6:1 Therefore we must progress beyond the elementary instructions about Christ and move on to maturity, not laying this foundation again: repentance from dead works and faith in God, 6:2 teaching about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 6:3 And this is what we intend to do, if God permits.
Vv 1f. The writer lists here six rudiments of the faith, possible drawn from catechetical instruction, and which fall naturally into pairs:-
baptisms, the laying on of hands
resurrection of the dead, eternal judgement
This gives us ‘some insight into what was regarded as a suitable foundation of Christian teaching in a non-Pauline church, and one which had a Jewish basis.’ (Bruce) The same writer points out that there is little distinctively Christian in this list of elementary teachings. Each item could be found within the faith and practice of an orthodox Jewish community, although all acquire a new significance in a Christian context.
Not laying again the foundation – “Growth in the knowledge of Jesus Christ is not a growing away from the earliest lessons, or a leaving them behind, but a growing up to and into them.” (Alexander Maclaren)
Baptisms – ‘How unnatural are the attempts to explain this plural as referring to Christian Baptism.’ (Alexander Nairne, quoted by Bruce) Apart from the fact that the word is in the plural, the noun used is not baptisma, the word regularly used in the NT for Christian baptism and the baptism, but baptismos, which in its two other NT occurrences (Mk 7:4; Heb 9:10) refers to Jewish ceremonial washings.
6:4 For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 6:5 tasted the good word of God and the miracles of the coming age, 6:6 and then have committed apostasy, to renew them again to repentance, since they are crucifying the Son of God for themselves all over again and holding him up to contempt.
Vv 4-6. This is one of a number of warning passages in Hebrews. The others are: Heb 2:1-4; 3:7-4:11; 10:26-31; 12:14-17. Its interpretation has a considerable bearing on the doctrine of perseverance, for the question is raised here as to whether true believers can fall away so as to be irremediably lost.
There are three things here: (a) a class of people described; (b) a statement about these people; (c) a reason given for this statement.
The connection between this passage and the preceding three verses should not be missed; this is indicated by a conjunction (‘For’ in the AV) which is missing in the NIV The sense is that we must press on towards maturity, for it is pointless to go over the first principles of the gospel again, because it is impossible thereby to restore the once-enlightened apostates. John Brown paraphrases thus: ‘”Instead of again laying the foundation – instead of again teaching those who have already been taught, but have forgotten what they learned – “what be the first principles of the oracles of God,” I will proceed to some of the higher branches of Christian instruction; for there is little or no probability of any good result from such an attempt to re-teach those who have willingly unlearned all that has been taught them. They seem in the direct road to open apostasy; and that is a state from which I have no hope that anything I could say would reclaim them.’
It is impossible – It would be unwise to water down the force of this expression in view of its other uses in this Epistle: Heb 6:18; 10:4; 11:6. These are all absolutes.
Thomas Watson recognises that this passage is used by Arminians against the doctrine of the saints’ perseverance. But, he replies, ‘the apostle here speaks of hypocrites; he shows how far they may go, and yet fall away. (1.) They who were once enlightened. Men may have great illuminations, yet fall away. Was not Judas enlightened? (2.) They have been made partakers of the Holy Ghost; the common gifts of the Spirit, not the special grace. (3.) They have tasted the good word of God. Tasting here is opposed to eating:the hypocrite may have a kind of taste of the sweetness of religion, but his taste does not nourish. There is a great deal of difference between one that takes a gargle and a cordial:the gargle only washes his mouth – he tastes it, and puts it out again; but a cordial is drunk down, which nourishes and cherishes the spirits. The hypocrite, who has only some smack or taste of religion, as one tastes a gargle, may fall away. (4.) And have felt the powers of the world to come; that is, they may have such apprehensions of the glory of heaven as to be affected with it, and seem to have some joy in the thoughts of it, yet fall away; as in the parable of the stony ground. Mt 13:20. All this is spoken of the hypocrite; but it does not therefore prove that the true believer, who is effectually wrought upon, can fall away. Though comets fall, it does not follow that true stars fall. That this Scripture speaks not of sound believers, is clear from ver 9: ‘But we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation.’
‘The word impossible stands at the head of this passage with singular impressiveness. It is made to usher in the list of blessings before we are told to think of them as abandoned.’ (Loane) That the meaning of this word cannot be diluted is shown from its other uses in this letter, Heb 6:18; 10:4; 11:6.
F.F. Bruce comments: ‘Such people are by no means unknown. The often become the worst opponents of the gospel. , actively trying to dissuade others from accepting it; they are far more difficult to win than raw pagans, and it really does seem “impossible to renew them again unto repentance.”‘ (Answers to Questions, p121)
The four characteristics that follow all seem to describe a person who has undergone full Christian initiation. Note the ‘catalogue of privilege’ (Loane):-
Those who have once been enlightened – A once-for all enlightenment is in mind here. ‘The light of the gospel has broken in upon these people’s darkness, and life can never be the same again; to give up the gospel would be to sin against the light, the one sin which by its very nature is incurable.’ (Bruce) There may well be an allusion to baptism here, as in Eph 5:14; 1 Pet 2:4. To be enlightened with regard to salvation, and not to ‘improve’ that light (as the puritans would say), is to be in peril. Balaam was one who exhibited the characteristics here outlined, Nu 24:3,15,16. But his was a counterfeit, and not a real, faith. The may be a convincing profession of faith where there is no vital possession of Christ. ‘It is impossible to say how far a man may go with Christ, and yet lack the New Birth; he may be so like a christian disciple that no eye save the eye of God can tell that he is not.’ (Loane)
Tasted the heavenly gift – Possibly an allusion to the Lord’s Supper. Cf. Heb 13:10. However, the expression may well refer to ‘the whole sum of spiritual blessings which are sacramentally sealed and signified in the Eucharist.’ (Bruce) Commentators differ as to whether ‘tasted’ here indicates a complete or incomplete appropriation of the gift. The latter is favoured by Owen, Westcott, and others. At any rate, the word is one of experience: (cf. Ps 34:8; 1 Pet 2:3) these people have not only knowledge of the gospel, but have to some degree come under its gracious influences.
‘There is a goodness and excellency in this heavenly gift which may be tasted or experienced in some measure by such as never receive them in their life, power, and efficacy. They may taste, – 1. Of the word in its truth, not its power; 2. Of the worship of the church in its outward order, not in its inward beauty; 3. Of the gifts of the church, not its graces.’ (Owen)
Who have shared in the Holy Spirit – A reminder of the common NT emphasis that the Spirit works through the whole community, and not just through certain individuals. Cf. ;cts 2:17f; Rom 8:9; 1 Cor 12:7,11; 1 Jn 2:20. Shared in can mean anything from ‘associated with’ to ‘close participation with’. The Holy Spirit here stands for his miraculous gifts and gracious influences. Clearly, the people envisioned here have more than a nodding acquaintance with Christ and the gospel. It has been questioned whether it is possible for a person to have thus ‘shared in the Holy Spirit’ then to apostasise. Heb 10:29 suggests that it may be so; so does the example of Simon Magus, Acts 8:9ff; 18ff. Think also the example of Balaam, and Saul in the OT, and also of the words of our Lord in Mt 7:22f; and of those of Paul in 1 Cor 13:1f.
‘How can it be that he who has once made such a progress should afterwards fall away? For God, it may be said, calls none effectually but the elect, and Paul testifies that they are really his sons who are led by his Spirit, (Rom 8:14) and he teaches us, that it is a sure pledge of adoption when Christ makes us partakers of his Spirit. The elect are also beyond the danger of finally falling away; for the Father who gave them to be preserved by Christ his Son is greater than all, and Christ promises to watch over them all so that none may perish. To all this I answer, That God indeed favours none but the elect alone with the Spirit of regeneration, and that by this they are distinguished from the reprobate; for they are renewed after his image and receive the earnest of the Spirit in hope of the future inheritance, and by the same Spirit the Gospel is sealed in their hearts. But I cannot admit that all this is any reason why he should not grant the reprobate also some taste of his grace, why he should not irradiate their minds with some sparks of his light, why he should not give them some perception of his goodness, and in some sort engrave his word on their hearts. Otherwise, where would be the temporal faith mentioned by Mk 4:17? There is therefore some knowledge even in the reprobate, which afterwards vanishes away, either because it did not strike roots sufficiently deep, or because it withers, being choked up.’ (Calvin)
Who have tasted the goodness of the word of God – The expression probably refers here to the gospel, rather than to Scripture itself. Cf. Acts 4:31; 13:5; 1 Pet 1:23,25; 2 Cor 5:19; Acts 13:26; 1 Cor 1:18; 2 Tim 2:9 4:2. That word is ‘good’ because it is beautiful, and true, and life-giving.
The powers – Presumably, miracles of various kinds are meant. Simon Magus had been deeply impressed both the the preaching of the word of God by Philip, and the demonstration of miracles that accompanied that preaching. The possibility that some may even be able to perform miracles in Jesus’ name and yet be finally rejected is taught in Mt 7:22f.
‘Is not the most helpful way to approach the gospel miracles to place them within the familiar and inescapable tension between the already and the not yet, kingdom come and kingdom coming, the new age inaugurated and the new age consummated? To the sceptical (who doubts all miracles) I want to say “but already we have tasted the powers of the age to come.” To the credulous (who think that healing miracles are an everyday occurrence) I want to say “but not yet have we been given resurrection bodies free from disease, pain, infirmity, handicap and death.” In this interim period between the beginning and the end we both look to the outburst of miracles in the ministry of Jesus and his apostles, and on to the final resurrection of both body and universe.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 387f)
The coming age – With the coming of Christ, the blessings of the future are manifested among God’s people in the present age. See 1 Jn 2:8n
‘The note of eschatological fulfilment already under way means that OT eschatology has become, in a measure, present reality for the NT. The ‘last days’ of the prophets have arrived: for Christ ‘was made manifest at the end of the times’; (1 Pet 1:20) God ‘in these last days… has spoken to us by a Son’; (Heb 1:2) Christians are those ‘upon whom the end of the ages has come’; (1 Cor 10:11) ‘it is the last hour’; (1 Jn 2:18) cf. also Acts 2:17; Heb 6:5.’ (NBD)
‘The NT makes a striking modification of the contemporary Jewish division of time into the present age and the age to come. There is still a point of transition in the future between ‘this time’ and ‘the world to come’, (Mk 10:30 Eph 1:21; Tit 2:12-13) but there is an anticipation of the consummation, because in Jesus God’s purpose has been decisively fulfilled. The gift of the Spirit is the mark of this anticipation, this tasting of the powers of the world to come (Eph 1:14; Heb 6:4-6; cf. Rom 8:18-23; Gal 1:4). Hence John consistently stresses that we now have eternal life, zoe aionios. (e.g. Jn 3:36) It is not simply that aionios has qualitative overtones; rather John is urging the fact that Christians now have the life into which they will fully enter by resurrection. (Jn 11:23-25) This ‘overlapping’ of the two ages is possibly what Paul has in mind in 1 Cor 10:11.’ (NBD)
‘Just as the Hebrew spies who returned from their expedition carrying visible tokens of the goodland of Canaan nevertheless failed to enter the land because of their unbelief, so those who had come to know the blessings of the new covenant might nevertheless in a spiritual sense turn back in heart to Egypt and so forfeit the saints’ everlasting rest.’ (Bruce, noting that the wilderness motif might still be in our author’s mind)
The question arises whether this six-fold description of spiritual privilege can possibly refer to the unregenerate; that it is possible for people to come so close to the kingdom of God, and yet have no final home in it. The answer, from Scripture generally, must be ‘Yes’. The present Epistle repeatedly contrasts the example of the unbelieving Israelites (Heb 2:1f; 3:12ff; 4:1f, 11; 10:28ff; 12:25ff) with that of the faithful core (ch. 11). Paul admits that ‘they are not all Israel, which are of Israel’, (Rom 9:6) and the principle holds true in the Christian church also. Wheat and tares grow together until the final harvest. Some of the seed grow vigorously for a while, but fails to come to fruition, Mk 4:1-20. John tells of members of the Christian community who in fact turned out to be anti-christian, 1 Jn 2:19. Our Lord averred that in the last day some would claim to have prophesied, and to have cast out demons in his name, yet the judgement on them would be ‘I never knew you.’. (Mt 7:21-23; 25:11f) It is all too possible to honour God with the lips, when the heart is far from him, Mk 7:1-8. Those who call out, ‘Hosanna’ on one day may just a few days later cry, ‘Crucify him!’
If they fall away – Some suppose that this is a hypothetical danger only, and that the sin entailed cannot actually be committed. So Spicq. So also Spurgeon, basing his argument on the word ‘if’. Barnes’ comments: ‘It is not an affirmation that any had actually fallen away, or that, in fact, they would do it; but the statement is, that on the supposition that they had fallen away, it would be impossible to renew them again.’ But others argue that we must take this as a real warning of a real danger. ‘Apostasy is a continual danger to the church, and the NT contains repeated warnings against it. (cf. 1 Tim 4:1-3; 2 Thess 2:3; 2 Pet 3:17) Its nature is made clear: falling ‘from the faith’ (1 Tim 4:1) and ‘from the living God’. (Heb 3:12) It increases in times of special trial (Mt 24:9-10; Lk 8:13) and is encouraged by false teachers, (Mt 24:11; Gal 2:4) who seduce believers from the purity of the Word with ‘another gospel’ (Gal 1:6-8; cf. 2 Tim 4:3-4; 2 Pet 2:1-2; Jude 3-4). The impossibility of restoration after deliberate apostasy is solemnly urged.’ (Heb 6:4-6; 10:26) (NBD)
The falling away that is envisaged here is much more than a falling into this or that particular sin, however grievous that sin might be. No: this falling away is a decisive renunciation of the faith which had once been embraced with enthusiasm.
What falling away is: (Heb 6:6)
- It is not a falling into this or that actual sin
- It is not a falling upon temptation or surprisal
- It is not a relinquishment or renunciation of some, though very material, principles of Christian religion, by error or seduction, as the Corinthians fell in denying the resurrection of the dead, and the Galatians by denying justification by faith in Christ alone
- It must consist in a total renunciation of all the constituent principles and doctrines of Christianity, whence it is denominated
- For the completing of this falling away…it is required that this renunciation be avowed and professed This is the “falling away” intended by the apostle,-a voluntary resolved relinquishment of, and apostasy from, the gospel, the faith, rule, and obedience thereof; which cannot be without casting the highest reproach and contumely imaginable upon the person of Christ himself. (John Owen, Works, Vol 7, p.36)’
Donald McLeod refers to this passage as a ‘notorious crux’, and asserts that here, as elsewhere, systematic theology helps us to avoid faulty exegesis. ‘Prima facie this passage suggests that true believers can commit apostasy. Dogmatics alerts us, however, to the fact that such an interpretation is untenable, and closer examination of the passage itself confirms that it is pointing in the direction of another doctrine altogether – the doctrine of temporary faith.’
It is impossible…to be brought back to repentance – ‘The impossibility resides in the apostates themselves, for the complete repudiation of the doctrine which formerly they embraced means that a further preaching of the gospel would be entirely lost upon them.’ (Mt 7:6) (Geoffrey Wilson) The repentance spoken of here may not be the repentance of a regenerate state (for they could not be restored to that which they never had in the first place) but a being restored to their previous state of mind.
The parable of the sower (Mk 4:3ff and parallels) tells of the rocky-ground hearer, whose growth is vigorous for while, but fails to mature to fruitfulness. It was only when the time of testing came that the difference between this and the good-ground hearer became apparent.
Some commentators take the word in a popular, rather than a strict sense: i.e. making it equivalent to ‘very difficult. So Erasmus & Bengel. Others understand it to mean, ‘impossible for man, but not for God’. So (according to Hughes) Ambrose, Aquinas, Wordsworth, Spicq. Cf. Mk 10:27. Bruce tempers the force of this statement by saying, ‘We know, of course, that nothing of this sort is ultimately impossible for the grace of God, but as a matter of human experience the reclamation of such people is, practically speaking, impossible.’ The impossibility would therefore be from the human side (he is incapable of turning), and experience shows that ‘those who have shared the covenant privileges of the people of God, and then deliberately renounce them, are the mot difficult persons of all to reclaim for the faith…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.’
We might well pose the question, ‘Impossible to whom?’ Some things are indeed impossible with God – that he should lie, or that he should clear the guilty. Other things; – many things – are impossible with man. It may be that the writer’s assertion here belongs to the latter category: ‘It is impossible, by any renewed course of elementary instruction, to bring back such apostates to the acknowledgement of the truth.’ (Brown)
Because…they are crucifying the Son of God – Another way of reducing the force of this passage is to read this as, ‘while…they are crucifying the Son of God all over again’. So ARV But to say that they cannot be brought to repentance while they remain unrepentant would be a pointless truism.
This expression implies ‘present, active, continuous, persevering hostility to Christ.’ (Loane) This is not backsliding, be it as severe as that of David, or of Peter. It is determined enmity. It is to act as if they would slay the Son of God all over again. Cf. Heb 10:29.
Crucifying…all over again – Gk. anastauroo. The idea of re-crucifying may not be present in the expression, but rather the idea of crucifying to themselves – i.e., of involving themselves in the guilt that sent the Saviour to the cross. Having professed faith in Christ, they have now joined ranks with his bitterest enemies.
The language of the apostate is “We have known and tried these things, and declare their folly.” Now, no man living can attempt a higher dishonour against Jesus Christ, in his person or in any of his ways, than openly to profess that upon trial of them they find nothing in them for which they should be desired.
“They crucify him again;” they do it as much as in them lieth, and declare that they would actually do it if it were in their power. They call him anathema (1 Cor 12:3) to declare and avow that he was justly crucified as an accursed person, as a public pest. (John Owen, Works, Vol 7, p.49,51)
We are to warn all persons in danger of such apostasies that “if any one so draw back, God’s soul shall have no pleasure in him;” that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God;” that he will harden such sinners, and “give them up to strong delusions, that they may be damned;” that he is not under the engagement of any promise to give them repentance, but hath rather given many severe threatenings to the contrary. He hath told us that such persons are as “trees twice dead, plucked up by the roots,” of which there is no hope; that “denying the Lord that bought them, they bring on themselves swift destruction,-whose damnation slumbereth not;” with the like declarations of severity against them innumerable. (John Owen, Works, Vol 7, p.45)
Subjecting him to public disgrace – ‘To fall is a sin; but to fall away is a greater sin. Apostates cast a disgrace upon religion. ‘The apostate,’ says Tertullian, ‘seems to put God and Satan in the balance; and having weighed both their services, prefers the devil’s, and proclaims him to be the best master.’ In which respect the apostate is said to put Christ to ‘open shame.’ Heb 6:6. This dyes a sin in grain, and makes it greater. It is a sin not to profess Christ, but it is a greater to deny him. Not to wear Christ’s colours is a sin, but to run from his colours is a greater sin. A pagan sins less than a baptised renegade.’ (Thomas Watson)
‘The humbled sinner who pleads guilty, and cries for mercy, can have no ground from this passage to be discouraged, whatever his conscience may accuse him of. Nor does it prove that any one who is made a new creature in Christ, ever becomes a final apostate from him. The apostle is not speaking of the falling away of mere professors, never convinced or influenced by the gospel. Such have nothing to fall away from, but an empty name, or hypocritical profession. Neither is he speaking of partial declinings or backslidings. Nor are such sins meant, as Christians fall into through the strength of temptations, or the power of some worldly or fleshly lust. But the falling away here mentioned, is an open and avowed renouncing of Christ, from enmity of heart against him, his cause, and people, by men approving in their minds the deeds of his murderers, and all this after they have received the knowledge of the truth, and tasted some of its comforts. Of these it is said, that it is impossible to renew them again unto repentance. Not because the blood of Christ is not sufficient to obtain pardon for this sin; but this sin, in its very nature, is opposite to repentance and every thing that leads to it.’ (MHCC)
‘The sin of apostasy…is a grim (and more than a merely hypothetical) possibility for persons who through identification with the people of God have been brought within the sphere of the divine blessing. They may be baptised, as Simon Magus was, occupied in Christian labours, as Demas was, endowed with charismatic gifts, preachers even, healers of the sick and casters our of demons, and privileged to belong to an inner circle of disciples, as Judas was, Mk 6:12-13; Mt 10:5 ff and yet their heart may be far from the one they profess to serve.’ (Hughes)
6:7 For the ground that has soaked up the rain that frequently falls on it and yields useful vegetation for those who tend it receives a blessing from God. 6:8 But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is useless and about to be cursed; its fate is to be burned.
6:9 But in your case, dear friends, even though we speak like this, we are convinced of better things relating to salvation. 6:10 For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love you have demonstrated for his name, in having served and continuing to serve the saints. 6:11 But we passionately want each of you to demonstrate the same eagerness for the fulfillment of your hope until the end, 6:12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and perseverance inherit the promises.
Diligence to the very end – “It is required of us that we give all diligence unto the increase of grace, (2 Pet 1:5-7) and that we abound therein, (2 Cor 8:7) and not only so, but that we ‘show the same diligence unto the end’.” (Heb 6:11) (Owen, III:405)
6:13 Now when God made his promise to Abraham, since he could swear by no one greater, he swore by himself, 6:14 saying, “Surely I will bless you greatly and multiply your descendants abundantly.” 6:15 And so by persevering, Abraham inherited the promise. 6:16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and the oath serves as a confirmation to end all dispute.
6:17 In the same way God wanted to demonstrate more clearly to the heirs of the promise that his purpose was unchangeable, and so he intervened with an oath, 6:18 so that we who have found refuge in him may find strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us through two unchangeable things, since it is impossible for God to lie.
‘A heathen could say, when a bird, scared by a hawk, flew into his bosom, I will not betray thee unto thy enemy, seeing thou comest for sanctuary unto me. How much less will God yield up a soul unto its enemy, when it takes sanctuary in his name, saying, Lord, I am hunted with such a temptation, dogged with such a lust; either thou must pardon it, or I am damned; mortify it, or I shall be a slave to it; take me into the bosom of thy love, for Christ’s sake; castle me in the arms of thy everlasting strength; it is in thy power to save me from. or give me up into the hands of my enemy; I have no confidence in myself or any other, into thy hands I commit my cause, myself, and rely on thee. This dependence of a soul undoubtedly will awaken the almighty power of God for such a one’s defence. He hath sworn the greatest oath that can come out of his blessed lips, even by himself, that such as thus fly for refuge to hope in him, shall have strong consolation, Heb. 6:17.’ (Gurnall)