Written by 3:47 pm Bible Studies, Hebrews • 2 Comments

The Impossibles – Hebrews 6:4-12

I’ve been thinking about this passage ever since we began this journey. I mean, if you’re any kind of a Bible student, Hebrews 6:4-6 eventually becomes one of those passages that challenges your belief about the permanency of salvation.  So, when I decided Hebrews would be my big study for 2023, my mind was thinking something like this. I already had an opinion about the meaning of this passage, so I was convinced that the journey leading up to it would affirm what I already believed and firm up my confidence. So the question is this: did that happen?

Sort of.

As I worked my way to this point, my presuppositions were challenged, which has impacted my understanding of this much debated passage. We’ll work through those in a moment. I did have a change of heart on one matter. I will probably never again teach this passage as a standalone teaching. I’m now persuaded that much of the reason this passage is debated is because it’s taught without the context of everything that leads up to it. If you apply your mind to understanding what comes before it, you’ll possess clarity for this passage.

Let’s get to it.

Presupposition #1

I should note that not all of my presuppositions were bad. They only needed adjustment. Such is the case with this first one. I believed that the people in question here were unsaved from the beginning. I still believe that, but it’s a little more nuanced than before. What I did before was a blanket application of this verse to anyone who strayed or deconstructed their faith. But the author has a more narrow group of people in mind. He wrote to Hebrews believers who, in some aspects, either had or were tempted to return to the Law of Moses. That was a major theme of this book in the first few chapters. Now we’re here in the middle of a rebuke for their lack of growth and a warning against apostasy. These verses were written to a specific people for a specific reason that dealt with a specific issue. We shouldn’t interpret the meaning apart from that framework.

Does it have application for anyone else? Of course. Scripture may have been written to an original audience, but it has been preserved for us for our benefit. To them, for us is a mega-important thing to remember anytime you read God’s word. The meaning of the passage is tied up in the original readers. This is historical context. Discover that meaning, then contextualize the passage for it’s application in the present.

What was the original problem? These Hebrew believers were seeking righteousness in observances of the Law. The author wasn’t specific about how exactly this manifested, but in Paul’s letters, typically this problem centered around returning to the Law for a sanctifying righteousness. In other words, Jesus saved them, but now to remain saved they sought to obey the Law. The author of Hebrews links this kind of belief to apostasy. And as we’ve stated already, apostasy demonstrates you never were saved in the first place.

How should we apply this in the present? It’s likely that you aren’t Jewish. The church is far more Gentile than Hebrew at this point in history. Therefore, you probably aren’t looking to obey the Law as a means of remaining saved. However, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t relying on something other than Christ for your sanctification in the faith. Church denominations abound in man-made regulations that have been added on to faith in Christ for sanctifying righteousness. You might be a part of one right now. Let’s make this simple: Jesus plus anything is always a disaster and can produce apostates. The warning for them is applicable to us: Jesus saves you and Jesus sanctifies you. Dependence upon anything else for sanctification – to use a football metaphor – is a false start.

Presupposition #2

The first presupposition leads to the correction on my second one. The author wasn’t chastising his hearers/readers for living immoral lives. To the contrary, they were seeking to obey the Law, so their morality wasn’t in question. Belief is what is at stake here, not sinful living. What they believed made them apostates, not how they lived. For a long time I presupposed that this verse was dealing with people who were leading immoral lives. Their sinful living was demonstrating that they weren’t really believers to begin with. But that’s not at all the author’s target. He took a clear aim at what they were believing, not how they were living.

It’s a fair statement that belief produces action. In some regard, even the licentious believer who takes advantage of God’s grace has a belief problem, only on the other end of the spectrum from these Hebrew believers. But we should be careful to keep things in order. Belief is always first. If Abraham believed, and it was counted to him as righteousness, then belief is the horse and action is the cart, always. Behavior is the metric by which we measure our growth (or lack of), and belief is the metric by which we measure the mettle of our faith. Belief is the root, behavior is the fruit.

With all of that said, there are two thoughts I hold from this passage.

First, you cannot sin your way out of salvation. I believed this already, but that means this passage should not be used to police morality. I’m not going to approach someone entangled in sin with the warning from this passage. This passage won’t come to bear until it becomes evident that he or she has believed something that stands opposed to the Gospel.

Second, if salvation could be lost, it could only happen by rejecting the Gospel. Let me be super clear: I don’t believe salvation can be lost. But, I hold this thought for my believing family who believe otherwise. I want to be humble about what I do believe, and gentle with those with whom I disagree. In the chance that I am wrong, this is the only other way I could believe. However, since I believe otherwise, I humbly suggest to those on the other side of this issue that you cannot lose salvation by sinning too much. If it were possible, it would have to be because there is an utter rejection of the Gospel that was once professed.

The author spoke to his hearers/readers about what they believed. His chastisement concerned their lack of understanding and growth in their belief. These verses were targeted precisely at that.

With all that said, let’s move ahead and work through our verses.

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.
– Hebrews 6:4-6 (ESV)

At the beginning of this article I said that I would never again teach this passage cherry-picked from the rest of the letter. Why? I’m convinced that much of the angst over these verses is empowered by an ignorance of what the author already wrote. Let’s interpret these verses in light of everything the author wrote up to this point, and then against the rest of the New Testament. It has to make sense within Hebrews first, then we can bring to bear the the weight of the rest of the New Testament.

I find it helpful to break things down like this.

Who is being addressed?

The who is professing Hebrew believers who are stagnate in their faith and tempted to return to aspects of the Law for sanctification. Refer to 5:12-13.

They were of the community of God’s people. They were enlightened to the Gospel, they shared in the Holy Spirit’s activity, and tasted God’s goodness. They have tasted and seen that the LORD is good. Why then were they turning back to the Law?

What is the outcome of their problem?

It is impossible for them to be brought back to repentance. What does that mean? Did they repent once, but not well enough? That’s actually close. In 2 Corinthians 7:10, the apostle Paul made a distinction between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow. They apparently possessed some understanding that they needed to repent, and made some changes to their lives, but there was the missing element of belief. Repentance isn’t much more than behavior modification if it isn’t accompanied with belief in Christ. The author is concerned that some of them changed their behavior, but not their belief.

Why is it impossible?

The author linked impossibility to a restoration of their repentance because they have rendered Christ’s crucifixion null and void by returning to the Law for righteousness. As long as they persisted in the false belief that the Law would sanctify them, they showed themselves apostate. This was a wholesale rejection of Christ’s work on the cross. The author said they effectively crucified the Son of God once again to their own harm and shame. Pursuing the Law for righteousness in addition to Christ’s death and resurrection, is a rejection of Christ’s death and resurrection.

The rest of the New Testament affirms the author of Hebrews. This is why Paul was so concerned for the Galatian believers. In response to the Galatian’s propensity to return to the Law, he wrote:

11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.
– Galatians 4:11

Peter reminded his readers that they were ransomed from the Old Covenant by Christ’s blood, making those ways futile.

18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold,
– 1 Peter 1:18 (ESV)

John declared that those who depart from the faith were never truly in the faith!

19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.
– 1 John 2:19

The author of Hebrews was completely in step with the other New Testament authors. The professing believers of Hebrews 6:4-6 aren’t actually believers at all. They are apostate. They are of those who weren’t united with those who listened (4:2).

His Word Always Accomplishes Something

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 be burned.
– Hebrews 6:7-8

I really wish people would keep reading. These verses provide a metaphor that explains the meaning of 4-6. But I know not everyone does well with metaphors, hence the disciples at times asked Jesus to explain is parables. Here’s what we have.

  • Land
  • Rain
  • Useful crops
  • Thorns and thistles.

The author portrays the land as the church. The rain is the Word of God – specifically the Gospel. The rain falls on the land. The Word of God is preached and taught to all in the church. Two kinds of harvest result. There’s a useful harvest that receives a blessing from the LORD. These are the ones who hear the Word, cultivate their hearts, apply the Word, and God gives growth. But there’s also a harvest of thorns and thistles. These are the apostates. They benefit from the rain, but they aren’t useful. The author went for the jugular and said they’re worthless and close to being cursed.

This has echoes of Christ’s parable of the wheat and tares. Go read it if you have time.

Without true belief and repentance, their end is to be burned. An apostate’s repentance is tied entirely to a complete embrace of Christ and a complete rejection of all other means of righteousness.

As it is for anyone who would enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Better Things

9 Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
– Hebrews 6:9-12 (ESV)

I appreciate the author’s pastoral heart. He didn’t end his rebuke on a low note. He concluded his rebuke with hope. Note again, the we. The elders of their church all feel this way. They were hopeful that their rebuke would be heard and prove that their possible apostates weren’t apostate after all. At times, to get people to listen, a heavy rebuke is necessary. We all need an occasional shaking. The LORD sends people into our lives who will speak boldly and in a way that catches our hearts. They don’t share warm fuzzy feelings with us, but instead cold, hard truth that undeniably reveals our problems so that we can repent.

I’m grateful for the men and women in my life who do that for me. And I reciprocate when they need it.

The author noted that though they were dull of hearing, they had continued in their work of ministry to the saints. This is important. It’s easy to use a single measuring stick. Though the author zeroed in on their lack of understanding, knowledge isn’t the only way we measure the validity of our faith.

However, Christian growth is a comprehensive growth of the whole person. Show the same earnestness. The author desired to see the whole church growing together in knowledge and practice which would lead to the full assurance of their faith.

Full assurance is linked to comprehensive growth. Have you ever went through a season of doubt where you wrestled with whether you were truly a Christian? I have. For me, those seasons of doubt were always connected to a deficient growth in either belief or practice. Either I had stagnated in growing in my knowledge of Jesus, or I had stagnated in my obedience to His commands. Persist like that in either way and you’ll begin to struggle with assurance of faith. Knowledge isn’t sufficient. Works aren’t sufficient. It is the combined growth in knowledge and obedience that manifests the power of the Spirit in our walks.

Apostate? Repent and grow up into Him, cultivating a comprehensive growth.

15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
– Ephesians 4:15-16 (ESV)

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Last modified: July 19, 2023
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