Second, understand that the function of the “Word of God” in Hebrews 4:12-13 has more to do with objective reality, than with experience. Once again, it is easy to simply read the “it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” as describing the personal experience of the hearer. I believe that phrase includes that interpretation, but is not limited to it.
First, it includes the experience of being “cut to the heart.” Consider these examples from Scripture. When the residents of Nineveh heard the word, they repented. The Israelites wept when they heard Ezra read the law. After Peter’s sermon the people were “cut to the heart,” repented, and were baptized. Paul says that an unbeliever who comes into a church where the word is being spoken intelligibly (in this context, through prophecy) might be “convicted of sin and brought under judgment … as the secrets of their heart are laid bare” (1 Cor. 14:24-25). If you have personally had a conversion experience, you have experienced the convicting, penetrating, powerful experience of the Word of God in your own heart.
The primary function of the Word, however, is not simply to produce in us the experience of feeling convicted, but to actually hold us accountable – to actually convict us of sin, whether we experience the feeling of conviction or not. Note where the passage goes: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
In Hebrews the call to persevering faith remains the same, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts,” but there are two responses: respond in faith, or harden your heart. Was the word ineffectual because the Wilderness generation rejected the word and refused to go into the land? No, it was effectual even for them because their rebellion resulted in their just judgment, wandering in the desert 40 years.
Hebrews 4:13 says “everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” The imagery here is of a patient whose neck is bared before the surgeon’s knife, or the wrestler who has just been overpowered by a superior foe. We’re helpless, naked, exposed, and overpowered by God and His Word. We may not always experience that reality, but it doesn’t make it any less true. To His Word we must give a “word of account.” Before the judgment throne of God we are judged and held accountable to His call.
And so, one tension is resolved but another is uncovered. The tension of my experience is resolved when I understand the Hebrews 4:12-13 is more about the reality of the Word of God than my experience of it. But the new tension arises: In myself I am ill-prepared to give my own word of account before the overpowering Word and call of God. Thanks be to God, this second tension is resolved in priesthood of Christ. At the end of Hebrews 4:12-13 the reader ought to be left with an appropriate sense of the fear of the Lord, which ought to help us grasp with even greater joy the good news, that Jesus gives a word on our behalf.