The following blog post is written by Ryan David Langford, a lay-theologian who has written for this blog ministry before. The initial reason for this post is to respond to Steven Sewell’s (a member of the Society of Evangelical Arminianism) proposition and attack on Reformed theology with regard to perseverance of the saints. Due to the nature of the initial interaction which was prevenient grace, I have decided to post Ryan’s efforts in explaining this text from the Reformed perspective considering my own inability to write because of a shortage of time.
There have generally been three proposed possibilities of whom the author is speaking: (1) non-Christians who have apostatized, having been only superficially united to us, (2) true Christians, and this is just a hypothetical scenario and a means of stirring them up to perseverance, or (3) true Christians, and they can really lose their salvation and apostatize.
Option (3) is ruled out by other passages within the book of Hebrews, which we’ll look at below. Regarding option (2) and within the same passage, 6:8 militates against this option in that “if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.” And the author’s context leading up to that weighs even heavier against it (see 3:12-13, 19; 4:1-2, 6, 8-9, 11). The only demonstrable position from the general context of Hebrews, I believe, is option (1), which we now turn to.
Chapters 3 and 10 serve as parameters for helping us understand what’s going on in chapter 6, and we must always interpret the difficult or ambiguous in light of the more simple or explicit (but that’s not to say that we can cancel out other clear texts out of preference for some other pet interpretation of ours).
Regarding 3:14, one author writes, “According to Hebrews 3:14 (and 3:6), ‘we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm until the end.’ Note well: he says we ‘have become’ partakers of Christ, not ‘will become’ or ‘are now partakers,’ if we persevere in faith. In other words, holding fast in faith, i.e., persevering, proves that you became a partaker of Christ in the past. Failing to hold fast, i.e., apostatizing from the faith, proves that you never were a partaker of Christ. Apostasy or falling away (6:6a) doesn’t mean you once were in and have now fallen out of partaking in Christ. It means you never were or never became a partaker in the first place.” (Sam Storms, http://www.samstorms.com/all-articles/post/hebrews-6:4-6-and-the-possibility-of-apostasy)
A second line of evidence is 3:12: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” This is what we have to guard against. We have to “exhort one another every day” because of this reality: we have people amongst us whose bluff will be called by Father Time and their “unbelieving heart” will be revealed. The point of note is that it’s the “unbelieving heart” that “falls away from the living God,” not a believing heart, coupled with v. 19 which says that “unbelief” is why the other Israelites (God’s people) weren’t able to enter his rest. Chapter 4 goes on to exhort us to have a disposition of concern for fear that some of those around us have failed to reach the promised rest, but then affirms that the genuine believers have already entered that rest (Heb 4:1, 3, 10).
The other parameter is in Heb 10:36-39. There the author writes to the general audience, composed of the saved and the self-deceived (veiled unbelieving hearts), that “you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.” This is the same idea of endurance spoken of in 3:6 and 3:14, without which we are shown to have not been a partaker of Jesus. But then the author goes on to write that “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” That’s not us, he writes. True Christians persevere in faith. As he wrote earlier in the chapter just before this, those who are being sanctified have been “perfected for all time” (10:14). It’s the veiled *unbelieving* hearts among us that depart and fall away. This is similar to John’s writing that “if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 Jn 2:19).
Specifically with chapter 6, the essence of this passage is to show that “it is impossible, in the case of [particular individuals] . . . to restore them again to repentance.” The main question, though, is whether the things he describes are true of only genuine believers or if they are true and can be said for yet-to-be-revealed unbelievers.
Examining each phrase individually:
- “Been enlightened” probably either refers simply to the initial entrance into Christian community (cf. Heb 10:32), having the knowledge of God disclosed in the gospel message, receiving instruction in biblical truth, or possibly even baptism. (cf. Jn 1:9). Baptism was called very early “illumination” by early church fathers Justin Martyr and Clemens Alexandrinus. See also 2 Peter 2:20-22.
- “Tasted the heavenly gift” probably refers to the general blessing that one encounters in the fellowship of the Christian community or figuratively to consciously experiencing something—similarly to how the Jews in Jesus’ day experienced demonic deliverances, healings, ate food he miraculously created, and witnessed resurrections. (cf. Ac 7:51). Many think this refers to communion.
- “Shared in the Holy Spirit” probably refers to the communal experience of the Spirit who is active in Christian services, in that nonbelievers who are present can be blessed from the interpretation of tongues or be prophesied to (see 1 Cor 14:24-25) or be delivered, etc. Consider also that he doesn’t say they “have come to share in Christ” as in 3:14. Just as Jesus said many non-believers will claim in that day to have prophesied, cast out demons and done many might works (Mt 7:21-23), so also is the idea here.
- “Tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” probably refers to the experience and privilege of hearing God’s eternal word or the gospel and witnessing healings or other miracles.
- “And then have fallen away” refers to an obstinate and impenitent departure from all the privileges they had through the Christian community, a pillar and buttress of the truth: the eternal gospel and way of salvation, the way of righteousness, the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the demonstration of the Spirit of the living God in their midst. An example of this is Judas. Consider what he hard-heartedly chose to walk away from.
- “‘Crucifying once again’ graphically portrays rejection of Jesus. ‘Holding . . . up to contempt’ (Gk. paradeigmatizō) conveys the idea of a public, shameful display” (ESVSB). It can also be translated “re-crucifying the son of God for themselves” (NET Bible). I think in their re-repentance, were it even possible for the group in question, they are undermining the original sacrifice and showing it to be inefficacious. Thus, logically speaking, were re-repentance possible, it would be equivalent to having to have Jesus die again to save you since it apparently didn’t work the first time (or wasn’t able to keep you).
(Some of the wording in the above six points is taken from and is a combination of various study bibles)
The reason the author provides such a detailed list here is not that he’s attempting to unmistakably describe true believers but that he’s showing how high their fall is from and how utterly baffling the apostasy is when the thorn- and thistle-bearing folk (6:8) walk away from so much.
From a human perspective, restoring them to repentance a second time is “impossible.” What would they possibly come back to? There’s nothing new. They’ve already spurned or rejected the sacrifice of the Son of God and that will never cease to be the Christian focus. They’ve already publically shown through their rejection that they despise him and have no respect or reverence for him and what he did. There will be no improving on the gospel; they have no other option to come back to.
The reality of self-deception and falling away are real and present, and it’s what the author of Hebrews is warning against. It’s the reason he’s holding out the promise of God’s rest (4:1) and why we should gather together as Christians, encourage each other as Christians (3:13), and do all the things he exhorts us to do.