(Heb. 12:15-17) Did Esau lose his salvation?

CLAIM: Hebrews states, “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled; 16 that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears” (Heb. 12:15-17). Can we lose our salvation permanently?

RESPONSE: Even those who disbelieve in eternal security would have difficulty with this passage. After all, Hebrews says that Esau couldn’t repent after this sin (“he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears”). Even those who deny eternal security agree that an apostate can repent and come back into a right standing with God. Many passages teach that God will accept anyone who is repentant toward him. For instance, Jesus said, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (Jn. 6:37).

What then does this passage mean?

The author of Hebrews is referring to the consequences of our sin—not salvation. When Esau sold Jacob his birthright to Jacob (Gen. 25), this referred to his stake in the Abrahamic Covenant. Esau didn’t die and go to hell, but he was excluded from God’s plan in the world. Later in Genesis, we have every reason to believe that Esau continued to believe in and worship God. Nothing in the text of Genesis suggests that Esau ceased being a believer.

Once Isaac blessed Jacob, this deathbed will was irreversible. Gleason Archer writes, “The binding character of a deathbed will, such as was elicited from Isaac by Jacob, is attested by a case where a man named Tarmiya established his right to a woman he had married by proving that his father on his deathbed orally bestowed her on him. This was sufficient to win the lawsuit brought against him by his brothers.”[1] Furthermore, the Nuzi documents support the practice of selling your birthright, as seen in Esau and Jacob (Gen. 25:33).[2] Kidner writes, “Evidence from Nuzi shows that among contemporary Hurrians it was transferable, and in one such contract a brother pays three sheep for part of an inheritance.”[3]

Thus this passage teaches that we can make decisions that are irreversible. While God is forgiving and can heal us, he also respects our freewill to choose against him. While it is God’s prerogative to fix our bad decisions, we don’t have promises that God will supernaturally guard us from bad consequences (Col. 3:25).

See our earlier article “Eternal Security.”

[1] Archer, G., Jr. (1994). A survey of Old Testament introduction (3rd. ed., p. 179). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Archer, Gleason L. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Third Edition. Chicago, IL: Moody, 1998. 179.

[3] Kidner, D. (1967). Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 1, p. 162). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.