The Threat of Apostasy
“It is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift . . . 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.”- Hebrews 6:4–6
Clearly, the author of Hebrews intended to guide everyone in his original audience beyond the basics of the Christian faith into full spiritual maturity. However, he also understood that this could happen only if the Lord so willed it (Heb. 6:1–3). Some could not be guided into maturity, namely, the people identified in today’s passage—those who commit final apostasy by abandoning the Christian faith and never coming back.
Hebrews 6:4–6 features perhaps the best-known warning passage in all of Scripture, and almost certainly the most-used proof text for those who believe that people who exercise true saving faith in Jesus can lose their salvation. However, we confess that this interpretation fails in light of the entire witness of Scripture and even the book of Hebrews itself. Matthew 1:21, for instance, tells us that Jesus will unfailingly save His people—all His people—from their sins. Romans 8:29–30 reveals that everyone who is justified—united to Christ and declared righteous through faith alone—will also be glorified. Hebrews 10:14 explains that Jesus’ atonement has perfected for all time all those who are now being sanctified, and one cannot be sanctified apart from true faith in Christ (see Acts 26:12–18). Thus, we must agree with the respected twentieth-century New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce, who wrote that the author of Hebrews “is not questioning the perseverance of the saints; we might say that rather he is insisting that those who persevere are the true saints.”
Yet, what are we to make of the description in Hebrews 6:4–6 of the people who cannot be restored to repentance after falling away? The basic answer is that the characteristics given in these verses need not apply only to true Christians, to those who possess the faith they profess. They can be true also of those who come very close to placing their trust in Jesus, to those who make a profession of faith and join the church when their hearts are not truly in it. After all, professing members of the visible church who do not really believe can see the powers of the age to come in the love believers have for one another and in how God answers the prayers of His people. They might appreciate the goodness and truth of God’s Word, even believing it is factually true, without personally trusting Jesus to save them from their sins. The bottom line is that a mere profession of faith never saves anyone. But those who possess faith will persevere in it until the end.
If we are Christians long enough, we will see some people who seemed to be believers reject the faith. However, we cannot see the heart, so we do not know who has committed final apostasy or who is in a season of serious backsliding. Thus, we should continue to pray for those who have rejected Jesus and even reach out to them as we are able. God may yet bring them to Christ.
Passages for Further Study
1 John 2:18–19