Well, we’ve come in our study of the book of Hebrews to that infamous section of Hebrews that causes people a lot of problems with regard to the doctrine of eternity security. I’m talking about Hebrews 5:11-6:20, in particular Hebrews 6:4-6.
This is the third of five warning passages in the book of Hebrews. Our desire is to become confident in our understanding of it so that we can respond obediently to it and explain it to others who may struggle with it.
It is obviously a difficult passage which has given rise to many different interpretations. In pursuing a clearer understanding of this passage, I want to do several things.
First, I want to look at the question. Why does God inspire difficult texts? Some passages of Scripture are easier to understand than others. The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture holds that with study and the Spirit’s illumination we should be able to understand Scripture. Yet clarity is not the same as simplicity, and not all texts are as simple and straightforward as others. The conviction that we can understand Scripture is obvious even in the New Testament itself, where Peter could speak of some things in Paul’s letters “which are difficult to understand” (critically here Peter says “difficult,” not “impossible”) but which can nevertheless be approached with confidence — and it is possible to discern when they are being ‘twisted’ (2 Pet. 3:16). Peter went on to affirm that Paul’s writings were just as authoritative as the rest of Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16b). Augustine has written, “[The Bible is] shallow enough for a child not to drown, yet deep enough for an elephant to swim.”
In another context Wayne Grudem explains that…
Scripture affirms that it is able to be understood
but (1) not all at once
and (2) not without effort
and (3) not without ordinary means
and (4) not without the reader’s willingness to obey it
and (5) not without the help of the Holy Spirit
and (6) not without human misunderstanding
and (7) never completely.
Even verse 14 in Hebrews 5 concludes
14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
Second, I want to identify some general principles of interpretation to guide us. First and foremost is that every text is part of a context—both literary and historical/cultural—which guides how we understand a passage.
Third, I want to examine the specific context of this passage, so that we don’t insert a pretext into it. There is always a tendency for us to approach a passage from our own denominational or worldview background.
Fourth, I want to make some observations about the structure of the passage and identify some of the details of this third warning passage.
So, why does God inspire hard texts?
We believe that all Scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), thus He sometimes inspired difficult texts that are hard to understand. Why did He do that?
As John Piper wrestled over Romans 3:1-8 several years ago, he meditated over why God would put hard texts in the Bible. Why doesn’t he make everything clear? Here are four reasons he came up with:
First, desperation. God uses hard texts to create a sense of desperation and dependence in us. We see this desperation and inability expressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” The “natural man” is certainly here not a Christian, but could describe anyone without the help of the Holy Spirit. We cannot, naturally, that is, by ourselves, understand the Scriptures. We are not only sinful, but finite. God’s knowledge and ways are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8). God wants us to acknowledge our dependence upon Him for illumination.
Second, supplication. God wants us to consciously and intentionally turn to Him for help. This follows from our sense of desperation and dependence. Knowing we cannot understand Scripture without His help, we turn to Him. We cry out, as the Psalmist, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from your law” (Psalm 119:18). Seven times in Psalm 119 the Psalmist prays, “Teach me your statutes” (Psalm 119:12, 26, 64, 68, 124, 135, 171). Or, as Psalm 25:5 says, “Lead me in thy truth, and teach me.” By inspiring some texts that are hard to understand, God has unleashed in the world desperation which leads to God-glorifying supplication—crying out to God for His help.
Third, meditation. Hard texts cause us to think hard, to labor over the text. You might think that with praying to God we wouldn’t have to work hard to understand the text; that He would just magically bestow the answer to us. But no, praying and thinking are not mutually exclusive alternatives, they are both needed. We learn this especially from 2 Timothy 2:7, where Paul says to Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will grant you understanding in everything.” Yes, it is the Lord, who gives understanding. But he does it through our God-given thinking and efforts that we take, along with prayer, to think hard about what the Bible says.
Finally, education. Because God has inspired a Book as the foundation of the Christian faith, there is a massive impulse to translate these Scriptures into the languages of every people group and to teach them to read. And if God ordained for some of that precious, sacred, God-breathed Book to be hard to understand, then God unleased in the world not only an impulse to teach people how to read, but how to think about what they read. Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2, “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” Impart understanding to others, Timothy, to enable them to teach others. Education is cultivating the life of the mind so that it knows how to grow in true understanding. That impulse was unleased by God’s inspiring a book with complex, demanding paragraphs in it.
Well, what John Piper said about Romans 3:1-8 could be applied to Hebrews 5:11-6:20, which we will be diving into over the next couple of months. This is a difficult passage, causing many differing interpretations.
I hope to lead us through it, taking it apart and putting it back together again, so that we can understand it and interpret it within its own context so that we can be confident that we know what it means and how to apply it to our lives.
Let’s talk about some principles of interpretation. This is called hermeneutics—the art and science of interpreting a piece of literature. In our case, the Bible. So what are some principles of interpretation? What “rules” do we follow in trying to accurately understand the Bible?
First, Scripture must always shape our theology. We cannot not come to Scripture from some theological or worldview framework. What I mean by that is that it is impossible for us not to come to Scripture which some preconceived notions about what it must mean—based upon our upbringing, our learning, the culture around us.
But we must let the Scripture speak for itself as much as possible. We must come to God, admitting that we come with our preconceived notions, asking God to guide us into truth even if it conflicts with our own thinking.
We must seek to understand the plain meaning of the text and allow that to fashion our theology and worldview.
The proper, natural sense of the passage as intended by the author is to be taken as the fundamental meaning of the text. We must interpret it within its own context and seek to understand the meaning the original recipients would have understood as they read it.
The second basic principle of interpretation is that Scripture must interpret Scripture. Since all Scripture is inspired by God it is cohesive and coherent and will not contradict itself. The scope and significance of one passage will be brought out by relating it to other passages. Clear passages of Scripture help us to interpret the less clear passages of Scripture.
For example, this text in Hebrews is hard to understand and it seems to argue against eternal security. However, there are many other passages that very clearly and forcefully argue for eternal security, such as John 5:24; John 10:27-30; John 6:37, 39; Romans 8:1 and 38-39. For example, John 6:37-39 (and this is Jesus speaking):
37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.
That is literally “no not cast out,” a double negative in Greek. Double negatives are not good English, but excellent Greek. It emphatically states that it is impossible for Jesus to cast out anyone the Father has given to him.
38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.
Notice that Jesus will “lose nothing (or no one) of all that he has given me.” Rather, they will be raised up in the resurrection.
Another principle of interpretation is to look to the history of interpretations. How have great Christian thinkers and theologians viewed these problematic passages? What insights do these great hearts and minds give to contemporary readers of the Bible?
For example, here are some of the historical positions on how to interpret this passage, from the different denominational groups:
Augustine, for example, placed great emphasis on the connection between election and perseverance in grace. Ultimately, the renewed heart cannot return to an unregenerate condition. This position, Augustine asserted, was grounded in the immutable work of God. In other words, he did not believe a true Christian could lose their salvation.
John Calvin built on Augustine’s foundation. Calvin and John Owen agreed that Hebrews 6 describes the length to which an unregenerate person can experience God’s grace; yet, in the end, fall short of his profession. In other words, they see Hebrews 6:4-6 referring to unbelievers.
Roman Catholicism affirms the belief that Christians may, through mortal sin, lost their standing in grace and finally, fatally fall away from a previously held faith. The Council of Trent concluded that assurance of a secure standing in grace was presumptuous. Thus, they would see Hebrews 6:4-6 as describing a Christian who falls away.
Early Arminianism failed to make definitive statements about the possibility of a genuine Christian falling from grace. However, in time, Arminians came to affirm such a position. John Wesley, for instance, rejected the notion of unconditional perseverance. Some Baptists have affirmed a similar position, such as Dale Moody (not Dwight L. Moody) and Clark Pinnock.
A couple of other more modern approaches see it as hypothetical, taking the “if” at the beginning of verse 6 as conditional, meaning it may or may not happen. The author is then presenting a case that couldn’t really happen, but is presenting it in such a way to warn them against remaining in an immature condition.
Another approach is to see the consequence of falling away as not the loss of salvation, but the loss of eternal rewards.
I would recommend the book Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews put out by Kregel Publishing for anyone who would like to explore this further.
Now, with some interpretative principles behind us, let’s look at the context of this passage.
First, we need to remind ourselves to whom this book was addressed. First, since the readers are very familiar with the Old Testament and this book refers so often to the sacrificial system and the priesthood, we are confident that these recipients are primarily Jews who had grown up under Judaism.
While it is likely that some, or maybe even most of them had truly embraced Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord (remember, he calls them “holy brothers” in chapter 3, verse 1), there are very likely others who have experienced the teaching and fellowship and ministries of the church, but had not yet made a commitment to Jesus Christ. Some of these seem to be in danger of moving back into Judaism because of the persecution the Christians were facing.
Our author is warning them against that danger—of going back to the law. To him that would be an apostasy impossible to move back from.
It thus seems to be a mixed congregation, for Hebrews 6 speaks of “those” (in vv. 4-6) and “you” (in vv. 9-12).
Second, we need to remember that this is one of five warnings scattered throughout the whole book.
These five warnings (2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:20; 10:19-39 and 12:14-29) are strategically placed throughout the book and generally provide two options with clearly defined consequences—do this and such-and-such will happen, do that and other consequences follow. Whereas some warnings provide positive affirmations, all reveal a very unattractive and dire consequence is the readers choose incorrectly.
They also seem to be presented in a chiastic fashion. A chiasm, after the Greek letter Chi, which looks like a big X, is a literary feature which lines ideas up as presented in the text in the shape of an X. Thus, the elements at the beginning and end will be similar, and this will step down with each element until the middle elements, which seem to be the focus of the passage.
If this is a chiasm, with 2:1-4 and 12:14-29 invoking the important need to listen to and heed God’s message, and 3:7-4:13 and 10:19-29 directed towards trust and obedience to God’s message, then 5:11-6:20 is the heart of the passage. Thus it is very important for us to interpret it correctly.
Third, we need to see this warning as part of a larger section of Hebrews, which is the central section and concern of the book, and that is about how Jesus is the superior high priest. Our author introduces Jesus as the high priest of the Melchizedekian order in 5:10 and will pick it back up again after this warning section in Hebrews 7:1-28. So, this is essentially a warning about rejecting Jesus as their high priest. Notice that in 5:11 our writer mentions that he wanted to go on speaking on this subject, but could not because they were in danger of remaining in immaturity.
Now, let’s look at the structure and details of Hebrews 5:11-6:20. This section actually consists of two major units (5:11-6:12 and 6:12-20).
The first unit explores the peril of immaturity, of not going on to maturity (5:11-6:12). The tone of the four paragraphs in this unit alternates, notice, between pessimism and optimism:
5:11-14 is pessimistic in tone—“you have become dull of hearing.”
6:1-3, however, is optimistic in tone—”let us leave…and go on…if God permits.”
6:4-8 then goes back to pessimistic—“it is impossible to renew them again to repentance.”
And 6:9-12 turns back to optimism—“we are persuaded of better things concerning you”
This variation is designed to engage the attention of the hearers, to draw them in with both dire warnings and encouraging possibilities.
The second unit gives them a basis for perseverance, which is found in the very reliability and faithfulness of God’s promises to them (6:13-20). This passage shows that perseverance has much more to do with God’s faithfulness to keep His promises than with our promises to be faithful to Him.
Thus, this pastor holds before them two options—peril or promise. They may expose themselves to extreme peril by closing their ears to God, or they may find a basis for stability by listening to the voice of God expressed through oath and promise.