Here’s how I’ve got it figured.
I think Hebrews provides the solution. After all, Hebrews contains many of the great verses promising Christians confidence and security, but Hebrews also contains many of the direst warnings against falling away. Clearly, the author considered it entirely possible to be confident in our salvation despite the real possibility of falling away.
We start with one of the most difficult verses in the New Testament –
(Heb 6:4-6 ESV) 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.
The teaching is not complicated. It’s just hard to accept. The passage seems to plainly declare that for those who’ve been saved, if they fall away, they will never repent.
(Forgiveness is always available. God never gives up. He is always ready to accept us back. Falling away only occurs when it’s no longer possible for the individual to repent.)
Well, this contradicts both the Calvinist and the conservative Church of Christ position! This suggests that there may really be a Third-Way solution.
The same idea is found in 1 Tim 4:2 –
Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron … .
(2 Pet 2:21-22) It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. 22 Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.”
Peter clearly believes the condition of those fallen away is worse than the condition of those who’ve never accepted Jesus. Paul tells Timothy that some lose their moral sensitivity and become constitutionally incapable of feeling guilty — and hence repenting.
Hebrews 6:4-6 is no anomaly. Hebrews includes the identical thought in other places. For example, 10:26-27–
(Heb 10:26-27) If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.
is in contrast with–
(Heb 10:18) And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.
Hebrews teaches that we’ve been saved “once for all.” Jesus offered but one sacrifice. Having been saved once, we need no further sacrifice (v. 18). However, if we fall away, no further sacrifice is available (v. 26). “Only” in v 27 means only — fall away and you never will repent so as to come back.
This sounds like a perfectly awful teaching, but in fact tells us how very broad God’s grace is. If someone does finally repent, then that person never fell away at all. After all, it’s impossible for those who’ve fallen away to repent.
Similarly parallel is –
(Heb 12:15) “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”
This is a reference back to –
(Deu 29:18-20) Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the LORD our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.
19 When such a person hears the words of this oath, he invokes a blessing on himself and therefore thinks, “I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way.” This will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry. 20 The LORD will never be willing to forgive him; his wrath and zeal will burn against that man. All the curses written in this book will fall upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven.
The parallel to Heb 6:4-6 is obvious.
Hebrews’ warning theme begins in Heb 3 –
(Heb 3:7-18) So, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, 9 where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. 10 That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.’ 11 So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
12 See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. 14 We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. 15 As has just been said: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.”
16 Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? 17 And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? 18 And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed?
Although not immediately obvious, the writer’s point is that most of the Israelites not only rebelled but did no irredeemably. God never forgave them. They died in the desert. They never stepped foot in the Promised Land. No one rebelled, died in the desert, and then confessed, repented, made restitution, asked forgiveness and so got to go to the Promised Land!
Hence, the readers are cautioned in v. 13 to encourage one another daily. This is parallel to 10:24-25, which immediately precedes 10:26-27 quoted above. It’s a recurring theme. Help each other out so you don’t fall away!
Hebrews can be outlined as alternating assurances of confidence and warnings against irredeemably falling away.
The falling away isn’t caused by just any sin, but rather by loss of penitence (10:26-27 is the clearest statement of this), which is rebellion.
Equally well, it can be said that falling away is from loss of faith. After all, Paul defines “faith” as including yielding to the Lordship of Jesus (Rom. 10:9). The Hebrews writers makes much the same point in Heb 3 –
(Heb 3:12) See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.
(Heb 3:18-19) And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed ? 19 So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.
In fact, as you read chapter 3, you can’t help but be struck at how the writer slides back and forth between lack of obedience and lack of faith. He makes no real distinction. Both evidence a hard heart separated from Jesus.
Now, if you begin reading Hebrews with a once saved, always saved preconception, this is all nonsense, even offensive. Martin Luther would sympathize! But it says what it says.
The warnings against falling away aren’t hypothetical and academic — they are impassioned and concerned, and coupled with practical advice to regularly meet together (daily!) and encourage one another because of sin’s “deceitfulness” (v. 13) to prevent this horrible result. Why meet and encourage if the possibility of falling away is entirely hypothetical?
And I think the author knew what he was talking about. Sin deceives. It makes us less responsive to our brothers and sisters — and the Spirit. It makes us think: let’s sin now and repent later! And slowly it erodes our consciences and grieves the Spirit, ultimately quenching the Spirit and damning its victims.
But this does not happen easily or quickly. Indeed, so long as penitence is possible, the victim hasn’t yet fallen away. The Spirit glows dimly, but it glows.
This interpretation brings great urgency to the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Shepherds go after lost sheep, not because they’re lonely or hurting, but because they die.
It also explains one of the central roles of the assembly — to be a place that encourages us to resist the temptation to sin, not because God hates sin, but because sin destroys those whom God loves.