“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, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 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…Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things – things that belong to salvation.”
Hebrews 6:4-6, 9
The doctrine of eternal security for all true believers has been a pillar of evangelical christianity since the reformation. Hebrews 6 is a text that, when taken at face value, stands very opposed to this doctrine and, as such, is often one that must be explained away in defense of it. John MacArthur in his commentary states, “…the writer of Hebrews is speaking to the unsaved who have heard the truth and acknowledged it, but who have hesitated to embrace Christ… The believer need never fear he will lose his salvation. He cannot. The Bible is absolutely clear about that.”1Similarly, John Piper commenting on verse 9 says, “they really are ‘saved’ and that therefore they will not commit apostasy… the writer really believes that they have salvation and therefore will have the things that always accompany salvation.”2 Martin Luther took it leaps further, going so far as to deny the authority of Hebrews as inspired Scripture, part of which was taking issue specifically with the warning passages in Hebrews.3
How then are we to understand what is being spoken of in Hebrews 6? Let us first establish whether the passage is speaking of true Christians or unbelievers by examining the markers used to identify who the writer is addressing. The first phrase, “Once been enlightened” is speaking of those who were saved from the “domain of darkness” (Colossians 1:13-14) and brought into the light. When compared with how it is used again in 10:32 – “after you were enlightened” ‘you endured severe persecution for your faith’ – it’s even more clear this is speaking of someone who is saved. Next, “Tasted the heavenly gift” when compared to John 4:10 or Ephesians 2:8 show that this is speaking of salvation itself. The third phrase, “Shared in the Holy Spirit” follows a similar suit. Acts 2:38 or Galatians 3:2 make it clear that sharing in the Holy Spirit indicates salvation. Likewise, the last phrase, “Tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” also speaks with reference to the Holy Spirit or salvation (Romans 8:2, 26; John 14:16, 26; Luke 11:13; Acts 1:8; Galatians 5:16;) and the good promises that are given to God’s obedient children (Psalm 1:1-3; 19:11; Proverbs 15:5-6; Luke 12:22-34; 18:29-30; Ephesians 1:3; 2:6; Philippians 4:19; 1 Peter 2:3).
Next, a brief consideration of the immediate context is appropriate. This set of verses is a continuation of the conversation started in chapter 5 where the author tells his audience they should be teachers by now instead of needing to be taught again the “elementary doctrine[s]” of repentance, baptism, and coming judgment – 5:11-6:2. First, how could the author make such an assertion if he’s speaking to unbelievers? Second, it makes logical sense that his argument would flow from this concern into a warning about apostasy given the stagnancy and immaturity mentioned in the previous verses. Like the second soil in Jesus’ parable of the soils (Mat 13:18-23) these believers possess shallow roots and stand in grave danger of abandoning Christ the moment tribulation and persecution arrive.
That being said, the strongest support is found in verse 6. According to the author, if anyone has “fallen away”, you cannot “restore them again” because that would be “crucifying once again the Son”. How can an unbeliever do any of these things? What is an unbeliever ‘falling away’ from or being ’restored’ back to if they were never a Christian? How has an unbeliever become a partaker in Christ’s death (Romans 6:3-4)? To take the position this warning is directed toward unbelievers is completely nonsensical and ignores the author’s clear intent. After closely examining this passage, zero doubt should remain of who it is speaking to – fully saved individuals!
That Hebrews 6:4-6 is indeed speaking of true believers is further confirmed when we examine the familial and salvific language used by the author throughout Hebrews. In several places he speaks of his audience as “brothers” (2:11-13; 3:1; 10:19). He also calls them “children” or “sons”, including a reference to how to rightly receive the discipline of God as their Father (2:11-13; 12:5-11). His warnings in other sections of the book are also equally clear that it’s written to believers because of the explicit salvific language used – “how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (2:3), “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart” (3:12), or warning not to “[profane] the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified” (10:22-32). Finally, in chapter 13 the author asks them for prayer, which is only possible for believers. Knowing this warning is to true believers should not come as a surprise when considering other passages such as 1 Corinthians 5:12 that make it clear God and the authors of Scripture are concerned first and foremost about the conduct of His people.
Now that we have confirmed the audience to be believers, we are now ready to consider the assertion that this warning of apostasy is being softened by verse 9 into a hypothetical. Reading just a few verses later we can see this is not the author’s intent at all. In verse 11, the author says that the only way for them to retain their assurance of salvation is to continue to perform the same “work and love” spoken of in verse 10 “until the end.” The author is not softening the warning from the earlier verses into a hypothetical, but rather providing his readers with the answer to the natural question that would arise from such a warning, “How do I not become guilty of this?”, and encouraging them that their current obedient lives are evidence they’re on the right track. It is interesting to note that the author says he is confident about their salvation because of their obedience (10). If saving faith is the sole basis for assurance, why does the author not mention faith at all? Consider also the, at best, futility, and, at worst, outright manipulation the author (ultimately God) would be guilty of if this were a hypothetical. Either the author has negated his previous argument (futility) or he is using the warning of serious punishment, that’ll never actually be possible, to scare his readers into compliance (manipulation).
Looking at the example the author quotes in chapter 3:7-18 regarding Old Covenant Israel is further evidence this warning is not hypothetical. Jesus’ Old Covenant people, who were continuously disobedient, had very serious and very real judgment executed against them. The author uses this example to explicitly warn his readers not to be like them. This warning too falls flat or is manipulation if it’s not something that can actually happen to the New Covenant Christian. Given what the author says about Jesus being “the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8) should we expect He will treat His New covenant people any differently?
Contrary to what Luther believed, this understanding of Hebrews is consistent with the remainder of the New Testament. Every major New Testament preacher has warnings about those who refuse to be obedient:
Jesus – Matthew 7:21-23; 10:33, 38; 12:31-32; 13:41-42; 18:9, 35; 22:11-14; 25:31-46;
Paul – Colossians 1:21-23; Romans 11:20-23; Philippians 3:12-15;
Peter – 1 Peter 1:13-17; 4:17-18; 2 Peter 1:9-11; 2:17-22;
John – 1 John 5:2-3 w/ 13; 2 John 1:9; Revelation 2:5-7, 10, 16, 26; 3:3, 11, 21; 21:7-8;
Jude – Jude 1:12, 20-21;
James – James 1:12, 22-25; 2:14-24; 3:4-5;
As we’ve seen, Hebrews 6, along with the New Testament, teaches that apostasy is a very real possibility for, and serious warning to, true believers. From Genesis, with Adam and Eve, who were permitted to remain in the Eden only while they remained obedient, to Revelation, where Christ warns His churches over and over ‘to endure to the end’, God’s saving relationships with man have always existed where their salvific position is fully obtained in the present, yet still at risk of being forfeited through disobedience. Any Christian who continues in willful disobedience, ignoring these grave warnings, will be guilty of apostasy and all too quickly experience the awe inspiring, terrifying, eternal wrath of an incredibly righteous and angry God.
“See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven…for our God is a consuming fire”
Hebrews 12:25, 29
“How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay’. And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people’. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”