Hebrews 6:4-12

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Hebrews 6:4-12

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, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 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. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

There is a quote that has stayed with me ever since I first heard it some years back. Samuel Beckett attributes it to St. Augustine but there is definitely some question of whether or not it was Augustine who actually said it. There is some evidence it was actually said by Robert Greene. Regardless, the statement had a profound impact on Beckett, and I can see why. Speaking of Jesus and the two criminals between whom He was crucified, Augustine/Greene said:

Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved.

Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.

I would like to take that fascinating statement—whoever said it!—and use it as a spectrum to help us understand what is happening in Hebrews 6:4-12. The spectrum of, on the one hand, a flippant and arrogant presumption of salvation regardless of the evidence or lack thereof of our lives, and, on the other hand, a kind of crippling despair that wonders whether or not our good God will actually save us in the end.

This text is one of the most difficult in all of scripture. That is no exaggeration!

A shocking picture to keep us from presumption.

We begin with an honest look at a picture that the author paints that genuinely shocks us.

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, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,

First, who is the one being described here? Is this person a genuine believer or not? To get at this, consider the following:

  • The person had been enlightened.
  • The person had tasted the heavenly gift.
  • The person had shared in the Holy Spirit.
  • The person had tasted of the goodness of the word of God.
  • The person had tasted of the goodness of the power of the age to come.

Many want to argue that the person being described here is not actually a believer, that it is a picture of one who got very close to being a believer but never actually became one. They suggest that some of the language is qualified so as to suggest that the person in question never actually believed. For instance, the person “tasted the heavenly gift.” That seems a bit like a diminutive. He tasted, but he did not really drink. But that is not a great argument. In Hebrews 2, we see how the writer of this letter uses the verb “tasted” in another context and it removes any and all question of whether or not “tasted” is less than “fully imbibed.” Listen:

But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

No “tasted” does not mean “appeared to partake but really did not.” While, as we will see, there are legitimate challenges to this, I believe that, on the whole, it is best to see this as describing somebody who actually believed in Jesus. I agree with Jimmy Draper and many others who wrote, “This passage cannot refer to those who have not been saved.”[1]

Secondly, what is the “falling away” spoken of here?

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. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.

Some have argued that this is not a falling away from salvation as a result of an ultimate denial of Christ. Once again, Jimmy Draper argues that this is not talking about salvation:

The expression “fall away” is very interesting. It means “to fall aside.” It could be translated “side-slipped” or “moved sideward.” It is the same idea that the Apostle Paul had when he said, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway” (1 Corinthians 9:27). He did not mean he was going to lose his salvation. He meant he might be set aside by God and put on the shelf. The danger we face in a collapse of dedication is that we might be set aside.[2]

And yet the language of verse 8 (“its end is to be burned”) sounds like eternal judgment. The wicked are destined to be burned in judgment. On the whole, then, it would appear that the picture here is of a genuine believer who later genuinely rejects Jesus and receives eternal judgment because of his or her apostasy.

At this point we must pause and remember a first rule of good bible interpretation: we must let the text say what it says regardless of whether or not it fits neatly in our theological systems. The Bible must inform and shape our systems, not our systems form and shape how we read the Bible.

Again, there are challenges to my reading of this text, but I would argue that this appears to be the picture that the writer of Hebrews is painting: a genuine believer who apostatizes from the faith.

A hopeful picture to keep us from despair.

So the first picture, that of Hebrews 6:4-8, shocks us and cautions us against presumption. However, immediately following that picture we find another picture. This picture keeps us from despair. Listen:

Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.

Do you see why this is significant? Immediately after warning against believers falling away the author says, “But this is not you! You will be saved!” And why does the author know this? Because of what he knows about God:

10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

So now the first picture is informed by the second picture. The second picture reminds us of a very important truth: salvation depends ultimately not upon our performance but upon God’s character. And the writer of Hebrews will flesh this out further in the rest of the book. For instance, in Hebrews 8 he writes of the Lord:

12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.

I will remember their sins no more! This is a picture of the amazing grace and love and mercy of God toward sinners. And in Hebrews 7, as elsewhere in the book, he will ground our salvation particularly in the saving work of Jesus on the cross.

26 For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.

Christ was the once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of the world. Our salvation rests in that great work of the cross and the empty tomb and we receive it when we repent and turn to Jesus in faith.

If the first picture of verses 4-8 warns us against presumption the second picture of verses 9-12 warns us against despair. The question, then, is how can both of these pictures stand: that of apostasy and that of the faithfulness of God to save His people even in their sins? How can that be?

A wider picture and concluding proposals.

Charles Trentham, writing about the warning of Hebrews 6, said, “I doubt that the passage before us was intended in the purpose of the Spirit to be the sole basis for the formulation of a doctrine of either apostasy or spiritual security.”[3] And here he is getting at something very important. The words of scripture stand in balance with each other. We are to be “whole Bible Christians,” looking not just at one brush stroke but at the whole. We have already seen how the book of Hebrews itself nuances our reading of the warning passage. It does not dilute it. No, the warning stands. But it does inform it. And when we look at the rest of scripture we see this informing process continue.

To get at this, I would like to suggest three proposals to help us understand the apostasy warning of Hebrews 6 in the light of the rest of scripture.

Proposal #1: The warning of Hebrews 6 is best approached with a “from below” (v.4-8) and “from above” (v.9-12) perspective.

To begin, we might remember that sometimes in scripture we see a “from below/from above” perspective. This happens a lot in Jesus’ interactions with others, for instance. I am referring to the phenomenon where a truth is seen first from a human vantage point (from below) and then from a heavenly vantage point (from above). Consider this exchange between Jesus and His disciples in Matthew 19. Jesus has just had his conversation with the rich young ruler who walked away disappointed at Jesus’ call for him to sell all he had and give it to the poor. Then Jesus turns to His disciples and this happens:

23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Here we have all of the elements:

  • An assertion: It is only with difficulty that a rich person enters the kingdom of heaven.
  • From below perspective: Who then can be saved?
  • From above perspective: With God all things are possible.

So, too, with Hebrews 6.

  • Do not fall away from the faith and enter eternal judgment.
  • From below perspective: Despair! We have no hope! Who then can be saved!
  • From above perspective: But remember the mercy of God to finally save sinners!

We must thank the Lord that He graciously reminded us fast on the heels of the apostasy warning of the goodness and wide mercy of God toward sinners!

Proposal #2: The warning of Hebrews 6 might be understood with a “can-but-will-not” perspective.

Baptist theologian Millard Erickson has offered yet another helpful way of looking at this. In seeking to be a whole Bible theologian, Erickson pointed out that the apostasy warning of Hebrews 6 must be put alongside the amazing statement of assurance we find in John 10.

27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”

How can this be? How can both of these be true? How can it be said, on the one hand, that believers must be careful not to fall away from Jesus but, on the other hand, that Jesus gives us eternal life, that no one, least of all the devil, will be able to snatch us out of His hand, and that no one, least of all the devil, will be able to snatch us out of the Father’s hand? How can both be true?

Erickson makes a fascinating proposal that honors the integrity of both Hebrews 6 and John 10. He writes:

While Hebrews 6 indicates that genuine believers can fall away, John 10 teaches that they will not. There is a logical possibility of apostasy, but it will not come to pass in the case of believers. Although they could abandon their faith and consequently come to the fate described in Hebrews 6, the grace of God prevents them from apostasizing. God does this, not by making it impossible for believers to fall away, but by making it certain that they will not. Our emphasis on can and will not is not inconsequential. It preserves the freedom of the individual. Believers are capable of repudiating their faith, but will freely choose not to.[4]

Proposal #3: The warning of Hebrews 6 should be seen as one voice in a single biblical harmony that, while important, must not be separated from the other voices.

The early church father Irenaeus had a fascinating and helpful idea about how to handle places in scripture that appear to be in tension one with another.[5] Consider the voices that make up a choir.

  • Soprano
  • Alto
  • Tenor
  • Bass

The voices are all different. One is very high. One is very low. Then we have alterations of these extremes in the middle. But the fact is they all come together and form a single harmony. They may appear to be different, but insofar as harmony is concerned they come together for a single powerful presentation.

Irenaeus said that the tensions we sometimes find in scripture are like this. You cannot just take the one voice you like. You cannot take only the soprano voice of salvation or the bass voice of judgment or the alto voice of sanctification and pull that one voice out of the choir without damaging the whole.

The Bible is a choir. Sometimes the voices seem to differ. But the voice of scripture is actually one harmonious note.  Here the soprano of salvation may lift her voice higher than the rest. But over there the bass of judgment thunders forth. We are tempted to fixate on the voice we either love or loathe. But that is not how scripture works. Scripture is God-breathed and so offers us a beautiful picture of the harmony of Heaven.

So, yes, we find the dire warning about apostasy, about falling away, in Hebrews 6. But as we have seen we find other voices even in that very book that, when combined, pull it into harmony. And this is how the whole of scripture works. Thus, in Romans 10, we find this beautiful voice of hope:

because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved

And if that soprano voice of glorious salvation was not enough, we hear alongside it the clarion call of Romans 8:

38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Church, do not presume! Do not be arrogant. God is not mocked.

But church, do not despair, do not grow weary! Nothing will snatch you out of His hand.

 

[1] James T. Draper. Hebrews (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Publishers, Inc., 1976), p.149.

[2] James T. Draper, p.152.

[3] Charles Trentham, “Hebrews.” The Broadman Bible Commentary. Gen. Ed. Clifton J. Allen. Vol. 12 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1972), p.45.

[4] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology. Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), p.1005.

[5] I learned about Irenaeus’ idea of harmony in Grant Gasse’s lecture “Irenaeus and the Other Ptolemy” in his Friday, May 27, 2022 presentation at the annual meeting of The North American Patristics Society in Chicago.

2 thoughts on “Hebrews 6:4-12

  1. Wow & oh, WOW!!!!!!!!, my, my my, oh me oh my, goodness……. sometimes your messages are better when I me reads them here and sometimes they are
    better watching online; this time, this message was so convicting and the call
    to “do” something better cleaned my clock as they say. Thank you for teaching it plain and simple. Some of us need simple really badly or at least me do. :-)
    Thank You, Wym
    Yours Always & Forever, Johnboy, heavy emphasis on the boy part

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