We come to a text in the book of Hebrews that is considered difficult. One of the reasons for the difficulty is bringing preconceived theology to the text and not knowing what to do. Rather than letting the scriptures teach us, we can have the tendency to start off with our belief system and then do not know what to do when the scriptures say something contrary to our belief system. Another reason this paragraph in Hebrews is considered difficult is because it becomes disconnected from the prior paragraph. The text I am referring to is Hebrews 6:4-12. Lifting this paragraph out of its context makes it very difficult to understand what the writer is saying. So let us set the context and then we can consider what the writer of Hebrews is teaching.
The writer of Hebrews has charged these Christians with being dull of hearing (5:11). He is unable to explain to them deeper things because they are lazy listeners and do not want to grow deeper. Rather than being teachers, they still need someone to teach them the basic principles of Christ’s teaching. They are unskilled in the word of righteousness. His solution to them is to move on past the basics. Stop retracing the teachings you know and go on to maturity (6:1). Now the writer is going to express to them why going on to maturity and leaving the spiritual milk is so critically important.
Impossible Repentance (6:4-6)
The first word in the Greek in Hebrews 6:4 is the word “impossible.” It is a jarring word. In English we read, “For it is impossible….” This sentence should immediately grab our attention as it would for these recipients. So what is impossible? The author leaves us in suspense for a moment and describes who he is talking about next.
The description of who the author is concerned about is found in verses 4-6. Listen to the description: they have once been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come. It is important to see that these people have not simply been taught about God. They have truly experienced the blessings of God. They have tasted the heavenly gift and have tasted the goodness of God’s word. They have experienced God’s faithfulness. These are not unbelievers. These are not fake Christians in the sense that they have not been fully immersed in the Christian experience. They have enjoyed the blessings of being a follower of Jesus.
But then the author says something startling in verse 6. After tasting the blessings of God and sharing in all that God offers the Christians, this person falls away. The author leaves no room for this person as being someone you can dismiss as someone who just got wet in baptism but really had no faith or knowledge. That is not the person the author has described. Many try to make this person someone who is truly not a Christian somehow. But this will not work for two reasons. The first reason is just what I have given: the description will not allow it. This is a Christian who has been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, and tasted the goodness of God’s word and the powers of the age to come. The description will not allow that this is a fake Christian.
The second reason is that the writer of Hebrews is offering a warning. The writer is not talking to people outside of the church. He is talking to the people in the pews. He just told them a couple sentences earlier that they are dull of hearing, need to leave behind the elementary teachings of Christ, and press on to maturity. He is writing to Christians and offering another warning, as he has throughout this book. These are people who were genuinely converted but then have fallen away. The idea about these Christians falling away is not a new teaching in the book of Hebrews. The author warned back in Hebrews 3:12 about the wilderness generation who saw the miracles and experienced God’s deliverance having an evil, unbelieving heart leading them to fall away from the Lord.
Yet, as startling as it is to see that someone who has enjoyed the blessings of God could fall away, it may be even more startling to hear what the author declares in verse 6. He states it is impossible to restore this person to repentance. But I want us to consider how many other places in the scriptures where we see this teaching. Hebrews 6 is not the only place where we read about the impossibility of restoration to repentance.
For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.” (2 Peter 2:19–22 ESV)
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death. (1 John 5:16–17 ESV)
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. (Romans 8:5–7 ESV)
No longer remains a sacrifice for sins but a fearful expectation of judgment (Hebrews 10:26-27)
Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” (John 6:43–45 ESV)
“You shall say to them, Thus says the LORD: When men fall, do they not rise again? If one turns away, does he not return? Why then has this people turned away in perpetual backsliding? They hold fast to deceit; they refuse to return. I have paid attention and listened, but they have not spoken rightly; no man relents of his evil, saying, ‘What have I done?’ Everyone turns to his own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle.” (Jeremiah 8:4–6 ESV)
Israel tasted the blessings of God in the wilderness but had an evil heart that led them to fall away from the Lord. You will notice that God addresses this problem with Jeremiah regarding Israel in his day. They also have fallen. But if that person turns away, he can return. So why does Israel continue to remain in this lost condition of perpetual backsliding? They hold fast to their deceit. They refuse to return. What God tells Jeremiah is not that he would not restore them but the people are at a point in their sins where they simply will not and cannot.
Now please hear this carefully. The intention of the author is not to cause Christians to wonder if they are saved or to think that they cannot have security in their salvation. The warning is that if we do not move on to maturity, there is a danger of falling back. The Christian does not sin once and is lost forever. There is a process of falling away. It begins with spiritual laziness and apathy. It begins with not wanting to grow in the Lord. It begins by retracing the basics about God’s teachings. It begins by staying in the milk and not progressing to the solid food of the scriptures. It begins by remaining unskilled in the word of righteousness. I hope we see how important it is to connect this paragraph in Hebrews with the last paragraph. The Christian is making the willful decision to not grow but stay a spiritual baby. So they have enjoyed the blessings and benefits of Christ but nothing else happens. There is no growth and no depth. The person is under delusion of their spiritual condition. Please consider that this is exactly what this writer said back in chapter 2, warning these Christians that they are neglecting their salvation and are drifting away. They are not pressing forward. Therefore they are falling back and there is no way to rescue them when they do that. The big point for us to place into our hearts is that true, saving faith is not mere knowledge of gospel. True, saving faith is not intellectually affirming Christian teachings. There must be spiritual growth or there will be spiritual death and there is nothing any can do for you. The effect of lack of growth is that they are crucifying the Son of God again to their own harm and holding him in contempt (Hebrews 6:6).
Friends, this picture is so frightening to me because it is so easy to come to worship, sit in the pew each week, listen to lesson, think you are good because you are baptized, and you fall away from the Lord because you do not desire Jesus and want to grow in him. We occupy ourselves with everything else but growing deeper in our faith in Jesus. We become spiritually stagnant and die. What is even more painful is that the author of Hebrews says that there is nothing we can do for you! We cannot restore you to repentance. You must desire it. There is nothing I can say that will change your heart. You have to evaluate your heart and see if you love the Lord your God with all your heart or not.
The Situation Illustrated (6:7-8)
Now the author is going to illustrate this truth so that we can see why, for those who have fallen away, it is impossible to bring them to repentance. Look at verses 7-8. The land has drunk the rain that falls on it. The land that produces a useful crop that is cultivated and receives a blessing from God. However, the land that receives the rain but bears thorns and thistles is worthless, receives a curse, and will be burned in the end. The picture is simple. Fruitfulness receives a blessing from God but thorn and thistles receives a curse. You will know the kind of ground your heart is by the fruit produced. The author has looked at the fruit of these Christians and is greatly concerned because they are not teachers and they are not skilled in the word of righteousness.
Our Hope (6:9-12)
Now the author has a hopeful expectation for these Christians. He is confident that better things lie ahead for them regarding their salvation. He has confidence that these Christians will hear his warning and move forward in Christ, growing in the Lord. Listen to the second hope he gives in verse 10. God is not unjust to not see their work and love that they have shown. God sees our fruit. God knows what we are trying to do. This is a great encouragement for us. They do have some fruit. They are not dead. They are not lost. But they need to act before their condition changes because they have stayed too long in the basics. This leads the author to tell them what they must do in verses 11-12.
They need to show the same diligence so that they will have the full assurance of hope to the end. Maintain your intensity toward the Lord so that you will not become sluggish and lazy. Imitate those who through faith and patience have inherited the promises. Listen to the warning about not growing. Spiritual disaster is possible and coming back from that spiritual disaster is impossible. Press on in hope. God knows what you are doing in love for him. Do not lose your intensity so that you become sluggish. It is the first steps to spiritual doom if we lose our intensity so that we stop growing spiritually.