By Andrew Hudson[1. Dr. Hudson is Professor of New Testament at Maranatha Baptist Seminary.]
Hebrews 6:4-8 is one of the most difficult New Testament passages to interpret. Almost every article written on this passage begins with a statement of its difficulty.[2. For example, Wayne Grudem says, "For centuries Christians have been puzzled by Hebrews 6:4-6." "Perseverance of the Saints: A Case Study from Hebrews 6:4-6 and Other Warning Passages in Hebrews," in The Grace of God, The Bondage of the Will, eds. Thomas Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 133. Scot McKnight says, "Few are the number of Christians who have not been at least troubled y the warning passages of Hebrews, troubled by the warning passages of Hebrews, troubled perhaps to the point of despair or even terror." "The Warning Passages of Hebrews: A Formal Analysis and Theological Conclusions," Trinity Journal 13 (1992): 21.] At the same time, the interpretation of this passage is crucial to the interpretation of the other warning passages in Hebrews and to the development of one’s theological position on several soteriological issues.
There are three key issues in Hebrews 6:4-8 that must be interpreted in order to arrive at an acceptable interpretation of the entire paragraph. The first issue is whether or not “those who were once enlightened” are actually saved.[3. David deSilva argues that asking whether the people described in Hebrews 6 are saved distorts the author's meaning. He suggests instead that the people should merely be presented as recipients of the gifts of God in a patron-client social intertexture. "Hebrews 6:4-8: A Sociological Rhetorical Investigation (Part 1)," Tyndale Bulletin 50 (1999): 42-44. This view suffers from an either-or fallacy. Either the author of Hebrews is speaking of salvation, or he is speaking of the patron -client relationship. It is entirely possible to see the "gifts" that came to the "clients" as the gifts associated with salvation. The author may be speaking of both salvation and the patron-client relationship. deSilva himself identifies the individuals in Hebrews 6:1-2 as "converted." "Hebrews 6:4-8: A Socio-Rhetorical Investigation (Part 2)," Tyndale Bulletin 50 (1999): 226.] The second issue is the nature of the falling away in verse six. Is it a rejection of Christ’s offer of salvation, or is it a rejection of some aspect within Christianity? The third issue is the nature of the judgment for falling away in verses four and eight. Is the judgment eternal damnation of an unbeliever, or is it the sever chastisement of an erring believer? The proper interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-8 must provide solutions of each of these issues.
The purpose of this article is to suggest a solution for each of these issues. First, “those who were once enlightened” are true believers. They have been regenerated and are a part of the body of Christ. Second, “falling away” is a conscious rejection of Christ’s high priestly ministry for the believer.[4. Christ's high priestly ministry for the NT saint provides access to the grace and mercy that helps the saint in time of need and provides access to the throne of God to request that help (Heb 4:14-16). It is the blood of Christ which makes this fellowship and provision possible for the believer.] It is not a rejection of Christ’s offer of salvation. It is a reference to a faulty devotion and worship, not a faulty salvation experience. Third, the judgment for rejecting Christ’s high priestly ministry for the believer is severe chastisement (up to and including physical death and/or loss of eternal reward). It is not a reference to the eternal damnation of the unbeliever.
This article begins with a brief review of the major interpretations proposed for Hebrews 6:4-8. This review sets the context for the current discussion of this paragraph of Scripture. Next, the article provides a detailed study of Hebrews 6:4-8 in its biblical context. Last, the article provides a detailed study of Hebrews 6:4-8 in order to argue for the solutions to the three issues mentioned above.
It is not the intention of this article to deal with all of the warning passages in the book of Hebrews. Other warning passages are mentioned only as they relate to Hebrews 6:4-8. Neither is it the intention of this article to argue for the eternal security of the believer from this passage.[5. Some have used this passage to argue for the doctrine of the eternal security of the believer. See R. Bruce Compton, "Persevering and Falling Away: A Reexamination of Hebrews 6:4-6," Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 135-167 and Wayne Grudem "Perseverance of the Saints."] While this passage may support the perseverance of the saints, this article suggests that Hebrews 6:4-8 is not even talking about soteriological issues. Instead, it is discussing the spiritual health of a true believer’s lifestyle.
Proposed Solutions for Hebrews 6:4-8
There are several ways to categorize the various views of Hebrews 6:4-8. Each of the three issues discuss d above generates a variety of opinions. Perhaps the best way organize this data is to divide the various views by means of the first issue discussed above. Are “those who were once enlightened” saved or not?
Professing Believers–Truly Unsaved
Some suggest that the descriptive phrases in Hebrews 6:4-5 describe an individual who has adequate knowledge of the truth of salvation, and yet, consciously rejects Christ’s offer of salvation.[6. Roger Nicole, "Some Comments on Hebrews 6:4-6," in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation, ed. G. Hawthorne (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 355-364; Stewart Custer, "The Awfulness of Apostasy," Biblical Viewpoint 24 (April 1990): 45-50; Wayne Grudem, "Perseverance of the Saints ," 133-182; Compton, "Persevering and Falling Away," 135-167; L.S. Chafer, Systematic Theology (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1947), 3:302-303; Robert A. Peterson, "Apostasy," Presbyterian 19 (1993): 17-31; Yoon Duk Kim, "The Peril of Apostasy in Hebrews 6:4-6" (Th.M Thesis, Talbot School of Theology-Biola University, 1989); Andrew Fredrick Foth, "The Awful Possibility: A Study of Hebrews 6:4-8" (Th.M. Thesis, Central Baptist Theological Seminary, 1981); John E. Ward, "The Perplexing Problem of Hebrews Six" (Th.M. Thesis, Grace Theological Seminary, 1982); George H. Guthrie, The NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998) 230-231; Robert A. Peterson, "Apostasy in Hebrews Warning Passages," Presbyterian 34 (Spring 2008): 27-44; Dave Mathewson, "Reading Heb 6:4-6 in Light of the Old Testament," Westminster Theological Journal 61 (1999): 209-225.] Compton argues that “the passage refers to those who have heard the gospel, have made a profession of faith, yet are not saved.”[7. Compton, 145.] Those who hold this view readily admit that the description of the person in Hebrews 6:4-5 appears to suggest a genuine Christian.[8. Compton, 145-146; Grudem, 137. Grudem says, "If we confine our attention to verses 4-6, a good case can be made for viewing these people as those who were once truly saved."] However, they assert that the description itself is inconclusive, so the context must be the determining factor.[9. Compton, 146; Grudem, 139-140, 152.]
Those who hold this view identify the “falling away” as apostasy. Compton says, “its use in the LXX, the parallel expressions in the other warning passages, and the descriptive phrases accompanying it here and elsewhere in Hebrews lead inevitably to the conclusion that the sin of apostasy is meant.”[10. Compton, 156.] Apostasy is the conscious rejection of the gospel of Christ after receiving a thorough and understandable explanation of it. In fact, those described in Hebrews had even assented to the truth of the gospel for a time; however, their profession was not real.
According to this view, the judgment faced by those who reject the gospel of Christ is eternal damnation. Compton says, “Under the pressure of persecution, these abandon the faith and are faced with eternal condemnation and judgment.”[11. Ibid., 145.] Grudem calls the judgment “the final judgment of God” and the apostate’s final state one of “cursing and fiery judgment.”[12. Grudem, 155.]
In summary, this view proposes that Hebrews 6:4-8 describes individuals who heard the gospel of Christ and made a profession of faith.[13. Peterson suggests that only a small number were actually in a profession-only state. He says, "The writer issues a real warning to a minority of his readers whom he fears may not know Christ and may show it by committing apostasy" (Peterson, 43).] They lived as Christians for a while within the fellowship of the church. When persecution came, however, they rejected the gospel and publicly ridiculed Christ. As a result of their rejection they are beyond repentance (i.e., permanently hardened) and can only look forward to God’s fiery judgment on the unsaved.
Genuine Believers–Truly Saved
There are several views that present those described in Hebrews 6:4-8 as genuinely saved individuals. These views accept the natural reading of the descriptions in verses 4-5 as those who have been regenerated and are truly saved. Even though these views agree that Hebrews 6:4-8 is describing saved individuals, there is no consensus regarding the nature of “falling away” or the nature of judgment. There are at least four variations within this general category.
Hypothetical rejection. Those who hold the hypothetical rejection view suggest that the author of Hebrews desires to shake true believers loose from their moral lethargy by mentioning what would happen if they “fell away.”[14. Thomas Hewitt, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Tyndale New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 106-111; Homer Kent, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972) 107-114.] These believers would lose their salvation and face eternal condemnation. According to this view “fall away” means to reject the gospel of Christ, and the judgment that follows is the eternal condemnation of the unsaved.[15. Kent, 109-110. Kent explains "fall away" as "a complete and final repudiation of Christ."] However, proponents of this view are quick to point out that this “falling away” is impossible for true believers. The author of Hebrews is merely using a hypothetical impossibility to warn true believers about continuing in their spiritual immaturity. Hewitt states, “The writer by the use of the phrase if they sall fall away does not say that the readers or anyone else had fallen away. He is putting forward a hypothetical case as the RSV translation, ‘if they then commit apostasy,’ suggests.”[16. Hewitt, 108. Kent follows Hewitt saying, "All things considered, the last view (hypothetical rejection) commends itself to the present writer as dealing most adequately with the text" (The Epistle to the Hebrews, 113-114).]
This view has at least two problems. First, it would make no sense to warn believers about something that would be impossible for them. If it were impossible for them to fall away, then why would they need a warning against falling away?[17. Grudem, 152. Kent responds to this claim of irrelevancy by citing three New Testament verses where a hypothetical or even impossible case is given (Gal 3:12; Jas 2:10; John 9:39). However, none of these cases are in the context of a warning, and thus, do not support Kent's claim (Kent, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 114).] Second, if it is impossible to fall away, then there should be no one who has fallen away. Hebrews 10:25, which is part of a passage that parallels 6:4-8, mentions some who have fallen away. Therefore, the text of Hebrews itself argues against this view.[18. Compton, 142.]
Community rejection.[19. Verlyn Verbrugge, "Towards a New Interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6," Calvin Theological Journal 15 (April 1980): 61-73; Noel Weeks, "Admonition and Error in Hebrews," Westminster Theological Journal 39 (Fall 1976): 72-80; Brent Nongbri, "A Touch of Condemnation in a Word of Exhortation: Apocalyptic Language and Graeco-Roman Rhetoric in Hebrews 6:4-12," Novum Testamentum XLV (2003): 265-279; Peter S. Perry, "Making Fear Personal: Hebrews 5.11-6.12 and the Argument from Shame," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 32 (2009): 99-125.] Verlyn Verbrugge has suggested that Hebrews 6:4-8 is not even talking about individual salvation, rejection, and judgment. Instead, the concept of community is intended.[20. Verbrugge, 61-73.] Therefore, it is the believing community that is rejected, not each individual member. Verbrugge summarizes his view,
When we examine the Old Testament passage referred to here [Vineyard Song-Isa. 5:1-7], we will note that the primary concept in the author’s mind is that of a covenant community and not the individual child of God. Thus when we read of the falling away and of God’s subsequent rejection, it is rejection of a community that is in focus. Such a rejection does not necessarily include every individual member of the community; in both Old Testament and new Testament parallel passages, this same theme can be found. In other words, God’s rejection of his conenant community does not jeopardize the doctrine of election and the preservation or perseverance of the saints as it applies to the individual believer.[21. Verbrugge, 62.]
Nongbri says, “The author of Hebrews has thus appropriated the language of apocalyptic and snapped it into a rhetorically proper format to further his goal of exhorting his addressees to persevere in their marginalized community.[22. Nongbri, 266.]
This view is not convincing. The warnings and the exhortations to persevere given in the book of Hebrews are given to individual Christians.[23. See McKnight, "The Warning Passages of Hebrews," 54.] The concept of God only “rejecting” part of a community is inconsistent with the Old Testament teaching concerning blessings and cursing. The entire nation of Israel was either blessed or cursed, not just parts of it (see Deut 28-30). Hebrews 6:7-8 also states that the entire land was either blessed or cursed.
True (phenomenological) rejection. Some propose that true believers can change their mind about their faith in Christ. These believers, after being saved and experiencing the Christian life, reject the message of the Gospel. These former believers then lose their salvation and, most likely, any future hope of being resaved.[24. R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Epistle of James (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1966) 179-187; William L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 318-325; Herbert H. Hohenstein, "A Study of Hebrews 6:4-8," Concordia Theological Monthly 27 (June 1956): 433-444, 536-546; McKnight, 21-59; Wayne R. Kempson, "Hebrews 6:1-8," Review and Expositor 91 (1994): 567-573; Martin Emmrich, "Hebrews 6:4-6--Again! (A Pneumatological Inquiry)," Westminster Theological Journal 65 (2003): 83-95.] The “falling away” is a conscious choice to reject the gospel of Christ. Hohenstein says, “[T]he writer [of Hebrews] makes it unmistakably clear that if men who have been enlivened choose to return to the death of unbelief, there is no hope that the quick and powerful Word . . . will resurrect them from their gloomy grace of spiritual darkness.”[25. Hohenstein, 538.] The judgment for returning to a condition of unbelief is eternal damnation (“death of unbelief”). These former believers are treated in the judgment as if they had never been saved.
McKnight emphasizes the progressive nature of salvation. He identifies two categories of salvation: inaugurated salvation and final salvation.[26. McKnight, 57.] In the inaugurated stage of salvation, he includes conversion (past) and perseverance (present). Final salvation is future complete salvation. He asserts that someone can have a conversion experience and begin to persevere. However, if they fail to persevere and instead apostatize, they will not attain final salvation. McKnight concludes,
In light of the futurity of salvation in Hebrews it is reasonable to contend that one cannot in fact “lose one’s salvation,” since one has not yet acquired it. One cannot lose what one does not in fact have. But perhaps we are playing semantics here. Perhaps we should say that we can “lose” the present dimensions of salvation that have already been inaugurated and experienced (6:4-5; 10:14; 12:22-24). But, we certainly need to be careful of what we are saying if we say that the author of Hebrews states that if we can “lose salvation” because, for him, salvation is largely a future state of affairs. In light of his hesitancy to apply the term to the present time, it is perhaps wisest for us to avoid its use in this sense. Rather, I think it is wisest to say that those who are phenomenologically believers can “lose their faith” and the enjoyment of God’s salvation that persevering faith would have made possible for them.[27. McKnight, 58.]
McKinght’s change in terminology from “lose salvation” to “lose faith” does not free him from a theological tension. If final salvation is dependent upon human perseverance, then final salvation is based on human works. This is contrary to the teaching in Scripture that salvation is a free gift of God (Eph 2:8-9).
Kempson likens salvation to a journey toward future salvation that can only be reached through continued faith.[28. Kempson, 570.] He says, “those who quit the journey have no other options, for there is no other pathway that leads to life other than the path of faith in Christ.”[29. Kempson, 571. he also says, "Ultimately, salvation is measured only at the end of life."] McKnight, Kempson, and others who think that salvation or faith can be lost also have to assert that there is no security for the believer.[30. McKnight tries to soften this fact by stating, “[T]he only sin that can separate the believer from final salvation is the sin of apostasy” (McKnight, 58). It is beyond the scope of this paper to argue for the eternal security of the believer.]
Fellowship/Dependence rejection. Those who hold this view are confident that those described in Hebrews 6:4-5 are true believers.[31. J. B. Rowell, "Exposition of Hebrews Six: An Age-Long Battleground," Bibliotheca Sacra 94 (July-September 1988): 319-328; Randall C. Gleason, "The Old Testament Background of the Warning in Hebrews 6:4-8, Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (January-March 1998): 62-91; Rodney J. Decker, "The Warning of Hebrews 6," Journal of Ministry and Theology 5 (Fall 2001): 26-48.] However, they define the “falling away” and judgment differently than any of the previous views. “Falling away” is not a conscious rejection of salvation or loss of faith, but rather, it is a conscious rejection of Christ’s high priestly ministry in their Christian life. Oberholtzer says, “the ‘falling away’ relates to the withdrawal from their Christian confidence an worshipping function in God’s house.”[32. Oberholtzer, 322-323.] Gleason compares the Hebrew Christian’s plight to that of the nation of Israel saying, “Understanding parapipto as expressing a decisive refusal to trust God which results in a general state of spiritual retrogression parallels the experience of the Israelites at Kadesh-barnea.”[33. Gleason, 82. Gleason identifies this refusal to trust God in Hebrews as the Jewish believer's desire to return to Judaism, which resulted in a persistent state of spiritual retrogression (91). Note that the author of Hebrews is comparing the experience of the individual NT saint to the experience of the nation of Israel in the OT. He is not comparing OT individuals to NT individuals.]
The judgment suggested by those who hold this view varies some. Oberholtzer says, “Theologically it is clear that present unfaithfulness will result in loss of reward at the judgment seat of Christ. The result for the believer is not loss of eternal salvation but a forfeiting of inheritance-rest, reward, and position in the coming millennial kingdom.”[34. Oberholtzer, 326. See also Rowell, 337.] In other words, present unfaithfulness will result in future punishment at the judgment seat of Christ when the unfaithful saint suffers the loss of eternal reward.
Gleason, on the other hand, suggests that present unfaithfulness results i loss of present blessing and thre present chastisement of the believer (even to the point of death). He says, “In light of the Old Testament blessing-curse motif, the judgment in view in Hebrews 6:7-8 is best understood as the forfeiture of blessing and the experience of temporal discipline rather than eternal destruction.”[35. Gleason, 86-87] This does not mean that there is not a future loss of reward at the judgment seat of Christ. The author is simply emphasizing the present results of unfaithfulness in order to encourage believers on to maturity.
Summary of Proposed Views
There are at least five different views regarding the interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-8. Those views differ in three areas: genuineness of salvation, nature of falling away, and nature of the judgment. The views discussed in this paper are summarized in the following chart.
The Context of Hebrews 6:4-8
The proper interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-8 must be consistent with its context. Therefore, three aspects of its context are discussed. First, the context of the entire book of Hebrews is summarized. Second, the immediate context of the paragraph (6:4-8) is examined. Third, several Old Testament themes that form the background to the paragraph in Hebrews 6:4-8 are discussed.
General Context of Hebrews 6:4-8
The book of Hebrews was most likely written to a group of Jewish believers who were part of the same house church.[36. For a good discussion see Lane, Hebrews 1-8, World Biblical Commentary, xlvii-clvii. See also Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 685-735.] The location of this house church has been the subject of great debate.[37. Several locations have been suggested including Jerusalem, Palestine outside of Jerusalem, Rome, and others. This article works from the assumption that the church was in Rome. However, this does not greatly affect the interpretation of Hebrews 6.] Fortunately, it is not necessary to specify the exact location of the church in order to interpret Hebrews 6:4-8. It is necessary, however, to clarify three introductory issues. First, what is the purpose and theme of the book of Hebrews? Second, what is the author’s method for accomplishing that purpose? Third, what content does the author of Hebrews use to fulfill his purpose?
Purpose and Theme of Hebrews. There is great difference of opinion as to the purpose and theme of the book of Hebrews.[38. Guthrie discusses four possible purposes: "to warn Jewish Christians against apostasy to Judaism," "to challenge restricted Jewish Christians to embrace the world mission," "to announce the absolute character of Christianity to mainly Gentile Christians," and "to counteract an early type of heresy" (New Testament Introduction, 704-710).] Hebrews 13:22 summarizes the book as a “word of exhortation.” This same phrase is used in Acts 13:15 in reference to an encouraging sermon. According to Lane, “‘Word of exhortation’ appears to be an idiomatic, fixed expression for a sermon in the Jewish-Hellenistic and early Christian circles.”[39. Lane, Hebrews 1–8, lxx. See also Leon Morris, “Hebrews,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 156.]
The book of Hebrews appears to be a written sermon intended to encourage its Jewish Christian readers.
What is the author of this sermon encouraging these Jewish believers to do? The author of Hebrews is writing to encourage those associating with a particular New Testament house church to continue to remain faithful to Christ. In other words, do not fall away from true faith. This sentiment is stated in Hebrews 10:35–39,
Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise. For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.
Members of this church had faced severe persecution in the past and were about to face it again (Heb. 10:32ff). At the same time, they had failed to mature in their Christian life (5:11–14). They appear to have begun to doubt the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice for their daily living (10:35). The author of Hebrews was afraid that these believers would make a conscious choice to live in their own strength and will and not by faith in Christ’s provision and Lordship when renewed persecution came. Therefore, he exhorted them to strive to mature in their Christian lives by living a life that was committed to Christ. Lane summarizes the purpose of the book of Hebrews:
The purpose of Hebrews is to strengthen, encourage, and exhort the tired and weary members of a house church to respond with courage and vitality to the prospect of renewed suffering in view of the gifts and resources God has lavished upon them. The writer’s intention is to address the sagging faith of men and women within the group and to remind them of their responsibility to live actively in response to God’s absolute claim upon their lives through the gospel.[40. Lane, Hebrews 1–8, c. ]
Several points merit mention in summary. First, Hebrews was written to encourage Christians. It was not written to warn unbelievers. Second, the general appeal of the book is to remain faithful to Christ and not fall away (i.e., live by faith). The appeal is not to make sure you are saved (i.e., hold on to saving faith). Third, the believers’ lack of maturity caused the author of Hebrews to be concerned about their susceptibility to “falling away.” It was not their lack of saving faith (or regeneration) that concerned the author of Hebrews.
Method of Hebrews. It appears that the author of Hebrews used a form of written sermon to encourage believers to live by faith. How did the author of Hebrews organize his sermon to accomplish this end? The author of Hebrews encourages church attendees to remain faithful to Christ by means of providing a brief study in Christology. There are five main sections in the book which detail theological information about Christ. After each of these Christological sections, there is an explanation as to how the Christology should affect the way that a true believer should live. Therefore, the book of Hebrews shifts back and forth between Christology and Christian life. All of this doctrine and application is given in order to exhort genuine church saints to endure the severe trials and persecution they were about to face so that they would not suffer judgment for abandoning their trust and reliance upon the high priestly ministry of Christ.
The doctrinal sections appear to form the basis for the practical applications (warning passages/parenesis).[41. See Lane, Hebrews 1–8, c.] The author’s primary purpose is not to teach the doctrine of Christology. It is to encourage his readers to live by faith. At the same time, some teaching of Christology was necessary to provide the basis of his practical applications. Buist Fanning says,
The writer’s compelling view of Christ is that of God’s Son and High Priest exalted now to the position of greatest honor in God’s presence. This picture of Christ gives the right perspective for seeing who He is and all that He fulfilled in God’s eternal purpose by following the path of obedience set out for Him. It also gives a clear view of what He meant for the readers in their situation. With this view of the exalted Son, they could look in a fresh way at their own difficult circumstances and move forward with renewed hope along the trail He blazed for them.[42. Buist Fanning, “A Theology of Hebrews,” in A Biblical Theology of the New Testament, ed. Roy B. Zuck (Chicago: Moody, 1994), 369.]
In summary, the author of Hebrews interweaves theology and practical application throughout his book in order to encourage believers to live by faith in the face of impending persecution.
Content of Hebrews. Current scholarship offers no agreement on how to divide the book of Hebrew.[43. Lane says, “There is at the present time no consensus regarding the literary structure of Hebrews” (Hebrews 1–8, lxxxviii).] The purpose of this section is to suggest a working outline that adequately describes the interweaving of doctrinal and warning sections. This outline is made with the following presuppositions. First, the warning passages in Hebrews are based on the doctrinal teaching about Christ. Second, the purpose of the book of Hebrews is to encourage believers to live by faith. The following outline is suggested:
This chart merely shows the flow of thought in the book of Hebrews. In order to understand the content of the book, it is necessary to further define each of the divisions in the chart. Introduction—God used to speak via prophets in a number of different ways, but now he speaks to believers through Christ, his Son. Doctrine 1—Christ has been exalted to the eternal throne, a position that is superior to the angels. Warning 1—Since Christ has been exalted to the throne of the eternal kingdom, Christians must not drift away from his message.
Doctrine 2—Even though God put everything under the control of Christ, Christ is not ruling on earth at the present time; He humbly gave up control so that He could taste death in order to defeat Satan and provide atonement for sin, and, as a result God crowned Him with glory and honor. Warning 2—Since Christ humbly submitted to death to atone for sins, Christians must not let their persecution cause them to become hardened by sin and turn away from the benefits of true salvation; instead, they are to remain faithful, and thus, enter into the promised rest of salvation.
Doctrine 3—After Christ learned obedience through suffering on the cross that qualified Him to be a high priest, God appointed Him to be the high priest in the heavenly tabernacle. Warning 3—Just as Christ learned obedience through suffering before He became high priest, Christians also need to learn obedience through their own suffering; it is not enough to simply avoid falling away, they must also learn and grow in their obedience.
Doctrine 4—Christ’s high priestly sacrifice on the cross was effective in atoning for sins in a way similar to Old Testament sacrifices; however, Christ’s sacrifice was superior to Old Testament sacrifices because Christ as eternal high priest only had to sacrifice once for all to gain permanent access to the heavenly holy of holies.[44. Access to the heavenly holy of holies refers to the believer’s ability to boldly approach God in fellowship. This access is made possible by the high priestly ministry of Christ. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross makes continual fellowship with God possible. See Hebrews 4:14–16; 10:19–22.]
Warning 4—Since the blood of Christ’s high priestly sacrifice has made us holy, Christians should not despise His blood and face certain judgment; instead they must do all they can to serve God (and help others serve God) while they await the promise to come.
Doctrine 5—There are many Old Testament examples of believing men and women who served God by faith while waiting for what was promised; they did not fall away even though they did not see the promise fulfilled; New Testament believers have been given something much greater in Christ, so there is even less reason for them to fall away. Warning 5—In light of these Old Testament examples of believers living by faith, and since Christians have been granted access to the very God of heaven through Christ’s high priestly ministry, they need to persevere in their service to God; they must not neglect or refuse this access (fellowship) to God by rejecting Christ’s high priestly sacrifice or they will face certain judgment.
Final appeal—Since believers are receiving an unshakable kingdom, they must continue to serve God with a proper reverence and awe for his person and his judgment, and with a genuine thankfulness for Christ’s high priestly ministry. Conclusion—the author of Hebrews makes some concluding remarks regarding prayer, his readers’ reception of his exhortation, and his plans to visit his readers.
Specific Context of Hebrews 6:4–8
Now that the general context has been established, it is helpful to discuss the specific context of Hebrews 6:4–8. In order to define the specific context of this paragraph, it is necessary to discuss the section in which it is located (5:1–6:20). The following outline is suggested:
I. Christ was Appointed by God as High Priest in the Heavenly Temple (5:1-10)
A. Every high priest is chosen from among the people to represent the people before God (5:1-3)
B. Jesus did not appoint Himself high priest, but God gave Him this position after Jesus experienced human suffering that qualified Him for the position (5:4-10)
II. How Should I Live Then? Just as Christ learned obedience through suffering before becoming high priest–you also need to learn obedience from your persecution; it is not enough to simply avoid falling away, you must also learn and grow in your obedience (5:11-6:20)
A. There is much more to learn by Christ’s high priesthood, but your lack of maturity has made it difficult for you to understand (5:11-14)
B. Abandon your spiritual laziness so that we can leave the elementary teachings and go on to teach you (Lord willing) a mature presentation of Jesus’ priesthood (6:1-20)
1. Be diligent in your spiritual life so that we do not have to teach you the elementary foundation of your faith again (6:1-3)
2. The reason you need to be diligent in these elementary things is because there is no other adequate foundation on which to grow, and failure to do so will result in certain judgment (6:4-8)
a) Christians who fall away (return to a sacrificial system) cannot move on to spiritual maturity because they are denying the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice, and they lay a false foundation (6:4-5)
b) Christians who fall away do not produce the fruit of the Spirit and are in grave danger of judgment that is similar to the curses of the Mosaic covenant (6:7-8)
3. We are confident of better things for you than judgment; we trust that you will diligently mature until the end, and then receive the inheritance promised to you (6:9-20)
In summary, Hebrews 6:4–8 provides some motivation for the believer to press on to maturity. Hebrews 5:11–14 describes the spiritual laziness that the believers were demonstrating. In 6:1–3, the author of Hebrews appeals for these apathetic Christians to press on to spiritual maturity. Verse 4 begins with the word “for” (γaρ), indicating that what follows is a reason why the believer should press on to spiritual maturity. Donald Hagner says,
The manner in which this section is connected with the preceding material, with the logical connective “for” (untranslated in the NIV), suggest that if the readers do not “go on” into fullness of Christian doctrine, they will be in grave danger of falling away altogether, back into Judaism, thereby committing apostasy. In their present state, indeed, even their grasp of the “elementary truths of God’s words” (5:12) is questionable. Thus, as further motivation for the readers to press on to a mature understanding of their Christian faith, the author points out the seriousness of apostasy.[45. Donald A. Hagner, Hebrews, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990) 90, 91. Hagner identifies apostasy as the unforgivable sin of Mark 3:29 and 1 John 5:16. Even if “falling away” is defined as something other than apostasy, Hagner’s point is still valid. The content of verses 4–8 provide a motivation for the believer to press on to spiritual maturity.]
Hebrews 6:4–8, then, appears to be motivation for a believer to abandon spiritual laziness and press on to spiritual maturity.
The Old Testament Background of Hebrews 6:4–8
The book of Hebrews makes frequent comparisons between the Old Testament Mosaic system and the New Testament believer. A proper understanding of the Mosaic system is a prerequisite for a proper interpretation of the book of Hebrews. Several aspects of this system are relevant to the interpretation of Hebrews 6:4–8. These aspects are: the high priesthood, the purpose of the tabernacle, the purpose of animal sacrifices, and the concept of blessing and cursing.
OT high priesthood. The high priest in the Mosaic system was the mediator between God and his people. He was responsible for all of the sacrificial responsibilities of the tabernacle (and later the temple). McCready summarizes the high priest’s duties:
The primary function of the high priest was to administer and direct the sacrificial system. He alone was allowed to go behind the veil of the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:2). He dealt with the sin offerings whose blood was brought into the sanctuary of the temple (Lev. 4:3–21). The high priest’s responsibilities included all the sacrificial activities that took place inside the temple, either with his direct involvement or under his supervision.[46. W.O. McCready, s.v. “Priest, High,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986) 3:962.]
The author of Hebrews calls Christ a high priest throughout the book.[47. For example, 2:17; 3:1; 4:14–15; 5:1, 10; 6:20; 7:17, 21; 8:1–2; 9:11; 10:21; 12:24; 13:11–12. Fanning says, “The picture of Jesus Christ as High Priest is the most distinctive theme of Hebrews, and it is central to the theology of the book. As already stated, its doctrine of sonship is foundational to its teaching about Christ’s priesthood. Likewise, its view of salvation, of the Christian life, and of salvation-history are all vitally connected to the theme of His high priesthood” (“A Theology of Hebrews,” 388).] Christ functions as the high priest for the New Testament believer. Christ has entered the heavenly holy of holies on the believer’s behalf to provide continual, permanent access to God (Heb 6:14–16; 10:19–21). Christ the high priest is also presented in Hebrews as Christ the sacrifice (Heb 10:10–12). Mosaic priests offered animals. Christ offered Himself.
Purpose of the tabernacle. After Israel’s exodus from Egypt and their accepting of the Mosaic covenant, God commanded his people to build a tabernacle. The purpose of the tabernacle was to provide a dwelling place for God (Exod 25:8). This dwelling place would be the place where God’s people would come to worship and fellowship with Him. The tabernacle was God’s means for restoring a fellowship similar to the kind man had with God in the Garden of Eden. Several parallels have been suggested between the creation accounts and the construction of the tabernacle.[48. See Victor Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 233–234; and John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 300–301.] Sailhamer concludes, “By depicting the Garden of Eden in conjunction with the tabernacle, the writer [of the Pentateuch] apparently wants to show the purpose of the tabernacle as a return to the Garden of Eden.”[49. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, 300.] Man had perfect fellowship with God in the Garden.
While the tabernacle was designed to provide a place for Edenic-type worship, it only had limited success. God took up residence in the holy of holies; only the high priest could enter his presence and that only once each year. This ministry of the high priest is referred to in Hebrews 6:19–20. Christ’s high priestly sacrifice provided a means for the New Testament believer to have continual access to the heavenly holy of holies (and thus, the ability to enter God’s presence to worship). The ordinary Old Testament believer could only worship God through the ministry of the priesthood and could never have direct access to God’s presence.
The Old Testament believer went to the tabernacle to worship God. He did not go to maintain his salvation. The tabernacle was a place of fellowship and worship, not a place to procure salvation.
Purpose of animal sacrifices. Levitical sacrifices were never intended to atone for sin resulting in a person’s salvation. They were only designed to restore fellowship between God and the Old Testament believer when inadvertent or unintentional sins had interrupted that fellowship. Neither were animal sacrifices ever capable of atoning for sins resulting in salvation (Heb 10:4, 11). They were only able to atone for sins resulting in restored fellowship between a believer and God. Carpenter says,
Both Abba and Saydon pointed out the shortcomings of the OT sacrificial system. It was not meant to be final; it had a limited range of effectiveness, operating only within the covenant. Only sins of ignorance or of human frailty were forgiven within this cultic system. No sacrifice could atone for deliberate, rebellious acts against God that were adamantly continued.[50. Carpenter, s.v. “Sacrifices and Offerings in the Old Testament,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 4: 272.]
There appears to have been no sacrifice that could atone (restore fellowship) for an intentional sin.[51. It is sometimes argued that this is what makes Christ’s sacrifice better. His sacrifice atoned for intentional and unintentional sins.] However, this may not necessarily be the case. The sins listed in Leviticus 6 are surely intentional. They include sins such as keeping something that someone loans you and then lying about it, stealing from someone, and finding something and lying to the person who lost it. These sins are atoned for by a trespass offering. This offering is only given after restitution to the other person is made. It appears that an intentional sin can be moved into the category of unintentional by means of confession and restitution.[52. Hamilton says “To solve the dilemma—how can deliberate sins be forgiven?—we may turn to a variant of Leviticus 5:14–6:7, the passage in Numbers is that confession is essential in the case of a deliberate sin. It must succeed conviction and precede restitution (Num. 5:7). Thus the sin moves into the category of inadvertent sins and may be expiated” (Handbook on the Pentateuch, 261).] A sacrifice then can be made to restore fellowship with God. Therefore, the only time a sin cannot be sacrificed for in the Mosaic system is when the one who committed the sin is unrepentant.
It is not the person who intentionally sins who is barred from fellowship in the Old Testament, but the person who is not repentant of their sin. Hamilton says that this is exactly what is referred to in the book of Hebrews.
To say this is to echo exactly what is said by Hebrews. Compare the language of Hebrews 6:4, 6, “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance . . . if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God. . . .” Or this, “if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins” (Heb. 10:26). It is the absence of confession and contrition that bars the way of the backslider into restored, redemptive fellowship with Christ.[53. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch, 262. Hamilton’s point is valid in Hebrews 10 when there is no mention of repentance. But it is off the mark slightly with regard to Hebrews 6:4–8. In Hebrews 6, even repentance cannot prevent the infliction of judgment (see interpretation later in this paper).]
Blessings and Curses. The concept of blessing and cursing is a common theme throughout the Old Testament. Both blessings and curses are recorded in Deuteronomy 28–30 as part of the Mosaic covenant. Blessings and curses were a normal part of the covenant relationship during this time period. Walton and Matthews conclude,
Curses and blessings are standard elements of the ancient treaties of the third, second and first millennia B.C., though they vary in specificity and proportion from one period to another. Since the treaty documents were confirmed by an oath in the names of deities, the curses and blessings were usually those that were to be brought by the deities rather than the parties to the treaty. Here that is of little difference because God is a party to the covenant rather than simply the enforcer of it. Many of the curses found here are found in similar wording in the Assyrian treaties of the seventh century B.C. Similarities can also be seen in the Atrahisis Epic, where, prior to sending the flood, the gods send various plagues on the land. These include the categories of disease, drought and famine, sale of family members into slavery, and cannibalism.[54. John Walton and Victor Matthews, The Bible Background Commentary: Genesis–Deuteronomy (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997), 263.]
Blessings were given when a covenant people fulfilled the stipulations of the covenant. Curses were sent when the covenant people disobeyed the stipulations of the covenant. This is also true for the Mosaic covenant (Deut 28:1ff). In the Mosaic system, cursing could be reversed if there was genuine repentance (Deut 30), though the consequences of sin were not always removed.
God chose to incorporate blessings and curses into the Mosaic system to give visible expression to his response to the choices of man. Hamilton says,
Toward the law no believer can be neutral. Either he will choose to live by it or he will choose to ignore it. What Moses is interested in establishing here is the fact of consequences, or retribution, a divine response that is commensurate with the choices made by the individual.[55. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch, 455.]
God used the curses of the Mosaic system to draw Israel back to a place of obedience. Throughout the history of the nation of Israel, there is a cycle of obedience (blessing), disobedience (curses), and repentance (retracted curse/restored blessing). This cycle indicates that Israel never lost her position as God’s covenant people when she rebelled. She only experienced the curses of the covenant.
The blessings included wealth, abundant crops, land, and proliferation of family. Curses included poverty, drought, captivity, and infertility. Sailhamer likens the blessings to the experience in the Garden of Eden and the curses to the experience of the post-fall generation.[56. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, 471. He says, “The nature of the blessings is reminiscent of the blessings in the Garden of Eden—enjoyment of God’s good land. . . . The description of the curse is reminiscent of the curse after the Fall in the Genesis narratives—affliction and ultimately exile from God’s land.”] The illustration in Hebrews 6:7–8 is a direct allusion to the Old Testament blessing and cursing concept. Verse 7 refers to blessings for obedience, while verse 8 refers to the curses that result from disobedience. Cursing under the Mosaic system never removed anyone from the covenant community. It is logical, then, to conclude that cursing (God’s response to the disobedient believer) mentioned in the New Testament never removed anyone from God’s people.
Interpretation of Hebrews 6:4–8
The interpretation of Hebrews 6:4–8 must address the three issues raised at the beginning of this article. First, are those mentioned in verses 4–5 truly saved or not? Second, what is the exact nature of the “falling away” mentioned in verse 6? Third, what is the judgment described in verses 7–8?
Saved or Not?
There are several descriptive phrases in verses 4–5 used to identify the person who “falls away.” Each of these phrases is evaluated individually first. Then the context of the phrases is discussed to aid in their interpretation. Finally, a conclusion will be offered for the question of whether or not they are truly saved.
Once enlightened. The first phrase used to describe the person in Hebrews 6:4–8 is “those who were once enlightened” (τοὺς ἅπαξ φωτισθέντας). A case can be made that “enlightened” means that the person heard and believed the gospel. The same word is used in Hebrews 10:32 of these same people to refer to true salvation.[57. Since Hebrews 6:4–8 and 10:26–31 are parallel passages and 10:32 obviously refers to true salvation, it is logical that “enlightened” in 6:4 refers to true salvation. For an excellent comparison of Hebrews 6:4–8 and 10:26–31, see Lane, Hebrews 9–13, 296–297.] Also the noun form of “enlightened” is used twice in 2 Corinthians 4 in reference to true salvation.[58. 2 Corinthians 4:4, 6 says, “lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ . . . should shine upon them . . . For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.] Finally, the adverb “once” argues in favor of a reference to a conversion experience. It is a reference to a once for all enlightenment at the beginning of the Christian life.[59. Grudem says, “That the word hapax can be used to describe a one-time, never to be repeated event is clear, for example, from its use in Hebrews 9:26–28” (“Perseverance of the Saints,” 138).] The cumulative weight of this evidence suggests that “those who were once enlightened” are truly saved people.
However, Compton, Grudem, and others make an adequate case that the word “enlightened” is inconclusive with regard to salvation. First, the use in 10:32 does not necessarily mean regeneration. Compton says,
The expression in 10:32, “after having been enlightened,” is parallel with the expression in 10:26, “after having received a knowledge of the truth.” There is no indication in the latter that receiving a knowledge of the truth suggests the idea of regeneration. It simply means that the readers had been taught or instructed in the truth of God’s Word.[60. Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 148. Compton has overstated his case by saying that there is no indication that 10:26 refers to regeneration. The result of sinning willfully in 10:26 is the judgment mentioned in 10:27–29. In 10:30 the author of Hebrews says of this judgment, “The Lord shall judge His people.” The phrase “His people” is an obvious reference to truly regenerate people. Therefore, 10:26 likely refers to truly saved people.]
If Compton is correct, then neither 6:4 nor 10:32 necessarily refer to true salvation. They simply mean that the person understood the gospel.
Second, Grudem argues that the noun form of “enlightened” in 2 Corinthians 4 itself does not necessarily mean true salvation. It is the context of those uses that gives them the meaning of true salvation. The noun form of “enlightened” itself is not a technical term for salvation.[61. Grudem, “Perseverance of the Saints,” 141.] Therefore, 2 Corinthians 4 does not necessitate that Hebrews 6:4 is definitely speaking of truly saved people.
Third, Compton suggests that the adverb “once” does not have to mean a one-time conversion experience. It could also mean a one-time understanding experience. This use might be paraphrased, “those who once came to understand (and later rejected).” Compton suggests that “once” should not even be understood as a once-for-all action. He argues that it is best to translate it “initially” or “at the first.”[62. Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 147–148. The word “once” is used in Hebrews 9:7 to refer to a once each year event, so the conclusion that it does not necessitate a once for all event is accurate.] Therefore, the adverb “once” does not argue for the fact that these people were truly saved.
Fourth, Grudem concludes that the word “enlightened” is not a technical term for salvation. Grudem summarizes, “It occurs eleven times in the New Testament, sometimes just referring to a literal giving of light by a lamp (Luke 11:36), and other times referring to learning in general, not specifically a learning that results in salvation.”[63. Grudem, “Perseverance of the Saints,” 141.] John 1:9 refers to Jesus as the “true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” This is an obvious example of a case where “enlightened” (lights) cannot mean true salvation, because not every man is truly saved.
Compton, Grudem, and others give adequate reason to conclude that the phrase “those who were once enlightened” itself does not have to mean truly saved. It could also refer to a person who was only mentally “enlightened” (i.e., understood the gospel). Ultimately, context must determine the exact meaning of this phrase.[64. The evidence from the context is discussed later in this article. Therefore, a decision concerning the best interpretation here is delayed until then.]
Tasted the heavenly gift. The second phrase used to describe those in Hebrews 6:4–5 is “have tasted of the heavenly gift” (γευσαμe,νους τε τῆς δωρεᾶς τῆς evπουρανi,ου). A good case can be made that this phrase is intended to mean true salvation. First, the author of Hebrews uses the word “tasted” to mean a full and complete experience of something. For example, Hebrews 2:9 says that Jesus “should taste death for every man.” Jesus did not sample death to see if He wanted a fuller experience of it. He had a full and complete experience of death. In the same way, those in Hebrews 6:4–5 had a full and complete experience of the “heavenly gift.”
Second, the “heavenly gift” is most likely a reference to salvation. While the exact phrase “heavenly gift” is not used elsewhere in Scripture, salvation is often referred to as a gift in the New Testament (Rom 5:15, 17; Eph 2:8–9). Therefore, the entire phrase means that those in 6:4–5 have had a complete and full salvation experience.
A case can also be made that this phrase itself does not necessarily mean the person was truly saved. First, the word “tasted” can mean “a nibble.” This “nibble” may or may not be followed by a fuller experience.[65. See Grudem, “Perseverance of Saints,” 145. Grudem offers Matthew 27:34 as an example of this meaning. It says of Jesus on the cross, “When he had tasted thereof, he would not drink it.” Grudem also says this meaning is true when “tasted” is used in a figurative sense. He cites Josephus (The Jewish War 2.158) as an example. Josephus says of the Essenes, “[T]hey irresistibly attract all who have once tasted their philosophy.”] In this case the person would have had a taste of the heavenly gift and based on that taste could decide if they wanted to “eat” (accept) the whole gift.
Second, not every figurative use of the word “tasted” means to experience salvation. For example, 1 Peter 2:3 speaks of tasting the Lord’s goodness. Compton concludes from this that “every figurative use of taste in the NT involves a genuine experience, not every use involves a saving experience.”[66. Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 149. Compton also says, “While χρηστός [goodness] in 1 Peter 2:3 does appear to refer to the savinggoodness of God, that does not prove that γεύομαι [taste] carries this sense. This meaning of 1 Peter 2:3 is based on the meaning of χρηστός, not γεύομαι.”] Since the word “tasted” itself does not have to refer to salvation, something in the context must supply that meaning.
Third, the “heavenly gift” does not necessarily mean salvation either. It is used in the New Testament for Christ (John 4:10), the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 8:20; 10:45; 11:17), and justification/salvation (Rom 5:15, 17; Eph 2:8–9). It is possible to experience a ministry of the Holy Spirit without actually being truly saved. Grudem concludes,
In fact . . . it is likely that Hebrews 6:4 means that those who “tasted the heavenly gift” had some experience of the power of the Holy Spirit—perhaps in convicting them of sin (cf. John 16:8), perhaps in casting a demon out of them (cf. Matt. 12:28), or perhaps in receiving some kind of healing (cf. Luke 4:14, 40; 1 Cor. 12:9). But such experiences of the Holy Spirit do not themselves indicate salvation, for it is possible to “resist the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51), and even, for those who are under conviction from the Holy Spirit, to resist so strongly that one commits “blasphemy against the Spirit” (Matt. 12:31).[67. Grudem, “Perseverance of Saints,” 146.]
It seems that the phrase “have tasted of the heavenly gift” is inconclusive as to its intended meaning. It could possibly refer to either a saved or an unsaved person. Therefore, context must be allowed to determine its exact meaning.
Partakers of the Holy Spirit. The third phrase used to describe those in Hebrews 6:4–5 is they “were made partakers of the Holy Spirit” (μετo,χους γενηθe,ντας πνεu,ματος a`γίου). The most likely interpretation of this phrase is that it refers to true salvation. In Hebrews 3:14 it is stated that true believers were “made partakers of Christ.” There seems to be little doubt that 3:14 refers to saved individuals. In fact, Compton says, “It is difficult to see from this verse how ‘partakers of Christ’ could be describing other than those who are saved.”[68. Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 151.] It seems likely that “partakers in Christ” is parallel to “partakers of the Holy Ghost.”[69. In addition, Hebrews 12:8 speaks of true believers “partaking” in the discipline of the Lord. Those who do not partake in this discipline are not God’s children. The author of Hebrews seems to use the word “partake” with reference to truly saved people.] Therefore, Hebrews 6:4 most likely refers to truly saved people.
Attempts are made to argue that the phrase “partakers of the Holy Ghost” refers to unsaved people.[70. No one would say that this is the natural or likely interpretation of the text. However, it is argued that it is at least possible that the phrase refers to the unsaved. Compton admits, “This is perhaps the most difficult statement in vv. 4–5 to counter” (“Persevering and Falling Away,” 151).] Compton argues that it is possible for the term “partakers of the heavenly calling” in Hebrews 3:1 to refer to a general calling of God through the gospel.[71. Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 152. This is very unlikely since the phrase “partakers of the heavenly calling” is parallel to the phrase “holy brethren.” “Holy brethren” is definitely a reference to saved people.] Not all who experience God’s call respond to it, and some who do respond are not genuine. Therefore, the word “partakers” in 3:1 does not necessarily mean “saved.” The same could also be true for 6:4. “Partakers of the Holy Spirit” may refer to participation in some non-salvific ministry of the Holy Spirit.[72. Compton identifies these non-salvific ministries of the Holy Spirit either as experiencing the general convicting ministry of the Spirit, or as witnessing the use of spiritual gifts, or as benefiting from someone else’s use of the gifts of the Spirit (i.e., being healed, etc.) (“Persevering and Falling Away,” 152). Grudem goes a step further in identifying these non-salvific ministries of the Holy Spirit when he says, “The phrase may mean simply that these people had come into the church and there had experienced some of the benefits of the Holy Spirit in answers to prayer or even in using some spiritual gifts. All that we can say with confidence is that they were partakers of some of the benefits that the Holy Spirit gives” (emphasis his] (“Perseverance of the Saints,” 148). Grudem mistakenly identifies answers to prayer and spiritual gifts as non-salvific ministries of the Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12 teaches that the Spirit gives gifts to those who are baptized into the body of Christ (i.e. truly regenerate). Rather than argue for Hebrews 6:4 referring to unsaved people as Grudem wishes, he has argued for truly regenerate people in 6:4.]
The most likely understanding of the phrase “were made partakers of the Holy Spirit” is that it is a reference to salvation. Arguments that the phrase refers to unsaved people are not convincing.[73. Compton’s attempt to identify the “calling” in Hebrews 3:1 as a general call for all men is troublesome. “Calling” in 3:1 is synonymous with the phrase “holy brethren.” It is very difficult to attribute the phrase “holy brethren” to all mankind. It is almost certainly a reference to truly saved people.] However, there is a very remote possibility that the phrase could refer to unsaved. Therefore, context is allowed to determine interpretation.
Tasted the good word and powers. The fourth phrase used to refer to those in Hebrews 6:4–5 is they “have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the age to come” (καλo.ν γευσαμe,νους θεοῦ r`ῆμα δυνa,μεις τε μe,λλοντος αivῶνος). This phrase is probably parallel in thought to the content of Hebrews 2:1–4. The “word of God” is the gospel message, while the “powers” refer to the miraculous signs given to confirm that gospel.[74. Compton does an excellent job substantiating this thought (“Persevering and Falling Away,” 152–154).] The question of the extent of the experience (“tasted”) still remains, though. Did those in Hebrews 6:4–5 merely understand the gospel and witness the miracles, or did they accept the gospel and perform the miracles (spiritual gifts)? Either scenario is possible. Therefore, the context of 6:4–5 must be the determining factor in making a decision.
Context determines? Compton argues that the wider context argues in favor of the view that those in Hebrews 6:4–5 are unsaved.[75. Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 155–167.] The only parts of the context that Compton uses are those verses that follow 6:4–5.[76. Compton says, “The decision about the spiritual status of those in view must be based on evidence from the wider context, particularly from the verses that follow” (“Persevering and Falling Away,” 155).] He makes three points. First, “fall away” in verse 6 means apostasy. Second, the judgment mentioned in verses 7–8 refers to eternal condemnation of the unsaved. Third, verse 9 can be paraphrased, “In spite of the fact we were talking about things that belonged, not to salvation, but to divine condemnation and judgment, nevertheless, we are confident that you are saved.”[77. Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 166.]
Compton’s logic can be summarized as follows: 1) Presupposition—it is impossible for a saved person to lose his salvation; 2) Premise 1—the spiritual status of those in 6:4–5 is uncertain; 3) Premise 2—these people reject the gospel of Christ and face eternal condemnation; and 4) Conclusion—therefore, the people mentioned in 6:4–5 must be unsaved. Grudem makes a similar conclusion:
While the positive experiences listed in verses 4–6 do not provide us enough information to know whether the people were truly saved or not, the committing of apostasy and holding Christ up to contempt do reveal the true nature of those who fall away: all along they have been like bad ground that can only bear bad fruit. If the metaphor of the thorn-bearing land explains verses 4–6 (as it surely does), then their falling away shows that they were never saved in the first place.[78. Grudem, “Perseverance of the Saints,” 156–157.]
There are at least three problems with Compton and Grudem’s conclusion. First, it is based as much on theology as it is context.[79. While theology does play an important role in determining the meaning of a text, both Compton and Grudem imply that it is the context alone that determines spiritual status in 6:4–5.] It is their allegiance to the perseverance of the saints that forces them to say that those in verses 4–5 are unsaved. The meaning of verses 6–9 does not necessitate they were unsaved. Many have suggested they were saved and then lost their salvation. The truth is that Compton and Grudem’s interpretation is theologically driven rather than contextually driven as they claim.
Second, Compton and Grudem base their conclusions of verses 4–5 on their interpretation of verses 6–9. They say that context must determine the meaning of verses 4–5, because the phrases themselves are inconclusive.[80. Compton says, “All that really needs to be demonstrated with vv. 4–5 is that the phrases themselves are ambiguous or undetermined concerning the spiritual status of those in view” (“Persevering and Falling Away,” 146).] However, they do not apply this same logic to verses 6–9. The certainty they attribute to their interpretation of verses 6–9 is not as strong as they suggest. Other legitimate interpretations have been offered for verses 6–9, making them as inconclusive as verses 4–5. Compton and Grudem’s logic could easily be reversed as follows: 1) Presupposition—it is impossible for a saved person to lose his salvation; 2) Premise 1—the interpretation of the falling away and judgment in verses 6–9 is uncertain; 3) the people in verses 4–5 are truly saved; and 4) Conclusion—therefore, verses 6–9 do not refer to rejection of the gospel and eternal damnation. Note the contrasting logic between those who argue for professing believers and those who argue for true believers in the chart below.
Again Compton and Grudem’s conclusion is not based on the entire context. Their conclusion is based on what they perceive as the more conclusive element of the two inconclusive elements in verses 4–9. If the interpretation of both verses 4–5 and 6–9 is inconclusive, it would be better to let the broader context determine both elements.
Third, Compton and Grudem’s view does not make logical sense out of the “for” at the beginning of verse 4. Verses 4–8 are intended to be a motivation for the believer to go on to maturity (i.e., fulfill the exhortation in 6:1–3). According to Compton and Grudem, it is impossible for truly saved people to apostatize; therefore, the teaching of verses 4–8 concerns unsaved people. Thus, the argument of Hebrews 6 would be for Christians to move on to maturity, because unsaved people will fall away and face judgment. This makes no sense. How could judgment they will never face motivate true believers to move on to maturity? One might suggest that the exhortation is to make sure you are saved, because if you are not you will face judgment. However, Hebrews 5:11–6:3 and 6:9–12 present believers who need to mature, not a group that needed to make sure they were saved.
There are at least six factors in the broader context that suggest those in Hebrews 6:4–5 are truly saved individuals. First, the entire section from 5:1 through 6:20 is set in the context of the high priestly ministry of Christ. The high priest in the Old Testament entered the holy of holies once each year in order to restore fellowship and worship. It had nothing to do with anyone’s salvation. The same is true in Hebrews 5:1–6:20. Christ entered the heavenly holy of holies (6:19–20) in order to restore fellowship and worship.[81. It is true that Christ’s sacrifice provided salvation from the penalty of sin which is received at the moment of regeneration. His sacrifice also provided for salvation from the power of sin which involves a continual struggle in the believer’s earthly life. Daily maturing in Christ is the theme of 5:1–6:20. Therefore, it seems likely that the high priestly ministry of Christ referred to in 5:1–6:20 is salvation from the power of sin for daily living (i.e., restoring and maintaining fellowship and worship).] Christ has provided the believer permanent and uninterrupted access to God through his ministry as high priest for the believer. This ministry of Christ is the theme of the entire section of Hebrews 5:1–6:20.
Second, Hebrews 5:8 says that Christ learned obedience through the suffering that He faced. Verse 9 says that this suffering made Him “perfect.” This is obviously not a reference to Christ’s salvation, because He needed none. The author of Hebrews says that Christ learned obedience through suffering as an example for all believers to follow. Believers are to learn obedience (mature) from the suffering that they face. The recipients of the book of Hebrews were about to face severe persecution once again. The author of Hebrews was encouraging them to use it as a means of growth.
Third, the concern of Hebrews 5:11–14 is the spiritual immaturity of true believers. There is no discussion as to whether these people are saved or not. The entire passage assumes salvation and laments spiritual immaturity.
Fourth, the appeal in Hebrews 6:1–3 is for the true believer to progress in his spiritual maturity. This appeal would be senseless for an unsaved person.[82. Note Kent’s response to this concern in footnote 12 of this paper. Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Caneday (following Berkouwer) offer another possible response to this concern. They claim, “Warnings and admonitions, however, express what is capable of being conceived with the mind. They speak of conceivable or imaginable, not of things likely to happen. . . . Thus, all warnings caution us concerning conceivable consequences. They do not confront us with an uncertain future. They do not say that we may perish. Rather, they caution us lest we perish. They warn that we will surely perish if we fail to heed God’s call in the gospel” (The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance[Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2001], 207–208).] Again, salvation is assumed in this passage.
Fifth, Hebrews 6:9–10 recounts past and present fruit of the Spirit that accompanies salvation. The author of Hebrews states that the recipients of his exhortation have produced this fruit. Therefore, the author of Hebrews must believe his readers were truly saved.
Sixth, Hebrews 6:11–12 encourages true believers to be diligent in their Christian walk and not slothful. It does not say that they should become saved, because it is assumed that they are true believers already.
In conclusion, the entire context of Hebrews 5:1–6:20 is an appeal to true believers. The entire context encourages true believers to grow spiritually and seems to indicate that those in 6:4–5 are truly saved. This is especially true when 6:4–8 is designed to motivate true believers to grow spiritually. Information about a judgment they will never face would not encourage true believers to mature. The judgment has to be a real possibility for believers in order for it to encourage them to avoid that judgment.
Nature of Falling Away
There are three words or phrases in Hebrews 6:6 that describe what it means to “fall away.” Each of these is discussed individually.
Fall away. The first word used to describe falling away is “fall away” (παραπεσo,ντας).[83. It is probably best to take this participle as an adjectival-substantival use (as does the NASB, ASV, and NRSV), rather than an adverbial-conditional use (as does the NIV, KJV, and RSV). See John Sproule, “παραπεσόντας in Hebrews 6:6,” Grace Theological Journal 2 (1981): 327–332.] There are two broad categories of understanding concerning the nature of falling away. Some suggest that falling away is absolute apostasy, a total rejection of Christ and his gospel, an alignment with those who crucified Christ.[84. Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 156–158; McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews,” 36–43; Grudem, “Perseverance of the Saints,” 153–154; Hohenstein, “A Study of Hebrews 6:4–8,” 536–537; Some like Hohenstein liken this apostasy to the unpardonable sin (Nicole, “Some Comments on Hebrews 6:4–6,” 362–363).] Others suggest that falling away is a serious sin that a believer can commit which is usually identified as a decisive refusal to trust Christ’s high priestly ministry for help in daily living.[85. Oberholtzer, “The Thorn-Infested Ground,” 322–323; Gleason, “The Old Testament Background,” 78–83.] The word “fall away” itself does not help in choosing which view is correct, because it does not have an object in Hebrews 6:6.[86. BDAG defines παραπi,πτω as “to fail to follow through on a commitment.” In other words, the word itself is not a technical term for apostasy. Without a qualifier to clarify what one falls away from, its meaning in Hebrews 6:6 is uncertain. W. Bauder says, “The fig. sense peculiar to the NT, to lose salvation, and so, to go to eternal destruction, is found in the Gospels, Paul, Heb., and Rev” (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975], 1:610–611). He then proceeds to also give examples of failure to live the Christian life successfully rather than losing one’s salvation (e.g., Romans 14:4).] It is uncertain from what one falls away. Neither does its use in the LXX aid one’s decision.[87. Michaelis defines παραπίπτω in the LXX as “to be in vain,” “not to be carried out,” “to sin.” “In all of the Ez. refs. the context shows that what is at issue is a culpable mistake, of sin.” Nowhere in his discussion of its use in the LXX does he mention apostasy. (TDNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968], 6:170).] Gleason concludes,
pαραπiπτω does not express the idea of an absolute apostasy involving a complete turning away from all belief in God. Not a mild term for sin, it denotes a serious sinful act or attitude against God. The exact nature of the sin must be determined from the context.[88. Gleason, “The Old Testament Background,” 81. This is contrary to Compton’s suggestion that the LXX argues for the idea that “fall away” means absolute apostasy. (“Persevering and Falling Away,” 156–157).]
A review of all of the NT uses of παραπίπτω and its cognate group[89. Warren Trenchard lists the following words as part of the cognate group of παραπίπτω( πίπτω( ἀναπίπτω( ἀντιπίπτω( ἀποπίπτω( γονυπετε,ω( ἐκπίπτω( ἐμπίπτω( ἐπιπίπτω( καταπίπτω( περιπίπτω( πρoσπι,πτω( συμπίπτω( πτῶμα( πτῶσις( παράπτωμα( διοπε,της, προτε,της (The Student’s Complete Vocabulary Guide to the Greek New Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992] 90).] demonstrates that there are two possible metaphorical uses (see chart below). “Falling away” could mean to reject the gospel, although this use is not clearly illustrated in the New Testament. The second possible metaphorical meaning for παραπi,πτω would be “to fail to live the Christian life in a ‘Christian’ manner” (trust the high priestly ministry of Christ for daily living). The context must determine which of these two possibilities is intended in Hebrews 6:6.
The context of 5:1–6:20 is an appeal for true believers to diligently grow spiritually rather than display spiritual laziness. In this context it is more likely that the author of Hebrews is warning against a refusal of a believer to trust Christ’s high priestly ministry than for one to reject the gospel.
Scot McKnight includes an excellent list of words and phrases from the entire book of Hebrews that are parallel to “falling away.”[90. McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews,” 37–38.] He lists several in Hebrews 10, including “deliberately sinning” (10:26), “enemies of God” (10:27), “reject” (10:28), “trample the Son of God” (10:29), and “regarded the blood of the covenant as common” (10:29). He concludes that these words and phrases have to mean apostasy.[91. This is an invalid conclusion. True believers can intentionally sin (Acts 5:1–11; Heb 10:25; Jas 5:11), be considered the enemies of God (Matt 16:23; Jas 4:4), reject or despise the truth about how they should live (1 Tim 5:12), figuratively trample the Son of God and regard the blood of Christ as common by failing to take advantage of the benefits of Christ’s blood for the believer.]
Therefore, “fall away” in Hebrews 6:6 also means apostasy. However, he fails to mention that the judgment in Hebrews 10:26–30 falls upon “his people” (10:30). Therefore, all of the words and phrases used in 10:26–30 must refer to true believers. According to McKnight’s logic, Hebrews 6:6 must also be possible for true believers.
Hebrews 3:16–19 illustrates this “falling away” with the experience of the Israelites at Kadesh (Numbers 13–14).[92. Mathewson says, “I would propose that, like the other warnings in Hebrews, a specific OT example can also be detected in the warning of 6:4–6, and that this constitutes one of the keys to interpreting this warning. More specifically, behind 6:4–6 lies a reference to the wilderness generation and the Kadesh-barnea incident (cf. Numbers 13–14; Psalm 95) which featured prominently in the warning in 3:7–4:13” (“Hebrews 6 in Light of the Old Testament,” 211). The negative OT examples of faithless living alluded to in the warnings are nicely contrasted by the positive examples of faithfulliving in Hebrews 11.] The Israelites refused to trust God to help them claim the Promised Land. As a result everyone twenty or older at the time was not allowed to enter the Promised Land, but instead, their judgment was to die in the wilderness. They made a conscious choice not to trust God to help them conquer the land. They were not removed from the covenant. In fact, the very next day they repented and God forgave them (Num 14:20). Still, because of their refusal to trust God, they were not allowed to enter the Promised Land (even when they attempted to do so the next day).
The situation in Hebrews 6:6 is very similar. Believers are faced with impending persecution. They have a choice. They can trust God (through the high priestly ministry of Christ) for help, or they can refuse to trust God for help. Gleason concludes, “Like the Exodus generation, the initial readers of Hebrews were at their Kadesh. They were faced with a decision. If they chose not to trust God (through the high priestly ministry of Christ), severe judgment would fall on them.”[93. Gleason, “The Old Testament Background,” 83.] It was not a choice of whether or not to reject the gospel.
“Fall away” in Hebrew 6:6, then, is a decisive refusal to trust Christ’s high priestly ministry which gave the believer access to God and enabled him to grow spiritually. If, in fact, he was returning to a Mosaic worship system, he was saying that Christ’s high priestly ministry (including sacrifice) was not sufficient for daily living. Animal sacrifice also had to be offered to maintain fellowship with God.
Crucify Christ. The phrase “they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh” (ἀνασταυροῦντας ἑαυτοῖς τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ θεοῦ) does not necessarily mean that they were rejecting the gospel. It simply means that they were saying that Christ’s sacrifice was insufficient to meet their needs for daily living. Therefore, another sacrifice was necessary for them to maintain fellowship with God. They were denying Christ’s high priestly ministry on their behalf that guaranteed them access to the heavenly holy of holies.
Open shame. The phrase “put him to open shame” (καὶ παραδειγματίζοντας) does not necessarily mean that they verbally ridiculed Christ in public. Neither does it mean that they publicly rejected the gospel of Christ. They were asserting that Christ’s high priestly ministry was insufficient to meet their needs for daily living. Therefore, they were saying to the world that Christ’s cross work was defective. Instead of proclaiming the sufficiency of Christ, they were criticizing his ministry publicly. Therefore, they were shaming Him rather than glorifying Him.
David deSilva suggests that the concept of shame in this verse is best understood within the context of the patron-client relationship that was part of the fabric offirst century life.[94. deSilva, “Hebrews 6:4–8,” 48–51.] In the patron-client relationship, the patron would bestow gifts upon his client.[95. For a description of the patron-client relationship, see Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 67; James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), 72–83; David Arthur deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods and Ministry Formation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), 111–144; David A. deSilva, s.v. “Patronage,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 766–771.] Those described in Hebrews 6:4–5 are clients of God, their patron, who have been granted abundant grace gifts.[96. deSilva says, “The subjects of 6:4–5 are clearly described in terms of the reception of benefits. They have been graced by God in this variety of ways, being granted great privileges and promises, as well as proofs of their patron’s good will toward them” (“Hebrews 6:4–8,” 47).] In response to those gifts, the client would speak well of the patron and show loyal obedience to his patron. For a client to speak poorly of his patron or of his patron’s gifts was the ultimate expression of ingratitude and insult.[97. Ibid., 49.] It would have brought shame on one’s patron. Consequently, this would have been met with severe punishment from the patron. deSilva applies the patron-client concept to Hebrews 6:4–6.
The people who reject their obligation to show honour, loyalty, and obedience to their patron when the cost of such witness and loyalty becomes too high are thus charged in Hebrews with bringing public shame on the patron, making a mockery of his beneficial death as they cut themselves off from the Son of God. Because the author has spent considerable space developing the honour and authority of the Son in Hebrews 1:1–14; 2:5–9 (and continues to do so throughout the letter), offering an affront to this Son is a dangerous course of action. The Son occupies the most exalted position in the Jewish and Christian cosmos; he awaits the subjection of all his enemies and promises to return as judge. Those who ‘crucify the Son of God’ will not merely lose a reward, but will become subjects of divine vengeance.[98. Ibid.]
While deSilva seems to be accurate in understanding this passage in light of the patron-client relationship, he misinterprets two aspects of these verses. He misinterprets both the nature of falling away and the nature of the ensuing judgment.[99. Both of the concepts are discussed elsewhere in this paper.]
Nature of Judgment
There are two basic views of the nature of the judgment mentioned in Hebrews 6:6–8. Some suggest that the judgment is that of eternal damnation.[100. McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews,” 33–36; Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 161–164.] McKnight collates all the information concerning judgment from the entire books of Hebrews and concludes the following: “In light of the final sense of several of these expressions (cf. especially the harsh realities of 10:30–31, 39) and the use of imagery in Hebrews that elsewhere is used predominantly of eternal damnation, it becomes quite clear that the author has in mind an eternal sense of destruction.”[101. McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews,” 36.] The second possible interpretation of the judgment in Hebrews 6:6–8 is that it entails loss of God’s blessing and the onset of cursing (up to and including physical death).[102. Gleason, “The Old Testament Background,” 86–90; Oberholtzer, “The Thorn-Infested Ground,” 323–326.] Gleason summarizes, “In light of the Old Testament blessing-curse motif, the judgment in view in Hebrews 6:7–8 is best understood as the forfeiture of blessing and the experience of temporal discipline rather than eternal destruction.”[103. Gleason, “The Old Testament,” 86–87.]
There are four basic arguments given in favor of eternal damnation as the judgment in 6:6–8. First, the terms used for the judgment, especially in 10:26–31,[104. McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews,” 34. McKnight says, “The language of 10:26–31 is particularly clear and needs to be the decisive evidence if other images and expressions remain ambiguous.”] taken together give a clear indication that eternal damnation is in view. McKnight concludes,
Nonetheless, when the exegete ties together “no escape” (2:2; 12:25), God’s anger (3:10, 17), falling short of the rest (3:11, 18–19; 4:1, 6, 11), a condition where no sacrifice remains for someone (10:26), a fearful expectation of judgment (10:27), fire (10:27; 12:29), death without mercy (10:28), and God’s judgment (10:30–31), one is forced to conclude that the author is presenting eternal damnation as a potential consequence for those to whom he gives his warnings about sin and his exhortations to persevere.[105. Ibid.]
McKnight’s interpretation may be possible. However, he fails to include a significant phrase when he lists the judgment of God in 10:30–31. The phrase that is omitted is the phrase “his people” (10:30). The “clearest” passage in defining this judgment calls the judgment a judgment of God’s people. So, contrary to what McKnight argues, the clearest passage in Hebrews says that the judgment is for true believers. Therefore, it cannot be eternal damnation.[106. This conclusion is based on the presupposition that no true believer can lose his salvation.]
Second, the fact that the person is not able to be brought back to repentance (avδύνατον γa.ρ . . . πa,λιν ἀνακαινίζειν εἰς μετa,νοιαν) indicates that the issue is a rejection of the gospel, not a believer’s rejection of fellowship.[107. There is a good deal of discussion regarding the extent of this impossibility to repent. Both Gleason (“The Old Testament Background,” 84) and Oberholtzer (“The Thorn-Infested Ground,” 323) argue that it is impossible for man but not for God, since God can do anything. Compton, on the other hand, argues that it is impossible for both God and man since the person has hardened his heart so severely (“Persevering and Falling Away,” 159–160). While this is an interesting discussion, it does not greatly affect the understanding of the judgment in Hebrews. If it is impossible for God, it is only because He has limited Himself in some way. God has chosen to respond to the sin of the unrepentant believer as well as the unbeliever. In a sense, it is impossible for God to ignore the sin of either party.] Compton concludes, “the author of Hebrews is saying that it is impossible to restore those who heard and understood the gospel but who reject it. This irreversible act has as its only prospect the judgment of God.”[108. Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 161. The problem with this conclusion is that many hear and understand and reject the gospel (some several times) and then later place their faith in Christ for salvation. What implications does this view have for one’s evangelistic efforts?] McKnight claims, “One is pressed to agree that the author is not dealing here with the impossibility of reclaiming a recalcitrant sinner (who will nevertheless be saved in the end) but with eternal damnation because that person has apostatized from a former commitment to God’s salvation in Christ.”[109. McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews,” 34.]
McKnight mistakenly concludes that if the text is not referring to bringing a sinner back into fellowship with God, it must be referring to eternal judgment. A third possibility exists. Since the blessing/cursing motif is in the immediate context (6:7–8), it is likely that the author of Hebrews is simply saying that it is impossible to avoid losing God’s blessing and experiencing God’s curse of temporal discipline (even if they repent and restore fellowship with God).
This is exactly the same thing that happens to the Israelites at Kadesh (Num 14). They refused to trust God to conquer the Promised Land. God removed his blessing and cursed the Israelites. The next day they repented of their lack of trust. God forgave them, but it was impossible to escape God’s curse. All those over twenty died in the wilderness instead of entering the Promised Land (even though God forgave them).[110. Another interesting example is Esau not being allowed to “repent” his decision to sell his birthright (Hebrews 12:16–17).] Hebrews 6:6, literally, is saying that it is impossible to renew someone to a former state by means of repentance.[111. Εivς is probably used to identify means just as it is in Acts 7:53 (the law was delivered by means of the direction of angels; see Richard A. Young, Intermediate New Testament Greek[Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1994], 94). Thus, the person cannot be delivered to a former state (i.e., “wipe the slate clean”) by means of repentance. In other words, a believer cannot escape the consequences of his sinful action by simply repenting.]
The person who fails to trust Christ’s high priestly ministry for daily living cannot escape God’s chastisement by repenting (even though God forgives him of his lack of trust). This interpretation provides a strong motive for the believer to move on to maturity in his Christian life—if he does not, he will have no way of escaping God’s chastisement.
A third argument used to support eternal damnation as the judgment in Hebrews is the combination of the curse with fire in 6:8. McKnight says, “The image of being cursed by God, with its close association with fire, can only adequately be explained as an allusion to Gehenna or hell, an allusion to God’s punishment and retributive justice.”[112. McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews,” 35. See also, Grudem, “Perseverance of the Saints,” 154–156. Compton concludes, “The description of this judgment in 10:27 as a raging fire that will consume the enemiesof God hardly sounds like God’s judging the saved” (“Persevering and Falling Away,” 163). Compton fails to note that 10:30 says that this is a judgment of “His people.” Therefore, even if it does not sound like a judgment of “the saved,” it is the best interpretation. Also, there is fire connected to the judgment of believers in 1 Cor 3:13. Both Hebrews 6 and 1 Cor 3 are in the context of the believers building their Christian lives on the correct foundation.]
When the people of God in the Old Testament experienced the curses that were part of the Mosaic covenant, they were not removed from God’s people. The purpose of the curse was to bring Israel back into fellowship with God. If this concept of a curse is applied to Hebrews 6:8, it argues in favor of God’s New Testament people being disciplined in order to bring them back into fellowship with God. It certainly does not argue for an eternal damnation of those removed from God’s New Testament people.
McKnight counters, “If willful disobedience and apostasy in the Mosaic era brought discipline and prohibited entrance into the Land (a type of the eternal rest), then surely willful disobedience and apostasy in the new era will bring eternal exclusion from the eternal rest.”[113. McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews,” 35–36.] In other words, the judgment in the New Testament is greater in kind than the judgment in the Old Testament.
Gleason agrees that there is a heightening of some kind in the judgment of the New Testament. However, he reasons that it is greater in degree, not in kind. He says,
It seems better to explain the increasing intensity of coming judgment in terms of degree in light of the severe devastation and physical suffering foreseen by the author as coming on the inhabitants of Judea and Jerusalem. Most of those in the Exodus generation died a natural death in the wilderness, their punishment being their forfeiture of blessings in the Promised Land.[114. Gleason, “The Old Testament Background,” 90.]
Therefore, just because there is a heightening of the judgment does not necessarily mean that the blessing/cursing motif is drastically altered. If the curse in Hebrews removes one from God’s people (as McKnight suggests), then it is drastically different than the Old Testament curse.
A fourth argument used to support eternal damnation as the judgment in Hebrews is the word “rejected” in 6:8 (ἀδόκιμος). Since the word “rejected” is used for the unsaved and its antonym “approved” is used for the saved, “rejected” in 6:8 must refer to the unsaved.[115. Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 162.] It is undeniable that the word “rejected” refers most often to unbelievers in Scripture; however, it is also used at least once of a believer. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9:27, says that he must strive to live a self-controlled Christian life so that he does not become a “castaway” (avδo,κιμος—“rejected”). Compton rejects the idea that this word means “disapproved” by saying, “It is questionable whether it has this sense in 1 Corinthians 9:27 or elsewhere in the NT.”[116. Ibid.] What is undeniable, however, is that Paul understands this term (“rejected”) as a very real possibility for him if he does not live a disciplined life. A disciplined, growing life is also the theme of Hebrews 6. Therefore, it seems likely that “rejected” in this passage could also be a real possibility for a believer.
In conclusion, the judgment in Hebrews 6 is not eternal damnation. It is the loss of God’s blessing and the onset of God’s curse. God’s curse is temporal discipline of the believer, which may even include physical death.
Hebrews 6:4–8 will always be a difficult paragraph to interpret. A proper interpretation must explain the three key elements in this passage of Scripture. This article has attempted to provide the best possible explanations for these key issues.
First, those described in 6:4–5 are truly regenerate people. The natural reading of the descriptions of these people argues for this interpretation. 5:1–6:20 is an extended exhortation to believers to mature in their faith. This fact lends support to the notion that true believers are described in 6:4–5. If 6:4–8 is referring to unbelievers, it makes little sense as an exhortation for believers to mature.
Second, the “falling away” mentioned in 6:6 is not a total rejection of the gospel of Christ. The term itself is not a technical term for apostasy. This “falling away” is presented as a real possibility for true believers. It is parallel to Israel’s failure to trust God at Kadesh when they were considering conquering the Promised Land. The combination of all this evidence argues for the notion that “falling away” in 6:6 is a decisive refusal by a Christian to trust God for daily living (i.e., not living by faith).
Third, the judgment for the one who “falls away” is not eternal damnation, but rather the loss of God’s temporal blessing upon the believer and the onset of cursing (which may include physical death). The direct connection of the judgment in 6:4–8 with the blessing/cursing motif in the Old Testament argues that the judgment in 6:4–8 is not an eternal damnation. Just as curses in the OT did not remove one from God’s people, cursing upon a true believer does not remove him from God’s fold. Also, 10:30 states that the judgment in the Book of Hebrews is on “God’s people.”
This author suggests the following paraphrase for Hebrews 6:4–8:
For it is impossible for true believers who have been once enlightened, and have accepted the heavenly gift, and have been indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and have experienced the good word of the gospel and the power of the coming kingdom; and then they fail to live their daily life by faith in Christ, to return by means of repentance to a place where they can escape God’s curse (temporal chastisement and eternal loss of reward), because they have openly claimed that Christ’s sacrifice was insufficient to maintain fellowship with God and they have publicly embarrassed and dishonored Christ, their patron. Let me illustrate the impossibility of escaping God’s curse by means of an allusion to the OT blessing/cursing motif. The earth which drinks in the rain (accepts the gospel) and produces good fruit (lives by faith) for the one who tends the crops receives blessing from God. However, the land that drinks the rain (accepts the gospel) and does not produce good fruit (does not live by faith) receives the curse of God.