Tag Archives: Hebrews 6 Warning

The Tragedy of Sluggishness

 

The third, and arguably most significant warning of the Book of Hebrews, is framed by two exhortations against the malady of sluggishness.  The same Greek word, translated as “dull” [of hearing] in Hebrews 5:11 ESV and as “sluggish” in Hebrews 6:12 ESV, forms an inclusio  or brackets for this  central warning against apostasy.

Prior to this passage, the previous two warnings guard against neglect (Hebrews 2:3) and falling away due to an unbelieving or hardened heart (Hebrews 3:12-13), but the chief concern of the author’s warnings does not become fully expressed until now.  Here, within this inclusio, the danger is clear: sluggishness in the Christian life is not only inconsistent with a true profession of faith, but it is spiritually deadly.

Contextually, the first bracket use of sluggish – translated dull [of hearing] – concerns the author’s desire to introduce the concept of Christ as High Priest, after the order of Melchizedek.  Because of their sluggish ears, with which the preacher is intimately familiar, they are unable to bear with, or we might say properly digest, this grand topic of Christ’s priesthood.  As the introduction to this warning unfolds, we find that a person’s ability to grasp and  comprehend the truth’s of God’s Word is intimately related to holiness in a their life, a point drawn out in verses 5:13-14

13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

Making such a strong conclusion that one’s doctrinal capacity is closely related, or even dependent upon, godliness, might sound strange.  But looking closely at the passage above, this is precisely what is being conveyed.  Central to this conclusion are the phrases unskilled in the word of righteousness and powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.  In the former phrase, we see the exhortation that these believers were inexperienced in the gospel as well as its moral or ethical implications.  With the latter phrase, we find this point expanded upon by further defining this inexperience as a failure to habitually exercise the senses (of discernment) to distinguish good from evil.  More pointedly, their error can be boiled down to a lack of wisdom, which we might define as the spiritual ability to derive ethical living from the truths of  God’s Word.  Primarily it was a failure to allow orthodoxy to lead to orthopraxy.

How common is this in our own generation!!

With this in mind, it seems reasonable to conclude that the first use of sluggishness is a reproof against doctrinal apathy leading to moral laxity which in turn leads to further doctrinal deficiency.  There is a symbiotic relationship, a dependency, of doctrine and practice.

The closing bracket of our inclusio of sluggishness takes on a different tone.  After warning his readers on the danger of apostasy and the impossibility of return, the author switches gears to matters of salvation that pertain more closely to his audience.  Below is the closing exhortation of this critically important third warning in Hebrews

Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

It’s important in this conclusion to recognize the commendation that the author gives to his hearers.  Some key observations are noted below:

  1. Work
  2. Love for God’s Name
  3. Serving the saints
  4. Earnestness

Despite the exhortation from earlier to reinvigorate their theological ears and pursue holiness in their individual lives, collectively they are praised for their work in earnestly expressing love for the name of God through their service to other believers.

In summary, this second use of sluggishness is a warning against falling into practical laziness as it relates to the service of other believers, an error into which they had not yet entered, but one that appears to be the logical conclusion of the theological deficiency and moral laxity that they had slipped into.

This warning on the tragedy of sluggishness: laziness in our doctrine, holiness, and love for others, should be taken with the utmost seriousness.  It’s no coincidence that the book’s strongest warning against apostasy is encapsulated by this inclusio of sluggishness.  Therefore, it is imperative for us to be daily reminded of the gospel and its practical implications.  It is not enough to be able to provide a theologically precise definition of justification without being able to see the practicality of that same justification.

The entire book of 1 John presents a similar exhortation: Know God. Grow Holy. Show Love.  That is the summation of the Christian life.  Neglect in any aspect is a recipe for spiritual shipwreck.

The Finality of Apostasy

 

Having now worked meticulously through the experiential descriptions from the warning passage in Hebrews 6, we turn our attention to the consequence which began with the introduction, “For it is impossible” back in verse 4. Before we reach the conclusion of that statement we must address the last descriptor in this warning, “and have fallen away.”

The word for fallen away, parapipto, is used only here in the New Testament and conveys the idea of slipping away, synonymous with what we would term apostasy. Though unique in its use, it is similar in thought to Heb. 2:1, “Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” Likewise, we read of a similar warning of apostasy in 3:12, “take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God”. Additionally, this general sentiment is conveyed in Heb. 3:17; 4:1; Heb. 4:6; Heb. 4:11; Heb. 10:28; Heb. 12:1. Those similarities mentioned, it may also be noted that falling or drifting away is the opposite of holding fast, as in Heb. 3:1 “hold fast our original confidence firm to the end”; 4:14; 6:18; 10:23. Those who have shared in all the experiences discussed in verses 4-6 may now add the description, “and have fallen away” to their resume. As a side note, the action being described here is not conditional, as in the faulty NIV translation that inserts “if” before falling away. Instead it is a statement of fact emphatically sealed with the word “impossible”, which shows up again with emphasis in 6:18, “it is impossible for God to lie.”

With this in mind, we move to the concluding statement of the warning, “for it is impossible…to renew them again to repentance”. If one takes the interpretation that has been argued against, namely that the loss of salvation is in view here, then you must conclude that if it is lost, it can never be regained. It is apostasy unto the end. To be clear, backsliding is not in view here. Though one may offer a convincing argument that hardening from sin, sluggishness, dull of hearing, may well be synonyms for backsliding and certainly place one on the path for potential apostasy, the warning here is more ultimate. It is a total renunciation of the person and work of Christ after having been exposed to the truths regarding Him, externally receiving the blessings of association with the New Covenant community, and then making a complete and outright rejection in its entirety.  It certainly does not have to be expressed verbally, though naturally out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.

This rejection is not akin to Peter’s denial of Christ on 3 separate occasions (because he returned!), but finds its human parallel in Judas. Though their situation may in some ways be similar, Judas had a worldly sorrow for his actions, as did Esau in Heb. 12:17, but his repentance was not genuine. If Judas’ repentance had been genuine, he would not have committed suicide, but would have rejoined the disciples for the cause of Christ. The selfishness of his actions following on the heels of his betrayal indicates that his was an apostasy unto the end of his life (1 John 5:16; see also John 17:12). It has been said of those who commit this apostasy that it would have been better if they were never born (Matt. 26:24). They are the hidden reefs, waterless clouds, fruitless trees, wild waves of the sea, and wandering stars of Jude 12-13. Their rejection of Christ is proof that they were never children of God, but were children of the devil all along.

At this point it is fair to ask if it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, doesn’t that mean that they were originally in a state of repentance, i.e. saved. Again we can see that importing one’s own meaning of terms and theological concepts into a passage will inevitably lead to a wrong conclusion. The term “again” is also used in the following verse in reference to crucifying Christ “again”, yet that is no more likely to actually happen than it is for the apostate to have a genuine repentance “again”.

Why would it be impossible to renew them again to repentance? Because they have rejected the only means and object toward which repentance is due such that there remains no other option. If genuine Spirit-led repentance is God-ward and one rejects God, to whom shall repentance be made? To use our example of Esau again from Heb. 12:17, he was not given opportunity to repent, though he sought it with tears. His tears were not the hallmark of genuine repentance; if they had been then he would’ve found repentance. Similarly, Israel as a nation slid into apostasy, yet we see the repeated attempts to repent and return to the Lord. These attempts were not genuine as we read in Deuteronomy 1:45, “And you returned and wept before the Lord, but the Lord did not listen to your voice or give ear to you.” (Note again the Wilderness Generation)

As a side note, it is simply a misapplication of the passage to take the experiences mentioned here and apply it to our own knowledge of those who reject Christ and assume that theirs is a similar apostasy of finality. Not only is that a misapplication of the passage, but it strays from the passages intended meaning. It is not meant to be taken as a measuring stick of faithfulness, but as a warning to be personally heeded by all those who hear it. Once again, let us be reminded of the case of Peter and Judas, both were guilty of experiencing the blessing and association of our Lord, yet one returned and one didn’t. How faulty and self-righteous would it have been to have taken the warning from Hebrews 6 and applied it to Peter assuming that it would be impossible to renew him again to repentance. Peter was a living example of one who heeded the warning of Christ, recognized himself drifting away, and found repentance in the arms of a waiting Savior (Matt. 26:75; Luke 22:32).

What is your case dear reader? Is your life marked by open rejection of Christ, having presumed to walk with Him for so long? Perhaps you find your way on the road called Backslidden leading to the town of Apostasy. Heed the warnings of Hebrews and elsewhere in Scripture and find true repentance in the arms of a loving Father before it is too late and yours is an apostasy unto finality.

Concluding the thought of this passage we read of the egregious nature of those apostates in view, namely “crucifying again the Son of God.” Having rejected the person and work of Christ, they no longer have a claim to Christ’s death for them. Instead of the gloriousness of the cross in the provision of redemption from sin, the apostate denigrates the cross as a device of torture and punishment for blasphemy and yells out with the crowd, “Crucifying Him!” What once had been a shallow claim of “I am crucified with Christ” has turned to having “neither part nor lot in this matter”. Public renunciation of faith in Christ, whether by attitudes, actions, or words, makes a mockery of the Lord and His substitutionary sacrifice (Matt. 27:39-44). As we will see in Heb. 10:29 this rejection is a “profaning the blood of the covenant” and is in fact the unpardonable sin, “For it is impossible…to restore them again to repentance.”

The Context of the Warning Passage from Hebrews 6

 

11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

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, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. 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, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 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.” Heb. 5:11 – 6:6

Upon first glance, it would seem that this particular warning is an anomaly to all that has been said before regarding Old Covenant examples, experiences, and the argument from lesser to the greater. It’s likely this has contributed to such a wide range of opinions and interpretations on this warning, as opposed to the others which are generally unchallenged in their meaning[1]. Verses 5:11-14 have been discussed in some detail already, and verses 6:1-3 while posing their own interpretive challenges may in fact have an underlying lesser to greater framework that was discussed somewhat in depth previously. However, some additional comments are warranted.

If we understand correctly that the chief challenge before the Hebrew audience is their temptation to resort back to Judaism and its ceremonial practices, it perhaps becomes clear that these verses (6:1-3; 4-6) are intended to point out areas of continuity and discontinuity from Old to New. This would make sense in the flow of argument throughout Hebrews, particularly from the warnings. The first 2 make no explicit mention of the New Covenant, though it is certainly implied, while the latter 2 warnings from chapter 10 & 12 make explicit reference to New Covenant inaugurated by the blood of Christ and mediated through His High Priestly office.

Logically, this is understandable because it isn’t until chapter 8 that the argument of the New Covenant is set forth. Much like with the pending discussion of Melchizedek, it is introduced somewhat vaguely, before going into greater detail later in the book. The same would appear true with the doctrinal development of the New Covenant in Hebrews. With this in mind, we may reasonably say that the warning of Chapter 6 is meant to serve as a transition not only in the book, but also in the minds of the original hearers who are living in a transitional age between the completion of the Old Covenant and the inauguration of the New Covenant, beginning with Christ’s ministry, death, mediation as High Priest, but following to the pending destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.

As all this relates to interpreting verses 1-3, we can see some correlation and overlap between the experiences that the audience had likely seen or participated in under the continuation of the Old Covenant, namely a foundation of faith and repentance[2], teachings on baptisms (ceremonial washings[3] and their man-made traditions, see Mark 7:3-4 and John 2:6), laying on of hands[4], the resurrection from the dead[5], and eternal judgment. New Covenant correspondence with these teachings should be fairly obvious. Baptisms (washings) are evident from John’s baptism (Mark 1:4; Acts 18:25-28) to the baptism performed by the disciples, the one by the Spirit at Pentecost, and the ones performed in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as an outward confession of faith in Christ. Likewise, the laying on of hands can be seen in the commissioning of Apostles (Acts 6:6; 13:3), imparting of the Spirit (Acts 8:17; 19:6) and healings (Acts 9:12-17; 28:8).

As seen in footnote 5 below, the resurrection of the dead was apparently disputed even during the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry. However, it is clear that others understood and embraced the resurrection before Christ’s death (John 11:24; Acts 2:32), but especially after Christ’s resurrection (Acts 4:2, 33; 24:15ff; 1 Cor. 15). Eternal judgment is perhaps the most nebulous of the Old Covenant correspondences. As with the resurrection of the dead, its doctrinal development is somewhat limited in the Old Testament. However, Jesus speaks more on eternal judgment than any other subject and provides perhaps the clearest transition of Old Testament understanding to New Testament understanding in Luke 16:19-31.

This path set before us, both in understanding how the author of Hebrews employs the Old Testament in his development of the warning passages and understanding the transitional nature of the verses just prior to the 3rd warning, is now cleared for undertaking interpretation of the heart of the warning found in Heb. 6:4-6. The intention of this passage is probably best summarized by combining the first part, “For it is impossible…” with the latter part, “…to restore them again to repentance….” The phrases in the middle are descriptive of their experience and subsequent phrases are descriptive of the consequences. We will deal with the list of experiences individually in the next post.

[1] Note here the schools of interpretation which are used as a grid for all of the warnings; an overview of these will be discussed in detail later.

[2] Some have seen these verses as a series of 3 couplets. After contemplation of this view, I’m inclined to a see 2 + 4 pattern, with repentance and faith being foundational and distinguished from the list of doctrinal teachings.

[3] Priestly washings: Ex. 19:10; 29:4; 30:19-21; 40:12; Lev. 16:28

Washings for contact with dead animals: Lev. 11; Lev. 17

Washings for diseases: Lev. 13:1-14:54

Washings for bodily discharge: Lev. 15:1-32

Washings for eating blood: Lev. 17:15-16

[4] Priestly: Sacrifices – Lev. 1:4; 3:2,8,13; 4:4,24,29,33; 16:21; Oil- Lev. 14:18,14:29

Set apart: Num. 27:18

[5] The fact that this is an underdeveloped doctrine in the Old Testament is largely undisputed. Apparently the Sadducees had already developed their own doctrine disputing any notion of resurrection by the time of Christ (see Mark 12:18; Acts 17:32; 23:6-10)