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.

3 thoughts on “Making Sense of Hebrews 6

  1. From what I understand The warnings were to Jewish Christians that were under pressure to return to being “under the law” that is performing daily sacrifices such as sacrificing a lamb (ie re-crucifying Christ)
    The warning was not about breaking thier union/salvation ( which plenty of passages in the bible are crystal clear that you cannot)
    But moving away from thier fellowship with Jesus (which we all have the freedom of choice to do)
    The writer surmised that it would be impossible to renew their fellowship with Christ if they continue to conform to the pressure of “the law” by sacrificing lambs each day for forgiveness of their sins since Christ did that work on the cross once and for all
    Their loss would being out of fellowship with Christ loss of earthly blessings and eternal reward, prize etc as Paul describes
    In other passages.
    We are in an unbreakable seal of the Holy Spirit once you believe in Jesus, his work on the cross and resurrection.
    Thier audience the writer is addressing would not lose their salvation when they “fell away” since they were sadly falling away from the fellowship with Jesus and all that goes along with it (sad indeed)
    Their Union/Salvation stays “sealed by the Holy Spirit

    1. Dan,

      Thank you for your comments and for engaging this blog post.

      I don’t think your interpretation of the warning passages does justice to the severity of the language the author is using. In Hebrews 6 he speaks of coming to a point of being unable to repent, re-crucifying the Son of God and holding him up to content to our own harm. The result of such actions is eternal judgment (“end up being burned,” Heb 6:8). Hebrews 10:26-27: “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” It is simply not possible to interpret Heb 10:26-27 to refer to a loss of heavenly reward or temporal troubles that attend being out of fellowship with Christ. It is referring to eternal judgment that awaits the one who willfully sins against the knowledge of the gospel.

      Your interpretation softens the actual warnings and makes them far less serious and urgent. I encourage you to re-read my post and ask yourself, “How does God keep us persevering in the faith?” I agree with you that a genuine believer cannot fall away. I also believe that the author is writing to believers. But to possess a secure salvation means that we will not stop believing (see 1 Pet 1:5), and God uses severe warnings (among other things) to keep us believing. It will never be impossible for a true believer to renew their fellowship with Christ while on earth. Your interpretation actually robs Christians of genuine assurance which is precisely what these warning passages are meant to give us by keeping us persevering in the faith.

      Your comment about loss of earthly blessings is interesting. Do you mean earthly spiritual blessings? These believers were in danger of falling away because they were enduring significant persecution and having their property plundered (Heb 10:32-33). To remain faithful to Christ may actually forfeit many earthly blessings.

      You said, “From what I understand The warnings were to Jewish Christians that were under pressure to return to being ‘under the law’ that is performing daily sacrifices such as sacrificing a lamb (ie re-crucifying Christ).” This is true, but that is exactly what apostasy is. If these Christians went back to the OT sacrificial system, they would be grossly blaspheming Christ and his work on the cross and be in danger of hell.

      Derek

      1. It would be apostasy if Jesus was not crystal clear that when we were saved we were sealed by the Holy Spirit and no one could remove us from him. There were no qualifying extra words that said well you could break the seal you can take your self away from you being a child of God who has received his inheritance and written into the Lambs Book of life.

        There are incredibly clear statements on the unconditional and durable nature of our salvation, and form the foundation for the OSAS view. To deny OSAS you have to believe that other statements in the Bible can rescind or contradict these promises. That means you believe that either God wasn’t sincere when He had Paul make them, or that He let Paul make a promise in His name that isn’t true, or that He changed His mind
        and revoked them.

        I understood the first rule of interpretation was to take the clear and wash it against the more obscure passages not the other way around.
        Peter 1:5 does not indicate that we have to maintain faith in order to preserve salvation. The passage indicates “God’s Power” not mans.
        again your conclusion goes against clear scripture.

        And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the
        redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:13-14)

        Anyway I am sure the enemy has a field day with our Calvinisms, Armmianisms Tulips five points etc and most Christian denominations buy into them without much thought one way or another as to how and why these are our choices. God’s word has made it crystal clear to me that I am eternally saved no matter what. Like Paul I want to run the race to win the prize. I want to have as close a fellowship as I can with Jesus. Not to earn or protect my salvation (which would be works that I could boast of) but to hear at the end of the day “Well done my good and faithful servant” I am thankful that he gives me the freedom (of his grace and his word) that allows me to know that I am his forever regardless. That is my witness to others to let them know that if they decide to seek Jesus forgiveness and their salvation though faith in his work on the cross and subsequent resurrection
        I will let them know that their salvation is forever no matter what.

        Dan

        Examples
        Some take a more moderate view of this saying that God would never take back the gift of salvation, but that we can return it. To justify this position they have to put words in the Lord’s mouth. When He says in John 10:28, “No one can snatch them out of my hand,” they have to insert the phrase “but us” after “no one”.

        Same with Romans 8:38-39:

        For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither
        the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything
        else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in
        Christ Jesus our Lord. Here they have to insert the phrase “but us” after “in all creation”.

        The difference between the Gift and the Prize is also seen in 1 Cor. 3:12-15: If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames. At the judgment of believers, the quality of our work on earth will be tested by fire. Only work that survives the test will bring us a reward. But notice that even if all our work is destroyed in the fire, we’ll still have our salvation. Why? Because it’s a free Gift, given out of love, irrespective of merit.

        The Lord mentioned other rewards as well. In Matt. 6:19-21 He advised us: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” There are things we can do as believers while here on Earth that will cause deposits to be made to our heavenly account. Some believe that this passage refers to the way we use the money we’re given. Do we use it to enrich ourselves, stacking up possessions that far exceed our needs? Or do we use it to further the work of the Kingdom? Both Jesus (Luke 6:38) and Paul (2 Cor. 9:6) encouraged generous giving, saying our generosity toward others would determine how generous the Lord will be toward us.

        Summation
        To summarize, in the New Testament there are verses like Ephesians 1:13-14 that talk
        about Union. There are verses like 1 John 1: 8-9 that talk about Fellowship. There are
        verses like Ephesians 2:8-9 that talk about the Gift and there are verses like 1 Cor
        9:24-27 that talk about the Prize.

        Those that stress belief, explain the permanent nature of our bond with God, and are
        directed toward eternity are Union verses. Those that involve grace and faith are Gift
        verses. Those that require work and are directed at the quality of our lives on Earth are
        Fellowship verses, and those that require work and involve eternal rewards are Prize
        verses.

        When you view Scripture from this perspective, all of the apparent contradictions
        disappear and you no longer have to wonder why God seems to be saying one thing
        here and something different there. The issue becomes one of correctly identifying the
        focal point of the particular passage you’re looking at.
        Determine the context by reading verses around it, and assign it to one of the four categories.

        Most of this is from Jack Kelley’s website

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