Interpretation of Hebrews 6:4–8
The interpretation of Hebrews 6:4–8 must address the three issues raised at the beginning of this article. First, are those mentioned in verses 4–5 truly saved or not? Second, what is the exact nature of the “falling away” mentioned in verse 6? Third, what is the judgment described in verses 7–8?
Saved or Not?
There are several descriptive phrases in verses 4–5 used to identify the person who “falls away.” Each of these phrases is evaluated individually first. Then the context of the phrases is discussed to aid in their interpretation. Finally, a conclusion will be offered for the question of whether or not they are truly saved.
Once enlightened. The first phrase used to describe the person in Hebrews 6:4–8 is “those who were once enlightened” (τοὺς ἅπαξ φωτισθέντας). A case can be made that “enlightened” means that the person heard and believed the gospel. The same word is used in Hebrews 10:32 of these same people to refer to true salvation.1 Also the noun form of “enlightened” is used twice in 2 Corinthians 4 in reference to true salvation.2 Finally, the adverb “once” argues in favor of a reference to a conversion experience. It is a reference to a once for all enlightenment at the beginning of the Christian life.3 The cumulative weight of this evidence suggests that “those who were once enlightened” are truly saved people.
However, Compton, Grudem, and others make an adequate case that the word “enlightened” is inconclusive with regard to salvation. First, the use in 10:32 does not necessarily mean regeneration. Compton says,
The expression in 10:32, “after having been enlightened,” is parallel with the expression in 10:26, “after having received a knowledge of the truth.” There is no indication in the latter that receiving a knowledge of the truth suggests the idea of regeneration. It simply means that the readers had been taught or instructed in the truth of God’s Word.4
If Compton is correct, then neither 6:4 nor 10:32 necessarily refer to true salvation. They simply mean that the person understood the gospel.
Second, Grudem argues that the noun form of “enlightened” in 2 Corinthians 4 itself does not necessarily mean true salvation. It is the context of those uses that gives them the meaning of true salvation. The noun form of “enlightened” itself is not a technical term for salvation.5 Therefore, 2 Corinthians 4 does not necessitate that Hebrews 6:4 is definitely speaking of truly saved people.
Third, Compton suggests that the adverb “once” does not have to mean a one-time conversion experience. It could also mean a one-time understanding experience. This use might be paraphrased, “those who once came to understand (and later rejected).” Compton suggests that “once” should not even be understood as a once-for-all action. He argues that it is best to translate it “initially” or “at the first.”6 Therefore, the adverb “once” does not argue for the fact that these people were truly saved.
Fourth, Grudem concludes that the word “enlightened” is not a technical term for salvation. Grudem summarizes, “It occurs eleven times in the New Testament, sometimes just referring to a literal giving of light by a lamp (Luke 11:36), and other times referring to learning in general, not specifically a learning that results in salvation.”7 John 1:9 refers to Jesus as the “true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” This is an obvious example of a case where “enlightened” (lights) cannot mean true salvation, because not every man is truly saved.
Compton, Grudem, and others give adequate reason to conclude that the phrase “those who were once enlightened” itself does not have to mean truly saved. It could also refer to a person who was only mentally “enlightened” (i.e., understood the gospel). Ultimately, context must determine the exact meaning of this phrase.8
Tasted the heavenly gift. The second phrase used to describe those in Hebrews 6:4–5 is “have tasted of the heavenly gift” (γευσαμe,νους τε τῆς δωρεᾶς τῆς evπουρανi,ου). A good case can be made that this phrase is intended to mean true salvation. First, the author of Hebrews uses the word “tasted” to mean a full and complete experience of something. For example, Hebrews 2:9 says that Jesus “should taste death for every man.” Jesus did not sample death to see if He wanted a fuller experience of it. He had a full and complete experience of death. In the same way, those in Hebrews 6:4–5 had a full and complete experience of the “heavenly gift.”
Second, the “heavenly gift” is most likely a reference to salvation. While the exact phrase “heavenly gift” is not used elsewhere in Scripture, salvation is often referred to as a gift in the New Testament (Rom 5:15, 17; Eph 2:8–9). Therefore, the entire phrase means that those in 6:4–5 have had a complete and full salvation experience.
A case can also be made that this phrase itself does not necessarily mean the person was truly saved. First, the word “tasted” can mean “a nibble.” This “nibble” may or may not be followed by a fuller experience.9 In this case the person would have had a taste of the heavenly gift and based on that taste could decide if they wanted to “eat” (accept) the whole gift.
Second, not every figurative use of the word “tasted” means to experience salvation. For example, 1 Peter 2:3 speaks of tasting the Lord’s goodness. Compton concludes from this that “every figurative use of taste in the NT involves a genuine experience, not every use involves a saving experience.”10 Since the word “tasted” itself does not have to refer to salvation, something in the context must supply that meaning.
Third, the “heavenly gift” does not necessarily mean salvation either. It is used in the New Testament for Christ (John 4:10), the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 8:20; 10:45; 11:17), and justification/salvation (Rom 5:15, 17; Eph 2:8–9). It is possible to experience a ministry of the Holy Spirit without actually being truly saved. Grudem concludes,
In fact … it is likely that Hebrews 6:4 means that those who “tasted the heavenly gift” had some experience of the power of the Holy Spirit—perhaps in convicting them of sin (cf. John 16:8), perhaps in casting a demon out of them (cf. Matt. 12:28), or perhaps in receiving some kind of healing (cf. Luke 4:14, 40; 1 Cor. 12:9). But such experiences of the Holy Spirit do not themselves indicate salvation, for it is possible to “resist the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51), and even, for those who are under conviction from the Holy Spirit, to resist so strongly that one commits “blasphemy against the Spirit” (Matt. 12:31).11
It seems that the phrase “have tasted of the heavenly gift” is inconclusive as to its intended meaning. It could possibly refer to either a saved or an unsaved person. Therefore, context must be allowed to determine its exact meaning.
Partakers of the Holy Spirit. The third phrase used to describe those in Hebrews 6:4–5 is they “were made partakers of the Holy Spirit” (μετo,χους γενηθe,ντας πνεu,ματος a`γίου). The most likely interpretation of this phrase is that it refers to true salvation. In Hebrews 3:14 it is stated that true believers were “made partakers of Christ.” There seems to be little doubt that 3:14 refers to saved individuals. In fact, Compton says, “It is difficult to see from this verse how ‘partakers of Christ’ could be describing other than those who are saved.”12 It seems likely that “partakers in Christ” is parallel to “partakers of the Holy Ghost.”13 Therefore, Hebrews 6:4 most likely refers to truly saved people.
Attempts are made to argue that the phrase “partakers of the Holy Ghost” refers to unsaved people.14 Compton argues that it is possible for the term “partakers of the heavenly calling” in Hebrews 3:1 to refer to a general calling of God through the gospel.15 Not all who experience God’s call respond to it, and some who do respond are not genuine. Therefore, the word “partakers” in 3:1 does not necessarily mean “saved.” The same could also be true for 6:4. “Partakers of the Holy Spirit” may refer to participation in some non-salvific ministry of the Holy Spirit.16
The most likely understanding of the phrase “were made partakers of the Holy Spirit” is that it is a reference to salvation. Arguments that the phrase refers to unsaved people are not convincing.17 However, there is a very remote possibility that the phrase could refer to unsaved. Therefore, context is allowed to determine interpretation.
Tasted the good word and powers. The fourth phrase used to refer to those in Hebrews 6:4–5 is they “have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the age to come” (καλo.ν γευσαμe,νους θεοῦ r`ῆμα δυνa,μεις τε μe,λλοντος αivῶνος). This phrase is probably parallel in thought to the content of Hebrews 2:1–4. The “word of God” is the gospel message, while the “powers” refer to the miraculous signs given to confirm that gospel.18 The question of the extent of the experience (“tasted”) still remains, though. Did those in Hebrews 6:4–5 merely understand the gospel and witness the miracles, or did they accept the gospel and perform the miracles (spiritual gifts)? Either scenario is possible. Therefore, the context of 6:4–5 must be the determining factor in making a decision.
1 Since Hebrews 6:4–8 and 10:26–31 are parallel passages and 10:32 obviously refers to true salvation, it is logical that “enlightened” in 6:4 refers to true salvation. For an excellent comparison of Hebrews 6:4–8 and 10:26–31, see Lane, Hebrews 9–13, 296–297.
2 2 Corinthians 4:4, 6 says, “lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ … should shine upon them … For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
3 Grudem says, “That the word hapaxcan be used to describe a one-time, never to be repeated event is clear, for example, from its use in Hebrews 9:26–28” (“Perseverance of the Saints,” 138).
4 Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 148. Compton has overstated his case by saying that there is no indication that 10:26 refers to regeneration. The result of sinning willfully in 10:26 is the judgment mentioned in 10:27–29. In 10:30 the author of Hebrews says of this judgment, “The Lord shall judge His people.” The phrase “His people” is an obvious reference to truly regenerate people. Therefore, 10:26 likely refers to truly saved people.
5 Grudem, “Perseverance of the Saints,” 141.
6 Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 147–148. The word “once” is used in Hebrews 9:7 to refer to a once each year event, so the conclusion that it does not necessitate a once for all event is accurate.
7 Grudem, “Perseverance of the Saints,” 141.
8 The evidence from the context is discussed later in this article. Therefore, a decision concerning the best interpretation here is delayed until then.
9 See Grudem, “Perseverance of Saints,” 145. Grudem offers Matthew 27:34 as an example of this meaning. It says of Jesus on the cross, “When he had tasted thereof, he would not drink it.” Grudem also says this meaning is true when “tasted” is used in a figurative sense. He cites Josephus (The Jewish War 2.158) as an example. Josephus says of the Essenes, “[T]hey irresistibly attract all who have once tasted their philosophy.”
10 Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 149. Compton also says, “While χρηστός [goodness] in 1 Peter 2:3 does appear to refer to the saving goodness of God, that does not prove that γεύομαι [taste] carries this sense. This meaning of 1 Peter 2:3 is based on the meaning of χρηστός, not γεύομαι.”
11 Grudem, “Perseverance of Saints,” 146.
12 Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 151.
13 In addition, Hebrews 12:8 speaks of true believers “partaking” in the discipline of the Lord. Those who do not partake in this discipline are not God’s children. The author of Hebrews seems to use the word “partake” with reference to truly saved people.
14 No one would say that this is the natural or likely interpretation of the text. However, it is argued that it is at least possible that the phrase refers to the unsaved. Compton admits, “This is perhaps the most difficult statement in vv. 4–5 to counter” (“Persevering and Falling Away,” 151).
15 Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 152. This is very unlikely since the phrase “partakers of the heavenly calling” is parallel to the phrase “holy brethren.” “Holy brethren” is definitely a reference to saved people.
16 Compton identifies these non-salvific ministries of the Holy Spirit either as experiencing the general convicting ministry of the Spirit, or as witnessing the use of spiritual gifts, or as benefiting from someone else’s use of the gifts of the Spirit (i.e., being healed, etc.) (“Persevering and Falling Away,” 152). Grudem goes a step further in identifying these non-salvific ministries of the Holy Spirit when he says, “The phrase may mean simply that these people had come into the church and there had experienced some of the benefits of the Holy Spirit in answers to prayer or even in using some spiritual gifts. All that we can say with confidence is that they were partakers of some of the benefits that the Holy Spirit gives” (emphasis his] (“Perseverance of the Saints,” 148). Grudem mistakenly identifies answers to prayer and spiritual gifts as non-salvific ministries of the Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12 teaches that the Spirit gives gifts to those who are baptized into the body of Christ (i.e. truly regenerate). Rather than argue for Hebrews 6:4 referring to unsaved people as Grudem wishes, he has argued for truly regenerate people in 6:4.
17 Compton’s attempt to identify the “calling” in Hebrews 3:1 as a general call for all men is troublesome. “Calling” in 3:1 is synonymous with the phrase “holy brethren.” It is very difficult to attribute the phrase “holy brethren” to all mankind. It is almost certainly a reference to truly saved people.
18 .Compton does an excellent job substantiating this thought (“Persevering and Falling Away,” 152–154).
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.