Hebrews 6 contains one of the most controversial passages in the New Testament (which says a lot!).
(Heb 6:4-8) It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, 6 if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.
7 Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. 8 But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.
We need to take this nice and slow. The passage seems to plainly say that not only can Christians fall away, but if they do so, they’ll never repent. Notice carefully that it doesn’t say that God will not accept and forgive those who repent. Not at all. The risk isn’t that God won’t forgive — it’s that we won’t ever repent.
Therefore, we must be careful not to interpret this passage to say that someone who is sorrowful for his sins and wants to return to God will be denied by God. It plainly says no such thing! Nothing here contradicts the Parable of the Prodigal Son. God forgives … Jesus saves … if we are penitent.
No, the great danger the writer presents is the danger of never repenting. We’ll come back to that. First, we need to deal with some objections often voiced to this interpretation of the passage.
Some interpret “impossible” to mean “extremely difficult.” Well, the same Greek word is used in these passages —
(Heb 6:18) God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged.
(Heb 10:3-4) But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, 4 because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
(Heb 11:6) And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
There are four things the writer declares “impossible,” and in each case, “impossible” means impossible — not “very hard.”
Some argue that “tasted the heavenly gift” suggests someone who considered being converted but was never truly converted — like someone who tastes a meal but never actually eats. But that’s not really what the Greek says. Rather, here are some examples of how the Greek word is used —
(Heb 2:9) But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
(Acts 10:10) He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance.
(Acts 20:11) Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left.
(Acts 23:14) They went to the chief priests and elders and said, “We have taken a solemn oath not to eat anything until we have killed Paul.”
Jesus “tasted” death, but he really and truly died. He was fully dead. However, he was only temporarily dead — and that’s the idea in Heb 6:4. Compare the parallel phrases —
* who have once been enlightened
* who have tasted the heavenly gift
* who have shared in the Holy Spirit
* who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age
This surely refers to someone who has been saved — although perhaps only temporarily.
The same Greek word translated “enlightened” is also found in —
(Heb 10:32) Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering.
This is plainly a reference to being saved. (The rest of c. 10 makes this very plain.)
And who shares in the Holy Spirit other than the saved? The word translated “shared” also appears in 1:9, 3:1, 3:14, and 12:8 and in each case refers to Jesus (1:9) or the saved. The saved share “the heavenly calling,” “Christ,” “the Spirit,” and God’s “discipline.”
The author is plainly referring to people actually saved.
Some argue that “fall away” doesn’t mean “become damned.” Some argue that it refers to people who’ve never really been saved — wolves in sheep’s clothing. But that is obviously not so as explained above. Others argue that it means something less than damnation.
The word is contextually and grammatically tied to —
(Heb 3:17) And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert?
(Heb 4:11) Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.
Both are warnings to the saved against failing to enter God’s rest. And, of course, we can’t ignore the fact that to “fall” is a New Testament euphemism for “to die” or “to be damned.”
(Rom 14:4) Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
(1 Cor 10:8) We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did–and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.
(1 Cor 10:12) So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!
(Gal 5:4) You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
(James 5:12) Above all, my brothers, do not swear–not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned [fall into condemnation].
(2 Pet 3:17) Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position.
No, “fall away” means to fall from salvation and so to die eternally.
Many argue that the “because” in v. 6 really means “while” — that you can’t be restored “while” you are subjecting Jesus to a public disgrace. To say that you can’t repent while you are humiliating Jesus is to say something too obvious for words. As F. F. Bruce states in the New International Commentary,
The warning in the passage was a real warning against a real danger, a danger which is still present so long as “an evil heart of unbelief” can result in “falling away from the living God.” …
By suggesting that these people cannot be brought back to repentance so long as they repudiate Christ, this rendering might be thought to imply that when they cease to repudiate Him repentance will be possible. But this is certainly not what is meant. To say that they cannot be brought to repentance so long as they persist in their renunciation of Christ would be a truism hardly worth putting into words.
Instead, Bruce interprets the passage at face value:
People who commit this sin [falling away due to willful sin], he says, cannot be brought back to repentance; by renouncing Christ they put themselves in the position of those who, deliberately refusing his claim to be the Son of God, had Him crucified and exposed to public shame. Those who repudiate the salvation procured by Christ will find none anywhere else.
For convicted Calvinists, the passage is interpreted as a hypothetical situation that could never really happen. Rather, it’s a warning that’s entirely unnecessary because it’s impossible to fall away. See, for example, Hewitt in the Tyndale commentary series. Or as in Barnes’ Notes —
It is material to remark here, that the apostle does not say that any true Christian ever had fallen away. He makes a statement of what would occur on the supposition that such a thing should happen—but a statement may be made of what would occur on the supposition that a certain thing should take place, and yet it be morally certain that the event never would happen. It would be easy to suppose what would happen if the ocean should overflow a continent, or if the sun should cease to rise, and still there be entire certainty that such an event never would occur.
Ponder this one closely. The theory is that it’s impossible to actually fall away — and so no one ever does — and so the writer is warning against an impossibility as a means of helping God cause the saved to persevere. He is warning the readers against an impossible risk to motivate them — by fear of the impossible — to not fall away.
I’m not buying it. The writer has just warned his readers in chapters 3 and 4 against falling away, as the Israelites really did. He used an example of a real falling away, leading to actual death — to warn against something that could never happen?? Does God cause us to persevere by warning us against impossibilities? It’s rather like teaching your children to stay in bed by warning them against the bogeyman (by lying to them!) And yet this is what the Hebrews writer describes as going beyond elementary teachings (6:1)!
God cannot lie, and so God cannot warn us against things we should have no fear of. I mean, imagine warning your children against the ocean overflowing the continent or the sun not rising. What kind of parent would create such fears in his children?
The rest of the chapter
(Heb 6:11) We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure.
How could he more plainly teach that it’s possible to have an unsure hope? Compare —
(2 Pet 1:10-11) Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Yes, we can have a sure calling and election. But it’s also possible to have an unsure election.
As I said at the beginning, this won’t be a commentary on the entire book. We’ll next skip ahead to chapter 10 to see whether the warning against falling away there is consistent with 6:4-6.