Conditional Security: Hebrews 6
Few passages have had greater impact on Arminian thinking than this fearful warning about falling away and entering into such a spiritual state that it is impossible to be renewed to repentance. Experimental Predestinarians have exercised great ingenuity in their attempts to maintain the doctrine of final perseverance in the face of the seemingly plain statements confuting it in this passage. Indeed, their exegesis has been widely acknowledged as “theological” rather than “exegetical.” If we had only the Arminian and Calvinist views from which to choose, it seems that the Arminian view is much more defensible. However, the Partaker offers another option.
The Exhortation (6:1-3)
Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so (Heb. 6:1-3).
The opening phrase “therefore” is best taken as referring to the preceding verses (5:11-14) as a whole. Because of their spiritual dullness, they need to commit themselves to learning and applying the truth and to press on to maturity. They need to be able to distinguish “good and evil,” and he wants to help them by stretching their minds. He wants them to move from “milk,” receiving truth, to “meat,” understanding and applying truth.
In the midst of his discussion regarding the Melchizedekian priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ (Heb. 5:1-10) the author pauses, rebukes them for their spiritual stupor (5:11-14), exhorts them to press on to maturity (6:1-2), warns them about the danger of falling away (6:4-6), illustrates the danger with an analogy from nature (6:7-8), and encourages them regarding confidence in their spiritual status and their need to finish what they have begun (6:9-12). He then returns to his main theme, the Melchizedekian priesthood of Christ in chapter 7.
Now it is plain and almost universally acknowledged that the apostle’s burden here is for true Christians to grow to maturity.1 These people “ought tobe teachers,” but they are “slow to learn.” They “need milk, not solid food.” They “live,” but they live on “milk.” “This is a frequent metaphor in St. Paul, who also contrasts “babes” (nepios) with the mature (teleioi), Gal. 4:3; 1 Cor. 2:6; Eph. 4:13, 14.”2 Like all these other references in the New Testament, the “babes” here are not non-Christians but “infants” who have refused to grow even though sufficient time for growth to maturity has elapsed. The “maturity” in view is the same as that described in the preceding verses. It is not just spiritual understanding, i.e., advanced mental perception, but it is experiential righteousness and discernment (5:14). The opening word “therefore” connects maturity in 6:1 with 5:14: “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” “Therefore,” he says, “let us go on to maturity (Gk. teleioteta).”
It seems that the apostle here addresses true Christians, as non-Christians cannot grow in their ability to experientially apply the word of righteousness to daily life and have their spiritual senses trained in spiritual discernment.
These true Christians are to go beyond the foundation of repentance and the elementary teachings about Christ and faith in God. But which religious faith is meant, Jewish or Christian? The fact that this is teaching about Christ seems to establish the Christian, and not Jewish background of the six foundation truths.3 There are three parts to the foundation: repentance, faith, and teaching. The teaching is further defined as consisting of teaching about baptism, laying on of hands, the resurrection, and eternal judgment. He says they have experienced all of this. These people have clearly exercised faith toward God (6:1) and have repented and been baptized and are therefore regenerate.
He says, “and God permitting, this we will do.” The Greek word order reads “this we will do, God permitting” (6:3). What is it that we will do, “God permitting”? The immediate antecedent of “this” is obviously “going on to maturity.”4 The writer is then telling them that they are to press on to maturity if God permits them to do so. In phrasing it this way, he is preparing them for the warning to follow. God may not permit it just as He did not permit the exodus generation to enter into their inheritance-rest, the land of Canaan! 5
The Warning (6:4-6)
[For] 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, 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.
The NIV translation above omits the introductory “for.” This word, however, establishes a causal link with what he has just said about going forward to maturity, God permitting. What is the precise nature of this link? It appears to refer back to the phrase “this we will do,” i.e., press on to maturity. Thus, the writer explains by this warning why we must press on to maturity. It is because if we do not, we are in danger of falling away, and it will be impossible for us to be renewed to repentance.
Because this warning seems to suggest the possibility of final apostasy of the regenerate man, Experimental Predestinarians have labored to demonstrate that true Christians are not the subject of the warning. For this reason it is important that we pause here to consider the intended recipients–Christian or non-Christian? Typically, Calvinist exegesis consists of an attempt to prove that the phrases (“enlightened,” “tasted of the heavenly gift,” “become partakers,” and “tasted the good Word of God”) do not necessarily refer to regenerate people. Instead, they could refer to those exposed externally to the influences of the gospel through association with Christians and through sitting under the preaching of the Word of God. Most commentators in the history of the church have found little difficulty in understanding that these warnings in Hebrews are addressed to regenerate people. Marshall is correct when he says the vast majority of scholars view them as genuine Christians.6
Several things are said of these people who are capable of falling away. The central theme is enlightenment. The last four phrases explain what characterizes those who have been “enlightened.” One who has been enlightened is one who has tasted the heavenly gift, who has shared in the Holy Spirit, and who has tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, and! who then falls away.
There are five phrases all united under the word “who” which describe these people “who have” (6:4-5):
1. once been enlightened
2. te . . . and have tasted the heavenly gift
3. kai . . . and have shared in the Holy Spirit
4. kai . . . and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the j powers of the coming age
5. kai . . . and have fallen away.
Notice that all are united under the same “who” and there is no obvious reason for taking number 5 as conditional (i.e., “if they fall away”), since the first four are not. Furthermore, whenever the Greek word te is followed by kai . . . kai, they must all be taken the same way. In other words, four of the five cannot be circumstantial participles but the fifth one conditional. Therefore, it is not impossible for those characterized by 1-4 to fall away from the faith.
Who have been enlightened. The word photisthentas (enlightened) is common in the New Testament. Experimental Predestinarians customarily point to Jn. 1:9. Here the apostle John uses it of Christ Himself as the true light who enlightens every man. However, all this shows is that some kind of general enlightenment short of actual conversion is possible in that passage.7 In Hebrews, however, this is not likely. The addition of “once for all” and the defining phrases which follow have impressed many that the enlightenment of conversion is probably meant here.
The apostle Paul applies it to true Christians when he prays that the “eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which He has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Eph. 1:18).8 The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews uses it of his readers’ initial reception of the gospel: “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light” (Heb. 10:32). Those who received this light are those who have confessed Christ (10:35), who have proven their regeneration by a life of works and hope of heaven (10:32-34), who have been sanctified (10:29), and who possess the imputed righteousness of Christ (10:38). In other words, in its only other use in Hebrews, it is clearly used of conversion. Westcott correctly observes:
The word photizesthai occurs again in 10:32. The illumination both here and there, is referred to the decisive moment when the light was apprehended in its glory. . . . Inwardly this crisis of illumination was marked by a reception of the knowledge of the truth (10:26) and outwardly by the admission to Christian fellowship.9
Elsewhere in the New Testament receiving the light is commonly used for regeneration:
The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is ‘the image of God. . . . For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness” made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay (2 Cor. 4:4-7).
The similarity between the phrase “made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light” and “who have once been enlightened” is surely evidence that the latter means the same as the former, and the former is obviously conversion.
In 1 Pet. 2:9, coming out of darkness into light is described as conversion. Indeed, the movement from darkness to light is a popular theme in the apostle John’s writings for the movement from death to life, conversion (Jn. 5:24). Jesus called Himself the light of the world and said “I have come into this world so that the blind will see” (Jn. 9:39).
The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews says they have been hapax photisthentas (“once for all” enlightened). The word hapax often has a sense of finality in it. It is the opposite of “again” (palin) in v. 6. It is used by the writer to describe the once-for-all entrance into the Holy of Holies by the high priest on the Day of Atonement, in contrast to the regular and repeated entrances by the priests during the preceding year (Heb. 9:7). He uses it of Christ’s “once-for-all” appearance at the end of the age to do away with sin (Heb. 9:26) and of the finality of death which comes upon all men (9:27). It is instructive to note that it is applied to the “once-and-for-all” taking away of sin by Christ’s sacrifice (Heb. 9:28). The apostle Jude uses it of the faith, which has been “once and for all” delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
These people, then, have been “once and for all” enlightened. This is not a mere mental awareness, a mere first introduction, but a “final” enlightenment. Such language is only consistent with effectual calling.
This once-for-all inward enlightenment and reception of the gospel is hardly consistent with the thesis that these people were not truly born again. Its use “would be strange if the reference were merely to the reception of a course of instruction” in contrast to actual conversion.10 Furthermore, assuming that the 3 structural arrangement of the passage outlined above is correct, the word is then defined in the immediate context as “tasting the heavenly gift” and as being a “partaker of the Holy Spirit.”11
Who have tasted the heavenly gift. This enlightenment is, first of all, explained as involving a “tasting” of the heavenly gift (Gk. dorea). The parallel with Jn. 4:10 is noteworthy. In His comments to the Samaritan woman Jesus said:
If you knew the gift [Gk. dorea] of God and who it is that asks you for
a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water. ‘ :
In every usage of dorea in the Bible it refers to the bestowal of some divine gift, spiritual and supernatural, given to man. In each case, unless Heb. 6 is an exception, the receiver of this gift is either regenerate already, or the gift itself is regeneration.12 In Rom. 5:17 it is the gift of righteousness; in Eph. 3:7 it is the gift of the grace of God; in Acts 2:38 it is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Regeneration is, of course, not part of the semantic value of the word. The precise nature of the gift must be determined from its sense in the context of Heb. 6. There it is qualified as a “heavenly” gift, or a gift which comes from heaven. The phraseology is so suggestive of the numerous other references to the gift of Christ, the Holy Spirit, or righteousness which comes from heaven, that this must surely be the first thought which would come to the mind of a first-century reader.
The gift of God is the gift of regeneration (2 Cor. 10:15) and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44-46). Elsewhere in the New Testament the references to the gift of God refer to true salvation and the forgiveness of sins. “It is the whole gift of redemption, the new creation, the fullness of life eternal freely bestowed, and made known freely, to the enlightened.”13 As Paul said, “The gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” (Rom. 5:15). To taste the heavenly gift is to experience regeneration, to taste salvation itself.
The word geuomai, “taste,” is not used by our author of an external association but of an internal taste. Some have tried to argue that the choice of the word “taste” means that the gift was not really received; it was only sampled, not feasted upon.14 Even Calvin “vainly attempts to make the clause refer only to ‘those who had but as it were tasted with their outward lips the grace of God, and been irradiated with some sparks of His light.”‘15 Farrar correctly insists, “This is not to explain Scripture, to explain it away in favour of some preconceived doctrine. It is clear from 1 Pet. 2:3 that such a view is untenable.”16
A contemporary writer pursues the idea of pressing a distinction between “eating” and “tasting.” It is only by “eating” that we obtain eternal life, he says, not by tasting. But, on the contrary, the word “taste” includes within its compass the sense of “to eat”:
He became hungry and wanted something to eat (geuomai, Acts 10:10).
Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate (geuomai, Acts 20:11).
In both biblical and secular Greek it commonly means to eat or to “partake of or to “join.”17 One papyrus manuscript refers to a man who went to bed without eating his supper (geuomai), and another refers to a group who “joined in” (geuomai) the praise of another.18
Eating and tasting are synonymous terms and imply believing in Christ resulting in regeneration and eternal life. Tiedtke is surely correct when he says:
He [referring to I. H. Marshall] suggests that the emphasis in tasting is not that of taking a sip, as Calvin thought. In Heb. 2:9 Christ tasted death in the sense that He experienced its bitter taste to the full. The amount consumed is not the point, but the fact of experiencing what is eaten. The Christians to whom this is addressed have already experienced something of the future age.19
Jesus was not externally associated with death: He experienced it to the full! This was no mere sampling of death. The full experience of death was the tasting itself and not something which followed tasting. How does one taste death and then fully experience it after dying? Tasting is full experience!
Peter uses it of the experience of true Christians, of newborn babes:
Like newborn babies, crave the pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted [geuomai] that the Lord is good (1 Pet. 2:3).
These are not people who have been superficially exposed to external Christian influences. On the contrary, they have internally experienced them] through regeneration. As Westcott insists, “Geusasthai expresses a real and conscious enjoyment of the blessing apprehended in its true character.” He then cites Jn. 6:54 as a parallel.20
It is often related to the spiritual experience of the regenerate:
Taste and see that the lord is good (Ps. 34:8).21
The regenerate to whom Peter writes have “tasted (geuomai) the kindness of the Lord” (1 Pet. 2:3). The experience of tasting is not that of those who do not know Christ but of those who have come to know Him.
For this reason most recent scholars agree with Behm that the amount consumed is not in mind at all. Rather, the verb points to experiencing the flavor of something.22
Who are partakers of the Holy Spirit. The second qualifier of enlightenment is that it includes being “partakers” of the Holy Spirit. This is the same word used in 3:14, metochoi, partners, true Christians.
But in what sense are these people partners with the Holy Spirit? In each reference to metochoi in the book of Hebrews, truly regenerate people are in view.23 In Heb. 12:8 because they are true sons, regenerate, they are partners (metochoi) in discipline. In 1:9 they are regenerate companions (metochoi) of the King. In 3:1 they are regenerate “holy brothers” who are partners (metochoi) in the heavenly calling. In 3:14, as discussed in chapter 5, they are partakers with Christ in the final destiny of man, ruling over the millennial earth. The ministry of the Holy Spirit in the book of the Hebrews is described in various ways. There is no consistent notion, as Sauer argues, that He communicates information and testimony.24 Rather, He is the Spirit who imparts grace (10:29), i.e., justification and regeneration; He imparts spiritual gifts (2:4) to the regenerate! In view of the fact that they are partakers of the Holy Spirit and that in all other references to partakers true Christians are in view, there is no reason here not to assume that it means something like close partnership or true spiritual fellowship, which is possible only to the regenerate.
Who have tasted the goodness of the Word of God. The third qualifier of the word “enlighten” is “tasting the goodness of the word of God.” He is summing up their experience to this point. It may be described as a continual tasting of the Word of God (cf. 1 Pet. 2:2-3). Farrar has little patience with Calvin’s exegesis on this point. “There is no excuse for the attempt of Calvin and others, in the interests of their dogmatic bias, to make ‘taste of mean only ‘have an inkling of without any deep or real participation.”25
Who have tasted the powers of the coming age. Furthermore, they had tasted of the powers of the coming age. This refers to the miracles of the New Testament era which are a foretaste, a preview, of the miraculous nature of the future kingdom of God. The ministry of the Holy Spirit in authenticating the gospel with “powers” is mentioned in 2:4. He apparently knows of some of his readers who have fallen away. He writes to warn the rest against the danger of falling away in the future. In what way did these who are in danger of falling away taste these mighty works? Sauer argues that they only externally tasted the Spirit’s authenticating ministry through miracles as taught in 2:4. While it is surely true that they experienced this external authentication, it is also possible that they received the spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit which are given only to the regenerate. At any rate, the taste was not superficial. It was a full taste just as Jesus tasted death. A personal experience with the Holy Spirit is implied, not just the observation of His performing miracles. These people had experienced personally and internally the power of God in their lives.
John Owen objects that the people here are contrasted with true believers later in v. 9. Marshall’s view seems more correct, that the contrast “surely is not so much between two different groups of people as between two possibilities which may affect the same people; thus vv. 7ff. describe two possibilities which may arise in the same land.”26
Who have fallen away. It is difficult to know for sure whether some of the readers have already fallen away or are only in danger of falling away. In either case the writer wants to warn them that they are faced with the danger of “falling away.”27 The Greek word parapiptosimply means to fall by the wayside. It is used only here in the New Testament. In the papyri manuscripts it is sometimes translated “to wander astray.”28 Its most frequent translation is “to fall in one’s way, befall”29 and is sometimes rendered “to commit sin” with no specific reference at all.30
However, in the LXX it seems to have the sense of religious apostasy. In the book of Ezekiel it often takes the sense of turning from God to idols.31 This meaning fits well with the theme of Hebrews. These believers were considering a relapse into Judaism. Indeed, the whole book was written to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity to Judaism and hence to prevent precisely such a relapsed. In addition, the central sin, the sin of willful unbelief, is what is warned about in 10:26. Throughout the epistle he urges them to hold fast to their confession of faith (10:23). It is the danger of final apostasy which is in view.
The writer seems to imply that some of his readers may already have taken this step. He writes to warn others that they too are in danger of doing so (6:9). He is aware, however, that the decisive act of apostasy has precursors. It is the result of a period of hardening of heart which crystallizes at a particular moment. It is preceded by “neglect” of our great salvation, by hardness of heart (3:12), and by refusal to grow (5:11-14). It is likely that the particular reference to “going astray” in Heb. 6 refers not only to apostasy but to the preceding hardness of heart as well.
The context has been speaking of the need to grow from infancy to maturity. They have been exhorted to “go on to maturity.” It seems that the meaning of “fall away” here must include the opposite of “going on to maturity.” As they “go on,” as they press to that goal, there is a danger that some will “go astray, fall away,” that they will fail to persevere. He is not speaking of falling away from salvation at all (or falling away from anything else for that matter). He is talking about wandering from the path leading to maturity, from that progression in the Christian life which will result in their ultimate entrance into rest, the achievement of their life work (Heb. 4:11). Nor is he speaking about falling away from a mere profession of faith. These people possessed true saving faith. They were regenerate. If they did not decide to press on to maturity, they are in danger of denying the faith altogether. At least, this is the real concern of the epistle.
Later he tells them:
So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised (Heb. 10:35-36).
He has before his mind the failure of the largely regenerate exodus genertion32 who failed to achieve their intended destiny, entrance into the inheritance-rest of Canaan.33 A failure to go on to maturity typically results in spiritual lapse, a hardened heart, and unbelief (Heb. 3:7, 12). Just as the wilderness failure to persevere did not result in the loss of salvation of two million Jews, neither would the potential failure of the Hebrews. What is in danger is the forfeiture of heir position as one of Christ’s metochoi, those who will partake with Him in the future reign of the servant kings.
How does one know when a believer has “gone astray”? It seems that several things are involved in the lives of those who are moving in this direction. There is a “neglect” of our great salvation, that is, a disinterest in our glorious future and a sense of “drift” in their Christian lives (Heb. 2:2-3). A gradual hardness of heart appears. This is associated with an unbelief which results in turning way from, instead of toward, the living God (Heb. 3:12). Spiritual dullness sets in , and there is no evidence of growth (Heb. 5:11). As a natural consequence a person traveling along this road no longer desires the fellowship of other Christians, and he habitually stops meeting with other Christians (Heb. 10:25), refusing to join with those who live by faith and desire to persevere (Heb. 4:1-2). In other words, he finds the company of nonbelievers or carnal believers more pleasant. If the exodus generation is our parallel, there may be the suggestion that an age of accountability is involved. Only those who were twenty years and older were in danger of the certain severe divine judgment for this behavior pattern (Num.14:29).
These are only the initial symptoms. The writer to the Hebrews knows of such people to whom he is writing. His concern goes far deeper however. He worries that they will commit apostasy and finally reject the faith altogether. This is his meaning when he warns them “not to throw away their confidence” (Heb.10:35) and not to “deliberately keep on sinning” (Heb. 10:26). He does not want them to take this final step and be among those who “shrink back and are destroyed” (Heb. 10:39). It seems evident from these warnings in Hebrews that it is possible for true Christians to commit apostasy, final public rejection of Christ.
The consequence of such an apostasy, however, according to this writer, is not loss of salvation but loss of inheritance, as he illustrates from the example of Esau (Heb. 12:17). Likewise, he warns them extensively through the example of Israel’s failure to obtain rest in chapters 3 and 4.
The impossibility of renewal. For those who have “gone astray,” “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance.”34 But we must ask, Impossible for whom? To say that it is impossible for God to change them is theologically and biblically unacceptable. “For nothing is impossible with God” (Lk. 1:37) except to lie or otherwise contradict His own holiness (Heb. 6:18).
If it is not impossible for God to do this, then his meaning is that it is impossible for others to renew such a man. He has already told them to “encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today” (Heb. 3:13). Evidently a person can become so hardened in unbelief that the encouragement and exhortation of his fellow Christians can no longer have any effect on him. It will not always be called “Today.” There will come a point in which his opportunity to progress as a Christian may be terminated by God. Encouragement falls on deaf ears. When that happens, they, like the wilderness generation, die in the wilderness and never enter into rest. It must be remembered that God declared “on oath in My anger, they shall never enter My rest” (Heb. 3:11). This is why the writer says that progression to maturity (6:1) can only continue “God permitting” (6:3). God may not permit it. He may draw the line and disinherit them like He did the exodus generation. Once we withdraw from God’s house of worship and forsake fellowship with other Christians, we are beyond the opportunity to respond to their encouragement and risk loss of reward at the judgment seat of Christ.
But what is the precise object of “renew”? It is “to repentance.” They had experienced repentance before and cannot be renewed again to it. This creates some problems for Experimental Predestinarian exegesis. Normally repentance is viewed as the condition for salvation. If these apostates have repented, then they are saved. Yet on Calvinist assumptions, if they are saved, they cannot be mere professors, as their exegesis of the passage requires. Experimental Predestinarian Roger Nicole is acutely aware of his problem here:
This characteristic… appears to confront us with greater difficulties than any of the other descriptions. For if the repentance that these apostates had experienced were not true godly sorrow (2 Cor. 7:10), it is hard to see why it would be desirable to renew it. And if this repentance is the genuine sorrow of the penitent believer, as the word metanoia ordinarily denotes, then regeneration appears presupposed as the only adequate fountain for such an attitude.35
Experimental Predestinarians have adopted two devices to explain this problem. The typical approach, represented by Nicole for example, argues that the repentance which these apostates originally exercised was a false, non-saving repentance,36 an approach which Nicole himself acknowledges is “not entirely free of difficulty.” He admits that the reason he adopts it is that the alternative is that “regenerate individuals may be lost.”37 Hopefully there is a better alternative!
A similar approach, represented by Sauer, is to say that the repentance was real but that repentance plus faith are necessary for salvation and that they are only said to have repented in 6:6:
The fallen had repented. That is, they underwent a change of mind about their sinful life, the validity of Christianity, and the continuing worth of Judaism…. This repentance was to be followed up and supplemented by conversion. But the expected epistrophe, or turning to God through faith in Christ is not said to have occurred.38
But it does say it has occurred! In 6:1 we are told that they repented and exercised faith toward God. In 10:23 he tells us that they had professed “hope,” i.e., trust in Christ. He says they had “confidence” in Christ in 10:35. Furthermore, the descriptive phrases mentioned in 6:4-6, as argued above, are in fact best interpreted as descriptive of regenerate people. Surely the notion that repentance would not result in salvation would sound strange to first-century readers of the New Testament.
Because faith necessarily assumes and includes within its compass the notion of a change of mind or perspective about sin and about who Christ is and about what one trusts in, it is easy to see how the New Testament writers could sometimes have used the terms interchangeably even though the terms by themselves have different meanings.
Arminians have the advantage of viewing repentance in a salvation sense and assuming that they are genuinely saved and have genuinely repented. They simply say that man can lose his salvation.
The Partaker also views the repentance as genuine and resulting in regeneration. He simply notes that both Christians and non-Christians can repent and that the second repentance here is the repentance of Christians in confessing their sin, and thus it is similar in meaning to “confession.” The application of repentance (Gk. metanoia) to the regenerate is common in the New Testament (cf. Lk. 17:3; 2 Cor. 7:10; 2 Cor. 12:21; 2 Tim. 2:25; Rev. 2:5; Rev. 2:16). His point is that a regenerate man can get into such a psychological and spiritual state that he is hardened; his perspective cannot be renewed and, as a result, he cannot confess his sin or repent. This is not a renewal to salvation from sin’s penalty, hell, but a salvation from sin’s power. The renewal is a restoration to the state of mind that feels regret and sorrow for sin. This “renewal” is precisely illustrated in 2 Cor. 7:10-11:
Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation,… See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.
The salvation here is equivalent to sanctification, moral victory, deliverance from sin’s power. But the godly sorrow is the same as the renewal of Heb. 6:6. It is a renewal that produces “earnestness,” “eagerness to clear yourself,” alarm over sin, and readiness to see justice done, etc. (2 Cor. 7:11). When that state of mind is achieved, a man can repent, change his mind about sin, and confess it. Repentance here is not saving faith but confession of sin by the Christian.39
The first time these people repented they changed their minds about sin, trusted God, and were born again. It will be impossible to restore them once again to the state of mind where they are willing to change their minds about their present sins of hardness, unbelief, and lethargy leading to apostasy. It is impossible because the preparatory “renewal” or “godly sorrow” no longer exists due to the hardness of their hearts.
Crucifying the Son of God. The reason given for the impossibility of renewal to repentance is that they crucify the Son of God and subject Him to public shame (Heb. 6:6). First of all, it is likely that the verb “crucify” (Gk. anastauroo)does not necessarily mean “crucify again.” Rather, it refers to lifting up on the cross, or simply “to crucify.” Any reader of the New Testament would have understood it this way.40 Furthermore, this crucifixion is not literal but “to themselves,” or as the NIV puts it, “to their loss.”41 The thought then is that they will suffer loss at the judgment seat of Christ because of their actions. Those who have drifted into apostasy cannot be renewed to repentance because, due to their life-style and conduct, they have crucified Christ.
There were only two possible interpretations of the death of Christ. He was either crucified justly as a common criminal (the Jewish view), or He was crucified unjustly as the Son of God, an innocent man. When a Christian denies Christ, he is in effect saying that the Jewish view was correct. If He was not the Son of God dying for our sins, then the only other possible conclusion was that He was a blasphemous deceiver who received what He deserved. It is in this sense that the apostate holds Christ up to public shame. His life and denial has testified that Christ was a criminal and that His shameful death was deserved. For the writer to the Hebrews, at least, denial of Christ was a possibility for a true Christian, but loss of salvation was not.
But why is crucifying the Son of God the reason for the impossibility of renewal to repentance? It is possible that the habitual and continuous aspect, which the present tense sometimes carries, should be stressed here. The tenses of the preceding verses were all aorists, so the unexpected switch to the present may be intentional. They cannot be renewed to repentance because they continually crucify the Son of God. In other words, because they have arrived at a state of continuous and habitual sin, they continuously and habitually shame the name of Christ. The hardness associated with any continued state of sin makes repentance psychologically and spiritually impossible. Because of their hardness they are beyond persuasion by other Christians.
It is also likely, as already mentioned, that from the divine side repentance is not allowed while they continue this behavior. He has told us that progression to maturity is only possible if God permits. However, those who have been hardened by sin (3:13) and who have unbelieving hearts which have turned away from God (3:12) are, like the exodus generation, apparently not permitted to go on. They will not advance to maturity and share in the great salvation promised to those who by “faith and patience will inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:12).
The saved condition of the apostates. Before continuing our discussion of the falling away, it is necessary that some summary points regarding the regenerate nature of these apostates be made.
First of all, it seems to be widely acknowledged that the illustration informing the writer’s mind is the experience of the exodus generation in the wilderness. Just as they failed to enter rest, so we too are in danger of not entering by “following their example of disobedience” (Heb. 4:11). The majority of the exodus generation was regenerate, but they did not enter rest, i.e., finish their work of possessing Canaan. As stressed in chapter 5, the “rest” of Hebrews is not heaven but the reward of joint participation with Messiah in the final destiny of man. To enter into rest is not to go to heaven when we die but to finish our life work (4:4; 10:36), to persevere to the final hour. Some Christians will and some will not, and those who do are “partakers of Christ,” i.e., partners of the Messiah in His messianic purposes.
Since the analogy of the regenerate exodus generation is in his mind and since their failure was not forfeiture of heaven but forfeiture of their reward, there is no reason to assume the lapsed of Heb. 6:4-6 will forfeit more. And … there is no reason to assume they are unregenerate.
Second, it is impossible to view the believers of w. 4-6 as unregenerate because they are being urged to go on to maturity, as unregenerate non-Christians cannot mature in Christ. The maturity of 6:1 is not just advanced doctrine but is defined by the reference to 5:14 as mature character in exercising discernment between good and evil. Even if it was “advanced doctrine,” unregenerate professing Christians, lacking spiritual ability to understand spiritual truth (1 Cor. 2:14), being blind (2 Cor 4:4), and being dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-3), can hardly be expected or exhorted to understand the Melchizedekian priesthood of Jesus Christ!
Third, the writer assumes their regeneration. He never asks them to examine themselves to see if they are really Christians. If he doubted their salvation, he would certainly have placed this question before them. Instead, he tells them that these “holy brothers” (3:1) are partners of Christ only if they persevere. As most commentators now agree, being a partner and being a Christian are not synonymous. All partners are Christians, but not all Christians are partners. Only those who persevere to the final hour (Heb. 3:14).
Finally, it seems exegetically questionable to detach the references to believers in the warning contexts from the warnings themselves. It is acknowledged by Experimental Predestinarians that believers are obviously being addressed in the broader context of the warning passages.42 Heb. 6:4-8 is no exception. It is certainly circumscribed by exhortations to believers in 5:11-6:3 and 6:9-12. Is it exegetically ethical to switch addressees in the middle of the warning context? There is nothing in the warning itself to suggest that such a change has been made. Indeed, in the other warnings it would almost be impossible to draw such a distinction.43 Furthermore, even Nicole admits that our “most immediate impulse would be to interpret this cluster of statements [the references to “enlightened,” etc.] as describing regenerate persons.”44
The Thorn-Infested Ground (6:7-8)
The only possible result for such behavior is divine discipline and judgment. The writer now explains this by an analogy from nature in Heb. 6:7-9:
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 the land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger [or, “close to being”] of being cursed. In the end it will be burned (Heb. 6:7-8).
The “land” refers to the individual regenerate man, the true Christian. It is not permissible, as some have done, to speak of two lands: one which produces a good crop and one which produces thorns (i.e., regenerate and unregenerate). Only one land is mentioned or discussed here. What is in view is two differing crops which can come from this one land.
That this “land” is a regenerate man is proven from the descriptive phrases applied to him in 6:l-3.45 As the rain falls upon this land, it stimulates the land to produce a crop, a life of perseverance in good works. Or as he expressed it in v. 10, “your work and the love you have shown Him [God] as you have helped His people and continue to help them.” The rain refers to the “free … bestowal of spiritual impulse; the enlightenment, the good word of God, the energetic indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which the Hebrews had received and which should have enabled them to bring forth fruit to God.”46 In sum, the “rain” points back to the four blessings described in 6:1-3. Furthermore, the land “drank” these blessings. The difference is not in drinking and not drinking but in the kinds of produce which resulted from the drinking. It is clear that the phrase “the land which drinks in the rain often falling on it” is the subject of the verbs “produces” and “receives” in v. 7, and of “produces” and “is in danger of being cursed” in v. 8.47 Sauer correctly observes that “the writer’s aim is to point out the diversity of results that can arise from the same field under equally favorable conditions.”48 The phrase “which drinks” stresses that the rain does not merely fall upon the ground but is actually absorbed by it. This soil is not hard and unreceptive, as in the case of the first soil in the parable of the soils. There is no picture of the rain simply falling on the surface and not sinking in. It would be hard to find a clearer picture of saving faith. These people not only were enlightened and were partakers of the Holy Spirit and recipients of the heavenly gift, but they drank and absorbed it.
The word “drink” (Gk. pino) is commonly used elsewhere of saving faith (Jn. 4:13; Jn. 6:54; Jn. 7:37-38). These “holy brothers” who are in danger of apostasy have all drunk of the water of life (i.e., believed), and on the authority of Jesus will be raised on the last day.49
This crop is useful to God, the “owner.” Probably Christian ministers and teachers are the farmers (1 Cor. 3:9). However, the same land may not produce this useful crop. It may also produce “thorns.” It is clear that this writer does not believe that a life of perseverance is the necessary and inevitable result of regeneration. The Lord taught the same thing in the parable of the soils. The final three soils all represent regenerate people as proven by the fact that even the one with no root did grow and hence manifest regenerate life. But two of the three did not produce fruit.
When the land produces a good crop, it receives blessing from God. This blessing is to be understood as divine approval, our entrance into “rest” (Heb. 4:11), the receiving of our rewards, and various unspecified temporal blessings as well. The only other use in Hebrews is of Esau forfeiting his inheritance (Heb. 12:17). That seems to confirm the interpretation that the blessing from God is reward at the judgment seat of Christ. As demonstrated elsewhere, the inheritance-rest of Hebrews, indeed the inheritance in the New Testament, is always, when conditioned on obedience, a reward in heaven and not heaven itself.50
But Experimental Predestinarians insist it is not possible for the same soil to bring forth both a good and a bad crop. It can only bring forth one or the other. But this contradicts the author’s plain statements in other parts of the epistle. These regenerate people have produced a “crop” of patience in suffering and commendable good works (10:32-34). But some have also produced the “crop” of dullness and spiritual lethargy (5:11-14), some of these “brothers” are in danger of hardness of heart (3:12), and many have stopped meeting together with other Christians (10:25). The same land that produces a crop of perseverance in patience also produces a crop of initial righteousness that then falls into transgression. That is the whole point of the book.
In order to substantiate their thesis that the same regenerate heart cannot produce righteousness for awhile and then fall into unrighteousness, Experimental Predestinarians have to go outside of Hebrews. They then refer to Mt. 7:16 where the Lord says “by your fruits you will know them” and v. 18 where He says, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” Or as James tells us, “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water” (Jas. 3:11). But surely little can be argued for their case from these verses. ,
First of all, these are proverbial sayings. A proverb is a general maxim for which there are exceptions. It is generally true that a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, but a plain fact of agriculture is that sometimes good trees do bear bad fruit. The writer has sixty-seven good apple trees in his back yard that will gladly testify to this fact!
But second, James is hardly saying that regenerate people cannot produce bitter water. He is saying that they are inconsistent with their faith when they do. In the verses immediately preceding he says, “With one tongue we praise our Lord and Father and with it we curse men who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be” (v. 10). James’s point is not that these things cannot be (he has just said they can) but rather, that they should not be.
Finally, however, since the entire Bible presents numerous illustrations of truly regenerate people such as Saul and Solomon, who in fact did produce a crop of righteousness and then began to produce unrighteousness, Heb. 6:6-8 cannot be teaching something otherwise, or it is in contradiction with the rest of Scripture.51 The grammar and syntax of the passage do not require this “either/or” interpretation at all, and since the rest of the Bible prohibits it, there is no reason other than an a priori commitment to the Reformed doctrine of perseverance to accept it!
However, if the heart of the regenerate man produces thorns, three phrases describe his uselessness to God.52 He is “worthless,” “in danger of being cursed,” and “will be burned.”
They are useless to God. The word adokimos, “worthless,” means “disqualified” or “useless.” Experimental Predestinarians, of course, prefer the translation, “spurious,” which, while possible, supplies no opposite for the “useful” of v. 7. The opposite of “useful” is not “false” or “spurious” but “useless” or “worthless.” The writer’s point is that as thorny ground he is useless to the farmer. The author is not trying to say not that the production of thorns proves that the man’s profession of faith was spurious. That Christians can lead useless lives and fail to finish their work is the central warning of the epistle. The exodus generation, which is in the writer’s mind, was not unregenerate but useless. They never accomplished the task of conquering Canaan in spite of the many blessings God poured upon them.
Paul used it of himself in 1 Cor. 9:27 when he said that his goal was that at the end of life he would not be found “disqualified (adokimos) for the prize.” As discussed elsewhere,53 Paul does not doubt that he might forfeit his salvation. He is burdened that he finish his course and hence receive the reward. Similarly, the believer who produces thorns in Heb. 6 is not subject to damnation, but his disobedient life will disqualify him at the judgment seat and will make him useless for the purposes of God now.
They are in danger of being cursed. The second phrase, “in danger of being cursed” is more literally, “close to being cursed (NASB).” It is possible but unlikely that the curse refers back to Gen. 3. There the thorns were a result of the curse, but here the curse is a result of thorns. We are on safer ground if we remain close to the Jewish background of the readers and look to Dt. 28-30 where Moses taught that obedience resulted in temporal blessing and disobedience resulted in temporal cursing.54 If this is the meaning, the reference directs us back once again to the temporal curse which fell upon the exodus generation hardship and physical death. That God sometimes brings this judgment on His regenerate people is taught elsewhere in Hebrews (Heb. 12:5-11), and the sin unto physical death is taught throughout the New Testament.55
While the immediate reference is certainly to divine discipline in time, the writer of the epistle probably has the future consequences of this cursing in mind as well. He often speaks of the need to persevere and hence receive our reward56 and has this thought in view in the immediate context when he says, “Imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised (Heb. 6:12). Conversely, those who do not persevere in faith and patience will be cursed, i.e., be disinherited like Esau was (12:17). The cursing does not refer to loss of salvation.
They will be burned. It seems that the antecedent of “it” in v. 8 is “the land” of v. 7. It is the land that is in danger of being burned. What is meant by this burning? Some have argued that the burning is a purifying rather than a destroying fire. Apparently there was a common agricultural practice behind this. When a field was overgrown with weeds and thorns, it was customary to burn it in order to cleanse the field and restore its fertility. If this is the meaning, then the result of the apostate’s denial is severe divine discipline with a corrective intent. Justification for this might be found in Heb. 12:5-11.
But the purifying intent is doubtful here. The parallel of the exodus generation’s failure and their destruction in the wilderness is the controlling thought of the warnings. It is impossible to renew them to repentance. So the burning is, first of all, divine judgment in time. This is the thought of 10:27 where he speaks of the “raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.”57
But we are told elsewhere of a burning of the believer’s dead works at the judgment seat of Christ (1 Cor. 3:10-15), with negative as well as positive consequences which will accrue to believers at that time (2 Cor. 5:10). So we are not without scriptural parallel if we interpret this passage from that perspective. The burning of the believer then would be a metonymy for the burning of the believer’s works.
This would help explain the statement that “in the end” the works of the unfaithful believer (the produce of the field) will be “burned.” There is no reference to hell here but rather, to the burning up of the believer’s life work at the judgment seat of Christ. Even though the fire consumes his house of wood, hay, and stubble (= “land,” metonymy for “thorns and thistles,” in Heb. 6:8), yet this carnal Christian “will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Cor. 3:10-15).
Consolation and Encouragement (6:9-12)
For many years the author has had the privilege of traveling and teaching the Bible in Russia and Eastern Europe. In nearly every Bible conference numerous questions are raised about the doctrine of eternal security. This doctrine is not popular in that part of the world. It is feared that, if it is taught, people will become lax in their Christian lives. On one occasion, while teaching this material, a pastor who was attending the session became quite upset. Even though no reference was made to the doctrine of eternal security, the fact that Heb. 6 was being taught in such a way that removed it as a defense for conditional security caused him great distress. Why? It is quite common for church leaders to use this passage as a kind of club with which they use a fear motivation in order to secure the kind of obedience the scripture requires.
In one situation, after teaching on the book of Hebrews for forty hours with fourteen pastors in Bucharest, Romania, many of them were quite intrigued with the approach to the passage described above. They were so interested that they asked this writer to return for a special three-day conference on the subject of eternal security. They had never been exposed to anyone who believed salvation could not be lost. At the end of three days of wonderful interaction, all of them but one had embraced the doctrines of grace.
An interesting thing happened, however, when they returned to their congregations and began to preach this. One of them was threatened with his job, and another was talked to sternly by the deacons in the church.
People are often afraid of grace. There is a certain security in a system of Christian living bounded by numerous rules and traditions. Everyone understands that, by keeping these rules, you demonstrate to others that you are saved. But equally important, you assure yourself of the fact that you are in a state of grace. Any teaching which upsets this equilibrium must be handled with extreme care and sensitivity.
In conclusion, there is no reference in Heb. 6 to either a falling away from salvation or a perseverance in holiness. Rather, this is a warning to true believers concerning the possible loss of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ and temporal discipline in time. This passage is a dreadful warning to those with a hardened heart, but it is not a passage to apply to the persevering Christian who is “in the battle.”
The above chapter 19 is taken from the book, The Reign of the Servant Kings – A Study of Eternal Security and the Final Significance of Man by Joseph C. Dillow, Th.D.
1For example, see Marcus Dodds, “The Epistle to the Hebrews,” in EOT, 4:292; B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews (London: Macmillan, 2d. ed., 1892; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), p. 135; F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, NICNT, 14:108.
2F. W. Farrar, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges (Cambridge: University Press, 1894), p. 78. See also 1 Cor. 2:6 with 3:1 and 14:20.
3R. C. Sauer, “A Critical and Exegetical Reexamination of Hebrews 5:11-6:8” (Ph.D. dissertation. University of Manchester, 1981), pp. 126ff. Sauer has given a full and convincing argument that the foundations of Christian, not Jewish, faith are in view.
4The antecedent of “this” cannot be “laying again the foundation” because then the writer would be saying, “Let us go beyond the foundation, and we will lay the foundation, if God permits,” yielding nonsense.
5MarshaIl objects that this interpretation is in conflict with what follows. In w. 4ff. it is the impossibility of renewal to repentance which is in view, and not going forward to maturity. But surely this is quibbling. The first step toward restoration of lost love for Christ and progression to maturity is to confess one’s sin, i.e., repent (Rev. 2:5). See I. Howard Marshall, Kept by the Power of God (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1969), p. 141.
6 Ibid, 142. ‘
7 It may also refer to the particular enlightenment of “every man who is elect.”
8See also2:1-5; 8,11-13, 19; 4:1; 5:8.
9Sauer, p. 142.
11John MacArthur tries to blunt the force of this by referring to a usage of photizo in the LXX in Isa. 9:1-2 where we are told that people in darkness saw a great light. See Mt. 4:16. This is irrelevant to the usage in the New Testament where it is specifically the spiritual enlightenment of regeneration and where the context describes it as hapax, final, once-and-for-all enlightenment (John MacArthur, Hebrews [Chicago: Moody Press, 1983], p. 142).
12Jn. 4:10; Acts 2:38; 8:20; 10:45; 11:17; Rom. 5:15, 17; 2 Cor. 9:15; Eph. 3:7; 4:7; Heb. 6:4.
13Dodds, “Hebrews,” 4:296
14MacArthur, p. 143.
15Farrar, Hebrews, p. 82.
16Ibid. “The construction with the Gen. (instead of the Accs. as at ver. 5) does not warrant the interpretation made in the interests of Calvinism, of a mere tasting with the tip of the tongue (Carl Frederick Moll, “The Epistle to the Hebrews,” in Lange’s, 11:114).
17MM, p. 125; AG, p.156.
18MM, p. 125.
19E. Tiedtke, “Hunger,” in NIDNTT, 2:270..
20Westcott, Hebrew, p. 149.
21See also Job 20:18.
22J. Behm, in TDNT, 1:675-77; LS. s.v. “geuomai.”
23Heb. 1:9; 3:1, 14; 5:13; 6:4; 7:13; 12:8.
25Farrar. d. 82.
26Marshall,, Kept, p.144.
27In his attempt to evade the force of these verses, Abraham Kuyper argues, “It is true the apostle declares that the men guilty of this sin ‘were once enlightened,’ and ‘have tasted of the heavenly gift,’ and were made ‘partakers of the Holy Ghost,’ and ‘have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come;’ but they are never said to have had a broken and a contrite heart” (Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit [New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1900; rep’rint ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958], p. 610). Neither is it said of them, of course, that they were born again. Nor did the apostle say they were redeemed or that they passed from death to life. He does not say that they confessed Christ or that they had become new creations. It is true that he does not say many things about them. But what he does say can only be attributed to men who are truly born again. There is no mention of “faith” in the description in 1 Cor. 1:1-10, yet nobody doubts that Christians are there in view.
28MM, p. 489, where the untranslated German word verlorengehen means “become lost, wander astray.”
29AS, p. 342..
30AG, p. 627.
31Ezek. 14:13; 15:8; 18:24; 20:27; 22:4 (LXX).
32See chapter 3 for proof that the Jews of the exodus were regenerate.
33See chapter 5 for discussion of the inheritance rest Hebrews and demonstration that this refers to the believer’s ultimate reward in heaven, not his final deliverance from hell.
34The usage of adunatos (“impossible” ) in other places in the book excludes the idea that it could be rendered “very difficult.” It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin (10:4).
35R. Nicole, “Some Comments on Hebrews 6:4-6 and the Doctrine of the Perseverance of God with the Saints,” in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation, ed. G. G. Hawthorne (Grand Rapids: 1975), p. 361.
38Sauer, p. 250.
39Repentance is not always the same as “saving faith” in the New Testament but often means “change of mind.” It is used this way of Esau in Heb. 12:17. He sold his birthright for a meal, and afterward he could brine about no change of mind, though he sought it with tears. Even in 6:1, where it refers to the repentance of non-Christians, the meaning is to change one’s mind about the value of dead works.
40Dodds, “Hebrews,” 4:298. See also Bruce, Hebrews, p. 124. Although Arndt and Gingrich favor the view of the older translators, “crucify again,” they acknowledge that in Greek it always means simply “to crucify,” p. 60. This is also the rendering of E. Brandenburger in “Cross,” in NID-NTT, 1:397.
41 This is properly a dative of disadvantage, according to Farrar, p. 84.
42E.g., 3:1,12; 6:9; 10:19.
43Note the”we” of 2:1 and 10:19, 26 and the fact that those warned have been “sanctified” in 10:29.
44Nicole, p. 356. Nicole honestly admits that he rejects this impulse because he has determined beforehand that it cannot mean this due to the fact that the doctrine of perseverance is “powerfully grounded” elsewhere.
45See also 6:10; 10:14, 32-34.
47The verbs are all governed by the definite article preceding “drink” (te piousa).
49The fact that drinking and receiving water elsewhere means regeneration further substantiates the interpretation above that “enlightenment” is not mere mental perception but rebirth.
50See chapters 3 and 4.
51See chapter 14.
52See Thomas Kem Oberholtzer, “The Thorn-Infested Ground in Hebrews 6:4-12, BibSac 145 (July-September 1988): 319-328.
53See discussion under 2 Cor. 13:5.
54Note Dt. 29:22-28; 30:15-30.
551Cor. 11:30; 1Jn. 5:16-17; Jas. 5:19-20.
5610:36; 11:6, 10, 15, 16, 26.
57See next chapter for proof that this refers to judgment in time and not the eternal judgment of hell.
58See chapter 4.