04 Are Persons In Hebrews 6:4-6 Christians?

ARE THE PERSONS DESCRIBED IN HEBREWS 6:4-6 CHRISTIANS?

by Art Hurtado


Throughout history, doctrinal controversies have arisen in the Church which have forced theologians to search out answers. The nature of Christ, salvation, and the canon of Scripture are a few examples. Especially in recent centuries, Christians have faced-off over differences surrounding the eternal security of the believer, the perseverance of the saints and the possibility of losing one’s salvation, with various expositors marshaling evidence in support of their particular position.

Much of the current debate [1] has centered in the book of Hebrews and its warning passages, particularly Hebrews 6:4-6. The ominous tone of this warning leaves the reader with no doubt that those who ignore it do so at great risk Historically, these verses have been a fulcrum upon which Calvinists and Arminians have struggled for leverage in the debate regarding the Christian’s eternal salvation. While Arminians use this passage to teach that a Christian can lose his salvation, Calvinists often argue that the subjects of the passage are not really Christians as proved by their apostasy. Still others claim the writer is only proposing a hypothetical situation that could never actually happen.

In order to properly interpret this passage, the first issue we must address is, “Are the persons described in Hebrews 6:4-6 true believers?” Having answered that question, we can then show how our conclusions fit within the warning of Hebrews 5:11-6:8 and within the larger argument of the book itself. Although this paper will not resolve the debate over the believer’s security in Christ, it is hoped that it will shed light on this difficult and controversial passage.

Interpretive Options for Hebrews 6:4-6

In reviewing past and current works on Hebrews 6:4-6, interpretations of this passage usually fall under one of the following four theories: the “saved-lost” theory, the “professors-not possessors” theory, the “hypothetical case” theory and the “disqualification theory”.

Those who hold the “saved-lost” theory maintain that it is possible for a person to be truly regenerate and then, because of grievous sin, to lapse back into a state of separation from God. One problem with this theory is that if a loss of salvation is what is taught, then this passage also teaches “once lost always lost.” Many proponents of the saved-lost theory would find such a proposition disagreeable, but unavoidable.

The “professors-not possessors” view is that the apostates are non-Christians who came close to salvation but turned away from the truth because of hardship or persecution. Since those who hold this position do not accept the teaching that genuine believers can fall away, they conclude that the apostates in Hebrews were outwardly acquainted with Christianity but had never truly received the Lord Jesus as their own personal Savior.

The “hypothetical” theory claims the warning in Hebrews 6 was hypothetical. Its purpose was to exhort believers into obedience by revealing the seriousness of denying Christ. This view seeks to mediate the apparent teaching of the passage (that a believer

can lose his salvation) with the doctrine of the believer’s security in Christ.

A final view, the “disqualification theory,” interprets this passage as referring to those whose carnality results in their disqualification from the Christian race and a loss of rewards, but not their salvation. This view also seeks to reconcile the apparent warning of a loss of salvation with the harsh language of the warning.

These are four of the most common interpretations for Hebrews 6:4-6. Most other views are a variation of one of these four positions. Of the four views above, only the “professors-not possessors” view would answer this investigation in the negative.

An Exegetical Examination of Hebrews 6:4-6

Our primary objective in this paper is to identify the spiritual condition of the persons described in Hebrews 6:4-6 [2]. In fact, this is one of the main problems in understanding the passage. As I. Howard Marshall asks, “Were they or were they not genuine Christians [3]?”

To answer this question we shall focus upon the five participial phrases with which the writer of Hebrews describes the apostates. He says that they have: 1) been enlightened, 2) tasted the heavenly gift, 3) been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, 4) tasted the good word of God and powers of a coming age, and (in spite of all this!) 5) they have fallen away.

Our exegesis will show that the participial phrases describe progressively deeper experiences of faith, moving from enlightenment to forgiveness of sins, to regeneration by the Spirit, and so forth. The cumulative description of the blessings expresses the extent to which the apostates have experienced God’s kindness. These blessings are then sharply contrasted with the apostasy and its implications in Hebrews 6:6-8.

With this brief introduction as background, let us proceed with our exegetical examination of some the key words and phrases in this passage.

Having Once Bean Enlightened

The first and most significant phrase used to identify the apostates in this passage is translated, having ones been enlightened Beginning with Justin Martyr in the second century, enlightenment was often used by Christians synonymously with baptism. Some church fathers later adopted this meaning for Hebrews 6:4; thus, the passage came to be used during the Novation controversy of the fourth century as a warning passage prohibiting rebaptism of the lapsed. Such associations persisted through the sixteenth century until the Reformers began to rethink the meaning of baptism and other sacraments.

Actually, there is no compelling reason to associate enlightenment with baptism prior to Patristic writings since it never clearly takes this meaning in the New Testament. Instead, in addition to its literal use, we find “enlighten” commonly used in Greek literature as well as the Old Testament in connection with teaching, especially of communicating spiritual truth.

For example, the Septuagint sometimes uses “enlighten” to represent Hebrew words related to instruction, teaching and giving understanding. Thus, Jehoash did right in the Lord’s sight because the priest instructed him in the Law (2 Kings 12:2). Also, the Psalmist states that, The unfolding of Thy words gives light, it gives understanding to the simple. (Ps. 118[119]:130).

In the New Testament, spiritual illumination is often the meaning of “enlighten” when used in a religious sense [4]. This verb may take either Christians or unbelievers as its object. For example, in Ephesians 1:18 Paul prays that the eyes of the Ephesians’ hearts might be enlightened so that they might understand their position in Christ. In 3:9 of the same book he refers to himself as one sent to bring to light the mystery of God. John 1:9 describes Jesus as “the light, which, coming into the world enlightens every man,” both saved and lost.

Certainly in Hebrews, “enlightenment” refers to the mind or conscience being illuminated as a result of instruction. For example, Hebrews10:32 enjoins the readers to “remember the former days when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of suffering.” This reference to the former days relates to Hebrews 5:12 where the writer rebukes his readers for their dullness and for having forgotten the things they once learned. So one can say that the apostates had been sufficiently instructed with regard to salvation and, therefore, could be called “enlightened.”

The Significance of hapax

At this point we may ask, “To what degree have the apostates been enlightened?” Some believe the use of hapax (having once been enlightened) indicates that the extent of their enlightenment must surely be great [5]. This word, used fifteen times in the New Testament (eight of these in Hebrews), is a combination of eis meaning “one,” and pegnumi, meaning “bring together or make firm.” Its central meaning includes “numerical singularity and completeness which needs no additions [6].”

Thus Christ is said to have died “once” with respect to sin (1 Peter 3:18) and to have been offered “once” to bear the sins of many (Heb. 9:28). His sacrificial death need not be repeated since it was sufficient to remove sin for all time. Likewise, the apostates, having once been enlightened, do not need a stronger witness of the truth [7]. And, judging from the description of their condition in the remaining phrases, they appear to have initially responded in faith to this witness.

Conclusions on “Having Once Been Enlightened”

From these possibilities, it seems that “those who have once been enlightened” describes persons who have come to understand the gospel through instruction from others (Heb. 2:3; 5:12; 10:32; 13:7). The force of hapax makes it extreme to suggest that their enlightenment reflects only a superficial acquaintance with the gospel. Rather, the apostates had been fully instructed in the way to salvation, although the instruction or enlightenment itself need not include conversion. Yet, as will be shown, the writer regards the apostates as true converts to Christianity.

Having Tasted the Heavenly Gift

Continuing his description of the apostates, the writer of Hebrews next describes them as having tastes the heavenly gift. The word in Hebrews 6:4 for gift (doreas) always describes a gift or bounty from God in the New Testament [8]. Since this clause is not modified by an explanatory genitive (as it is in Eph. 3:7, Rom. 5: 17, Acts 2:38), only context is left to determine its meaning.

Scholars have proposed several meanings for the “heavenly gift.” F. F. Bruce states that “as enlightenment suggests baptism, so the tasting of the heavenly gift may suggest the Eucharist; certainly the people in question have communicated in addition to being baptized [9].” But just as it is unlikely that “enlightenment” describes baptism, it is also doubtful that the “heavenly gift” represents the Eucharist. Others have interpreted the “gift” to be the Holy Spirit. While the Holy Spirit is called a “gift” in Acts 2:38 and 10:45, His person should not be understood as the object of this title in Hebrews 6:4, since its use here would make its occurrence in the next participial phrase redundant.

Against these views are those who think the “heavenly gift” is a synonym for salvation. Chrysostom (345-407 A.D.) considered the heavenly gift a reference to the remission of sins, something which God alone could perform [10].

Sharing this view, Barclay says, “The Christian is a man who knows the immeasurable relief of experiencing the free gift of the forgiveness of God [11].” Delitzsch also made this link between the heavenly gift and salvation in Hebrews 6:4. He writes that the heavenly gift “. . . is that of salvation in Christ. A gift it is, because God has bestowed it upon us, and imparts it to us in prevenient grace; a heavenly gift because [it is] sent down from heaven itself, making us partakers of celestial blessedness [12].” (Italics in original.)

Several arguments support this conclusion. First, not only is doreas used in the New Testament of gifts received from God (John 4:10, Eph. 4:7), but it denotes a gift received without payment or recompense, emphasizing its complimentary or gratuitous nature [13]. Certainly salvation fits this description. Second, the article is repeated, stressing the gift’s “heavenly origin and supernatural character [14].” Salvation is properly understood as a gift from God. A third argument to support salvation as the meaning of the “heavenly gift” is that it fits well in the logical progression of the blessings in this passages [15]. Finally, if these participial phrases present progressively deeper experiences of faith, and if the first phrase can be equated with instruction concerning salvation, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the heavenly gift the apostates had tasted describes true conversion.

However, some would object to this conclusion arguing that this passage only says the apostates had merely tasted heavenly gift, implying that this taste was only a superficial nibble or sip which was later spewed out. But the same word is used in Hebrews 2:9, speaking of Jesus’ tasting death. No one would want to argue there that Jesus’ taste of death was shallow or superficial. Instead, there and in Hebrews 6, it is appropriate to understand this taste as one which so fills the senses that rejecting the experience merits severe judgment. Additionally, as in the previous clause, this second phrase is also under the jurisdiction of the hapax, giving additional force to the degree the heavenly gift was tasted.

Conclusions on the “Heavenly Gift”

In using the idea of “tasting” the heavenly gift, the writer emphasizes the intimacy of the apostates’ participation in that gift without diminishing the fact that there is more to salvation than what has been “tasted” in this world. Westcott agrees, describing the gift as “the divine life brought by Christ which is only tasted in this age but will be fully realized in the coming age [16].”

The ambiguity with which the author writes here poses a challenge to today’s Bible students who are unfamiliar with the original reader’s situation. But if the heavenly gift comes as a result of being enlightened to understand the gospel, then the next phrase logically describes the free gift of salvation. The use of “tasted” to describe the apostates experience of the heavenly gift expresses their intimacy with it, not a shallow nibble of salvation.

And Having Been Made Partakers of the Holy Spirit

Although there is no definite article before “Holy Spirit” in the Greek text, it is probable that this is a reference to the person of the Holy Spirit. That the Holy Spirit is mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament without the article should keep exegetes from concluding too dogmatically that He is not meant here [17]. Some (who deny that the apostates are saved) may concede that the Holy Spirit is intended here but regard this phrase as a further reference to His work of enlightenment. Wuest comments,

Those unsaved Hebrews had become participators or partakers of the Holy Spirit in that they willingly cooperated with Him in receiving His pre-salvation work of leading them step by step toward the act of faith in Messiah as high priest…. The word metechos in no way indicates that these Hebrews possess the Holy Spirit as a permanent indweller such as a saved person today does [18].

Wuest is correct in saying that metechos (sharers or participators) does not prove these are believers. In Greek literature, man was said to participate in the spiritual world and even, in a pantheistic sense, to share with the gods themselves. The New Testament writers appear to restrict its meaning in spiritual matters to the idea of fellowship with others, although they also employ it in speaking of sharing beliefs or material possessions.

However, Hebrews takes a distinctively eschatological approach to “sharers,” linking it directly with a blessed future. For example, in Hebrews 3:1 and 3:14, the readers are described as sharers in a “heavenly calling,” and partakers of Christ if they hold fast the beginning of their assurance “firm until the end.” Clearly, these words (as well as the association of “partakers of the Holy Spirit” with “powers of the age to come” in 6:4-5) have an eschatological meaning in view. Thus, the apostates share in something that is part of the future age.

Conclusions on “Having Become Partakers of the Holy Spirit”

The simplest way to see the Spirit’s inclusion in the list is to view these phrases as a process of conviction and illumination (enlightenment), followed by conversion (the heavenly gift) and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (becoming partakers of the Spirit). Unpacking the blessings in this order is not only logical, it also reinforces the extent to which the apostates had been blessed and allows the readers to clearly identify how the warning applies to their own situation. Like the apostates, they too are in Christ and share in the Holy Spirit, but this does not guarantee that they will also share in future blessings should they fail to go on to maturity.

And Having Tasted the Good Word of God and the Powers of the Age to Come

The last two prepositional phrases are governed by the single participle rendered having tasted. Its meaning has already been discussed above and the term carries the same idea here. However, whereas verse four uses the expression “have tasted the heavenly gift” to refer to internal, spiritual realities, verse five describes the apostates’ outward experiences with the “good word of God” and the “powers of the age to come.” Both phrases will be discussed here, followed by a short discussion of miracles and their role in the messianic age.

“The Good Word of God.”

First, to what does the “word of God” refer? Much has been made of the distinction between rhema (the word used here for “word”) and logos as these words are used throughout the Bible. In addition to their usual meaning of a “spoken word” or “matter,” the words can be used interchangeably [19] to describe the “gospel” or the “Word of God,” though rhema often speaks of a specific command or promise.

This last option, specific commands or promises, is probably the writer’s intent in light of what has proceeded it. These born again, Spirit baptized believers are described further as having received instruction from the word of God. This instruction would have included exhortation and training in Christian living, doctrinal instruction and promises to the faithful. Like the readers of the letter, the apostates ought to have been teachers (5:12) had they not fallen away.

“The Powers of the Age to Come.”

It is also probable that the “powers of the age to come” is similar to the “signs and wonders and . . . various miracles and . . . gifts of the Holy Spirit” of Hebrews 2:4. In fact, a majority of commentators make this connection, seeing these miraculous events as announcing the arrival of the age of Messiah. Hering summarizes this view, saying it “evidently means the irruption of supernatural powers from the new world order, . . . shown by miracles and other signs which presage the new order in which matter will obey spirit [20].”

Not all regard the “tasting” of these powers or miracles as a reference to something the apostates had merely witnessed in others. Rather, some believe the apostates experienced a supernatural work of grace, transforming their character and conduct, and enabling them to live holy lives. While the apostates do appear to be saved, it is doubtful that the author is describing Christian growth with the word “dunameis.” In its other five uses in Hebrews it never has this meaning (1:3; 2:4; 7:16; 11:11,34) and, as proposed above, a stronger case can be made that this “power” parallels the use of “miracles” in Hebrews 2:4.

Miracles and the Messianic Age

The miraculous nature of these “powers” is even clearer when one considers the significance of the expression which modifies it, “coming age.” The powers are associated with a future age even though they are tasted in the present age. Whether these powers characterize the age to come or belong to it, it is certain that the writer is speaking of a future age.

To the Jewish mind, there were two distinct ages: the present age and the age to come (Mark 10:30, Eph. 1:21). Although early Christians did not clearly understand the coming age of Messiah, they knew that Jesus’ miracles indicated that, in some sense, it had already begun. Making this connection, Ladd describes the Hebrews’ encounter with the supernatural in Hebrews 6:5 as a proleptic experience of the eschatological blessings of God’s rest, an experience which is (paradoxically) present (Heb. 4:3) and yet still future (Heb. 4:9,11) [21].

As we have seen above, the theology of Hebrews is interwoven with eschatology. Indeed, the author is speaking of “these last days” (1:2), “the world to come” (2:5), the “Sabbath rest” which remains “for the “consummation of the ages” (9:26), a “kingdom which cannot be shaken” (12:28), and the city “which is to come” (13:14). The writer of Hebrews, like his contemporaries, believed that Jesus’ return was imminent and that the messianic reign of Christ was already dawning.

The association of miraculous signs with the reign of Messiah is not unique to Hebrews. In the Septuagint, the Messiah is presented as one who will shepherd God’s flock in strength (Mic. 5:4) and whose ministry will be accompanied by miracles of healing (Isa. 35:5-6, cf. Mat. 11:5). After His greatest sign, the resurrection, Jesus’ disciples asked Him, “Lord, is it at this tame You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). And early Christians considered themselves people upon whom the end of the age had come (1 Cor. 1011). Therefore, miracles were considered to be powerful proof that the messianic age had arrived.

Conclusions of “the Powers of the Age to Come.”

The recipients of the book, including the apostates, had seen dramatic evidence of the power of God. They had tasted “the powers of the age to come” in this age. There could be no denying that God had worked among them; yet some did deny Him and reaped the terrible consequences of their decisions.

And Have Fallen Away

Up to this point the writer recounts how the apostates have been abundantly blessed in their relationship with God. But now the scenario changes. In fact, the conjunction kai which introduces this participle, and usually means “and,” has an adversative force [22] here, meaning and yet. The writer is saying “they have had all these blessings, and yet, in spite of all this, they have still fallen away!”

Parapesontas (“have fallen away”) is a New Testament hapax legomenon derived from the verb parapiptein, which means to “fall away” or “fall beside.” In classical literature the later term had a moral sense of “to sin,” but was commonly used with non-ethical meanings such as “to stray from the truth” or “the right path,” and “to err or be mistaken.” For example, in the Septuagint it is used in Esther 6:10 where it depicts those who depart or “fall away” in rebellion from divine truth.

In the Old Testament, Ezekiel uses parapiptein to depict Israel‘s unfaithfulness and rejection of God for other gods (14:13; 15:8; 18:24; 20:27). In Hebrews 6:6, “fallen away” takes a similar meaning to those in Ezekiel. That is, apostasy in Hebrews 6 is an act of deliberate rebellion against God, a willful rejection of His blessings. The apostates had not only withdrawn from the influence of the truth, they had rejected the truth itself [23] and had returned to Judaism. They had started down the right path but had now turned aside in order to avoid hardship and persecution,

If this is what “fallen away” means, then it does not mean “to fall away utterly from eternal life [24].” First, this would be inconsistent with the clear teaching of Scripture that salvation is a free gift which is not dependent upon what a believer does or does not do to secure it. Additionally, there is another word which is used in the New Testament to express ultimate rejection by God. The word is aphistemi, meaning “to place off from, depart from” (Lk. 13:27, I Tim. 4:1). But such a severe result is not inherent in parapiptein. As Rowell rightly observes, “Surely it is clear that there is nothing here to demand the interpretation of a final falling away, or being eternally lost [25].” [Italics added.]

Nor is it likely that parapesontas is a conditional participle expressing a hypothetical situation that could never obtain in reality, what Wuest calls “a straw man [26].” This interpretation is properly criticized by F. F. Bruce who reasons that “biblical writers (the writer to the Hebrews being no exception) are not given to the setting up of straw men [27].

Conclusions on “Fallen Away.”

In saying the apostates have fallen away, the writer is not speaking specifically of the commission of some serious sin such as adultery or murder. Nowhere in the letter to the Hebrews does the writer hint that such sins are a problem for the readers [28]. However, drifting from the truth (2:1) and failing to progress in the faith (5:11-14) appear to be the first steps toward apostasy. It is clear that the author is warning his readers of the consequences they will experience should they continue in this direction and ultimately reject Jesus for Judaism.

The apostasy described is a sin believers are capable of committing. It is impossible for unbelievers to fall away from a faith they never possessed just as it would be impossible for Esau to trade away a birthright he did not own (Heb. 12:16-17). And just as Esau could not regain his birthright “though he sought it with tears,” these apostates will be unable to find a place for repentance because God will not permit it.

At some point the apostates had rejected their Christian heritage and experience to return to their old way of life, a way that was familiar, comfortable and hopeless. This rejection has serious consequences to which the writer now turns his attention, giving apostates’ punishment and the reasons for it.

The Interpretation of the Warning

In response to the question posed at the beginning of this paper (“Are the persons described in Hebrews 6:4-6 true believer?”), the exegesis would lead us to conclude that the answer is “yes.” Since the readers of Hebrews are believers who have ceased to make progress in their Christian walks, it is only natural to expect the writer’s warning to be something that can really happen to believers and not merely a hypothetical possibility.

Further examination of the remainder of the passage will show even more clearly that this passage is describing believers. It will also allow us to state the interpretation of the warning in its context. Three ideas we will study further are the results of apostasy, the reasons for the apostates’ punishment, and the agricultural parable in Hebrews 6:7-8.

Results of Apostasy

Much of the confusion over Hebrews 6:6 results from the false conclusion that the phrase “impossible to be renewed again to repentance” describes the loss or prevention of eternal life. Thus, some have tried to soften its impact by saying that the writer is speaking in an exaggerated tone, and that “impossible” really means “very difficult.”

Although it is true that the writers of Scripture use hyperbole on occasion [29], there is no hint that this is so in Hebrews 6:4-6. In fact, every other occurrence of “impossible” in Hebrews could not possibly mean “very difficult.” Hebrews 6:18 states that it is impossible for God to lie; in 10:14 the removal of sin by the blood of bulls and goats is said to be impossible; and without faith it is impossible to please God (11:6). Therefore, whatever “to renew to repentance” means, it must be impossible and not just very difficult.

To be “renewed” is sometimes understood as a theological reference to regeneration, especially when used with “repentance.” However, the verb only means to “restore” something to a former state or condition. Therefore, we should not be too quick to assume that “renewal” is the equivalent of salvation in Hebrews 6:6. Rather, we are told that what cannot be renewed is their “repentance.”

In Hellenistic and biblical literature, “repentance” typically refers to godly sorrow and a divinely inspired change in a person’s beliefs or conduct which opens one up to the leading of God. Although the New Testament does employ this term in a soteriological sense, in Hebrews 6:6, it takes its primary meaning of a change in thinking or attitude. This meaning can also be found in Hebrews 12:17 where Esau, having sold his birthright, could not retrieve it because “he could bring about no change of [Isaac’s] mind, though he sought the blessing with tears” (NIV).

In light of these meanings, we see that what is denied the apostates is a second repentance, not a second salvation or enlightenment. Specifically, they are being denied a future ability to repent of their rejection of Christ and to return to a vital, interactive walk with God. They have reached a point where, even if they might possibly want to “go on to maturity”(6: 1), God will not “permit” it (6:3). The fact that they cannot be renewed to repentance suggests that their repentance was, at a previous time, new and genuine.

Reasons for the Apostates’ Punishment

Verse six gives two reasons the apostates will not be allowed to repent 1) they have crucified to themselves the Son of God and 2) they have put Him to open shame.

The sense in which the apostates crucified Christ is specified by a reflexive pronoun, “to themselves.” This pronoun suggests that their crucifixion of the Son of God is meant to be figurative and that it is the apostates who suffer from denial, not just the Lord. Using the potent symbol of the cross, the author illustrates how the apostates’ rejection of Jesus has made His resurrection power dead with regard “to themselves,” just as the Jews’ literal crucifixion of Christ made His saving power dead in regard to themselves [30].

While the apostate’s “crucifixion” of Christ was figurative (“to themselves”), it was not a private act. Rather, it involved public denial and renunciation of the Savior. This is clear from the second phrase, put Him to open shame. It expresses the shame and contempt which the apostates publicly expressed for Christ.

In order to be saved, a first century Jew had to pledge his faith and trust in Jesus rather than in the Law of Moses. To reject this pledge would then make oneself dead to the sanctifying power of Christ and proclaim to the world that the New Covenant was a weak, insufficient foundation for life (including eternal life). It was one thing for Christ to be mocked by unbelievers, but the real insult is that His mocking should come from the lips of those who once numbered themselves among His followers. Although unbelievers have undertaken to mock, ridicule and scorn Christ, only believers are truly capable of shaming him through renunciation.

The Agricultural Parable

Final support that this passage is speaking of believers can be found in an analysis of what is sometimes called the agricultural parable. While expositors debate the particular meaning of the symbols employed in the illustration, the main idea of fruitfulness as a response to blessing is obvious. In fact, most would agree that “the general point seems to be that just as God expects fruit from land which has received rain, so He expects spiritual fruit and growth from those who have received His blessings [31].”

The illustration refers to Christians who are blessed by God, and who not only fail to mature and produce good fruit in keeping with their faith but who, contrary to expectation, produce bad fruit. These individuals are near to being cursed and end up being disqualified from further service or maturity in Christ. Thus the issue at stake in the illustration is the loss of rewards, not eternal life. Consequently, the warning in 6:4-6 also speaks of losing rewards because of apostasy, not of being stripped of eternal life.

It is reasonable to conclude that loss of rewards rather than eternal life is the lesson of the parable. First, in verse seven the rain-soaked ground represents the recipients of this letter. The blessings showered down from God in Hebrews 6:4-5 were true of them (and the apostates) and should result in fruitfulness. Naturally God will bless such fruitfulness. In 6:8 that same ground [32] receives the same blessings but yields thorns and thistles and is said to be adokimos that is, “unqualified, worthless, disqualified,” or “not standing the test.”

There is nothing inherent in the meaning of adokimos to equate it with reprobation or eternal condemnation. In 1 Corinthians 9:27 the Apostle Paul expressed his concern that he not be “disqualified” (adokimos) after having preached to others. Certainly Paul, that great champion of positional truth, is not afraid that he might fail the test of salvation. Rather, he speaks of his fear of losing his reward, symbolized by the prize of the imperishable wreath which goes to the victor of the race (I Cor. 9:24-25). Likewise, the writer of Hebrews is saying that the apostates disqualified themselves from future rewards, not eternal life, due to their failure to perform “deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 26:20).

The last statement in verse eight can also be understood to describe a loss of rewards instead of a loss of eternal life. These words contain the clearest declaration of the apostates’ punishment which is said to be “burning.” This phrase immediately conjures up the image of a fiery hell in the minds of many, but this is not the author’s intention. Instead, he is speaking of a fire which purges and refines. It is the bad fruit (“thorns and thistles”) of the unproductive land that is to be burned, and not the land itself.

In observing the grammar of Hebrews 6:8, some may object, noting that it is the ground, not the thorns and thistles, which is burned. But this expression of “burning the ground” or “burning a field” was made in an agrarian culture where it would naturally be taken to mean “burning the things which are on the ground,” speaking here of the thorns and thistles. In light of these considerations, it is legitimate to conclude that the point of the agricultural illustration is to depict the loss of rebellious believers’ rewards, not their salvation.

Conclusions on the Interpretation the Warning in Hebrews 6:4-8

The writer of the Hebrews was addressing Jewish Christians who were facing persecution from a hostile Roman Empire on one hand and angry Jewish peers on the other. Under such pressure, there was the strong temptation to reject Christianity (and Christ) for an easier, familiar lifestyle. Against this influence the writer of Hebrews argues that Jesus is better. He has a better covenant based upon a better sacrifice. He is a better high priest who can make better promises than those offered under the Mosaic Law. Thus, it is imperative that these wavering believers persevere in the faith and go on to maturity.

A distinctive element of his message is that of warning. The five warning passages in Hebrews all seek to move these believers on to maturity in Christ and warn them of the serious consequences for failure to progress. These are not empty threats or crafty “scare-tactics.” They are real warnings given to real believers facing real challenges. We should remember when reading these warnings (and the entire letter) that the writer’s purpose is to move believers on to maturity and obedience; not to scare Christians or unbelievers with the fear of hell. The writer not only promises that God will see and reward such obedience, but that he will punish those who willfully and knowingly bring shame upon the Savior. Salvation, in the sense of justification, is not the message of this letter which is written to those who already believe.

Statements in Hebrews on the “fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries” of God (Heb. 10:27) and of the fact that “our God is a consuming fire” (12:29) can apply to the judgment of a believer’s works and do not necessarily refer to salvation. Why else would these warnings be given to Christians (who are considered “beloved . . . though we speak this way [33]” [6:9]) if it were not possible for them to “go on sinning willfully” (10:26)? It is not the unsaved but the saved who will face the purifying fire of God. Thus the writer admonishes the Hebrews, saying, “Let us show gratitude by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe” (12:28).

Similarly, Hebrews 6:4-8 speaks of works with reference to sanctification, not works with reference to justification. The “end” of the unproductive ground is said to be burning. The end of the fruitful ground is said to be blessing. If salvation is the blessing the writer has in mind, then it would appear to be justified on the basis of works. Since this is highly improbable (not to mention unbiblical), one may conclude that it is works and rewards which are under discussion. Notice that following his warning, the author assures the readers of God’s remembrance of their “work,” move,” and “ministering,” which they “have shown toward His name” (Heb. 6:10),. Likewise, they are not to be sluggish, but by diligence and imitation they are to inherit the promises of God (6:12).

If the promises of God are limited to eternal life and are obtained through works, diligence, and imitation, then these words are at odds with the rest of Scripture. But if the promises refer to “the better things . . . which accompany salvation” (meaning rewards), then there is no trouble in seeing that fruitfulness brings blessings while negligence brings purging. This is why the author tells his readers, “Let us press on [34] to maturity,” in Hebrews 6:1 and then qualifies it in 6:3 with “if God permits.”

Apparently, God does not always permit believers to go on to maturity, especially when it involves willful, public rejection of the Savior. Although the readers of the Epistle have not reached this point, the writer’s rebuke for their immaturity in 5:11-14 makes it clear that they are in jeopardy of ending up in this predicament should they continue on their precarious course. However, as noted above, he reassures and encourages them in 6:9 that his harsh language does not mean he expects his readers to encounter such calamity, but he is convinced of better results in their case.

Summary of the Warning in Hebrews 6:4-8

In light of the exegesis and interpretation made in this study, the following observations can be made concerning the warning in Hebrews 6:4-8.

  1. The blessings listed in Hebrews 6:4-5 are intended to show the extent to which the apostates have been blessed. Also, they list out a logical progression of blessings detailing a cumulatively deeper experience of faith in Christ.
  2. The apostates are true Christians who, in spite of their salvation experience, willfully reject Christ. The effect of their denial of Christ is to bring public shame on their Savior and to make His power for transformation and maturity in their Christian walk dead in regard to themselves.
  3. It is possible for the apostates (and Christians today) to enter a state in which it is impossible to experience a future repentance for their sin toward Christ and return to a vital, interactive walk with God.
  4. This predicament is illustrated in the agricultural illustration which depicts the loss of believers’ rewards and the judgment of their works by fire for deliberately producing bad fruit after receiving abundant blessing from God.
  5. Believers who willfully reject Christ will not lose their salvation but may instead forfeit future rewards. Their fiery judgment is not one of eternal punishment. Rather, it is a reference to the fire which purges a believer’s works.

This warning does not only apply to the readers of the letter to the Hebrews. It extends to believers in every age (including the current one) who await the coming of the Savior. To all who call themselves after the name of Christ the writer of Hebrews proclaims, “Let us press on to maturity” (6:1), “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith. (12:2), for “we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul “(10:39).

For believers, the crucial issue in light of Christ’s imminent return is maturity in the faith and the fruit which accompanies such progress. The writer makes it clear that failure to bear fruit in keeping with salvation, especially as a result of willful rejection of Christ, angers God. Instead of reward, the writer promises the judgment of God’s purging fire for those who willfully turn their backs on God’s blessings and bring shame upon His Son.

“But when we read this passage we must remember that it was written in an age of persecution: and in any such age apostasy is the supreme sin. In any age of persecution a man can save his life by denying Christ; but every person who does so aims a body-blow at the Church, for it means that he has counted his life and comfort dearer to him than Jesus Christ.”

William Barclay

Art Hurtado is the Registrar at the International School of Theology and has been on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ since 1982. He completed his B.S. at Utah State University in 1982 and his Master of Divinity at ISOT in 1988.

End Notes

[1] For an exhaustive study on this passage, see R.C. Sauer’s work, “A Critical and Exegetical Reexamination” (unpublished Ph.D. dies., University of Manchester, 1981). Other helpful sources include: commentaries by F. F. Bruce, P. E. Hugues, and B. F. Westcott and Z. C. Hodges (Hebrews” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, eds. Walvoord and Zuck; articles by J. B. Rowell (Bibliotheca Sacra, 94:321-342) and V. D. Verbrugge (Calvin Theol. Journal 15:61-73).

[2] For the sake of clarity, “the persons described in Heb. 6:4-6” will be referred to as “the apostates” in the remainder of this paper.

[3] I. Howard Marshall, Kept By the Power of God: A Study of Perseverance and Falling Away (London: Epworth, 1969), 136.

[4] The most common religious meaning of “light” in the N. T. is that of goodness and righteousness (especially as it relates to the character of God), as opposed to evil and darkness. John 1:9 speaks of Jesus’ coming into the world as an event which means salvation to some men and conviction and condemnation to others (cf. John 3:17-21; 16:8-11). See Edwin A. Blum, “John,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), 267-384.

[5] The position of the hapax at the beginning of this string of participles is significant. According to Sauer (pp. 211-213), its position at the beginning of the sentence brings all of the participles, not just “enlightened,” under its jurisdiction. Thus, the “once and for all” nature of these phrases is placed in contrast to “again” in verse six.

[6] K. H. Bartels, “One,” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. C. Brown, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975-1978), 2 (1976): 716.

[7] Therefore, Delitzsch, (Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, trans. T. L. Kingsbury, 2 vols. [London: T. & T. Clark, 1868], 1:284), and F. F. Bruce (The Epistle to the Hebrews [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964], 120) regard these blessings as unrepeatable.

[8] This is in contrast with doron, used with one exception (Eph. 2:8) of human gifts presented to various parties. In Hebrews 5:1; 8:3-4; 9:9 and 11:4 it signifies man’s gifts (sacrifices) to God.

[9] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 120-121.

[10] St. John Chrysostom, The Homilies of Saint John Chrysostom on the Epistles of Saint Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (Oxford: James Parker & Co., and Rivingtons, 1877), 120.

[11]. William Barclay, The Letter to the Hebrews (Philadelphia Westminster Press, 1976), 56.

[12] Delitzsch, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 1: 284.

[13] H. Vorlander, “Gift,” in New International Dictionary of the New Testament Theology, ed. C. Brown, 3. vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975-1978), 2 (1976): 40-43.

[14] Sauer, “A Critical and Exegetical Reexamination,” 218.

[15] The progression moves from enlightenment to salvation, reception of the Holy Spirit, biblical training, and finally, to seeing or possibly performing miracles.

[16] B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews (London: n.p., 1909; reprint ea., Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1984), 148-149.

[17] Other passages in the N.T. where references to the Holy Spirit lack the article are Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:35; 2 Timothy 1:4 and 2 Peter 1:21.

[18] Kenneth S. Wuest, “Hebrews Six in the Greek New Testament,” Bibliotheca Sacra 119 (January 1962): 48.

[19] Herrnann Hanse, “metecho,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. G. Kittel, trans. G. W. Bromiley, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964), 2:830. rhema can have a more specific meaning according to its context. It can mean a promise (Luke 1:37), a discourse (Luke 7:1), a careless word, (Matt. 12:36) or a command (Heb. 1:3). Generally, logos speaks of the gospel (usually spoken) in a broad sense while rhema refers to a specific aspect of the gospel message. See O. Betz, “Word,” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. C. Brown, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975-1978), 3 (1978): 1121.

[20] Jean Hering, The Epistle to the Hebrews, trans. A. W. Heathcote and P. J. Allcock (London: Epworth Press, 1970), 46.

[21] George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 576. Ladd goes on to summarize this thought in relationship to Hebrews 6:5: “Realized eschatology appears again incidentally in the expression of tasting the heavenly gift and the powers of the Age to Come (6:4-5). ‘The age to come’ is a distinct eschatological idiom, even though Hebrews never uses the contrasting idiom, ‘this age.’ The heavenly gift, like the heavenly call (3:1) and the heavenly city (12:22), is eschatological…. Yet the eschatological blessing may already be ‘tasted,’ i.e., experienced in part..

[22] A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934), 1182-1183; thus the NEB translates the phrase, “and after all this.” Cf. Mark 12:12, John 3:19.

[23] Delitzsch, Commentary of the Epistle to the Hebrews, 1: 288.

[24] Lenski, Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews, 185.

[25] J. B. Rowell, “Exposition of Hebrews Six: An Age Long Battleground,” Bibliotheca Sacra 94 (July 1937): 333.

[26] Wuest, “Hebrews Six,” 52. J. C. McCullough (-The Impossibility of a Second Repentance in Hebrews,” Biblical Theology 20 [1974]:6) also believes this is hypothetical as does Homer A. Kent, Jr., (The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1972], 113-114).

[27] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 123.

[28] Calvin (The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews and the First and Second Epistles of Saint Peter, ed. David W. Torrence and Thomas P. Torrence, trans. by William B. Johnson [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1963], 8), writes that “the apostle is not talking here about theft, or perjury, or murder, or drunkenness, or adultery. He is referring to a complete falling away from the Gospel, not one in which the sinner has offended God in some one part only, but in which he has utterly renounced His grace.”

[29] See Matthew 5:29-30 and Galatians 5:12 for examples.

[30] However, the Jews acted in ignorance (1 Cor. 2:8) while the apostates acted with full knowledge. So G. C. Berkouwer “the definition of their apostasy is christological. Christ prayed for those who crucified him at Golgotha, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34). But now there is a knowledge of the truth and therefore a greater responsibility.” (Quoted in Studies in Dogmatics: Sin, trans. P. C. Holtrop [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971], 335.)

[31] C McCullough, “The Impossibility of a Second Repentance in Hebrews,” Biblical Theology 20 (1974): 2.

[32] Ge is not repeated in 6:8 but is understood to be the same ground mentioned in 6:7.

[33] Based upon the argument of this paper, we would take the word “salvation” mentioned in Heb. 6:9 to be speaking of sanctification, not justification. This does not seem to be an unreasonable conclusion based upon the writer’s prompting toward maturity in 5:11-6:3.

[34] The verb in Hebrew 6:1 is actually passive and the verse could be read, “let us be borne on to maturity.” This thought fits well with the idea of God’s permission in 6:3, since being borne or carried on to maturity is ultimately the work of God and can only happen if He permits it.

The Monograph is a publication of the International School of Theology, P.O. Box 50015, San Bernardino, CA 92412. It is designed to be a service to alumni and friends . Please feel free to copy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s