Perseverance: Hebrews 6

Hebrews 6 contains one of the most controversial passages in the New Testament (which says a lot!).

(Heb 6:4-8)  It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, 6 if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

7 Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. 8 But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.

We need to take this nice and slow. The passage seems to plainly say that not only can Christians fall away, but if they do so, they’ll never repent. Notice carefully that it doesn’t say that God will not accept and forgive those who repent. Not at all. The risk isn’t that God won’t forgive — it’s that we won’t ever repent.

Therefore, we must be careful not to interpret this passage to say that someone who is sorrowful for his sins and wants to return to God will be denied by God. It plainly says no such thing! Nothing here contradicts the Parable of the Prodigal Son. God forgives … Jesus saves … if we are penitent.

No, the great danger the writer presents is the danger of never repenting. We’ll come back to that. First, we need to deal with some objections often voiced to this interpretation of the passage.

“Impossible”

Some interpret “impossible” to mean “extremely difficult.” Well, the same Greek word is used in these passages —

(Heb 6:18)  God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged.

(Heb 10:3-4)  But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, 4 because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

(Heb 11:6)  And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

There are four things the writer declares “impossible,” and in each case, “impossible” means impossible — not “very hard.”

“Tasted”

Some argue that “tasted the heavenly gift” suggests someone who considered being converted but was never truly converted — like someone who tastes a meal but never actually eats. But that’s not really what the Greek says. Rather, here are some examples of how the Greek word is used —

(Heb 2:9)  But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

(Acts 10:10)  He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance.

(Acts 20:11)  Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left.

(Acts 23:14)  They went to the chief priests and elders and said, “We have taken a solemn oath not to eat anything until we have killed Paul.”

Jesus “tasted” death, but he really and truly died. He was fully dead. However, he was only temporarily dead — and that’s the idea in Heb 6:4. Compare the parallel phrases —

* who have once been enlightened

* who have tasted the heavenly gift

* who have shared in the Holy Spirit

* who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age

This surely refers to someone who has been saved — although perhaps only temporarily.

The same Greek word translated “enlightened” is also found in —

(Heb 10:32)  Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering.

This is plainly a reference to being saved. (The rest of c. 10 makes this very plain.)

And who shares in the Holy Spirit other than the saved? The word translated “shared” also appears in 1:9, 3:1, 3:14, and 12:8 and in each case refers to Jesus (1:9) or the saved. The saved share “the heavenly calling,” “Christ,” “the Spirit,” and God’s “discipline.”

The author is plainly referring to people actually saved.

“Fall away”

Some argue that “fall away” doesn’t mean “become damned.” Some argue that it refers to people who’ve never really been saved — wolves in sheep’s clothing. But that is obviously not so as explained above. Others argue that it means something less than damnation.

The word is contextually and grammatically tied to —

(Heb 3:17)  And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert?

(Heb 4:11)  Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.

Both are warnings to the saved against failing to enter God’s rest. And, of course, we can’t ignore the fact that to “fall” is a New Testament euphemism for “to die” or “to be damned.”

(Rom 14:4)  Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

(1 Cor 10:8)  We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did–and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.

(1 Cor 10:12)  So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!

(Gal 5:4)  You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.

(James 5:12)  Above all, my brothers, do not swear–not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned [fall into condemnation].

(2 Pet 3:17)  Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position.

No, “fall away” means to fall from salvation and so to die eternally.

“Because”

Many argue that the “because” in v. 6 really means “while” — that you can’t be restored “while” you are subjecting Jesus to a public disgrace. To say that you can’t repent while you are humiliating Jesus is to say something too obvious for words. As F. F. Bruce states in the New International Commentary,

The warning in the passage was a real warning against a real danger, a danger which is still present so long as “an evil heart of unbelief” can result in “falling away from the living God.” …

By suggesting that these people cannot be brought back to repentance so long as they repudiate Christ, this rendering might be thought to imply that when they cease to repudiate Him repentance will be possible. But this is certainly not what is meant. To say that they cannot be brought to repentance so long as they persist in their renunciation of Christ would be a truism hardly worth putting into words.

Instead, Bruce interprets the passage at face value:

People who commit this sin [falling away due to willful sin], he says, cannot be brought back to repentance; by renouncing Christ they put themselves in the position of those who, deliberately refusing his claim to be the Son of God, had Him crucified and exposed to public shame. Those who repudiate the salvation procured by Christ will find none anywhere else.

Hypothetical situation

For convicted Calvinists, the passage is interpreted as a hypothetical situation that could never really happen. Rather, it’s a warning that’s entirely unnecessary because it’s impossible to fall away. See, for example, Hewitt in the Tyndale commentary series. Or as in Barnes’ Notes

It is material to remark here, that the apostle does not say that any true Christian ever had fallen away. He makes a statement of what would occur on the supposition that such a thing should happen—but a statement may be made of what would occur on the supposition that a certain thing should take place, and yet it be morally certain that the event never would happen. It would be easy to suppose what would happen if the ocean should overflow a continent, or if the sun should cease to rise, and still there be entire certainty that such an event never would occur.

Ponder this one closely. The theory is that it’s impossible to actually fall away — and so no one ever does — and so the writer is warning against an impossibility as a means of helping God cause the saved to persevere. He is warning the readers against an impossible risk to motivate them — by fear of the impossible — to not fall away.

I’m not buying it. The writer has just warned his readers in chapters 3 and 4 against falling away, as the Israelites really did. He used an example of a real falling away, leading to actual death — to warn against something that could never happen?? Does God cause us to persevere by warning us against impossibilities? It’s rather like teaching your children to stay in bed by warning them against the bogeyman (by lying to them!) And yet this is what the Hebrews writer describes as going beyond elementary teachings (6:1)!

God cannot lie, and so God cannot warn us against things we should have no fear of. I mean, imagine warning your children against the ocean overflowing the continent or the sun not rising. What kind of parent would create such fears in his children?

The rest of the chapter

(Heb 6:11)  We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure.

How could he more plainly teach that it’s possible to have an unsure hope? Compare —

(2 Pet 1:10-11)  Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Yes, we can have a sure calling and election. But it’s also possible to have an unsure election.

Next

As I said at the beginning, this won’t be a commentary on the entire book. We’ll next skip ahead to chapter 10 to see whether the warning against falling away there is consistent with 6:4-6.

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10 Responses

  1. Jay,

    I honestly do not get it. While you and I disagree over a myriad of Bible subjets, I can at least usually understand how and where you are confused. 🙂

    But, this Calvinisim stuff makes absolutely no sense at all. You have already referrenced passages which disprove the idea of POTS (in the clearest language possible), and yet the proponets of Calvinism seemingly can’t see it (I know we can’t call them dishonest here).

    Yet, it would make just as much sense for a person to argue that Jesus never went to Nazareth than to argue that a Christian can never fall away.

    Still, I will read what they write…

  2. The writer of Hebrews at times was speaking to certain people present that they need to have genuine faith.

    Hebrews 4:1-2 “Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it.”

    The unsaved participate partaking that which is of Christ all the time. The gospel had been preached to these people, they gained knowledge of Christ, they have been to churches, they have tasted heavenly things, they have seen the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit manifested in their presence. They were to go on to a full genuine acceptance or to fall to a willful conscious enmity against Christ, and the sin of rejecting Him, and putting Him to an open shame. Those who don’t hold firm were never eternally saved. The writer of Hebrews is speaking to the unsaved who have heard the truth, but who have hesitated to embrace Christ.

    As we see the writer also speaks to the beloved present to those who have genuine faith as in verses 6:9-20.

    “But, beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner. For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, “Surely blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply you.” And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise. For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them an end of all dispute. Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath, that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

    The Lord Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. I and My Father are one.”(John 10:27-30), Paul gives us assurance saying, “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”(Romans 8:38-39), “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.” (Ephesians 1:13-14). We can be confident that God keeps us as He promises to complete what He started in us, “Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6).

  3. We should be encouraged by God’s faithfulness to always help us and protect us.

    Psalm 18:1-2 “I will love You, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God, my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”

    Psalm 18:28 “For You will light my lamp; The LORD my God will enlighten my darkness.”

    Psalm 32:7 “You are my hiding place; You shall preserve me from trouble; You shall surround me with songs of deliverance.”

    Psalm 36:5 “Your mercy, O LORD, is in the heavens; Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.”

    Psalm 37:39-40 “But the salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; He is their strength in the time of trouble. And the LORD shall help them and deliver them; He shall deliver them from the wicked, And save them, Because they trust in Him.”

    Psalm 48:14 “For this is God, Our God forever and ever; He will be our guide even to death.”

    Psalm 46:1 “God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble.”

    Psalm 63:7-8 “Because You have been my help, Therefore in the shadow of Your wings I will rejoice. My soul follows close behind You; Your right hand upholds me.”

    Psalm 73:26 “My flesh and my heart fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

    Psalm 91:1-2 “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress; My God, in Him I will trust.”

    Psalm 94:18 “If I say, “My foot slips,” Your mercy, O LORD, will hold me up.”

    Psalm 103:12 “As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us.”

    Psalm 121:2 “My help comes from the LORD, Who made heaven and earth.”

    Psalm 138:7 “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You will revive me; You will stretch out Your hand Against the wrath of my enemies, And Your right hand will save me.”

    I trust when I put my life in His hands there couldn’t be a more secure place to be. God is my strength, my stronghold, He always revives me, God helps me and holds me up even when I am at my weakest.

    2 Peter 2:9 “Then the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations and to reserve the unjust under punishment for the day of judgment.”

    People need to totally embrace Christ with all of their life, not just part of it. I trust God with all of my life, everything about me is in His hands, my weaknesses, my fears, my doubts. Whatever Satan wants to throw at me, God is with me, He will protect me. I encourage people who are learning to trust God that they can trust Him with all of their life.

  4. Perhaps those who suppose the writer of Hebrews is describing someone other than a Christian who then falls away and is lost eternally should reconsider how the early church taught sinners were saved. Acts 2:38 describes it. Believers who seek to join with Jesus are to repent and be immersed in water at which time they will have sins remitted and also will receive the gift of God’s Spirit. Hebrews 6 and 10 are speaking of ones who have deliberately chosen to serve Jesus and later have changed their mind. The Spirit is not given to those outside of Christ.

  5. Do you think everyone who attends church has the Holy Spirit, I don’t.

    People in the COC denomination need to take Acts 10:44-48, Acts 15:7-9 and Romans 4:1-8 seriously. People in the COC need to know that the whole Bible is about the redemption plan God provides for all people, Abraham, Moses, and David will be in heaven too.

  6. Jay, I have two questions.

    First, the passage states “to be brought back to repentance”, this does not seem to me to a failure of the person. Acts 11:18 indicates God grants repentance, it does not rest completley on man. Are you saying a man brings himself to repentance?

    Secondly, assuming your interpretation of this passage is correct, why have churches of Christ historically taught that a person can be saved again after he is lost? I can see only two possibilities. One, the person who fell away was not really lost. Or two, we don’t really believe what we teach. I have seen many, many people who were “lost”, “away from God”, etc., etc. who were considered restored in good standing after only a confession.

    Whatever our understanding of repentance here the word “impossible” means what it says. If this passage is as you present it, no saved person who falls away can ever be saved. Shouldn’t we practice what we preach?

    Royce

  7. Mt:19:26: But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.

  8. Anon

    Many in the COC do not believe in the in dwelling of the Holy Spirit because they have never been taught to believe so. They were taught that the Spirit is in the word only. However I hope the Spirit is with them is spite of their ignorance. This is exactly why one should study the Word daily and not rely on a preacher or group of elders to teach them.

    I believe in every precious word of scripture from Gen. to Rev. It took us two years of weekly study with a retired Methodist minister, Buddy Miller and a book by Milligan published in 1880, titled “The Scheme of Redemption” to realize that God had a plan for us starting in Gen. Every word in the OT points tp Christ. You can read of Jesus in Isaiah and Jeremiah that is so plain that I gasp when reading it over and over.

    This is one old COC’r that thanks you for your splendid input.

    Go with God

    Bob

  9. Royce,

    I agree. I’ve taught exactly that way for many years. I’m going to post something spelling out how I see it.

    Thanks.

  10. Thank you Bob and may God’s peace be with you. 🙂

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