Warning against Apostasy

Warning against Apostasy

Hebrews 6:1-8

Main Idea: Ultimately, nonbelievers in the church will repudiate Christ and go back into the world. True believers, however, will be motivated to move forward in their faith and claim Christ as King until the end.

  1. Leaving the Elementary Foundation (6:1-3)
    1. First couplet: A foundation of repentance from dead works and faith in God
    2. Second couplet: Instructions about washing and the laying on of hands
    3. Third couplet: Resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment
    4. “If God permits”
  2. The Danger of Irreversible Apostasy (6:4-8)
    1. A warning against apostasy
    2. An illustration of apostasy

One of the most formative moments of my theological education occurred when I read a Jewish scholar defending the historicity of the resurrection of Christ. Sadly, the man was not a Christian. In that event, I learned that many people articulate right things about the gospel without truly being followers of Christ.

Fortunately, the Bible prepares us for these situations. Throughout the history of the church, Hebrews 6:1-8 has been one of the most difficult passages to interpret. To whom does this warning belong? To Christians? To non-Christians? To both? We must understand that this passage comes in the context of a larger argument: we should not neglect so great a salvation. Instead of maturing in their understanding of the greater truths of God, many in this church were neglecting the great salvation offered in Christ. As a result, they were stalling out in their spiritual growth and abandoning the faith.

Leaving the Elementary Foundation

Hebrews 6:1-3

Leaving the elementary teaching of Christ does not mean leaving Christ behind. On the basis of knowing the elementary things, Christians should mature rather than settle for infancy. These Christians needed to move beyond the foundational things and the old covenant of their former Judaism. Foundations are good and necessary for building, but once they have been laid, they do not need to be laid again. The author exhorts his congregation to stop laying the same foundation repeatedly. Instead, they are encouraged to build on the foundation. The author uses three couplets to demonstrate these foundational truths about Christ:

  • A foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith in God
  • Instructions about washing and the laying on of hands
  • Resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment

First Couplet: A Foundation of Repentance from Dead Works and Faith in God

The first couplet emphasizes repentance. Some forms of contemporary evangelical thought marginalize the necessity of repentance. However, Scripture teaches that there is no authentic faith without repentance from sin. In this text, repenting from dead works is in view. The author exhorts Christians to rest in Christ as their true Sabbath, which requires abandoning attempts at self-righteousness. Christians trust that Christ’s righteousness, not their own, saves. The temptation to try to earn one’s salvation is the author’s central concern. He was afraid that many in the church were returning to Judaism and its emphasis on works.

This reinforces that justification by faith alone is essential to the gospel. Implied in this elementary truth is the necessity of leaving behind dead works and repenting of the fruitless attempt to establish our own righteousness before God. Jesus Christ, the great high priest, establishes our righteousness for us through his atonement. The author charges his people to leave behind their dead works by resting in that atonement and the righteousness God has provided for them in Jesus Christ.

Second Couplet: Washing and the Laying on of Hands

Ceremonial washing and the laying on of hands were both integral to Judaism. In order to move on to maturity, these Jewish believers needed to leave behind their confidence in ritualistic practices. Washing refers both to the washing of Israel in the past and to the once-for-all character of baptism. The washing of Israel under the law represented the purification of God’s people, while Christian baptism symbolizes unity with Christ and identification with him in his life, death, and resurrection. Just as they were doing with dead works, some members of this church were placing their faith in ceremonial washings, not in the work of Christ.

The great diversity in matters associated with the laying on of hands makes it difficult to know what the author is addressing. In the Old Testament, hands were laid on people during blessing, on animals about to be sacrificed, on someone being devoted to a service, or on criminals in cases requiring the death penalty. In the New Testament, hands were laid on people for blessing, healing, commissioning, receiving the Holy Spirit, and receiving spiritual gifts. Whatever the case, these Christians were getting caught up in matters regarding the laying on of hands and not the righteousness secured for them in Christ.

Third Couplet: Resurrection of the Dead and Eternal Judgment

The third couplet concerns the final judgment and its eternal consequences. The two truly belong together: the resurrection of the dead is for the final judgment. Unless Jesus Christ stands as our advocate and our substitute, we cannot stand before God in the judgment that is coming. The resurrection of the dead should not be ignored; it should never be far from the horizon of our thinking. But there are other teachings that should also be addressed by the maturing Christian.

“If God Permits”

The final phrase, “We will do this if God permits,” teaches us not to presume upon spiritual opportunities but to pray to God for our maturation in the faith. We cannot assume the future. Anything is done only if God permits. This awareness deepens dependence on God and drives prayerful expectation of perseverance. Nevertheless, this verse reveals that the author believes that his recipients will rise to the occasion. They will build on the elementary foundation if the Lord permits. The author is confident of this.

The Danger of Irreversible Apostasy

Hebrews 6:4-8

A Warning Against Apostasy

These verses are some of the most difficult verses in the entire New Testament. The phrase “it is impossible” is used four crucial times in the book of Hebrews.

“It is impossible to renew to repentance those who were once enlightened, who tasted the heavenly gift, who shared in the Holy Spirit, who tasted God’s good word and the powers of the coming age, and who have fallen away.” (6:4-6)

“It is impossible for God to lie.” (6:18)

“It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (10:4)

“Without faith it is impossible to please God.” (11:6)

This particular passage focuses on the impossibility of restoring to repentance those who were once enlightened and partook of the goodness only God can offer. Who are these people who were “once enlightened” and “tasted the heavenly gift”?

The first option is that these people are genuine followers of Jesus Christ. They truly repented of their sin, were united with Christ, and were active in the body of believers. Then they fell away. If understood this way, the passage is a dire warning that many genuine Christians will fall away from the faith. Scripture, however, rules out this interpretation. The Bible repeatedly tells us that God keeps us (John 5:24; Rom 8:39; 11:29; 1 Cor 1:6-8; Phil 1:6; 2 Thess 3:3). In 1 John 2:19 and following, John describes apostates who had left the church. In leaving the faith, they showed they were not truly part of the faith in the first place.

When interpreting difficult texts, it is imperative that we look at other, clearer texts. Scripture is unified and does not contradict itself. Therefore this warning is not addressing Christians losing their faith because other passages say genuine faith cannot be lost. Rather, those who leave and apostatize never really had true faith.

The second option is to read the passage as a hypothetical warning (cf. Matt 24:24). This is a rhetorical technique used by the author to offer an ominous warning of something that cannot actually happen. Nevertheless, because of its grim consequences, it incites believers to cling to Christ and to grow in grace. The problem with this interpretation is that this passage is not talking about something hypothetical.

The third option, which is the most faithful way to interpret this text, is to read this passage as a real warning. However, it is not a warning for the truly regenerate. Rather, it is a caution for individuals who have tasted the things of Christ but have not become genuine Christians. The author describes the people here as “those who were once enlightened.” Many people hear and respond in a positive way to the gospel, but they do not truly believe it. They may know many things about the gospel, but they are not truly Christians. They have “tasted the heavenly gift.” That phrase is a very strong expression. Blessings come to Christians, and these people have received some of those same blessings. They may even have demonstrated some of the gifts of the Spirit.

The third descriptive phrase is that they “shared in the Holy Spirit.” This means they have demonstrated some of the new life attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit. They show signs of regeneration and even a commitment to identify with Christ and with his people. In other words, they look like believers. The last phrase, that they “tasted God’s good word and the powers of the coming age,” show that these people understand the gospel. Yet even in their understanding, they do not have true spiritual life; thus, they fall away.

How are we to understand this warning? First, we are told that they have fallen away. In falling away, they returned to their former state of Judaism. The question then becomes, Can a Jew who converts to Christianity and then repudiates Christ as they go back into Judaism come back to repentance again? The answer is no. At issue is more than just going back into Judaism. We have all known people who made public professions of faith in Christ, got involved in a church, showed signs of Christian growth and maturity, and yet ultimately fell away. They are not ignorant. They know who Christ is and what he offers, and they still reject him. In their departure, they were “recrucifying the Son of God and holding him up to contempt.” To fall away from Christ is to pour contempt on him, which is equivalent to crucifying him all over again.

An Illustration of Apostasy

The concluding agricultural illustration helps explain this passage. The word for marks that an explanation is coming. This illustration about agricultural land receiving rainfall was common in the Old Testament. For instance, Isaiah 5 uses the metaphor of rainfall causing crops in a field to grow. Isaiah makes clear that the field is Israel and the rain is the word of God. Isaiah 5 also warns that an unproductive field where rain has fallen is worthless. In Hebrews 6, the illustration begins positively. “For the ground that drinks the rain . . . produces vegetation.” That is its purpose. It produces “vegetation useful to those for whom it is cultivated.” This results in “a blessing from God.” However, the illustration continues. “If it produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless.” The phrase “thorns and thistles” brings to mind the curse on Adam in Genesis 3. Because of man’s sin, the land no longer yields produce without cultivation and rigorous husbandry. Rather, the land naturally brings forth thorns and thistles. In Hebrews 6 a land that received rain but yielded weeds rather than a beneficial crop was to be burned.

Matthew 13 also informs our reading of this passage. There Jesus told a parable about a sower who scattered seed on four types of soil. These soil types represent four different patterns of response. The first represents hard-heartedness. The second represents the shallow heart. It produces immediate signs of life, but there is no root. When the afternoon sun comes, the plant withers and dies. The third soil represents the one who hears the word “but the worries of this age and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Matt 13:22). The second and third soil types are the people warned about in Hebrews 6. They receive the word of God but ultimately produce thorns and thistles.

Through the author’s choice to include this agricultural metaphor at the end of this warning, the Matthew 13 connection is apparent. More importantly, it reinforces the sobering warning Jesus gives in the parable of the Weeds. Under pressure, under persecution, or just when distracted by the allure of the world, many who once claimed Christ will go back to the world. Jesus is clear that these people never actually received salvation. John also affirms, “They went out from us, but they did not belong to us” (1 John 2:19). This is why Peter commands us “to confirm your calling and election” (2 Pet 1:10). Furthermore, blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, which is the final refusal of Christ, is a sin of which we cannot repent. Those who refuse the gospel will justly bear judgment for all eternity for their rejection of it.

For believers, Hebrews 6 is a humbling word that reminds us always to look to our own lives for the fruit of regeneration. Christ appeals to many for a time, but they reveal the true condition of their hearts when they go back into the world. As a pastor, the author of Hebrews is addressing this problem in his church. Sadly, it continues to be a common problem in the church today.

Happily, Hebrews does not end with this warning. The author assures believers that he had to write the warning for the unbelievers in the church needing to hear it. Pastorally, he is not seeking to put insecurity in the hearts of Christians. Believers who are faithfully following Christ’s commands can be confident in their salvation. If we seek assurance of our faith, we will find it by doing the things faithful Christians do. We will grow out of the elementary things and into maturity.

Reflect and Discuss

  1. Why is the temptation to try to earn our salvation through works so strong? Why do we still sometimes find ourselves returning to fruitless attempts to win God’s favor through works even though we know better?
  2. The author of Hebrews was encouraging his people not to divide their trust in Christ’s righteousness with things that could not save them. In what elementary doctrines of the faith do you sometimes trust rather than resting in the righteousness secured for you in Christ?
  3. What does it mean to recrucify the Son of God?
  4. Why can’t this warning be referring to true believers losing their salvation? Why can’t the warning be merely hypothetical?
  5. How can believers be confident that their salvation is secure? What are some of the marks of true conversion and genuine salvation? Can we actually ever be sure, this side of heaven, if someone is a genuine believer? Why or why not?
  6. How does the tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility play itself out in this passage? Are there other places in Scripture where you see this tension? If so, list them.
  7. How does this author use God’s sovereignty and “if God permits” in verse 3 to motivate his congregation into prayerful and obedient action?
  8. How do other agricultural illustrations in the Bible inform our reading of this warning passage? What does the author want to enforce by using this illustration?
  9. Why is it significant that the author concludes this warning with words of hope in Hebrews 6:9-10? How does this encourage you?
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