Context determines? Compton argues that the wider context argues in favor of the view that those in Hebrews 6:4–5 are unsaved.1 The only parts of the context that Compton uses are those verses that follow 6:4–5.2 He makes three points. First, “fall away” in verse 6 means apostasy. Second, the judgment mentioned in verses 7–8 refers to eternal condemnation of the unsaved. Third, verse 9 can be paraphrased, “In spite of the fact we were talking about things that belonged, not to salvation, but to divine condemnation and judgment, nevertheless, we are confident that you are saved.”3
Compton’s logic can be summarized as follows: 1) Presupposition—it is impossible for a saved person to lose his salvation; 2) Premise 1—the spiritual status of those in 6:4–5 is uncertain; 3) Premise 2—these people reject the gospel of Christ and face eternal condemnation; and 4) Conclusion—therefore, the people mentioned in 6:4–5 must be unsaved. Grudem makes a similar conclusion:
While the positive experiences listed in verses 4–6 do not provide us enough information to know whether the people were truly saved or not, the committing of apostasy and holding Christ up to contempt do reveal the true nature of those who fall away: all along they have been like bad ground that can only bear bad fruit. If the metaphor of the thorn-bearing land explains verses 4–6 (as it surely does), then their falling away shows that they were never saved in the first place.4
There are at least three problems with Compton and Grudem’s conclusion. First, it is based as much on theology as it is context.5 It is their allegiance to the perseverance of the saints that forces them to say that those in verses 4–5 are unsaved. The meaning of verses 6–9 does not necessitate they were unsaved. Many have suggested they were saved and then lost their salvation. The truth is that Compton and Grudem’s interpretation is theologically driven rather than contextually driven as they claim.
Second, Compton and Grudem base their conclusions of verses 4–5 on their interpretation of verses 6–9. They say that context must determine the meaning of verses 4–5, because the phrases themselves are inconclusive.6 However, they do not apply this same logic to verses 6–9. The certainty they attribute to their interpretation of verses 6–9 is not as strong as they suggest. Other legitimate interpretations have been offered for verses 6–9, making them as inconclusive as verses 4–5. Compton and Grudem’s logic could easily be reversed as follows: 1) Presupposition—it is impossible for a saved person to lose his salvation; 2) Premise 1—the interpretation of the falling away and judgment in verses 6–9 is uncertain; 3) the people in verses 4–5 are truly saved; and 4) Conclusion—therefore, verses 6–9 do not refer to rejection of the gospel and eternal damnation. Note the contrasting logic between those who argue for professing believers and those who argue for true believers in the chart below.
Again Compton and Grudem’s conclusion is not based on the entire context. Their conclusion is based on what they perceive as the more conclusive element of the two inconclusive elements in verses 4–9. If the interpretation of both verses 4–5 and 6–9 is inconclusive, it would be better to let the broader context determine both elements.
Third, Compton and Grudem’s view does not make logical sense out of the “for” at the beginning of verse 4. Verses 4–8 are intended to be a motivation for the believer to go on to maturity (i.e., fulfill the exhortation in 6:1–3). According to Compton and Grudem, it is impossible for truly saved people to apostatize; therefore, the teaching of verses 4–8 concerns unsaved people. Thus, the argument of Hebrews 6 would be for Christians to move on to maturity, because unsaved people will fall away and face judgment. This makes no sense. How could judgment they will never face motivate true believers to move on to maturity? One might suggest that the exhortation is to make sure you are saved, because if you are not you will face judgment. However, Hebrews 5:11–6:3 and 6:9–12 present believers who need to mature, not a group that needed to make sure they were saved.
There are at least six factors in the broader context that suggest those in Hebrews 6:4–5 are truly saved individuals. First, the entire section from 5:1 through 6:20 is set in the context of the high priestly ministry of Christ. The high priest in the Old Testament entered the holy of holies once each year in order to restore fellowship and worship. It had nothing to do with anyone’s salvation. The same is true in Hebrews 5:1–6:20. Christ entered the heavenly holy of holies (6:19–20) in order to restore fellowship and worship.7 Christ has provided the believer permanent and uninterrupted access to God through his ministry as high priest for the believer. This ministry of Christ is the theme of the entire section of Hebrews 5:1–6:20.
Second, Hebrews 5:8 says that Christ learned obedience through the suffering that He faced. Verse 9 says that this suffering made Him “perfect.” This is obviously not a reference to Christ’s salvation, because He needed none. The author of Hebrews says that Christ learned obedience through suffering as an example for all believers to follow. Believers are to learn obedience (mature) from the suffering that they face. The recipients of the book of Hebrews were about to face severe persecution once again. The author of Hebrews was encouraging them to use it as a means of growth.
Third, the concern of Hebrews 5:11–14 is the spiritual immaturity of true believers. There is no discussion as to whether these people are saved or not. The entire passage assumes salvation and laments spiritual immaturity.
Fourth, the appeal in Hebrews 6:1–3 is for the true believer to progress in his spiritual maturity. This appeal would be senseless for an unsaved person.8 Again, salvation is assumed in this passage.
Fifth, Hebrews 6:9–10 recounts past and present fruit of the Spirit that accompanies salvation. The author of Hebrews states that the recipients of his exhortation have produced this fruit. Therefore, the author of Hebrews must believe his readers were truly saved.
Sixth, Hebrews 6:11–12 encourages true believers to be diligent in their Christian walk and not slothful. It does not say that they should become saved, because it is assumed that they are true believers already.
In conclusion, the entire context of Hebrews 5:1–6:20 is an appeal to true believers. The entire context encourages true believers to grow spiritually and seems to indicate that those in 6:4–5 are truly saved. This is especially true when 6:4–8 is designed to motivate true believers to grow spiritually. Information about a judgment they will never face would not encourage true believers to mature. The judgment has to be a real possibility for believers in order for it to encourage them to avoid that judgment.
(Coming soon: the nature of “falling away.”)
1 Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 155–167.
2 Compton says, “The decision about the spiritual status of those in view must be based on evidence from the wider context, particularly from the verses that follow” (“Persevering and Falling Away,” 155).
3 Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 166.
4 Grudem, “Perseverance of the Saints,” 156–157.
5 While theology does play an important role in determining the meaning of a text, both Compton and Grudem imply that it is the context alone that determines spiritual status in 6:4–5.
6 Compton says, “All that really needs to be demonstrated with vv. 4–5 is that the phrases themselves are ambiguous or undetermined concerning the spiritual status of those in view” (“Persevering and Falling Away,” 146).
7 It is true that Christ’s sacrifice provided salvation from the penalty of sin which is received at the moment of regeneration. His sacrifice also provided for salvation from the power of sin which involves a continual struggle in the believer’s earthly life. Daily maturing in Christ is the theme of 5:1–6:20. Therefore, it seems likely that the high priestly ministry of Christ referred to in 5:1–6:20 is salvation from the power of sin for daily living (i.e., restoring and maintaining fellowship and worship).
8 Note Kent’s response to this concern in footnote 12 of this paper. Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Caneday (following Berkouwer) offer another possible response to this concern. They claim, “Warnings and admonitions, however, express what is capable of being conceived with the mind. They speak of conceivable or imaginable, not of things likely to happen…. Thus, all warnings caution us concerning conceivable consequences. They do not confront us with an uncertain future. They do not say that we may perish. Rather, they caution us lest we perish. They warn that we will surely perish if we fail to heed God’s call in the gospel” (The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and AssuranceDowners Grove: InterVarsity, 2001], 207–208).
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.