Finally, we come to end of this series on Hebrews 6. If you have not read the beginning articles of this series, it would be a good idea to start with them, before reading this one. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)
The issue at hand is, what is the proper interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6? Do these verses indicate that a true believer can lose his or her salvation?
Before we get to these verses, there is one last contextual issue I’d like to mention. The author of Hebrews offers the Old Testament Jews as an example of those who received revelation of the Messiah, but who rejected it. Numerous times in the book, the author points out the revelation of God that the Jews received, using their failure as an admonition to the reader for self-examination. The Jews had all the revelation of God that anyone could ask for. For example, Hebrews 1:1-14 tells of the testimony of the prophets about the coming Christ. The Jews’ reception of this revelation and eventual rejection of it is alluded to in 2:1-4:
1 Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.
2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution,
3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard,
4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
These verses are so important for understanding Hebrews 6. V2 speaks of Old Testament revelation as “the message declared by angels.” The author writes that every rejection of it, “every transgression, or disobedience,” was punished. In other words, the Jews received revelation of the Son, rejected it, and were judged.
He then goes on to describe a revelation greater than that received by the Old Testament Jews. It was delivered by Christ Himself. It was also delivered by the apostles, those who heard Him first-hand. v4 tells us that God authenticated the message of the apostles by signs, wonders, various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit. The 1st century church saw and experienced some amazing things. They saw and experienced the things mentioned in v4 that we have only read about. (Once the message of the New Testament was completed, these authenticating acts of God were no longer necessary to validate the message.) The New Testament church has received a revelation of the Christ that surpasses the revelation given to the Old Testament Jews.
The implication is clear. If the Jews received a rudimentary revelation of the Christ and were punished for rejecting it, how will we not be punished for rejecting this greater revelation? Obviously, it is possible to receive such revelation and not be saved.
The opening verses of this section, 5:11-14, address the relative immaturity of some of the readers, as identified by their being unskilled with the word of righteousness. So beginning in 6:1, the author exhorts the readers to press on toward maturity: Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God... In other words, it’s time for you to start progressing in sanctification. It’s time to move past the very beginnings of the Christian life, repentance and faith.
V2 gives more examples of these initial baby steps: …and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. “Washings” is the plural form of the word baptismos, or baptism. So one of the initial baby steps is instruction about baptisms. This could refer to the baptism of John vs the baptism of Jesus, Jewish purification rituals vs Christian baptism, or water baptism vs baptism with the Holy Spirit. What these instructions were is not so essential. That they are elementary things of the faith is the point and the reader is exhorted to progress beyond such things.
The following verses, then, show the danger of remaining immature.
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.
What is being discussed is the possibility of a situation in which a person may have no further opportunity to repent. So what is that situation? In short, vv4-5 could be descriptive of anyone, both true and nominal believers, in the 1st century church. They describe the extraordinary revelation of Christ received during the time of the apostles.
First, the hypothetical persons described have “been enlightened.” This is not a very confining description since John 1:9 tells us that “the true light,” Jesus Christ, “enlightens everyone.” So we could hardly conclude from this clause in v4 that what is being discussed is necessarily a true believer.
Second, they have “tasted the heavenly gift.” The New Testament uses the concept of tasting in the figurative sense to describe experiencing something. It can be momentary or prolonged. Matt 5:45 and Acts 17:25 indicate that all people experience the goodness of God, but that by no means indicates they are all saved. The Gospels are full of accounts of people benefitting from Jesus’ miracles, and yet the great majority rejected Him. So, one should still not assume that the situation described here is that of a true believer.
Third, the person has “shared in the Holy Spirit.” At first glance, this clause may appear to be the most difficult. However, anyone involved with the church in the 1st century would have experienced the work of the Holy Spirit via witnessing miracles, tongues, and healing. These very things are mentioned in 2:4, which according to the warning given there are things that can be experienced without resulting in salvation: signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit. Additionally, this could be a reference to the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus in John 16:8, a ministry which Acts 7:51 indicates can be resisted without resulting in salvation.
The other things mentioned in v4-5 are similar. They are experiences of revelation, not indications that one has been saved. Judas is an excellent example of this type of person. All of the things mentioned in v4-6 were true of him. He received all of the revelation that one could ever hope for, the same revelation as the other disciples, yet he fell away.
This fits perfectly with the author's use of the Old Testament Jews as an example of unbelief. The experiences mentioned in 6:4-6 are quite similar to descriptions of the revelation received and rejected by the Jews (2:1-4; 3:9b; 3:16-4:2). 4:2 gives this assessment of them: For the good news came to us just as to them, but the message they received did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. So 6:4-6 simply returns to the theme that the reception of great and manifold revelations of Christ does not ensure the salvation of the one who experiences them.
So why are these verses written here? Remember that the author is exhorting the readers to press on to maturity. These verses indicate that remaining in a state of immaturity could be a sign that one is not a believer at all. Like the other warnings in the book, the author is intending for the readers to examine themselves. The true believer who languishes in what appears to be spiritual immaturity shows no positive evidence that he or she is truly saved. They are virtually indistinguishable from the nominal believer.
The passage is intended to prompt the question: Is your immaturity an indication that you are a baby believer and need to press on to maturity, or is your immaturity an indication that although you have received all the revelation of the gospel that one could hope for, you have not truly repented and trusted in Christ alone to save you?
These verses expose the grave danger of staying in a state of immaturity. If an immature person is not a true believer, they run the risk of eventually “falling away,” rejecting the magnificent revelation given to them. And the consequences of such a choice are dire – that person may lose any further opportunity to repent and believe and be saved. Why? Because having received clear revelation of the gospel and rejecting it constitutes “crucifying again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (v6). It is a grave and mortal insult against the Son of God to receive the truth about Him, His sacrifice, and His salvation, and to then spurn Him. This passage is a strong admonition against the notion that there is always tomorrow.
This sobering truth is reiterated in Heb 10:26-29, For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace.
Let me point out again that the things listed in Hebrews 6:4-6 are experiential in nature. They refer to the reception of revelation. But the mere reception of revelation is never given in Scripture as an indication that one is regenerate. Rather, godly fruit is held up as the indication that one is regenerate. And we need only progress to the very next verses before we are reassured of this: 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 (6:7-8). In other words, those who bear good fruit are saved; those who bear worthless fruit are doomed. Fruit is the indicator of the condition of one’s soul.
V9 lends further weight to this interpretation: Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things – things that belong to salvation. This indicates that the things mentioned in vv4-6 are not things that belong to salvation. So what are the things that belong to salvation? The various fruit mentioned in vv10-11 – good works, love, service, earnestness, hope, faith, and patience.
Hebrews 6:4-6 is not a warning that if you are not careful you may lose your salvation. Rather, it is a warning against spiritual complacency. A state of chronic immaturity could be an indication that you are not a believer at all, and that you run the risk of falling away from the revelation you’ve been given with no possibility of repentance.
Posted by Greg Birdwell