Eternal Security ~ Part 6

Apostasy ~ Part 3

In my last post, we began to unpack Hebrews 6:4-6 by looking at two commentaries.  In this post, I want to dig a little deeper into Hebrews 6:4-6 with some experts that have a different take on what the author of Hebrews may have meant when he wrote this passage.

“For when people have once been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, become sharers in the Ruach HaKodesh, and tasted the goodness of God’s Word and the powers of the ‘olam haba [this age] — and then have fallen away — it is impossible to renew them so that they turn from their sin, as long as for themselves they keep executing the Son of God on the stake all over again and keep holding him up to public contempt.” ~ Hebrews 6:4-6

 “For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.” ~ Hebrews 6:4-6 (NASB)

The authors of the Life Application Bible Commentary have this to say, in part, about Hebrews 6:4-6:

“There are four main interpretations of this passage.

  1. One interpretation states that this passage means Christians can lose their salvation. According to this interpretation, the four phrases describe Believers. … This salvation allows them to “taste the heavenly gift”; that is, they have come to know Christ, the one who came from heaven, so they experience salvation and the gifts that the Spirit gives … While we can agree that the phrases may describe Believers, we cannot accept this interpretation that Christians can lose their salvation. This idea is dismissed by other portions of Scripture (see John 10:27-29; Romans 8:38-39).
  2. Some interpret this passage as hypothetical: “if it were possible.” This interpretation, however, is unnatural and does not fit into the greater context of 6:7-8.  If this passage were only hypothetical, then the warning would be unnecessary.  Because the warning is urgent and real, we dismiss this interpretation.
  3. Another interpretation is that the writer may have intended to illustrate someone who seemed to be a Christian but really never was a true follower of Christ. All of the descriptive phrases could describe someone who is not really in the faith. That person could be “enlightened,” for the word was used by the early church to describe Christians who had been baptized and had professed Christ.  The person could have “tasted the heavenly gift,” if this phrase refers to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The person could have been a “partaker of the Holy Spirit,” if that phrase means that they fellowshipped alongside true believers and witnessed the Spirit’s work. Non-believers (even Judas Iscariot) saw the Holy Spirit work, heard the “good word of God,” and saw the “powers of the age to come.” … This interpretation is acceptable when considered in the greater context.  Hebrews 3:16-19 reviews how each Jew living in the wilderness had seen God’s great power, had eaten manna, had accompanied God, and had looked like God’s people, yet they never entered the Promised Land.  The writer did not want the Christians to fall into the same category and experience the same fate.
  4. Another reasonable interpretation arises by linking this portion of Scripture with 10:25-31 (another severe warning). The writer of Hebrews was warning against a specific kind of apostasy: forsaking Jesus as the perfect sacrifice for sins and returning to animal sacrifices as a means of atoning for sins. Thus, the severe warning is for those Jewish Christians who had originally accepted Christ’s redemption through his shed blood and then reverted to offering up the blood of bulls and goats as a means of cleansing their sins.

In the first century, a pagan who investigated Christianity and then went back to paganism would make a clean break with the church. But for Jewish Christians who decided to return to Judaism, the break was less obvious. Their lifestyle remained relatively unchanged.  But by deliberately turning away from Christ, they were cutting themselves off from God’s forgiveness.  Those who truly believe are glorious saints; those who reject Christ are un-believers, no matter how well they behave—thus, this warning not to “fall away” (Hebrews 2:1; 3:12).

It is impossible for people who have professed to be Christians and have experienced all of the beautiful gifts described in these verses, then have turned away from Christ to turn around and repent again since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.  It is impossible because these people show contempt for Christ through their deliberate actions.  It would be like personally crucifying Christ again. Many have argued whether someone who turns away from Christ can be restored to Christ.  Some point to this passage to prove that a backslider cannot be restored.  But “backsliders” are not the subject here.  This passage refers to people who walk with Christ for a while and then deliberately turn around and walk the other direction, rejecting Christ.  Hebrews 10:26 says, “For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins (nrsv). These people can never be restored because they will not want to be restored. They have chosen to harden their hearts against Christ. It is not impossible for God to forgive them; rather, it is impossible for them to be forgiven because they won’t repent of their sins.”

Here is my favorite paragraph in their commentary on this passage (emphasis added):

“In the final analysis, having a debate about the meaning of these verses should not be a priority for churches today. What matters most is the warning against apostasy, and the warning must be taken seriously.  The passage describes people in our churches who act like and seem to be Christians, but who have not truly believed.  When those assumed to be believers turn away, the debate may take place afterward, ‘Were they originally believers or not?’ But people reading these words must heed the warning, not just debate the issue.”

The authors of another favorite commentary I check frequently, “Hard Sayings of the Bible,” have this to say, in part, about Hebrews 6:4-6:

“Most Christians know of individuals who for one reason or another have left the faith. They may not have actually denied the faith, but they are certainly not practicing the faith.  For such people this is a very troubling passage.  Is there anyone who cannot be brought to repentance?  Can a person have shared the Holy Spirit and then be lost?  And are these people really eternally lost? Is this really a description of a Christian?

First, this passage is not unique but rather is part of a group of passages concerning people who cannot be forgiven or brought to repentance.  Mark 3:28-29 refers to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which will never be forgiven. … In 1 John 5:16 the author speaks of a “sin unto death” (KJV) about which, the elder implies, prayer is useless.  Finally, the verse under consideration here refers to a class of people who cannot “be brought back to repentance.”  The issue is not whether God would forgive them if they repented, but whether there is any way to bring them to repent at all.  The answer is no.

Second, the people under discussion are fully initiated Christians. In the preceding passage, the author contemplates whether he should discuss Melchizedek, a difficult teaching, or return to the basic teachings of the faith. … But he will not return to these teachings, for he knows these readers. They are fully initiated Christians. There was nothing defective in how they were brought to Christ, so there is no use in going back over the basics.

Third, what is the author’s concern about these people? Hebrews 6 is an excursus [an appendix or digression that contains further exposition of some point or topic] the author inserted into the argument because he is afraid that when he gets to the difficult subject of Melchizedek the readers will “turn him off.” …  Throughout the book he is concerned that they will leave their Christian faith and return to Judaism. … The author is warning them before he brings the difficult teaching not to apostatize, because the consequence of such an action is damnation.

His warning comes as a description of what it would mean to apostatize. That he is talking about full-blown apostasy is clear, for he uses the phrase “they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace” (Hebrews 6:6). That is, they once confessed that Jesus was Lord and Messiah, which means they repented of the injustice of the crucifixion.  Now in rejecting the faith they are declaring that the crucifixion was correct after all – Jesus was a blasphemer and not Messiah.  Such a public recantation exposes Jesus to public disgrace.

What, then, is the author of Hebrews saying? … His arguments to keep them in the faith must come from deeper truth, not from a clarification of the foundational truth.  He then points out by way of warning that if fully initiated Christians turn their backs on Christ, they will so harden themselves that nothing anyone can do will bring them back to repentance.  Their end result will be eternal damnation. … They may be on the verge of apostasy, but they have not made the decision and crossed the line.”

Although we have spent three posts on this topic of Apostasy, and we will come back to it before the series is completed I’m sure, it is time to move on.  However, as much as I want to move into examining Calvinism and Arminianism, I want to delay until we examine a related topic to Apostasy ~ God’s Sovereignty and Free Will.

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Eternal Security ~ Part 5

Apostasy ~ Part 2

In my last post, we began to explore the issue of Apostasy and Backsliding.  In this post, I want to dig a little deeper on the issue of Apostasy by turning to Hebrews 6:4-6.

As I was contemplating and praying about this topic of Eternal Security, my daily reading plan through the Brit Hadashah, Psalms and Proverbs from YouVersion lead me to the Letter to the Hebrews.  This passage hit me up alongside the head:

 “For when people have once been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, become sharers in the Ruach HaKodesh, and tasted the goodness of God’s Word and the powers of the ‘olam haba [this age] — and then have fallen away — it is impossible to renew them so that they turn from their sin, as long as for themselves they keep executing the Son of God on the stake all over again and keep holding him up to public contempt.” ~ Hebrews 6:4-6

 This passage appeared to confirm my understanding that a born-again, spirit-filled Believer could indeed apostatize.  So, off to my electric library I went.  One of the resources I read was “Understanding Assurance and Salvation” by Robert E. Picirilli. [1]  I will be quoting from this book frequently as we continue in this series.  Reverencing this passage, Mr. Picirilli states:

“For those who believe in the possibility of personal apostasy, the book of Hebrews as a whole and Hebrews 6:4-6 in particular is one of the most important passages involved in providing a biblical basis for the view. The greater part of this chapter, therefore, is devoted to a thorough exegesis of this key passage in the context of the book and to treat questions about how it relates to the possibility that a truly regenerate person may ‘fall from grace.’”

For those who may not be familiar with the term exegesis it essentially means an “explanation or critical interpretation of a text.”  You may have heard the phrase, “you should never take a text out of context.”  He goes on to state:

“One of the requirements of good exegesis is to understand how a given passage fits into its context. In this case we should consider the general thrust of Hebrews as a whole.  These three verses come in the midst of a book that has perseverance for its major theme…an exhortation to preserve is at the heart of every major section of the book (Letter to the Hebrews).

Hebrews frequently encourages the audience to endure and warns against leaving the faith (see Hebrews 2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; 12:1-29).  The warning passages exhort the kehilah to remain faithful to the teachings of Yeshua.  The author of Hebrews was exhorting the readers to remain faithful to the Messianic movement and not return to the Temple sacrifices and Judaism.

Does the Passage Describe Genuine Believers?

The people that the writer of Hebrews describes are said to have experienced four positive things. The question, then, depends on the meaning of these four clauses.

  1. They once been enlightened. This seems to refer to the spiritual enlightenment we associate with salvation. The Greek verb phōtizō means to give one light or bring him into light. The very same description appears again in 10:32, where also there is no reason to doubt that the writer consciously uses it to mean conversion.
  2. They tasted the heavenly gift. The people being described, “experienced” the heavenly gift.  Interpreters are not unanimous in identifying this heavenly gift, but the disagreement is more technical than substantial. The various interpreters suggest salvation, eternal life, forgiveness of sins, the Ruach HaKodesh, or Yeshua Himself.  Probably the best conclusion is that it means salvation and what goes with it: justification and eternal life in Messiah.
  3. They become sharers in the Ruach HaKodesh. The word sharers in the Greek is metochos which means “to have together with,” is apparently used by the writer of Hebrews exclusively to refer to Believer’s common participation in things related to their salvation.  In Hebrews 3:1 we are sharers of the heavenly calling; in Hebrews 3:14 sharers in the Messiah; and in 12:8 sharers of the discipline that distinguishes between true sons and bastards. Either of these three, or the one here, will by itself should be adequate to identify such a sharer as a Believer.  To have the Ruach, in common with other Believers, is certainly to be a Messianic Believer.  Receiving the gift of the Rauch is a regular way of stating what it means to become a Believer. (See Acts 2:38-39 and Galatians 3:14).
  4. They tasted the goodness of God’s Word and the powers of the ‘olam haba. We meet tasted again; see above on the second clause. Those described have tasted God’s Word. This means that they have experienced the goodness that God has spoken of.  God has spoken good to those who put faith in Him, and these have experienced that good.  The same sentiment is captured by Kefa: “For you have tasted that Adonai is good.” ~ 1 Peter 2:3.Furthermore, they have tasted the powers of the ‘olam haba. Powers, in the Greek is dynamis, which can often means miracles (as in Hebrews 2:4).  In its broadest sense, supernatural workings. Believers, though still living in the present age, have already begun to experience the supernatural workings characteristic of the age to come. This includes more than we need to discuss here, but regeneration and the gift of the Spirit are the initial powerful works of the age to come that all Believers have in common.

Of these four clauses as a whole, then, we conclude that one would be hard put to find a better description of genuine regeneration and conversion.  Either of them will stand by itself in this respect.  The four together provide one of the finest statements about salvation, from its experiential side, that appears anywhere in the Scriptures.

Does the Passage Describe Apostasy from Salvation?

The answer to this question resides in the meaning of the clause and then have fallen away.  There is not much dispute about the meaning of the words, most interpreters readily accept that to have fallen away as used here leaves a person outside a saving relationship with Yeshua.  That is what apostasy means. In light of the contents of the entire book of Hebrews, fallen away is obviously synonymous with drift away (Hebrews 2:1), apostatize from the living God (Hebrews 3:12), shrinks back (10:38), and turn away from Him when He warns from heaven. (Hebrews 12:25).

According to Mr. Picirilli, the NASB provides an especially clear and accurate translation of this passage.  “For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.” ~ Hebrews 6:4-6 (NASB)

It seems clear that the Apostasy of these verses is a final and irreversible.  Picirilli concludes:

“This apostasy is therefore much more serious than what most people mean by Backsliding.  Since salvation is first and always by faith, this apostasy involves a willful defection from the saving knowledge of Christ, a final retraction of faith from Him in whom alone is provision for forgiveness of sins. The apostate forsakes the cross where he found redemption: ‘By renouncing Christ they put themselves in the position of those who, deliberately refusing His claim to be the Son of God, had Him crucified and exposed to public shame.’”

I would be remiss if I didn’t include David Stern’s notes on this passage for his Jewish New Testament Commentary.  I have kept his formatting intact in this quote.  My only change is to modify the names of the books of Scripture he references.

“These verses (4-6) have been commandeered into service of the most amazing variety of theological positions.  Arminians (named after their supposed founder, Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609)) take them as proof that it is possible for someone who has once been a believer to fall away from faith irretrievably.  Calvinists (after John Calvin (1509-1564)) interpret them in such a way as to make that a practical impossibility.  The dispute between them has fueled many fires, but often forgotten is the author’s purpose, which is not to deal abstractly with the “eternal security of the believer,” but specifically with his readers’ concern that unless the Levitical sacrifices required by the Five Books of Moses are offered their sins remain unforgiven.  Whether they had in fact reintroduced sacrifices on their own cannot be determined from the evidence of this book. But it is obvious that they were fixated on the sacrificial system; and it becomes the author’s task to show them that Yeshua’s atoning death and his elevation to the office of cohen gadol has brought about “a transformation of Torah” (7:12) which alters the sacrificial system and priesthood.

Here is a review of the author’s argument in these verses. He speaks of people who have:

  1. once been enlightened, so that they know who Yeshua is and what he has done;
  2. tasted the heavenly gift of God’s forgiveness;
  3. become sharers in the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit whom God gives only through his Son Yeshua (this terminology makes it impossible that the author is referring to pseudo-believers, because only true believers become sharers in the Ruach HaKodesh);
  4. tasted the goodness (compare Psalm 34:8) of God’s Word and tasted the powers of the ʿolam haba, which is interesting terminology for the gifts of the Holy Spirit as enumerated in 1C 12:8-10

When people who have experienced salvation in such a deep way and then have fallen away from faith by trusting not in Yeshua’s own sacrificial death and high-priestly office but in animal sacrifices and the system of cohanim which the Torah set up to administer them—then it is impossible to renew them so that they turn from their sin, as long as for themselves they keep on executing the Son of God on the stake all over again. The reason is that they ignore what his death on the stake means, as proved by their trusting in animal sacrifices instead of His sacrifice. Thus they keep holding him up to public contempt by not glorifying his death as an atoning death but seeing it as having no special significance, so that his execution as a criminal becomes the dominant fact about it.

I am indebted to Jerome Fleischer, a Messianic Jew with a ministry in the San Francisco area, for pointing out to me that the author’s purpose in these verses was not to provide fuel for the Calvinist-Arminian controversy of 1500 years later, but to turn his readers’ concern away from animal sacrifices and toward the significance of Yeshua’s final sacrifice (my emphasis added). This is clear from the context of the following four chapters, which deal with precisely this question and which constitute the heart of the book.

However, it is possible to make a midrash on these verses which does deal with the Calvinist-Arminian controversy. Calvinism teaches the eternal security of the believer. It is possible to define “believer” tautologically [superfluously] in such a way that no one so defined ever falls away; but then no one could be certain he is a “believer” until his life had ended. For it is manifestly possible for a person to trust the Messiah as fully as he knows how, by any imaginable subjective or objective measure of his ability to trust, and to experience subjectively all the benefits of faith, and still at some point later to fall away. If that happens, it is impossible, so long as he remains in such a state, to renew him again so that he turns from his sin. Why? Because God has given him everything he can give, yet he now refuses to accept his status as righteous with God, along with the implied responsibility of living a holy life. In vv. 7-8 these good gifts of God are compared to rain, intended to make a good crop grow; but if an evil crop comes, it is in due course burned—a reminder of the fate of the wicked on the Day of Judgment. But the New Testament’s way of dealing with the security of the believer is different. Yochanan articulates it well: “The way we can be sure we know him is if we are obeying his commands” (1 Yochanan 2:3-6).

Some, insisting on the eternal security of one who has confessed the Messiah, understand this passage to say that carnal believers will be deprived of rewards (1C 3:8-15&N), or that they will spend the Millennial Age (Revelation 20:2-7) in Outer Darkness (see Matthew 22:13-14) instead of ruling with the Messiah.”

In my next post, we will continue to unpack the topic of Apostasy by examining other expert’s thoughts on Hebrews 6:4-6.  My goal is to try to provide a balanced approach between the two main positions (which I will present soon) to this issue of Eternal Security.

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[1] Robert E. Picirilli, former academic dean and professor of Greek and New Testament studies at Free Will Baptist Bible College in Nashville, Tennessee, has been teaching, preaching and writing Arminian theology for more than 45 years. Since 1983, he has served as the General Editor of The Randall House Bible Commentary and, in that series, contributed the volumes on 1, 2 Corinthians; Ephesians; Philippians; and 1, 2 Thessalonians. His other published works include the books Paul the Apostle, Book of Galatians, Romans, and A Survey of the Pauline Epistles, as well as numerous booklets and articles in denominational publications and theological journals.

Eternal Security ~ Part 4

Apostasy ~ Part 1

In my last post, we began to look at the concept of Eternal Security.  We will be coming back to that topic throughout this series as we discuss other aspects of it.  In this post, we will explore the issue of Apostasy in more detail.  We will, also touch on the issue of Backsliding.

 In Part 2 of this series, I provided a brief definition of Apostasy.  The Greek word is aphistēmi which means to “depart, draw (fall) away, refrain, withdraw self or falling away.”

In the Brit Hadashah its usual meaning is that of a religious defection.  The Spirit expressly states that in the acharit-hayamim [End Times] some people will apostatize from the faith by paying attention to deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” ~ 1 Timothy 4:1. Watch out, brothers, so that there will not be in any one of you an evil heart lacking trust, which could lead you to apostatize from the living God! ~ Hebrews 3:12.   This is called “apostasy from the faith:” a secession from the kehilah and a disowning of the name of Messiah. The grave nature of Apostasy is shown by such passages as:

 “For if we deliberately continue to sin after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but only the terrifying prospect of Judgment, of raging fire that will consume the enemies. Someone who disregards the Torah of Moshe is put to death without mercy on the word of two or three witnesses. Think how much worse will be the punishment deserved by someone who has trampled underfoot the Son of God; who has treated as something common the blood of the covenant which made him holy; and who has insulted the Spirit, giver of God’s grace!” ~ Hebrews 10:26-29 Continue reading “Eternal Security ~ Part 4”