Tag Archives: Hebrews 6 Warning

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)

Hebrews Warnings, the Old Testament, and the Challenge of Chapter 6

 

The heart of the third warning passage in Hebrews lies in chapter 6 verses 4-6 and it is undoubtedly one of the more difficult and disputed passages in Scripture.  That being said, clues to its proper interpretation lie not only in the surrounding verses of the passage, but in the way that the author uses the previous and subsequent warnings in his exposition.  The latter will be addressed first before moving on to the context of the surrounding verses, followed by exposition of the 3 verses in question.

As previously stated, this particular warning is the 3rd of 5 warnings.  The first occurs in verses 2:1-4.  Various efforts to identify the components of this, and the other warnings for that matter, have been made and generally involve 1) audience 2) sin 3) exhortation and 4)consequences, however an element often missing is the Old Testament component.

In interpreting the book of Hebrews, it’s important to keep in mind one of the major themes is the argument from the lesser to the greater.  This is particularly true in how the author uses the Old Testament, more specifically elements under the Old Covenant as the lesser, in comparison to Christ as the greater  This is most clearly seen in references to the prophets, angels, Adam, Moses, the Aaronic (High) Priesthood, Melchizedek, the tabernacle of the Wilderness Generation, etc.

However, this same principle seems to generally hold true in the warning passages. Here there is also a principle of lesser to greater that flows from the relationship of the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, namely the experiences, expectations, and punishments for each respective covenant community.   Bear in mind that this relationship is not 1:1, meaning that the experiences or punishments under the Old Covenant are not equal to those under the New Covenant. Rather, the relationship is one of type (lesser) to antitype (greater). A thematic example of this is the judgment that God so often promises and then ultimately unleashes on the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Their sin is spiritual adultery, yet the punishment is often indicated in terms of physical death, famine, and disease. Conversely, this punishment by way of typology is pointing forward to a far greater punishment, namely eternal damnation, for those who are idolaters at heart.

In Hebrews, particularly the warning passages, the lesser often represents the experiences of the Israelite Wilderness Generation under the mediated Old Covenant who are by external association part of its covenant community. On the other hand, the greater are the experiences of the audience of Hebrews who are by way of external association OR internal membership under the mediated New Covenant.  This will become more clear as we survey the examples below, but let me briefly explain how there are two possibilities under the New Covenant because this is likely the source of confusion for not only the book of Hebrews, the warnings, and typology in general, but also understanding the nature of biblical covenants.

Entrance into the Old Covenant was by way of external sign, namely circumcision. There was a divine expectation of obedience to the law of the covenant, but there was no divine assistance afforded the Old Covenant community to help in their obedience, thus the sacrificial system and very visible, physical punishments for those who “apostatize”. Entrance into the New Covenant is also by way of circumcision, but of the heart not the flesh. So where the Old Covenant was external the New is internal. This internal circumcision of the heart is what’s called regeneration, a new heart, or being born again. With it, God has provided to those in the New Covenant all the divine assistance needed, by way of His indwelling Holy Spirit, for obedience. [Edit: Keep in mind that there were those under the Old Covenant who also received the benefits of the New Covenant by way of prospective faith in Christ.] Not only that, but as we will see in Hebrews He has provided the final sacrifice, namely His Son, toward which all of the Old Covenant sacrifices were pointing. Not only that, but Christ satisfied the demands of the law for us. Not only that, but Christ took the punishment for disobedience that we deserved. It is not difficult to see then how much greater this New Covenant really is, yet how the Old Covenant informs us of this superiority.

However, just as there were those during the ministry of Christ who were interested in seeing signs, wonders, and miracles, but not truly interested in believing in Him, there are those who by way of external association attach themselves like barnacles to the New Covenant community. They may travel through the same waters, share the same experiences, and may even look like they belong on the ship, but they are not part of it. [Edit: Summarily, this is the distinction between the visible/invisible Church] When the warning bell sounds forth from these passages it is a divine grace for both groups. The true hear the warnings and press on to perseverance by the power of the Holy Spirit. The false may have their eyes open to the fraudulence of their profession or they may suffer the punishment for apostasy that is so clearly warned about.

With this in mind, Hebrews 2:1-4 provides the Old Testament example, or better the Old Covenant example, as being the reliable message declared by the angels. Likewise, the just retribution that was received by those who disobeyed or transgressed it.  It’s most likely that this message declared by angels is the Law (Mosaic Covenant), see Deut. 33:2, Acts 7:53, Gal. 3:19.  Obviously, those who transgressed or broke the law of the Old Covenant were punished accordingly.  This is the lesser, as seen so clearly in the comparative statement from verse 3, “how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation.”  This latter message was not declared by angels, but by the Lord Himself, attested by those who heard, given evidential support by God through signs, wonders, miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Keeping this framework before us, we now turn to the second warning, that from Hebrews 3 and 4.  Technically, the warning begins in 3:7, however we see elements of warning and exhortation in 3:1, “consider Jesus” and “hold fast our confidence” before the introduction of the Old Covenant example, namely that of the Wilderness Generation.  They provide for us the lesser example through the rest of God that was offered to them upon entrance into the Promised Land and the judgment that fell on them by way of their physical death preventing them from entrance. Though they received the same good news (gospel) that we have (4:2), their failure was to receive this good news by faith followed by obedience, which the author specifically warns his audience against. The greater punishment is failure to enter the eschatological rest of God as a result of neglecting the same word of good news, not uttered by prophets, but by the Lord Jesus Himself (Heb. 1:1-2).

Before looking at the specific warning passage under our consideration from chapter 6, a brief observation of the final two warnings will be made to see if the Old Testament pattern of examples are present in them as well, those occurring in Hebrews 10 and 12 respectively.  In the former, the Old Covenant example is “anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses”, corresponding well to those examples listed earlier, while the judgment or punishment was that they die “without mercy on the evidence or two or three witness.” Heb. 10:28  Perhaps the clearest evidence of the lesser to the greater argument being employed in these warnings can be seen in the verse that follows this Old Covenant example, “How much more worse punishment do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?” Heb. 10:29  Setting aside the truths of the Covenant that Christ mediates is a worse crime and is deserving of the greater punishment, namely falling into the hands of the living God.

Finally, In Hebrews 12 we arrive at the last warning and find a couple of older examples, beginning first with Esau, in verse 16, who sold his birthright and found no chance to repent (more on this later) and secondly those who trembled at the foot of Mt. Sinai, bringing up for us again the context of Moses and the Wilderness Generation.  The third example held up before us is that of Mt. Zion, far superior to Sinai, and the mediator of this New Covenant, namely Jesus, is far superior to Moses, the mediator of the Old Covenant.  The warning of lesser to greater judgment occurs in Hebrews 12:25, “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.”

Understanding the way the New Testament uses the Old Testament will go a long way in helping us to interpret especially difficult passages, not to mention those which on the surface appear to be more immediately clear.  As it relates to Hebrews, it more than any other New Testament book (except perhaps Revelation) relies on an implicit understanding of the Old Testament, specifically the time of Moses the mediator of the Old Covenant and the Wilderness Generation.

In each of the warning passages mentioned above, there is an Old Testament example held up as a mirror before the faces of the Hebrew audience that informs them of the danger in hearing the word of God, seeing His miraculous works, even participating in His many benefits, yet it is clear that these associations are unable to overcome their unbelief, hardness of hearts due to sin, and disobedience.  Surely this is a witness for us that a mere association with church, or believers, or even participation in ministry or programs is insufficient for salvation.  God has never been interested in external worship, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Hos. 6:6 Keeping these thoughts and interpretive principles before us will allow for a more accurate understanding of the third and most disputed warning of Hebrews and it is towards this warning that we will turn our attention next time.