We are continuing today in our study of one of the most difficult passages of Scripture to interpret. It is found in Hebrews 6:4-6.
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.
To many, this certainly sounds like a passage which describes a Christian who has fallen away and lost their salvation. I think that is not the case, but let me just say that if the passage is teaching that a person can lose their salvation, at least in this case it “is impossible” (v. 4)…”to restore them again to repentance” (v. 6a). In other words, they have lost it for good.
I believe there are several reasons why this passage is not teaching that a genuine Christian can lose their salvation. First, notice that this passage is addressing “those” people, in contrast to the “you” in verse 9 of which our writer says, “yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.” Also, the illustration that is used in vv. 7-8 of rain falling upon ground shows that people can experience the same blessings (those of verses 4-5) and yet experience different results, just like some ground brings forth useful crops and other ground yields thorns and thistles. Finally, the blessings that these people had experienced, as listed in vv. 4-5, are not necessarily indications of salvation. None of the typical language is used, such as converted, redeemed, reconciled or justified. Nor are words such as saved, faith or even repentance, though both had been mentioned back up in v.1 (but those phrases could just as easily have described someone under the old covenant.
So we have been looking at each individual description of “those” who might have fallen away and seen that “once been enlightened” and “tasted the heavenly gift” and “shared in the Holy Spirit” are not definitely indications that a person is saved, merely that they have experienced some preliminary work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
Our author goes on to list, in verse 5, “have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.” These, too, may describe someone who has been under the preaching of the gospel and experienced some of the workings of the Spirit, yet not have crossed the line of fully believing in Jesus Christ as their Messiah yet.
“Tasted the goodness of the word” probably refers to the hearing of the proclamation of the gospel. “Tasted” may be saying that they heard the gospel, but stopped short of “eating” the words, like prophet Jeremiah says in Jeremiah 15:16, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts.”
Kent Hughes notes that King Herod, in Mark 6:20, enjoyed listening to John the Baptist preach. He was perplexed and fascinated at his preaching. However, it never changed his life and he eventually had John beheaded at the request of his unlawfully wedded wife’s daughter, Herodias. His “taste” of God’s Word would only bring him greater guilt. In Acts 24 Felix heard Paul preach about faith in Jesus Christ, but he was never converted.
“Tasting is the first step to eating,” says John MacArthur. “It is not wrong to taste God’s Word. In fact, David encourages the very thing. ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good’ (Psalm 34:8). To some degree, everyone must taste the gospel before he accepts it. The problem is stopping with tasting it” (John MacArthur, Hebrews, p. 145).
These Jews had tasted the gospel, but the appeal was now gone and they didn’t want Christ anymore.
They had also “tasted the powers of the coming age,” which likely means that they had experienced “signs, wonders and various miracles” (cf. Heb. 2:4) like their ancestors had in the wilderness, but like their ancestors, it did not necessarily engender faith in them. And they saw even greater miracles in the resurrections of Lazarus and Christ and the mute given voice and the blind receiving sight—yet their unbelieving hearts were never regenerated, and they fell away.
Perhaps some of them had been healed of terrible or impossible diseases. Maybe some of them had been freed from demons. Maybe some of them, like those in Matthew 7:21-23, had performed miracles of healing or cast out demons. But like those in Matthew 7, these people very likely were not saved.
How is it possible for one to experience all of this and not be regenerated? we ask. Judas provides the answer. Very likely all the characteristics in our passage were part of his experience, yet there is no way we can imagine him as regenerate, especially since the Lord called him “a devil” (John 6:70), “the son of perdition” (John 17:12 NASB), and one for whom “it would have been better . . . if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21). Jesus knew Judas’ condition from the beginning, though Judas fooled the disciples to the last!
Demas is another example. Paul warmly greeted other Christians on his behalf (Col. 4:14). In Philemon 24 he is called a “fellow worker” with Paul. Yet Paul says about Demas in 2 Timothy 4:10 that he was, “in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.”
The problem, of course, had nothing to do with these blessings and experiences. They were the very things that led some of them to put their faith in Jesus Christ as their Messiah. But they don’t automatically engender belief.
The message of Hebrews 6:4-6 is that there were some individuals who were associating with Christians. They had experienced life with Christians. They had been attending church, heard the Word of God taught, witnessed the baptism of true Christians, observed the joy, peace and thrill experienced by Christians but they, themselves, had never believed in Christ and given their lives to Him (Romans 10:9-10). They had experienced everything externally, but nothing had ever happened internally. They were observers only.
That same thing can happen today. I’m afraid there are many people who have gone to church, maybe for years, and some parts of their lives have changed. Morally they are better people. They may even be involved in ministry. But their hearts are not changed. They have never experienced the conversion that the Holy Spirit brings. They had never fully put their faith in Jesus Christ.
Wayne Grudem provides this helpful summation:
“What has happened to these people? They are at least people who have been affiliated closely with the fellowship of the church. They have had some sorrow for sin and a decision to forsake their sin (repentance). They have clearly understood the gospel and given some assent to it (they have been enlightened). They have come to appreciate the attractiveness of the Christian life and the change that comes about in people’s lives because of becoming a Christian, and they have probably had answers to prayers in their own lives and felt the power of the Holy Spirit at work, perhaps even using some spiritual gifts (they have become ‘associated with’ the work of the Holy Spirit or have become partakers of the Holy Spirit and have tasted the heavenly gift and the powers of the age to come).
They have been exposed to the true preaching of the Word and have appreciated much of its teachings (they have tasted the goodness of the Word of God). These factors are all positive, and people who have experienced these things may be genuine Christians. But these factors alone are not enough to give conclusive evidence of any of the decisive beginning stages of the Christian life (regeneration, saving faith and repentance unto life, justification, adoption, initial sanctification). In fact, these experiences are all preliminary to those decisive beginning stages of the Christian life. The actual spiritual status of those who have experienced these things is still unclear” (153).
Then there is this final description of “those” people, in verse 6, “and have fallen away.” All of these experiences and blessings had been true of these people, but eventually they “have fallen away.”
Earlier this author had warned them about “drifting away” (Heb. 2:1-4) and now he is saying that some of them “have fallen away.” The word is parapesontas, an aorist active participle of parapipto, to “fall alongside.” It matches all the other aorist participles in vv. 4-5, but this one is active. It was no one else’s fault that they had fallen away. It was their choice.
In the LXX, the term parapiptein has reference to the expression of a total attitude reflecting deliberate and calculated renunciation of God (Ezek. 20:27; 22:4; Wis. 6:9; 12:2; cf. Michaelis, TDNT 6:171 …). A. M. Stibbs characterizes this as “nothing less than a conscious, deliberate and persistent abandonment of the Christian way of salvation, an abandonment which involves nothing less than apostasy from the living God.” It is sin committed against the light. It is not a sin of ignorance, but in the face of both the knowledge of and experience of the truth.
I don’t think our writer is addressing those who have a period of doubting. This is an open, defiant, decisive turning away from Jesus Christ, a callous rejection of the gospel. Nor was it a period of sinning, disobeying God’s law. It is a clear case of turning their backs on God, more particularly, denying the efficacy of Jesus Christ as Savior.
We are not here dealing with the sincere believer who is depressed about his spiritual failure, or the backslider who has temporarily lost interest in the things of God. We are here confronted with fierce opposition to Christ and his gospel, public rebellion against Christian things and a determination to bring Christ’s work to an end. The force of their Christ-rejection is vividly expressed in the tenses which are used here to describe their activity. Such people “keep on crucifying” (present tense) for themselves the Son of God, and “keep on putting Him to open shame” (present tense again). If such people are resolutely determined to respond in this way to the message of Christ’s love and forgiveness, then certainly it is “impossible to keep on repeatedly leading them (present tense) afresh into repentance.” (Raymond Brown, The Bible Speaks Today: Hebrews, 114)
Some link this passage to Hebrews 10:25-31 and see this as a warning against a specific kind of apostasy—forsaking Jesus as the perfect sacrifice for sins and returning to animal sacrifices as a means of atoning for sins. Those who repudiate the salvation procured by Christ will find none anywhere else.
It is further described in these words: “they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”
First, notice the change in the tenses of the participles. The aorist participle parepesontas indicates a decision to turn away from Jesus Christ, but now present participles are used to show the continuing disbelief of those who have lapsed into apostasy: “they keep on crucifying the Son of God and holding him up to contempt.”
It is said that they crucify the Son of God, and the compound verb used (anastaurountas) shows that the writer is thinking of a repetition of the crucifixion. He could not have expressed the seriousness of the apostasy in stronger or more tragic terms. As he thinks of what the enemies of Jesus Christ did to him, he actually sees those who turn away from him as equally responsible. (Donald Guthrie, Tyndale NT Commentaries: Hebrews, 143-4)
In other words, they are freshly and publicly rejecting Jesus Christ as their atoning sacrifice, trusting instead in the Old Covenant sacrifices of bulls and goats. Alford quotes the German commentator F. Bleek, who puts it in these striking words:
“They tear him out of the recesses of their hearts where He had fixed his abode, and exhibit Him to the open scoffs and reproach of the world, as something powerless and common.”
Here is the reason this kind of falling away is re-crucifying Christ. When a person chooses against Christ and turns back to the way of the world and the sovereignty of his own will and the fleeting pleasures of earth, he says in effect that these are more worth than Christ is worth to him or her. They are worth more than the love of Christ and the wisdom of Christ and the power of Christ and all that God promises to be for us in Christ. And when a person says that, it is the same as saying: I agree with the crucifiers of Jesus. Because what could shame Christ more today than to have someone taste his goodness and wisdom and power and then say: No, there is something better and more desired. That puts him to open shame.
John Piper says: “It is one thing for a stranger to the faith to resist Christ. But it is another for a person who has been in the church and has been enlightened and tasted of the heavenly gift and become a partaker of the Holy Spirit and tasted of the good word of God and the powers of the age to come-=-it’s another thing for that person to say after all those blessings and all those experiences: I think what the world offers is better than this. That is a re-crucifying of Jesus, a putting him to public shame worse than any outsider could, who never tasted the truth” (Piper,
Having tasted the sweet salvation of God and the witness of the Holy Spirit, they now rail on Christ and nail Him to the cross again, with their own hands. They show the same ridicule and despising hatred of that first hostile crowd who shouted, “Crucify Him!” They mock and jeer at the One who had given them forgiveness; they brutally lash at Him with whips and cruelly offer Him vinegar when His throat is parched with the thirst of dying. Could such a one be reinstated to repentance? Impossible! (Louis H. Evans, Jr., The Communicator’s Commentary: Hebrews, 135-6)
This is why (the participle is causal) it is impossible to renew them to repentance. F. F. Bruce says, “God has pledged himself to pardon all who truly repent, but Scripture and experience alike suggest that it is possible for human beings to arrive at a state of heart and life where they can no longer repent” (The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 149).
Anyone who has had full knowledge and fully observed the joy of Christians and then rejects Christ, what more can be done? The answer is nothing! They had knowledge their sin but never accepted Jesus. What more can be done to bring them to Christ, if they finally reject everything? The answer is it is impossible to bring them back.
Since repentance is an act involving the self-humbling of the sinner before a holy God, it is evident why a man with a contemptuous attitude towards Christ has no possibility of repentance. The hardening process provides an impenetrable casing which removes all sensitivity to the pleadings of the Spirit. There comes a point of no return, when restoration is impossible. (Donald Guthrie, Tyndale NT Commentaries: Hebrews, 145)
Repentance in 6:4-6 is “impossible” because there is nowhere else to go for repentance once one has rejected Christ. The apostate in effect has turned his or her back on the only means available for forgiveness before God. (George H. Guthrie, The NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews, 220)
It is “impossible” to return from this state of apostasy. It is not “improbable” or “difficult,” but “impossible.” There is no return.
Some compare this to the “unpardonable sin” of Matthew 12. There, the Pharisees had seen the miraculous work of Jesus Christ (and not for the first or last time), but instead of acknowledging that His miracles were empowered by God, they attributed His miraculous power to Satan. This even represents, in the synoptic Gospel, the turning point of each book, where Jesus’ ministry changes from ministering to the masses to ministering primarily to His disciples. It represents the point at which the nation turns their back on Jesus Christ, and thus He turns His back on them.
Please remember this: once you finally and forever turn your back on Jesus Christ and so harden your heart as to exclude him altogether, you cut yourself off from the only hope for forgiveness. There is no other way. There is no other atonement for sin. There is no other pathway into the presence of God. There is no other road to redemption. There is no other person or philosophy or religion or ritual that can reconcile you to God and obtain for you eternal salvation.
The only way for a person to be saved is through Jesus Christ, through His self-sacrifice for our sins. God has provided the way, the only way, and these people, and many people today, are rejecting that way because they either don’t feel like they need it or they believe they have a better way.
The “better way” for the Jews of this historical moment was to turn back to Moses and the law. It would relieve them of being persecuted and it was familiar to them. It involved working for their salvation through obedience and sacrifice, something most people believe themselves capable of doing.
But actually the “only way” to get to the Father is through Jesus Christ (John 14:6). Unless you have the Son, you don’t have the Father, according to 1 John 5:12, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
Once again, let me just emphasize that the author of Hebrews is not saying that genuine Christians could fall away, but that those who have been exposed to Christianity can fall away. “In these verses he is not questioning the perseverance of the saints; we might say that rather he is insisting that those who persevere are the true saints” (F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 144).