Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so. It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. Land 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. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned. Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation. God 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. We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. (Hebrews 6:1-9 NIV).
These verses of Scripture have been the cause of great debate among sincere Christians. Those who believe a true Christian may lose his salvation are convinced that they have absolute proof for their position in these verses. Those who believe it is impossible for a true Christian to lose his salvation insist these same verses teach how close one can come to being truly converted and still be short of true conversion. The first group, labeled Arminians, insist that these verses clearly describe a true Christian who has fallen from grace and is lost. The person described (1) had been “enlightened,” (2) “had tasted the heavenly gift,” (3) had “shared in the Holy Spirit,” (4) had “tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, (5) had “fallen away,” and (6) could not be “brought back to repentance.” The writer of Hebrews specifically says these people had lost their salvation and could not be restored. (7) They “are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” The description, at least on the surface, surely seems to be describing a true Christian. The Arminian fails to note that not a single term connected with conversion is mentioned in any of the verses. There is no mention of faith, regeneration, justification or sanctification.
The other group, called Calvinists, show how each one of the things describing the person in Hebrews 6:4-6 can very easily be describing a person whose confession of faith was a false confession. The Calvinist insists the person was never truly converted. You cannot “fall away” from something you never had in the first place. Nearly every standard commentary will give an exegesis of the things describing the person in Hebrews 6:4-6 and prove the person was a false professor who was never saved.
Two basic problems are evident in trying to understand these verses. First, there is a failure to understand to whom the warnings against “going back” were written, and second, there is a failure to understand what the people being warned were in danger of “falling away from and to what they were being exhorted to hold on to.” It is essential to see that the warnings are addressed primary to Jews who had professed faith in Christ as the Messiah but were having second thoughts and were in danger of going back to Judaism. The typical approach that sees Hebrews as exhorting immature Christians to grow in grace is certainly a biblical truth, but it is not the message of the Book of Hebrews and is surely not the message of Hebrews 6:1-6. It is true that all professing believers, whether Jew or Gentile, must persevere in faith. However, the Book of Hebrews is not concerned with Gentiles failing to grow in grace. The writer is primarily concerned with Jews who were in danger of totally denying Christ and going back to Judaism. The Book of Hebrews is about the Jewish professing Christians failure to understand and embrace the new covenant. They could not accept the fact that Moses, the old covenant, and all that was embodied in Judaism had been done away and replaced with the new and better covenant. I have often emphasized that two things happened at Pentecost that the Jews just could not accept.
One: The New Testament insistence that the believing Gentile Christians were raised from being nobodies to a place of equality in Christ with the Jew. The old distinction of the special position of the Jew as the special people of God had been done away, and there was now “neither Jew nor Gentle,” but all believers were “one in Christ.” Two: The unbelieving Jew was lowered to the same level as the unbelieving Gentile. All of the special promises that made Israel a chosen and special people were no longer in effect. The new covenant insisted that not only was Jesus Christ the subject of the Old Testament, but all of the fulfilled promises of all of the Old Testament included the Gentiles.
Hebrews 5 and 6 uses phrases that can only be referring to professing Jews. The writer said these professing Jews needed to go back and learn “the first principles of the oracles of God” (Heb. 5:12). “Oracles of God” does not, as most writers claim, refer to the gospel. “The principles of the doctrine of Christ” they were to leave behind were the prophesies of Christ in the Old Testament.
What are the elementary principles of the oracles of God? Stoicheia (“elementary principles”) means that which comes first. In reference to language, it meant the letters of the alphabet as the basic parts of words—the ABCs.
Oracles of God does not refer to the gospel. Those being addressed were Jews, and to them the oracles of God meant the Old Testament. The oracles of God were the laws of God, the mind of God revealed in the Old Testament. Having been entrusted with God’s oracles was a great advantage for the Jews (Rom. 3:1-2). It was the rudiments of the Old Testament revelation, the law, which they needed to be taught again. They had had considerable exposure to the New Covenant, but they did not even comprehend the Old, as evidenced by their lack of ability to handle deeper truth about Melchizedek.
These Jews did not even understand the meaning of their own law. They needed someone to go back and show them the pictures again. They were not ready to read a book; they had to go back to the ABCs—the elementary picture- truths of ordinances, ceremonies, sacrifices, holy days, washings. These foreshadowed Christ, and they could not recognize Him unless they understood the pictures.1
The things of Christ revealed in the Old Testament were fulfilled. They were pictures of Christ, but the person pictured, the Messiah, had come and fulfilled the pictures. The old covenant was the ABCs. We start learning with the ABCs before we are able to read a book, but after we learn to read we move on from the ABCs. The “perfection” that the Hebrews were being urged to pursue is not sinless perfection but the new covenant. 1 Corinthians 13:10 uses the word “perfect” the same way. “But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away” (NKJV). “That which is perfect” is the New Testament Scriptures. John MacArthur has an excellent quotation on the subject.
The elementary teaching about the Christ (Messiah) that the unbelieving Jews were to leave was the Old Testament teaching about Him—another indication that it is not immature Christians (“babes”) that are being addressed. We are never to leave the basics, the elementary teachings, of the gospel, no matter how mature we grow in the faith. Remember, the issue here is not that of growing in spiritual maturity as a Christian, but of coming into the first stage of spiritual maturity by becoming a Christian. It is a matter of dropping, leaving, putting away, that which we have been holding onto and taking up something entirely new. Therefore it can only be a reference to unbelievers, because at no time does the Word of God suggest that a Christian drop the basics of Christianity and go on to something else. It is the provisions and principles of the Old Covenant, of Judaism, that are to be dropped. It is not a question of adding to what one has. It is a question of abandoning what you have for something else. This is precisely what the Holy Spirit asked the Hebrews to do—to abandon the shadows, the types, the pictures, and the sacrifices of the old economy and come to the reality of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. A paraphrase could be, “Leave the pictures of the Messiah and go on to the Messiah Himself,” or “Drop the Old Covenant and accept the New.”2
I agree with the comments by most commentators proving that such a person as described in Hebrews 6:4-6 cannot be truly converted. However, I do not believe that is the point being established in the text. The primary concern of the writer to the Hebrews is warning them of the consequences of forsaking the new covenant and going back to Judaism. He is not trying to prove the people described are, or are not, true Christians. He is not primarily concerned with whether a true Christian can, or cannot “fall from grace” and be lost. He is insisting that perseverance in the religion of the new covenant is essential to true salvation. Biblical salvation has a beginning in regeneration, a progression in sanctification and a finishing in glorification. If anyone, including a professed Christian who, at the moment gives every evidence their profession is genuine, does not persevere in faith but “falls away,” he cannot be saved.
The key to understanding Hebrews 6:4-6 is the beginning of verse 6. The NIV translates the verse “if they fall away” and the HCSB3 translates it “who have fallen away” The NIV is much better. The HCSB is saying that those described had already fallen away. The NIV says they were in danger of falling away. The writer had great concerns about them but was nonetheless “persuaded better things” of them (verse 9).
Whether those addressed could, or could not, be truly converted and fall from grace is immaterial in the texts. What is vital is that if these people, or anyone else, apostatize from the faith they will be lost. No one, regardless of who they are, can quit believing the gospel and still go to heaven. Perseverance in faith is absolutely essential to true conversion. Whether the people addressed, or anyone else, can possibly “fall from grace” is not the point in this passage. The point is that you must keep on believing, or you will be lost. A statement by our Lord is most helpful.
Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you” (John 8:54-55 NIV).
Jesus here used the word “if” the same way the writer used the word in Hebrews 3:14 and 6:6. Could Jesus possibly lie? We would all say, “No, that is not possible.” If he had said, “I do not know the Father,” would he have been lying? Absolutely! Does that mean it was essential that he always tell the truth and never lie? Absolutely! Can a true believer quit believing the Gospel and fall from Grace? No. If any “professed” Christian quits “believing”, would he fall from grace and be lost? Absolutely! Does the fact that he cannot fall from grace mean it is not essential that he keep on believing? Nonsense! You must realize that Hebrews 6:4-6 is not discussing whether a true Christian can, or cannot, fall from grace. Let the text mean what it says. Don’t bring a theological problem to the text that is not in the text. It is stating the absolute necessity of keeping on persevering in the faith as revealed in the new covenant.
It is essential that we understand what it means to “fall away” in this text. Exactly what are the Hebrew Christians being exhorted to avoid falling from and what are they being exhorted to do? To the Jew who had professed faith in Christ as the Messiah, it meant not going back to Moses but holding fast to the new covenant. For the Gentile it meant continuing to believe in Christ and follow him as Lord and Savior.
We must be careful that we don’t make perseverance mean that we ultimately “earn” salvation by our perseverance. Hebrews 3:14 is very helpful on this subject.
For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end. (KJV)
Notice carefully the tense of the verbs in relationship to our partaking of Christ. It does not say, “we will partake of Christ if we hold steadfast to the end.” That would mean our partaking of Christ was a future reward for perseverance and that would be Arminianism. The text carefully insists that our holding fast is the proof that we have truly partaken of Christ. We partake of Christ the moment we receive him as our Lord and Savior. The evidence we have partaken of Christ, and we are not an empty professor is our perseverance. That is where the big IF comes into play. This text, Hebrews 3:14, is saying the same thing as Hebrews 6:4-6.
Another text that will help us is Matthew 26:20-22.
Now when the even was come, he sat down with the twelve. And as they did eat, he said, “Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.” And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto him, “Lord, is it I?” (KJV)
Rolph Barnhard, a Southern Baptist evangelist of another generation, used this passage to mock easy believism. He would describe Jesus as saying to the twelve disciples, “One of you will betray me.” He would then describe Peter, John and James each asking our Lord in an anxious tone of voice, “Lord, is it I?” All the disciples, except Judas, asked the same question, “Lord, is it I?” However Judas alone said, “Not me, once saved always saved.”
Suppose you were in a Bible study with eleven other Christians and our Lord appeared and said, “One of you is an apostate and will desert me and be lost.” Would you, and everyone else in the group, say, “Lord is it I,” or would you look around the room and wonder which one of those other people Jesus was talking about. Would your belief in eternal security keep you from doubting the least bit? Can you believe the Bible clearly teaches that it is not possible for a true Christian to fall from grace and be lost and also, at the same time, believe it is possible for you personally to fall from grace and be lost? In other words is it possible to “preach your own election” and be deceived and be a false professor? Must you, and every other professing Christian “endure to the end” in order to go to heaven. If you don’t endure but give up and apostatize from the faith, will you be lost? Whether Hebrews 6:4-6 is, or isn’t, teaching that a true Christian can, or cannot, fall from grace in no way diminishes the truth that you must endure to the end to be saved. The fact that we believe all true Christians will endure to the end does not mean that it is not necessary to warn professing Christians that they must persevere in faith unto the end.
The “principles of Christ” in Hebrews 6:1-2 are not the basic and elementary doctrines of the Christian faith. They are the elementary doctrines of the old covenant. This is contrary to the standard interpretation of Covenant Theology. The following statement by Albert Barnes is typical of that view.
An exhortation to leave the elements or rudiments of the Christian religion, and to go on to the contemplation of the higher doctrines. The elements were the doctrines of repentance, faith, laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. These entered into the very nature of Christianity. They were its first principles, and were indispensable. The higher doctrines related to other matters, which the apostle called them now to contemplate; Hebrews 6:1-3.4
For an exposition of these verses from a new covenant perspective see A. W. Pink’s commentary on Hebrews 6:1-3, Infancy and Maturity5.
I remember when I was first converted. On Sunday evenings after church we would gather at someone’s house and discuss the Scripture. We had a lot of zeal and little knowledge. Most of the time we merely “rubbed our heads of ignorance together and hoped the genie of truth would jump out.” We spent many evenings discussing “eternal security.” I do not remember ever discussing one time what “laying on of hands” in Hebrews 6:2 meant. I remember we often discussed Hebrews 6:4-6 but never discussed Hebrews 6:1-3. We had not yet learned the importance of “context.” These latter verses were certainty not the “first principles” of our faith.
There are two serious errors that are ever lurking in our theology. One is legalism and the other one is antinomianism. Both errors misunderstand the relationship between law and grace. All covenant theologians are not legalists, but that system can easily lead to legalism. All dispensationalists are not antinomian but that system can easily lead to antinomianism. Both Covenant Theology and dispensationalism fail to understand that the old covenant is done away in its entirety. They fail to see that is the same as saying, “Judaism is completely done away and replaced with Christianity.”
There is a constant danger of trying to Judaize Christianity and Christianize Judaism. Understanding the message of Hebrews will go a long way in protecting us from both errors.
1John F. MacArthur, Hebrews, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Macarthur New Testament Commentary Series) (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983), 132-133.
3Holman Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN, Holman Bible Pub- lishers: 2005)
4Albert Barnes, http://www.stu- dylight.org/commentaries/bnb/ view.cgi?bk=57&ch=6 (Accessed 9/22/2014).
5Arthur W. Pink, An Exposition of Hebrews (Blacksburg, VA, Wilder Publications LLC.: 2008), 166ff.