Hebrews 6:1–9 (NKJV)
1 Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let’s go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,
2 of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.
3 And this we will do if God permits.
4 For it’s impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit,
5 and have tasted the good Word of God and the powers of the age to come,
6 if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.
7 For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it’s cultivated, receives blessing from God;
8 but if it bears thorns and briers, it’s rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned.
9 But, beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner.
Many people have taught others (and some still teach today) that this passage clearly shows Christians can lose their salvation. And, in normal reading, it does seem this interpretation is correct. But, as is the case with many scriptures, we should be aware of the “heresy of the first glance.” First, let’s take a look at the historical context and the target audience of the Book of Hebrews. From a historical standpoint, the early church was generally made up of Jewish believers. Some of these people were genuinely born again and fully convinced of Christ and of the new way of salvation. However, others just got excited about Jesus Christ and, at the thought of Him being the expected Messiah, they gladly joined the church. But they had come out of centuries of their families being steeped in the Jewish traditions of going to the Temple to get their sins covered again and again on the holy day of atonement and offering other ongoing animal sacrifices. That sacrificial system had ceased for the most part after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. After the Temple was set on fire, Roman soldiers tore it down, stone by stone, to get melted gold that had run down through the cracks. Probably, even after this time, there were still pockets of Jews performing animal sacrifices. However, without the Temple and the prescribed method for sacrifices, the days of animal sacrifices have ceased.
Before the destruction of the Temple, at the time the book of Hebrews was written, Jews had had a mindset of rules, laws, and repeated sacrifices, built into them over hundreds of years. Salvation by grace through faith in Christ was a radical shift from the Law of Moses, and because of that, many Jewish believers were having doubts about Christ and were struggling in their conviction of Him. They admired Jesus Christ, and they liked the new way, but they were not fully convinced in their hearts to give up on the Law of Moses and leave it entirely behind. For them, it was a little bit like moving from Greek Orthodoxy, Catholicism, or Islam (all based mainly on good works, worship of idols, and traditions) to simple faith in Jesus Christ. It was difficult for them to leave behind the works mentality. Besides the problematic mental shift due to hundreds of years of heritage founded on the Law, the Jews who wanted to fully dedicate themselves to Christ faced persecution and ridicule both from their Jewish community, as well as from their own relatives and family members. They were like the second type of ground from Mark 4:16–17, the stony ground concerning the Word of Christ about salvation. What do those verses say?
Mark 4:16–17 (NKJV)
16 These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the Word, immediately receive it with gladness;
17 and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time. Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the Word’s sake, immediately they stumble.
As the passage shows, the same way many Jews received the Word with gladness. They perceived something, they got excited, but they had no root in themselves. They were not genuinely born again. When things began to get rough for the Word’s sake, when things didn’t flow as easily as they were supposed to flow, and when problems with people arose and persecutions, these Jews tended to fall back into the Law and into the system of animal sacrifice. However, they were not falling away from a saved state into a reprobate state because they had not been entirely convinced about Christ in the first place.
This is the target audience of the Book of Hebrews. The text of Hebrews is addressed primarily to these people I’ve just described, as shown by the first two verses of the book:
Hebrews 1:1–2 (NKJV)
1 God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets,
2 has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds.
The fathers mentioned here are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the rest of the fathers of the Jewish people. The book of Hebrews attempts to establish these people in their faith and explain to them the heart of the Gospel in a more profound way by contrasting it and comparing it with the Law of Moses. It compares the new things in Christ to the old. It shows how Jesus Christ is superior to everything else they knew until that point—superior to the fathers and the prophets of old (Chapter 1), superior to the angels (Chapter 2), superior to Moses (Chapter 3), superior to Joshua (Chapter 4), and superior to the Levitical priesthood (Chapter 5), in which the priests offered sacrifices day in and day out in the Temple. These Jewish believers found it difficult to believe Christ’s sacrifice was enough and they didn’t have to keep sacrificing animals. The word “again” is key throughout the whole book of Hebrews.
The people of whom Paul says, “those who were once enlightened” in Hebrews 6:4 were just tasters of salvation and not drinkers; they were exposed to its benefits, but they were not fully saved. They only “tasted of” or “sampled” Christ. They never truly converted to faith in Him. “Enlightened” doesn’t necessarily mean “regenerated” or “saved” because being enlightened about something doesn’t necessarily secure a commitment to action based on what you have been enlightened about. A good analogy would be the difference between marrying someone and going out on a few dates with that person. People can learn things about Christ and thereby admire Him, and they may enjoy being part of a fellowship but have no real, lasting commitment to Him. They might have been invited by someone to church, and they heard about Jesus and the Gospel, and they were enlightened, but never decided for Jesus. This is not the same thing as the repentance and the faith by which a person is joined to Christ and saved. In Matthew 27:34, we can see that, when Jesus was on the cross and became thirsty, He was given sour wine mingled with gall that He tasted only but didn’t drink.
Matthew 27:34 (NKJV)
34 they gave Him sour wine mingled with gall to drink. But when He had tasted it, He would not drink.
So, you can taste something and then refuse to drink it.
Then we have the expression “partakers of the Holy Spirit,” which doesn’t necessarily mean the Holy Spirit has come to live in those people forever as He would in the case of believers. A few examples of partakers in the Holy Spirit who ended up badly are King Saul and Samson from the Old Testament. The Holy Spirit came on them for a while, and they did great things for God, but then they fell. Another excellent example of a partaker of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament is Judas Iscariot, Jesus’s disciple, who cast out demons and healed the sick but later fell away and was lost. He had not even been saved yet, because Jesus had not died on the cross at that moment, and Judas died without manifesting any faith toward God like Peter did after he fell. Judas was just a partaker—a taster—not a drinker.
You might ask: “How is that possible? How can people be in the church for some time, do all kinds of activities, see the power of God, and still not be born again? I personally know someone devoted to the Lord who later on went away from Christ. Are you telling me that person was not born again?” Well, I don’t know. They might have been genuinely born again, in which case they will come back to Christ, or they were not born again at all. Only God and that person can know what was going on in their hearts. No one from the outside can know what the other person really believes. The Bible says in 1 John 2:19 the following:
1 John 2:19 (NKJV)
19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.
According to this passage, some people can mingle with the body of Christ in an apparent authentic way, but not be from the body. This category of “tasters” canceled the power of the sacrifice of Christ for themselves by continuing to sacrifice animals repeatedly although they knew the truth. Their behavior showed that the work of the cross was ineffective. They were still waiting for a permanent sacrifice to come, so Jesus Christ would have to die again. In this way, they were sacrificing the Son of God again and put Him to open shame. But Paul comes along and says that if these people who tasted the grace of God and the benefits of the Gospel fall back to the Law as the basis for the forgiveness of their sins, then it’s impossible for them to repent and be renewed as long as they keep doing that. If they treat the sacrifice of Christ in this manner, then they remain unsaved because there is no other sacrifice for sins decreed by God as a satisfying payment for their sins.
Finally, even if this passage would have referred to genuine believers in Christ who fall away from faith and salvation (as we understand it), nobody can contend or prove empirically that it’s impossible for them to come back to repentance. As long as humans live on this earth, they have a chance for salvation and to come back to the Father, which would contradict this text. It’s quite interesting that some preachers use this passage to advocate for the possibility of Christians losing their salvation through sin, and after that, they make altar calls. Why would you call people for prayer and repentance? According to these verses, if they lost their salvation, they can never be renewed back to repentance. So, it doesn’t make any sense to call people to repent when they might have already lost their salvation.
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