Are Apostates from the Faith beyond Repentance?
“Please explain Hebrews 6:6. Is it ‘impossible’ for some people to repent of their sins and be saved? This seems to be in conflict with Peter’s statement that God wants all people to come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9).”
Hebrews 6:6, especially the part that reads, “it is impossible to renew them again unto repentance,” is troubling to many sincere people. A correct view of the passage, however, will relieve one of needless concern. The Bible student may be assured that Hebrews 6:6 does not conflict with any teaching elsewhere in the Scriptures.
First, one needs to understand something of the general theme of the book of Hebrews. This document is an inspired treatise by an anonymous author. The original design was to prevent Hebrew Christians from yielding to the influence of certain Jewish teachers, who would have them defect from the faith, and return to their original religious heritage.
Warnings of Danger
The book of Hebrews is replete with warnings to Jewish Christians who were in danger of falling from the faith.
For instance, the recipients of the letter were warned against “drifting away” from the truths they had learned regarding the Lord Jesus —which truths had been confirmed by miraculous phenomena (2:1-4).
The “Hebrews” were urged not to listen to those influences that denied the identity of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, and who were attempting to corrupt their faith, leaving them only with evil hearts of unbelief —should they grant these teachers a sympathetic ear (3:12).
They were warned not to follow the destructive course of some of their ancestors, who succumbed to weaknesses, and so were not allowed to enter into the rest that Jehovah had prepared for them (4:1ff).
The Current Status
A consideration of the latter portion of chapter 5, and the initial segment of chapter 6, reveals that many of these Hebrew Christians had become stagnant in the service of Christ. Note some of the traits they had developed.
They had become “dull of hearing,” i.e., they had not continued to absorb the rich teaching that they had received in the earlier days of their Christian commitment (5:11). In fact, these Jewish Christians had regressed. With the passing of time, they ought to have been stronger, yet they were at a point where they now needed instruction again in the very “first principles” of the oracles of God. To say the same thing in another way, they needed to learn the “rudiments” [their ABC’s] all over again (v. 12). The Hebrews had remained in the spiritually “infantile” stage (vv. 12b-14), and that needed remedying.
These erring brethren were admonished, therefore, to advance beyond the “first principles” of Christ’s teaching, and “press on” to a state of spiritual maturity. The term “perfection” (6:1) in this passage signifies the mature, in contrast to the elementary.
Were These People Genuine Christians?
Because so many within the protestant community are wedded to the Calvinistic dogma of “eternal security,” artful maneuvers of exegetical gymnastics are frequently employed in an attempt to establish the notion that the subjects of this rebuke are not genuine Christians. They were only “professors,” not real “confessors.” Because, as one writer asserts: “True Christians do not (i.e., cannot) apostatize” (Hagner, 93; cf. Hodges, 794).
But carefully notice the specificity with which these “brethren” (cf. 3:12) are described (6:4-5).
(1) They once were “enlightened,” thus had left the realm of darkness (cf. Col. 1:13; cf. Acts 26:18).
(2) They had “tasted the heavenly gift.” If the “gift” was not salvation (cf. Rom. 6:23; Eph. 2:8-9), what was it? Some attempt to make a play on the word “taste,” suggesting that the Hebrews had merely sampled the gift, though not having “received” it. Note this comment from an otherwise respected scholar.
“Hebrews who had never actually obeyed the Word of God in the gospel and been saved, could taste the word and could experience the powers of a future age, without having become children of God” (Vine, 56).
Does that make any sense? And what of this: when Christ “tasted” death (Heb. 2:9), did he really die, or only get close to it? How terrible it is to be so enslaved to a theory as to have to resort to this sort of textual twisting (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16).
(3) These people had been made “partakers of the Holy Spirit” (cf. 3:1,14). Does not this mean that they belonged to Christ (cf. Acts 2:38; Rom. 8:9; Gal. 4:6)? Again we cannot but cite W.E. Vine, who quibbles, suggesting that to be “a partaker of the Holy Spirit is not becoming indwelt by Him through faith in Christ” (56). And yet, this same writer equates the phrase “partakers of a heavenly calling” (3:1) with being “children” of God (32).
(4) The Hebrews had “tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come.” On “tasted” see (2) above.
It is only by the most deceitful handling of the word of God (cf. 2 Cor. 4:2) that the obvious conclusion, namely that those addressed in this epistle were bona fide Christians, can be denied. They were children of God in spite of the fact that they had not grown to the point that was expected of them.
That Ominous “Impossible”
What is the plight of one who has known and experienced the lovely blessings detailed in verses 4-5, and then he defects? What is his spiritual status should he “fall away”? And “fall away” from what? From the grace that had been bestowed upon them (see 12:15; cf. Gal. 5:4).
The answer to the question is this: “it is impossible to renew them again unto repentance.” The phrase is frightening. It sounds so bleak. It is bleak! It is an “impossible” endeavor.
The word “impossible” derives from the Greek
adunatos, literally “without power.” Note the word’s use elsewhere in this letter (6:18; 10:4; 11:6). Any attempt to weaken the term is an exercise in futility.
But, as our original question suggested, the passage does seem to conflict with so many other biblical texts that lavishly describe the unfathomable love and mercy of our wonderful and benevolent Maker. How is one to reconcile this seeming difficulty?
The key to the solution is to be found in the following phrase. The American Standard Version renders it as follows: “seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.” The ASV footnote has it: “the while they crucify….” The English Standard Version reads like this: “since they are crucifying once again….” The translators are attempting to give the English reader a hint as to the force of the original text. Here are some important grammatical facts.
(1) Both of the expressions “crucify” and “put him to open shame” are present tense participles. In Greek, the present tense has more to do with the type of action, rather than time (the latter being secondary). It is an action that is in progress, and generally, one that is sustained (see Wallace, 518). The “crucifying” and “putting to open shame,” therefore, represent on-going actions on the part of apostates.
(2) It is also important to note that present participles normally express action that is contemporary with that of the main verb of the sentence (Wallace, 625), which, in this case is “renew.” In other words, “while they continue to crucify,” “as long as they are crucifying,” etc., the Son of God, they cannot be brought to repentance.
Why is this the case? Because Christ is the motive for repentance! How could one possibly repent of falling away from the Christian faith, if he believes that the crucifixion of Jesus was a just sentence upon a false Messiah? As F.F. Bruce expressed it: “Those who repudiate the salvation procured by Christ will find none anywhere else” (149).
And so, it is not the case that Jewish Christians who abandon the faith cannot ever be saved; the tragic reality is this: they cannot be saved if they drift into a state of unbelief and remain that way! But, as Blackwelder observes, the temporal participles imply that “if persons guilty of such sin will cease it, and repent, they can be reclaimed” (104).
While the passage contains a fearful warning for apostates, it does not suggest a state of utter despair.
- Blackwelder, Boyce W. (1958), Light From The Greek New Testament (Anderson, IN: Warner Press).
Bruce, F.F. (1990), The Epistle to the Hebrews – Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
Hagner, Donald (1990), New International Biblical Commentary – Hebrews (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).
Hodges, Zane (1983), “Hebrews,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary, John Walvoord & Roy Zuck, Eds. (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books).
Vine, W.E. (1952), The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
Wallace, Daniel B. (1996), Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.