May 27, 2018
In the first 300 years of the church, believers faced severe persecution. You see, by 64 AD, the Roman Emperor Nero had declared Christianity to be religio illicita – an illegal religion. That’s odd, the Roman Empire was known for its religious tolerance. So what was the problem with Christianity?
Christians were exclusive – that is, for them, the God of the Bible was the only God. So, they refused to worship the pantheon of Roman gods, to include the Emperor. It is said ten general persecutions followed, led by ten Roman Emperors. While some were worse than others, they were all terrible.
I could tell you some amazing stories of perseverance under persecution. Stories of those who faithfully followed Christ, at great personal cost. Like Ignatius, Origen, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Perpetua, Felicitas.
Many others – their stories are sometimes gruesome, but also demonstrate great faithfulness in the face of certain death.
Well, one of those Roman Emperors was Decius, who came to power in 249. History paints him as a cruel ruler who wanted to restore Rome to her former glory. For Decius, the root issue for Rome’s decline was people had abandoned the worship of Roman gods. Therefore, in order for the glory of Rome to be restored, it would be necessary to restore the ancient religion.
So he embarked on a religious campaign – as he saw it, the survival of Rome was at stake. So, those who refused to worship the Roman gods were guilty of high treason.
His was the first, systematic empire-wide persecution. Now there is a sense in which his was different – he sought not to make martyrs of Christians, but apostates. What do I mean? He didn’t want to kill them, he wanted them to recant. If they refused, death would come. He issued a decree that everyone offer sacrifices to the gods and burn incense before a statute of himself. Those who complied were given a certificate called a libellus. If you didn’t have the certificate, you were considered an outlaw. Now, there were four responses byChristians to the edict:
- Some simply ran to obey. They were called
- Some refused at first, but then recanted when faced with torture or death.
- Some purchased fraudulent certificates – think about that – they didn’t worship a false god, but said they
- And finally, some stood firm and refused to obey. They were called confessors.
Decius only ruled for a couple years – his decrees were then set aside, and persecution abated. But now, because of the great numbers of apostates, the church was faced with the question of the lapsed. What to do withthose who, in one way or another, weakened, recanted their Christian faith, during the persecution? Given the great prestige and honor of the confessors, many thought they should decide. So they called a synod and decided the following:
- Those who had purchased or obtained certificates without actually sacrificing were immediately reinstated to the
- Those who had sacrificed and later repented would only be readmitted on their deathbeds – unless a new persecution gave them opportunity to prove the sincerity of their
- Those who sacrificed but showed no repentance would never be readmitted to the
The challenge? The text before us today in Hebrews 6. There are few, if any, more challenging and troubling passages in the New Testament than this one. Entire denominations have arisen based on the interpretation of this text. Infact, I told someone this week I was going to have playing, I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane as I ascended the platform today. I really am – I leave Tuesday with OCC for Uganda, and the timing could not be more perfect. One thing most agree on is this: this passage contains the most severe warning in Hebrews, perhaps the entire NT.
I actually spent some time on mega church websites this week – to see who has covered this text. I discovered some things. Most mega churches don’t study books – they do topics. And you can’t even search their sermons by Scripture – only by topic. Needless to say, of those in the topical variety – I found none that covered our text.
Even among those who do expositional studies – that is, verse by verse – I was stunned to find this passage skipped. Of course, John Piper covered it. But John MacArthur out in California – well, the text is in their sermon archive – preached by their college pastor. Where is Michael when you need him?
As you know by now, we make our way through books of the Bible on Sunday mornings. We are currently in what are called the General Epistles:
- I and IIPeter
- I, II and IIIJohn
Personally, I could hardly wait to get to Hebrews. It’s a great book. I enjoy reading it – well, most of it. You see, I knew we would have to deal with the so-called warning passages, to include those found in chapters 6 and 10. As you’re reading the Bible, do you ever get to those passages and think, I don’t know what this is saying – and even if I do, I don’t think I like it.
There are none more controversial, challenging and troubling than these two in Hebrews. But, I was excited because, going verse by verse, it would allow us to look at the passages within their all important context.
For example, we know the first readers of this letter were Jewish believers facing severe persecution – possibly under Nero. As a result, some were questioning their new Christian faith – actually considering quitting and returning to Judaism. At the very least, they had neglected their great salvation and had not grown to maturity. They were still infants in the faith. And they were in danger. Now, we’re not sure who the writer of the letter was, nor how he found out about this situation, but he writes this pastoral letter to both encourage and warn them.
And I would suggest the letter is as applicable today as it’s ever been. Oh, we’re not currently facing the opposition the original readers faced, but opposition is indeed rising. We can stick our collective heads in the sand, ignore the clear teaching of Scripture and suggest God wants His children to be prosperous, wealthy and healthy – but this was not the experience of NT believers, of the first readers of Hebrews, of the church through the centuries, of believers around the world today. We can continue to live in our evangelical bubble until is bursts, and bursting it is. So, what will we do when rising opposition knocks on our doors? I could ask it this way – how important is Jesus and His gospel to us, anyway? Is He worth loss of respectability and acceptability, loss of livelihood, loss of property, loss of life? Is He worth being counter-cultural – even counter-church, if the church has abandoned truth?
So, the book is as applicable today as ever. He warns us. He encourages us. And even when he warns us, he follows with encouragement. Let’s go ahead and read the text, Hebrews 6:4-8.
Why is this text so difficult? Well, ultimately it depends on your theological position. Boiled down to the most basic argument, there are those who say you can lose your salvation, and those who say you cannot. And frankly, both positions have their biblical challenges. And both will also say, you must allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. So follow: for those who say you can lose your salvation, this passage is proof positive, and those passages which seem to say you cannot lose your salvation must be interpreted in light of this text. Conversely, those who suggest you cannot lose your salvation, say you must interpret this passage in light of the other clear assurance passages. Are you with me, or as confused as ever? What to do with apostates?
I want to be very frank, yet very sensitive and gentle today. Regardless of your position, this passage has some strong things, eternal things to say about those who were at least professing believers, and then subsequently chose to deny Christ and His gospel. I’m not talking about those who have fallen into a life of sin. I’m talking about those who have willfully chosen to walk away. Let me say it clearly – we’ve all likely had family members and close friends who formerly said they were Christians. And now, not only have they walked away, they deny the Christian faith. They deny Jesus as the Son of God, the Christ, and they deny the gospel. What do we do with them?
It is important as we look at the text to ask and answer several questions – answers, by the way, with which committed believers do not agree. I suppose when I finish today, you may not agree with me. Can I say, that’s okay. I’ll do my best to teach the text – and we’ll together seek the Holy Spirit as to its proper interpretation. What are those questions?
- Who is the author describing? That is, are these true believers, almost believers, or unbelievers?
- What is this “fallen away”? Is it falling into sin, or apostasy, denying the Christian faith?
- What does “impossible to renew them to repentance” mean? Does it mean not likely to renew them, really hard to renew them, or impossible?
- What does crucifying the Son of God to themselves and putting Him to an open shame mean?
- What is the purpose of the illustration in verses7-8?
- And finally, perhaps most ominously, is the author suggesting, both here and in chapter 10, that true believers can lose their salvation? If so, how – what are the conditions upon which they lose it? And, if they lose their salvation, can they be saved again? You see, this has significant bearing on those we’ve known and loved, who once knew the gospel, professed to believe the gospel, but now deny Christ. Is there any hope for them?
Most of my commentaries sought to answer these questions. All conservative and evangelical. They did not, however, all agree. Entire books and articles have been written on the warning passages in Hebrews, focusing on this one. So, let’s try to answer the questions, starting with, who is the author describing? For in the case of those who have once – and then he lists five participial phases – and the word once applies to all of them:
- Those who have once been
- Those who have once tasted of the heavenly
- Those who have once been made partakers of the Holy
- Those who have once tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come.
- And those who have once fallen
So, who are these people? Bottom line, are they Christians, or not? A couple of other things to notice. First, many point out the author uses the first and second person pronouns in the first part of the warning – that is, us and you – and then returns to the first and second person pronouns, us and you, in verse 9 and following. But here, he uses the third person pronoun – those and them.
Another thing to note. How you identify these people determines whether you believe a person can lose their salvation, or not. Are these Christians, or almost Christians – that is, those who have been clearly exposed to the gospel, maybe even made a verbal confession of the gospel, but never really embraced the gospel? Lives never really changed? There are basically three ways to interpret this text. Let me list and define them:
First is called the Hypothetical Interpretation. This view says these are true Christians, but since true Christians cannot lose their salvation, this is a warning about something that can’t possibly happen. Meaning, while true Christians, they cannot possibly apostatize – so, this is hypothetical. The obvious problem with this view is, if they can’t fall away, why warn them against falling away? That seems to make no sense.
The second view is the Actual Interpretation. This view says those who fall away are actual, bona-fide Christians. They suggest while it is God’s grace that saves us – it is my will that chooses salvation, and just as I chose to put myself into Christ, so also I can subsequently choose to take myself out of Christ. If there is any passage in the Scripture that says true believers can lose their salvation, this is it.
The third view is the Apparent Interpretation. This view says these are not truly Christians – these are apparent believers – almost Christians – those who have made a profession of faith, but their profession is spurious – and so they don’t persevere. They don’t actually lose their salvation, because they never had it. This view suggests the author is continuing with his theme – true believers persevere, so persevere.
Well, let’s look at the description of those who once did these five things. First, they were once enlightened. That’s an interesting word. It simply means to gain light – to gain understanding. Notice, it’s in the passive – it was done to them – they were enlightened to some kind of truth. Now, it’s true understanding truth and committing to truth are two different things. So I suppose it’s possible these are people who gained an understanding of gospel truth, but never truly committed to it. But we should note the other time this author uses this word is in chapter 10, verse 32, which reads, “But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings.” It seems clear he was talking about his readers – true believers, who after they received truth, suffered for it. In other words, in the face persecution, they didn’t quit – they didn’t apostatize.
Second, they had once tasted of the heavenly gift. Most agree, regardless of your theological position, the heavenly gift is the gift of salvation. So, these people had tasted salvation. Some want to suggest there is a difference between tasting something and fully consuming it. These people, because they’d been around the church, had tasted the gospel, but not ingested it.
They sampled it, they didn’t consume it.
The problem with that is the way the author uses the word taste elsewhere. Obviously, he uses it in the next verse to speak of those who tasted the good word of God. But he also used it in chapter 2, verse 9, speaking of Jesus who took on flesh, “so that He might taste [same word] death for everyone.” Most agree Jesus did not just sample death – He experienced it fully.
Third, these people had once been made partakers of the Holy Spirit. That’s a tough one. First, the author uses this same word back in chapter 3, verse 14, “For we have become partakers [same word] of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm to the end.” So there we saw our perseverance was proof we had become partakers of Christ. Here, the author uses the same word to describe these people as having once partaken of the Holy Spirit. That’s strong.
Further, Peter and Paul argue in a number of places the presence of the Holy Spirit within is proof of genuine conversion. In Acts 15, for example, at the Jerusalem Council, as they were discussing whether the Gentiles be required to keep the Law of Moses, Peter said, “God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us.” In other words, they’re believers like us – we saw evidence of their faith through the gifts of the Spirit.
Paul uses the presence and power of the Holy Spirit over and over as proof of genuine conversion, for example in Galatians 3:2. There, he’s reminding the Galatians of their conversion without the Law, and asks, “This is theonly thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” In I Corinthians 12, he says, “Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is accursed;’ [that’s interesting – if you have the Holy Spirit, you cannot deny Christ and say He is accursed] and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except bythe HolySpirit.”
My point is this: I don’t know how you could possibly say more clearly that these people were Christians than by saying they were once made partakers of the Holy Spirit. How can you possibly partake of the Holy Spirit and not be a Christian?
Fourth, they had once tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come. We’ve already talked about tasted – the word could mean to sample, merely taste, but the author seems to use it to speak of a full experience – to consume it. They had once tasted, consumed the good word of God. Given the context, most agree, regardless of your position, this refers to the good news of the gospel. Further, with the coming of Christ and His gospel and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the age to come had broken into this present age. The Holy Spirit with signs and wonders, with spiritual gifts, has broken into this age. So the people had experienced the good news of the gospel and the power of the age to come through the Holy Spirit.
I suppose we could say, as professors and part of the visible church, the people had experienced the blessings of the gospel and the New Covenant Jesus brought. They had experienced, by their proximity to the believing community, the blessings of the gospel. But the context seems to say more than that – they had personally tasted the good word of God and personally experienced the powers of the age to come.
Which leads us to the final thing these people – I’m suggesting believers – could apparently do. For in the case of those who have once been enlightened of the gospel, tasted the heavenly gift of salvation, been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and tasted of the good word of God through the gospel and the powers of the age to come through the Holy Spirit, and then have fallen away. Stop right there. What is it to fall away? Given the context, most agree this is not talking about falling into sin, but this is falling away from the truth they’d known and experienced – what the author has just been describing. If they fall away from that. If they become apostates. Do you see why this text had such a bearing on apostates in the early church? Do you see why it is the topic of much controversy today?
We must move quickly. If they fall away, it is impossible to renew againto repentance. That’s interesting – that seems to indicate they had once repented. Without looking at the other times the author uses this word, suffice to say the word means impossible. Beyond the possibility. Not unlikely, but not possible. Why? Because, by their denial of Christ, they have crucified Him again, and put Him to an open shame. What does that mean? They had known the gospel – received the gospel – denied the gospel. And by doing so, they were as guilty as the ones who crucified Him they were doing it again by their sin of apostasy, and putting Christ to an open shame. They were mocking Him and spitting on Him again. And the writer says – having known the truth and doing that makes repentance again impossible. There’s no such thing as a second
Verses 7 and 8 simply illustrate this truth with an agricultural metaphor, which is quite common in the Scripture. Agriculture was well known and lent itself to good illustrations. Verse 7 indicates what true believers do. They are the ground that drinks the rain of God’s good grace, and as a result bring forth fruit – proving the reality of faith, and receive blessing from God.
Verse 8, conversely says, but if the ground does not produce fruit, but rather yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless, and will only be burned. You cannot read these verses without thinking of Jesus’ parable of the sower.
The sower spread the seed of the good word of God – the gospel – on four types of soil. The seed that fell on the path – hard ground – the birds came Satan came and snatched it
The seed that fell among the rocky ground immediately sprout because of the heat – but since there was no good soil, it quickly withered, fell away. The rocks, by the way, represented persecution. The seed that fell among the thorns – those thorns, representing the worries of this world and the deceitfulness of wealth, came up and choked out the good news of the gospel. But, the seed that fell on good soil produced fruit, proving the genuineness of faith.
So, what do we do with this text today? What is it saying? Can we remember the purpose of the book. The author is writing to encourage and warn those facing opposition because of their faith. He encourages them by reminding them Jesus is better. He warns them by telling them there is nowhere else to find forgiveness and eternal life. Jesus is it.
Is he saying you can lose your salvation? I believe this to be a genuine warning – not hypothetical. I believe those described are either believers or those who have made a profession of faith – like the rocky soil or the thorny soil. I believe you have the following three possibilities of interpretation:
- It is possible to see these as true believers who apostatized. Who after making a genuine profession of faith, subsequently denied that faith, and lost their salvation. If there is any text that teaches the possibility of losing your salvation, this is it. But please notice two things – first, they didn’t lose it because of some sin. They lost it because they denied Christ and His gospel. And notice second, it is impossible for them to be saved
- Second, it is possible to see these as almost They had been exposed to gospel truth and even gospel life. They had experienced covenant community, and even made a profession of faith. But they subsequently denied the faith. Two things to notice here: first, they didn’t lose their salvation – they never had it. And second, having been exposed to the gospel and even confessed it, by walking away, it is now impossible to renew them to repentance.
- Third is a possibility I personally hold. Several thoughts: first, these are true believers. Second, true believers cannot lose their salvation. Third, this is a genuine warning against apostasy. Fourth, the warning against apostasy is always effective. What do I mean? There were true believers facing persecution and considering quitting. The author writes to encourage and warn them. And just as God’s call to salvation is always effective for His chosen, so also the encouragement and warning is always effective for His chosen. The struggle is real – but God will give you what you need to persevere. He called you, and He will keep you. We’ll see that in verse 9 and
In closing, we shouldn’t miss verse 4 begins with the word, for. That’s a conjunction, tying it to what he had just said. And we remember, this warning began back in chapter 5, verse 11. He takes his readers to task for remaining immature in the faith – for not growing toward maturity. For drinking milk, rather than moving on to the deeper truths of this Christian faith. Oh, and I would suggest what we’ve talked about today is a deeper truth of the Christian faith.
But again, he has just encouraged them to grow up, spiritually speaking.
For in the case of those who have…verses 4-8. Two weeks ago, when I began this warning, I said several times – there is no neutral in the Christian faith. You are either growing toward maturity, or in danger of sliding toward apostasy. Regardless of how you interpret this text – whether it is possible for a true believer to apostatize – the warning is clear. Don’t put your Christian faith in neutral. To do so is to put yourself in eminent spiritual danger. Pursue growth. Pursue maturity.
4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. 7 For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to beburned.