Scripture. It is a warning passage in the book of Hebrews which, on the surface, may seem to communicate that one can be saved, turn away from Christ, and lose that salvation. That passage is 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.
If this passage is saying that a saved person can lose that salvation, then it is also saying that it would be impossible to get it back.
But I don’t believe this passage is communicating that one can lose their salvation. Instead, I believe this passage is telling us that it is quite possible to sit under gospel teaching, experience some spiritual experiences, including possibly healing or exorcism, but never to come to a personal faith in Jesus Christ, and then fall away (in this context to return to the Mosaic law, to trust in the sacrifices of animals to pay for one’s sins).
As I’ve pointed out, the good experiences that these people experienced in vv. 4-5 do not clearly say that they are saved. There is no mention of faith in Christ (although faith in God was mentioned in verse 1), no mention of forgiveness of sins, or justification, reconciliation, redemption, adoption, not even salvation. All of these experiences were pre-salvation experiences which would help them come to faith, but these people were turning back to the law.
Secondly, this group who experience these things and “have fallen away” are clearly contrasted with “you” in verse 9 (a different group) of which our author says, “yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.” So “they” may experience these pre-salvation experiences and fall away, but you have not.
Thirdly, we have this illustration in vv. 7-8, which show that two groups of people can experience the same blessings and have different responses. It illustrates that in this congregation they all had experienced these great blessings (of vv. 4-5) and yet they didn’t all have the same response.
Let’s look at vv. 7-8. It is an illustration that demonstrates the contrasting results of gospel preaching.
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.
These verses serve as a reason why we can view “those” people of vv. 4-6 as unsaved. The illustration pictures two plots of ground, very possibly side by side. The “rain that often falls” on the two plots of ground is not different rain. It is the same rain, which in the context is clearly the revelation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the very truths that the writer has described in vv. 4-5 that was dispelling the darkness concerning Jesus Christ, salvation and eternity.
John Stephenson shows the comparison in this chart:
|Illustration||Truth that is Illustrated|
|Rain falls from heaven.||Truth has been given from heaven.|
|The rain lands on everything.||The gospel has been given to all men.|
|When the rain brings forth vegetation, it results in a blessing.||When the gospel is believed and brings salvation, it results in a blessing.|
|When rain brings forth thorns and thistles, it is worthless and ends up being burned.||When the gospel is not believed, the result is a curse.|
Both plots, both groups of people, are on the receiving end of God’s blessings, experiencing things that could lead them to salvation. Both have heard the truth of the gospel. But while one plot of ground received the truth in faith, the other was what we might call a “gospel sampler.”
One plot of ground “produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it was cultivated” while the other, having received the same rain, produces “thorns and thistles” (reminiscent of the curse Adam received in Eden). Both groups received the same benefits, but only one produced good fruit.
Jesus, of course, spoke of the same truth in the gospels in the parable of the soils. In that case there were four different types of soil. Here there are only two. In the end, there are only two groups of people-saved and unsaved.
Both groups of people, the “they” of vv. 4-6 and the “you” of vv. 9-11, received the same benefits, but only some produced good fruit. One responded in faith while the other rejected the gospel. And the evidence is that ultimately it “bears thorns and thistles.”
The result of the ground that “produces a crop useful” is that they “receive a blessing from God.” Having been blessed with the gospel and Spirit-produced benefits of vv. 4-5, they bring forth fruit and thus receive even greater blessing.
Another thing to note is that this ground, the believers, “produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it was cultivated.” Ultimately, being saved is not only about ourselves. Yes, we receive wonderful blessings. But salvation is ultimately about God and His glory.
That is why Jesus taught us in John 15:8…
By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.
When the gospel and the Spirit produces fruit in our lives it not only proves who we belong to—to Jesus Christ as His disciples—but it brings glory to the Father. That is the ultimate purpose of our lives, as the Westminister Shorter Catechism states:
What is the chief end of man? And the answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
The writer to the Hebrews applies the point: “You’ve been blessed. But where is the fruit?” God looks for what grows in us after He blesses us, especially looking for what grows in terms of maturity.
But the same benefits can be experienced by others who do not produce a useful crop, but instead produce “thorns and thistles.” When that happens, no one blames the farmer for burning it. God brings judgment instead of blessing on this kind of ground, this kind of response.
“Worthless” literally means disapproved (Gr. adokimos). It may not mean totally rejected but rather failing to gain God’s approval. The word translated “worthless” (adokimos) occurs in 1 Cor 9:27 in the sense of disqualified and in 2 Cor 13:5 of failure to meet the test. It is no arbitrary rejection, but only as a result of due examination. In this case the land is proved to be worthless by the absence of effective fruit. (Donald Guthrie, Tyndale NT Commentaries: Hebrews, 146)
They are further defined as “close to being cursed,” which seems to indicate that there is still some time for these people to repent. Some of them might have been straddling the line between depending upon Christ and depending upon Moses, not having made up their minds yet. But they were in great danger.
Ultimately, unless they fully embrace Jesus Christ and stick to Him, they will be burned. That is the normal response of a gardener to remove unwanted vegetation from the garden. He is not talking about destroying the field, but removing the useless, unwanted “thorns and thistles.”
A refusal to progress in the Christian life and stay true to Jesus Christ leads logically to a retrogression, of which the ultimate end is judgment.
This fits with the story of Israel in the wilderness and the point of his warning in 6:4-6. God poured out His blessings on the nation in the exodus and during their wilderness experience. Their lives should have brought forth the fruit of faith and obedience. Instead, they were faithless and disobedient, threatening on several occasions to return to Egypt.
Some in the Hebrew church were in danger of precisely the same sin. They had participated in a corporate sense in God’s abundant blessings of salvation, but now they were tempted to return to Judaism. But to do that would be to fall away from Christ, and even worse, to join those who had crucified Him! In so doing, they would be crucifying Christ all over again, and putting Him to open shame by agreeing with the unbelieving Jews that He is not their Savior and Messiah. To do that would put them close to being cursed, and if they died in this state of renouncing their faith, they would face the fires of eternal judgment.
Let me just point out some applications to wrap up this section of Hebrews 6.
First, there is great danger in trafficking in Christian community, teaching and experiences and but never coming to a genuine faith in Jesus Christ. Our author piles up a list of experiences that sound pretty close to salvation in vv. 4-5, but there is no clear evidence they were ever converted. They were “so close,” but never crossed the line of faith.
What about you?
Jonathan Edwards wrote two books about the First Great Awakening. One defending it and another explaining how many false evidences of salvation abounded. That book is called A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, which has been modernized by Gerald McDermott, in his book Seeing God, with a subtitle, Twelve Reliable Signs of True Spirituality. Both books first focus on the false signs of salvation and then the true signs of salvation.
Obviously, in our illustration in vv. 7-8, one plot produced fruit and the other thorns and thistles. One of the evidences of true conversion is the kind of life that is produced. Even Paul said that there were people who “profess to know God, but they deny him by their works” (Titus 1:16) and in the last days there would be those who had “the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5)
So Paul very clearly and urgently pleaded with the Corinthian church, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5a).
Secondly, it is dangerous to profess faith in Christ but to have no evidence in your life.
God is raining His blessings all around, but each of us needs to ask, “Am I bringing God fruit, or thorns and thistles?” Is my life characterized by the “deeds of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19-21) or the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23)? We see fruit in the life of those clearly the saved group in v. 10, where our author identifies “your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints.”
Just as a field provides its worth by producing fruit, so we show our spiritual worth by producing fruit for God’s glory (cf. John 15:8).
Not every believer bears the same amount of fruit (“some a hundred, some sixty, some thirty,” Matt. 13:23); but every believer bears the same kind of fruit as proof that she/he is a child of God (Matt. 7:15–20). This is the fruit of Christian character and conduct (Gal. 5:22–26) produced by the Spirit as we mature in Christ.
Likewise, we won’t produce a lot of fruit right away, but over the course of a lifetime we should be able to look back and see how Christ’s character has been displayed in our lives and the impact that this has had on others.
The energy, hidden and inward, of the Holy Spirit is the true dynamic of spiritual growth: where evidence of Christian development and progress to maturity is lacking it must be doubted whether there has been a genuine experience of the Holy Spirit’s activity. Hence the extremely solemn character of the warning which is about to be offered (vv. 4-8). (Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 194).
Thirdly, it is dangerous not to practice frequent repentance.
Repentance s not a one-time decision that you do to be saved and then move on. Every day we need to be changing our minds, changing our affections, changing our behavior to keep in sync with the gospel.
Repentance is needed for conversion. The likelihood is that there are still vestiges of self-effort in most peoples’ thinking. I can’t tell you how many times I heard as a hospice chaplain people pinning the hopes of their salvation on being a good person.
The problem with going to church and still believing you will go to heaven because you are a good person is like having a vaccination. John MacArthur explains, “A vaccination immunizes by giving a very mild case of the disease. A person who is exposed to the gospel can get just enough of it to immunize him against the real thing. The longer he continues to resist it, whether graciously or violently, the more he becomes immune to it. His spiritual system becomes more and more unresponsive and insensitive. His only hope is to reject what he is holding onto and receive Christ without delay–lest he become so hard, often without knowing it, that his opportunity is forever gone. (John MacArthur Jr., The MacArthur NT Commentary: Hebrews, 147)
This involvement in the Christian community and hearing the gospel often might even make it harder to repent, as this passage reminds us. So Louis Evans says, “If one has experienced all that has described the believer in the above phrases and then turns his back on such a Savior, how under any circumstances can he crawl back? Is this a psychological impossibility or a spiritual impossibility? (Louis H. Evans, Jr., The Communicator’s Commentary: Hebrews, 135)
Last, it is dangerous not to take this warning seriously.
Our author is likely speaking to people who had been a part of the community, had heard the gospel, had experienced spiritual blessings, possibly some miracles and some moral improvements in their lives.
However, they had not embraced Jesus Christ by faith and therefore were in danger of falling away. Sooner or later the familiarity of the law and the discomfort of persecution would lean them away from Jesus Christ and towards the law.
Later in this epistle the author will encourage them to persevere. Believing the best about them, the author says, “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls” (Hebrews 10:39).
Don’t take your chances with eternity. Settle that today.
Are you pressing on to maturity or are you in danger of falling away from the gospel and any opportunity to ever know Christ as your Redeemer?
Now, the strategy of what our author is trying to do is to show us the worst possible scenario precisely so that we will not go there. As Spurgeon points out…
There is a deep precipice; what is the best way to keep anyone from going down there? Why, to tell him that if he did he would inevitably be dashed to pieces. In some old castle there is a deep cellar where there is a vast amount of fixed air and gas that would kill anybody who went down. What does the guide say? “If you go down you will never come up alive.” Who thinks of going down? The very fact of the guide telling us what the consequences would be keeps us from it. Our friend puts away from us a cup of arsenic. He does not want us to drink it, but he says, “if you drink it, it will kill you.” Does he suppose for a moment that we should drink it? No; he tells us the consequence, and he is sure we will not do it.
So God says, “My child, if you fall over this precipice you will be dashed to pieces.” What does the child do? he says, “Father, keep me. Hold me up, and I shall be safe.” It leads the believer to greater dependence on God, to a holy fear and caution, because he knows that if he were to fall away he could not be renewed. He stands far away from that great gulf, because he knows that if he were to fall into it there would be no salvation for him. It is calculated to excite fear, and this holy fear keeps the Christian from falling. (Charles Spurgeon, Spurgeon Commentary: Hebrews, 149-50)