Hebrews 6:3 – “And this we will do if God permits.”
This was no game; no contest of wills. Hebrews 6:3 seriously suggests that the plan to build upon foundational (milk) doctrines has eluded individual Hebrew Jews, and that one by one, it was time to make sure they were saved. Because for all the revelation God has provided, and all the spiritual benefit received, for anyone who has not really received salvation to turn back to Judaism now – that decision would be permanent. They may well have several more years to walk the earth. But the Holy Spirit will never again provide the convicting grace that such a one would need for his salvation1.
Stepping back a bit to Hebrews 5:11, there was a lot of material in Hebrews 1:1 through 5:10 that a mature Christian shouldn’t have had to have spoon-fed to him. And AH (the initials of the Author of Hebrews) is disappointed that he had to go through that review material. Jesus is superior to angels; Jesus is a greater High Priest than that which was instituted through Moses. Why was this even on the syllabus for a people who had been saved a generation earlier? AH was finding his message difficult to explain because nobody was listening. The Hebrews had been in Christ long enough that they should be in the position of teaching the wonderful exaltation of Jesus. Yet somehow they never even learned. It had been 40 years since the Spirit poured Himself out in Acts 2, and there remained Christian Jews alive who were part of the inaugural indwelling. But they had become as babies who advance to age 40, still sucking on their bottles. They had teeth because physical maturity demanded it, but their teeth served no purpose, because they had never adjusted their spiritual intake; they never advanced to food that required chewing. If God gives you the gift of teeth, you are obligated to use them to chew. Hebrews 5:11-14 is roughly translated “GROW UP!!”
If 5:11-14 says “grow up,” then Hebrews 6:1-2 can be loosely translated as “We are moving on, with or without you.” At this point, the easiest thing AH could have done was to destroy the spiritual wreckage the Hebrews had become, and to start over with a new foundation. But according to 6:3, that might not be an option God allows – otherwise that would be the approach to take. AH had feared that many of the Hebrew Christians had met the description of a man he introduces in Hebrews 6:4-6.
But Hebrews 6:4-6 must be read carefully. If a careless reading, you are prone to MIS-read it.
For it is impossible…. Not “highly unlikely;” not “very rarely;” not “taking a big risk.” IMPOSSIBLE. The likelihood of what is about to be described here carries the same likelihood as 1) God telling a lie (Hebrews 6:18); or 2) the blood of bulls and goats taking away sins (Hebrews 10:4); or 3) pleasing God without faith (Hebrews 11:6). No way. Wrong number. When pigs fly. Ain’t happenin’. DOA. Whatever expression best communicates that four times in Hebrews we are told that there is no path to get from condition to result. You may as well plan a Sunday drive to Hawaii. Hebrews 6:4, Hebrews 6:18, Hebrews 10:4 and Hebrews 11:6 all declare the likelihood as “adynaton,” “not able to happen.” There is no basis for watering down the meaning in Hebrews 6:4.
… in the case of those who [meet the following five criteria]….
1. who have once been enlightened,
2. who have tasted the heavenly gift,
3. and have shared in the Holy Spirit,
4. and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,
“Then” doesn’t belong there. It’s not in the original, and it flagrantly misleads. All five of the above clauses are grammatically identical. The verse does not say “If #5 should happen after #1 through # 4 have happened,….” It says that this describes anyone who is characterized as #1 through #5. And #5 is in the aorist2 (undefined) tense , which means we can’t even count on it being past tense action.
… to restore them again to repentance.
The passage is not saying that if you were once saved, and then fall away, you lose your salvation and are lost without hope of restoration. The passage says that if the five things have happened to you, further repentance becomes unavailable. And the sobering feature of #1, #2, #3 or #4 is that nothing in this description ever indicates that this person ever received Christ!
Examining the description one by one: We are not saved because we have been enlightened. John 1:9 says that every man who lives is enlightened at some point in his life. We are not saved by tasting the heavenly gift. Tasting the heavenly gift can be achieved by listening intently to a good sermon. We are not saved by sharing in the Holy Spirit. Sharing in the Holy Spirit can be accomplished at any life group meeting. We are not saved by tasting the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come. Even the devil has tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.
Nothing in #1 through #4 says anything about recognizing your sinful state, and trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ to forgive your sins and to present you pure and holy before God. This list describes people who do everything except receive Christ: go to Church, to Sunday School, join the choir, become a life group leader, serve on the Board of Deacons, serve as Church treasurer, even fill in for the Pastor occasionally, and fall away. They never accepted the free gift of God which is eternal life.
In other words, there doesn’t have to be a conscious activity that constitutes the falling away. The verb is in the aorist, and that translates to an undefined tense. It is better comprehended as, “and does all this while he is in a fallen away state.” And that’s why the “then” should not be inserted. By inserting “then,” the verse read differently than what the meaning of the verse intends.
This is why Esau was incapable of repentance (Hebrews 12:17) though he sought [repentance] with tears. This is why Judas Iscariot was unable to return the silver and repent. You can be absolutely certain Judas regretted what he had done. There is no doubt in me that his flesh was ready to repent. Judas Iscariot actually did serve as Church treasurer. But he never received the new birth that comes from the finished work of Jesus the Christ3. He was enlightened, he tasted the heavenly gift, he tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of the age to come, and he remained fallen away, as demonstrated by his participation in a death scheme against the almighty God, Himself.
Hebrews 6:6 explains why. When a man approaches the Christ in His sin, Jesus death on the cross has touched that man – not necessarily saved him, but has at a minimum touched him. He is at that moment enlightened, and a foundation has been laid – a foundation made possible because Jesus Christ was crucified. I can’t prove it, but I think that the moment of enlightenment occurs when the six fundamental doctrines listed in 6:1-2 become evident to a man4. The intended purpose of this foundation is to support his faith in Jesus Christ. But the foundation will sit there baron because he has never proclaimed the Lordship of Christ. But having approached Christ, he “feels” saved. He “feels” no longer weighed down by sin. And as long as he is receiving the approval of man, he continues to thrive in Church fellowship. But the foundation for faith, though laid, still has no saving faith built on it. All his righteousnesses serve as filthy rags. Years later, he may choose to repent. Either an event occurred that exposes to him that his original confession was not true. Perhaps he knew it all along.
There will come a point in that man’s life when his never having received Christ will be exposed. And except for Esau and Judas, I’m not going to venture a guess regarding anyone else. For that man, it is impossible to be restored to repentance. For laying the foundation had required the finished work of the crucified Christ, and laying a second foundation would require a second crucifixion of Christ. So in order to restore such a man to the doorstep of repentance (precisely the place where he had stood years ago, but simply peeked inside) one of two things must happen: either the corruption of the old now-corrupt foundation must reversed; or Christ must be crucified a second time so that a man can lay second foundation. Flying pigs is more prevalent than either of those two events occurring.
There is a simple way to tell whether you received Jesus or if you were simply enlightened, and have been tasting the goodness of the word of God ever since. Hebrews 6:7-8 tells us that if a man’s ministry is bearing fruit, “a crop useful” then he has repented and his eternity in the presence of Jesus is secure. He need not address this topic any further; he can advance to the first Epistle of John, which teaches a Christian to be bold in his knowledge that his salvation is secure. If his ministry “bears thorns and thistles,” then he is advised (warned, red-alerted, whatever message here that will spur him to action) to makes his calling and election sure.
You can analogize receiving Christ as touching first base; first base initializes your life with Christ. With the bases loaded and your team trailing by 2, you send a hanging slider into orbit. Filled with pride, you gaze at the ball’s path, and you don’t even notice that you failed to step on first base in your home run trot. Second base: nailed. Third base: no problem. Home plate: you jumped on it and the crowd erupted. You go into the clubhouse and begin a celebration. After a long run, you have made it home. It is time to rejoice – until the smallest, least valuable player on the visiting team asks the umpire to hand him a fresh ball. And after receiving the ball, he trots to first base, and unceremoniously steps on it. The umpire, the Judge in this game, has the sad duty to enter the hometown clubhouse and spoil the party, and inform them that the game is over, and the visitors win. Because the most prolific performer of the hour never bothered to touch first base5, there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
This is a very heavy read on a very profound warning to Church-goers who have learned to play the part. If I have unsettled anyone into re-evaluating the fruit his ministry is producing, then this passage was written for your salvation and for that I rejoice. If you have been strengthened because the fruit of your ministry is useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, then this passage was written for your assurance.
It is too easy to mis-read Hebrews 6:4-6 and reason that perhaps a saved person can lose his salvation. And if that is the correct read (though it isn’t), it is more tragic than estimated, because the passage says you can’t earn your salvation back. (I intended for that to sound dumb. Such a man never earned it in the first place.) We already know that a believer cannot lose his salvation because neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
But 2 Peter 1:10 warns “confirm your calling and election.” Hebrews 6:7-8 tells how a man can discern: Are your fruits a useful crop? Or do your fruits better resemble bristles and thorns? We are alerted in this passage to evaluate ourselves before the foundation of our moment of enlightenment has become corrupted. Though for Esau and for Judas Iscariot, the moment of the corruption of their enlightenment was a noteworthy event, for someone else, it might just be the elapsing of time. The stakes are too high to base your assurance of salvation on conjecture.
1 It is good to meet someone, and automatically see that person as one who needs Jesus. And there is no basis to deny him the Gospel – for God will never identify to us who is eligible and who is not. But part of maturity in Christ is coming to grips with the reality that the offer of salvation is not a grocery store coupon that can be stashed into a wallet and used at any time prior to the expiration date.
2 Aorist literally means “no definition.” Aorist ---> a horizo ---> no delineation between sky and earth ---> no definition in tense. Since English demands the translator specify the tense, the translator must make a judgment all 11,587 times the aorist appears in the New Testament. This means any translation is in small part necessarily commentary, and there is nothing the translator can do to prevent that. If the author wishes to convey simple past tense in Greek, he must use the aorist tense. However, the aorist tense does not necessarily imply past tense activity, let alone simple past tense activity.
3 To show the difference between the impact of a saved person falling away, and an unsaved person falling away, compare Judas to Peter and Thomas. Each of them disappointed our Lord in about the same 10-day span. Do not suppose that Judas did more harm than Peter or Thomas and was therefore judged the harshest. For Jesus was Master of the circumstances, and nothing opposed Jesus except He allow it. Peter’s story of repentance is well told, and Thomas escaped judgment because his previous profession was real. But make no mistake: Jesus was not pleased with Thomas, and the words “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” were a stark rebuke. Thomas received mercy from his lack of faith in God, preferring to trust in his own senses. He received grace to be restored, and to be named among the Apostles, including by legend, bring the Gospel to the tip of India.
4 This is unfalsifiable in that it can neither be proven nor disproven. The enlightened man himself may not be aware that he now has a foundational belief in these doctrines.
5 Except that I hyped up the detail a little, this play actually happened to the Giants’ Fred Merkle in a real major league baseball game against the Cubs. The date of the game was September 23, 1908, and the loss cost the Giants the pennant that year, as the Cubs won the pennant by one game. As of 2012, it was the last time the Cubs would win the World Series. For the next 50-60 years, a brain freeze in a baseball game was called a “Merkle.”