Hebrews 10:19–23). Because of the finality of His work and the certainty we can have in Him, we should be encouraging each other to love and good deeds and making effort to be together as believers (Hebrews 10:24–25). It might seem strange that, in a section focused on building the confidence of the believer as to his eternal destiny and the certainty of his redemption in Christ, the writer would remark that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).
The writer explains that, if we continue to sin willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there is no longer a sacrifice for sins (Hebrews 10:26)—in other words, there is no additional sacrifice that can be made. Jesus’ sacrifice was once for all and sufficient (Hebrews 10:19–23). The believer should have confidence in that. But if there is continual, willful sin, then the believer’s confidence can be shaken. It is appointed that after death there is a judgment (Hebrews 9:27), and willful sin makes looking forward to that judgment fearful rather than joyful. Consider, for example, the description of this judgment in 1 Corinthians 3:10–15. There is a testing of the believer’s works by fire, and if the works are burned up, even the believer suffers loss—although he does not lose salvation (1 Corinthians 3:15). So the willfully sinning believer looks forward to that judgment with fear rather than with the confidence that he should have (Hebrews 10:27).
The writer illustrates the seriousness of such a sinful walk by reminding readers of the consequences of this kind of sin under the Mosaic Law—death (Hebrews 10:28). If the person under the Mosaic Law was judged so severely, how much more penalty would a person deserve who has trampled the blood of Christ and insulted the Spirit of Grace (Hebrews 10:29)? Yet, it is important to note that the writer does not say the believer will die or lose salvation; he simply questions what the believer would deserve. God is the judge, and vengeance belongs to Him (Hebrews 10:31). Indeed, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).
Because of God’s character, He won’t ignore sin—and there is judgment even for believers, even though that judgment is not about salvation, but about rewards (or lack thereof). The writer of Hebrews challenges believers not to throw away their confidence, because there is great reward (Hebrews 10:35).
A clear conscience before God allows one to look forward to the day of judgment with confidence, whereas a believer with willful sin gives up that confidence—even though his position is secure, that future judgment day approaches, and it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31). Because we cannot shrink back to destruction after being declared righteous by God (Hebrews 10:39), we ought not to continue in sin because God will deal with it, and that inspires fear and not the confidence that we are designed to have as believers.
Please note, this article takes the position that the warning passages in the book of Hebrews are written to born-again believers. For another view, see our articles on the warning passages, Hebrews 6, and Hebrews 10.