How to think about apostasy (Hebrews 6:4-12)
John Murray notes that, “Experience, observation, biblical history, and certain Scripture passages would appear to provide very strong arguments against the doctrine which has been called ‘The Perseverance of the Saints.’”i How do you argue with that? There is no doubt that people walk away from a commitment to Jesus, and that sometimes the people who do so are the last ones you would have thought would have done so. But what are we to think about that?
We’ve already encountered this question in this epistle, but it bears reconsidering. It bears reconsidering because the author of Hebrews does so. This was a letter written to folks who apparently were – many of them, anyway – on the verge of apostasy. And so this is a theme the author will return to again and again. Here we are in chapter 6, and we are again faced with one of those warnings, a warning about the consequences of falling away from the faith.
What about people who fall away from the faith? As we begin to consider this topic, it’s important that we understand exactly what we are talking about. We’re not talking about Christians with doubts. Nor are we talking about believers who sin even egregious sins but who repent. Rather, we’re talking about people who consciously turn their backs on faith in Christ as he is presented to us in the pages of the New Testament. We’re talking about people who knowingly and with eyes wide open reject the message of the gospel after having seemingly embraced it.
One option is to say that these people were saved, but then lost their salvation. The thing that this position gets right is that those who reject Christ cannot be saved in any NT sense. For the apostle John (or possibly John the Baptist) puts it this way: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (Jn. 3:36). It’s not enough that you once appeared to believe, but that you continue to believe (these are present tense participles).
However, what this position gets wrong is the insistence that a person can lose their salvation. This is something the NT just does not teach. In fact, it teaches the opposite. Here is how our Lord puts it, speaking to some people who refused to believe in him, no matter what kind of miracles they saw: “But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them [to] me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand” (Jn. 10:26-29). The first thing to note about this passage is that our Lord doesn’t say that they were not of his sheep because they didn’t believe – they didn’t believe because they were not of his sheep. In other words, our Lord is reminding us that being chosen by God before the foundation of the earth to be saved doesn’t depend ultimately upon our faith, but that our faith depends upon God’s choice of us (cf. Acts 13:48). So our perseverance in the faith is rooted, not ultimately in ourselves, but in God (cf. 1 Pet. 1:5), and this means that it is not possible for faith which is the fruit of the power of God in the heart to completely shrivel up and disappear.
But that is not all our Lord says. He goes on to say that his sheep will never perish and no one will be able to pluck them out of his or his Father’s hand. There is a double security here – Christ keeping his sheep and God the Father keeping his sheep, and with one purpose (Jn. 10:30). But this is a keeping that shows itself in perseverance. It is a keeping that is always manifested in persevering in the faith, for he says that his sheep will hear his voice and follow him. How do you know someone is one of his sheep? Well, it’s easy, isn’t it? Do they hear his voice and follow him? Do they believe on him and obey him?
This also answers another wrong approach to apostasy, which is that though those who are genuinely saved can never lose their salvation, nevertheless they can lose their faith in Christ. Or they can remain saved even as they bear no fruit for obedience in their lives. This is an extremely dangerous and unbiblical position. Again, our Lord does not allow that, because he says that his sheep will hear his voice and follow him.
What the Scriptures teach is that God’s people will come to faith and be saved, and remain saved, not irrespective of obedience but in a life of obedience, however imperfect this side of heaven (cf. 2 Thess. 2:13-14). And they will persevere in this.
Now let’s come to the text of Hebrews 6. This passage is often brought up as evidence against the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. For it talks about those who have every appearance of being saved but apostatize and yet are never renewed to repentance. In fact, we are told that it is impossible to renew them to repentance. What is this talking about? Is it talking (as I once heard a preacher argue) about God’s people who remain saved but who backslide so severely that they can never recover this side of heaven? Or is it talking about people who were once saved but then lost their salvation? I believe both of these takes on the passage are wide of the mark. So let’s consider carefully what is being said here.
What we want to do today are two things. First, let’s understand what this passage is saying – what is the message we are meant to hear? And then, second, how do we hear this in a way that we are meant to hear it? How do we hear it so that we don’t end up denying other doctrines, but at the same time hear it without watering down the impact it is meant to have? Finally, since we are in Advent Season – I haven’t forgotten that! – I want to show you the real connection passages like this have to what we celebrate in the coming of Christ into this world.
What we are meant to hear from this passageii
First of all, I don’t doubt that the people described in verses 4-6 are people who had been a part of the church and who had every appearance of being saved. They are people who have, at least outwardly, begun well. However, I think some folks make a mistake when they look at the descriptions given in these verses and conclude that they necessarily describe saved people. I don’t think so; these are necessary but not sufficient evidences of salvation, and I think the context bears this out.
One take that you sometimes hear from those who do embrace the doctrine of perseverance in its entirety is that the impossibility here is merely hypothetical. In other words, they say that the argument is basically this: if people who enjoyed such blessings were to fall away, then it would be impossible to renew them to repentance, but (so the argument goes) this can never happen. However, the problem with this is that it just doesn’t comport with the message being delivered here. These folks are being warned of the genuine consequences of apostasy. They are not being warned about something that can’t really happen!iii
The metaphor of the fields (7-8)
What does the context tell us? Before we look carefully at verses 4-6, go down to verses 7-8. In these two verses you have a metaphor of two fields. What they have in common is the rain that falls upon them; where they differ is in how they respond to this rain (one also thinks here of the Parable of the Sower in Mt. 13). One field produces good fruit and receives “blessing from God” (7), but the other field bears “thorns and briers” and so “is rejected and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned” (8).
It is important to remember that in the NT a tree that bears good fruit is always representative of a genuine believer, whereas a tree that consistently bears bad fruit is always representative of being lost and unsaved (cf. Mt. 7:15-20). How does this relate to the previous verses? Well, clearly apostasy – deconstructing the faith and abandoning Christ for something else – is bad fruit. It corresponds to the thorns and briers of verse 8. And it receives judgment from God, which corresponds to the impossibility to be renewed to repentance in verse 6. They will die in their sins. But again, the point is that the metaphor is a sure indication that the people being described in the previous verses are not saved. Did they receive blessings from God? Yes, many! And they are listed for us in verses 4-6. Just like the field in verse 8 received rain from heaven. But these folks are like that field also in another way; they didn’t end up bearing good fruit but bad fruit and as a result fall under the curse of God (not a place where God’s elect will end up, cf. Rom. 8:1!).
Better things that belong to salvation (9)
Then there is verse 9: “But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak.” Here the author speaks of things which he is hopeful characterize his audience. These “things” have two qualities: first, they are better things, and second, they are things that accompany [or “belong to”] salvation. The question is, what are these things?
And better than what? It is often said that the comparison here is between salvation which is hoped for and the judgment which is threatened in verse 8. But in Hebrews "better" is most often a comparison not between something bad and something good, but between two good things, but one of which is better than the other (see, for example, 7:19, 22; 8:6; 9:27; 10:34; 11:16, 35).iv So this indicates that we should be looking for good things in the context that these “things” are better than. And what things would that be, other than the blessings mentioned in verses 4-6? Whatever else we can say, it is a good thing to be enlightened and to taste of the Holy Spirit and the good word of God and the powers of the age to come.
However, they are not saving things in and of themselves, good though they are. For they are contrasted to “things that accompany salvation” in verse 9. This comparison indicates that you can possess all of the things listed in the context and yet not be saved. But what would the better things be? The context (esp. ver. 10-12) indicates that perseverance in the faith is the key identifier: “And we desire that every one of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end: that ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience [the word there is “endurance” or “perseverance”] inherit the promises” (11-12).
The Judas Christians (4-6)
With the context before us, let’s now come back to look at the individual descriptors in verses 4-6. Here we have people who “were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come.” In verse 6, since it says that it is impossible to renew them to repentance, it follows that they had also experienced repentance on some level. It sure sounds like this is a description of the genuinely saved!
However, on closer inspection, no, it doesn’t. This is a description of people who were indeed professing Christians and who seemed to belong to the church. But we all know that professing to be a Christian and being a Christian is not always (unfortunately) the same thing. Here are people who were enlightened, who had received the knowledge of the gospel, who have come to understand and know the way of righteousness and then turn away from it (2 Pet. 2:20-22). They had tasted of the heavenly gift, and the good word of God, who had come, on some level at least, to a temporary appreciation of the gospel. Like Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8, who is said to have believed and was baptized (13), and yet the apostle Peter later warned him that he was in danger of perishing, and that he had “neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God” (20-21). Herod loved to hear the word of God preached by John the Baptist – right up until he had him beheaded in prison (Mk. 6:20).
These are also people who were made partakers of the Holy Ghost and who experienced the powers of the world to come – regenerated, right? Not necessarily. Remember, that miracles were performed in the power of the Spirit (cf. Heb. 2:4), and yet we know that not everyone who performs miracles in the name of Christ is saved (Mt. 7:21-23). Balaam prophesied in the Spirit, and yet there is absolutely no indication that this false prophet should be considered in the category of the saved (cf. Num. 24:2; 2 Pet. 2:15-16).
But what about the fact that these people had repented? To this we must say that there is such a thing as a repentance which is not the fruit of the new birth. Esau was said to repent (Heb. 12:17), but he was not a recipient of God’s saving grace. And here is where I think we must remind ourselves of the example of Judas Iscariot. Here was a man of whom it was said, “it had been good for that man if he had never been born” (Mt. 26:24). Now you can’t say that about a single person in heaven. And yet he is said to have repented (cf. Mt. 27:3). He was clearly enlightened, and tasted the good word of God, for he preached the gospel. He also was a partaker of the Holy Spirit and the powers of the age to come for he performed miracles and cast out demons. And yet he turned from Christ and betrayed him and gave his heart to the devil.
In other words, the people here described are Judas Christians. It is important to remember that Judas looked every bit like one of the other apostles. He didn’t have horns in his head and he didn’t cackle and ride on a broom like a witch. In fact, he looked so much like the other apostles that when our Lord basically told everyone that Judas was the one who would betray him, the others still didn’t see it! Even so, the people described in Hebrews 6 looked like Christians. They had every appearance of belonging to Christ. But when they walked away, when they rejected Christ and his gospel and crucified to themselves afresh the Son of God and put him to an open shame (Heb. 6:6), there was no more possibility that they could recover and be saved.
Now that doesn’t mean that genuine Christians can’t lapse or doubt or sin. Peter denied Christ at the same time that Judas betrayed him. But there was a great difference. Judas was a son of perdition whereas Jesus interceded for Peter. Judas’ apostacy was not given in a moment of weakness like Peter; he had been, after all, pilfering the money bag for some time. John says that he was a thief. Judas then sinned after much deliberation and with his eyes wide open, whereas Peter fell in a moment of weakness. And the repentance of the two was different. Judas had a worldly sorrow that produced death; Peter had a godly sorrow that produced a “repentance to salvation” (2 Cor. 7:10).
So this passage is not about genuine Christians who lose their salvation (or some temporal blessing). It is about Judas Christians who look like genuine Christians for a while until they fall away and permanently reject the gospel. Such people will share in the end of Judas. And that is the danger of which we are warned in this text.
How we are meant to hear the message of this text.
So far I have tried to establish a couple of things. First, that this passage is a genuine warning against apostasy. Second, that this passage is fully consistent with a conviction that God’s elect can never lose their salvation. However, that leads to the following question. How are people who call themselves Christian, and who have every hope that they really belong to Christ and are elect, how are we to hear this text in the way it was meant to be heard? How is this supposed to land on us, how is it meant to motivate us and to what is it meant to motivate us?
The problem is this: how is someone who is elect meant to apply a warning against apostasy? How does that work, especially since the elect cannot lose their salvation? Now we know that the author believed that at least most his audience were genuinely saved even as he gave them this severe warning, for in verse 9 he calls them “beloved” and says that he was persuaded that they were in fact saved. Nevertheless, that didn’t keep him from warning them about the dreadful consequences of turning away from Christ. But should a genuine believer ever be motivated to persevere by the danger (which is an eternal danger) of falling finally away? I think so, and I think this is precisely the intension of this text. So how does this work?
First of all, let me just say that we are not to be motivated by believing something that is not true. In other words, the motivation here is not that the elect might lose their salvation if they don’t persevere. That’s not at all the thought process the reality of apostasy is meant to provoke. I am not to think, “If I don’t endure in the faith, I might lose my salvation; therefore, I should continue in the faith!” No, we are never encouraged to think that way or to be motivated that way. God never encourages his saints to persevere by believing a lie!
Rather, the thought process should be something like this: “How do I know that I am elect? How do I make my calling and election sure? I can’t look into the Book of Life and I don’t have a special revelation from God that I am elect. The only way I can know I am elect is through the witness of the Holy Spirit to his fruits in my life, and one of the main fruits of the Spirit’s work in my life is perseverance in the faith. Therefore, I must persevere, because if I don’t – if I apostatize and walk away from the faith after coming to a knowledge of the gospel as I have – then the Bible says there is no place of repentance for me and I will prove that I was never saved. And that is indeed a terrible and terrifying place to be. It is not a place I want to be. Let me therefore take courage and stand against the wiles of the devil. Let me with faith and patience inherit the promises. For there are no promises for those who do not persevere!”
In other words, the motivation is not that the elect might lose their salvation. The motivation stems from the necessity of perseverance, being as it is the evidence and fruit of the Spirit in the life.
What about assurance?
Now someone might respond to that and say, if this is really the case, then no one can have assurance at all, because if only those who persevere to the end are saved, then we can’t really know we are saved until we die and have persevered unto the end. Now that obviously can’t be true. For the NT clearly teaches that assurance is possible.
The problem with this thinking is that it fails to appreciate the fact that perseverance is not the only fruit of salvation; it is one, but it is only one. There are other fruits as well. The Bible talks about the witness of the Spirit in our hearts (Rom. 8:14-18), about the earnest of our inheritance (Eph. 1:14). As we are walking with the Lord in obedience to his word and in faith upon his promises, the Spirit witnesses with our spirits that we are the children of God. Assurance is something you can have now; and this is partly because it is not just a function of final perseverance.
No, it’s not as if we can’t have assurance until we come to the very end of our life and are still faithful. There are many things (love to God and his people, obedience to his commandments, and so on) that help us to make our calling and election sure (see a list of such things in 2 Pet. 1). The doctrine of perseverance doesn’t work as an exclusive test of our election, but as one of many tests. What this does mean, though, is that those who do abandon the faith prove they were never saved to begin with. This is what the apostle John was saying when he wrote, “They [the antichrists, the false teachers] went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 Jn. 2:19). And the doctrine of perseverance tells us that if we don’t remain a believer in Christ, the supposed evidences we thought we had were subterfuges after all.
But all this perhaps misses what ought to be the true confidence of the believer. At the end of the day, my main confidence ought not to be in myself but in God. The requirement of perseverance is only a problem for assurance if the decisive basis of perseverance is your own fickle will and weak heart. But it is not. The decisive basis of perseverance is not my will but God’s power: “who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:5). I am reminded of something that John Piper has said. He writes,
I often ask people, How do you know you will wake up a Christian tomorrow morning? The bottom-line answer is that God will cause you to wake up a Christian, or you won’t. God will be faithful. God will keep you. Everything hangs on the faithfulness of God to his promise: “Those whom he called . . . he also glorified.”v
What is our confidence? It is that God will remember his people, he will never lose sight of them, he will never let go of them. I think this is partly what the author is getting at in verse 10: “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.” God will not abandon his people, and because of that reality, they won’t abandon him either. I love the modern hymn, “He will hold me fast:”vi
When I fear my faith will fail
Christ will hold me fast
When the tempter would prevail
He will hold me fast
I could never keep my hold
Through life's fearful path
For my love is often cold
He must hold me fast
So how are we meant to hear this warning? We are meant to hear it as a full-throttled warning that those who deconstruct their faith after having come to the knowledge of the gospel and embraced it, cannot come back and will die in their sins. We are meant to be shaken by this reality and awakened to the necessity of perseverance. But most of all, it is meant to make us fly into the arms of Jesus Christ our Savior who holds his people fast and will not let them go.
What has this to do with Advent?
Now, has this anything to do with Advent? I think so: it is meant to remind us again that there is no hope outside of Jesus Christ and that is exactly what Advent tells us. Those who crucify him afresh and put him to an open shame, who reject Christ as Lord and Savior after professing faith in him, reject any hope of salvation. They will die in their sins because they have rejected the only one in whom salvation can be found. So when we walk away from Jesus, we walk away from hope, the very hope proffered in the advent of our Lord.
The perfect foil for apostates who came to profess the gospel and then rejected it is the apostle Paul. He says that he “was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim. 1:13). Now Paul’s persecution of Christians was sinful; he is not denying that. But he was ignorant; he really did believe he was doing God a service. In contrast, the apostates of Hebrews 6 knew what they were rejecting. That is why Paul received mercy and these apostates have no hope of mercy. It is impossible to renew them to repentance because their unbelief wasn’t an unbelief of ignorance.
But what was the cause of Paul’s mercy? It wasn’t anything in himself; rather, it was the grace of God in the coming of Jesus Christ to do for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves: “And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (14-15). Advent reminds us that God has come into this world, not to make good people better but to give hell-bound people grace, grace that brings with it the forgiveness and freedom from sin and fellowship with God forever. This grace only comes through Christ, and in no other way: “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17).
And the good news is that it was not just grace for Paul but for all who trust in Christ as Lord and Savior: “Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (16). Let Paul be your pattern, and then let us say with him: “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (17).
iii Philip Edgcombe Hughes makes this trenchant observation in his commentary, speaking of those who argue that this is merely hypothetical: “This is then taken as an indication that his warning about the impossibility of restoration for the apostate does not answer to reality and is little better than the invention of a bogey for the purpose of frightening them into being better Christians. But the end does not justify the means, and to resort to subterfuge and deception, and that too within so solemn a context, would be subchristian and incompatible with the whole tenor of the epistle. What, in any case, would be the point of warning them of the danger of apostasy and then assuring them that, after all, they are in no danger of falling into apostasy? Any such procedure would be self- defeating.” P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Eerdmans, 1977), p. 212.