I relate my own experience with these verses in my personal testimony, Drawn to the Cross. In that experience I was led to question this interpretation by broader considerations of scripture from outside the book of Hebrews. That testimony is repeated both in my study guide to Hebrews, and in my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic.
Here, however, I want to look more directly at the context of this passage in the book of Hebrews, to see whether any other interpretation, including my own, is possible in the context of the book. To do that, let’s look first at the major elements of the context, and then at the elements of the doctrinal statement made in the three verses.
This passage comes right after 1:1-3, which talks about laying the foundation, and the need to keep moving forward. In my previous post on that passage I suggested that the basics of faith listed in those three verses corresponded to conversion, to one’s joining the Christian community. Following verses 4-6, we have the expression of hope that follows in verses 13-20, in which our author expresses his confidence that verses 4-6 are not going to apply to his audience. If we broaden our view a bit, this comes immediately after establishing Jesus as a priest, greater than the angels and than Moses, but still understanding our situation and our weakness. Immediately following he begins to discuss the eternal and perfect priesthood of Jesus, the way to God that allows us to approach the throne of grace boldly.
With those elements in mind, let’s go back to the verses themselves:
4Now it is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gifts, become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5and tasted the good word of God and the wonders of the coming age, 6and then fallen away to be renewed to repentance. It’s because they are crucifying the Son of God again for themselves, and putting him to open shame. — Hebrews 6:4-6 (from my TFBV project).
What I see as the elements of this doctrine are:
- A person may be enlightened, consisting of tasting the heavenly gifts, partaking of the Holy Spirit, tasting the good word of God, and the wonders of the coming age
- From that state, a person may fall, and that fall is equated to crucifying the Son of God again, and putting him to shame.
- Such a person cannot be renewed or brought to repentance.
Since few commentators really want to just say outright that if you’ve left the faith, you can’t return, there have been numerous attempts to explain this. Indeed, there should be, because the idea that it is impossible to return after backsliding, for example, which is a possible interpretation, seems contradictory to quite a number of Biblical teachings. One would have to picture the prodigal son driven off by his father on his return, for example!
Such interpretations have dealt with various elements:
- Some interpreters look at the various requirements of enlightenment, and determine that very few, if any, people have actually attained that state, and thus it would only be someone who had truly been enlightened, and not merely converted to Christianity, who would be unable to come to repentance.
- Some interpreters deal with the idea of falling away, claiming that the falling away is not just any simple departure, but rather a complete and utter stubborn rejection, complete with public renunciation of Jesus.
- Some adjust the concept of impossible, pointing out that it might be humanly impossible, but that with God, all things are possible
Can the context point the way through this? I think so. First, I do believe it is right to try to find a sense of hope in the passage, because while the author of Hebrews is handing out some fairly tough medicine, there is a strong element of hope in his presentation. As I have noted, he expresses confidence that his readers will not fall in the way described here. Because of both the immediate context and the broader context of the book, I think we need to understand a more hopeful message than that you can fall from grace and you’re finished if you do.
Further, I think that the idea of saying that it may be impossible in human terms, but with God all things are possible does not fit well in the context. We are quite clearly presenting a divine opportunity of salvation throughout the book, and I suspect the readers would hear that here. In addition, if he’s saying it’s impossible, but it’s really possible, then these three verses don’t seem to move forward very much, and it’s a strange way of saying it.
Further, though I think the question of just how enlightened a person is before they fall is quite appropriate, since this passage follows a description of conversion, I think it is likely to contain a warning that is applicable to people at the stage of their Christian life just described–immediately after they have acquired the basics.
As for the fall, on the same basis I think it is right to inquire what was considered a fall by the author. There are those who believe this would only be a denial of Jesus in the face of martyrdom. When the persecution was over, some would desire to return to the community even though they had denied Jesus in the face of death. Some commentators suggest that this was forbidden by this text.
Let me suggest a view that relies a little bit on each of these approaches to interpretation, that applies a warning, and yet also provides a basis for the message of hope that follows.
First, the warning applies to everyone who has undertaken the Christian journey. That is the context and that is what is suggested. If you have taken that first step with Jesus, this warning applies.
Second, there is a point to which you can fall from which repentance, turning back becomes impossible. More on that in a moment.
Third, note that it is “impossible.” It does not say that God will reject you, but rather that the repentance itself is impossible.
Now to support this, look back at Hebrews 3:7-4:11. Here we have the review of God’s offer of a “rest” for the people of God. One of the requirements to enter that rest is that we listen to God and do not harden our hearts. Consider further the discussion, Hebrew 2:3, of the quality of salvation offered–“how shall we escape” if we neglect it?
What I am suggesting here is that if we reject the voice of God repeatedly, and thus harden our hearts, we will come to the point at which we will no longer desire to repent. This is a necessary warning no matter where you are in your experience, because you don’t want to get in the habit of hardening your heart and not listening. Whether you are very near such a problem or far enough away, you just don’t want to go there. If you follow the “hardening” path, there will come a time when repentance is impossible. That point can also be described as one at which you would not hesitate to crucify Jesus again. The more you have both heard and rejected, the more danger you are in.
Note also that all of this refers not to non-Christians but to people already on the Christian journey, as our author sees it. It is a warning about moving forward, and continuing to listen to and be led by God.