(From Maranatha Baptist Seminary Journal; used by permission.)
Hebrews 6:4-8 is one of the most difficult New Testament passages to interpret. Almost every article written on this passage begins with a statement of its difficulty.1 At the same time, the interpretation of this passage is crucial to the interpretation of the other warning passages in Hebrews and to the development of one’s theological position on several soteriological issues.
There are three key issues in Hebrews 6:4-8 that must be interpreted in order to arrive at an acceptable interpretation of the entire paragraph. The first issue is whether or not “those who were once enlightened” are actually saved.2 The second issue is the nature of the falling away in verse six. Is it a rejection of Christ’s offer of salvation, or is it a rejection of some aspect within Christianity? The third issue is the nature of the judgment for falling away in verses four and eight. Is the judgment eternal damnation of an unbeliever, or is it the sever chastisement of an erring believer? The proper interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-8 must provide solutions of each of these issues.
The purpose of this article is to suggest a solution for each of these issues. First, “those who were once enlightened” are true believers. They have been regenerated and are a part of the body of Christ. Second, “falling away” is a conscious rejection of Christ’s high priestly ministry for the believer.3 It is not a rejection of Christ’s offer of salvation. It is a reference to a faulty devotion and worship, not a faulty salvation experience. Third, the judgment for rejecting Christ’s high priestly ministry for the believer is severe chastisement (up to and including physical death and/or loss of eternal reward). It is not a reference to the eternal damnation of the unbeliever.
This article begins with a brief review of the major interpretations proposed for Hebrews 6:4-8. This review sets the context for the current discussion of this paragraph of Scripture. Next, the article provides a detailed study of Hebrews 6:4-8 in its biblical context. Last, the article provides a detailed study of Hebrews 6:4-8 in order to argue for the solutions to the three issues mentioned above.
It is not the intention of this article to deal with all of the warning passages in the book of Hebrews. Other warning passages are mentioned only as they relate to Hebrews 6:4-8. Neither is it the intention of this article to argue for the eternal security of the believer from this passage.4 While this passage may support the perseverance of the saints, this article suggests that Hebrews 6:4-8 is not even talking about soteriological issues. Instead, it is discussing the spiritual health of a true believer’s lifestyle.
Proposed Solutions for Hebrews 6:4-8
There are several ways to categorize the various views of Hebrews 6:4-8. Each of the three issues discussed above generates a variety of opinions. Perhaps the best way organize this data is to divide the various views by means of the first issue discussed above. Are “those who were once enlightened” saved or not?
Professing Believers—Truly Unsaved
Some suggest that the descriptive phrases in Hebrews 6:4-5 describe an individual who has adequate knowledge of the truth of salvation, and yet, consciously rejects Christ’s offer of salvation.5 Compton argues that “the passage refers to those who have heard the gospel, have made a profession of faith, yet are not saved.”6 Those who hold this view readily admit that the description of the person in Hebrews 6:4-5 appears to suggest a genuine Christian.7 However, they assert that the description itself is inconclusive, so the context must be the determining factor.8
Those who hold this view identify the “falling away” as apostasy. Compton says, “its use in the LXX, the parallel expressions in the other warning passages, and the descriptive phrases accompanying it here and elsewhere in Hebrews lead inevitably to the conclusion that the sin of apostasy is meant.”9 Apostasy is the conscious rejection of the gospel of Christ after receiving a thorough and understandable explanation of it. In fact, those described in Hebrews had even assented to the truth of the gospel for a time; however, their profession was not real.
According to this view, the judgment faced by those who reject the gospel of Christ is eternal damnation. Compton says, “Under the pressure of persecution, these abandon the faith and are faced with eternal condemnation and judgment.”10 Grudem calls the judgment “the final judgment of God” and the apostate’s final state one of “cursing and fiery judgment.”11
In summary, this view proposes that Hebrews 6:4-8 describes individuals who heard the gospel of Christ and made a profession of faith.12 They lived as Christians for a while within the fellowship of the church. When persecution came, however, they rejected the gospel and publicly ridiculed Christ. As a result of their rejection they are beyond repentance (i.e., permanently hardened) and can only look forward to God’s fiery judgment on the unsaved.
Genuine Believers—Truly Saved
There are several views that present those described in Hebrews 6:4-8 as genuinely saved individuals. These views accept the natural reading of the descriptions in verses 4-5 as those who have been regenerated and are truly saved. Even though these views agree that Hebrews 6:4-8 is describing saved individuals, there is no consensus regarding the nature of “falling away” or the nature of judgment. There are at least four variations within this general category.
1 For example, Wayne Grudem says, “For centuries Christians have been puzzled by Hebrews 6:4-6.” “Perseverance of the Saints: A Case Study from Hebrews 6:4-6 and Other Warning Passages in Hebrews,” in The Grace of God, The Bondage of the Will, eds. Thomas Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 133. Scot McKnight says, “Few are the number of Christians who have not been at least troubled by the warning passages of Hebrews, troubled by the warning passages of Hebrews, troubled perhaps to the point of despair or even terror.” “The Warning Passages of Hebrews: A Formal Analysis and Theological Conclusions,” Trinity Journal 13 (1992): 21.
2 David deSilva argues that asking whether the people described in Hebrews 6 are saved distorts the author’s meaning. He suggests instead that the people should merely be presented as recipients of the gifts of God in a patron-client social intertexture. “Hebrews 6:4-8: A Sociological Rhetorical Investigation (Part 1),” Tyndale Bulletin 50 (1999): 42-44. This view suffers from an either-or fallacy. Either the author of Hebrews is speaking of salvation, or he is speaking of the patron -client relationship. It is entirely possible to see the “gifts” that came to the “clients” as the gifts associated with salvation. The author may be speaking of both salvation and the patron-client relationship. deSilva himself identifies the individuals in Hebrews 6:1-2 as “converted.” “Hebrews 6:4-8: A Socio-Rhetorical Investigation (Part 2),” Tyndale Bulletin 50 (1999): 226.
3 Christ’s high priestly ministry for the NT saint provides access to the grace and mercy that helps the saint in time of need and provides access to the throne of God to request that help (Heb 4:14-16). It is the blood of Christ which makes this fellowship and provision possible for the believer.
4 Some have used this passage to argue for the doctrine of the eternal security of the believer. See R. Bruce Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away: A Reexamination of Hebrews 6:4-6,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1 (Spring 1996): 135-167 and Wayne Grudem “Perseverance of the Saints.”
5 Roger Nicole, “Some Comments on Hebrews 6:4-6,” in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation, ed. G. Hawthorne (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 355-364; Stewart Custer, “The Awfulness of Apostasy,” Biblical Viewpoint 24 (April 1990): 45-50; Wayne Grudem, “Perseverance of the Saints ,” 133-182; Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 135-167; L.S. Chafer, Systematic Theology (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1947), 3:302-303; Robert A. Peterson, “Apostasy,” Presbyterian 19 (1993): 17-31; Yoon Duk Kim, “The Peril of Apostasy in Hebrews 6:4-6” (Th.M Thesis, Talbot School of Theology-Biola University, 1989); Andrew Fredrick Foth, “The Awful Possibility: A Study of Hebrews 6:4-8” (Th.M. Thesis, Central Baptist Theological Seminary, 1981); John E. Ward, “The Perplexing Problem of Hebrews Six” (Th.M. Thesis, Grace Theological Seminary, 1982); George H. Guthrie, The NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998) 230-231; Robert A. Peterson, “Apostasy in Hebrews Warning Passages,” Presbyterian 34 (Spring 2008): 27-44; Dave Mathewson, “Reading Heb 6:4-6 in Light of the Old Testament,” Westminster Theological Journal 61 (1999): 209-225.
6 Compton, 145.
7 Compton, 145-146; Grudem, 137. Grudem says, “If we confine our attention to verses 4-6, a good case can be made for viewing these people as those who were once truly saved.”
8 Compton, 146; Grudem, 139-140, 152.
9 Compton, 156.
10 Ibid., 145.
11 Grudem, 155.
12 Peterson suggests that only a small number were actually in a profession-only state. He says, “The writer issues a real warning to a minority of his readers whom he fears may not know Christ and may show it by committing apostasy” (Peterson, 43).
Dr. Andrew Hudson is Professor of New Testament at Maranatha Baptist Seminary. He attended Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan and Fort Wayne Bible College, Ft. Wayne, Indiana and holds the BA from Pillsbury Baptist Bible College and MDiv, ThM and PhD from Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Minneapolis, Minnesota.