'If God Permit…’ (Hebrews 6:3-6)
We are getting close to Hebrews 6:4-6 - three verses of Scripture that have caused a lot of perplexity in the Christian church. Some guidelines are needed, (i) It is important that we constantly remember what the writer has already said in Hebrews chapter 1 to 5. For Hebrews 6:4-8 repeats and follows up Hebrews 2:1-4 and Hebrews 3:7 - 4:13. (ii) We must pay special attention to verse 3, before we look at verses 4-6. (iii) We must follow carefully the ‘flow of thought1, for our writer is logically and carefully working out what he wants to say. (iv) We must keep in mind the teaching about the oath of God, which is certainly a major key to the understanding of Hebrews 6. (v) We must resist the temptation to play down certain words and phrases in the text. ‘Impossible’ must not be reduced to mean Very difficult’. ‘Tasted’ must not be taken to mean ‘take a little sip’. The clause ‘since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God’ must not be stripped of its weight by translating ‘while on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God’, as if to say ‘They cannot be rescued from sin while they sin’ (a point hardly worth making). And the clauses of 6:4-5 must not be interpreted to refer to people other than Christians. All of these approaches are surely evasive. All attempts to minimize the various phrases of the text must be resisted.
Actually verse 3 is not difficult; it should be carefully followed. The text says: And this is -what we shall do if God permits (6:3). The Greek word eanper - a word we had in 3:6, 14 - is used here. It is an emphatic marker of condition. I could translate ‘if- and only if- God permits’.
1. There is a possibility of its becoming impossible for us to press on to perfection. Whatever the details of 6:4-6 might mean it is obvious that it explains verse 3. It is quite clear in verse 3 that there is some kind of failure which makes it impossible for the Christian to make further progress and press on to perfection. ‘And this is what we shall do, if God permits’. Verses 4-6 is going to be dealing with this same subject since it begins with the word ‘For’. For it is impossible to renew again to repentance those who were once-for-ever enlightened, and so have experienced the heavenly gift, who were made partakers of the Holy Spirit (6:4), and who experienced the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come (6:5), and yet they then fell by the wayside. They are in themselves crucifying again the Son of God and exposing him to public shame (6:6). The main point is made clear by verse 3. There are some people with whom it is impossible to press on to perfection.
2. If such a fall takes place it will be impossible for the writer to help them. I shall be able to help you, says the writer. We shall press on to make spiritual progress - but only if God is giving us grace. If He decides not to permit this progress I shall not be able to help you in the way that I wish. There will be nothing I can do if God decides to withhold the possibility of your further progress towards ‘perfection’.
3. This is why there is need for every Christian to stay soft and tender in hearing God’s voice. ‘This is what we shall do, if God permits’. If God gets angry with our hardness of heart, we shall not progress at all and will be left like the Israelites in the wilderness, neither getting un-redeemed and taken back to pre-redemption bondage, nor pressing on to inherit the promises but staying where we are in a wilderness until our life is ended, having forfeited the joys and experiences of the kingdom of God.
It is a frightening thought and yet we must not be terrified more than we need to be. I can say straightaway that anyone who is hearing God’s voice has not committed the sin that the author describes. The writer does not in fact think that his readers have ‘fallen’ in this way. We have not ‘fallen’ in this way if we hear God’s voice and act upon what we hear. The easiest way to prove we are not spiritual deaf is to demonstrate that we have heard God speak to us.
But we do need to know of the danger. How shall we Christians escape God’s anger if we neglect such a great salvation? The best way never to become spiritually deaf is never even to begin to become hard of hearing. Physically this is perhaps impossible but spiritually it can be done. Watch out, brothers and sisters, lest there shall be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God (3:12).
Verses 4 to 6 develop the thought in verse 3. The main point is: there is need for every Christian to stay soft and tender in hearing God’s voice. The key to Hebrews 6:4-6 is surely to take it in the light of what has already been said in 2:1-3 and 3:7-4:13. The gist of the matter is this:
If a Christian reaches a certain point of rebellion, God may not give him permission to progress to spiritual maturity. God may swear in his wrath that such a Christian - although he remains a child of God - will not reach the goal of the Christian life. Such a Christian cannot be renewed unto repentance. He remains hard of heart. No one can help him. He is saved ‘as though through fire’. He or she will reach heaven but eternally lose reward. The key to not ‘falling’ in this way is to stay open to God’s voice.
The Privileges of Conversion (Hebrews 6:4-6)
For it is impossible to renew again to repentance those who were once-for-ever enlightened, and so have experienced the heavenly gift, who were made partakers of the Holy Spirit (6:4), and who experienced the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come (6:5), and yet they then fell by the -wayside (6:6a). How shall we interpret these verses?
(i) They certainly have nothing to do with losing our status as ‘saved’ people. New birth and justification are not reversible. There is no reference here to 'falling away’ in that sense. Verse 10 explains ‘For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work…’. Surely no Bible-believing Christian thinks we are saved by how good we are, and that God in his justice will save us because of our good works! Works are connected not with justification or new birth but with reward or inheritance, one of the main themes of Hebrews.
(ii) It is the possible loss of maturity that is the theme of the passage. The passage is dealing with reaching perfection or maturity. It involves inheriting the promises and enjoying the rewards of God. It is along this line of approach that we must follow the thought in Hebrews 6:4-6. God rewards works of persistent faith (as Hebrews 10:35 says - ‘Your confidence … has a great reward’). Hebrews 6:4-6 does not speak of losing ‘salvation’ but of losing reward. God rewards works of persistent faith (as Hebrews 10:35 says - ‘Your confidence … has a great reward’). It is this that might possibly be lost as the result of rebellion and spiritual hardness.
(iii) One other view of this passage I must reject decisively and that is the idea that being ‘enlightened’ (6:4) is less than being ‘saved’? The writer is not saying that if an enlightened-but-unsaved person falls by the wayside he cannot be restored. Our author gives no hint that he does not regard these people as true Christians. He knows they are holy brothers and sisters, partakers of a heavenly calling, people who have been persecuted for their faith in Christ. Read the description of the people in 10:32-39, a description of what they were like after they had been enlightened. Their faith is mentioned in the description of those who ‘fell’. For ‘confidence’ (10:35) is the writer’s term for assured faith. They had faith; the writer asks them to not cast it aside but hold to it such that they are richly rewarded (10:35). These people were certainly Christian people.
There is another objection to this third approach. No one has ever found a way of living with it! The great Asahel Nettleton said ‘The most I have ventured to say respecting myself is, that I think it possible I may get to heaven’. He took the view of Hebrews 6 that I am criticizing. Maybe (he thought) he was only enlightened! But surely we are meant to have more assurance of salvation that that!
It is the second approach we must explore. The writer’s point is this. There is a danger for Christians to avoid. It is possible to be so resistant to spiritual growth that God decides to leave us static and we cease to make further progress? God is slow to anger, but he does not ignore hardness of heart and unbelief for ever. The important thing is to be able to hear God’s voice. If you can respond when God rebukes you then you have not reached spiritual deafness. As long as God can speak to you, then you are able to respond to what He says and be renewed to repentance and you can make spiritual progress.
He describes Christian conversion. The people he has in mind are certainly Christian people. ‘Once enlightened’ must refer to Christian conversion (it is similar to Ephesians 1:18, Hebrews 10:26, 32). Outside of Hebrews the best parallel is 2 Corinthians 4:4-6. Christian conversion happens when the light of the gospel shines in our heart to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. In Hebrews 6:4, the word ‘once’ - meaning ‘once for ever’, ‘once for all time’ - points to their one-and-only time of conversion to Christ.
We may note that the writer is speaking here of Christians, but they are Christians different from the readers. ‘It is impossible for those…’ - those people distinct from the ones reading his letter, those who have ‘forsaken the assembling of themselves together’ (10:25). The writer is not writing to them; he is writing about them, and warning his friends not to follow the way they have gone. Those people were saved but became rebellious. Unlike them, we need to press on to maturity and inheritance.
‘Tasting the heavenly gift’ refers to the blessings of forgiveness, new birth, sanctification and cleansing by the Holy Spirit.
These people also ‘were made partakers of the Holy Spirit’ (6:4). Once again the word he uses (metochous) is a strong word and refers to full Christian experience. The Christian is ‘born again’ by the Holy Spirit. He or she may be ‘sealed’ with the Holy Spirit. We are given gifts of the Holy Spirit. Our writer has all of this in mind.
These people also ‘experienced the goodness of the word of God’. God’s gospel message is good. God promises to work all things together for good in the life of the person who loves God. The Christian gets to experience this ‘goodness’ of the gospel-message of God. It is God’s goodness to us that ought to encourage us to move on to full maturity. It is because we have experienced God’s goodness that rebellion and spiritual deafness are so serious.
These people also ‘experienced … the powers of the age to come (6:5). There is a logical order in these phrases describing the Christian. First we see Jesus with the eye of faith; we have the enlightenment of the gospel. Then we actually experience Jesus as God’s gift to us. Thirdly, salvation is sealed to us by the Holy Spirit. Then we discover God’s goodness to us, perhaps over many years. Then the gifts and blessings of the Spirit are ‘powers of the age to come’. They are flashes of glory from the heavenly world to which we are travelling. The Holy Spirit gives us a foretaste of glory. We get to experience even now something of the praise of God, something of the direct presence of God, a foretaste of God’s rewards, a foretaste of the music and joys of heaven, the fellowship and love of heaven. In all of this we have ‘powers’, anointing, lubrication, abilities that come from heaven, and we are able to serve God.
Christian conversion is wonderful! But then the privilege of experiencing all of these things puts us in a position of great responsibility. We must press on to maturity - by hearing God’s voice and getting to inherit his promises.
Falling Away? (Hebrews 6:6b-8)
For it is impossible to renew again to repentance those who were once-for-ever enlightened and so have experienced the heavenly gift, who were made partakers of the Holy Spirit (6:4), and who experienced the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come (6:5), and yet they then fell by the wayside (6:6a). They are in themselves crucifying again the Son of God and exposing him to public shame.
The people mentioned here are certainly Christians. It is sometimes said that these people have not repented or believed. But this is a mistake, because our writer will go on to say that cannot be ‘renewed’ to repentance. In other words they have known repentance before! They have repented at least once. Also the writer refers elsewhere (in connection with the same warning) to their first confidence and confidence is his word for faith!
Yet there is the danger that after having experienced so much these people might become rebellious. It had happened not to the readers themselves but to those who had abandoned the fellowship. God gave them many opportunities for recovery, but they refused them all. Finally God took an oath in his anger and so they Tell by the wayside’. It was not loss of eternal salvation. But they lost a lot! They lost their fellowship with God. They lost their usefulness in God’s kingdom. They lost the ministry God wanted them to have. They became spiritually deaf. No one could reach them. They lived in a spiritual wilderness. I have no doubt they got to heaven. They were not un-redeemed, or un-regenerated, or un-justified. They were not disowned as God’s children. God is more faithful than that! They did not lose what God had already given them, but they lost what God wanted to give them. Don’t be like them, says our writer. Don’t even get anywhere near to having a rebellious heart. Hold on to your first confidence. It will be richly rewarded.
We have considered the people he has in mind. Next we must consider the disaster that overtook them (they ‘fell by the wayside’). What is it? We must note it says ‘and fell….’, not ‘if they fall…’. Our writer is considering something that might actually happen (and elsewhere he gives examples of its happening - the wilderness generation, Esau). We must not emphasize the ‘if’ so as to imply it is entirely hypothetical.
The word is parapipto. It means ‘to fall aside’ or to ‘fall by the wayside’. It may mean ‘to stumble on something’, or ‘to be mistaken’. In the New Testament it is found only in Hebrews 6:6, where it means ‘to fall aside’. Despite most modern translations it is not a strong word. It does not mean ‘fall away’ from salvation (for which ek-pipto might be the word to use). When the noun paraptoma (a falling aside) is used in Matthew 6:14-15 and Mark11:25, the sin referred to is not apostasy. The word does not have the idea of totally and finally renouncing one’s faith. Rather in Hebrews it means fail to persist in diligent faith and so come under the anger of God and experience a falling aside’. It is not dealing with rejection of the gospel so much as failure to apply the gospel. This was the danger facing the Hebrew Christians. We must interpret parapipto in the light of Hebrews’ message generally. Elsewhere in 2:3 he speaks of not ‘neglecting salvation’ and says something serious that will happen if we do. In 3:6, 14 he speaks of a failure of faith. Closer to Hebrews 6:6 is Hebrews 3:12 where he speaks of turning away from the living God by a refusal to persist in faith. In 3:11, God’s oath is so serious that an obvious ‘fall’ must follow such that those believers will not enter rest. Hebrews 4:1 Sand 4:11 also have the idea of a ‘fall’.
Hebrews 6:6 refers to a neglect of salvation (see Hebrews 2:3), a refusal to hear God (see Hebrews 3) that is so ingrained and long-lasting that God finally swears in his wrath and the Christian ‘falls’ into a state of being beyond restoration and progress to maturity. Verses 4-6 explain verse 3! These verses are not referring to loss of initial-salvation. It is loss of inheritance, loss of reward. It is not lost sonship, or lost new birth, or lost justification. Every Christian is sanctified for ever by the blood of Christ. He has not long-lasting redemption but eternal redemption. But those who have eternal redemption ‘may (or may not!) receive the promised eternal inheritance’. ‘Hold on to your faith’, says our writer. ‘It will be richly rewarded’. It is reward that is gained by persistent faith. It is reward and current usefulness to God that might be lost for ever by persistent spiritual deafness. The easiest way to understand all of this is to consider the biblical examples and parallels (Esau, the Israelites in the wilderness, Saul, Judah in its last days before the Babylonian exile). What are the characteristics of this ‘falling by the wayside’? (i) It is a Tall’ from which they never recover in this life, (ii) It is becoming spiritually deaf, unable to hear God’s voice, (iii) it is not wanting to repent and not being able to get back to where you were before, (iv) It is being beyond the help of any Christian friend. No one can renew such a person to repentance.
Next in Hebrews 6:6 we have some phrases that speak of how serious was the sin they committed. They are in themselves crucifying again the Son of God and exposing him to public shame (6:6b). The Greek word for ‘in themselves’ is often taken to mean ‘to their own disadvantage’, but more likely it mean ‘in themselves’ and makes the point that the rebellious Christian is doing in his own experience what the enemies of Jesus did when they crucified him. They are subjecting the Lord Jesus Christ to extreme pain. It ‘crucifies’ him when we rebel against him.
The Christian’s lapse into unbelief also is like the crucifixion in that it is ‘exposing him to public shame’. Just as the cross brought shame and disgrace upon Jesus so does the unbelief and life-style of the rebellious Christian.
Next we have in Hebrews (6:6 the writer’s illustration of what he has said (6:7-8). For land that has drunk in the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God (6:7). But land that brings forth thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed. Its end is to be burned (6:8). These words are a small parable. The land represents the heart of the Christian. The often falling rain represents the Word of God and the many times God has spoken to us. The question is: what sort of land is the rain falling upon and what fruit will it produce? What kind of heart is found within us. There are two possibilities. The land upon which the rain fall [the heart to which the Word of God comes] is either useful or useless. It either produces fruit or it produces the thorns and thistles of disobedience and rebellion. Inevitably a decision will be made about thre land sooner or later. That is to say, an oath is to be taken about its usefulness or uselessness. Receiving the blessing of God is God’s oath of mercy (about which we shall read shortly in 6:12-20). Being ‘near’ to a curse is God’s oath of anger in which he swears that we shall never enter his rest during this life, that progress to maturity will never be possible. It is notable that our writer does not say ‘receives the blessing of God … receives the curse of God’. He says it is ‘near to being cursed’. Why is there this slight restraint in what is said? It is surely because the Christian can never be totally and eternally cursed. Our writer is referring only to this life and whether in this life our destiny is reached. The ‘land flowing with milk and honey’ for the Christian is a matter of receiving God’s oath of blessing in this life. The Christian who gets rebellious is like land ‘near to being cursed’ but he can never be absolutely and eternally under God’s curse. He has been given eternal redemption. He is sanctified for ever by the blood of Christ. But the land’ of his heart can be shown to be useless. What is produced - the thorns and thistles of rebellion - will be burned up. Nothing done in rebellion will have any everlasting significance. Our passage is parallel at this point to John 15:6, 1 Corinthians 3:15 and Hebrews 10:27. None of them refer to everlasting punishment. Each of them refers to the fire of God’s judgement in which God angrily burns up the useless behaviour of the rebellious Christian who failed to apply his faith to the calling of God upon his life.