If you’ve not been following this blog series, we are looking at the orthodox doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. The perseverance of the saints means that all those who are truly born again will be kept by God’s power and will persevere as Christians until the end of their lives, and that only those who persevere until the end have been truly born again (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 788).
One of the most commonly quoted texts used to deny this doctrine is Hebrews 6:4-6:
4 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,
5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,
6 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.
The last several posts in this series have focused on the whole context of the book of Hebrews in order to prepare us to better handle the three verses above. Believe it or not, we are almost ready to begin to take apart Hebrews 6:4-6. But before we do that, I want to take one more article to look at the context, especially as it pertains to the atonement.
The atonement is the work Christ accomplished in his life and death to earn our salvation. The importance of the doctrine of the atonement cannot be overemphasized. Millard Erickson, in his Christian Theology, wrote this: “In the doctrine of the atonement we see perhaps the clearest indication of the organic character of theology, that is, we see that the various doctrines fit together in a cohesive fashion. The position taken on any one of them affects or contributes to the construction of the others” (799-800).
This is certainly true in the case of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. The biblical teaching on the atonement, especially that found in chs9-10 of Hebrews, absolutely denies the notion that a person can be truly saved and then lose that salvation. In that way, the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is built upon and necessitated by the doctrine of the atonement.
The main facet of the atonement taught in Scripture is that of penal substitution. Penal substitutionary atonement refers to the act of Christ satisfying the wrath of God by taking upon himself the punishment for sin in the place of sinful men. Part of the argument of the book of Hebrews is to show that Christ represents a better, and more complete atonement than the Old Testament sacrificial system. Speaking of the OT system, the writer states in 10:1-4:
1 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near.
2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins?
3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year.
4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
These verses detail the weaknesses of the sacrifices of bulls and goats in the Old Testament. They could not perfect the worshiper. They could not cleanse one’s conscience. They could not take away sins. Therefore, they had to be offered repeatedly. The writer emphasizes here, that the work of the priest was never done. 9:25 speaks of the high priest offering a sacrifice repeatedly, every year. 10:11 notes that the priest had to stand at his work daily, offering the same sacrifices over and over. The point is that the blood of bulls and goats could not completely and permanently atone for the sins of men. So the atonement brought by sacrifices in the Old Testament was temporary, imperfect, and incomplete.
Not so with Christ. His was a qualitatively superior sacrifice. Speaking of Christ’s sacrifice of Himself, the writer writes in 10:12-14:
12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God,
13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet.
14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
Christ offered one sacrifice for all time, and then His work was done. These verses portray the completeness and permanence of Christ’s atoning work.
The Old Testament priests offered sacrifices constantly. Why? Because the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin (10:4). But Christ’s sacrifice perfected the sinner. That does not mean that the believer is no longer sinful, but that his sin has been fully paid for and his eternal perfection has been fully earned by Christ, and will be applied to him when Christ returns. It was not a partial atonement. It covered every sin past, present, and future. Christ has completely atoned for sin.
The writer also intends to express that Christ has permanently atoned for sin. …He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified (10:14). …He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption (9:12).
We need to be reminded of what penal substitutionary atonement is. It is the act of Christ satisfying the wrath of God by taking upon himself the punishment for sin in the place of sinful men. What Hebrews tells us is that Christ completely and permanently satisfied the wrath of God for the sins of many. That wrath was exhausted by Christ on the cross. That wrath has been spent.
Consider what this means for the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. If Christ’s work on the cross secured for the believer a complete and permanent atonement, that believer can never lose his or her salvation. There is no sin past, present, or future that was not permanently and completely covered by the blood of Christ. To place that person back under the wrath of God would require the unspilling of Christ’s blood and the unatoning of that person’s sin. But if that were possible, the entire argument of chs9-10 would completely collapse since it would make the sacrifice of Christ functionally identical to the sacrifice of bulls and goats – that is, it would be an incomplete and impermanent atonement.
So, if Hebrews 6:4-6 speaks of people who were saved – that is, whose sins were atoned for – but who then lost their salvation, the writer of Hebrews has then contradicted himself in chs9-10 by claiming that Christ achieved a complete and permanent atonement. In other words, if salvation can be lost, the atonement is not what Hebrews 9-10 claims it to be.
So then, how are we to interpret Hebrews 6:4-6 while being faithful to the context of the book and its teaching on the atonement? We’ll look at that next time.
Posted by Greg Birdwell