Editors’ note: This series analyzes perplexing passages of the Bible. Previously:
- Dan Doriani on Matthew 24:15–16
- Miles Van Pelt on Judges 11:29–40
- Mark Gignilliant on Exodus 4:24–26
- William Ross on Psalm 19:7
- Jimmy Agan on Matthew 15:26
- Dennis Johnson on Revelation 21:1
- Greg Beale on Revelation 13:8
- Miles Van Pelt on Judges 16:1–3
- Jack Collins on Psalm 2:7
- Stephen Dempster on 1 Samuel 28
- Tremper Longman on Ecclesiastes
Who hasn’t been perplexed by the warning in Hebrews 6:4–8?
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. 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. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.
This passage confuses us because it relates to how we process the relationship between the gospel’s promises and its admonitions. In fact, doctrinal strain between warning and promise prompts many to remove the tension altogether, since they regard it as uncomfortable if not contradictory.
Looking Back or Ahead?
Some, as I once did, resolve the tension by explaining the passage as a retrospective (backward-looking) assessment of one’s faith in Christ. They accentuate gospel promises with adjustments to gospel admonitions. In so doing, they unwittingly alter the prospective (forward-looking) conditional warning against repudiating Christ and intractable unrepentance. So the warning becomes a backward-looking reflective appraisal of one’s perseverance amid temptations. This is often seen as evidence that implies the genuineness of one’s faith. Accordingly, if my faith is enduring, this authorizes me to infer I’m truly united with Christ. If I’m not persevering in faith, however, this evidence suggests my faith is false.
To contend Hebrews 6:4–8 addresses falling away that exposes one’s faith as false is to advocate what Tom Schreiner and I call the “tests of genuineness” explanation. If I’m to feel the passage’s proper effect, the argument goes, I must entertain the possibility that my faith in Christ may be fraudulent.
Even though advocates of this interpretation claim their explanation prompts believers to remain loyal to Christ, it pushes us to be retrospective and introspective. But the passage is a future-oriented warning. And as a warning, it directs us to be prospective and extrospective so that we might persevere in faith. It’s a warning God employs as a means of enabling his people to endure.
Can You Fall Away?
To alleviate the strain, some say the warning presents a possibility that genuine believers may reject Christ and be cast away forever. They stress gospel admonitions with abridgment of gospel promises. Advocates of this interpretation are convinced the passage is truthful and sincere—not a deceitful charade or false exaggeration—only if the believers addressed can fail to persevere in loyalty to Christ (see Scot McKnight, “Warning Passages Ahead: Brief Response”).
Without realizing it, they transform the forward-projected conditional warning against renouncing Christ into a future assertion that genuine believers can renounce him and perish. They unwittingly render as revocable God’s promise of salvation to everyone who believes. Their view seems to be summarized this way: A passage like Hebrews 6:4–8 is sincere and urgent only if God’s promise can fail. (Admittedly, it’s doubtful those who hold this view would agree with this characterization.)
They believe the passage teaches believers can fail to persevere in faith and fall under God’s indicting wrath. If they’re correct, then I must believe God’s promise to preserve me is subject to failure. Those who trust in Jesus for salvation may abandon him and perish eternally.
Advocates of this view unintentionally alter the function of the passage by converting the warning against falling away into a declaration that it’s possible to fall away. Against this view, I would argue the passage is a warning, and as a warning it alerts us to lurking dangers that entice us to forsake Jesus. It does not announce faith’s possible failure.
Means of Perseverance
Desire to resolve doctrinal strain is understandable, but it distracts us from receiving Hebrews 6 for what it is: a sincere and urgent warning lest the world lure us to join its repudiation of Christ, making him a spectacle of shame and leading to intractable unrepentance. Before the doctrinal question of apostasy can be answered, it’s critical first to address this warning passage’s function.
The text itself must govern the questions we ask. What’s the preacher’s purpose or intent? Do we not properly characterize his words as a warning?
The preacher’s purpose is to warn, to caution, even to alarm, lest we fall away and find ourselves incapable of repenting. The warning here threatens us with the inseparable connection between failing to heed the gospel’s call and the impossibility of being restored to repentance if we forsake Christ.
The preacher intends for his warning to alarm us to heed his appeal by remaining steadfastly loyal to Jesus. This means we believers should wholeheartedly affirm: “If I, who look to Christ alone for salvation, forsake him, I will find myself incapable of repenting such that I’ll most assuredly perish forever.” We must resist adjusting this with diversionary questions.
Call to Bold Confidence
The warning of Hebrews 6 announces the unbreakable connection between falling away from Christ and the impossibility of being restored to repentance. By implication, it also indicates the sacred relationship between persevering faithfulness and our inheritance of salvation.
Intense as this warning is, however, it doesn’t nullify or contradict equally strong admonition to bold assurance. As the preacher does throughout Hebrews, chapter 6 blends admonitions to bold confidence with warnings against eternal perishing.
After warning his hearers against falling away, he notes there are grounds to believe they haven’t taken that fatal step of departing from Christ—for God doesn’t abandon his people (6:9–10). Then we read:
We want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. (6:11–12)
Finish Line Assured
The preacher assures his readers that when God made his promise to Abraham, he swore an oath to show the heirs of promise the “unchangeable character of his purpose” (6:17). We who are Abraham’s heirs have God’s promise and oath to assure us that his promised salvation is our sure hope—a “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (6:19).
The preacher expects us to take to heart both the urgent warning against a final departing from Christ (6:4–8) and the admonition to assured confidence in God’s promise (6:9–20) without any whisper of contradiction. He doesn’t admonish us to doubt the inheritance that God assures us by his sworn oath and promise. God regularly uses warnings and consolations or threats and promises together to secure us in the way of salvation.
May we heed the sincere, urgent, and inviolable warning of Hebrews 6:4–8, so that we may be saved by divine grace on the last day.