In this blog, I intend to examine a particularly difficult phrase employed by the Hebrews writer:
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (Hebrews 6:4-6)
Now, it is evident from the passage that this seems to deal with a topic that has been visited in numerous others books contained in the New Testament; this topic has been given the name “eternal security” or—rather—it is the question of eternal security. What the Hebrews writer is saying seems to be in conflict with what other writers of the New Testament have said, even John’s account of what Jesus, himself, said: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:29). Thus, there have been mainly two answers to the question of eternal security:
- Yes, there is eternal security
- No, there is conditional security
However, both of these answers come with multiple consequences; they are not simple yes and no answers. Therefore, I will be examining these positions in order to produce an accurate answer to the question of eternal security as well as discovering what place this answer has in the scheme of the letter to the Hebrews.
The answer of “yes” to the question of eternal security is more commonly known as the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. This is the “P” in John Calvin’s acrostic TULIP. When researching Calvin’s exegesis of Hebrews 6:4-6, I was surprised to find that, in my opinion, he did not adequately defend his stance that saints persevere to the end. In fact, he gave heavy implications that a Christ follower could “backslide” which ultimately leads to falling from grace:
The knot of the question is in the word, fall away. . . . But it must be noticed, that there is a twofold falling away, one particular, and the other general. He who has in anything, or in any ways offended, has fallen away from his state as a Christian; therefore all sins are so many fallings. But the Apostle speaks not here of theft, or perjury, or murder, or drunkenness, or adultery; but he refers to a total defection or falling away from the Gospel, when a sinner offends not God in some one thing, but entirely renounces his grace. . . . Thus gradually we slide, until at length we rush headlong into ruin. We may observe this daily in many. Therefore the Apostle does not without reason forewarn all the disciples of Christ to beware in time; for a continued torpor commonly ends in lethargy, which is followed by alienation of mind.
Here, it is clear that Calvin has in mind that the writer of Hebrews means “fall away” not in the sense that a Christian may sin, but he understands that the writer means that a Christian who falls away is one who turns away from God; this is one who leaves his faith. For, from Ephesians 2:8, it is shown that salvation comes only from the grace of God, and that grace is accessed by faith. Calvin even astutely acknowledges that this renunciation of grace is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the unpardonable sin:
We now see whom he excluded from the hope of pardon, even the apostates who alienated themselves from the Gospel of Christ, which they had previously embraced, and from the grace of God; and this happens to no one but to him who sins against the Holy Spirit.
Here, Calvin’s observation agrees with that of Augustine who believed that the sin against the Holy Spirit, the unpardonable sin, must be impenitence, the unwillingness to repent and to be forgiven by God. Nevertheless, Calvin claims that the elect (the Christians) will not fall away. He then goes on to say that these people who were enlightened were not Christians. They had some taste of God’s grace, they had some sparks of light in their minds, they had some perception of God’s goodness, and God engraved some of his word on their hearts, but they were the reprobate. He ends this turnaround with this summation: “There is therefore some knowledge even in the reprobate, which afterwards vanishes away, either because it did not strike roots sufficiently deep, or because it withers, being choked up.”
There is also the position of conditional security. This is usually considered as the Arminian view of conditional security. Conditional Security (CS) is the belief that Christians can lose, or forfeit salvation through either a lifestyle of unrepentant sin, or a complete falling away from the faith. Wesley has the view that not only were the people mentioned in the Hebrews passage Christians, but he asserts they reverted back to Judaism. Within the context of conditional security, this passage indicates that it is possible to lose one’s salvation as other verses would also repeat the same language (1 Timothy 4:1-5, Galatians 5:4, James 5:19).
In conclusion, this passage, since it is in Hebrews, must be examined within the context of Hebrews, not within the context of preservation of the saints, and not within the context of conditional security (duh). The people who were the recipients of the letter were Jewish-Christians (the Hebrews). These Christians were being persecuted by Judaizers who wished to impose practices of the Law on them.
Therefore, the goals of the Hebrews writer were to show that Jesus is superior to the Law and to encourage the Jewish-Christians to stay faithful to Jesus rather than the Law precisely because of his superiority. Now, with this context, it can be seen that the passage of Hebrews 6:4-6 will have something to do with these two goals. Most probably, the writer was trying to convince the Jewish-Christians that if they revert back to the teachings of the Law rather than the teachings of Christ, as long as they adhere to the teachings of the Law, Christ’s sacrifice is meaningless for them. In other words, the Law and Christ cannot both be followed. When there is faith in one, the other will condemn. It is impossible to be “restored to repentance” in Christ when faith is in the Law. Thus, the Hebrews writer urges the Jewish-Christians to stay strong in the faith to Christ. One question to finish with: If it is impossible for an elect (a Christian) to lose salvation, then why was the Hebrews/Galatians/1 Timothy/James writer warning the elect (Christians) to not fall away?