Tough passages: Hebrews 6
Can a believer lose their salvation?
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
Some passages are difficult because they are hard to understand and some are difficult because they are hard to accept. When we take the whole counsel of God before us and address those times where something seems to strike us as confusing or difficult, it becomes clear that there is work to do. Hebrews 6 is no exception.
Does Hebrews 6 teach that a believer can lose their salvation?
A much-debated point since the Reformation has been the idea of “apostasy” and if a true Christian can truly lose their salvation. Has God secured all those who trust in Christ or can they walk away ultimately? Passages like Hebrews 6 have been used to argue positively for this.
But we also read that God is the one who draws believers to Christ and he will never cast them out or allow them to be snatched out of his hand (John 6). We read that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8). We read that if God has begun a work in us, he will complete it (Phil. 1:6). Jesus describes those who are truly believers as “good soil” that bears fruit and never is snuffed out (Matt. 13). We also see this pattern of texts that suggest that those who “fall away” are those that appear to be believers but never were in the first place (ex. 1 John 2:19; Matt. 15:18).
With these very clear texts in mind, how do we make sense of this difficult passage in Hebrews 6? Doesn’t it seem to say that those who “partake of the Holy Spirit” can “fall away”?
3 primary interpretations
For those that affirm the eternal security of the believer, there are multiple approaches that make sense of this passage in light of that reality. It is good to admit that this passage is a tough one, although understandable to the readers at the time. We do not base all of our doctrine on one or two difficult texts. But, here are three ways that Christians can understand this passage consistently. I will then lay out what I believe the best solution is.
1) The “false believer” interpretation
This interpretation sees this text to say what other passages seem to also describe. Namely, that the description of the one who “falls away” is meant to convey someone that seems to be a Christian, but is really not one at all. They have been in the Christian community and enjoyed religious experience but never truly were a believer. This is why in verses 7-8, the analogy of “land that has drunk the rain” but just bears “thorns and thistles” is regarded as worthless and is to be burned. Rain has fallen on the soil but it proved itself to be bad soil by its fruit.
The primary difficulty with this interpretation is that the descriptors of the believer that “falls away” are hard to reconcile with someone who is not a true believer. It states that this individual has been enlightened by the Spirit, has “tasted the heavenly gift,” has tasted the goodness of God’s word and the powers of the coming of Christ. Most shockingly, this person has “partaken (or shared) in the Holy Spirit.” It seems clear that the author is trying to genuinely describe a true believer. How could someone partake of the Holy Spirit and not be a true believer?
2) The “earthly perspective” interpretation
This interpretation understands the author to be using phenomenological language. In other words, the author is describing the human experience but not the divine and ultimate perspective. What this means is that the author is describing what really seems to be a genuine believer. We would really believe that the person is truly a Christian. They really seem to know Christ. They have been baptized, taught Sunday School, led a small group, etc. And then they fall away… How could this happen? Perhaps the author is merely describing this reality as it is experienced and is not trying making a theological statement on the security of salvation.
The primary difficulty with this interpretation is that the passage states that it is “impossible” for this individual to come back and repent. Why? Because they are “crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (v. 6). Why would this be the case? Is the author saying that if someone “falls away,” we cannot accept them back? That this sin is too bad for Jesus’ death to cover? Why would Jesus have to die a second time? Why would this bring “contempt” on Jesus?
3) The “hypothetical” interpretation
This interpretation sees what the author is doing as describing a hypothetical situation where a genuine believer truly falls away. The purpose is to teach the readers how such a reality could never be the case and to warn them of the dangers of apostasy. To do so shows that one was never truly a believer in the first place. In this view, the author is saying, “It’s impossible for a Christian to lose their salvation and then be saved again because Christ’s death is sufficient for salvation. To be saved a second time would require Christ to die a second time. This is absurd. Therefore, be careful that you grow in maturity for if you bear thorns and thistles instead of good fruit, it shows that you never truly experienced salvation.”
I believe this is the best interpretation of this text. Let me explain why.
Writing to believers who need to grow up
Context is king. Right before this, the author states at the end of chapter 5 that he is concerned about their lack of growth. They have become “dull of hearing” (5:11). They ought to be teachers by now but they still need milk. The author wants them to mature and become discerning through “constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (5:14). This is reiterated in chapter 6 when the author calls them to “leave the elementary doctrines” and this will truly happen “if God permits” (6:1-3).
Apparently, these believers are still immature. They haven’t truly embraced and applied the most foundational of doctrines. This is concerning to them but the author knows that God is sovereignly responsible for their sanctification (6:3). The author also is confident that these believers are truly saved (6:9). So, it is best to understand our passage as a warning to take their sanctification seriously. They need to “grow up” and live in their new identity. And he warns them by giving an example of a believer walking away from their salvation.
A true believer, truly walking away
Two things seem clear in this passage. First, the individual being described seems to be a true believer. The author uses four powerful phrases to describe their salvation in verses 4-5 (enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come). It is hard to imagine how the author could have been more clear. In the new covenant, the Holy Spirit is only given to true believers.
Second, the individual seems to truly walk away. This term for “fall away” (parapipto) is always associated with apostasy. To “restore them again to repentance” shows that they are no longer repentant. Furthermore, the entire point of the scenario is to show how it is “impossible” (6:4) for them to come back to Christ because to do so would be to bring contempt upon him. Finally, the analogy of the good and bad soil clearly associates this individual with the soil riddled with thorns and thistles that will be burned.
Why Christ must be crucified a second time
Perhaps the strangest statement in the passage is the author’s reason why it is impossible for a true believer who has truly fallen away to be “restored to repentance.” It is because they are “crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (6:6). But this makes sense if we understand the logic of the author’s argument. If one becomes a true believer, then the sacrifice of Christ on the cross has covered their sins. If that true believer truly walks away (and effectively loses their salvation), then the sacrifice of Christ has been nullified. Therefore, for them to come to repentance again would be impossible because Christ has died once for all. He is not going to die a second time.
If this hypothetical scenario were true then it truly would be to “their own harm” and would hold Jesus “up to contempt” because it would trivialize his sacrifice. If individuals were walking in and out of salvation then Jesus’ death would not be sufficient. In short, it would be like the lesser sacrifices of the OT. Just a few chapters later, the author continues his train of thought by showing the comprehensive and sufficient nature of Christ’s sacrifice. In his role as the mediator of the new covenant and our great high priest, he entered into the holy place by his own blood. In doing so, he does not have to “offer himself repeatedly” (9:26). Rather, he appeared once for all to “put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” and has been “offered once to bear sins” (9:27-28). So, the idea of Christ being crucified a second time must be a hypothetical idea since the author clearly believes that such a reality is impossible.
A true believer produces fruit
The following analogy in verses 7-8 about good and bad soil that has received rain seems to be the author’s final clarification. What do we do with those that “receive the rain” of God’s word and seem to be genuine believers but then walk away? Here, the author joins the consistent testimony of the New Testament in affirming that if someone truly comes to Christ then they will produce fruit keeping with their repentance. If they produce nothing but “thorns and thistles” then it is because they never truly belonged to Christ.
This is a strong warning to these immature believers. If they do not want to progress towards maturity (from milk to solid food) then it might be because they are not truly saved. True believers bear fruit. The author is quick to say in the next verse that he feels sure of “better things” in their case, “things that belong to salvation” (6:9). So, he believes that they are truly Christians but is using this instruction to warn them. And by this warning, he hopes his listeners will be awakened to the seriousness of their calling to grow in Christ and bear fruit.
Why this matters
This passage, despite its difficulty, has been used consistently to argue that the author is teaching that a true believer can truly lose their salvation. Other groups within Protestantism have used this passage to defend infant baptism, believing that this passage describes a child within the covenant community that eventually walks away from the faith. They use this to defend a doctrine of the church that affirms that some are within the new covenant without truly being saved. For this author, both of these positions are incompatible with the rest of scripture and do not interpret rightly the passage before us. It is important for us not to interpret clear passages in light of difficult ones or to interpret a difficult passage in an exotic way that ignores the author’s theology or train of thought. May all of God’s word come to bear on our lives and, even when we have questions, may we trust in him and what he has revealed to us.