Sometimes the texts that cause the most initial trouble in one’s spiritual life are the texts that later bear the most fruit. This certainly has been my experience with Hebrews 6. Shortly after I became a Christian, I was confronted with the terrifying warnings in the book of Hebrews. The sixth chapter caused the most turmoil, for I constantly feared that I could be the one who had experienced the many blessings outlined in the chapter (partaking of the Holy Spirit, tasting of God’s good Word and the powers of the age to come), but who had never actually embraced Jesus Christ. Needless to say, I was beleaguered by a lack of assurance during much of my early Christian life.
MacArthur, Grudem, and the ‘Tests-of-Genuineness’ View
I was influenced primarily by an interpretation of what others have called the “tests-of-genuineness” view of the warnings in Hebrews. This view, expressed most recently by John MacArthur and Wayne Grudem, states that the warning in Hebrews 6 is meant to distinguish between almost-believers and true believers. Those who fell away and could not be restored to repentance (v.4) were unbelievers, for true believers, we know from other clear biblical texts, cannot lose their salvation.
But what about the fact that these people tasted of the heavenly gift and the good Word of God and were partakers of the Holy Spirit? Those who hold to the tests-of-genuineness view claim that these people were those who came close to salvation but never fully embraced Christ. MacArthur comments,
First of all, we should notice that this passage makes no references at all to salvation. . . .The enlightenment spoken of here has to do with intellectual perception of spiritual, biblical truth. . . .It means to be mentally aware of something, to be instructed, informed. It carries no connotation of response–of acceptance or rejection, belief or disbelief. . . .[These Jews] were enlightened but not saved. Consequently, they were in danger of losing all opportunity of being saved and becoming apostate (MacArthur, Hebrews, 142).
Throughout his commentary on this passage, MacArthur argues that the author of Hebrews is directing his statements at “the unsaved who [had] heard the truth and acknowledged it, but who [had] hesitated to embrace Christ” (146). Grudem takes the same approach, claiming that the warnings in Hebrews address people who had experienced many spiritual blessings but who never truly believed in Jesus for salvation (see his chapter, “Perseverance of the Saints: A Case Study of Hebrews 6:4-6 and the Other Warning Passages in Hebrews” in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace).
Asking the Wrong Questions, Getting the Wrong Answers
As Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Caneday observe, both MacArthur and Grudem (being influenced by John Owen) skew their interpretation of Hebrews 6 by asking the wrong question of the text. Rather than first asking what function this warning (and the other warnings in Hebrews) serve, they ask whether or not the text in Hebrews 6 is speaking of a genuine believer. Schreiner and Caneday note,
The questions we ask concerning the biblical text guide the course and outcome of our interpretive work. We need to listen to the text so that we might recognize the primary questions we should address. . . .Consider the approach that Grudem takes concerning Hebrews 6:4-6. Grudem’s interpretation of this passage stands in a long tradition that extends at least back to John Calvin. However, more influential is . . . John Owen, who has convinced many Calvinists to adopt the tests-of-genuineness approach to biblical warnings. . . .He sets out to correct the idea “that they are real and true believers who are” spoken of in these verses. Owen, therefore, argues that a person may be “enlightened,” yet this light does not “renew, change, or transform” the person “as a gracious, saving light” does (The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance, 195-96).
Thus, seeking to be consistent Calvinists, Owen, MacArthur, and Grudem each approach the text–whether wittingly or unwittingly–with a theological agenda; namely, to guard the doctrine of the believer’s security. True believers cannot be lost (John 10:27-30; Romans 8:28-39), therefore, the one who falls away in Hebrews 6 cannot be a genuine believer. The warnings in Hebrews (including chapter 6), then, have a dual purpose. “First, the warnings call on readers to examine whether their conversion is genuine. Second, the warnings tell the readers that apostasy will reveal that they were never genuine Christians” (The Race Set Before Us, 198).
By allowing the question of whether or not Hebrews 6 is speaking of a true believer to guide their approach to the passage, MacArthur and Grudem are kept from rightly understanding the true function of this and other warnings in the book of Hebrews. Ironically, although MacArthur and Grudem desire to guard the believer’s security, their misinterpretation of Hebrews 6 actually undermines a believer’s confidence that he or she will ultimately persevere in the faith. How so? As we will see below, the tests-of-genuineness view cannot fully account for the assurance offered by the author of Hebrews to his readers. That is, the author of Hebrews spoke to his listeners as genuine believers whom he was sure would heed his warnings and persevere in the faith (see especially Hebrews 4:14-16; 6:9; 10:39).
A Better Way to Understand the Warning in Hebrews 6
So, how are we to understand the warnings in Hebrews 6? First, it should be acknowledged that the New Testament teaches that Christians should examine themselves to see if their faith is genuine (2 Corinthians 13:5) and that departure from the faith reveals that one was never truly a Christian (1 John 2:19). “However,” Schreiner and Caneday argue, “we do not believe that this properly explains the warnings in Hebrews, which are prospective: if you apostatize, then you will not inherit the promised salvation. It is a case of correct theology from the wrong text” (The Race Set Before Us, 198).
As Schreiner and Caneday observe, the warning of Hebrews 6 (and the other warnings in Hebrews), are prospective, not retrospective. That is, they warn the reader of what will happen if they apostatize from Jesus: it will be impossible to renew them again to repentance. The warnings do not indicate that apostasy has happened (retrospective), like in 1 John 2:19 where we are told that those who leave Christ reveal they were never truly born again. Nor does the warning indicate anything about probability of apostasy, for “conditional warnings in themselves do not function to indicate anything about possible failure or fulfillment” (The Race Set Before Us, 199).
What function do these warnings serve, then? “Instead, the conditional warnings appeal to our minds to conceive or imagine the invariable consequences that come to all who pursue a course of apostasy from Christ” (The Race Set Before Us, 199). The warnings are intended to serve as a means of salvation for God’s elect by helping them imagine with their mind’s eye the horror of apostasy and, as a result, never choose such a course.
Confident of our Salvation and Heeding the Warnings
It is vital to our assurance that we view the warnings in Hebrews as means to final salvation, for this allows us to maintain a robust confidence in God’s promise to preserve his people. Indeed, the warnings serve the promises by causing God’s elect to persevere as they hear the threats, consider the certain demise of apostates, and, in response, exercise deeper faith in God’s promises. Schreiner and Caneday comment,
As intense as the warnings are in Hebrews, they do not nullify or contradict equally strong admonitions to bold confidence. In fact, Hebrews intermingles admonitions to bold confidence with warnings against eternal perishing. . . .In Hebrews 6, after warning the audience against falling away, the preacher concedes that there are grounds to believe that they have not taken the final step of departing from Christ because God is not unjust to abandon his people (Heb 6:9-10). . . .Clearly, the preacher expects us to take to heart both the warning against perishing (Heb 6:4-8) and the admonition to confidence (6:9-20) without any sense of contradiction. . . .Hebrews does not call on us to doubt our inheritance of God’s sworn promise in order to heed God’s urgent warning against falling away and perishing without hope of renewed repentance. God uses warning and consolation or threat and promise to secure us in the way of salvation (202-203).
Hebrews 6, then, is not given to cause Christians to doubt their standing with God or cast them into introspection, wondering whether or not their profession of faith is genuine. Nor is it given to warn readers that it is possible they will walk away from Christ at some point in the future. Rather, Hebrews 6 is given to true Christians as a means of their final salvation. The warning of Hebrews 6 is serious, and it is real: to apostatize from Christ after receiving spiritual enlightenment and tasting of the good Word of God means certain judgement–not hypothetically, but actually.
Yet, such serious warnings are given for the good of God’s people, for the final inheritance “comes only to those who, after entering into salvation, persevere in faithfulness to the end (Heb 1:14-2:4; 3:11-14; 6:12; 9:15; 10:36; 11:39)” (The Race Set Before Us, 202). Thus, as Schreiner and Caneday summarize and conclude, “The preacher’s admonition to steadfast confidence before God and warning lest we perish by willful persistence in sin work together as God’s means to preserve us loyal to Christ unto the end” (204).
Sure promises coupled with severe warnings are God’s means to bring his people to their final salvation. May we believe the first and heed the second for the eternal good of our souls.