4For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, 5And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, 6If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame. – Hebrews 6:4-6
The thought here is that these are Christians who were once enlightened, had been made partakers of the Holy Ghost, had tasted the good word of the Lord, and experienced God’s power, only to fall away (apostatized). But let’s have a closer look.
Heb. 5:12 For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. 13For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. 14But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
To properly understand Hebrews 6:4-6, we must begin at Hebrews 5:12. To be brief, the context is that of backslidden Christians, and there are several ways to tell. First, the writer of Hebrews scolds these believers for their lack of maturity. He’s essentially told them that they should be teachers by now, but they aren’t, and there must be a good reason why. But the way that you know he’s referring to saved people is because you don’t, or shouldn’t, invite lost people to be Bible teachers. By definition, these would be false teachers, and the church is supposed to remove them from their presence rather than inviting them in; so this is our first indication that the passage is addressing Christians.
Second, Paul told these people that they needed to learn (again) the “first principles of the oracles of God;” he didn’t say they needed to repent of their sins. Similarly, he said they were “dull of hearing”; he didn’t say they were unrepentant. And so if these are lost people, then it’s the wrong message; and so obviously they’re saved.
Third, and perhaps most important, spiritual milk is for Christian babies; and you don’t become a babe in Christ until you’ve first repented of your sins and become “born again;” and once this has been done, it is then, and only then, that you’re now ready to be fed the milk of the Word, but not before. And so what we have here are backslidden Christians and not apostates.
1Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, 2Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. 3And this will we do, if God permit.
Therefore is a conjunctive adverb that ties the previous thought of Heb. 5:12-14 with those beginning in Heb. 6:1. And since Heb. 5:12-14 was speaking of backslidden Christians, then we must keep that same frame of reference beginning in Heb. 6:1. Had the writer of Hebrews not been talking to Christians, he wouldn’t have said, “let us go on unto perfection.” In doing so, he’s equated himself – as a Christian – with those of whom he’s writing. He later says that this “will we do” (3); and in Heb. 6:9, he calls them “beloved” – and you don’t refer to lost people as being “beloved.” And so what we have here is a mature Christian writing unto his fellow brothers who are backslidden, but still brethren. Thus we have our fourth indication that the writer of Hebrews is addressing Christians. But there’s more…
In v. 1, Paul told them that they weren’t going to lay again “the foundation of repentance from dead works,” etc. And since 1 Cor. 3:11 defines this foundation as being that of Jesus Christ, and since they’re not going to lay it again, then this means that they aren’t in need of salvation or in need of getting “resaved.” If they were unsaved, he would have told them to repent, but he didn’t. He told them that they were going to move on. They weren’t going to leave these principles behind because they weren’t important, they were going to leave them behind because they’d already been accomplished in their lives; i.e., they were already saved.
4For it is impossible for those who were [past tense] once enlightened, and have tasted [past tense] of the heavenly gift, and were made [past tense] partakers of the Holy Ghost, 5And have tasted [past tense] the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come [past tense], 6If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.
Again, the context of Heb. 5:12-6:3 is that of backslidden Christians and not apostates. To begin, note the use of the past tenses which clearly demonstrate that these were saved people. These verses also mean more than having an intellectual perception of the gospel because you don’t partake of the Holy Ghost and not be saved. You don’t “try” Jesus.
But v. 6 is where many begin to stumble. To begin, it’s worthy to note that the “If” found at the beginning of v. 6 isn’t found in any Greek manuscript and could just as easily have been translated “And”. Furthermore, the Greek word for “fall away” doesn’t mean to become apostate (Gr. apistos), it means to backslide (Gr. parapipto). The difference here is that an apostate hears and perceives the gospel, but rejects it (def. 2 Pet. 2:19-22). A backslidden or carnal Christian is one who fails to grow and mature as they should (1 Cor. 3:1-7). So when the writer of Hebrews says that it’s impossible “to renew them again unto repentance, seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame,” he’s not saying they’ve lost their salvation, he’s saying it’s impossible to get them re-saved because it isn’t necessary! They’re already saved! They’re backslidden, not apostate; and the proof of this was established in Heb 5:12-6:3. And again, v. 1 established the fact that they weren’t going to lay again the foundation of repentance from dead works. So if these are lost people, it’s the wrong message – and so the context demands that we interpret this as saved Christians who are backslidden. Furthermore, if this is teaching that a Christian can lose their salvation, then you must also teach that if they change their mind, that God has to reject them! You simply can’t have it both ways: you can’t teach that a Christian can lose their salvation and then teach that they can get saved again because this verse says it’s impossible to “renew them again unto repentance.” (Unless you’re interpretation is wrong, of course.) But the wickedness in this is that it teaches that God has to turn down a repentant sinner! And he’s never done that!
7For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet [fit] for them by whom it is dressed [tilled], receiveth blessing from God: 8But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh [near] unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.
The writer of Hebrews then gives us an example to prove his point. Paraphrased, God brings rain upon the earth to water the fields that have been planted. Some of these fields produce good fruit while others produce bad fruit viz. thorns and briers. And so the fields that produce thorns and briers are burned. The earth doesn’t burn, only the “bad fruit” does – the thorns and briers. And so the context here is one of fruit and not salvation, or the loss of it.
But note that the fields that produced thorns and briers are “near” unto cursing. They aren’t cursed, but they’re close to it. Fields can be reworked, fertilized, and planted in an attempt to make them fruitful, which is exactly the problem with these people in Hebrews, and this is exactly what Paul is trying to get them to do – to move forward and not be slothful (12). They’re saved; but because of their backslidden state, they’re not being very fruitful. But what does it mean that they’re nigh (near) unto cursing? Again, being cursed and almost being cursed are two different things. These people aren’t unsaved – they’re only close to it. 1 Peter 4:17-18 clarifies the matter:
17For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? 18And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?
Our sin against God is so great that we’re only barely saved, but that’s good enough. And so we, as Christians, shouldn’t ever think more highly of ourselves than we should. But did you notice the contrast? It’s our works that’ll be tried by fire and not us. The earth wasn’t burned, but the fruit was. Works are done not to earn, retain, or maintain salvation, but to determine the amount of eternal rewards we’ll receive. 1 Cor. 3:11-15 sums this and the context of the entire passage very well when it says:
11For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; 13Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. 14If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. 15If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.
And so it should be clear that the context of this passage is about backslidden Christians and their inability to produce good eternal fruit and not about Christians losing their salvation. The context simply doesn’t allow for that interpretation. The proof of this continues in v. 9.
9But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak [so roughly].
Of all that’s been discussed, notice that the writer of Hebrews says that it all pertains to “things that accompany salvation” and not salvation itself; and as previously demonstrated, the things that accompany salvation are works that produce fruit. Works aren’t needed to earn, retain, or maintain salvation, but to earn rewards. All Christians produce fruit. The only question is, how much?
10For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister. 11And we desire that every one of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end: 12That ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
Verses 10-12 further support this interpretation. The Christians in Hebrews have produced some godly fruit. But at the same time, they should be much farther along than they are. They should be teachers by now but they’re not. They should be ministering to others, but instead they’re needing to be ministered to. Hence, their backslidden state has led them to become unproductive. Not spiritually lost, or having lost their salvation, just unproductive – just like the field that produced the thorns and briers. The field isn’t burned, only the “bad fruit.”
Suffice it to say that righteous fruit can only be produced from a righteous soul, and a soul can only be made righteous through faith and salvation in Jesus Christ. At one time these people produced good fruit, but had since lapsed into a backslidden state, and so the writer of Hebrews is trying to spur them into action. You don’t resave Christians, but you do chasten them. Hebrews 6 therefore is not teaching that a Christian can lose their salvation, but how to deal with Christians in a backslidden state. The idea is to encourage them forward in meekness and gentleness so they can obtain all that God has for them in this life (Gal. 6:1-2). Selah.