Adapted from a seminary paper.

It is probably apparent for even the newest Bible readers that Hebrews 6:4–6 is one of the most difficult passages in the Bible to interpret. A plain reading of the passage may cause one suddenly to question the precious doctrine of eternal security. Worse yet, one may conclude — with eternal security out of the way — that one who once made a profession of Christ but later strayed from the faith can no longer repent. The stakes get higher when we remind ourselves that we are talking about real people. For many people who were raised in the church, the eternal destination of family members who have strayed from their profession comes into serious question.

Hodges does well to summarize four prevalent interpretations of the passage.

1) that the danger of a Christian losing his salvation is described, a view rejected because of biblical assurances that salvation is a work of God which cannot be reversed; (2) that the warning is against mere profession of faith short of salvation, or tasting but not really partaking of salvation (The New Scofield Reference Bible, p. 1315); (3) that hypothetically if a Christian could lose his salvation, there is no provision for repentance (The Ryrie Study Bible, p. 1843); (4) that a warning is given of the danger of a Christian moving from a position of true faith and life to the extent of becoming disqualified for further service (1 Cor. 9:27) and for inheriting millennial glory.[1]

This essay will examine the text as best as possible given space limitations and finds that the second option above is that which the author of Hebrews intends in the text.

Immediate Contextual Considerations

Preceding Context

A one-word summary of the immediately preceding context is maturity. The author of Hebrews wishes for his direct readers to develop into spiritual maturity. By the author’s observation, the readers have “become sluggish of hearing.”[2] This is made manifest in how they still “have need of someone to teach you again the beginning elements of the oracles of God.”[3] The author goes on to illustrate this issue metaphorically by contrasting the need for milk versus the need for solid food. The latter is those who “have trained their faculties for the distinguishing of both good and evil.”[4]

The following two verses (6:1–2) fall under a διὸ (dio) clause, which tells us that this is an inference drawn from the previous context.[5] Because the direct audience requires elementary instruction and needs “milk” rather than “solid food,” they should rather “move” or “be moved on” “to maturity” (6:1). The use of the present middle/passive subjunctive morphology φερώμεθα (pherometha) here is especially curious. If we take the meaning to be passive, it implies the divine actor moving the readers to maturity. If we take the middle voice, the readers carry themselves. In either case, though, the present tense leads me to prefer a sense of customary action.[6] The remainder of v. 1 and all of v. 2 go on to describe the basic teachings upon which the readers are not to focus as they move towards maturity. Verse 3 is a vow to execute the exhortation (φερώμεθα) of verse 1, “if God permits” — a condition which hearkens back to the middle/passive morphology of φερώμεθα. Although human action is involved in this movement, divine enablement remains essential.[7]

As the reader now approaches our passage in question, vv. 4–6, one is immediately confronted with the explanatory conjunction γάρ (gar).[8] We may thus understand that the whole of vv. 4–8 — however properly interpreted — is a reason why the readers should move towards maturity.

Following Context

Although not the primary crux of the interpretational debate, verses 7 and 8 belong to the unit of thought as verses 4–6. The explanatory[9] conjunction γὰρ in verse 7 serves to subordinate the whole of vv. 7 and 8 as an illustration which gives reason to the teaching of vv. 4–6.

The following unit of thought begins in verse 9 with the adversative conjunction δὲ (de)[10] which appears to “soften the blow” of vv. 4–8.  France observes that v. 9 “hasten[s] to reassure them…that his solemn words do not describe their present situation.” [11] This itself is not enough to determine whether those being described in vv. 4–8 are unbelievers or believers, but we do know that it is not describing the historical audience of Hebrews at least at the time it was written and received.

Whom is the Author Describing?

Commentators differ as to whether the people described in vv. 4–8 are unbelievers (MacArthur[12], Barmby[13], Calvin[14]) or believers (Hodges[15], France[16], Allen[17]). Even if we were to assume for purposes of this paper that true believers cannot lose their salvation, the question of whom the author describes remains. If the author describes unbelievers who have otherwise been functioning members of the community of believers, then this portion of text serves to warn unbelievers among the group that they must repent and follow Christ soon lest they lose their only opportunity, whether anthropologically or divinely. If the author describes believers — assuming that true believers cannot lose their salvation — then what is meant by παραπεσόντας (parapesontas) (v. 6) is something other than loss of one’s security in Christ.

If we translate these participial phrases of vv. 4–5 as temporal — describing previous experiences of the group — we arrive at the following descriptions.

  1. This group has “once been enlightened.”
  2. This group has “tasted the gift of heaven” or “heavenly gift.”
  3. This group has “tasted the word of God and the powers [or miracles] of the age to come.”
  4. This group has “fallen away.”
  5. It is impossible “to renew [this group] again to repentance.”

Hodges[18] and France[19] both argue that the enlightenment metaphor refers to a genuine conversion experience. The former cites 2 Cor 4:3–6 and Heb 10:32 as evidence that genuine conversion must be in view. [20] However, the former example is the noun form of the term, and it is the context of Hebrews, especially 6:9, that produces the understanding of genuine belief in 10:32, not φωτίζω itself. Every true believer has obviously experienced φωτίζω in the sense of the gospel truth.  MacArthur argues that this refers to an “intellectual perception” rather than a conversion[21], and the lexical evidence bears this out. Within BDAG, this use in 6:4 cleanly falls into the category, “to make known in reference to the inner life or transcendent matters and thus enlighten, enlighten, give light to, shed light upon,”[22] which does not require conversion. Related usages such as that in Eph 1:18 don’t require an understanding of genuine initial conversion.

A second sticky lexical issue involves the understanding of tasting. Hodges points out lexically that Christ’s tasting of death (2:9) certainly wasn’t a small sampling[23], but MacArthur maintains that this is simply to “partake” partially, as “He went on to drink it all.”[24] The tasting of death also appears in Matt 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27, but here as with Heb 2:9, we’re dealing with something that has a greater sense of finality rather than, for example, wine (Matt 27:34) or dinner (Luke 14:24). Neither of these non-death usages requires entire consumption of the object, especially the former!

Much more can be written concerning these five points, but this is enough to establish and argue that the author of Hebrews here is describing unbelievers —more specifically, unbelievers who have received an intellectual enlightenment of the truth of the Gospel. Such unbelievers cannot “fall away” in the sense of losing their salvation, as they never had it. Rather, they fall away in the sense of their rejection of the Gospel message to which they had been enlightened, which we may consider akin to blasphemy of the Holy Spirit in Matt 12:31; Mark 3:28; Luke 12:10.[25] To do this is a most contemptuous offense against the gospel (v. 6). These rightly understood senses of enlightenment and tasting come together in v. 5 to form the understanding that these unbelievers had seen various miracles (δύναμις) take place and yet did not believe them[26], much like the gospel accounts.

What Exactly is Made Impossible, and for Whom?

As one should expect, much of what is argued in verse 6 concerning what is made ἀδύνατον (adunaton, “impossible”) is dependent on the conclusion one draws from the preceding discussion. Having established that the people in question in vv. 4–5 are unbelievers, we may rule out understandings by which only one or more privileges of genuine believers may be permanently lost. Moreover, this also rules out the heretical interpretation that a genuine believer whose salvation is lost can never regain it, as it is impossible for him to lose it in the first place. As much as we would like to avoid the harsh warning that some unbelievers may only have a certain period of time within life, rather than within one’s entire life, in which they may come to faith in Christ, it appears that this passage teaches this very uncomfortable truth. Calvin writes,

It is a warning very necessary to us, lest by often delaying until to-morrow, we should alienate ourselves more and more from God. The ungodly indeed deceive themselves by such sayings as this,—that it will be sufficient for them to repent of their wicked life at their last breath. But when they come to die, the dire torments of conscience which they suffer, prove to them that the conversion of man is not an ordinary work.[27]

This understanding fits cleanly with our understanding of the preceding and following context, wherein the author is convinced that he is addressing genuine believers (v. 9), but they nonetheless must begin moving towards maturity so that they do not end up apostatizing.

Conclusion

In light of having concluded that Hebrews 6:4–6 is a warning to unbelievers within a believing community to come to true and saving faith, we should apply this passage in the church and in our own personal lives. Many of our friends and co-workers have grown up in the church and may have even made an early profession of faith but haven’t followed through with it. Such friends need to be reminded urgently of the gospel. Others may attend church even on a weekly basis out of a sense of devotion but never really have come to true, saving faith. Reading 1 John is a great thing to suggest to such attendees, and understanding this warning in Hebrews will also remind that for many, the window of opportunity to repent and believe can be very short, and the cutoff of that window may be long before one’s death bed.

 

[1] Zane C. Hodges, “Hebrews,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, Logos ed. (Wheaton, Ill: Victor Books, 1985), 794.

[2] Heb 5:11. All translations are the student’s own unless otherwise noted.

[3] Heb 5:12, LEB.

[4] Heb 5:14, LEB.

[5] BDAG, 250.

[6] Daniel B Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, Accordance ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 521–522.

[7] John MacArthur, Hebrews, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983), 122.

[8] Wallace, ExSyn, 673.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 671.

[11] R. T. France, “Hebrews,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Tremper Longman and David E. Garland, Revised ed. Logos ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2006), 82.

[12] MacArthur, Hebrews, 123.

[13] Note on Hebrews 6:4–6 in J Barmby and C Jerdan, Hebrews, ed. H.D.M. Spence, Logos ed., The Pulpit Commentary (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1909).

[14] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews, trans. John Owen, Logos ed. (Bellingham, Wa.: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 136.

[15] Hodges, “Hebrews,” 794.

[16] France, “Hebrews,” 83.

[17] David L. Allen, Hebrews, The New American Commentary 35 (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Publ. Group, 2010), 350.

[18] Hodges, “Hebrews,” 794.

[19] France, “Hebrews,” 82.

[20] Hodges, “Hebrews,” 794.

[21] MacArthur, Hebrews, 123.

[22] BDAG, 1074.

[23] Hodges, “Hebrews,” 794.

[24] MacArthur, Hebrews, 124.

[25] Barmby and Jerdan, Hebrews, 160.

[26] MacArthur, Hebrews, 125; BDAG, 263.

[27] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, trans. William Pringle (Bellingham, Wa.: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 139.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s