Jared Compton

Faithfulness Is Improvised: Wisdom for Ever-Changing Challenges

The Christian life is a lot like improv night at the local coffee shop. Let me explain.

When I was in seminary, there was this strange and wonderful little coffee shop near campus called City Coffee. In my first semester, I probably studied there every night. And every once in a while, the shop would host an improv night. Local “artists” would show up and do their thing. I’m actually not entirely sure I ever stayed around for it, though I do have a vague recollection of some very bad poetry. I certainly never participated. After all, I had homework to do — plus something called inhibition.

The Christian life is like improv night at City Coffee, only it’s improv night every day of the week.

Constant Word, Changing World

We might wish the Christian life were like karaoke night — in that case, you would at least have the words — but it’s not. It’s improv: the curtain opens, you’re on stage without a script, and somebody yells “Action!” after stuffing a prompt into your hand:

“What’s the Christian approach to TikTok?”
“Post Malone” (Not to be confused with the “Mailman” Karl Malone, which would, of course, be a very different prompt.)

We know that we won’t find headings in our Bible like “Social Media” or “Paul & Public Schools” or “Jesus’s Sermon on MMA.” And we’ll search in vain for specific answers to questions like “Whom should I marry?” or “Where, how long, with whom, and in what specific ways should I engage in Jesus’s Great Commission?”

“God wants us to develop the skill needed to extend his never-changing word into our ever-changing world.”

Does the Bible have everything we need for life and godliness? Absolutely. But it doesn’t give us a line-by-line script. Instead, it asks us to improvise, to develop what theologian Kevin Vanhoozer calls “improvisatory reasoning” (The Drama of Doctrine, 336). That’s how God has designed the Christian life to work. He wants us to develop the skill needed to extend his never-changing word into our ever-changing world. He simply calls it wisdom, and, in one place — Proverbs 2 — he tells us not only where to get it but also why.

Let’s begin with why.

Learning the Good Life

Why learn to improvise? According to Proverbs 2:9, if you get wisdom — if you learn to reason improvisationally — “then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path.” Find wisdom, God says, and you’ll be able to identify and walk down “every good path.” It’s so important for us to hear this that God through Solomon says it again at the end of the chapter. Find wisdom, Solomon says, and “you will walk in the way of the good and keep to the paths of the righteous” (Proverbs 2:20). In short: find wisdom, find the good life.

Now, of course, good doesn’t guarantee you’ll be healthy or wealthy or even trouble-free — at least not yet. (Remember Jesus and the suffering faithful in Hebrews 11?) But there is a correspondence between your idea of good and the Bible’s, which is why I feel perfectly comfortable defining good as “satisfying” or “joyful” or “fulfilling.”

That’s why we should get wisdom; what about where?

God’s Words of Wisdom

Solomon writes, “The Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6). The wisdom we need — the wisdom we want — is something God gives.

Proverbs, in fact, says that God gives it to us “from his mouth.” Certainly this includes the wisdom God embedded in the world he created (and sustains) with his mouth: “In the beginning, God . . . said,” and the world was (Genesis 1; see Hebrews 1:2–3). Proverbs is full of just this sort of wisdom (see, for example, Proverbs 6:6–11). But this wisdom isn’t Solomon’s focus here. Creation isn’t the only thing breathed out by God; so too is every word of Holy Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16). And this wisdom is precisely what God has in mind here.

“The wisdom we need — the wisdom we want — is something God gives.”

Solomon makes this connection in verses 1 and 5. He says, “If you receive my words and treasure up my commandments within you . . . then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God” (Proverbs 2:1, 5). To receive Solomon’s words — to receive the Bible’s words — is, at the same time, to receive the understanding and knowledge — the wisdom — that comes from God.

Now, it’s one thing to know that Scripture teaches us wisdom; it’s still another to know where to look in the Bible to see it modeled. Here we move beyond Proverbs 2 and, as Vanhoozer reminds us, learn to “cultivate biblical wisdom by reading stories of how the prophets and apostles spoke and acted in concrete situations” (334). It’s from these stories, these canonical case studies, that we learn how to faithfully improvise.

Priceless Case Studies

Prompt: A church is struggling to believe the gospel. Presently, they’re being harassed by old friends questioning the Christian claim of a crucified messiah. (One report has it that these friends are calling that claim “foolish” and “scandalous” — another cynically wonders “how any moderately intelligent reader of the Scriptures could affirm something so implausible.”) And this is to say nothing of the bleak economic forecast facing the Christian community. Increased taxes, they suspect, might be only the front end of the bad news.

How’s that for a real and specific prompt? What if somebody gave it to you? What would you say?

In time, the prompt makes its way to the church’s pastor, who, with God’s help, traces the problem all the way to its roots — or, to borrow from Vanhoozer one more time, “sees and tastes everything about [the] situation that is theologically relevant” (334). And he responds with a brilliant and original piece of Christological reasoning drawn from the Old Testament, carefully and winsomely arguing his case using premises he knows his doubting friends can still very much affirm.

If you’re wondering, I’ve just summarized Hebrews. And it’s just one of dozens of case studies in our Bibles teaching us how to apply God’s never-changing word to our ever-changing world. You may not have thought about the apostles (or the prophets) like this before, but they are master improvisers. And we can — we must — learn from their example. It’s one of the reasons they’re in our Bibles.

Improv Discipleship

How do we learn to improvise? We attend to God’s word, not least to the model improvisers God has so generously given us. Attend, though, is probably too weak or, at the very least, insufficient. After all, Solomon uses half a dozen or so verbs, pleading with his son and with us to get wisdom. If you want it, Solomon says, you’ve got to “receive” it (Proverbs 2:1), “treasure [it] up” (Proverbs 2:1), “mak[e] your ear attentive” and “inclin[e] your heart” (Proverbs 2:2) to it. You need to “call out” and “raise your voice” (Proverbs 2:3) for it. (Ask for it and really mean it; see James 1:5–7.). “Seek” and “search for it,” Solomon says, “as for hidden treasures” (Proverbs 2:4).

Don’t you want this priceless treasure God offers you for your good? Don’t you want to get better at applying God’s never-changing word to our ever-changing world? Friends, you have to improvise. That’s how God has designed the Christian life to work. So don’t you want to get better at it? I know I do. It’s not too late, and it’s not beyond your reach. You don’t have to be super smart, creative, or outgoing to excel at it. You simply have to know where to look and go after it with all your heart.

I wouldn’t delay; I think the curtain’s about to open.

Can a Christian Fall Away? How to Hear the Warnings in Hebrews

I get asked two questions every time I teach Hebrews. You can probably guess both. (1) Who wrote Hebrews? That one’s always first. And (2) what are we supposed to do with Hebrews’ warning passages? Does Hebrews teach that believers can lose their salvation? After all, the letter issues warnings like this: “If we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment” (Hebrews 10:26–27). Which of us hasn’t felt the sting of a text like that? And that’s just one of five such warnings in the book (see 2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 6:4–8; 12:25–29).

Three Strategies

Unfortunately, I’m not sure we can get very far in answering that first question. (For a start, see here.) But I do think we can make some headway with the second. To that end, I want to suggest three strategies that will help us read Hebrews’ warnings better. I’ll sketch each first and then take a step back and conclude by reflecting on the help each provides.

Read the warnings in light of Hebrews’ structure.

Hebrews is tough to outline. It’s different from the other letters in the New Testament. Paul, for example, often makes his arguments first and only then applies them to his audience. Thus, we get the argument of Ephesians 1–3 and only then the application of Ephesians 4–6. Hebrews, however, breathes a different air. The letter moves back and forth between argument and application or, as these genres are commonly called, between exposition and exhortation. The author is like a preacher who pauses to apply after every main point. It’s an effective rhetorical strategy, but it also makes outlining the letter difficult. And it can hinder us from seeing the developing logic of his argument and feeling the cumulative weight of his applications.

For example, we can struggle to see the connections between what Hebrews says about the “world” Jesus entered in 1:6 and that God subjected to humans in 2:5. Hebrews gives us a clue, telling us the “world” in 2:5 is that one “of which we are speaking.” But the author also interrupts his argument with an exhortation — his first warning (2:1–4) — causing us, if we’re not careful, to lose the trail. Other examples like this could be easily given (see the mentions of Melchizedek in 5:1–10 and 7:1–10, in light of the exhortation of 5:11–6:20).

The point is, the structure of Hebrews invites us to read the letter not only front-to-back but also “genre-by-genre” or, we might say, “side-by-side.” If we don’t, we run the risk of misreading its theology and missing its pastoral force.

Read the warnings in light of Hebrews’ story line.

Hebrews everywhere tells the Bible’s story. We can see this with even a cursory look at the typography of our English Bibles, with page after page of Hebrews punctuated by indented quotations of the Old Testament — one, the longest in the New Testament (see Jeremiah 31:31–34 in Hebrews 8:8–12). Hebrews, however, tells the Bible’s story in two ways or, better, with two distinct emphases. In the author’s arguments or expositions, he emphasizes the discontinuity between the Old Testament story and his audience. What was only promised in the Old Testament has now been fulfilled in the New Testament. In his applications or exhortations, however, it’s just the reverse. In these he emphasizes the continuity between the Old Testament story and his audience. What happened in the Old Testament era is just like what’s happening in the New Testament era.

What’s more, in his exhortations, his analogy of choice is the wilderness generation (see 2:2; 3:7–4:6; 10:28; 12:25). If we miss the analogy, if we fail to feel the continuity, then we’ll blunt the sharp edge of the warnings themselves. After all, it was precisely that former generation — remarkably rescued by God from Egypt, led through the desert by God’s visible presence, sustained in the desert by God’s miraculous provision, and given a law from God himself (see 3:9; compare 2:4; 6:4–6; 10:29; 12:26) — who hardened their hearts and perished in unbelief. There’s a reason, in other words, that Hebrews skips over the wilderness generation in chapter 11’s “hall of faith.” Just like the author’s audience, the wilderness generation lived “between the times,” between the exodus and the promised land, experiencing a kind of inaugurated eschatology. We are not meant to miss the similarities. Thus, the question that hangs in the air exhortation by exhortation and warning by warning isn’t simply “How could they?” but rather “Will you too?”

“The question that hangs in the air isn’t simply ‘How could they?’ but rather ‘Will you too?’”

Now, we must add that this way of describing the author’s storytelling risks oversimplification. After all, while Hebrews emphasizes discontinuity in its arguments, continuity is nevertheless everywhere present. What else are we to make of the author’s consistent focus on the “self-confessed inadequacy” of the Old Testament? Of course, the New Testament era is an advance beyond the Old Testament era, but the advance is precisely what the Old Testament era led us to expect all along with its anticipations, for example, of another priestly order (Psalm 110:4) or a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31–34). Similarly, while Hebrews emphasizes continuity in its exhortations, notes of discontinuity are sounded as well. It’s these notes of discontinuity, in fact, that underwrite the ratcheting-up we see in the warnings: If the wilderness generation suffered for its unbelief, how much more will you (see 2:3, 12:25)? It’s one thing to refuse to believe God’s Old Testament speech; it’s quite another to refuse his superior New Testament speech (see 1:1–2; 2:1–4).

In short, Hebrews invites us to read its warnings “side-by-side” and in light of the continuity between its audience and the wilderness generation. Both lived during incredible chapters in God’s story. But, even here, Hebrews also invites us to see the discontinuity between the two. After all, the author’s audience doesn’t just live during an important chapter in God’s story but during a later and, indeed, better chapter.

Read the warnings in light of Hebrews’ soteriology.

Hebrews’ soteriology — doctrine of salvation — is wonderfully rich, so I can only summarize a little part of it here. It’s important that we see that Jesus’s death has inaugurated a better covenant, one that’s better both because it has better promises — new spiritual abilities for every covenant member (8:6, 10–11) — and because it provides better forgiveness. New-covenant members, Hebrews tells us, are completely forgiven (8:12; 10:17–18). God promises them that he’ll remember their sins no more! Hebrews calls this complete forgiveness perfection. It’s something that wasn’t available for the wilderness generation (10:2–3; cf. 11:39–40) but is now, thanks to Jesus’s sacrifice-ending sacrifice (10:14). This perfection, moreover, is what gives covenant members — Hebrews calls these believers — access to God’s presence, in part now (10:19–22; 12:22) and fully later (12:26–28). Again, this access simply wasn’t available under the old covenant, as Hebrews says again and again (see 9:8–10). Hebrews goes on to assure new-covenant believers that in the interim period, their pilgrimage to the heavenly city is sustained by an indestructible high priest, whose intercessory ministry is described as infallible (7:25), and by a heavenly Father, who not only initiates but also continually energizes their perseverance (13:20).

Thus, if we accept the author’s invitation to read his warnings “side-by-side” and against the backdrop of the wilderness period, we’ll see that his own community lives in a new era of God’s story, an era in which covenant membership means something even better than it meant for the wilderness generation.

Three Reflections

With these strategies in place, we’re now in a position to reflect on the warnings. Does Hebrews teach that believers can lose their salvation? And, if not, what are we to make of them? Let’s tackle these questions head-on by looking once more at each strategy, reflecting on them in reverse order.

Secure Salvation

When we read the warnings in light of Hebrews’ soteriology, we see that the nature of the new covenant implies — guarantees — that its members cannot and will not fall away. New-covenant members cannot lose their salvation. To suggest otherwise risks undoing precisely those features that make the new covenant new and, thus, better.

Story Line

If we read the warnings in light of Hebrews’ story line, we see that the author’s analogy of the wilderness generation only goes so far. Again, Hebrews’ audience lives in a new and better era of God’s story. This means that the two communities — the wilderness community and the author’s — are mixed but in different ways. Everybody in the wilderness generation was part of the covenant community, but only a few persevered to salvation (for example, Caleb and Joshua). The rest perished in unbelief, as the author’s warnings repeatedly tell us. In other words, old-covenant membership did not guarantee salvation in the way that new-covenant membership does.

The old-covenant community was a mixture of believing covenant members and nonbelieving covenant members. The author’s community, however, is still mixed but in a very different way. While everyone the letter addresses professed to be part of the new-covenant community, only those who persevered actually were. Those who apparently had fallen away (10:25) were, at one point, part of the author’s congregation — part of the Christian community — but never truly included in the new covenant. Otherwise, they would have persevered. Again, to say otherwise risks misreading the Bible’s story and seeing continuity where there is now glorious discontinuity.


In light of all this, when we read Hebrews’ warnings “side-by-side” to feel their collective weight, we may now discern their pastoral function with more precision. I see at least three such functions.

First, the warnings explain the spiritual status of those who walk away from the Christian community. And it’s devastating (see 6:6; 10:26). What else would you expect to happen to someone who’d seen and experienced the goodness of the gospel — God’s new-covenant work — only to deliberately turn away from it? It’s like seeing and experiencing the goodness of the exodus and rebelling on the cusp of the promised land. People like this, Hebrews tells us, neither want nor get a second chance. One doesn’t get to deliberately reject Jesus twice.

“One doesn’t get to deliberately reject Jesus twice.”

Second, the warnings also enable the perseverance of new-covenant members. They are one means God uses to sustain the faith of those he’s perfected. (For others, see, for example, the author’s prayer in 13:20 and his biographical sketches in 11:1–40.)

Third, and finally, the warnings exhort professing covenant members to walk in true repentance and genuine faith by showing them the consequences of turning their backs on what they’ve heard and experienced.

Hearing Hebrews

Applying these strategies to Hebrews won’t alone answer every question we have about the warnings, but they will point us in the right direction. They’ll help us, above all, benefit even more from the goodness of this part of our Bibles, to the end that we’re better equipped to do God’s will (13:20), leading to our greater joy and God’s ever-deserved glory.

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