Hebrews 6:4-5, “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, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,”
Yesterday we saw the resolve that the author of Hebrews had to lead his audience into maturity. Yet this resolve was tempered by an awareness that his plan would only be actualized if God was so willing (Heb. 6:3).
At this point we must ask the question as to why the author made reference to God’s permission being necessary if he was to guide his audience into maturity. The first answer is the simple fact that God is sovereign and has foreordained whatever comes to pass. The second answer is to be found in Hebrews 6:4–6. Only those who have not fallen away, who have not held the Son of God up to contempt, can be restored to repentance and thus led on to maturity. Those who have fallen away are impossible to restore, and God will not permit those who have committed such apostasy to come to maturity.
Today we come to one of the most difficult passages in all of Scripture. Hebrews 6:4–6 has often been used with the attempt to prove that genuine Christians can lose their salvation. Because of this text, the Novatians and Donatists in the early church denied readmission to the church to those who had fallen into idolatry under persecution — even when some of these lapsed people repented and later died for the Gospel. Arminians believe this passage destroys any confidence that the saints will persevere. Calvinists deny that the passage should be understood in this way but sometimes have trouble articulating the reasons why.
And so we must ask: Does Hebrews 6:4–6 refer to genuine believers who once really believed in Christ but then later fall away? At first glance we might answer yes. The person described in these verses has done many things that might lead us to believe he once was a true Christian. He has professed repentance, been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, and has tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come.
But before we decide that these verses refer to genuine believers, let us conclude today with some comments by John Calvin. He says that there is not any good reason why the Lord should not grant to the reprobate “some taste of his grace,” or “irradiate their minds with some sparks of his light.” These verses do not refer to genuine believers and we will study the reasons why over the next few days.
As we consider this sincere exhortation to the Hebrews, it is important that we always keep in mind the promises of God. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, man is not the author and finisher of his faith. Rather, Jesus Christ is the great High Priest who alone is the Author and Finisher of our faith.
Over the years, debates have raged in the church as to whether or not Hebrews 6:4–6 refers to genuine believers. If it does, which seems to be the case at first glance, then we have a passage teaching us that truly regenerate believers may finally fall away and lose salvation.
This position, however, is untenable. It contradicts a vast number of biblical passages affirming the perseverance of true believers and the permanency of salvation (John 6:39; Rom. 8:28–29; Eph. 4:30; Phil. 1:6; 1 Peter 1:3–5; et al.). It also contradicts the teaching of the book of Hebrews itself. The sons will be brought to glory (Heb. 2:10). Christ effectually delivers all the seed of Abraham (2:15–16). The true saints are perfected for all time (10:14).
But how should we understand the list of spiritual experiences we find in Hebrews 6:4–5? Are not these things only true of those with genuine faith? Well, not necessarily. It is possible to be enlightened with the truth and yet still deny it. Jesus condemns the Pharisees for knowing He was from God and yet saying that He was from the devil (Luke 11:14–23). A person can also taste the heavenly gift without ever having been truly saved. This is especially evident if, as some commentators believe, “tasting the heavenly gift” is a veiled reference to the Lord’s Supper. Certainly unregenerate persons do partake of the cup on occasion. When they do, they do so unworthily, leading in some cases to illness and death (1 Cor. 11:29–30). Likewise, it is possible to share in the Holy Spirit and taste the goodness of the Word and the powers of the age to come. It is no wonder that those who go to church and yet are not saved experience some of the same blessings as actual believers. They see the power of God; they can appreciate the beauty of the Scriptural writings and see how the Law restrains sin. They can share in the blessings of the Holy Spirit when true Christians have been blessed and share those blessings with them.
There is nothing in Hebrews 6:4–5 that tells us that only genuine Christians receive these blessings. They can be given to all those in the covenant community, regardless of whether saving faith is present. Thus, Hebrews 6:4–6 may well refer to those who have been in such close contact to the Gospel that they received some of its blessings without ever being saved.
Few of us realize that some of the blessings of the new covenant (except salvation) are also conferred on those who do not have true faith. Many people in our churches receive blessings because they are a part of the covenant community even though they are not really saved. Ask the Lord to grant saving faith to all in your church who profess to have it.