Last time we examined Jesus’ role as our Great High Priest. We contrasted the perfect priesthood of Jesus – the Mediator between God and man – with the corrupt priesthood of mortal men, particularly the priesthood of ancient Israel. Finally, we familiarized ourselves with Melchizedek – the priest of God and king of Salem to whom Abraham gave tribute after rescuing Lot and the King of Sodom.
Growing in Christ
The Hebrews writer will expand his discussion of Jesus as our Great High Priest later. Before that, though, he gives a brief exhortation about the need for Christians to continually grow in the things of God, so they may serve God more effectively, bearing fruit for God’s Kingdom.
5:12For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. 13For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. 14But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
6:1Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. 3And this we will do if God permits.
4For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6if 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. [Hebrew 5:12-6:6 – NKJV]
Recall from our last study that in concluding his initial discussion of Jesus as our Great High Priest of the order of Melchizedek, the writer said that he would have much more to say about Melchizedek, but that it would be too hard to explain to his readers because they had become dull of hearing. This isn’t exactly what one might call “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” is it? Nevertheless, before continuing with his discussion of Jesus’ priesthood, the writer now pauses to explain exactly what he means.
5:12For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. 13For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. 14But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. [Hebrews 5:12-14 – NKJV]
When Jesus ascended to His Father, He left us a new assignment – the so-called Great Commission…
18And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.[Matthew 28:18-20 – NKJV]
Notice that Jesus did not command his disciples to go throughout the world making new converts of all the nations, but rather to make new disciples. After all, it is God’s Spirit who makes new converts by convicting the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. Sadly, over the course of the last two millennia, the Church has been so focused on evangelism that it has neglected proper discipleship, to the point that many converts don’t know the fundamental bases of their faith, and being so poorly grounded ourselves, we are largely unable to fulfill Jesus commission to make new disciples. This isn’t to say that evangelism isn’t also critically important. After all, as Paul wrote to the Roman church…
How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?[Romans 10:14 – NKJV]
But it is also critically important that those whom we have evangelized and who have accepted the Truth of the Gospel by calling upon the Name of Jesus for salvation must then be tutored in the fundamentals of our faith. How can we possibly provide good discipleship for our newly re-born brothers and sisters in Christ if we ourselves are unaware of those fundamentals of Christian doctrine. The crisis in the modern church caused by the lack of sound doctrine and diligent discipleship of new believers has become a looming disaster for newly reborn Christ followers, the Body of Christ as a whole, and most importantly for the vast majority of people who have not yet come to a saving faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are indeed in the midst of the perilous times which Paul warned his own disciple, Timothy, would come in the last days.
1But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: 2For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, 4traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away![2 Timothy 3:1-5 – NKJV]
This dismal outlook should seem quite familiar to anyone who has taken a discerning look around at today’s society. Of course we might rightly expect the unsaved masses in the world to be ignorant of the Gospel. Everyone is in desperate need of the Savior who alone can rescue them from the coming judgement. The Gospel must certainly be preached with vigor among them. But the real danger to them and even to those within the church is a lack of knowledge of the Gospel’s fundamental precepts. It is this danger of which the Hebrews writer warns us here in Hebrews 5:14. Even born-again believers throughout the Church are woefully ignorant of the fundamental precepts of our faith. Of course, the full Truth of the Gospel is hard to hear. Most of us can hardly bear to hear it, preferring a watered-down, sweetened-up, non-judgemental version. Paul warned Timothy (and us) about this danger as well.
3For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires,because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; 4and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.[2 Timothy 4:3-4 – NKJV]
It is this desire for a “more palatable” gospel that has led us to the widespread apostasy and heresy we find throughout the Church of Jesus Christ today. But the fact of the matter is that the Gospel is very simple, but hard to hear. In love for our lost brethren the family of believers must commit ourselves to proclaiming the full Gospel Truth, even knowing that we will rarely be understood, and our preaching will often be rejected. This is to be expected. As Paul wrote to the Corinthian church…
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.[1 Corinthians 1:18 – NKJV]
But how can we properly preach the Gospel to unbelievers when we ourselves are largely ignorant of God’s Word? The daily news is full of interviews with ostensibly Christian believers who espouse clearly unbiblical beliefs, particularly regarding pressing social issues of our day like homosexuality, abortion, divorce, pre-/extra-marital sex, euthanasia, spirituality, ecumenicism, evolution, etc. Try an experiment for yourselves. Ask several Christian brothers and sisters whether God created the universe in six days by the power of His Word as described in Genesis, or whether He did it over an extended period of billions of years through the process evolution described by Charles Darwin. Then ask whether the virgin birth of Jesus is an essential of the Christian faith, and why? I think you may be shocked at the answers you hear even from folks who are truly born again.
It is this ignorance of the fundamentals of our faith within the Church which the Hebrews writer is addressing here in the passage before us. Recall from our previous study that the writer had told his readers in Hebrews 5:11 that he couldn’t speak more about Melchizedek because they had become “dull of hearing” and therefore it would be too hard to explain to them. But how did they get that way? The writer seems to imply throughout the letter that they had previously been well grounded in the Truth of the Gospel. How did their spiritual discernment become blunted?
The answer is found in Hebrews 5:14 – they had not been exercising their spiritual senses. At the end of that verse, we find both encouragement, and a dire warning. On the one hand it is encouraging to hear that we may attain maturity in Christ and become able to digest the heavier meat of His Word by exercising our spiritual senses through diligent discipleship. Thus, we will be able to discern good from evil. But the implied converse truth is that if we do not partake in regular discipleship, we will become “dull of hearing” and will therefore be unable to discern good from evil. Tragically, we see this trend throughout the Church today (even as the Hebrews writer saw it among the Hebrew congregation(s) to whom he was writing.
The real danger isn’t the rise of the so-called megachurch in modern western Christendom whose primary focus is on growth of membership and in entertaining the congregants. That trend is deplorable, but not nearly as destructive as the danger to which true believers expose themselves through their own Biblical ignorance – namely, the acceptance of false teaching as being true. When a preacher gets up in the pulpit and proclaims “the Bible says…” how are we to know whether he is preaching the full Truth of God’s Word unless we know the Word ourselves? Certainly, the man who takes it upon himself to teach God’s Word to others must exercise due diligence in His own study, as Paul exhorted Timothy.
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.[2 Timothy 2:15 – NKJV]
The hearers also bear part of the responsibility for their own discipleship. We must all be as the Bereans to whom Paul preached, diligently searching the Scripture to find out whether the things we are being taught are true (see Acts 17:10-12). This is a spiritual exercise that is virtually impossible to accomplish on our own. We need like-minded brethren, with whom we can study and discuss the meaning of the things we read in God’s Word. Therefore, the Hebrews writer later on in the letter exhorts his readers…
23Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 24And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.[Hebrews 10:23-25 – NKJV]
By gathering together to exercise our spiritual senses through communal prayer and fellowship and the study of God’s Word, we help to sharpen each other’s discernment between good and evil.
As iron sharpens iron,
So a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.[Proverbs 27:17 – NKJV]
Your word I have hidden in my heart,
That I might not sin against You.[Psalm 119:11 – NKJV]
6:1Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. 3And this we will do if God permits. [Hebrews 6:1-3 – NKJV]
The writer here just gives his readers a brief reminder of some of the fundamental tenets of Christian faith without going into any detail about them, saying that he wishes to continue the discussion of growth in Christ rather than expounding on these subjects in any detail. Neither will I do any exposition on these subjects, but will rather leave that for another study. Having said that, a detailed exposition of these things using a good study Bible such as the Thompson Chain Reference Bible or some of the the excellent available online Bible study resources such as Blue Letter Bible would be an excellent growth exercise, particularly for recently newborn Christians. Having said that, I highly recommend sharing your findings with other believers as a practice in discipleship (and in being discipled), and as a guard against any erroneous conclusions one might draw from isolated study.
Now pressing on in Hebrews 6…
4For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6if 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. [Hebrews 6:4-6 – NKJV]
- Is it possible for true believers to lose the salvation they obtained through faith in the Gospel and confession of Jesus as LORD?
- Is it God’s will for all people to be saved, or did God ordain an elect few from the foundation of the world?
- Is it really our own choice to accept or reject the Gospel of Jesus, or is our free will just an illusion?
- Does God allow some to fall away, and remove the seal of His Spirit from them?
- Is this passage speaking of true born-again believers or of those who profess Christ, but have never received His Spirit?
These three controversial verses lie at the very heart of the debate between adherents to the doctrine of John Calvin and that of Jacobus Arminius. That often-heated debate has been raging for nearly half a millennium now, so I doubt if we’ll be able to resolve these weighty theological issues during the course of this brief study. Every Christian should decide individually by diligently and prayerfully searching the Scripture which of these doctrines rings truest in her/his heart. I would venture to say that few among us would agree wholeheartedly with either of them. There is adequate Biblical support for both viewpoints, and I won’t delve much deeper into the controversy here, except to share a very handy summary I found on the Internet which succinctly summarizes the points of difference between Calvinism and Aminianism.
- Chuck Smith – Founder of the Calvary Chapel association, longtime pastor of Calvary Chapel – Costa Mesa, CA, and Bible teacher on The Word for Today radio program. Teaching on Hebrews 5 and 6 in the early 1980s, Pastor Chuck rejects the traditional idea held by many respected Bible expositors (e.g. the late 17th and early 18th century commentator – Matthew Henry) that Hebrews 6:4-5 refers to those who profess belief in the Gospel, but aren’t truly born again, and affirms that the Hebrews writer refers in this passage to true followers of Jesus Christ. Pastor Chuck goes on to give some of the teachings of Jesus on election, and Jesus’ parable of the sower. In the end, Pastor Chuck frankly and humbly admits that he doesn’t really know the meaning of the passage, and apologizes to his listeners for not being able to give a clear answer.
- J. Vernon McGee – Longtime pastor of the Church of the Open Door in Pasadena, CA, and afterward Bible teacher on the world famous radio program Through the Bible. Teaching on Hebrews 6:4-9. Dr. McGee gives a brief rundown on some of the traditional interpretations of this passage, and explains why he doesn’t wholly agree with any of them. Dr. McGee’s position is that this controversial passage is speaking of heavenly rewards for believers as the apostle Paul does in speaking of the judgement seat of Christ. Dr. McGee holds that the key to understanding this passage is its overall context of exhortation of the Hebrew congregations to whom it was written.
- Walter Martin – Founder of the Christian Research Institute and author of The Kingdom of the Cults. In his teaching entitled “Can You Lose Your Salvation,” Dr. Martin agrees with one of the historical positions on Hebrews 6:4-8 that it refers to those who profess Christian belief, and even participate in Christian worship and ministry, but are not actually born-again believers. In his exposition, Dr. Martin adamantly denies the Arminianist idea that it is possible for truly born-again believers to lose and regain their salvation repeatedly. NOTE – for a quick comparison of Calvinist and Arminianist theology, refer to the side-by-side table I have posted in the “extras” section on this blog.
- Charles Spurgeon – Pastor of the New Park Street Chapel in London, England for 38 years. Author of the beloved Morning and Evening daily devotional. Called “The Prince of Preachers” and renowned as one of the most powerful evangelists of the 19th century. In his sermon entitled “Final Perseverance”, Spurgeon thoroughly analyzes this difficult passage starting by determining exactly to whom the passage refers, concluding that it doesn’t refer to those who merely profess Christ, but to actual born-again believers. He goes on to say that never yet in the history of Christianity, has anyone fallen away from the faith as described in Hebrews 6:6, and that it would be impossible for a truly born-again believer to do so, since God’s Spirit would have to abandon His child in contravention of His own promise never to do so. Spurgeon concludes that the passage is actually a dire warning to the Hebrew congregation(s) to whom the letter was written (and to Christians everywhere) to remain steadfast in their faith.
While I remain a devoted fan of all of these great Bible expositors, I must confess that I find none of their positions on this controversial passage fully satisfactory. Surprisingly in fact, I find Dr. McGee’s analysis the least appealing of them all. Pastor Chuck Smith’s humble declaration that he really doesn’t know what the passage means rings truest of all. So I have decided to simply highlight some of the teachings of Jesus Himself regarding this controversial topic, which boils down simply to the question that Dr. Martin used as the title of his teaching – Can true Christians lose their salvation? Of course that question is tightly wrapped up with the corollary question – Do we choose to accept the Gospel of Christ ourselves or has that so-called “free choice” been pre-ordained since the foundation of the world?
Are we able to choose to believe the Gospel and confess our faith unto salvation, or has our election been pre-ordained?
9“So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. 11If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? 12Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? 13If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” [Luke 9:9-13 – NKJV]
Score 1 for freewill. Jesus seems to imply here that God will give His Spirit to anyone who asks.
26And He said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, 27and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. 28For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”[Mark 4:26-20 – NKJV]
43but He said to them, “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, because for this purpose I have been sent.” 44And He was preaching in the synagogues of Galilee. [Luke 4:43-44 – NKJV]
16Then He said to him, “A certain man gave a great supper and invited many,17and sent his servant at supper time to say to those who were invited, ‘Come, for all things are now ready.’ 18But they all with one accord began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.’ 19And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.’ 20Still another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.‘ 21So that servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house, being angry, said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind.’ 22And the servant said, ‘Master, it is done as you commanded, and still there is room.’ 23Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. 24For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper.'” [Luke 14:16-24 – NKJV]
16For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.18“He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. [John 3:16-18 – NKJV]
“If You are the Christ, tell us.”But He said to them, “If I tell you, you will by no means believe.[Luke 22:67 – NKJV]
Does Hebrews 6:4-6 speak of true believers, or of those who may profess the Gospel outwardly, but don’t believe it in their hearts?
Jesus’ parable of the Sower, is cited by several of the expositors listed above in explaining the position that Hebrews 6:4-6 doesn’t actually refer to truly born-again believers. After all, Jesus frequently warned of wolves among the sheep. Note that Dr. McGee, Pastor Chuck, and Mr. Spurgeon all use this parable to explain the position while also being very careful to point out that they do not agree with the position themselves.
With regard to the idea that true believers can lose their salvation, Jesus parable of the Sower is frequently cited, particularly concerning those who hear the Gospel and eagerly accept it, but then do not continue in it because they have no firm foundation in it. This would seem to fit with the context of our passage in Hebrews which is all about discipleship and growth in Christ. The question still remains, though whether such “sprouts” are actually born again and sealed with God’s Spirit.
18“Therefore hear the parable of the sower: 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside. 20But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy;21yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles. 22Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. 23But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”[Matthew 13:18-23 – NKJV]
Is it possible for true believers to lose our salvation or is it secure forever in the blood of Jesus?
60Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?”61When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, “Does this offend you? 62What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? 63It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. 64But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. 65And He said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.”66From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. [John 6:60-66 – NKJV]
Many Bible expositors have used this passage as one of their proof texts of the doctrine of pre-determination. Indeed, the passage gives a strong argument for that position, as do a number of Jesus’ teachings in the gospel of John. With that said, however, it is also true that some expositors use this text as a proof of the idea that it is possible for a disciple of Christ to turn away and lose salvation, just as the Hebrews writer seems to imply in Hebrews 6:6. But in the case of John 6:60-66, it must be pointed out that this event occurred before Jesus’ crucifixion, His resurrection and ascension, and the outpouring of His Spirit upon the church on the day of Pentecost. Can it really be said that the disciples John speaks of here are truly born-again Christians who have lost their salvation? I don’t think the text supports that idea.
Jesus most well-known teaching about the permanent assurance of our salvation is found in one of His most beloved teachings in the midst of His seven I AM declarations in the gospel of John.
27My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. 28And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. 29My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. 30I and My Father are one.” [John 10:27-30 – NKJV]
Nevertheless, some of Jesus’ teachings do seem to indicate that it is truly possible for some of those who truly know Him to be cast away from Him if they do not persevere to abide in Him
1“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. 2Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. 4Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.5“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. 6If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. [John 15:1-6 – NKJV]
In conclusion, it seems that Jesus’ teachings support all of the positions theologians have held over the centuries with regard to Hebrews 6:4-6. This stands to reason. After all, if Jesus’ own words provided conclusive answers to these perplexing questions, then the debate would already have been settled or never have arisen in the first place. But instead it continues. Thankfully, we have an amazing promise from the apostle Paul in which we can rest.
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. [1 Corinthians 13:12 – NKJV]
Next time we will continue with the Hebrews writer’s exhortation at the end of Chapter 6 to be continually growing in our faith, and then beginning in Chapter 7 we will take up once more the discussion of Jesus’ role as our Great High Priest.