This is a Tough One

It is impossible for those 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 and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. 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. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.

Hebrews 6:4-8

About 10 years ago, I was teaching a class in a predominately Calvinist group of people.  The scope of my engagement was that I would present “controversial” passages giving the various interpretations, and then let each decide their own view.  In teaching this section, I presented various views and then broke down the various arguments and ended by saying “We report, you decide!”

The following week, a guy came up to me and said, “Boy Don, you really had me going last week; I had to go home and look this up in my study Bible, and then I saw the note that said that the author obviously was talking about people who weren’t really all the way saved. That was sure a clever way to get us to go deeper into the Word!”  Yes, clever.

I thanked the man and told him that it was great to hear that he went deeper into the Word, and found the answer in a margin note… the irony, I’m afraid, was lost on him that day. Clearly, his margin note might reflect the way this is often explained, but it seems at odds with the text under review.

Let’s get back into context.  We are in a section of warning to Christians enduring terrible persecution, not to fall away from the faith.  We just covered the section referring to spiritual maturity, and now the warning gets a little pointed.  It is not possible for someone who falls away from their faith in Christ to return to the faith. Now, a closer look:

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, (6:4) This verse is a parallelism., thus “enlightened”, “the heavenly gift” and “shared in the Holy Spirit” are all referring to the same thing: receiving the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit.  Let’s be very clear and simple; it doesn’t really matter what your doctrinal position is, the only way that someone can receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit without “really” being saved, is if they could fool God.  It seems unlikely to me that this is possible.  Moving on,   who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age (6:5) this also provides a challenge for some, for how does an unbeliever “taste the goodness of the word of God”?  The only way would be if the “Word” is something on a printed page, rather than a Person. (cf. John 1:14)  Tasting the powers of the coming age…?  Isn’t that the power to overcome death? (Hint: Yes) So far, the author is referring to a person who has received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and received the gift of eternal life, and then… and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. (6:6) Here you can see that they have fallen away and would need to be brought back to repentance.  Repentance is something that we do after we first believe. This person, who has received the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and the gift of eternal life, would need to be brought back to repentance, so it is impossible since they would be crucifying the Lord over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace. It sure sounds to me like this person had been a “real” Christian, but they gave it all up and now can’t come back. Verses 7 and 8 use another metaphor (land) to underscore that conclusion, or at least that’s how I read it.

If you, dear reader, prefer the doctrine of eternal security, that’s OK by me, but I wouldn’t suggest this text as being one that supports it. Yes, I know there are other passages; maybe they support it better than this one.

Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation. God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.  We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.

Hebrews 6:9-12

This paragraph begins the transition into the next area of discussion in the letter, and it does so on a more optimistic note, showing the love and mercy of God.  Even though our author has just delivered a very serious warning, he believes that the people who read it will heed the warning and remain faithful. Notice he says “in your case” as opposed to in every case, meaning that some others might not be so wise.  Notice also that our attention is now turned to God’s mercy and forgiveness.  This is a really important thing for us to bear in mind, for God is not looking for a technicality to have as an excuse to cut anybody off from relationship. He knows that we will make mistakes He knows that we will slip up, and the blood of Christ is sufficient for those cases.  If we can lose our salvation, we would have to really work at it before God gave up on us; we would need to utterly reject Him and walk away, and to me, this seems like a very rare thing, as opposed to those who might have a season out in the wilderness, or benign neglect of our relationship with Him.

The whole point of the warning bears this out; God loves us, even when we aren’t doing a very good job in following Him.  Yet, it is much better if we hang in there and see things through.

About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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27 Responses to This is a Tough One

  1. Pete says:

    I agree with you on this one Don. I heard an ingteresting teaching on this a while back. The preacher mentioned that while the author says “It is impossible” in speaking about someone who was saved, filled with the Holy Spiirit, and then turned back to the world, that with God nothing is impossible. This passage bears this out, and it is something we must always keep in mind. There is nothing too hard for God!

  2. Tony Franklin says:

    Thanks Don, this is a well put, clear explanation of one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament. I believe Ben Witherington, III wrote about the idea of ingratitude for God’s grace as being depicted here as well, and that attitude being unforgivable (although not necessarily the actions, particularly if a person repents from those actions). Greg Ogden, author of Transforming Discipleship also teaches that beyond the NT kinds of relationships to Jesus – no relationship, curiosity about Him, following Him, we have also added a fourth: using Him, which has no basis in sciprture. There may be a connection to that in this passage as well. You’ve done an excellent job of keeping this simple though.


  3. Russ P. says:

    In light of what you’ve said, what are some examples of “falling away”? And, do I understand you to say that “if” one has fallen away, that God’s mercy and grace will be extended to that person if they repent?

    • Don Merritt says:

      Well Russ, based upon the context of Hebrews, “falling away” would be turning one’s back on God and walking away entirely from the faith, in short, rejecting Christ and his grace. Am I saying that God’s grace will or can not be given to that person? No, the author of Hebrews said it.I have ony pointed out what this whole thing is NOT.

  4. dawnlizjones says:

    This is one of the passages, along with the whole mysterious concept of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” that Satan has used over and over to try to choke the life out of my relationship with Jesus, for fear I’m said this or that wrongly, made a mistake beyond repair, and fear, nothing but fear. He led me to John Bunyan’s wonderful book “Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners”. It still bothers me some, but God is faithful, patient, and understands my concerns.

  5. Steve B says:

    Hi Don
    This post is going to be a bit convoluted but will do my best to keep it simple.

    Back in the dark ages when I was a young christian I read this passage and great fear overcame me. I went to a dear pastor who explained that since I read this passage and and the Holy Spirit brought a conviction of sorts then I had nothing to fear. He also explained that fear comes from Satan not from God so it was a mixture of both if that makes sense.

    Anyway this passage has always been in my heart and mind and yest a few years later I did turn my back on Christian things and walked the way of the world for a while to be nudged back on track. That was 2004 and I was shocked at the nonsense being spouted on the internet that was supposed to pass for Christianity. This passage in Hebrews seems totally out of context from what comes before and after. It is though Paul in writing this was making statements about maturity then he went into a trance and the Holy Spirit decided to take over then in Heb 6:9 comes back to where he finished in Heb 6:3. God took over so that we would pay more attention in my opinion. Lets go from there.

    Eze 18:20 The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.
    Eze 18:21 But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die.
    Eze 18:22 All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live.
    Eze 18:23 Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?
    Eze 18:24 But when the righteous turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations that the wicked man doeth, shall he live? All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned: in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die.
    Eze 18:25 Yet ye say, The way of the Lord is not equal. Hear now, O house of Israel; Is not my way equal? are not your ways unequal?
    Eze 18:26 When a righteous man turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and dieth in them; for his iniquity that he hath done shall he die.
    Eze 18:27 Again, when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.
    Eze 18:28 Because he considereth, and turneth away from all his transgressions that he hath committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.
    Eze 18:29 Yet saith the house of Israel, The way of the Lord is not equal. O house of Israel, are not my ways equal? are not your ways unequal?

    Pay attention to verses 26-28! Is this not the same as Heb 6:4-8? Substitute Jesus for righteousness.

    The prime example of turning away is Lucifer/Satan and the angels that followed him. They dwelt with God in Eternity. They had everything mentioned in Heb 4 yet they walked away. Lucifer probably convinced most of his followers that God would bring them back but the opposite happened and they were kicked out of heaven and on to earth. Judas is another (poor) example. Sure he didn’t have the Holy Spirit but he walked with the Word of God and betrayed Him. John Calvin comes to mind. He did many good things for the reformation then stuffed up with his rubbish theology and then murders a man because he had a different theology. BTW I am not condemning Calvin here cause he may have repented. There is also the opposite in Napoleon Bonaparte. He is a type of Nebuchadnezzar since he was used by God to bring down the power of the Pope. I believe his conversion in exile was real.

    Many people do not understand the power of the cross. The cross not only saves people after the event but it saved everybody who followed God from Adam to the thief. People think linearly. They think that since the crucifixion is a point in time then everything christian happens after that point. God is eternal and He saw the cross from the beginning. Satan did not understand this (luckily) and realized his mistake at the resurrection. Satan knew Jesus would be crucified as laid out in Psalm 22 but had no idea what it would achieve.

    I said this was convoluted. This is the point. It is possible that Satan can seduce Christians and turn them against God just as he seduced Eve and the angels in heaven to follow him. For those Jewish Christians in Rome at that time and even 200 years later in the time of Diocletian would have been tempted at the severe persecution against them to betray other Christians in an attempt to save their own lives and the lives of those they loved.

    Anyway this is my own opinion and I don’t expect others to go with this. 🙂

  6. Citizen Tom says:

    Good post!

    I don’t pretend to have a better answer to that one. While there are other passages in the Bible in the Bible that are fairly clear God saves all those who repent and turn to him, that one clearly suggests we must remain ever faithful.

    What do I think we should learn from it? We should refrain from judging who is saved and who is not, and we should never take our own salvation for granted. We must progress in the faith. Kind of drives home Hebrews 5:11-6:3. Our assurance of salvation lies in the knowledge we love Jesus. How can we say we love someone we do not seek to know.

  7. Sharon says:

    Don, thank you. This passage has always bothered me. I knew there had to be an answer to losing salvation – after all it is written here in Hebrews for a reason. Your explanation makes a lot of sense and solidifies my passion for all to be certain of their salvation and working out that salvation to it’s glorious end. Thanks again. You’ve made my day. 😁

  8. Sharon says:

    Reblogged this on Continually Seeking Him and commented:
    This is a tough passage and the clearest explanation I’ve ever heard. What are your thoughts?

  9. Look at the other side of the coin: Once lost, always lost. There is never any hope for someone who was “not chosen by God”. They can study all they want, cry all they want, but it does them no good. Once lost, always lost. Then there’s what Peter said: “God is not willing for anyone to perish.”

  10. Mel Wild says:

    Very fun passage to explain…ha ha! 🙂 You brought up some very important points, Don. And I agree with Tom, we shouldn’t go around judging who’s saved and who isn’t, or take it for granted. The context, as you pointed out before, is Jewish Christians denying the faith and going back to Judaism (Christianity was illegal and Judaism wasn’t in the Roman Empire at the time). So, since salvation is based on having faith in Christ’s finished work on the Cross, this warning is to those who would deny such. Let me say here that it doesn’t mean those who have fallen back into sinful behavior have now lost their salvation forever. We are saved by grace through faith, not by our behavior. But if we reject grace and faith, there is no other means of salvation available to us. And I agree, it would probably be a very rare thing for someone to actually reject the faith. Nonetheless, I think this is what the writer is getting at, warning these Jewish Christians to keep the faith in the midst of severe persecution.

    • Don Merritt says:

      I quite agree. This “falling away” business is much than screwing up, having a bad season or benngn neglect; it’s more of a repudiation or abrogation of the covenant relationship that is being warned of.

    • dawnlizjones says:

      Did you say “fun”? (I get the sarcasm…) Thank you, Mel, for such a compassionate reply here. I’ve come to the place of understanding that when God grants repentance, He will also always grant forgiveness–they go hand-in-hand.

  11. Pingback: This is a Tough One | A disciple's study

  12. Thank you for giving a thorough evaluation of the passage. It’s the best I’ve heard.

  13. Pingback: This is a Tough One plus – Citizen Tom

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