Editors Note: This is a new series on sanctification designed to help our readers understand what sanctification is and how to grow in Christ.

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Introduction

The controversy surrounding Hebrews 6:1-8 seems to stem from the meaning of several key words such as “instruction about washings” (vs.2), “enlightened” (vs.4), “fallen away” (vs.6), and “restore again to repentance” (vs.6), The heart of this post will focus on explaining the meaning of these key words in not only their proper context, but how they fit in the context of the Book of Hebrews as a whole. After explaining the key words in their context, I will then propose a solution to the difficulty of this passage, which is that 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. Today we will lay the exegetical foundation and tomorrow we will explore solutions to the difficulty of this passage.

Comparison/Contrast on Hebrews 6:1-8

 “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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

I agree with the explanations offered by Drs. Guthrie, O’Brien, and F.F. Bruce. 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 called for an inner washing (Titus 3:5) that regenerated the soul.

“Enlightened” (vs.4)

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.[4] 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.[5] Dr. O’Brien agrees 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’ grace at the beginning without the completing grace of perservance.[6] I agree with the explanations offered by Drs. Guthrie, O’Brien, and F.F. Bruce. Being enlightened describes the initial entrance into Christian community through explanation of the Christian faith (Heb. 10:32).

 “Fallen Away” (vs.6)

 F.F. Bruce notes that the writer of Hebrews as did the Old Testament law between inadvert sin and willful sin, and the context here shows plainly that the willful sin which he has in mind is deliberate apostasy.[7] 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 of a serious is that of rejecting Christ.”[8] 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).[9]

I agree with the explanations offered by Drs. Guthrie, O’Brien, and F.F. Bruce. The Greek “fallen away” occurs only here in the New Testament. In the 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 of 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 rejected 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 hat 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 about 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) may never be confused. In 6:6, the author refers to apostasy; he has in mind the person who deliberately and complete abandons the Christian faith. John Owen notes that falling away must consist of all the constituent principles and doctrines of Christianity.[10]

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 result 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). Constantly 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.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13]

I agree with the explanations offered by Drs. Guthrie, O’Brien, and F.F. Bruce. 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 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 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” (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 received 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 (6:6) and no sacrifice (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” (10:27). Tomorrow we will conclude our study of Hebrews 6:1-8 by looking at solutions to the difficulty of Hebrews 6:1-8.


[1]  F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Rev. Ed. NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 141.

[2] George H. Guthrie, Hebrews. NIVAC(Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1998), 205.

[3] Peter. T. O’Brien, The Letter To The Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2010), 215.

[4] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Rev. Ed. NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 148.

[5] George H. Guthrie, Hebrews. NIVAC(Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1998), 218.

[6] Peter. T. O’Brien, The Letter To The Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2010), 220.

[7]  F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Rev. Ed. NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990),149.

[8] George H. Guthrie, Hebrews. NIVAC(Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1998), 219.

[9] Peter. T. O’Brien, The Letter To The Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2010), 225.

[10] John Owen, An Exposition of Hebrews, 7 Vols. (Evansville, Ind.: Sovereign Grace, 1960), vol. 5, p. 86

[11]  F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Rev. Ed. NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 149.

[12] George H. Guthrie, Hebrews. NIVAC(Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1998), 220.

[13] Peter. T. O’Brien, The Letter To The Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2010), 220.