Note: Although I still agree with the basic approach and conclusions of this sermon, it was prepared and preached over ten years ago, and I would teach this text much differently today. Eventually, I will provide a updated and revised study on this controversial passage.
The history of the Hebrew people, the Israelites, is a colorful account full of miracles and mistakes. Repeated signs and wonders from God are contrasted with constant sins and wrongdoing from the Hebrew people. The Israelites started off all right. When they were miraculously given freedom from bondage and slavery in Egypt, the Israelites initially turned away from all of the ways and practices of the Egyptians. They were given freedom from Egyptian law, and so no longer had to perform the works of slavery that they had been subjected to.
Furthermore, the Israelites, in turning away from Egypt, turned toward God, and placed faith in God for their deliverance. And as they placed faith in God, He showed himself to them in mighty ways. He gave them deliverance from the Egyptian army by giving the Hebrews safe passage through the Red Sea. The New Testament, by the way, refers to this as the baptism into Moses (1 Cor 10:2). They went to Mt. Sinai, where God gave them instruction about the sacrificial system and the law, and how when the priest laid his hands on the animal to be sacrificed, the sins of the people were transferred onto that bull, or ram or goat and it was killed in their place for their sin.
They also received instruction about resurrection from the dead, as symbolized in many different ways through the sacrificial system. For example, when the priest enters into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, and then returns and appears to the people, that is a picture of resurrection. And one of the main teachings of the law which they received was that of judgment – blessings for those who obey and punishment for those who don’t. And all of this instruction the Israelites received, and all of it they promised to obey. And God gave them signs and wonders to encourage them to obey. He gave them the cloud by day and the fire by night so that he might lead them through the wilderness. He gave them light, to travel day and night (Exod 13:21)
But beyond this, he also gave them food from heaven. It was manna, and it was considered to be a heavenly gift. It was their daily bread. It was the bread of life. Without it, they would have died. Furthermore, God gave his Holy Spirit to the leadership of Israel so that they might guide the nation and make wise decisions. Numbers 11:16-30 tells us that the seventy elders of Israel had the Holy Spirit with them so that they might teach all the people.
Fourthly, which I have somewhat already mentioned, God gave them His Word. Over and over again, in the first five books of the Bible, we read that God spoke to Moses, and God gave his Word to Moses who in turn, spoke it to the people and wrote it down for them. And so that the people might know that what Moses said was the Word of God, the message was often accompanied by signs of power and miracles. Moses often performed these signs in the sight of the people so that they would know that he spoke from God (Exod 4:30). But despite all of these miracles and wonders and signs, we know from reading the book of Exodus and Numbers, that the people grumbled and complained. They often disobeyed God. And this disobedience came climaxed at a place called Kadesh-Barnea, just south of the Promised Land, and just before the Israelites entered into the land.
In Numbers 13, we read that twelve spies were sent into the land to see what it was like. And when they came back, they said, “Yes the land is very good…but there are giants in the land. They are too big for us. We cannot defeat them!” And all the people, who knew what God had promised, who knew what God had commanded, who had seen God work miraculously time and time again, these same people, got scared, and wished that they were still back in Egypt. Wished that they had died in the wilderness. They stopped trusting in God. They denied that God had the power to deliver them from these giants. They even set out a plan to get rid of Moses and find a new leader who would take them back to Egypt. These people fell away from what God had for them, and wanted to return to slavery and bondage in Egypt.
And so God got a little upset. Oh, he still loved the people, but He did not like it that they were not obeying Him. He was not pleased that they still did not trust him. And so God decided that these people who had refused to trust in Him after all that he had done for Him, would die in the wilderness. They would not be allowed to enter into the Promised Land. They would not be allowed to enter into their rest. And so God said to them that because of their desire to return to bondage in Egypt, they were all going to die in the wilderness. That they were going to wander around in the desert for 40 years until every adult died.
Well, when the people heard this, they immediately realized the mistake they had made. And they realized that they would rather enter into the promised land now, then wander around in the wilderness for forty years and die there. So the people repented of their sin, and to show God how serious they were, they tried to enter into the land and take it. But the opportunity for repentance had passed. God caused the people to be soundly defeated by their enemies. Once God had pronounced their judgment, it was impossible for them to repent and go back. Their decision was irreversible.
So they went out and all of the adults, except for two, died in the wilderness over the next forty years.
It is a very tragic story, but full of lessons. Lessons about the riches and wealth we have as Christians. Lessons about the danger of forgetting and ignoring what God has given us. Lessons about the pain and misery and punishment that can be avoided if we simply obey God. Lessons about turning away from the wonderful gifts God has given to us, and turning back to our old way of living. It is these exact lessons that the author of the book of Hebrews wants to get across to his readers in the book of Hebrews. One of the passages that shows this best is Hebrews 6.
Hebrews 6 is probably one of the most troubling and confusing passages in all of Scripture.
I. Context of Hebrews 6
In order to understand it, we must lay some groundwork by reviewing what the author of the book of Hebrews has said up to this point. We must understand the context.
A. Author and Audience
First of all, we do not know who wrote the book of Hebrews, but whoever it was, we do know that it was written to the Hebrew people – hence the name. But not just any of the Hebrews, it was written specifically to Christian Hebrews. It was written to Israelites who had believed in Jesus for eternal life. The people in view were definitely Christians. They were genuine believers. The article by Charlie Bing clearly shows this.
B. Reason for Writing
The reason for writing to these Israelite Christians was that they were undergoing persecution from non-Christian Israelites. The same thing happens today in many Middle Eastern nations. For example, often times, when a Muslim becomes a Christian, their family disinherits them, they become outcasts in society, and they may even get tortured, imprisoned, or killed. Similar things were happening to these Hebrew Christians at the time this letter was written to them. The writer, whoever he is, is encouraging them to stand strong in their suffering. To remain steadfast in the trials they are undergoing. To endure patiently in the face of persecution. You see, one of the things their persecutors wanted them to do was to reject Jesus Christ and return to Judaism. They were told that the persecutions would cease if they would abandon Christianity and become Jews again.
The writer of the book of Hebrews is encouraging his readers to remain strong in the faith. He does this in two ways. First, he teaches them how Christianity is far superior to Judaism, and secondly, he warns them what might happen if they revert to Judaism. Sprinkled throughout this letter are five warning passages. Five times in this letter, the author warns his readers what could happen to them if they reject Christianity and return to their old way of living as Jews. And the warnings are pretty severe. So severe in fact, that many Bible teachers and pastors use these warnings to teach that if a person rejects Christianity, then that person was either never saved in the first place, or has lost their salvation.
But many people know that the Bible teaches everywhere else that once a person is saved, they are always saved. Once a person has believed in Jesus for eternal life, they are safe and secure in the arms of Jesus forever, and nothing can take them out of God’s hand. So when they come across the passage which we are going to look at today, they get confused because it does seem to teach that a person can lose their salvation. But we are going to see that when we understand what the writer of Hebrews is saying, this passage is not teaching that we can lose our salvation.
Instead, Hebrews 6:4-6 says exactly the opposite!
And it is not just this passage which teaches that we are safe in Christ forever, but the whole book of Hebrews.
If we were to take the time to study the entire book, as I hope to do someday, we would discover that the book of Hebrews teaches the doctrine of eternal security more than many other books of the Bible!
The book of Hebrews has more words like confidence, boldness, assurance, confirmation, access, promises, hope, eternal redemption, eternal salvation and eternal inheritance than any other book of the Bible. “The [author] wrote to give assurance, not to undermine it.” So when we come to Hebrews 6, we must not imagine that all of a sudden, the author has forgotten everything that has been written up to this point, and everything that he is going to write after this, and all of a sudden, throws in a passage that teaches that we can lose our salvation! No, that would be ludicrous.
When we properly understand this passage, we see that our eternal destiny is safe and secure in Jesus, but nevertheless, there are warnings to heed and obey.
C. Context of Hebrews 6:1-8
To properly understand Hebrews 6, we really must begin by looking at the context of the passage within the text. While the broader context is the entire book, we will begin back in Hebrews 5:11. First, the author tells them they have regressed.
1. They Have Regressed (Hebrews 5:11-13)
In Hebrews 5, the author is trying to explain how Jesus is better than the Levitical priesthood of Judaism. In 5:10, he says that Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek, and then Hebrews 5:11 says:
Hebrews 5:11. Of whom we have much to say, and hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.
They had become dull of hearing. They were not always this way, but had become this way. And dull of hearing means that they had become lazy or sluggish. It was not that they had a bad teacher, or that they had been sitting under bad teaching, but instead, they had simply stopped hearing. Although this is the way they are now, Hebrews 5:12 reveals how they should be.
Hebrews 5:12. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk, not solid food.
They had sat under good teaching for quite a while. They had soaked it in. And they had received such good teaching, and had received it for so long, that they should be teaching it to others by now. The goal in sitting under teaching is to be able to teach it to others. But just the opposite of this, these people had regressed, they had gone backwards. Though by this time, they should have been able to handle the meat of the word, they still needed milk like an infant. There is nothing wrong with being a spiritual infant, as long as we do not remain there. God wants us to progress, to go on and get meat and solid food. This is what the author writes in Hebrews 5:13-14.
Hebrews 5:13-14. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for his is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
These verses describe exactly the state of Christianity today. Most Christians today choose a church based on how it makes them feel to attend there. They want to be entertained, and have good, soothing music, and hear funny jokes and tear jerking stories from the pastor. When they leave church, they want to feel like they’ve been wrapped in a soft, fuzzy, cuddly blanket, and have a belly full of warm milk. Now that’s okay…for a while. But God wants us to move on from there, and get some meat in our diet. Which is why it excites me to see you here on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights and Wednesday nights. It’s not that attending church proves you are a better Christian than those who don’t attend much, but it shows me that you desire meat.
As a pastor, I do my best to provide some milk in my sermons for those who are new Christians, but most of what I serve up is meat. On Sunday’s I try to serve up an “all you can eat buffet” of the meat of the Word of God. So it encourages me to see you here every Sunday, because you show me that meat is what you want. But these Hebrew Christians did not want meat. Though they used to eat meat, they could not handle it anymore. They had regressed back to a milk and rice cereal diet. They had become inexperienced, unskilled, unacquainted with the Word.
And so in Hebrews 6 the author encourages them to move on to bigger and better things. Rather than regress, they must begin to make progress. To leave milk behind.
2. They Must Progress (Hebrews 6:1-2)
Hebrews 6:1a. Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection,
A preferable way to translate this would be to “go on to maturity.” The word perfection brings to mind someone being perfect. But the Greek word is not about being perfect, but about growing up into maturity. Though they had been Christians for some time, they were still babes in Christ, and the writer says that they have been babes long enough. They need to grow up! They need to mature.
And by the way, did you know that you cannot force yourself to mature? You cannot make yourself mature. Growth as a Christian does not come by trying to grow. A lot of real children, especially those in their teenage years, want to grow up and become mature, but it never works. They cannot grow or mature. It happens naturally if certain conditions are met. If a child gets enough rest, food, exercise and love, they will be physically healthy, and so will naturally mature. If a child does not get enough rest, food, exercise or love, their maturing process will be stunted.
The same is true for spiritual growth. You cannot force yourself to grow, but you can make sure that you are spiritually healthy. Spiritual growth is a matter of knowledge plus obedience, plus time. If we are learning the Word and obeying the Word, then over time we will naturally mature. That is why all the Biblical writers place so much emphasis on gaining Biblical knowledge. Knowing the Bible is the beginning point to maturity. You cannot obey what you do not know.
We see right here in Hebrews 6:1-2, six doctrines that the author of Hebrews thinks every Christian should know. These verses contain the foundational, milk doctrines, elementary principles, Kindergarten truths of the Word of God. This is Discipleship 101. Look at the six things he lists.
Hebrews 6:1b-2. not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.
These are the foundational truths, and most of us, most Christians in America, have never even begun to scratch the surface on some of these items. These are milk doctrines which we must have a good grasp on before we can even begin to understand the meat of the Word. Though each doctrine requires a separate study all of it’s own, let me summarize each one for you. And remember, these are probably specific key doctrines for the Jewish Christians. There may be a slightly different list for Gentile Christians such as ourselves, but these ones are still important for us to understand – especially if we are going to grasp the meaning of Hebrews 6:4-8. Let’s begin with the first.
a. Repentance from Dead Works
Repentance is the turning away from sin and back toward God. Repentance is not synonymous with faith, nor does faith include repentance. A non-Christian can repent, and still not be a Christian. All they have done is stopped sinning and have started trying to live according to God’s commands. That doesn’t save them. This is what the Jewish people had always been trying to do. They had hoped to gain eternal life by living in obedience to the law. But life could never be gained through the law – only judgment and condemnation. The righteous works which they thought they were performing were actually filthy rags (Isa. 64:6) in God’s eyes. They were dead works. Pointless, futile, empty.
As the book of Acts, Galatians and Hebrews reveals, it has always been difficult for Jewish people to give up trying to obey the law, and turn instead to depend solely on the grace of God. But this is what they must do if they are going to operate under grace rather than the law. They must repent from the dead works of the law, and realize that living by the law will not put them in good standing with God. This is what the Jerusalem council was all about in Acts 15, and what Paul spent so much time explaining to his fellow Jews and writing about in Romans and Galatians. When we are Christians, we must depend upon the grace of God, not upon the works of the law.
b. Faith Toward God
This second doctrine is closely related to the first, and builds upon it. The best way of translating this phrase would be faith in God. Before their conversion, Jewish people thought they knew God, but did not. The God they worshipped (and still do) is a God who can be reached through the law. But the God of the Bible is not that kind of God. The works of the law will never give any human a relationship with God. A genuine relationship with God comes only through faith in Christ.
Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is a prime example. Jewish people knew that a voice from heaven is always the voice of God. But when Jesus speaks to Saul from heaven saying, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul says, “Who are you, Lord?” You see, Saul’s incorrect theology about God caused Saul to work against God, and not really know God, and therefore, not really believe in the true God. It is only after Saul recognizes Jesus as God and as Savior, that Paul begins to develop a true faith in God, or true beliefs about God.
This is what the apostle Peter writes in 1 Peter 1:21. Speaking to his Jewish readers, Peter says that Christ came for the Jews, “who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.” This verse is very clear. They only came to correctly believe in God after they believed in Jesus for eternal life.
c. Instructions about Baptisms
The word Baptisms is in the plural, because there are seven different baptisms in Scripture. Some of them are dry, some of them are wet. Very few people realize this, and many churches and denominations think there is only one – baptism by water. This of course, leads them to some very bad theology where they think you must be water baptized in order to be genuinely saved. But when we realize there are seven, and we know what those seven are, and what they were for, all of the baptism passages make much more sense.
The reason this was significant for the Jewish Christian to know is that when they became Christians, they would be seen as traitors by other Jews. Getting baptized was a way to show that they had died to their past, and been raised to new life and a new way of living. Many Jews would have received the baptism of John, which is a baptism of repentance, as well as the water baptism for the Christian which is an outward symbol of the inner Spirit baptism. It was important for them to understand the difference between the various baptisms, and the significance of each.
d. Laying on of Hands
To the Jews, laying on of hands meant identification. In the Old Testament, when they laid their hands on the sacrifice before it was slaughtered to identify themselves with it. When it was sacrificed, it was as if they were being killed with it. Similarly, in the New Testament, when the church laid hands on new converts, it was to show them that they were all one and were all identified with one another (Acts 8:12-17; 9:17; 10:1-7). When they sent out missionaries, they again laid hands on them to show that they were identifying with them in their ministry and mission (Acts 13:1-3).
e. Resurrection of the Dead
One of the ruling segments of Judaism, the Sadducees, did not believe that people were resurrected from the dead (Acts 23:8). There were possibly some Jewish Christians who did not believe in it either, or didn’t know what to believe. But since the resurrection of Christ is so important to Christianity (1 Cor. 15:14-17), it was important that they understand that people are raised from the dead, and Jesus is the firstborn from among the dead. It is also important that they understand the various future resurrections. There are at least three resurrections in the Bible, possibly four. There is first of all the spiritual resurrection that happens to us when we believe in Jesus for eternal life. We die and are raised to new life in Christ (Romans 6).
The next resurrection is actually called the First Resurrection, because it is the first physical resurrection. This resurrection began with Jesus Christ, Who is the Firstborn from among the dead, continues with the rapture and resurrection of all the dead in Christ, and then culminates with the resurrection of all the tribulation and Old Testament Saints after the Tribulation (1 Cor 15:23; 1 Thess 4:16; Rev 20:3-5; Dan 12:2; Isa 26:19).
The third resurrection is the resurrection of all the unsaved dead at the end of the Millennium. They will be raised from the dead, given new bodies because Christ died from them too. But then because they did not believe in Jesus for eternal life, and therefore do not have eternal spiritual life, they will be cast into the Lake of Fire with the devil and his angels. This is also called the second death.
There is a possibility of a fourth resurrection in the resurrection of all creation at the New Heavens and New Earth (1 Cor. 15:24-28), but we don’t know much about this event, so it might be a completely new creation out of nothing (ex nihilo).
f. Eternal Judgment
The final elementary doctrine the author wants his Jewish readers to understand is that of eternal judgments. He is talking about more than just hell. What is important for all Christians to understand is that there is a judgment for us too. 2 Corinthians 5:10, speaking of Christians, says that we will all stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ, to give an account of the things done in the body, whether good or bad.
There are seven eternal judgments that Christians should be aware of. There is first the divine judgment through the cross and second the self-judgment and disciplining judgment of God during the life which helps prepare us for eternity. Thirdly, the judgment of our works before the Judgment Seat of Christ. Fourth, the judgment of Israel. Fifth, the judgment of the nations. Sixth, the judgment of angels. Seventh and finally, the Great White Throne Judgment at the end of time. All of these must be learned if we are going to understand this sixth and final milk doctrine.
These are the six elementary principles of Christianity. These are the things that the author of Hebrews wants his readers to move on from. When we read through the list, it is quite humbling for us, because most Christians know very little about any item on this list. Such a list is maybe overwhelming. So how thankful we can be for Hebrews 6:3.
3. God’s Permission (Hebrews 6:3)
Hebrews 6:3. And this we will do if God permits
I love this. After laying down six huge doctrines which Christians should learn and understand so that they can move on the maturity, the author says that we will only learn them and only move on from them, if God permits. Once again, it is all back to God. Growing into maturity is at God’s discretion and by his permission. We are called to know what He wants us to know, and to do what He wants us to do, but moving on to maturity is still on His timetable. We will learn these doctrines if God permits. And even when we learn them, we will only move on to maturity if God permits.
We are required to take care of our spiritual health, but God causes the growth. And growth does not always come at a constant speed. Just as children go through growth spurts, so also do Christians. When a person first becomes a Christian, they may grow quite rapidly at first. We may develop big dreams about what we are going to do when we grow up in Christ. “I’m going to be an evangelist like Billy Graham,” says one. “I’m going to fix the problems with all the churches in my community” says another. But then our life seems to go nowhere. We try something, and it fails. We try to get a church to do something, and the leaders tell us to be quiet.
This is what happened with Paul. He became a Christian, and immediately tried to convert Jews. Acts 9 tell us he won a lot of arguments and debates, but not any Jews. Saul grew very rapidly at first, but then it took him 17 years of solidifying in what he had learned before God really started to use him.
Growth takes time, and only God can bring it about, and growing into maturity takes a life time. Sometimes, God does not permit some to move on to maturity and deeper spiritual truths until they have learned, grasped or accomplished certain things that he had for them. Here in context, one of the things God wants is for people to learn the milk doctrines. God may keep us from moving on into the meat doctrines until we learn these. The author is about to tell us why God might not allow us to move on, and he does so with a warning.
II. The Warning of Hebrews 6:4-6
Hebrews 6:4-6. For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.
It should be obvious that verses 4-5 are describing genuine Christians. If you wanted to describe the gifts and experiences that God has given to Christians, how else could you do it? The author could not have been more clear that he has Christians in mind, for only Christians have experienced all of these things. Just as there were six doctrines, there are six descriptive terms for these Christians whom the warning is addressed to.
A. Six Descriptive Terms in Hebrews 6:4-6
1. Once for all enlightened
Those who were once enlightened is the same terminology used by Paul in 2 Cor 4:3-6 and in Eph 1:18 and Eph 5:8-11 to refer to the enlightenment we have received from God when the Gospel breaks through the Satanic blindness which had surrounded us.
The Greek is very clear on this. It uses the word apax which means once for all, or once for all time. The enlightenment is the same enlightenment of the gospel that breaks through the Satanic blindness of our eyes and darkness of our hearts.
2. Tasted the Heavenly Gift
Next it says that they have tasted the heavenly gift. Salvation is, of course the gift of God (Eph. 2:8-9). And the word tasted does not mean just sample, like some people sample Christianity to check it out. It’s not like when you go to Baskin & Robbins Ice Cream and ask for a taste.
The Greek word for tasted means to experience fully. In Hebrews 2:9, it says that Jesus tasted death for every man. Does that mean that he just kind of sampled death and then decided he didn’t like it, and so decided not to actually die? No, when it says he tasted death, it means he fully experienced death. So to taste the heavenly gift means to fully experience the heavenly gift of salvation. Similarly, when Peter tell us that we have fully experience the kindness God, this is the word he uses also (1 Pet 2:3).
When the author says that these readers have tasted the heavenly gift, he is saying they have received eternal life.
3. Partakers of the Holy Spirit
Then it says that they have become partakers of the Holy Spirit. The word partaker is the Greek word metachoi. Three other times in Hebrews it means to participate with in a vital and deep way. Over in Hebrews 3:14, we read that we have become partakers with Christ. Only Christians can be partakers with Christ, and here in Hebrews 6, only Christians can be partakers of the Holy Spirit.
Has anybody who is not a Christian ever had any part with the Holy Spirit? NO! While He does convict the world of sin, He only comes upon and indwells Christians. So only Christians can partake of Him.
4. Tasted the Good Word of God
Next it says that they have also tasted of the good word of God. The word taste is used again, and it means to fully experience. When it comes to the word of God, the Bible, unbelievers can’t understand it (1 Cor 2:14). God helps Christians understand it, so that we can fully experience it.
5. Tasted … the Powers of the Age to Come
The word tasted is understood to be with this fifth description also. When people are healed or have their prayers answered by God, they are experiencing the powers of the age to come. Again, this a blessing reserved only for Christians.
So we’ve seen five positive descriptions of the Christian that this warning is focused on. So far, we’ve seen nothing to warrant a warning. But it’s the sixth item that stops us in our tracks.
6. And Fall Away …
The beginning of Hebrews 6:6 says if they fall away …
Some people make the mistake of looking at that word if and saying, “Well, true Christians can’t really fall away, and so this is hypothetical. It’s like the author is saying ‘If true Christians could fall away, which they can’t, but if they could, here’s what would happen.” Two of my favorite Christian writers have made this mistake. Both Charles Spurgeon and Dave Hunt have taught that what is written here could never actually happen to a true Christian. I love both of these men, and strongly encourage you to read their writings. But the fact of the matter is that neither of them knew Greek and so were unaware that, in the Greek, the word if is not even there.
When correctly translated, as the New American Standard does here, it should read “and have fallen away.”
Some of the Christians as described in Hebrews 6:4-5 have fallen away. This means that it is possible for me to fall away. It is possible for you to fall away. It is possible for people who have been enlightened about salvation, who have fully experienced salvation, who have come to participate with the Holy Spirit in a deep and vital way, who have fully experienced the Word of God and the powers of the age to come, it is very possible for them to fall away. In fact, the way the author writes this, it appears that he has some specific people in mind. All six descriptive terms are aorist participles in the Greek, which means that this has happened.
So the question is not, “Is it possible to fall away?” for the answer from the text is a resounding “Yes! Some already have.”
The question now is, “What does it mean to fall away?” The main problem with understanding this word is that this is the only time it is used in the New Testament. It is used a couple times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Ezek 14:13, 18:24, 20:27, 22:4), but those are not real helpful.
When most people see this phrase, they immediately think “lose their salvation.” But is that really what it means? We can fall away from a lot of things and not lose our salvation. This phrase, just as with every word and phrase in Scripture, must be understood in context. We can easily think of several ways that phrase “fall away” can be used which does not refer to losing one’s salvation. For example, when you go sky diving, you fall away from the plane. But you are not losing your salvation. In a more spiritual sense, if you begin to believe false teaching, you have fallen away from correct doctrine. But does that mean you have lost your salvation? No, you have just fallen away from the truth.
That is very close to what the author means here. In the context we see that they had been taught the foundational doctrines – six things back in Hebrews 6:1-2 – but had rejected them, and the author wants them to go back and learn them again. Remember, these were Hebrew Christians who are being persecuted by Hebrew Jews to reject the teachings of Christianity and return to Judaism. So falling away means to fall away from the basic truths of Christianity. To fall away from the things which they had been taught. To return to the old ways of living under the Levitical laws of Judaism. To fall away, means to fall into false teachings, or in this case, legalistic teachings about how a person gets to heaven by obeying the law.
When falling away is understood this way, although the word is not found anywhere else in the New Testament, we read about this happening over and over again in the Bible. In fact, the entire letter of Paul to the Galatians is about how some Christians were beginning to return to the teachings of Jewish religious leaders rather than continue in the teachings of Christ. Even the apostle Peter had begun to fall away before Paul brought him back to his senses.
So that is what it means here to fall away. It doesn’t mean to lose your salvation, it means to fall into false teaching and begin to believe things contrary to what Christ and the apostles taught. Some of the Hebrew Christians were doing this very thing, and there are serious consequences for such failure.
B. The Consequences of Falling Away (Hebrews 6:6)
And for those who fall away in this particular manner, the author says here that
Hebrews 6:6. It is impossible … to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.
Most people when they see that it is impossible to renew someone to repentance who has fallen away, to them, it sounds like this person has lost their salvation. But that is only because most people don’t understand repentance, the first milk doctrine. Most Christians don’t have a clue what repentance is all about, who it is for, or what it accomplishes. Remember, repentance means to turn away from sin. Although it literally means, “to change one’s mind” it always has sin as it’s object, and so repentance always means to turn away from sin. As such, God calls everybody to turn away from their sin. Furthermore, while repentance is for everybody, nobody gets eternal life because they repent. The only condition for receiving eternal life is believing in Jesus for it. When people do repent, whoever they are, and whether they are Christians or not, it is always and only for temporal deliverance from the consequences of sin.
So now we can understand what this author is saying. If the Hebrew Christians turn back to their old way of living under the law, it will be impossible to renew them again to repentance. This means that those who fall away in the manner taught here will experience the punishment and chastisement of God. God will not send them to hell, but He will severely punish them. Maybe by sickness or some other form of punishment. Possibly even a premature death. God disciplines those he loves. The reason this is such a serious sin, to turn from living by grace to go back to trying to live according to law is stated in the last part of Hebrews 6:6.
The author says that if, after having begun with grace, you go back to the Mosaic law, this is like crucifying Jesus Christ all over again and subjecting Him to public shame.
The Jewish people were so used to making repeated sacrifices, that it was hard for them to grasp a sacrifice that was once for all. They kept wanting to go back and make another sacrifice. But the author says, “No, you can’t do that. If Christ’s sacrifice wasn’t sufficient, then nothing will be.” As he says in Hebrews 10, no sacrifice for sins is left. The Jews thought that just as they had to sacrifice animals over and over again, they also had to be saved over and over again every time they sinned. The author says, “No, that is not the way Christ’s sacrifice worked. It was once for all” (cf. Heb 7:25-27; 9:11-12, 24-28; 10:1-4, 10-14).
This is not a passage teaching we can lose our salvation. It is a passage teaching against it. The author is saying that if you can lose your salvation, then Christ’s sacrifice wasn’t good enough, and you would have to crucify him all over again. But look at this too. If this passage does teach the loss of salvation, then it also teaches that if a person loses it, they can’t get it back. It’s gone. There is no second chance. You cannot get saved again. The text says that if they fall away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance. But if it is teaching eternal security, then this is a strong warning to not be led into false teaching about the necessity of obeying the law to keep yourself saved. When a Christian tries to go back and live according to the law, what they are actually saying is that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was not good enough. It was not complete enough. We have to add our own good works to the work of Christ in order to get to heaven.
This is what the unsaved Jews did in the time of Christ. He told them that he was the promised Messiah, and that he was there to save them from their sins. And they spit in his face, and said that if he was the Messiah, they didn’t want Him. And they crucified him and subjected him to the humiliation and curse of being hung on the cross. And when a Christian tries to return to the law that they were saved from, they are doing the same thing. They are saying to Christ, “We don’t want you any more. You aren’t good enough any more. Thanks for the step up, but I can take it from here on my own.” When we return to the law, it like saying, “Hang there a little more. Suffer a little more, and maybe then you can pay for more of our sin. Until then, I’ll help you out with my good works.” That’s what the last part of verse 6 means. If, after experiencing the best God has to offer, you reject it, and go back to the weak and miserable principles of the law, there is not much hope of returning to grace for you.
If these Christians had experienced the freedom and blessings of living under grace, but then they try to return to living under the law, God will not allow them to return to the blessings of living by grace again. It will be impossible for them to repent a second time. They will be stuck. They have not lost their salvation, but they will have lost many of the blessings that come from living according to their salvation. This serious consequence is possibly the curse that Paul pronounces on the Christians in Galatia who were trying to get people to return to living under the law (Gal 1:8-9).
The proof that this is what the passage means is found in the picture illustration of Hebrews 6:7-8.
III. The Picture Illustration (Hebrews 6:7-8)
Hebrews 6:7-8 gives us a picture illustration.
Hebrews 6:7-8. For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned.
The earth is used as a symbol for these Christians. This earth has received rain from heaven, which is a picture of the blessings from God, probably symbolic of the five blessings the author listed in verses 4-5. If the ground produces fruit and herbs, then it receives more blessings from God. But, if instead of fruit, it bears only thorns and briars, the text says three things about it.
First, it will be rejected. Some translations says disapproved, or disqualified. The Greek word is adokimos, which is the negative of dokimos. Dokimos always has the sense of being tested, accepted or approved, most often in reference to the judgment Christians will face at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Again, a proper understand of the sixth milk doctrine helps us understand this text.
The believer who is adokimos, disqualified before Christ in heaven does not lose their salvation, only their reward. The issue is not salvation, but approval at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
B. Near to Being Cursed
Secondly, these Christians are near to being cursed. This probably does refer to hell, but notice that they are not cursed to hell, but are near to being cursed. Someone can be close to a terrible car accident, but still not be in an accident. These people make it to heaven by the skin of their teeth.
They are, as we read in 1 Corinthians 3, saved, so as through fire. They get to heaven with the smell of smoke on their clothes. And in fact, this is exactly what the final statement about them says.
C. End Is to be Burned
Their end is to be burned. A lot of people tend to see this as a reference to hell. While fire and burning is sometimes a reference to hell, it is not always. Most often, fire and burning is a Biblical symbol of God’s judgment.
While the fire of God’s judgment can come upon unbelievers, both now in this life, and for an eternity, the fire of God’s judgment can also come upon believers who do not live as God wants them to. We saw that already in 1 Corinthians 3, but Jesus teaches similarly in John 15. Jesus tells us there that there are Christians who will not bear fruit. God, as the vinedresser, first tries to get the vines to produce fruit by lifting them up. If they do not bear fruit, they are burned – that means they will be judged.
How will this judgment come about? Well, it is not loss of salvation, but may come as a premature loss of life, like with Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, or with some of the Corinthian believers in 1 Corinthians 11 who were partaking of the Lord’s supper in an undeserving manner. But Christians may also face the fire of God’s judgment at the Judgment seat of Christ when each of us are judged for the things we have done while in the body, whether good or bad.
So fire and burning is not a reference to hell but just a reference to God’s judgment. The author is warning the Hebrew Christians here that if they return to the old way of living, they will not be producing Godly fruit, and so God will make them suffer the consequences of falling away. This passage then is not talking then about Christians who have lost their salvation. Just the opposite. This passage affirms our eternal security because it is a passage about the discipline that God gives to his own children when they fall away from him. Revelation 3:19 says that God disciplines those he loves.
Are you going through the discipline of God in your life? If you have believed in Jesus for eternal life, then you can be sure that this discipline is only because he loves you and wants what is best for you. You are in no danger of losing your salvation. The sacrifice Christ made on the cross was too complete and too wonderful for that. But you are in great danger of losing your fellowship with God, losing future reward in heaven, losing present peace and joy in your Christian life, and if you go too long and too far away from God, you may even lose your life.
Sin is a serious thing. And God loves you so much, that He would rather cause you to die and go to heaven to be with him, then have you continue to walk in sin and cause more damage to his name and to the cause of Christ. He is not out to get you, but He is out to get you to return to Him. He loves you so much, and wants to have deep fellowship with you. But that is impossible as long as you remain in whatever sin He is trying to get you free from.
This is the warning of Hebrews 6.
In Hebrews 6:9-12, the author of Hebrews offers some encouragement to those who are discouraged from his words. He says that he is confident that this will not happen to them, but that they will go on to experience the things that accompany salvation. This salvation is the inheritance of the promises which is due to faithful Jewish people. The inheritance refers to their reward in heaven, which they will receive as they show diligence until the end.
Ultimately, this passage is not a club to be used by church leaders to scare the people in the pews into submission and obedience. Sure, it is a warning, but only to Christians with hardened hearts who no longer desire to serve God. To the rest of us, it is a wonderfully encouraging passage about the rewards and blessings God has given to us already, and has in store for us in eternity.