Nature of Falling Away
There are three words or phrases in Hebrews 6:6 that describe what it means to “fall away.” Each of these is discussed individually.
Fall away. The first word used to describe falling away is “fall away” (παραπεσόντας).1 There are two broad categories of understanding concerning the nature of falling away. Some suggest that falling away is absolute apostasy, a total rejection of Christ and his gospel, an alignment with those who crucified Christ.2 Others suggest that falling away is a serious sin that a believer can commit which is usually identified as a decisive refusal to trust Christ’s high priestly ministry for help in daily living.3 The word “fall away” itself does not help in choosing which view is correct, because it does not have an object in Hebrews 6:6.4 It is uncertain from what one falls away. Neither does its use in the LXX aid one’s decision.5 Gleason concludes,
pαραπiπτω does not express the idea of an absolute apostasy involving a complete turning away from all belief in God. Not a mild term for sin, it denotes a serious sinful act or attitude against God. The exact nature of the sin must be determined from the context.6
A review of all of the NT uses of παραπίπτω and its cognate group7 demonstrates that there are two possible metaphorical uses (see chart below). “Falling away” could mean to reject the gospel, although this use is not clearly illustrated in the New Testament. The second possible metaphorical meaning for παραπίπτω would be “to fail to live the Christian life in a ‘Christian’ manner” (trust the high priestly ministry of Christ for daily living). The context must determine which of these two possibilities is intended in Hebrews 6:6.
The context of 5:1–6:20 is an appeal for true believers to diligently grow spiritually rather than display spiritual laziness. In this context it is more likely that the author of Hebrews is warning against a refusal of a believer to trust Christ’s high priestly ministry than for one to reject the gospel.
Scot McKnight includes an excellent list of words and phrases from the entire book of Hebrews that are parallel to “falling away.”8 He lists several in Hebrews 10, including “deliberately sinning” (10:26), “enemies of God” (10:27), “reject” (10:28), “trample the Son of God” (10:29), and “regarded the blood of the covenant as common” (10:29). He concludes that these words and phrases have to mean apostasy.9
Therefore, “fall away” in Hebrews 6:6 also means apostasy. However, he fails to mention that the judgment in Hebrews 10:26–30 falls upon “his people” (10:30). Therefore, all of the words and phrases used in 10:26–30 must refer to true believers. According to McKnight’s logic, Hebrews 6:6 must also be possible for true believers.
Hebrews 3:16–19 illustrates this “falling away” with the experience of the Israelites at Kadesh (Numbers 13–14).10 The Israelites refused to trust God to help them claim the Promised Land. As a result everyone twenty or older at the time was not allowed to enter the Promised Land, but instead, their judgment was to die in the wilderness. They made a conscious choice not to trust God to help them conquer the land. They were not removed from the covenant. In fact, the very next day they repented and God forgave them (Num 14:20). Still, because of their refusal to trust God, they were not allowed to enter the Promised Land (even when they attempted to do so the next day).
The situation in Hebrews 6:6 is very similar. Believers are faced with impending persecution. They have a choice. They can trust God (through the high priestly ministry of Christ) for help, or they can refuse to trust God for help. Gleason concludes, “Like the Exodus generation, the initial readers of Hebrews were at their Kadesh. They were faced with a decision. If they chose not to trust God (through the high priestly ministry of Christ), severe judgment would fall on them.”11 It was not a choice of whether or not to reject the gospel.
“Fall away” in Hebrew 6:6, then, is a decisive refusal to trust Christ’s high priestly ministry which gave the believer access to God and enabled him to grow spiritually. If, in fact, he was returning to a Mosaic worship system, he was saying that Christ’s high priestly ministry (including sacrifice) was not sufficient for daily living. Animal sacrifice also had to be offered to maintain fellowship with God.
Crucify Christ. The phrase “they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh” (ἀνασταυροῦντας ἑαυτοῖς τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ θεοῦ) does not necessarily mean that they were rejecting the gospel. It simply means that they were saying that Christ’s sacrifice was insufficient to meet their needs for daily living. Therefore, another sacrifice was necessary for them to maintain fellowship with God. They were denying Christ’s high priestly ministry on their behalf that guaranteed them access to the heavenly holy of holies.
Open shame. The phrase “put him to open shame” (καὶ παραδειγματίζοντας) does not necessarily mean that they verbally ridiculed Christ in public. Neither does it mean that they publicly rejected the gospel of Christ. They were asserting that Christ’s high priestly ministry was insufficient to meet their needs for daily living. Therefore, they were saying to the world that Christ’s cross work was defective. Instead of proclaiming the sufficiency of Christ, they were criticizing his ministry publicly. Therefore, they were shaming Him rather than glorifying Him.
David deSilva suggests that the concept of shame in this verse is best understood within the context of the patron-client relationship that was part of the fabric of first century life.12 In the patron-client relationship, the patron would bestow gifts upon his client.13 Those described in Hebrews 6:4–5 are clients of God, their patron, who have been granted abundant grace gifts.14 In response to those gifts, the client would speak well of the patron and show loyal obedience to his patron. For a client to speak poorly of his patron or of his patron’s gifts was the ultimate expression of ingratitude and insult.15 It would have brought shame on one’s patron. Consequently, this would have been met with severe punishment from the patron. deSilva applies the patron-client concept to Hebrews 6:4–6.
The people who reject their obligation to show honour, loyalty, and obedience to their patron when the cost of such witness and loyalty becomes too high are thus charged in Hebrews with bringing public shame on the patron, making a mockery of his beneficial death as they cut themselves off from the Son of God. Because the author has spent considerable space developing the honour and authority of the Son in Hebrews 1:1–14; 2:5–9 (and continues to do so throughout the letter), offering an affront to this Son is a dangerous course of action. The Son occupies the most exalted position in the Jewish and Christian cosmos; he awaits the subjection of all his enemies and promises to return as judge. Those who ‘crucify the Son of God’ will not merely lose a reward, but will become subjects of divine vengeance.16
While deSilva seems to be accurate in understanding this passage in light of the patron-client relationship, he misinterprets two aspects of these verses. He misinterprets both the nature of falling away and the nature of the ensuing judgment.17
1 It is probably best to take this participle as an adjectival-substantival use (as does the NASB, ASV, and NRSV), rather than an adverbial-conditional use (as does the NIV, KJV, and RSV). See John Sproule, “παραπεσόντας in Hebrews 6:6,” Grace Theological Journal 2 (1981): 327–332.
2 Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away,” 156–158; McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews,” 36–43; Grudem, “Perseverance of the Saints,” 153–154; Hohenstein, “A Study of Hebrews 6:4–8,” 536–537; Some like Hohenstein liken this apostasy to the unpardonable sin (Nicole, “Some Comments on Hebrews 6:4–6,” 362–363).
3 Oberholtzer, “The Thorn-Infested Ground,” 322–323; Gleason, “The Old Testament Background,” 78–83.
4 BDAG defines παραπi,πτω as “to fail to follow through on a commitment.” In other words, the word itself is not a technical term for apostasy. Without a qualifier to clarify what one falls away from, its meaning in Hebrews 6:6 is uncertain. W. Bauder says, “The fig. sense peculiar to the NT, to lose salvation, and so, to go to eternal destruction, is found in the Gospels, Paul, Heb., and Rev” (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975], 1:610–611). He then proceeds to also give examples of failure to live the Christian life successfully rather than losing one’s salvation (e.g., Romans 14:4).
5 Michaelis defines παραπίπτω in the LXX as “to be in vain,” “not to be carried out,” “to sin.” “In all of the Ez. refs. the context shows that what is at issue is a culpable mistake, of sin.” Nowhere in his discussion of its use in the LXX does he mention apostasy. (TDNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968], 6:170).
6 Gleason, “The Old Testament Background,” 81. This is contrary to Compton’s suggestion that the LXX argues for the idea that “fall away” means absolute apostasy. (“Persevering and Falling Away,” 156–157).
7 Warren Trenchard lists the following words as part of the cognate group of παραπίπτω, πίπτω, ἀναπίπτω, ἀντιπίπτω, ἀποπίπτω, γονυπετε,ω, ἐκπίπτω, ἐμπίπτω, ἐπιπίπτω, καταπίπτω, περιπίπτω, πρoσπι,πτω, συμπίπτω, πτῶμα, πτῶσις, παράπτωμα, διοπετης, προτετης (The Student’s Complete Vocabulary Guide to the Greek New Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992] 90).
8 McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews,” 37–38.
9 This is an invalid conclusion. True believers can intentionally sin (Acts 5:1–11; Heb 10:25; Jas 5:11), be considered the enemies of God (Matt 16:23; Jas 4:4), reject or despise the truth about how they should live (1 Tim 5:12), figuratively trample the Son of God and regard the blood of Christ as common by failing to take advantage of the benefits of Christ’s blood for the believer.
10 Mathewson says, “I would propose that, like the other warnings in Hebrews, a specific OT example can also be detected in the warning of 6:4–6, and that this constitutes one of the keys to interpreting this warning. More specifically, behind 6:4–6 lies a reference to the wilderness generation and the Kadesh-barnea incident (cf. Numbers 13–14; Psalm 95) which featured prominently in the warning in 3:7–4:13” (“Hebrews 6 in Light of the Old Testament,” 211). The negative OT examples of faithless living alluded to in the warnings are nicely contrasted by the positive examples of faithful living in Hebrews 11.
11 Gleason, “The Old Testament Background,” 83.
12 deSilva, “Hebrews 6:4–8,” 48–51.
13 For a description of the patron-client relationship, see Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 67; James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), 72–83; David Arthur deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods and Ministry Formation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), 111–144; David A. deSilva, s.v. “Patronage,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 766–771.
14 deSilva says, “The subjects of 6:4–5 are clearly described in terms of the reception of benefits. They have been graced by God in this variety of ways, being granted great privileges and promises, as well as proofs of their patron’s good will toward them” (“Hebrews 6:4–8,” 47).
15 Ibid., 49.
17 Both of the concepts are discussed elsewhere in this paper.
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.