Salvation 2.0: Part 9.2: Heb 6:4-6 and Falling Away

grace5Hebrews 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.

“Impossible”

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.”

“Tasted”

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.

“Fall away”

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.

“Because”

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.

Hypothetical situation

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.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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9 Responses to Salvation 2.0: Part 9.2: Heb 6:4-6 and Falling Away

  1. Chris says:

    Jay, as I read this passage carefully, for me the key is vs. 7 & 8: …But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.

    It appears to me the word “produces” implies continued, willfull intent or neglect. I don’t know how long it takes for land to develop a good crop or a bad crop, but the longer it’s left unattended, certainly it is in danger of becoming worthless. Perhaps the saddest aspect of a bad crop that was planted to produce something good, is the shame it brings upon the owner, not that it is the land owner’s fault because the seed was good and everything was provided, but the caretaker was negligent of the land that was wonderfully and graciously given to the worker to tend.

    Not that the caretaker’s duty was burdensome, the seed was faultless and plenty of rain was given for the land to drink, but the caretaker nonetheless apparently neglected other aspects of protecting and tending to his crop. Perhaps he wasn’t persistent in keeping the insects out that caused great damage. Perhaps he allowed others to sow bad seed into the crop. Perhaps he was tempted to travel to another land. Whatever the case, he neglected a great gift and failed to produce a good crop. How many people were dependent upon that good crop? How could he be so cold to the gracious landowner? The caretaker apparently wasn’t concerned enough to change course, never humbled by discipline or circumstance, and if that were the extent of his hard heart, apparently he didn’t value the land owner or the welfare of others, and furthermore he had wandered so far from the beautiful land, he had no interest in ever returning or repenting.

  2. Chris says:

    Probably came away with a little too much from that passage. 🙂

  3. Chris says:

    Last comment:

    A number of years ago I read a book by Charles Stanley, I think the title was “Eternal Security.” I was not raised to believe in “Once Saved Always Saved,” but I was curious to learn more about the subject from those who advocate this position.

    Stanley, I believe is a Southern Baptist minister and has a weekly tv program.
    I no longer have the book, but I found this article written by Waldemar Kowalski. I never accepted Mr. Stanley’s conclusion, but found little to no meaningful material or commentary to refute it (before the internet became available), and so I never gave it too much thought thereafter.

    I have not come across a more thoughtful and balanced approach until I read your articles Jay, and I’m thankful you take the time to provide details instead of the usual, superficial “what we believe” approach.

    I don’t understand how any serious approach to the scriptures can lead anyone to come away with any other conclusion than the possibility of a believer falling away.

    I’ve found the “once saved, always saved,” to be an extreme position, and a dangerous one. Sorry for the length, but could you address some of Stanley’s arguments below from this article, since it seems in accord with most of its advocates. Thank you!

    Waldemar Kowalski writes (just a short sample from his article):

    “According to most Calvinists, a person was not a Christian in the first place if he departs from the faith. A number of moderate Calvinists, including popular Bible teacher Charles Stanley, hold to a variation of eternal security, a teaching often called “once saved, always saved.”1 This idea argues that if we have ever made a salvation decision, we can in no way lose or abandon that salvation, even if appearances are otherwise.

    Stanley states, “God does not require a constant attitude of faith in order to be saved — only an act of faith in Christ.”

    Even if we die in a completely reprobate state, cursing God, and rejecting any relationship with Him, we would still spend eternity in His presence. Stanley further states, “Believers who lose or abandon their faith will retain their salvation, for God remains faithful,”
    and “even if a believer for all practical purposes becomes an unbeliever, his salvation is not in jeopardy.”
    “You can give it back only if the giver accepts the return. In the case of salvation God has a strict no-return policy.”

    This effectively removes choice after the point of salvation, as one cannot even abandon one’s salvation.

    According to Stanley, not accepting this teaching of “once saved, always saved” means one must live in fear, violating Philippians 4:6 (being anxious for nothing). He believes that “Christians who are insecure in their relationship with God have a difficult time sharing the love of God with others.”

    This also calls into question forgiveness itself, for “if the sins you commit after becoming a Christian can annul your relationship with the Savior, those sins were not covered at Calvary.”

    Another danger seen by Stanley is that salvation becomes a matter of faith and works, not faith alone.

  4. laymond says:

    Jay, can someone be safe, without being saved.? And can one really be saved when there is an “if” involved?

  5. Dwight says:

    The children of Abraham were promised the promised land and yet failed to actually enter it, even though they were allowed to see it. The first generation, due to doubt and lack of faith, wandered in the wilderness, even though they were initially headed to Canaan land from their delivery from Egypt by God. God saved them from slavery, but couldn’t save them from themselves.
    How many mountain climbers are rescued from a mountain only to have them go back to the mountain they were rescued from only to be in the need of rescue again. The further you go from the one who saved you into territory that will doom you, the further are your chances of not being able to be pulled out.
    The point is that God saves the willing and not the unwilling and that due to our own proclivities we can become unwilling again. This was the problem with Israel over and over again in Judges where Israel sinned and then they needed deliverance from God and God would deliver them only to have them once again sin again and retreat from God once they felt they were self-sufficient.
    Adam and Eve were perfectly safe in the garden, but their rebellion against God, brought them into a state of being unsafe. We can turn from God and seek the world, even after knowing that God is the savior and deliverer from death.

  6. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Chris,

    I think you’re likely right. The verbs are present active participles, indicating continuous action, emphasized by “that often falls upon it” in v. 7 regarding rain as a metaphor for grace. God gives his grace like rain that falls often. It that produces a good crop, the farmer will be blessed by God (beyond the crop itself, it would seem). But if despite the receipt of often-rain, it bears (same verb tense) thorns and thistles, it is near to being cursed — that is, it won’t be immediately burned but it’s in jeopardy, with burning the ultimate end and the end will be near. The grammar strongly suggests that God will be patient, but his patience will run out sooner than we might prefer.

  7. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Chris,

    Charles Stanley is a very popular author and speaker. And he is very Baptist — and hence teaches OSAS (once saved always saved). His version is more extreme than most and is built on a misunderstanding of an abridged Paul.

    Stanley states, “God does not require a constant attitude of faith in order to be saved — only an act of faith in Christ.”

    As I’ve shown many times, “faith” includes more than an “act of faith” — a term and concept utterly foreign to scripture. On this theory, once Israel crossed the Red Sea, they were all guaranteed the Promised Land because of their “act of faith.” Of course, all the adults died in the desert, other than Joshua and Caleb, because an “act of faith” is not “faith.” They failed to cross the Jordan River because they lacked faith. Hence, they were not OSAS. And this is the very argument made in Heb 3 regarding Christians and their salvation.

    Even if we die in a completely reprobate state, cursing God, and rejecting any relationship with Him, we would still spend eternity in His presence. Stanley further states, “Believers who lose or abandon their faith will retain their salvation, for God remains faithful,”
    and “even if a believer for all practical purposes becomes an unbeliever, his salvation is not in jeopardy.”
    “You can give it back only if the giver accepts the return. In the case of salvation God has a strict no-return policy.”

    This effectively removes choice after the point of salvation, as one cannot even abandon one’s salvation.

    Again, Stanley doesn’t pay attention to the OT background. His logic is Reformation-era Calvinism, rather than First Century Judaism and Christianity. He hasn’t kept up with the best in Pauline scholarship, nor has he paid close attention to Paul, the author of Hebrews, and Jesus.

    God is true to his covenant with us just as he has been true to his covenant with Israel. Therefore, he has preserved Israel despite its sin and lack of faith — but per Rom 11, he only preserved a remnant. He preserved the nation, not each and every Jew.

    Paul repeats those promises to assure us Gentiles that we can rely on God’s promises just as could the Jews, but he is not speaking individually. The individual interpretation is Western and not Jewish or First Century. It’s based on our worldview (invisible to us). We just assume individual promises because that’s our culture and way of thinking. It’s all about me.

    The nation of Israel is elect. Individual Jews (and now Christians) … not so much. We can fall away just as the Jews killed by Nebuchadnezzar and Titus (Roman general) fell away. But God honored his covenant with his people.

    Stanley see this as being about sin and forgiveness — and it is — but it’s about so much more. What about love for God? What about relationship? What about being his child and God being our Abba? What about being a holy nation? The bride of Christ? Israel? Kings and queens?

    And just as is true of any marriage or even an adoption, if you violate the relationship severely enough and long enough, you’ll lose that relationship. It’s not a syllogism. It’s love between persons — and love can’t bear but so much rebellion.

    The next few posts will delve more deeply into the question. But confidence and the potential for loss are not contradictory. I’m confident of my relationship with my wife. But I could so rebel against our covenant that she would leave me. I won’t. But I could. Does that mean I should lose sleep over the risk of losing her? Does it mean my preacher should tell me that no matter how badly I act toward her she’ll never leave me, because the only alternative is no confidence in my marriage?

    What a ridiculous, ludicrous, false dichotomy. Think in terms of relationship, not Medieval, Scholastic syllogisms. You can prove anything with words if you ignore the underlying reality.

    Remember —

    (1 Cor. 9:24-27 ESV) 24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

    (Rom. 8:13 ESV) 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

    (Gal. 6:7-9 ESV) 7 Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. 9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.

    Even Paul himself disagrees with Stanley and OSAS.

  8. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Laymond,

    See my response to Chris’s question re Charles Stanley and read Paul’s “if” statements.

  9. laymond says:

    If, is a really small word to mean so much.

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