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Can a Genuine Christian Commit Apostasy?
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
What Does Hebrews 6:4-6 Teach?
Several suicidal people have asked me in all seriousness, "If I were to kill myself, would I go to heaven?" I hedge. But people who are emotionally sound also struggle with the question: Can a genuine Christian lose his1 salvation or even commit apostasy?
On the one hand, the "eternal security" camp argues that a person cannot become "unborn" and suggests that any seeming Christian who falls away clearly "did not really belong to us" (1 John 2:19). On the other hand, some Arminians go so far to suggest that losing one's salvation is exceedingly easy, and that a person may need to get saved again -- tonight!2
This text, Hebrews 6:4-6, provides an opportunity for us to let the Scripture speak directly to us on this issue. Instead of starting with our doctrine, we begin by looking at the sitz im leben or "life setting" of the letter itself, then to the context of this particular passage.
The Purpose of the Letter to the Hebrews
No matter who the author of the Hebrews was, it is clear that he expected his readers to be thoroughly acquainted with Old Testament persons, institutions, and texts, and with the Mosaic law. While the church to which he wrote was undergoing persecution, it had not yet experienced martyrdom (12:4).
It was probably not an exclusively Jewish church -- there were probably Gentile believers present -- but the arguments in the letter are intended to urge Jewish Christians not to turn away from Christ to their old Jewish faith. The author argues the superiority of Jesus over angels, the Mosaic law, the Levitical priesthood, the Sabbath, the temple, and the Old Testament sacrificial system. To turn back from Christ to these, he argues, is to "harden your hearts" (3:8), to "shrink back" (10:38), to lack the faith of the heroes of Judaism (chapter 11), and of Jesus himself, who braved persecution and death for the "hope that was set before him" (12:2).
This warning in 6:4-6, then, is intended to shock Jewish Christians into persevering in their faith, and to exhort them to resist the temptation of returning to their old Jewish belief and community in order to escape persecution. The danger the whole letter seeks to combat is apostasy. Apostasy is the specific sin facing the readers in this passage.
Context of 6:4-6
In 6:1-3 the writer exhorts his readers to leave the elementary teachings because apostates -- or those in danger of apostasy -- cannot be restored to repentance by going back to the foundational teachings. Instead, he seeks to encourage and steady them by teaching them some of the deeper truths of how Christ fulfilled the Old Covenant and its institutions.
Verses 4-6 (as well as 7-12) are parenthetical to the writer's argument, but important. Christ being superior to the Old Covenant is an appeal to their minds. But in the warnings of verses 4-6 he appeals to fear. The readers are rational beings, but the writer knows they are also emotional beings, and decisions are often made at the emotional, not just at the rational, level.
Were the Tempted Persons Genuine Christians?
One of the most important questions modern readers ask of this passage is: Were the people who are described in verses 4-5 genuine Christians? To answer that we need to examine the rather full description the author gives us, phrase by phrase. Here is the text:
"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)
The author first describes them as "enlightened." The Greek root, phōtizō is used figuratively of heavenly light, and means to "enlighten, give light to, shed light upon."3 Grammatically, this and the following descriptive verbs are Aorist participles, which probably refer to action prior to the present,4 indicating the background of the people to whom the warning concerns. F.F. Bruce believes that the term "enlightened" may refer to baptism -- a sense it bore among Christians in Rome in the middle of the second century.5 If so, the author of Hebrews sees the objects of the warning as having intimate knowledge of Christ and having been baptized.
Tasted the heavenly gift (4:4b)
Next, the ones being warned are said to have "tasted the heavenly gift." "Taste" is from the root geuomai and means to "taste, partake of, enjoy," and then in a figurative sense, as in this text, to "come to know something, obtain a gift"6 Ellingworth says the word means to "'eat' (or 'drink'), not merely 'taste,' hence figuratively, 'experience (to the full).'"7 Later, this idea was used of the Eucharist,8 though, I look instead to the idea of the "gift of the Holy Spirit" promised to believers (Acts 2:38), which is referred to in the next clause. Whatever the exact reference of dorea, "gift," the subjects here had eaten or drunk of that gift (1 Corinthians 12:13b), and were not outsiders to the central blessings of Christianity.
Shared in the Holy Spirit (4:4c)
Those being warned were also "sharing" or "participating in"9 (metochos) the Holy Spirit. Metochos is also used of business partners and companions. In other words, they had received the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38), and could even have been used in miraculous spiritual gifts (Matthew 7:21-22). They were not mere observers, but full sharers in the Christian experience.
Tasted the goodness of the Word of God (4:5a)
That they were not just onlookers is confirmed here by their interest in God's words. The word here is rhēma, which emphasizes the immediacy of "that which is said," as well as "word, saying, expression."10 They had fed on the teaching of the congregation and may have heard words of prophecy in the congregation (cf. 1 Corinthians 14).
And the powers of the Age to come (4:5b)
The word "powers" (dunamis) here refer to outward expressions of power: "deed of power, miracle, wonder," though also refer to the more basic definition: "power, might, strength, force."11 In other words, they had experienced God's power in their own spiritual lives and had probably witnessed miracles in the congregation as well (2:4).
Is this description clear enough to identify a genuine Christian? Gerald F. Hawthorne isn't so sure. He finds it
"... Necessary to point out ... that these descriptive expressions are susceptible of more than one interpretation, and, in their less than 'ultimate' meaning, may be applied to 'professing' Christians as well as to 'genuine' believers... The writer ... may have intended to describe one who has all the ear-marks of Christianity and who yet is not a real Christian. The one proof of genuineness is a continuing loyalty which keeps faith to the very end. "12
I find Hawthorne's rationalization hard to reconcile our author's words. It seems that the writer of Hebrews has taken pains to describe an insider, one who has experienced the wonder and joy of the Lord. If Hawthorne isn't satisfied with the writer's description, what evangelical buzz-words would satisfy him? I expect that since this passage doesn't fit his theology, he can't see clearly.
If they then commit apostasy (4:6a)
After describing real Christians, the author of Hebrews then introduces the fatal condition, committing apostasy. The word used is the Aorist participle of parapiptō. In the Greek Old Testament, parapiptō means "to offend, to fall, to sin,"13 but here it probably carries the idea of to "fall away, commit apostasy."14 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."15
On a pastoral note, Christians who read this passage sometimes fear that they themselves have fallen away. Some are petrified that they have somehow committed this sin. What kind of sin qualifies? F.F. Bruce observes,
"The writer to the Hebrews himself distinguishes between inadvertent sin and willful sin (2:2; 5:2), and the context here shows plainly that the willful sin which he has in mind is deliberate apostasy..."16
Impossible to restore (4:6b)
The Greek sentence structure of verse 4, places the word "impossible" (adunatos) in first position, several lines away from the verbs which it modifies, thus drawing strong attention to the impossibility of the situation.17 But why is restoration to repentance impossible? Commentators do not agree.
Donald Guthrie examines the psychological and spiritual barriers.
"Since repentance is an act involving the self-humbling of the sinner before a holy God, it is evident why a man with a contemptuous attitude towards Christ has no possibility of repentance. The hardening process provides an impenetrable casing which removes all sensitivity to the pleadings of the Spirit. There comes a point of no return, when restoration is impossible."18
Discussing this passage's use of anakainizō, "renew, restore," Johannes Behm sees the connotation "to bring to conversion again."
"The seriousness of the distinctive teaching of Hebrews that there is no second repentance is here shown from the standpoint of the Christian teacher who is speaking. He and his fellow-teachers cannot bring complete apostates to a new beginning which will lead to conversion. The miracle of becoming a kaine ktisis ["new creation"] occurs only once."19
"Once Christ and his sacrifice have been rejected, there is nowhere else to turn. The 'impossibility' of a second repentance is thus not psychological, or more generally related to the human condition; it is in the strict sense theological, related to God's saving action in Christ."20
Since they crucify the Son of God on their own account (4:6c)
The real reason that repentance is impossible in the case of Christian Jews returning to their Judaism, is brought out in all its horror by the author -- crucifixion. While anastauroō sometimes means simply "crucify" (with the prefix ana signifying "up"), here the context requires "crucify again" (ana = "again").21 Heatois, with the dative of advantage, makes the crucifixion even more personal, "they crucify the Son of God on their own account" (RSV) or "to their own hurt."22
By aligning themselves with those who brought Christ to the cross, they thus commit the same sin as these did. Alford quotes the German commentator F. Bleek, who puts it strikingly:
"They tear Him out of the recesses of their hearts where He had fixed his abode, and exhibit Him to the open scoffs and reproach of the world, as something powerless and common."23
By their turning against Jesus, they hold him up to contempt (paradeigmatizō), just as he had been "made a public example of"24 when he had been crucified. Ellingworth comments, "The apostate causes the shame of the cross to be re-enacted."25
Is the Case Hypothetical?
Now that we have examined what the words of the text seems to mean, we need to ask what the author intended the readers to make out of it. Granted, he assures his readers that "we are confident of better things in your case -- things that accompany salvation" (6:9). Were they to take it seriously? Are we?
Bruce quotes Kenneth Wuest as saying that "having fallen away" is "a conditional participle here presenting a hypothetical case, a straw man," and that the sin in question "cannot be committed today since no temple and no sacrifices are in existence, and no transition period obtains." Bruce is not impressed. "Biblical writers ... are not given to the setting up of men of straw," he responds. "The warning of this passage was a real warning against a real danger, a danger which is still present so long as 'an evil heart of unbelief' can result in 'deserting the living God' (3:12)."26
Hebrews scholar Lincoln Hurst sees the writer as a pastor at heart, even amidst the awesome threats in this letter. He doesn't want to discourage them beyond the point of no return, says Hurst, so he pulls his punches, alternating warnings with encouragement.27 Perhaps the writer of Hebrews took the attitude of Chrysostom, who said, "It is better that I should scare you with words than that you should sorrow in deeds."28
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So can a genuine Christian commit apostasy? If the person in danger of apostasy described in this passage was not a real Christian, then real Christians don't exist! This is not to say that all suicides necessarily result in eternal damnation; our merciful God is the judge of the troubled soul. However, the whole tone of the Letter of Hebrews is a rational but passionate exhortation to Jewish Christians to persevere in their faith, and not turn back to their old way. We must believe that he was in earnest, that his warnings were real.
This paper was written in July 1993 as part of a class on Hebrews.
- Rest assured that the use of the male pronoun in this paper is in no way intended to suggest that women cannot also lose their salvation. The male pronoun is used generically, and "his/her" is avoided for the sake of simplicity.
- When I was in college I attended a meeting at Kenny Forman's church in San Jose where a chorus was sung with the words, "... I'm saved today, no evil have I done..."
- Phōtizō, Walter Bauer and Frederick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, (Third Edition, abbreviation BDAG; based on previous English editions by W.F. Arndt, F.W. Gingrich, and F.W. Danker; University of Chicago Press, 1957, 1979, 2000), p. 873.
- H.E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Macmillan Co., 1927, 1955), sec. 202(1); and F. Blass, A. Debrunner, and Robert W. Funk, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (University of Chicago Press, 1961), sec. 339.
- F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (The New International Commentary on the New Testament; revised edition; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), p. 145. Bruce notes that Justin (First Apology 61:12f; 65:1) uses the verb phōtizō and the noun phōtismos to describe baptism (footnote 39). On the Hebrews passage, he also says, "The use of 'enlightenment' in the sense of baptism need not be a borrowing from the language of the mysteries; it is quite in line with New Testament teaching," and supports this from John's teachings about Christ as the Light, and Ephesians 5:14 as a possible excerpt from a baptismal hymn.
- Geuomai, BDAG 195.
- Paul Ellingworth, Commentary on Hebrews (New International Greek Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), p. 320.
- Bruce, p. 146.
- Metochos, BDAG 643.
- Rhēma, BDAG 905.
- Dunamis, BDAG 262-263.
- Gerald F. Hawthorne, "Hebrews" in New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969), pp. 549-550.
- Wilhelm Michaelis, "piptō, ktl.," in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [Abbreviation: TDNT], Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich (editors), Geoffrey W. Bromiley (translator and editor), (Eerdmans, 1964-1976; translated from Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, ten volume edition) 6:161-173, especially pp. 170-171.
- Parapiptō, BDAG, p. 621.
- 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.
- Bruce, pp. 148-149. William Barclay offers a helpful insight on apostasy. "It was written in an age of persecution: and in any age of persecution apostasy is the supreme sin. In any age of persecution a man can save his life by denying Christ; but every person who, to save his life or comfort, denies Christ, aims a body-blow at the Church, for it means that his life and comfort are dearer to him than his religion; it means that Jesus Christ is not really his Lord; it means that there is something more precious to him than Jesus Christ... What it is meant to show is the terrible seriousness of choosing existence instead of Christ." The Letter to the Hebrews (The Daily Study Bible; Edinburgh: St Andrew Press, 1955), pp. 57-58.
- Bishop Westcott calls its position "singularly impressive." Brooke Foss Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970, reprinted from the 1892 Macmillan edition), loc. cit.
- Donald Guthrie, Hebrews (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), p. 145.
- Johannes Behm, "kainos, ktl.," TDNT 3:447-454, esp. 451.
- Ellingworth, p. 323.
- Bauer, Gingrich, and Danker, p. 61, who note that "the ancient translators and Greek fathers understood it so." So also Johannes Schneider, "stauros, ktl.," TDNT 7:572-584, especially p. 584; Ellingworth, p. 324.
- Ellingworth, p. 325; Wescott, p. 151.
- F. Bleek, Der Brief an die Hebraer erlautert u.s.w., 3 vols., Berlin 1828-1840, quoted in Henry Alford, The Greek Testament (with revision by Everett F. Harrison; Chicago: Moody Press, 1958, reprinted from the fifth edition), 4:112.
- Paradeigmatizō, BDAG 761, "to disgrace someone publicly, expose, make an example of."
- Ellingworth, p. 325.
- K.S. Wuest, "Hebrews Six in the Greek New Testament," Bibliotheca Sacra 119 (1962), pp. 45-53, quoted by Bruce, p. 52.
- Lincoln Hurst, lecture on Hebrews, Fuller Theological Seminary, Sacramento extension, 15 July 1993.
- Quoted by Barclay, p. 60.
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