Those who “fall away” in Hebrews 6:4-6
by Bob Burridge ©2019
People are often confused about the comment in the book of Hebrews that those who “fall away” can’t be “restored”. If taken in isolation from the context both in this book and in the rest of Scripture, it would seem to imply that some who are redeemed Christians can lose their salvation, and have no hope of being restored to fellowship with God. A more careful examination of that passage clarifies that this is not what it’s saying.
The text if Hebrews 6:4-6 reads this way in the English Standard Version.
4. 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,
6. 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.
The obvious question is; who are the people included in the “those” in verse 4, and the “them” in verse 6? To answer accurately we need to see who is being spoken about in the broader context of this section of the book, and what is actually being said about them in these verses.
A primary theme of the Book of Hebrews is that Jesus Christ fulfilled the ancient promises God made to his people (This is clear from 1:1-2 and the chapters that follow). In the time before Jesus completed his mission here on Earth, God’s people showed their faith in the promised Messiah’s coming by the symbolic ceremonies introduced through Moses. The sacrifices, special holidays, all the Temple furnishings, and rituals were there to illustrate what God was going to do in redeeming his people. They laid the foundation upon which a better understanding would be built after the cross, resurrection, and ascension of our Savior.
The problem was that many had come to misunderstand the lessons of the ceremonial laws. They did not understand that those laws were there to point ahead to the coming Savior, and to his death on behalf of his people. He would take up the penalty of death they deserved. The false teachers promoted the idea that simply practicing the ceremonial laws made them right with God. They built a whole false form of religion based upon that misunderstanding. It was time to go back to the basics, the elementary teachings behind those ancient ceremonial laws, and restore their meaning. Only then would there be a solid foundation to build upon so that God’s people could learn and live by what God had truly promised and accomplished by the time this Book of Hebrews was written.
The contrast in this whole section of Hebrews is between two main groups of people. One is made up of those who said they were honoring God’s word, but in reality they had abandoned its true lessons. The other is made up of those who humbly submitted to what those first principles were really about. They came trusting in the promises of God’s redeeming grace through the work of the promised Christ alone, rather than trusting in their own religious efforts and actions.
The immediate context (6:1-3) confirms that the writer’s concern was to correct the foundational principles which had been laid out by God up through the time of Moses. They were not a way of salvation by themselves, but were intended to prefigure the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. Only when those basics were restored to a right understanding could a person be ready to move on past them building upon that foundation a proper repentance and a true faith in God’s promises to his people.
1. Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,
2. and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
3. And this we will do if God permits.
There are four descriptions listed of those who fall away irreparably.
1. They were “once enlightened”
The word translated as “enlightened” here is “photisthentas” (φωτισθέντας). It’s a passive participle of the verb “photizo” (φωτίζω). It means to have light shined upon someone or something. It’s obviously used figuratively, not of physical light here. These people were given some information, and were able to understand at least the superficial meaning of the facts God had revealed. Even the corrupt teachers spoke about some things being sinful, and about hope in God’s deliverance, although they didn’t understand these things rightly. The fact that some things are sinful and that there are horrible consequences to wrong behaviors and attitudes is not only admitted by false teachers among God’s people, but also by pagans, and even by the demons themselves who were made able to see some truth even though they did not submit to it or honor it. James 2:19 tells us, “even the demons believe – and shudder”.
These enlightened ones may have believed they were God’s people, but they did not have a true saving faith in God’s promise of the coming Christ. They thought that their deeds earned God’s acceptance. But it was not the rituals and rules that saved. These things were there to point to the coming work of the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, who in the place of his people would pay the debt they owed. They had faith in their own acts rather than faith in the work of the Savior. As Jesus said in Matthew 7:22-23, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ ”
2. They “tasted of the heavenly gift”
Those given that bit of light were able to take a taste of what God from heaven gives to us as his creatures. The word “tasted” is the Greek word “geusamenous” (γευσαμένους), a participle from a verb meaning to eat or taste something. Figuratively it can mean partaking of something, not always literally food for our bodies. All the good things we have are gifts of heaven that declare the power and glory of God. Gifts are undeserved by us all. Everyone, even an enemy of God, receives food, breathes the air, drinks the water, and has abilities and skills. The tragedy is that those not redeemed give no glory to God for what they receive.
In Matthew 5:45 Jesus reminded his followers that all of us, our neighbors and enemies, receive good provisions from God. He said, “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Those described here in Hebrews 6 were exposed to God’s blessings and saw them enjoyed by others. God’s merciful provisions sustained even the open haters of the gospel.
Those in focus in this section of Hebrews were presented with the message of the gospel as it was displayed as a promise in the sacrifices and rituals of the Temple. Sadly, many saw the promise of redemption but did not understand its true message. They didn’t receive God’s gift with a true saving faith. They only tasted of it without appreciating its true nourishment to their souls.
3. They “have shared in the Holy Spirit”
The Holy Spirit is that person of the Trinity that works in the hearts of people in various ways. In the redeemed he specially dwells in them as comforter to assure them of God’s adoption, and to make them able to grow in holy living. He also works with all humans at times to restrain sin, even in the ungodly. Otherwise sin would go unrestrained and the results would be far more tragic than what we see in our world throughout history. The Holy Spirit is also the agent of God the Father and God the Son to enable our talents and abilities.
In Exodus 31:3-5 God said of Bezalel who superintended the construction of God’s Tabernacle and its furnishings, “and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.” Deuteronomy 34:9 speaks of Joshua who was filled with the “spirit of wisdom” to lead the people. Exodus 28:3 says, “You shall speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him for my priesthood.”
We pray for the skills of surgeons, the leaders of nations, and the skills of our law-enforcement officers, even those who make no profession of Christianity, that the work of that Holy Spirit is stirred in them to make them successful in their work for us and our loved ones. There are times when for God’s larger purposes the Holy Spirit enables some who tragically use their talents and abilities against God’s people.
When King Saul rebelled against God, his skill as a good king was taken from him. In 1 Samuel 16:14 it says, “Now the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the LORD tormented him.” When King David sinned with Bathsheba, lied to cover it up, and had her husband killed, he prayed in Psalm 51:10-12, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” David did not want the Spirit’s enablement to his ability rule Israel to be taken away as had happened to Saul.
4. They “tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come”
Those who have fallen away have been told what God has revealed and done. They were aware of what he said, but these did not understand it properly, and were not trusting in the underlying amazing grace that made up the foundation of the salvation secured by our Savior. The Greek word translated as “tasted” is the same as the one used previously in verse 4 when he said they had “tasted of the heavenly gift.” They took it in but did not process it to true spiritual nourishment because they gave a wrong meaning to what God said.
Clearly this passage is not about true believers in Christ. Later in verse 9 the writer says of the recipients of this letter, “yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.” Those who fell away were only there superficially to begin with. They came to a point where they turned away from even the taste of these gifts of God, openly rejecting God’s truth and promises. However, God keeps those who are truly his. He works in their regenerated hearts so they persevere in faith to the end. God will not let go of his truly redeemed people.
In John 10:28-29 Jesus spoke of his sheep saying, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”
Jude 1:24 honors God for his power to preserve his hold on true believers, “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy”
1 Peter 1:3-5 explains the infallible assurance of salvation for his children, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
“Impossible” is a very strong term. Our English word translates the Greek word “adunatos” (ἀδύνατος). The word is based upon the Greek word “dunatos” (δύνατος) which means “power, ability”. Our words “dynamic” and “dynamite” come from it. But here there is a letter in front of it, an “a” (α), which negates it. It means “no power” to do something, “inability”. For those who by their false beliefs and teachings show their true nature, it is impossible to restore them to a state of “repentance”. God does not let those he truly redeems utterly fall away, but in these, repentance was never sincere to begin with. They may have been regretful of some things they had done, even apologized for things they did or said. They may have recited prayers of repentance in their Temple rituals. But it was not a true repentance before God admitting the true offense of their sin, and their personal unworthiness.
When the full context of Hebrews 6:4-9 is considered, and the meaning of the words in this section is understood the way they are used throughout the Bible, the confusion about this portion of God’s Word fades away. The original recipients of this letter would have read it through from the beginning to the end getting the context. They would also know the meaning these words had at the time of this writing. It’s not speaking of truly redeemed believers falling away with no hope of being restored to that true and sincere faith. The point is that there are many who have misunderstood God’s promises and blessings though they once falsely claimed to hold to them. These are the ones who fall away showing their true unredeemed nature. These cannot be restored from their fallen nature into a state of true repentance. Since these are remaining in this state of denying the true work of Jesus on the cross, as if they were crucifying again the Son of God, they show by their lives and words that their repentance is not and was never true.
(Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)