This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
Squarely Addressing Hebrews 6:4–6
Dennis Johnson discusses Hebrews 6:4–6, one of the New Testament's most famous—and debated—warning passages, a section of Scripture that many people think teaches that Christians can lose their salvation. He explains why he doesn't think that's what the author of Hebrews was saying, how to respond when people who once claimed to be Christians walk away from God, and whether or not we can be certain about our own salvation.
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Dennis, thank you so much for joining us today on The Crossway Podcast.
Well, thank you for inviting me.
At some point in life I think most of us will know someone—maybe a friend or family member or spiritual mentor—who will turn away from what once seemed like a vibrant faith, and maybe even going so far as to leave their church, leave their family, or maybe even renounce Christ altogether. Obviously this can be very destabilizing and confusing for those who are left wondering, what happened, what were the things that led to this, and what should we make of this experience? So I wonder if you’ve ever experienced anything like that in your years as a pastor or professor.
Well I have. And actually, one thing that comes to my mind is as I’ve taught Hebrews over the years, I had a student some years ago who was a strong believer, but was troubled by his past because he remembered being a strong believer in his high school years, and then renouncing what he professed to believe in his college years and for a few years of his young adult life, and then the Lord brought him back. And he wondered if he had committed the irreversible apostasy that Hebrews 6 talks about. So I think of him whenever I turn to this passage because—obviously we don’t know others’ hearts—but as I saw him after that whole process, his heart for the Lord was true. And I said, “I don’t know what was going on with you in your college years. I can’t say. But, from the fruit I see now, I’m confident that you did not commit that form of apostasy that Hebrews 6 is talking about, from which it is impossible for people to be renewed to repentance. So, I’ve had that experience. Yes, I’ve also known people who have walked, it seemed, with Christ, and have turned away as well. It’s heart breaking, it’s confusing, and as you said it makes us feel like, where did that come from and what did I miss? I feel that distress, and I have felt it from time to time.
Sometimes I think it’s hard for us to know how to talk with someone who has fallen away from Christ and who once was a strong believer, as far as we could tell, and now they have rejected him. What practical advice would you offer to friends and family?
Wow, there’s probably no one piece of advice that fits all circumstances. I would say quite often we need to ask—and friends and family may know or may have a clue—what is it about Jesus people that has hurt them in the past? What are the scars that they have received from the church? The church, which they should be able rightly to identify with the Lord of the church, with Christ, but we sometimes send horrible signals about who our Master is in the way we treat one another. So if that’s a cause—it’s not the only cause—then I think friends and families need to say, You know, you’re absolutely right about the church. We do fail in a lot of ways and it’s serious. But what about Jesus? In your own mind, can you make a distinction between what you’ve experienced in church and what the Scriptures reveal about this amazing God-man Messiah: compassionate, full of integrity, laying down his life for his people. Have you have you turned your back really on Jesus or have you turned your back on him because you associate him with the hurt that you’ve had in the church?
I think that’s one scenario. Another might be that they have just been exposed somewhere along the line—maybe in university, maybe in their reading—to attacks on the reliability of the Scriptures. Or they felt pressure from our culture to say, Well, obviously things like miracles couldn’t happen. And so the approach for them might be a little different, and you need to say, You know, sometimes we need to push back against culture. Culture has not always been right. We know that past cultures haven’t been right, but what about our culture too? Maybe you should take a fresh look at this collection of books that claims for itself to be the word of the Living God and not just believe everything you’ve been told about it, but actually go back to it afresh and listen and again wrestle with who Jesus Christ is.
The Bible does contain warning passages like those in Hebrews, Hebrews 6 in particular, and some people have read those throughout the years as teaching that true Christians can actually lose their salvation, while others have other explanations for how we should understand those passages. I just want to read Hebrew 6:4–6 right now and then maybe you can walk us through
it and help us to understand what you think it’s saying.
So Hebrews 6:4–6 says, “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.” To many people reading that passage, it sounds a lot like the author of Hebrews is talking about a Christian losing his or her salvation and it being impossible to gain it back. How would you read that passage? How would you respond to that understanding?
Well, as we think about words like enlightened, the Holy Spirit being part of their experience—it does sound like they’re genuine believers renewed by the Holy Spirit. Let me say first of all, I don’t think the text is saying Christian’s can lose their salvation. Among other things, Hebrews is going to go on in chapter 7 to talk about the fact that Christ saves to the uttermost those to come to God through him. So the writer to the Hebrews agrees very much—as we would expect, since he’s writing inspired Scripture through the Holy Spirit—with what Jesus says in John 6 and John 10 that he will not lose any of those whom the Father has given to him, that no one can snatch his sheep out of his hand, as Jesus says in that wonderful statement in John 10. He agrees with what Paul says in Romans 8, that those whom God has predestined to be conformed to the image of his son, he has called, he’s justified, and he’s glorified. There’s no loss. There’s no slippage in that process because God is faithful, and God is strong.
So then we need to ask: what kind of people is Hebrews 6 talking about? Since his point is not just that these people might fall away, but that if these people fall away from their position in the Christian community, it’s impossible to renew them, to restore them to repentance. That’s his point, that there is a point of no return. What’s he talking about?
As I have wrestled with this text, I’m persuaded that he’s emphasizing that it is possible to be a member of the Christian church, the Christian community, and to be exposed to all the wonderful blessings that that entails temporally, and yet not have really taken hold of what those blessings point to in Christ, not having truly trusted in Christ. They’ve been enlightened. They’ve heard the gospel. They have tasted the heavenly gift and then a line or two later, he says they’ve tasted the goodness of the word of God. They’ve heard the word of God, which is the gift from heaven.
Hebrews talks about God now preaching to us from heaven as he preached to the Israelites in the wilderness on Earth. They heard his voice on earth. Now we hear through the preachers of the gospel, we hear from heaven God speaking. Maybe the most puzzling is this line: “They have become partners or partakers of the Holy Spirit.” That word “partners” or “partakers” is the same word that he used when he was quoting one of the Psalms back in chapter 1 about the companions of the Messiah, those who have fellowship in general with the Messiah, and he’s anointed above his companions. And then he says they’ve tasted the powers or the miracles of the age to come. And the word powers there is the same word that he’s used in chapter 2 for miracles. Well, that’s a lot.
Let me put it this way: I think what he’s saying is there are people who are in the church who hear the gospel preached and especially in the era of the apostles, when the apostles were preaching and God was confirming their eyewitness testimony to the gospel through miracles. Paul talks about the signs of the apostle. There were people in that community who had all of the external blessings and benefits. Maybe even sounded and looked like a Christian but who had not embraced the gospel, had not been united to Christ by saving faith. And it’s possible for them to turn away. And if they do commit that kind of irreversible apostasy, there’s no return for them.
So you’re saying this passage is talking about people who have been, as you said early on, in the Christian community, so part of a visible Christian community, have then been witnessed to and even experienced the benefits and the blessings of being a part of that community, and then it’s when they deliberately turn away from from God and the gospel, that’s a situation that he’s describing here. Is that right?
That’s right. And I think what’s helpful to us is to remember is that Hebrews 6 comes after Hebrews 3 and 4, where he has drawn the analogy with Israel, the wilderness generation that came out with Moses and experienced many external blessings as part of God’s old covenant community. And yet he said for so many of them the word that they heard was not blended with faith in these people. And so, as we know, except for basically Joshua and Caleb, that whole Exodus generation died in the wilderness and did not enter the Promised Land. And he’s using that as an analogy for the church now in this new covenant era. He says it’s possible to be part of the new covenant Israel—the church—and hear the word but not have it blended with faith in our own hearts. And that’s a dangerous place to be in, a lethal place to be.
Yeah, I think one of the most tricky phrases even in this passage that I’d love to hear you speak to specifically is when he says to “restore them again to repentance” and that again seems to imply that there was a time when they did have repentance and yet they’ve lost that somehow and then he’s saying it’s impossible for them to regain that. But you know, we see in Scripture the idea of faith and repentance going together. And so how is it that these people could have had repentance at one point but it not be saving.
That is a great question. And again, I think he’s saying: as we look at one another and as creatures who can’t read hearts, it looked in every way, shape, and form as if they had truly repented. I think about the account of Simon the magician in Acts 8 when Philip preached in Samaria and people heard the gospel, God again gave some miraculous signs there even though Philip wasn’t an apostle. But he was a representative of the gospel at that point, and many believed, and Luke records that Simon also believed. And again Luke is I would say at this point as a historian not presuming to probe the depth of Simon’s heart, but we might be more careful today. But Luke’s writing Scripture, so he’s writing truth, but we might say he professed faith. He received baptism. But then when Peter and John come and Simon says, “I want to buy the power to give the Holy Spirit,” and Peter looks at what’s going on in Simon’s heart, and he says, “You’re not right with God, you’re still in the bond of iniquity.” He basically says, “You’re going to hell, and send your money with you.” Luke just records Simon’s final response saying “If you would pray,” and Peter calls him to repentance, and then Simon says, “Pray for me that this won’t happen,” and we don’t quite know whether that finally got through to him or whether he’s just terrified of consequences, but the New Testament can speak that way at times, describing people in terms of what they seem to be and maybe even see themselves as being at a particular point. Kind of a repentance.
Paul talks at one point in 2 Corinthians about a worldly repentance that’s all about regret but doesn’t bring life. I think about the difference between Judas and Peter. Kind of at the same moment—you know, Judas betrays Jesus, Peter denies Jesus three times. Judas has a kind of repentance. It’s not deep, but it’s a regret that he knows what he’s done is wrong and goes out and commits suicide. Peter is confronted by his failure to own up to the fact that he belongs to Jesus. But Jesus has prayed for him. And well, Peter also feels deep grief. It doesn’t lead to ruin and death and suicide. It leads to restoration because of the faithfulness of Christ. So we wrestle with that. But again, our HolySpirit-inspired author-preacher here is wanting to make the point that it’s possible to experience incredible blessings from God as a part of a covenant community and yet not have that faith that endures.
We can’t take this text out of the rest of Hebrews 6. He’s going to go on in 6 through 12, after he gives a little analogy that maybe was drawn from Jesus’s parable of the sower and the seeds; he talks about one type of land that bears good fruit, and another type of land that bears thorns and thistles and is destroyed, but then he says—such a sensitive pastor, after such a scary warning—“But we are persuaded about you, brothers, about better things, things that belong to salvation.” And so the warning is not to terrify them but to urge them to stick close to the Lord to encourage one another. And then he comes to verse 12 and he says, “We want you to be imitators of those who through faith and patience, long-suffering, inherit the promises.” So it’s that faith that lasts that receives the promises that proves then to be the genuine thing all along.
Why do you think he teaches here that it’s impossible for those who have experienced the blessings of the covenant community and then walked away to be restored back to it? Take the case of young people who grew up in the church. Their families or their parents were believers. They made a profession of faith at a younger age and maybe flourished in what seemed to be true faith in their earlier years and then maybe in high school or in college walked away and got into things they shouldn’t have and eventually ended up saying, “I’m not a Christian anymore.” Is this passage teaching us that there’s no hope for them at that point, that they are beyond redemption in some way?
No, it is not teaching that. It is teaching that, in walking away from the faith, there is a point of no return, and you don’t want to even get close to it. But it is not teaching that you should give up. Because we don’t know what God may yet do. And we can’t read hearts. We don’t know what’s going on in other people’s hearts.
Now granted, Peter’s repentance was quick after he denied Jesus three times, but the fact of the matter is that Jesus said anyone who denies me before men, I will deny before my Father in heaven. So we can’t say that Peter’s sin was minor, and Judas’s sin was major. Peter’s sin was major, and yet there was a place obviously in the grace of God for Peter’s repentance. And I think we should always have that kind of hope. One of my professors at seminary had a daughter who well into middle age lived as an unbeliever—frankly said she was an unbeliever though she had professed faith in her childhood, and virtually as he was dying, as the family gathered, the Holy Spirit touched her heart, and her siblings rejoice that the Lord brought her to himself. So there’s no point where you give up. There’s just no point where you give up. We don’t know.
So what do you think he means when he talks about that they’re crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. What’s he getting at there?
Yeah. This is the language out of chapter 10, and it’s parallel to this language here—crucified the Son of God and submitting him to open contempt. He comes back to it in chapter 10 as well.
Basically what he’s saying is: they professed to rely upon the atoning blood of Jesus Christ shed on the cross. They profess their forgiveness from God, their access to God, now they were resting and trusting in him. That’s what they said. They were trusting in Jesus Christ, and no longer participating in all of those animal sacrifices that God had ordained in the old covenant. They were intended, as Hebrews shows us so beautifully, to point to Christ, but now, especially for these Hebrew Christians, the temptation is to abandon their trust in Jesus the Messiah. Whether through pressure of family or through other pressures to identify with first century Judaism, they are tempted to go back into the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. He says if they do that, in a sense they are saying that the blood of Christ is not the innocent blood of the Lamb of God, but it’s simply the blood shed by one more criminal, one more sinner among all the sinners who deserved his own death. So in effect, they’re identifying themselves with those who were glad to crucify Jesus. He says it because he believes that is what they are doing, that’s the effect of their actions. But he’s saying it that way for shock value. He’s saying, You really don’t want to do that because you’re claiming that Jesus is a guilty sinner along with the rest of us, you know better than that. You know he is holy, harmless, undefiled, separated from sinners, separated in that he’s not touched by the stain of our sin although he’s obviously a friend of sinners. That’s all Hebrews language from chapter 7. He’s the one innocent sacrifice who can atone for our sins. If you go away from him, there is no other place to turn for forgiveness.
How would you respond to somebody who hears your explanation of that passage and maybe feels like you’re doing a little bit of interpretive gymnastics to make it mean something that it seems like it doesn’t mean? So more specifically, that it seems to be clearly teaching that someone can truly be saved and then lose their salvation because maybe they’ve stopped believing in God, and that was their choice, and now they’re walking away. How would you respond to someone who says you’re not taking the plain reading here and you’re trying to fit this passage into your theological system that tells you that people can’t lose their salvation once they have it?
My first response would be, Well, let me think about that. Let me honestly look at that.
But I don’t think that’s true. Yes, I come to this text persuaded by the other passages that we look to to teach the perseverance of the saints. But as I read Hebrews as a whole—not just these few verses—do I come away with the impression that Hebrews wants me to understand that ultimately my salvation depends on my holding fast to the very end apart from Christ holding me fast? Can Jesus let go? Let’s start with Hebrews, and go to Hebrews 7 where talks about Christ being able to save—interesting phrase—“to the uttermost.” Completely. Is it comprehensive? Or is it unendingly? The phrase that he used there is both because he’s emphasizing the fact that Jesus’s death brings once for all cleansing of conscience. His death never needs to be replaced or repeated unlike the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament. So those who receive the benefit of Jesus’s death receive complete and full forgiveness. So he’s able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through him.
And of course in Hebrew 7 he also says, “Christ is living forever to intercede for us.” So if we’re truly trusting in Christ, Christ is always praying for us at the Father’s right hand. And surely the implication is that the Father is more than pleased to answer the Son’s prayers for our perseverance. Hebrews may even be tapping right in to what Jesus said to Peter when Jesus announced that Peter would deny him. But Jesus said, “I have prayed for you. So when you are restored, strengthen your brothers.”
So start with Hebrews, and then don’t take Hebrews 4–6 out of the context of Hebrews, and don’t take it out of the context of the rest of the New Testament. Let’s hear Hebrews 4–6 in the context of the pastoral reassurance that comes right after it. We are persuaded of better things concerning you brothers. We’re talking about the possibility that someone could be part of the confessing Christian church and not be truly united to Christ in faith. But that’s not what he sees in this congregation that he wrote to in the first century. We see a track record of loving the Lord, of serving his people. Later in chapter 10 he’ll say, “You already suffered in some ways. It hasn’t come to bloodshed for you who are still alive. You haven’t suffered martyrdom, but you’ve suffered loss of property, you’ve identified with those have been humiliated. We see lots of evidence of real saving faith. So take heart and be assured.”
Yeah, I think that’s what I’d say. And I probably, in love, gently push back and say, “And now, if you read Hebrews 6 as saying that people can be truly, genuinely savingly united to Jesus by faith and then walk away from it, now please help me understand John 6, or John 10, or Romans 8:28–30. How does that fit with the assurances that God gives us elsewhere that he holds onto his own?
So it’s hard not to feel a certain amount of personal fear and even anxiety after reading a passage like this or maybe even particularly watching a friend or loved one walk away from God. And I wonder are passages like this meant to make us question our salvation? Is that the appropriate response? And if not, how should we deal with those feelings as we read the Bible?
Yeah. I think I would not say that they’re meant to make us question our salvation. Although Paul in 2 Corinthians says, “Test yourselves to see whether you’re in the faith.” But I think he’s doing that partly to the Corinthians rhetorically to say, “There’s a lot of stuff going on among you that doesn’t look very Christlike. So look at yourself.” But the point of passages like these, I think, it just fits in with Hebrews’ whole emphasis on the fact that we persevere in our pilgrimage of faith. He uses this imagery of Israel’s wilderness experience putting them to the test, showing a lack of faith in so many, but they’re heading for the Promised Land, heading for the city of God—we persevere together.
More than anything else, for a passage like this, our takeaway should be that we need to be together. We need to stay together. We need to heed what the preacher to the Hebrews says in chapter 3: we watch out for if there is anyone hardened or in unbelief. But we go out and encourage one another daily. Individually, we need to say, I need to be part of a vibrant, Bible-preaching, Bible-living church that cares for one another and holds each other accountable so we’re known. And if I’m part of one of those churches then I need to be close enough to my brothers and sisters—if it’s very large I probably can’t do that for hundreds—that if there’s someone in our communion who begins to stray or wander or just seems to be absent, that we love them enough to go after them in love and say, What’s going on?*
So more than anything it’s meant to encourage us to realize that God’s means of holding onto us is certainly his word, certainly it’s prayer, or sacrament, but it’s all those things that come to us in the context of our life together as Christ people, as the church.
Well, thank you, Dr. Johnson, for taking the time to speak with us today and help us all understand this passage in particular and then just the broader issue of whether or not we can lose our salvation a little bit more clearly and offer us some real hope and practical advice for the future.
Thank you for the opportunity, Matt. This is really an important issue, so I appreciate being able to chat with you about it.
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