5. Warnings Against Apostasy (Hebrews 5:11-6:12)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (27:23)

Van Gogh, Sower with Setting Sun (1888)
Jesus' Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23) provides a similar teaching as this passage. Vincent van Gogh, "Sower with Setting Sun" (1888), Oil on canvas, 64 x 80.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Krueller-Mueller, Otterlo. Larger image.

This passage in Hebrews is the site of many a theological war. Since a plain reading of the five warning passages of Hebrews suggests that it is possible for a genuine Christian to commit apostasy and lose his salvation, Christians are troubled. Traditionally, they have divided into two camps, largely on philosophical and dogmatic grounds:

  • Calvinists deny that true Christians can commit apostasy and lose their salvation, stressing the final perseverance of the saints.
  • Arminians agree that true Christians can indeed commit apostasy and lose their salvation, stressing the free will of man.
Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews
The best book I've seen that fairly lays out the main views of these warnings and points out the strengths and weaknesses of each position is Herbert W. Bateman IV (ed.), Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews (Kregel, 2007)
 

Of course, it's not nearly that simple. Many who might agree with Calvin on the perseverance of the saints would take exception with Calvinism's assertion of a Limited Atonement, for example. The truth is, there aren't just two interpretations, there are many.

My desire as we look at Hebrews is that we'll take seriously what the text actually says, not what we'd prefer it would say. Let's agree ahead of time to disagree respectfully with one another at some points, while being careful to place the clear teaching of Scripture above all our positions.

Do we have to fight? I certainly hope not! And in this online Bible study and Forum we agree to show love and humility at all times. We're not there to set each other straight. We seek to learn from God's Word.

Each of us has a tradition which has shaped our doctrine. But our job as disciples of Jesus Christ is to let the Scriptures, God's Word, be the final authority for us. The Word brings balance to our sometimes-extreme positions. Let's approach this passage with a heart to learn what the writer of Hebrews intended to teach. If it fits our preconceived notions, then well and good. If not, then we may need to re-think our theology a bit. When we're done, we may not all agree, but we will have spent some time studying God's Word -- surely better for that time and energy spent to understand.

Okay, here we go. But let's pray first: Dear Father, as we study this controversial passage, help us to hear the voice of the Spirit louder than any other voice. Help us to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches -- and to us. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Milk vs. Solid Food (5:11-14)

The writer of Hebrews begins by chiding his readers a bit -- kind of like a teacher in a class of students that would rather talk and throw spitballs than buckle down to learning:

"11We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. 12In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil." (5:11-14)

"We have much to say about this..." is a reference to the previous discussion of Jesus as our High Priest (4:14-5:10). He comes back to Jesus as High Priest in chapters 7 and 8 after an exhortation to continue on with Christ (6:1-12) and some words about God's sure promises to Abraham (6:13-20).

What he wants to tell them is "hard1 to explain" -- especially to people who are slow learners -- literally "lazy, sluggish."2 I'm currently taking a class at the local community college. Most of the students show up for class, but some are obviously doing else than listening to the instructor. It's not that they're stupid; they just haven't made up their minds to concentrate on learning what is being presented. They are passive learners, not active. The writer repeats this word "lazy" in 6:12 to prod his readers to action.

"You need milk, not solid food!" he says. If you're a parent you know the tricks to get your children's attention. You mix love, exhortation, with a bit of shame in an effort to make an impression.

Solid food -- for example, his teaching on Jesus as High Priest -- is for the mature.3 It may take a bit of chewing, but it is nourishing to the soul and energizing to the spirit.

Notice how he characterizes the mature believers:

"... who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil." (5:14b)

Look at three key words:

  1. "Constant use" (NIV), "reason of use" (KJV), or "practice" (NRSV) translate the noun  exis, which Bruce renders as "the habitus, experience, or skill acquired through practice."4 Christians develop finely-tuned spiritual understanding5 by the discipline of constant discernment.
  2. "Trained" (NIV, NRSV) or "exercised" (KJV) calls up the image of disciplined physical training that underlay the Greek Olympic ideal of physical perfection.6
  3. "Distinguish" (KJV, NRSV) or "discern" (NIV) is diakrisis, "the ability to distinguish and evaluate, distinguishing, differentiation."7

I see many people who attend church to be inspired by the worship and message, but don't go deeper to try to understand ("discern") for themselves the fine points of Bible teaching. Instead, they are content to have a preacher spoon-feed them when they are many years past being toddlers. Things haven't changed much since the first century!

But I'm "preaching to the choir." You're a person who is seeking to learn, or you wouldn't be reading this.

Q1. (Hebrews 5:14) How does a person become mature in God's Word according to verse 14? What can you do to grow in maturity?
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The Elementary Teachings about Christ (6:1-3)

"1Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, 2instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3And God permitting, we will do so." (6:1-3)

The writer of Hebrews is saying that he isn't going to go over old ground. They should have mastered this already. It's time to leave8 the basics9 and move on. Of course, what he considers the basics sometimes interest us:

  1. Repentance from sin
  2. Faith in God
  3. Baptisms10 -- probably John the Baptist's baptism and Christian baptism into Christ the Messiah that was practiced in Christian churches.
  4. Laying on of hands11 for healing, commissioning, or sending (Acts 6:6; 8:14-18; 19:6).
  5. Resurrection of the dead, probably both Christ's resurrection and the future resurrection at the Last Day -- the Christian hope (Hebrews 11:35; Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2; Matthew 22:31; John 5:29; Acts 17:31-32; 24:15; Romans 6:5; 14:10; 1 Corinthians 15:13-57; Philippians 3:21; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18; 2 Timothy 2:18).
  6. Eternal judgment, probably referring to the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:11-15).

It might be fun to camp here, but the writer of Hebrews urges us beyond this.

Spirit-Filled Believers? (6:4-5)

Now we come to one of the most difficult and controversial passages in the Bible, the third of the five warning passages in Hebrews. Even those who disagree with each other about the application of the passage struggle with it. One question any interpretation must answer: Why can't people be brought back to repentance? But let's have a start.:

"4It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, 6if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace." (6:4-6)

First, let's consider the writer's description of people who might "fall away" He calls them (using Aorist tense verbs to refer to a point in the past):

1. "Enlightened" is phōtizō, with the basic meaning of "to shine, to give light to." We get our word "photon" from this root. Here, it is used figuratively in reference to the inner life, "enlighten, give light to, shed light upon."12 "Once" is hapax, which means, "pertaining to a single occurrence, once." Here probably "once and for all."13 The writer is talking about a once-for-all enlightenment that these people have experienced at a particular time in the past. Bruce says, "The light of the gospel has broken in upon these people's darkness.... To give up the gospel would be to sin against the light, the one sin which by its very nature is incurable."14

2. "Tasted the heavenly gift." "Tasted" (geuomai) means more than "sampled," like we might do by touching something to the tip of our tongue. The word is used figuratively here to mean, "to experience something cognitively or emotionally, come to know something."15 Thayer says that from Homer on down the word is equivalent to "to feel, make trial of, experience."16 See its use in Luke 14:24. "Tasted" occurs in both verses 4 and 5. Scholars aren't sure exactly what "heavenly gift"17 refers to. It could refer to baptism (described by later Christian writers as "enlightenment"), the Eucharist (drawing on the symbolism of "tasted"), or be another way to refer to the Holy Spirit, mentioned in the next clause. Whatever it is, they haven't just sampled it, but fully experienced and entered into it. They aren't mere outside observers.

3. "Shared in the Holy Spirit." "Partakers" (KJV) or "shared in" (NIV, NRSV) is the noun metochos, "sharing in, participating in," from the verb metecho, "share, participate, partake with someone."18 Some try to soften this to mean something like "shared in the Spirit's gifts and operations" (as in Matthew 7:22-23), but the text says that they shared or participated in the Holy Spirit himself. Later in Hebrews, the writer talks about people who have "outraged the Spirit of grace" (10:29).

4. "Tasted the goodness of the word of God." "Word" here is rhēma, "that which is said, word, saying, expression, or statement of any kind."19 They had "experienced" the good effect of the Word of God in their own lives (1 Peter 2:3; 2 Peter 2:20; Matthew 13:21-22).

5. "Tasted ... the powers of the coming age." "Powers" is dunamis, "power, might, strength, force," here specifically, "a deed that exhibits ability to function powerfully, deed of power, miracle, wonder."20 They had experienced the miracles (2:4) expected in the Last Days, the age of the Messiah (Matthew 12:28). Jesus himself warned:

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" (Matthew 7:21-23)

The people he writes of were enlightened, knowledgeable, Spirit-filled, involved with in-depth Bible study, and had experienced miracles. I've known many people I could describe that way. It sounds pretty clear the way the writer of Hebrews paints it. Of course, some, fearing that this passage might conflict with their doctrines, have sought to soften or explain away the plain intent of the passage.

Q2. (Hebrews 6:4-5) What difference, if any, would you find between the description in verses 4-5 and a Spirit-filled Christian today? What is the writer's point in forming this description? Note: We agree to disagree, but we will disagree with love and humility toward one another in our words, as befitting genuine Christians! To keep us on track, let's limit our discussion to passages in Hebrews only, not the entire New Testament. Immoderate tirades will be removed from the Forum and poison tongues will lose their privileges to participate.
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Impossible to Restore to Repentance (6:4-6)

Now the hard part. What does the writer mean when he says it is "impossible" to restore them to repentance if they fall away?

"4It is impossible ... if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace." (6:4, 6)

Let's examine some of the words here.

"Impossible" is adunatos, "incapable of happening or being done, impossible."21 "Fall away" (parapiptō) means, literally, "fall beside," then "go astray, miss." In the papyri it means mostly, "become lost." Here the sense is: "to fail to follow through on a commitment, fall away, commit apostasy." 22 A.M. Stibbs characterizes this as "nothing less than a conscious, deliberate and persistent abandonment of the Christian way of salvation, an abandonment which involves nothing less than apostasy from the living God."23 Robertson says, "It is a terrible picture and cannot be toned down."24

In what sense is it impossible to restore25 them to repentance?26 The author isn't stating a theological doctrine so much as a practical truth. Bruce says:

"He is not questioning the perseverance of the saints; we might say that rather he is insisting that those who persevere are the true saints. But in fact he is stating a practical truth that has verified itself repeatedly in the experience of the church. Those who have shared the covenant privileges of the people of God, and then deliberately renounce them, are the most difficult persons of all to reclaim for the faith."27

The Scandal of Apostasy (6:6)

Lest his readers fail to grasp the terrible implications of turning back from Christ to their former Judaism, the writer characterizes it thus:

"... To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace." (6:6)

To turn away from their Savior to the Judaism that rejected Jesus and his salvation places them in the same company as those who crucified him28 and subjected him to the public disgrace29 of crucifixion.

While it is true that God forgives even the worst sins, and that as long as apostates reject the Savior there can be no salvation for them, Bruce notes that this passage

"... indicates why it is impossible for such people to repent and make a new beginning. God has pledged himself to pardon all who truly repent, but Scripture and experience alike suggest that it is possible for human beings to arrive at a state of heart and life where they can no longer repent."30

Of course, we can take comfort in the fact that what is impossible to man is still possible to God.

Q3. (Hebrews 6:4-6) What is apostasy? Why is it impossible from a practical standpoint to restore apostates to Christian faith and practice? What point was Jesus making in his Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)? What is Jesus' point of the Parable of the Tares or Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30)?
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Crops and Thorns (6:7-8)

Now the author employs an agricultural parable to indicate the final end for apostates.

"7Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. 8But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned." (6:7-8)

He compares believers to a well-watered and abundant harvest, while apostates are compared to a land that only produces thorns and thistles. To make the land usable and get rid of the thistle seeds, the field will need to be burned rather than harvested -- a sad reminder of hell.

A Practical Observation

One of the theological battlegrounds, of course, is over a doctrine known variously as "the eternal security of the believer," "once saved, always saved," "the perseverance of the saints," or "effectual calling." To hold a position that it is impossible for a truly born again Christian to lose his salvation, it is necessary to adopt one of the following approaches:

  1. Hebrews 6:4-5 doesn't necessarily describe a truly born again Christian
  2. This is somehow a hypothetical, not an actual case.31 Millard Erickson seeks to resolve some of the difficulty with the distinction: "While Hebrews 6 indicates that genuine believers can fall away, John 10 teaches that they will not."32
  3. Discredit the authority of the letter.

Whatever our final understanding, we must deal fairly with this text of scripture as it has been delivered to us.

Show Diligence to the Very End (6:9-12)

The writer closes this section with both a word of assurance and of exhortation:

"9Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case -- things that accompany salvation. 10God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. 11We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. 12We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised." (6:9-12)

He makes it clear that he isn't judging that such an end is true in the case of these readers. On the contrary, he says, "we are confident of better things in your case."

Nevertheless, he urges them not to slack off, but to remain diligent to the very end. "Diligence" (NIV) is spoudē, with the basic meaning of "haste, speed." Then, figuratively, "earnest commitment in discharge of an obligation or experience of a relationship, eagerness, earnestness, diligence, willingness, zeal." It was often used in Greco-Roman literature of extraordinary commitment to civic and religious responsibilities.33

The opposite of diligence is laziness (nōthros, also at 5:11). The word comes from , "not" + ōtheō, "to push," thus it carries the idea of "slow, sluggish, indolent, dull, languid."34 I can think of not a few Christian brothers and sisters whose faith could be described this way.

The purpose of diligence "to the very end" in following Christ is "in order to make your hope sure." "Sure" (NIV) or "full assurance" (KJV, NRSV) is plērophoria, "state of complete certainty, full assurance, certainty."35

Your firm expectation is eternal life after death, he is saying. Seek that with all your heart rather than being passive. Don't take it for granted, but press after it following the example of the Apostle Paul:

"Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:13-14)

This doesn't reflect some kind of "works-righteousness" or lack of faith. Rather it is the attitude of one full of faith and hope who presses on to see it become a reality because they believe it so passionately. And so we are to imitate those who pursue God with this kind of diligence.

Inheriting through Faith and Patience (6:12)

The passage closes with one of the strong themes of Hebrews:

"We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised." (6:12)

"Patience" is makrothumia, "state of being tranquil while awaiting an outcome, patience, steadfast, endurance."36 "Inherit" is klēronomeō, "to be an inheritor," then "to acquire, come into possession of," as in our passage.37

This theme of receiving the promise through faith and patience here serves here as a transition to Abraham's example:

"And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised." (6:15)

But this theme recurs several times in the Hebrews:

"But Christ is faithful as a son over God's house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast." (3:6)
"We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first." (3:14)
"You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised." (10:36)
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us." (12:1)

Indeed perseverance and patient endurance to the end is a theme of much of the New Testament (Matthew 10:22; 24:13; Luke 8:15; Romans 8:25; Galatians 6:9; 2 Timothy 1:14; 4:7; James 1:12; Revelation 3:10; 13:10; 14:12)

Q4. (Hebrews 6:12) If we take seriously the writer's exhortation to exercise both faith and patience for the long haul, what effect does that have on our Christian life? On our perspective? How can we resist the subtle temptation to think that our salvation depends upon our endurance rather than Christ's atonement and the grace of God?
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Hebrews: Discipleship Lessons, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson (paperback and e-book formats)
Lessons are also available in e-book and paperback formats.

We are called to follow -- through thick and thin, in good times and bad, in clarity and difficulty understanding God. And by God's grace we will "imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised" (6:12).

Prayer

Father, we don't understand this passage very well. We believers have often been guilty of being more interested in fighting about our doctrines than seeking the lost sheep that are straying. Give us Jesus' heart and a genuine humility towards one another and towards those who stray. Help us, we pray, to inherit your promises through faith and perseverance. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"4It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, 6if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace." (Hebrews 6:4-6)

"We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised." (Hebrews 6:12)

References

  1. "Hard" is dusermēneutos, "pertaining to being difficult to tell the meaning of, hard to explain." (BDAG 265)
  2. "Lazy" (NIV) is nōthros, "lazy, sluggish," also at 6:12. (BDAG 683).
  3. "Mature ones" is teleios, "pertaining to being mature, full-grown, mature, adult," here used as a substantive. (BDAG 995, 2.b.).
  4. Bruce Hebrews, p. 136, fn. 85. According to Danker, exis means "state of maturity". He notes: "With the exception of A. Souter, A Pocket Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (1916) ('condition, state'), lexicons of New Testament Greek, as well as versions and translations of the NT, generally render exis in our passage with 'exercise, practice'" (BDAG 350).
  5. "Faculties" (NRSV) and "senses" (KJV) is aisthētērion, literally, "organ of sense," here figuratively, "capacity for discernment, faculty, of the ability to make moral decisions" (BDAG 29).
  6. Gumnazō, "commonly used in literature of gymnastic exercises in the nude: 'exercise naked, train,' but also figuratively of mental and spiritual powers, 'to train, undergo discipline.'" From gumnos, "naked." (BDAG 208).
  7. Diakrisis, BDAG 231.
  8. "Leave" is aphiēmi, "leave, depart from," here figuratively, "leave (behind) to go onto something else" (BDAG 156, 3.b.)
  9. "Elemental things" is archē, "a basis for further understanding, beginning," here and Hebrews 5:12. (BDAG 138, 5.)
  10. "Baptisms" is baptismos, "water rite for purpose of renewing or establishing a relationship with God, plunging experience, baptism." (BDAG 165) Danker sees reference here to various water-rites, including probably John's baptism and Christian baptism.
  11. "Laying on" is epithesis, "the superimposing of something on something, laying on," referring to the laying on of hands here and Acts 8:18; 1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6 (BDAG 371).
  12. Phōtizō, BDAG 1074, 3.b.
  13. Hapax, BDAG 97, 2.; Vincent, in loc.
  14. Bruce, Hebrews, p. 146.
  15. Geuomai, BDAG 195, 2.
  16. Geuomai, Thayer, 114, 2.
  17. "Gift" is dōrea, "that which is given or transferred freely by one person to another, gift, bounty" (BDAG 266).
  18. Metochos, BDAG 642-643.
  19. Rhēma, BDAG 905.
  20. Dunamis, BDAG 262-263.
  21. Adunatos, BDAG 22, 2.a.
  22. Parapiptō, BDAG 770. Wilhelm Michaelis (piptō, ktl., TDNT 6:161-173) sees the meaning here as "to commit a fault" rather than "to fall away," but with no specific reference (also 10:26).
  23. A.M. Stibbs, "Hebrews," in The New Bible Commentary: Revised (Third edition; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970), Appendix 3: "The Warning Passages", p. 1220.
  24. Robertson, Word Pictures, in loc.
  25. "Renew" (KJV), "restore again" (NRSV), and "be brought back" (NIV) is anakainizō, "renew, restore." (BDAG 64).
  26. "Repentance" is metanoia, "repentance, turning about, conversion." (BDAG 640-641.)
  27. Bruce, Hebrews, p. 144,
  28. "Crucifying again" (anastauroō), according to Danker, means "always simply 'crucify'" with the preposition ana signifying "up" rather than "again" (BDAG 72).
  29. "Subject to public disgrace" (NIV), "holding up to contempt" (NRSV), "put to an open shame" (KJV) is paradeigmatizō, "to disgrace someone publicly, expose, make an example of" (BDAG 761)
  30. Bruce, Hebrews, p. 149.
  31. For example, Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Zondervan, 1994, 2000), p. 788-803; Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Judson Press, single volume edition, 1907), p. 885; Gerald F. Hawthorne, "Hebrews" in New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969), pp. 549-550. On the Arminian side see I. Howard Marshall, Kept by the Power of God (Second Edition; Bethany House, 1975).
  32. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Second Edition; Baker Academic, 1998), p. 1003.
  33. Spoudē, BDAG 939-940.
  34. Nōthros, Thayer, 431.
  35. Plērophoria, BDAG 827.
  36. Makrothumia, BDAG 612). While early Greek use meant "resignation" or "forced acceptance," later "endurance," in the Old Testament the word is used with theological depth to describe God's "longsuffering" or "forbearance." Forbearance, of course, is not renunciation but postponement with a view to repentance. In this light God's makrothumia is a gift. (Johannes Horst, makrothumia, TDNT 4:374-387.).
  37. Klēronomeō, BDAG 547, 2.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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