Falling Away–Conditions and Consequences, part 1 (Hebrews 6:4)

Today we are going to deal with one of the most disputed passages in the Bible.  This passage is taken by many to teach that one a person can be saved and then lose or forfeit that salvation.  That passage is Hebrews 6:4-8.

As always, we must interpret it within its context.

We believe that this book was written to a congregation of Jewish people–having noted how much it quotes from and deals with the Old Testament priesthood and sacrificial system and some of these people were moving along a path towards Christianity.  Others had become genuine followers of Jesus Christ.

As we look at Hebrews 6:4-8, we see that it has been preceded by language that shows that the author is attempting to get people to move forward towards Jesus Christ, although they had been taught some basic concepts that should have prepared them to do so (Hebrews 5:11-6:3).  Also, we will observe that after this passage our author speaks of another group of people who had reached salvation (Hebrews 6:9-12).

And, in between an illustration is used of rain falling on the ground, producing either a crop or thorns and thistles (vv. 7-8).  The blessing is the same (“the rain”) but one kind of ground produces good fruit and the other produces thorns and thistles.  Likewise, people who hear the gospel and respond with saving faith bring forth life. Others, however, who sit in church and hear the truth and are blessed by the ministry of the Holy Spirit but eventually turn their back on it all are like a field that never yields vegetation and thus comes into judgment.

We also need to remember that Hebrews 6:4-6 is one long sentence. 

The central proposition is “It is impossible (v. 4)…to be brought back to repentance.”

Most people who believe that a Christian can lose their salvation also believe that they can get it back.  Not according to this passage.  This passage, if it is speaking to that issue, is saying that repentance, or going back, is not just unlikely, but impossible.  It cannot happen.

In the midst of this proposition is the description of the people our author was trying to get to move forward and embrace Jesus Christ.  He uses five participles to describe them: “having been enlightened…having tasted the heavenly gift…having shared in the Holy Spirit…having tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age” but also “having fallen away.”  They had experienced a number of blessings while having the gospel preached to them, but they had fallen away, which he goes on to describe in verse 6 as “they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”

So the content of their apostasy had to do with the way they treated the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ, basically denying its sufficiency in favor of the repeated sacrifices of the Jewish system.

So let’s read our passage:

4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. 7 For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.

Like Matthew 7:21-23, this is a very sober, serious passage, one that we should take very seriously.

John Piper adds, “It seems to me that the book of Hebrews has a special way of making us serious.  It is a very sobering book.  It is not a sad book.  But it is a serious book.  If you hear what it says, it blows away glib, trivial attitudes about life.  It does this not to make us sad, but to make us unshakably happy in God (see 10:34; 12:2; 13:17). (www.soundofgrace.come/piper96/10-13-96.htm)

Now, Bible students over the years have come up with several approaches to this serious passage.

One view is that the writer is warning us against the sin of apostasy, of willfully turning one’s back on Jesus Christ and returning to one’s old life.  According to them, such a person would be lost forever.  However, the word used in this passage is not the word for “apostasy,” but it parapipto, which literally means “to fall alongside.”  Also, there are many passage in Scripture which argue that a true believer cannot be lost forever, that they have great security in Jesus Christ (cf. Heb. 6:13-20; see also John 5:24; 6:37, 40; 10:26-30; Romans 8:28-39).

Many who teach that one can lose their salvation also believe that they can be restored.  However, as we’ve already seen, this passage says just the opposite.  It says that one who falls away cannot possibly return.

Some interpret this passage as entirely hypothetical—“if someone did this, they could not return.”  However, the participles are not conditional.  And if the sin cannot really be committed, it seems absurd to warn people about the dangers of falling into it.  In order words, it does seem to be a real condition people could experience.

Other believe the issue is not salvation, but rewards, and that these people are in danger of losing their rewards.  The problem with this view is that the author definitely contrasts these people in vv. 4-6 with those in v. 9 who are clearly “saved,” “yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.”

Although not without its difficulties, my position is that this passage is talking about Jewish people who appear to be Christians, but are not so.  They have been exposed to the Gospel, have experienced some spiritual experiences, but have not truly or fully embraced Jesus Christ as their Savior.

The problem with this view is that vv. 4-5 seem to indicate experiences that are normative to salvation.  But in favor of this view is the clear distinction the author makes between the “those” people in vv. 4-6 and the “you” in verse 9, who are clearly “saved.”

If you remember Jesus’ teaching on the soils, we know that there are several types of soil which receive the word and respond to it in some way, but are not saved.  Also, there are examples in Scripture of people who had many opportunities to experience spiritual things (Judas and Demas, for example) but were not converted.

Also, looking through the experiences of these people in vv. 4-6 parallels the privileges of the Israelites who fell away during the wilderness wanderings and died in disbelief.

“As part of the covenant community, the fallen Israelites had placed blood on the doorposts, eaten the Passover lamb, miraculously crossed the Red Sea, observed the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, tasted the miraculous waters at Marah, daily ate manna, and heard the voice of God at Sinai.  But their hearts were hardened in unbelief, and they fell away from the living God.  True, some of those who perished in the wilderness were regenerate and some were unregenerate, but both were visible members of the covenant community and thus shared a profound mutuality of spiritual experience” (Kent Hughes, Hebrews: Volume 1, p. 157).

Similarly, these catechized ersatz Christians of Hebrews 6 were accepted into the covenant community and likewise experienced something of the spiritual realities, but fell away.

Look once again at the way our author describes the experience of these people.  They “have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away…” (Heb. 6:4-6a).

Did you notice that there are no specific “Christian” terms in that description?  There was no mention of faith in Jesus Christ.  They have not been “regenerated, born again, justified or adopted” (admittedly, none of these terms are used at all in the book of Hebrews) and even the word “saved” or “salvation” or “forgiven” is not used.

Here is a listing of what is said in Hebrews of the true believer, all of which are absent from the description of those who apostatize in 6:4-6.

(1) God has forgiven their sins (10:17; 8:12)

(2) God has cleansed their consciences (9:14; 10:22)

(3) God has written his laws on their hearts (8:10; 10:16)

(4) God is producing holiness of life in them (2:11; 10:14; 13:21)

(5) God has given them an unshakable kingdom (12:28)

(6) God is pleased with them (chp. 11; 13:16,21)

(7) They have faith (4:3; 6:12; 10:22,38,39; 12:2; 13:7; etc.)

(8) They have hope (6:11,18; 7:19; 10:23)

(9) They have love (6:10; 10:33-34; 13:1)

(10) They worship and pray (12:28; 13:15; 4:16; 10:22)

(11) They obey God (5:9; 10:36; 12:10,11,14)

(12) They persevere (3:6,14; 6:11; 10:23)

(13) They enter God’s rest (4:3,11)

(14) They know God (8:11)

(15) They are God’s house, his children, his people (3:6; 2:10,13; 8:10)

(16) They share in Christ (3:14)

(17) They will receive future salvation (1:14; 7:25; 5:9; 9:28).

As we saw in vv. 1-3 with the “elementary doctrine of Christ” it is quite possible that all these things were common experiences of Jewish people before coming to faith in Jesus Christ.  In other words, these were the “preparatory” experiences that would normally lead someone to embrace Jesus Christ as their Messiah.

Maybe this is why the author describes them this way.  In the beginning, it is very hard to distinguish between genuine and false believers.  It could be describing pre-faith experiences that commonly occurred in their lives in that age, but from which someone could still turn back.

In other words, these five incidents would be experienced by both genuine Christians and non-Christians, leading up to the point of salvation.  Some crossed that line; some did not.

Some let’s take a look at each of them.

First, those who “have once been enlightened.”  What does it mean to “be enlightened”?  And what is the significance of the word “once”?

Enlightenment refers to “intellectual perception of spiritual, biblical truth…to be mentally aware of something…to be informed.  It carries no connotation of response—of acceptance or rejection, belief or disbelief (John MacArthur, p. 142).

Certainly there is an enlightenment that must happen before anyone can become a Christian.  Paul acknowledges that Satan blinds the eyes of unbelievers so that they cannot see until God miraculously opens spiritual eyes to see the beauty and sufficiency and supremacy of Jesus Christ.

3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness, “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:3-6)

So, if these people were enlightened, were they not saved?  Obviously, Jesus came as the “light of the world” (John 8:12) but not everyone accepted Him.  Likely, in this context, to be enlightened meant to hear the Gospel message peached clearly and made plain to them.  But merely knowing the facts is not enough.  One must put their faith in what they know to be true about Jesus Christ.

Here is my point:  All true Christians have been enlightened, but not every enlightened person is a true Christian.  Salvation involves more.

The significance of the word “once” seems to be that it is an unrepeatable action, that it could only happen once.  “The light of the gospel had broken in on these people’s darkness, and life can never be the same again, to give up the gospel would be a sin against the light, the one sin which by its very nature is incurable (Bruce, p. 146).  They had “begun to see themselves [and Christ], but now volitionally returned to the dark.”

Because of their unbelief, the light that had been given them to lead them to salvation now becomes the cause of judgment against them.

Certainly coming into the light is something that must happen for salvation to occur.  But one must move on to embrace that light, to embrace Jesus Christ by faith.

Secondly, this group is described as people who have “tasted the heavenly gift.”  Again, we ask two questions: (1) What is the “heavenly gift”? and (2) What does it mean to “taste” something in a spiritual sense?

Although the Holy Spirit is often spoken of in the New Testament as a gift to believers, this is more likely a reference to Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 9:15) and the salvation found in him.  Many scholars believe it refers primarily to “the gospel and the benefits it covers” (Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 209).  Later in church history it was considered to be the Eucharist.

Now, the word “taste” is important because it occurs in three out of the five benefits listed in vv. 4-6.  Can it refer to something less than fully taking something in, as when we taste something and then spit it out?

Certainly that wouldn’t be the case in the use of this same word in Hebrews 2:9, where Christ “tasted death”; He experienced it fully.  Likewise, 1 Peter 2:3 and Psalm 34:8 seem to use “taste” to express the fullness of ingesting for one’s benefit.

Other still hold out that in this context the word means tasting but not ingesting.  So John MacArthur says, “One of the presalvation ministries of the Holy Spirit is that of giving the unsaved a taste of the blessings of salvation.  This is part of the ministry of drawing men to Christ.  But tasting is not eating.  The Holy Spirit will give us a taste, but He will not make us eat” (MacArthur, p. 44)

Whatever level of experience they had, it didn’t seem to save them, as we see from the context.

The third description is “who have shared in the Holy Spirit.”  On the surface, this seems like it must be referring to true Christians, right?

Believers have received the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit now indwells believers (Romans 8:9b).  The word used here is metachoi, partakers–it has to do with receiving and having fellowship with the Holy Spirit.

Again, these descriptions sound so much like believers.  It is possible here that what our author is focusing on is sharing in the gifts of the Spirit, like the false ministers in Matthew 7:21-23…

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Those are scary verses!

Here are people who were ministering in Christ’s name, ostensibly for His glory.  They were prophesying and casting out demons and doing mighty works, just like the apostles would do.  These seemed to be spirit-filled people.  Yet Christ never knew them—they were not saved, they would spend eternity separated from Jesus Christ.

F. F. Bruce points to the example of Simon Magus, who even “believed and was baptized” (Acts 8:13), yet Peter saw in his desire for the “magic powers” of the Spirit that he was still “in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity” (Acts 8:22).

So far, we’ve seen that these experiences are not definite signs that someone is saved, but they were significant spiritual experiences that should have led them to salvation.

Make sure you are saved.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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