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The better promise of Jesus.
Your salvation and the blessings that go along with it are anchored in the infinite work of Christ alone.
The sixth chapter of Hebrews is, perhaps, one of the most misread and mishandled portions of Scripture in the entire canon. It has instigated countless theological debates, some of which have turned vicious, leaving many believers pulling their hair out in frustration. Verses 4–8 are the culprit:
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed and its end is to be burned. (Heb. 6:4–8)
Who are these who have been “enlightened”? Are they genuine believers or “Christians in name only”? What does it mean to “fall away”? Does that mean they “lost their salvation”? And if these believers could “lose” their salvation, does that mean I can lose my salvation, too? And if that’s true, how do I know if I’m on that same path? How does all of this make sense with the rest of the Bible and the doctrine of eternal security? You, no doubt, have even more questions popping up in your head right now. If so, it’s okay; you’re not alone. Those who read this section are often troubled by it. It doesn’t help that dozens of preachers have used — dare-I-say “weaponized” — these verses in ways that have made professing Christians lose all sense of faith, hope, and assurance.
There are too many sermons to count from bygone eras where preachers have used this passage like their own personal mallet to browbeat the church into “living better” and “living right.” The impetus is, “Better ‘straighten up and fly right’ or you might fall away and lose your salvation and never be able to repent again!” Indeed, more often than not, this text is preached as all law, no gospel, leaving scores of churchgoers more than a little displaced in the aftermath. But the fact is, the writer of Hebrew is in no way aiming to lead confessing believers to a place of doubting and questioning their confession. Neither is he meaning to take a jackhammer to this church’s faith, nor yours. Rather, his endeavor remains to solidify this church’s faith by upholding the fact that Jesus is better.
Determining whom the writer is addressing — and especially whom he has in mind by “enlightened” — is critical for understanding the rest of this text. Verses 4 and 5 offer a series of terms that seem to describe the life of faith: “enlightened,” “tasted,” and “shared” — all of which appear to be strong indicators of a genuinely redeemed person. To argue that verse 4 is referencing “head-knowledge-only-Christians,” you have to redefine the word “tasted” to mean only a “partial experience.” This redefinition doesn’t make sense when compared to the writer’s previous use of the same term in chapter 2 where we’re told that Jesus “tasted death for everyone.” Jesus didn’t “partially experience” death for everyone; he really died. This “tasting” of the “enlightened,” therefore, is indicative of real, genuine participation in the faith.
The same goes for the word “enlightened,” which means “to be given light” or “illuminated.” This isn’t a reference to a light that is dim, that is only partially on. It’s suggestive of a light being turned on in a room that was previously dark. It’s reminiscent of the apostle Paul’s words of thanks in Colossians 1:12–13, where we are invited to “share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” The church is made to “share in the light” because we have been transferred out of the “domain of darkness” into the kingdom of light by the Light of the World himself. “Enlightened,” “tasted,” and “shared,” then, are descriptions we could use on ourselves. This is who we are.
We who’ve been saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone have been made to “share” in all the incredible gifts of the gospel. We who’ve been justified are made to enjoy the blessings of living the justified life. This is what it means to be a Christian — namely, it means living in fellowship with the Holy Spirit, enjoying the bounty of God’s Word with fellow believers, and sharing the heavenly gift with others. The justified life is a life of blessedness, and those blessings come through “doing life” with others who have been justified.
What does the writer mean, then, when he talks about those who have been “enlightened” suddenly “falling away”? To cut to the chase: he’s not saying that you or I can lose our salvation. The testimony of the rest of Scripture bears unmistakable witness to this: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27–28). “For I am sure that 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” (Rom. 8:38–39). You see, the fact is, if we could lose our salvation, we would.
You and I are saved and kept secure in the fold of God by nothing but pure grace. It is “amazing grace” that saves wretches like you and me, and “amazing grace” that leads wretches like you and me to glory. If that’s the case, then what is the writer talking about in Hebrews 6? The crux of this whole discussion centers on the phrase “fallen away,” which, is only one word in Greek. (Interestingly enough, that one word, parapiptō, is only used here.) It can also be translated as “to apostatize” or “to defect.” It is a deliberate decision to turn away from something. And in order to defect from something, there had to be an association with that thing beforehand. The writer, then, is addressing true, genuine believers who are choosing to “fall away,” to defect. But from what?
Let’s use the example the writer just used himself. In Hebrews 3 and 4, the writer interacts with the events at Kadesh Barnea (Num. 13—14) to stir this Hebrew congregation to firmer belief in God’s word of promise. That awful Old Testament scene is, of course, the moment when the people of Israel made a conscious decision to not enter the Promised Land. Upon hearing the “bad report” of the ten spies, the Israelites are dismayed, and disbelieving, resulting in an entire generation being forbidden from entering the land of promise. Instead, they are forced to wander for forty years in the wilderness (Num. 14:30, 33). And the only thing that hindered them was their own unbelief (Heb. 3:19).
Now, those who say you can lose your salvation will say that “not entering the land of promise” is equivalent to “not being truly saved.” But we need not over-spiritualize that event. If everyone who failed to enter the Promised Land wasn’t a “true believer,” what do you do with Moses? Because he wasn’t allowed in, does that mean he lost his justification? No, of course not. But it did mean that he wasn’t allowed to share in all that God had in store for his people. No “milk and honey” for Moses. The blessings of the land of promise were removed for those who disbelieved the promise. However — and this is critical — that didn’t likewise mean they were no longer God’s children. In fact, the people of God were pardoned for their unbelief (Num. 14:20–23), yet the consequences still remained.
By disbelieving God’s promises they “fell away,” defected, from God’s promised blessings. This informs how we can understand the crisis of Hebrews 6. The Hebrew believers addressed in verses 4 and 5 are on the verge of a similar disaster. They are justified, they’ve been “enlightened,” but they’re now teetering on the edge of “falling away” from the blessings of living the justified life. Just like the people of Israel who entertained the dull news of the ten spies, this Hebrew church had grown “dull of hearing” (Heb. 5:11), leading them to “drift away” from what they heard (Heb. 2:1). They had heard the gospel, received the gospel, knew the gospel, but now found themselves on the verge of “defecting from” the blessings of the gospel. This doesn’t imply a loss of salvation, but it does suggest a loss of joy, of victory, of purpose, of blessing. By “falling away” from the blessings of living the justified life, they were missing out on all that the Lord desired they enjoy.
This is why the Hebrew writer admonishes them to “hold fast” (Heb. 6:18; cf. 3:6, 14; 4:14; 10:23). The blessings of living the justified life are realized and experienced as we live “by faith” with other sinners who have been justified. The more we rejoice in and rest in our great High Priest who “tasted death” for us; the more we share in God’s gift of righteousness given to us by God’s own Son; the more blessings we will see, receive, and enjoy. And by “blessing” I don’t mean “monetary blessing” like some smarmy televangelist. Instead, I mean you will be imbued with an abundance of purpose, meaning, faith, community, peace, love, and hope. God delights to bless those whom he justifies. And, likewise, it’s a serious issue if we choose to punt on those blessings he’s extended to us in pure grace.
The writer’s illustration of the land is insightful, especially when you notice that it is the same rain falling on both pieces of property. In the one, rain produces fruits that lead to more “blessing from God” (Heb. 6:7). In the other, the rain produces “thorns and thistles,” which make the land “worthless” (Heb. 6:8; cf. Gen. 3:17–18). All the farmer can do is burn it before attempting to sow on it again. These Hebrew believers were at risk of losing — “falling away” from — the blessings God desired that they enjoy. Some were entertaining the idea; some had embraced it already. This drift toward defecting is a direct result of a dull, dim approach to God’s Word (Heb. 5:11), which is why his Word calls us to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). We are called to endure, to persevere not because our justification is at stake, but because all the blessings God has for us in his gift of the justified life are at stake.
This warning is a trenchant one and the writer means for this church to take it to heart. He doesn’t want them to see them repeat the same debacle of unbelief as their forefathers. But rather than leave them with just those abysmal words of warning, he comes alongside them to offer words of “strong encouragement” that suggest his confidence that this fateful end would not be “their end”:
Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things — things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. (Heb. 6:9–12)
The writer was “sure of better things” because these Hebrew believers were already bearing fruit (Heb. 6:10). God’s Word was, in fact, having its desired effect on them, which meant they could be confident in what God was doing. Instead of defecting and “falling away” from the blessings because of all the calamity in front of them, the writer encourages them to “hold fast” in “full assurance of hope” (Heb. 6:11). Those who endured would “inherit the promises” and, like the Israelites of old, they would be made to rest in all the blessings God had in store for them. The reason they could “hold fast” and have “full assurance of hope” was because of who was making these promises. And to demonstrate just how concrete God’s word of promise was, the writer turns to the familiar example of Father Abraham.
For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear he swore by himself, saying “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. (Heb. 6:13–16)
God promised Abraham that his name would be great, that his offspring would be as numberless as the stars, and that through him “all the nations of the earth [would] be blessed” (Gen. 12:2; 15:5; 22:18). And to guarantee that promise, God swore on himself. “Since he had no one greater by whom to swear,” the writer puts it, “he swore by himself . . . by two unchangeable things” (Heb. 6:13, 17–18). This recalls the vivid scene in Genesis 15 where God confirms his promise to Father Abraham. In typical fashion, the carcasses of beasts are cut in half and strewn across the path that both covenanting parties would traverse, with the implication that if the covenant were to be broken, they’d end up like the beasts. But in Genesis 15, however, the only party to walk through those remains was the Lord himself. God is the Promise Giver and the Promise Keeper. The burden of fulfilling the promises was squarely on the shoulders of God alone. All Abraham had to do was believe: “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6; cf. Rom. 4:9, 22). He believed in God’s word of promise, even when that promise looked perilous. As a result, he “obtained the promise” (Heb. 6:15).
The point is, the promise of the gospel is just as sure as the promise given to Abraham. The writer of Hebrews continues:
So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. (Heb. 6:17–20).
God’s promises spring from his “unchangeable character,” meaning they cannot be revoked or rescinded, ever. God in Christ has promised to rescue the lost, redeem the world, and make it new, and the fulfillment of all those promises is found in Jesus Christ himself who is “the hope set before us” (Heb. 6:18), the Yes and Amen “for all the promises of God” (2 Cor. 1:20). Your salvation and the blessings that go along with it are anchored in the infinite work of Christ alone. He is the One who ventured “behind the curtain,” where he carries out the sacrifice for every sin by sacrificing himself.
Throughout chapter 6, the writer of Hebrews effectively assumes the role of Caleb and Joshua at Kadesh Barnea, both of whom emphatically insist that the promises of God are undeniably sure (Num. 14:6–9). In the same way, the writer firmly announces that the church’s hope of blessing is “sure and steadfast.” We don’t have to doubt his Word, even when his promises appear to be in question. The one who justifies us also invites us to share in all the blessings of living the justified life. This is why you and I can have “strong encouragement,” why you and I can “hold fast.” Christ alone is our sure and steady anchor. He is the one who anchors our lives and secures our souls so that we receive his blessings. We only need to believe.