This entry is part 84 of 89 in the series: Troublesome texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 24:34 – This generation will not pass away?
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Ephesians 5:23- ‘The head of a wife is her husband’
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
Hebrews 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.
Who are the people being spoken of here?
They could be:
(a) hypothetical cases (e.g. Barnes, Spurgeon, Loane, Spicq) – (turning on the use of the word ‘if’, v6).
Demarest (The Cross and Salvation) cites Berkouwer, who ‘concluded that Hebrews 6 (and the other warning texts) “is an admonition, whose purpose is to lead [the readers] to a more secure walk in the way of salvation.” The writer of Hebrews “does not offer a view concerning the apostasy of the saints, but he comes with his earnest admonition to the endangered Church and calls her to keep the faith and to avoid all toying in her thoughts with possibilities to the right or to the left.”’
Schreiner and Caneday (cited by Marshall, New Testament Theology) also think that the author to the Hebrews writes this as a way of ensuring that his readers do in fact persevere. The warnings are there ‘to secure the obedience of faith, not to imply possible failure of faith’.
This raises the question of why the writer would set up a warning based on straw men. George Guthrie: ‘the problem with this position stems from the harshness and repetition of severe warnings in the book (e.g., Heb 2:1–4; 3:6, 14; 4:12–13; 10:26–31, 39; 12:25–29). The author appears to be concerned deeply that there are those associated with the community who indeed could fall away from God. His warnings to them speak of harsh, impending judgment for those who do not heed these exhortations, and the judgments are presented as real, not hypothetical.’
(b) real Christians – This is the view of many Fathers of the early church, Luther, Arminius, Wesley, Marshall, Allen (NAC), Delitzsch, Hewitt, Ellingworth, Lane, . Marshall argues the New Testament does indeed stress God’s faithfulness towards his people, while at the same time warning them about the real danger of falling away from faith in him. He suggests that ‘there is a paradox here akin to that of the relationship between divine empowering and human effort in achieving holiness.’
Allen argues forcibly and at length in favour of this view. ‘How can it be conceivable,’ he asks, ‘that such descriptive phrases as enlightenment, experience of the heavenly gift of salvation, full sharing in the Holy Spirit, sharing in the Word of God and the powers of the coming age, do not have believers as their referent?’
Allen asks: ‘If Heb 6:4–6 refers to mere professors who do not genuinely share in salvation, several questions come to mind. Why would such mere professors be warned of apostasy? One cannot apostatize from something never possessed in the first place.’
According to this view, then, the persons referred to are what might be called ‘backsliders’. They are truly regenerate, but have lost their relationship with Christ and therefore cannot look forward with hope to their final salvation. This is the view of Scott McKnight.
George Guthrie responds by suggesting (among other things) that this view fails to take account of the author’s lack of omniscience. In other words, it assumes that the author knows that all of his readers are true Christians when, if fact, he does not know that.
(c) Kendall (Once Saved, Always Saved) advances the theory that these people are true believers, but what they lose is not salvation, but reward. So also Yeager. Of such a view George Guthrie says, ‘the warnings simply are too harsh and specific to tone them down to a loss of reward rather than a loss of salvation.’
(d) temporary or counterfeit Christians (Calvin, Owen, Thomas Watson, Brown, Ryle, Grudem, George Guthrie). No pronouncement is made on their salvation. They are people who, in the words of our Lord, ‘believe for a while’. They have the outward appearance of faith, but fall short of its saving reality. They are of the same kind as those who ‘went out from us, but they did not really belong to us’ (1 Jn 2:19).
These people ‘may have been instructed in the basics of the faith (Heb 6:4), heard the Word of God and seen his power (Heb 6:5), experienced the convicting influence of the Holy Spirit (Heb 6:4), experienced the blessings associated with God’s salvific activity (Heb 6:4), and even repented publicly (Heb 6:6); but they have not borne fruit (Heb 6:7–8) and, therefore, do not manifest the “better things” associated with salvation (Heb 6:9–10).’
Our author does not know for sure who these people are within the community which he is addressing. However, it is for him a sufficiently real danger that he more warn them all of their peril.
Calvin: ‘I cannot admit that [there] is any reason why [God] should not grant the reprobate 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.… 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.’
‘The persons here described are persons who have to a certain degree understood and relished the revelation of mercy: like the stony-ground hearers, they have received the word with a transient joy.’ (Owen)
‘The persons here referred to are not mere nominal professors – they have nothing to fall away from but an empty name; neither are they backsliding Christians. They are men who have really had their minds and affections to a very considerable degree exercised about, and interested in Christianity; but who, never having been “renewed in the spirit of their mind,” when exposed to temptation of a peculiar kind, make complete “shipwreck of faith and of a good conscience.”‘ (Brown)
‘The person here described as “falling away” has no characteristics which may not be discovered in unconverted men, while it is not said that he possesses saving faith, and charity, and is elect.’ (J.C. Ryle, Old Paths, 495)
‘These are no doubt people who have been affiliated closely with the fellowship of the church. They have had some sorrow for sin (repentance). They have clearly understood the gospel (they have been enlightened). They have come to appreciate the attractiveness of the Christian life and the change that comes about in people’s lives because of becoming a Christian, and they have probably had answers to prayer in their own lives and felt the power of the Holy Spirit at work, perhaps even using some spiritual gifts in the manner of the unbelievers in Matthew 7:22 (they have become “associated with” the work of the Holy Spirit or have become “partakers” of the Holy Spirit and have tasted the heavenly gift and the powers of the age of come). They have been exposed to the true preaching of the Word and have appreciated much of its teachings (they have tasted the goodness of the Word of God).’ But, despite all these benefits and blessings, in the end the decisively turn away from them. Despite all appearances, they were never truly converted. The plea of the author to the Hebrews is that such people embrace new life in Christ before they reach the point of no return. (Grudem, Systematic Theology, p799)
‘It staggers us to think of the terms of this description as applicable to those who may fall away. They advise us, however, of forces that are operative in the kingdom of God and of the influence these forces may exert upon those who finally demonstrate that they had not been radically and savingly affected by them…The Scripture itself…leads us to the conclusion that it is possible to have very uplifting, ennobling, reforming, and exhilarating experience of the power and truth of the gospel, to come into such close contact with the supernatural forces which are operative in God’s kingdom of grace that these forces produce effects in us which to human observation are hardly distinguishable from those produced by God’s regenerating and sanctifying grace and yet be not partakers of Christ and heirs of eternal life.’ (J. Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, 153)
‘This very severe warning is intended to arouse the readers to a lively sense of the awful danger which faced them, for what they calmly considered to be a return to the faith of their fathers is shown as an act of apostasy from which no recovery is possible. The author hopes to recall them from the brink of disaster by an alarming description of those who totally fall away from the profession of the Christian faith, v9. This class of persons once appeared to be truly regenerate but their subsequent course sadly proved that they had “neither part nor lot in this matter”.’ (Ac 8:21) (Geoffrey Wilson)
‘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)
Despite the difficulties attached to this interpretation, it would seem to be the one which is most faithful to the text.