The controversy surrounding Hebrews 6:1-8 is many fold. From those who believe that it teaches that the salvation of God’s people is conditional to those who believe it doesn’t—over the history of the Church there has been a lot of various interpretations advanced. It is not in the scope of this article to address all of those interpretations, nor even to address all the various nuances and qualifications that readers may want. Rather, the scope of this article is to look briefly at Hebrews 6:1-8 and some of the issues it raises by going to the text and then looking at the implications the text raises for our Christian life and ministries today.
The controversy surrounding Hebrews 6:1-8 seems to stem from the meaning of several keywords such as “instruction about washings” (vs.2), “enlightened” (vs.4), “fallen away” (vs.6), and “restore again to repentance” (vs.6). From here on out, I will focus on explaining the meaning of these keywords in not only their proper context, but how they fit in the framework of the Book of Hebrews as a whole. After explaining the keywords in their context, I will then propose a solution to the difficulty of this passage. Hebrews 6:1-8 meets the people of God at their greatest need with the Gospel, by wooing His people to draw not away from but deeper into the Gospel for greater assurance and confidence in their salvation.
“Instruction about Washings” (vs.2)
F.F. Bruce teaches that this phrase “instruction about washings” is not about Christian baptism. He notes that the word translated washings is in the plural in the Greek (baptismoi), the Greek noun employed in the New Testament for Christian baptism, but baptismos, which in its two indubitable New Testament occurrences refers to Jewish ceremonial washings.[i] Dr. Guthrie agrees with F.F. Bruce noting the same that the plural baptisms in the Greek makes the interpretation problematic regarding “washings” being about Christian baptism.[ii] Dr. O’Brien agrees with Dr. Guthrie and F.F. Bruce that “instructions about washings” is not a reference to Christian baptism, but about various Jewish practices of washing.[iii] In the Old Testament Levitical system, there were many ceremonial cleansings, which were outward signs of heart cleansing (Ex. 30:18-21; Lev. 16:4, 24, 26, 28; Mark 7:4, 8). The New Covenant calls for an inner washing (Titus 3:5) that regenerates the soul.
F.F. Bruce explains that this phrase “enlightened” means the light of the gospel has broken in upon these people’s darkness, and life can never be the same again; to give up the gospel would be to sin against the light, the one sin, which by its very nature is incurable.[iv] Dr. Guthrie agrees with this interpretation but adds to the discussion by explaining that those who were “enlightened” refers to their initial exposure to the gospel or early instruction in Christian doctrine.[v] Dr. O’Brien concurs with F.F. Bruce and Dr. Guthrie but expands on what both men have written noting that “enlightened” means that one may enjoy something of God’s grace at the beginning without the completing grace of perseverance.[vi] Being enlightened describes the initial entrance into Christian community through explanation of the Christian faith (Heb. 10:32).
“Fallen Away” (vs.6)
As noted by F.F. Bruce, the writer of Hebrews as did the Old Testament law explained the difference between inadvertent and willful sin. The context here shows that the willful sin, which he has in mind is deliberate apostasy.[vii] Dr. Guthrie agrees, and adds to F.F. Bruce’s point that the verb “fallen away” (parapito) can mean simply to “go astray,” but the harshness of the descriptions that follow (“crucifying the Son of God” and “subjecting him to public disgrace”) demand that it be understood in terms so serious as that of rejecting Christ.”[viii] Dr. O’Brien agrees with both Dr. Guthrie and F.F. Bruce, but explains that the readers of Hebrew ought not to forget the final end of the apostate, and unless they are careful, apostasy is where their culpable negligence (5:11; 6:12) could lead).[ix]
The Greek “fallen away” occurs only here in the New Testament. In the Septuagint (LXX), it was used to translate terms for severe unfaithfulness and apostasy (Ezek. 14:13; 18:24; 20:27). It is equivalent to the apostasy in Hebrews 3:12. The seriousness of this unfaithfulness is seen in the severe description of rejection within this verse: they re-crucify Christ and treat Him contemptuously (10:29). Those who sinned against Christ in such a way had to hope for restoration or forgiveness (2:2-3; 10:26-27; 12:25). The reason is that they had rejected Him with full knowledge and conscious experience (6:5-6). With full revelation they denied the truth, concluding the opposite of the truth about Christ, and thus they had no hope of being saved. They can never have more knowledge than they had when they rejected it. They have concluded that Jesus should have been crucified, and they stand with His enemies. There is no possibility of these verses referring to losing salvation. Many Scripture passages make it clear that salvation is eternal (John 10:27-29; Rom. 8:35, 38, 39; Phil. 1:6; 1 Peter 1:4-5). Those who want this verse to mean that believers can lose salvation will have to admit it would then also say that one could never get it back again.
The author of Hebrews speaks of falling away, not falling into sin. For example, Judas fell away from Jesus and never returned to him; Peter fell into sin, but soon afterward saw the resurrected Jesus. The two concepts, apostasy and backsliding, must never be confused. In Hebrews 6:6, the author refers to apostasy; he has in mind the person who deliberately and completely abandons the Christian faith. John Owen notes that falling away must consist of all the essential principles and doctrines of Christianity.[x]
Apostasy does not take place suddenly and unexpectedly. Rather it is part of a gradual process, a decline that leads from unbelief to disobedience to apostasy. And when the falling away from the faith happens, it leads to hardening of the heart and the impossibility of repentance. The author using the example of the Israelites has shown the process that results in apostasy (3:18; 4:6, 11). If the Israelites in the days of Moses deliberately disobeyed the law of God and “received its just punishment” (2:2; 10:28), “how much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot” (10:29). The author chides them for being slow to learn (5:11), lazy (6:12), and feeble (12:12). Continually he exhorts them to strengthen their faith (4:2; 10:22-23; 12:2). If their faith continues to weaken, they will fall pretty to unbelief that leads to disobedience and apostasy.
“Restore Again to Repentance” (vs.6)
Dr. Bruce notes that those who repudiate the salvation procured by Christ will find none anywhere else.[xi] Dr. Guthrie agrees with F.F. Bruce but adds to his discussion by stating that the apostate in effect has turned his or her back on the only means available for forgiveness before God.[xii] Dr. O’Brien agrees with this explanation and adds to the discussion by pointing out that Hebrews is making the point that it is impossible to restore someone to repentance.[xiii]
In the preceding verses (5:11-6:3) and the following verses (6:9-12), the writer uses the first and second personal plural pronouns “we” and “you”, but in verses 6:4-6 the third personal plural pronouns “those” and “they” occur. Second, the subject of the verb to be brought back is missing. The writer does not reveal the identity of the implied agent. Is he saying here that God does not permit (6:3) a second repentance? Or does he mean that the person who has fallen away from the living God cannot be restored to repentance because of the sinner’s hardened heart? Although the writer does not provide the answer, both questions ought to receive an affirmative response.
The use of the pronoun “we” in the broader context of Hebrews 6:4-6 demonstrates that God never fails the believer who in faith trusts in Him. God makes “the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised” (6:17), and He does so by swearing an oath. The heirs of the promise are the author and the readers of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
Is the Christian Church unable to bring a hardened sinner back to the grace of God? The writer of Hebrews does not provide an answer in the context of the passage. In another connection, however, he repeats the general sentiment of Hebrews 6:4-6 and writes: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left” (Hebrews 10:26). The author does not say anything about restoring a hardened sinner; what he refers to is the impossibility of removing sin because the person sins deliberately. The word deliberately receives all the emphasis in the original Greek because it stands first in the sentence. If a person who is familiar with “the elementary teaching about Christ” sins deliberately, restoration by way of repentance is an impossibility.
The writer of the epistle gives two reasons for this: “to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again” and they are “subjecting him to public disgrace.” The author here is using a metaphor; those who have fallen away do not literally crucify the Son of God and put him to open shame. Note that the writer uses not the personal name Jesus or the official name Christ, but rather the appellation Son of God to express on the one hand the divine exaltation of the Son and, on the other hand, the utter depravity of the sinner who has turned away from, as well as against, the Son of God.
The one who has fallen away declares that Jesus ought to be eliminated. As the Jews wanted Jesus removed from this earth and thus lifted Him up from the ground on a cross, so the apostate denies Jesus a place, banishes Him from this earth, and metaphorically crucifies the Son of God again. Thus, he treats Jesus with continuous contempt and derision and knowingly commits the sin for which, says the author of the epistle, there is no repentance (Hebrews 6:6) and no sacrifice (Hebrews 10:26). The sinner can expect God’s judgment that will come to him as a “raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Hebrews 10:27).
Solutions to the Difficulty of Hebrews 6:1-8
The picture given in Hebrews 6:1-8 is a somber one. It depicts professing believers, likely church members, who are not saved but fall away into a hopeless state. Reformed theology has traditionally and wisely shunned the use of the term “eternal security”, but has instead emphasized the “perseverance of the saints”, which is the emphasis of the writer of Hebrews. Iain Murray notes the distinction by telling of a Calvinist who was surprised to find one of Wesley’s preachers in agreement with this teaching. The Calvinist stated that he did not think they taught the perseverance of the saints. The Wesleyan replied, “O Sir, you have been misinformed; it is the perseverance of sinners we doubt.”[xiv] He was right—it is the saints who persevere those who trust and walk with God are safe and secure.
Where then do believers look for assurance? Believers can and should look to the unchanging character of God and the certainty of His promises. Believers can and should look to the once-for-all work of Jesus Christ, which is sufficient for all one needs. Believers should not look to themselves, to the strength of their faith, to the protection of various spiritual disciplines of methodologies, however useful they may be. It is not oneself or any regiment that depends on human strength that assures the believers salvation, but rather God, who said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear.” That is the writer’s conclusion in Hebrews 13:5-6. In assurance, as in all else, “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2:9).
Assurance is something that comes from the knowledge of God and His promises, and is thus the result of the exercise of faith. The same is true of security; it is through faith alone that believers are secure. Security comes from trusting in Jesus Christ, from persevering to the end in the power of the Lord. Philippians 3:12, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (NIV).
Therefore, like a soldier in war, believers should not stand still but take up the offensive. Believers are called to press onward in faith, which is the way of perseverance and the route to hope and joy in the Lord. If believers stumble or fall, they can call out to the Lord who is rich in mercy; He will lift them up. This is the best way to give thanks to God for His great gift of salvation; the way to honor Him before the eyes of this world and to make one’s life worthwhile as the believer bears fruit—real fruit that will last forever and be a blessing to many.
A Final Thought…
Hebrews 6:1-8 meets the people of God at their greatest need with the gospel by wooing His people to draw not away from, but deeper into the gospel for greater assurance and confidence in their salvation. Perseverance of the saints does not mean that everyone who claims to have received Christ as his Savior, participates in Christian work, and manifest various gifts is “eternally secure” (Matt. 7:1-23). The church includes hypocrites who demonstrate the external signs of persevering saints but lacks the marks of true Christians. Those marks, according to the Belgic Confession, are: 1) receiving Christ by faith as the only Savior, 2) avoiding sin, 3) following after righteousness, 4) loving the true God and one’s neighbor, 5) not turning aside to the right of left, 6) crucifying the flesh with the works thereof, 7) fighting against infirmities, and 8) continually taking refuge in the passion and obedience of Christ (Art. 29). The church also includes people like Demas, who seem to be godly but whose departure from the truth and the church reveal that they never really were in saving union with Christ (2 Tim. 4:10; Heb. 6:4-6).
Hebrews 6:4-6 warns believers not to fall away, but does not affirm the apostasy of saints; rather, it urges believers to persevere in faithfulness to God and His revelation of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. The Lord God uses solemn admonitions to keep His people from backsliding and away from a host of dangers. The Reformed doctrine of perseverance is that a regenerate soul will persevere through the trials of life and continue to believe and repent. He/she will slip and fall, develop bad habits, wrestle with doubt, but through it all, he/she will keep on going even as he/she began. All believers slip and fall into sin, but no true believer stays down. Just as God gave him faith and repentance unto initial conversion, so He supplies him with faith and repentance all along the way to heaven (Canons of Dort, Head V, Art. 7).[xv]
Believers who have come to Christ by grace remain wedded to Christ, knowing they are in Him by grace. Perseverance and Assurance are the two sides of grace. The believer cannot persevere in grace without growing in assurance, and they cannot grow in assurance of faith without perseverance.[xvi]
The doctrine of perseverance is not just a pretty ribbon that completes the package of Calvinist soteriology. Perseverance involves intense Christian watchfulness and discipleship. It requires pilgrim warfare in a world that aims to distract the mind and rip open the heart. It embraces major issues of life and death, including the believer’s eternal security in glory. Frances Roberts says, “Perseverance is the rope that ties the soul to the doorpost of heaven.”[xvii] John Blanchard concludes:” Glory for the Christian is more certain than the grave. God has never torn up a Christian’s birth certificate. It is possible to fall in grace, but not to fall from grace. The Christian can be as certain of arriving in Heaven as he is that Christ has already ascended there.[xviii]
Because the believer’s perseverance depends on the One, who does the work of salvation, namely, the Triune God, every believer is a jewel of Christ and can never be lost. Malachi 3:17 states, “They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.” Thomas Brooks adds, “Earthly jewels sometimes get separated from their own, Christ’s jewels, never. Earthly jewels are sometimes lost, Christ’s jewels never. Earthly jewels are sometimes stolen, Christ’s jewels, never!”[xix]
“In the final analysis, the hope of true believers resides not in our feeble hold of God but in his powerful grasp of us,” Bruce Demarest writes. “The stability and constancy of our spiritual lives rests not in our human powers but in God’s eternal purpose and infinite resources.”[xx] God’s purposes, God’s promises, God’s powers, God’s provision, God’s protection—what comfort that gives.[xxi]
Perseverance is ultimately the result of the work of the Spirit in believer’s hearts. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, coming down to believers from the Reformation must be preserved at all costs. Believers must neither abandon it nor compromise with those who wish to do so. Perseverance opens the way for assurance. Rooted in God’s grace, objective perseverance makes possible subjective assurance, which is rooted in the believer’s conscience. If a Christian does not believe in the perseverance of the saints, he/she cannot be sure he/she is going to Heaven. He/she may know he/she is in a state of grace, but he/she has no way of knowing whether he/she will continue in that state. Assurance is wedded to the doctrine of perseverance.
Perseverance increases assurance. Those who persist in works that spring from faith will attain high levels of assurance, which is why believers must persevere to the end in faith, holiness, and obedience. To deny the necessity of perseverance is to deny the clear Scripture teaching on the subject (Matt. 7:13-14; Luke 18:15; John 8:31-32; 15:6; Rom. 6:22; 8:22-23; 1 Cor. 15:1-1; Col. 1:21-23; 2 Tim. 2:11; Heb. 2:1,3; 3:13-14; 12:14). Such a denial will weaken the resolve of the believer to run the Christian race, which, in turn, will open him/her to the chastening hand of his Father (Heb. 12:1-13).
Perseverance encourages the believer to live in hope. As believers persevere, they become increasingly confidence of victory in Christ and their future with Him in glory (Rom. 5:1-11).
[i] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Rev. Ed. NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 141.
[ii] George H. Guthrie, Hebrews. NIVAC (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1998), 205.
[iii] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Rev. Ed. NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 148.
[iv] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Rev. Ed. NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 148.
[v] George H. Guthrie, Hebrews. NIVAC (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1998), 218.
[vi] Peter. T. O’Brien, The Letter To The Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2010), 220.
[vii] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Rev. Ed. NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990),149.
[viii] George H. Guthrie, Hebrews. NIVAC (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1998), 219.
[ix] Peter. T. O’Brien, The Letter To The Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2010), 225.
[x] John Owen, An Exposition of Hebrews, 7 Vols. (Evansville, Ind.: Sovereign Grace, 1960), vol. 5, p. 86.
[xi] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Rev. Ed. NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 149.
[xii] George H. Guthrie, Hebrews. NIVAC (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1998), 220.
[xiii] Peter. T. O’Brien, The Letter To The Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2010), 220.
[xiv] Ian Murray, Wesley and Men Who Followed (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 2003), 66.
[xv] Curt Daniel, “The History and Theology of Calvinism” (Dallas Scholarly Reprints, 1993), 415).
[xvi] R.C. Sproul, “More than Conquerors,”TableTalk, 28, no.12 (Dec. 2004): 5-6.
[xvii] Quoted in John Blanchard, The Complete Gold (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2006), 446.
[xviii] Ibid, 170.
[xix] Quoted in John Blanchard, The Complete Gold (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2006), 170.
[xx] Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1989), 255.
[xxi] Anthony Hoekema, Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1989), 255.