This is one of the most challenging passages in Hebrews. On the surface, it seems to say that a person could lose their salvation. And that is certainly how I understood it early in my journey with Christ. And, coming from a tradition that believed salvation could not be lost, this led to some challenges. There was an internal struggle between what I thought I was understanding and what I had been taught. As well as a certain amount of tension with those I served and worshipped with.
I struggled with the explicit warning in this passage for many years before finally coming to peace with it, as well as the other similar warnings that are found in Hebrews. My explanation of this passage will certainly not satisfy everyone. But it is what I believe the Lord has led me to.
Those Who Have Fallen Away
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance.Hebrews 6:4-6a NIV
So just who is it that the author of Hebrews is describing here? Are they actually believers who have had a real relationship with Christ? Or only people who have been participating with the church. But have never come into a relationship with our Lord? Or, in other words, is he referring to those who have been saved? Or those who were never saved?
Are They Real Believers?
Given the experience of those he is talking about, it seems most likely to be referring to people who have had a real experience with the Holy Spirit. They have been enlightened. Have tasted the heavenly gift. They have shared in the Holy Spirit. They have tasted how good God’s word is. And they have tasted something of the power of the coming age. I find it hard to see that the author is referring to someone who has just been participating but never committed themselves.
This, at least to me, clearly describes a person who has come into a relationship with Christ and who has experienced all that comes along with that relationship. They have been, at least for a time, walking faithfully with the Lord. As I will explain later, I would not say they were saved. But they were true believers.
The Disaster of Falling Away
What about those true believers who fall away? The author here says that it is impossible to restore them. They cannot be brought back a second time to repentance. Peter says much the same thing in 2 Peter 2:20-22. He tells us that those who “have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning.“
Clearly, the author is not advocating the position of some who say that any sin in my life can cost me my salvation. Instead, this would seem to imply a conscious choice to leave the way of truth behind. To go back to one’s old way of life. Or maybe even following a different course of life altogether. It is a conscious and deliberate choice that a person makes. And, according to Hebrews, it is an irrevocable choice.
Crucifying Christ Over Again
To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.Hebrews 6:6b NIV
I find this a challenging sentence. It is clearly referring to those who have fallen away. But does the author here mean that the act of falling away essentially re-crucifies Christ and exposes him to public shame? Or is he instead referring to what would have to be done to restore that fallen one. And why that restoration is impossible.
I see translations that will support either position. Christ’s crucifixion was a one-time-only event. and that, at least to me, would argue against it referring to the falling away. And instead, pointing toward the impossibility of repentance and restoration.
A Useful Crop, Or Thorns and Thistles
Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.Hebrews 6:7-8 NIV
These two verses are an analogy. An analogy that I believe is designed to help us to understand the preceding passage. The land that drinks in the rain is equivalent to the one who has experienced the good things of the Christian life. The Holy Spirit has been working in that life, raining down the blessing of life in Christ.
But there are two responses that the land might take. Or how the person might respond to the Holy Spirit’s work. The one who is faithful to their calling will produce a crop; 30, 60, or even 100 fold (Matt. 13:3-9, 18-23). And they will be blessed in what they do. But the one who turns away from their faith, returning back to the world, produces only thorns and thistles. The end awaiting them is destruction.
In both cases, the land has experienced the blessings of God. Some land is fruitful. And other land fails to produce a crop. Instead producing what uncultivated land produces. This describes the person who continues in the faith. They are fruitful. And it also describes the person who falls away. In spite of their experience with God, they turn back and become uncultivated land producing nothing of value.
An Expression of Confidence
Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation. God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.Hebrews 6:9-10 NIV
It would seem like the author does have some concern about the potential for his audience to be among those who revert back to their previous way of life. But he is confident that has not happened yet. The better things he is convinced of are those that have to do with salvation. He is convinced that they are remaining faithful to their Lord. That in spite of the temptation to return to their former way of life, they have not.
And that confidence seems to be based on the life they are living and what they are doing. God is not unjust. He will do what is right and reward them for their faithful service. As well as for the love they demonstrate to God and to fellow believers who are in need. The author sees them as land that is drinking in the rain and producing an abundant crop.
An Encouragement To Remain Faithful
We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.Hebrews 6:11-12 NIV
Even though the author is confident of the present state of his audience, he continues to encourage them to remain faithful to the end. To imitate the faithful who are inheriting the promise. When we get to chapter 11 we will see a list of these faithful ones that we should seek to imitate.
What Does it Mean to Be Saved?
So how should I understand this passage about the falling away of what appear to be true believers? Were they actually true believers who actually fall away and lose their salvation? Did they only appear to be saved and then fall away? Or is there something else going on here?
Previously the author discussed those who failed to enter God’s rest along with an encouragement to his hearers to enter God’s rest. Israel experienced God’s presence and deliverance from Egypt in a powerful and dramatic way. And they came to Mt Sinai and entered into a covenant relationship with God. But, in the end, that generation failed to enter into God’s rest. Instead of entering the promised land, they died in the wilderness. Why? Because in their hearts they turned back to Egypt.
What Israel experienced was in several phases. They had an initial encounter with God during both the Exodus and the Sinai experience. Then they journeyed on to the promised land. And the final phase should have been the entry into that promised land. Into God’s rest. And that same journey is one we copy today. We enter into a new life with Christ. We journey with him now, looking forward to the promised land, entrance into God’s rest. And, in the end, we experience the fulfillment of the hope that has been held before us.
Salvation as a Journey
I have come to understand salvation as a journey. We begin that journey at some point in our life. We walk with the Lord in the wilderness for some number of years. And, in the end, we enter into the promised land. And only then are we actually saved. What we so often describe as our salvation experience is only a part of it. But it is not complete until we faithfully come to the end of our race. And then we are saved.
- Hebrews: An Introduction
- Hebrews: The Supremacy of Christ (1:1-4)
- Hebrews: Superior to the Angels (1:5-14)
- Hebrews: A Warning to Pay Attention (2:1-4)
- Hebrews: We See Jesus, Crowned with Glory (2:5-9)
- Hebrews: Made Perfect Through Suffering (2:10-13)
- Hebrews: Jesus Is Fully Human in Every Way (2:14-18)
- Hebrews: Jesus Is Greater Than Moses (3:1-6)
- Hebrews: Failure to Enter God’s Rest (3:7-19)
- Hebrews: Enter God’s Rest (4:1-11)
- Hebrews: the Active Word of God (4:12-13)
- Hebrews: Our Great High Priest (4:14-16)
- Hebrews: Obedience Learned Through Suffering (5:1-10)
- Hebrews: Move Beyond Elementary Teachings (5:11-6:3)
- Hebrews: A Most Explicit Warning (6:4-12)
- Hebrews: An Anchor of Hope for the Soul (6:13-20)
- Hebrews: The Priesthood of Melchizedek (7:1-10)
- Hebrews: A New Priesthood (7:11-28)
- Hebrews: We Do Have Such a High Priest (8:1-6)
- Hebrews: A New Covenant (8:7-13)
- Hebrews: Worship in the Tabernacle (9:1-10)
- Hebrews: The Blood of the New Covenant (9:11-15)
- Hebrews: Entering the Heavenly Sanctuary (9:16-28)
- Hebrews: One Sacrifice for All Time (10:1-18)
- Hebrews: Enter the Most Holy Place (10:19-39)
- Hebrews: The Role Call of Faith (11:1-31)