Theological and Pastoral Issues at Stake
The central theological and pastoral issue in Heb 6:4-6 seems to be whether true Christians can lose their salvation. This is an aspect of the doctrine of the application of redemption, the way in which the Holy Spirit applies the work of Christ to the lives of believers and unbelievers. Particularly, this refers to the perseverance of the saints. Historically, Wesleyan/Arminian theology has maintained that it is possible for Christians to lose their salvation because “election is conditional on man’s response, dependent on God’s foreknowledge of his faith and perseverance.”1
Man has free will and can therefore resist God’s grace either before or subsequent to salvation. A Christian who turns his back on the faith can therefore be eternally lost. Calvinist/Reformed theology has maintained that true Christians will be sustained to the end by the power of God, not by human will. Those who persevere to the end of their earthly lives in faith prove that they are true Christians, and those who only appear to be saved but fall away never had saving faith.
Summary of Major Positions
There appear to be at least four major positions on this passage. The first is what we will call Saved and Lost.2
This group believes that the passage refers to those who have truly been born again, but are in danger of falling into apostasy. They maintain that it is possible for believers to lose their salvation. This group includes Lane and Attridge.3
Second is what we will call Pseudo-Christians. This group believes the passage refers to those who have had significant contact with the blessings of God, but are not true believers and who are in danger of finally falling away into apostasy and therefore never able to gain salvation. This group includes Calvin, Nichole, Hughes, Kistemacher and Grudem.4
Third is what we will call Hypothetical. They believe that this passage warns of a hypothetical case of apostasy that may or may not be an actual possibility. They say the author of Hebrews is warning true believers of the possibility of falling into apostasy. Some in this group are assured that they never will do so. But others believe that it is a real possibility. This group includes Guthrie.5
The fourth is what we will call Persistently Rebellious Christians (PRCs). They believe that this passage refers to persons who are saved and in danger of lapsing into a sustained state of rebellious immaturity for which they will lose significant temporal blessings of God but still maintain their eternal security. This view is represented by Gleason.6
Summary of My Own Study
The adjective “impossible” (adunatov) should be taken in the stronger sense. It is placed at the beginning of vv4-6 in Greek for emphasis. Only the Louw-Nida lexicon (71.3) of the five surveyed allow for the weaker TEV translation ‘it is extremely difficult to’ saying that this “seems to be an instance of hyperbole in view of the warnings of apostasy” between 5:11and 6:12. However, the other three uses of adunaton in Hebrews (6:18; 10:4: 11:6) seem to use the stronger sense. Based on its placement at the beginning of the sentence, the testimony of the majority of the lexicons and the other uses by the same author, I conclude that the stronger sense of “impossible” is indicated here. At some point, those in view, reach the point after which they are unable to repent.
The sense of parapesontas in v6 likely should be taken as adjectival “and they have fallen away” rather than conditional “if they have fallen away.” According to Wallace, vv4-6 very closely approximates the Granville Sharp plural construction rendering each of the participles adjectival.7
This tends to rule out much of the sense of the Hypothetical category above.
The persons spoken of in vv4-6 seem not to be the primary audience to whom the author is writing. There is a change of tense from first and second person in vv1-3 (“we” and “you) to third person in vv4-6, 7-8 (“those,” “themselves,” “it”) and back to first and second person in vv9-12. This seems to indicate that the author is speaking of a separate group from those to whom he is writing. Wallace says, “In the Greek New Testament there is most likely no indefinite second person as there is in modern colloquial English. That is, the use of the second person for either the first or third person.”8
In his view, this separates believers from those who have not attained salvation in the present passage and others like Jn 15:5-6. Those he is referring to could either be unbelievers among them, or those of the Exodus generation referred to in chapters 2, 3, 4 and 10.
I find compelling the arguments by Gleason and Mathewson for the connection of this passage with the Exodus generations.9
It is interesting, however, that they come to different conclusions. Mathewson believes the Israelites who died in the desert were unbelievers, and therefore those in the present passage must be unbelievers as well.10
Gleason notes that Moses and Aaron died without entering the land and that God forgave the sin of Israel according to Num 14:20. He concludes that the Israelites lost only the temporal blessings of God and therefore those in the present passage are believers but PRCs.11
It seems unlikely to me, however, that all the Israelites could have been believers. It is more likely that they were a mixture of the two, just as most, if not all, churches are today. Mathewson shows that each of the four other warning passages in the epistle include an OT example, and suggests the passage in view implicitly depends on “bleed over” from previous passages.12
Thus, all five passages, when speaking in the third person of “they,” “them,” and “those,” refer generically to the persons of the Exodus generation that died in unbelief in the desert. Mathewson suggests parallel experiences to each of the first five adjectival participles among the Exodus generation: those who 1) “have been enlightened” – the pillar of fire; 2) “have tasted the heavenly gift” – the manna; 3) “have become partners with the Holy Spirit” – see Neh 9:20; 4) “have tasted of the good word of God” – the word preached to the community; and 5) “the powers of the coming age” – the signs that accompanied the word.13
I would add the sixth, “have fallen away” – the death in the wilderness after the incident at Kadesh-Barnea (Num 13, 14) of all those over the age of twenty. Moreover, the first six participles are in the aorist tense indicating completed action. Thus, the author of the epistle is likely connecting those in vv4-6 with those in the Exodus generation. Compare this with Heb 10:39 “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe are saved.”
We know from other passages in the New Testament that some who experienced the grace and gifts of God will not enter into the kingdom. The parable of the sower (Mat 13:13-23) tells us that of the four types of “gospel” seeds that are sown, only one produces true fruit. Each of the other three experience some measure of the grace of God, but do not ultimately bear fruit. Mat 7.21-23 affirms that some will prophesy, cast out demons and perform miracles in Christ’s name, but he will say to them at the judgment that he never knew them. Judas Iscariot spent three years with Christ, but went down to destruction.
More difficult to explain are the present participles in v6. We know from Scripture, that the lost dwell among the saved in the world. We see this throughout the Old Testament, and in parable of the wheat and the tares (Mat 13:24-43) we see that it is possible only for God to distinguish definitively between the lost and the saved and that he intends to allow the two to grow side by side until the judgment. So we should not be surprised to find those who are lost among the saved in the church and in relationship with those in the church. Therefore, it is appropriate to issue warnings to the lost among the saved in a passage such as this. So, it may be that the present participles connect the author’s audience to the past, those who by their continued dullness and sluggishness, after having received sufficient exposure to the light of Christ, do not, by surrendering, allow themselves to turn to Christ, but rather, persistently turn away until they decisively reject the offer of salvation and thus are disabled from repenting.
Most authors seem to generally agree that the main body of the epistle is addressed to a group made up mostly of Jewish Christians, true believers who are tempted to forsake the faith and return to Judaism because of persecution. The purpose of the epistle is to show forth the superiority of Christ over Judaism to convince them not to abandon the faith.14
At least five warning passages appear in the epistle (2:1-4; 3:7-4:1; 6:4-8; 10:26-31, 38, 39; 12:25-29).15
In each case, the consequences of forsaking Christ’s work on the cross are dire indeed. The author offers no false hope if one sets his heart on rebellion after receiving sufficient knowledge for repentance. The passage in view seems to refer primarily to those in the Exodus who rebelled and died in unbelief in the desert and analogously to those like them among the congregation of the Hebrews, though other passages warn believers as well (10:26 “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left…”). The author seems to warn of destruction for anyone who so rebels. Therefore, the warnings should be taken seriously by believers and unbelievers alike. If God grants anyone the opportunity to repent and he willfully keeps on sinning, that opportunity will be removed so as to not to metaphorically disgrace Christ by offering him a second time on the cross. This is the human side. We are to be responsible not to trample that which God freely offers to us.
However, we know that God’s promise is sure. Those who persevere to the end prove that they are his (Heb 10:36). He will in no way cast out those that belong to him. “God is not unjust” (Heb 10:10). He will fulfill his promise to those he has chosen to inherit eternal life. “Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath” (Heb 6.17). “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved” (Heb 10:39). All who come to the point of repentance are responsible to respond in faith and to persevere to the end. This is human responsibility set over against divine sovereignty. God is faithful. Jesus said, “‘I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.’”
1. Therefore leaving behind the elementary word of Christ let us persevere towards maturity, not laying once more a foundation of repentance from dead works and faith in God,
2. of instruction regarding baptism and laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead and of eternal judgment.
3. And this we will do if God allows.
4-6. For it is impossible to restore to repentance those who once have been enlightened and have tasted the heavenly gift and have been made to be partakers of the Holy Spirit and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the coming age and fell away again, who crucify again the Son of God to their own disadvantage and expose him to public ridicule.
7. For ground that drinks the rain that often falls upon it and yields a useful crop for the benefit of those for whom it is also being cultivated, receives a blessing from the Lord;
8. but [ground that] yields thorns and thistles is worthless and close to being a curse, which ends itself in burning.
1New Dictionary of Theology, 1988 ed., s.v. “Arminianism.”
2I will use the categories offered by Randall C. Gleason, “The Old Testament Background of the Warning in Hebrews 6:4-8,” Biblioteca Sacra. 155 (January – March 1998), 69-71.
3W. Lane, Hebrews 1-8; Hebrews 9-13 WBC 47A; 47B (Dallas: Word, 1991). H. W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989).
4John Calvin, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, D. W. Torrance and T. R. Torrance, eds, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963). Roger Nicole, “Some Comments on Hebrews 6:4-6 and the Doctrine of the Perseverance of God with the Saints,” in G. F. Hawthorne, ed., Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation. Studies in Honor of Merrill C. Tenney presented by his Former Students( Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 355-64. Hughes, P. E., A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1977), 1-32. Simon Kistemaker, Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984). Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 794-803.
5Donald Guthrie, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Hebrews, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983).
7Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 391-92.
9Gleason, 62-91. Dave Mathewson, “Reading Hebrews 6:4-6 in Light of the Old Testament,” Westminster Theological Journal, 61 (1999), 209-225.
15The New Bible Commentary, 1965 ed., s.v. “Appendix III.”
Attridge, H. W. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989.
Calvin, John. Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, D. W. Torrance and T. R. Torrance, eds, vol. 12. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963.
Gleason, Randall C. “The Old Testament Background of the Warning in Hebrews 6:4-8.” Biblioteca Sacra. 155: January – March 1998. 62-91.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.
Guthrie, Donald. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983.
Hughes, P. E., A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1977.
Kistemaker, Simon. Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984.
Lane, W. Hebrews 1-8; Hebrews 9-13 WBC 47A; 47B. Dallas: Word, 1991.
Mathewson, Dave. “Reading Hebrews 6:4-6 in Light of the Old Testament,” Westminster Theological Journal, 61: 1999. 209-225.
New Dictionary of Theology. 1988 ed., s.v. “Arminianism.”
Nicole, Roger. “Some Comments on Hebrews 6:4-6 and the Doctrine of the Perseverance of God with the Saints,” in G. F. Hawthorne, ed., Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation. Studies in Honor of Merrill C. Tenney presented by his Former Students. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975, 355-64.
The New Bible Commentary, 1965 ed., s.v. “Appendix III.”
Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
Originally written for Dr. C. E. Hill, Hebrews to Revelation, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, December 2003. Footnotes are still in process. Links are not working correctly so they function more as endnotes at this time.