The author warns his readers to grab their attention. The audience had yet to mature beyond milk to solid food (Heb 5:11-14). They were stuck still learning the elementary doctrine of Christ (Heb 6:1-3).
Pray & Read Hebrews 6:1-8.
Three primary interpretations of this passage:
1. Genuine Christians who lose their salvation which would be contrary to Scripture that speaks to the perseverance of the saints (Phil 1:6).
2. This is only a hypothetical description. However, nothing in the text indicates this is hypothetical.
3. These apostates were never genuinely converted (1 Jn 2:19). They never truly possessed what they professed.
There is a genuine danger of falling away from the covenant community if our faith is only superficial.
Those who experience true repentance will persevere in their pursuit of God’s blessing.
1. The Pretension of Apostasy (4-5)
2. The Realization of Apostasy (6)
3. An Illustration of Apostasy (7-8)
The Pretension of Apostasy (4-5)
How does apostasy pretend? While these experiences are not fake, they could leave us with a false impression. Someone could experience each of these privileges and still fall away. One can fall away from the covenant community if they belong to it in a superficial way. Someone can make a profession that appears credible from all outward appearances, but fails to be genuine in reality. We spent some time noting how each of these blessings were experienced by the wilderness generation (Neh 9).
The Realization of Apostasy (6)
“It is impossible…to restore them again to repentance.”
When someone falls away from the peak experience of Christianity, there is nothing left to convince them of the truth of the gospel. Restoration becomes impossible when that happens.
John Calvin relates this to the unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Spirit — which he likens to a total rejection of God and his gifts (Mt 12:31-32). He does not consider this to be a possibility for the elect.
Ultimately, we must admit that only God knows where the line is drawn. But this passage suggests that a person can reach the point of no return. The ability to repent has an expiration date. It’s only available for a limited time, and if we don’t respond before the cutoff, we will lose the opportunity forever.
How would they crucify Jesus again? How are they holding him up to contempt?
An older interpretation of this passage led to some significant doctrinal differences regarding baptism, repentance, and forgiveness. This view associates “restore again” with the cleansing blood of Christ that is applied in baptism. All sins prior to baptism were cleansed, but any sin committed after the sacrament was not covered. Philip Hughes finds this interpretation in the Shepherd of Hermas and Clement of Alexandria.
This led to the practice of believers delaying their baptism until they were about to die. Eventually, teaching arose that the blood of martyrdom would also purge all sin. Predictably, that led to many believers seeking martyrdom. All of this becomes the precursor for an elaborate system of penance and purgatory that was so corrupt it troubled Martin Luther, who addressed it in 1517. There are several problems with this interpretation, beginning with the fact that the author of Hebrews is not addressing sin in general, but the particular sin of apostasy.
Hughes: Of course, the very possibility of lapsing from all that one’s baptism signifies discountenances any doctrine of automatic regeneration, ex opere operato, through baptism, as though the external rite itself guaranteed the internal reality. Indeed, the whole issue of this passage may be said to revolve around the question whether the internal reality, to which the external rite is designed to testify, is truly present or not.
The language of crucifying Jesus again is a graphic reference to rejecting the gospel. Those who do so take the position of Jesus’s accusers — declaring his death to be that of a guilty criminal (not that of a substitutionary atonement). We become like the Pharisees condemning Jesus and calling for his crucifixion. But how do we make sense of the apostasy language? There is nothing wrong with this interpretation, but it seems like it would apply to anyone who finally rejects the gospel, regardless of whether they had ever professed to believe.
I think the argument is easier to follow if we understand that these were Jewish converts tempted to return to the sacrificial system and ritualistic observances of temple worship. Apostasy is regressing into a state of death. Restoration would require another sacrifice. Later on, the author will make it plain that Christ’s sacrifice was once and for all (Heb 10:1-18). The single offering of Jesus upon the cross “has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb 10:14). The single offering of Jesus has ongoing benefits for our sanctification. That seems to make the most sense of this warning. But, would it apply to apostates of later generations?
The intention of this warning is to stir them up towards repentance. On the other hand, it’s possible to take this warning too far in the other direction, suggesting that repentance was no longer available for anyone who repudiates their faith.
Roman persecution in the third century lead to a dispute among the priests about reconciling anyone who had apostatized. The Novatians relied upon this passage to deny the restoration of believers who renounced their faith or practiced idolatry under the threat of persecution. They understood that any believer who fell away could never be restored to the community of saints. If they repented, they were to remain in lifelong penance and left for God to judge.
This view, along with the inability to determine its author, lead the Western Church to reject the authority of Hebrews for a time. Novatian and his followers were swiftly excommunicated at the Roman Synod in 251 AD. In part, this was also due to the fact that Novatian had declared himself to be the true pope (antipope). The Novatians continued to operate under a succession of antipopes as a schism of the church until the seventh century.
Were they right all along? Is apostasy irreversible?
Unlike Paul, who admitted that he acted out of ignorance when he persecuted the church and insulted the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Tim 1:13), the apostates who are addressed here were not ignorant — they were fully aware of what they were tempted to depart from. They already belonged to the new covenant community, but the author fears the possibility that their hearts may not be aligned with their professions. Though he speaks of this possibility, we must keep v.9 in view.
If their repentance and faith were genuine, their temptation to depart from Christ will be ultimately and effectively defeated by him. They “can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace” (WCF 17.1).
Ensure that you do not get to that point of no return by repenting—today! We should acknowledge that repentance is a gift from God. Any work that he genuinely begins will be completed. Therefore, we can conclude that anyone who repents is clearly not guilty of apostasy. Their repentance proves that they were not utterly lost.
Richard Phillips asks a challenging question:
When you hear the gospel and understand what is taught, you incur an obligation to God to press on to saving faith. Hebrews shows that it is very dangerous to toy with such knowledge; by delaying you run the risk of a terrible fate. Furthermore, if you are not willing to turn to Christ for salvation today, what makes you think it will be any different tomorrow? It will be harder to embrace Christ later if you delay now. Therefore, as Paul wrote, “Now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).
Repentance unto life is a saving grace — you must receive that grace from God.
› To make himself clear, the author provides…
An Illustration of Apostasy (7-8)
The author utilizes an agricultural parable to illustrate one of two options. Rain will either produce a crop or it will bear thorns and thistles (Gen 3:18). If the ground is well prepared and seed has been planted, then the rain will have a positive effect.
However, the same rain landing on an uncultivated field will only exaggerate the problem. Thorns and thistles will grow in strength and number choking out any hope of the field becoming useful in the future. Once that field has been cursed, everything must be burned to the ground.
This analogy clarifies the situation. Anyone who still has the impression that apostasy is possible for genuine converts will have a hard time understanding why the rain has a different impact upon each field. Their assumption is that both fields produced fruit — as all genuine believers do (Mt 7:16). But, in this case, only one field is blessed while the other is cursed. One field was cultivated by a genuine, internal work of the Spirit, whereas the other field was barren. What determines the difference? Both receive the rain, but one has the ability to respond, the other does not.
The imagery from this parable has several OT parallels, but they are especially prevalent in Isaiah. We learn that the field represents God’s people who will either receive a blessing or a curse (Isa 5:1-7) and the rain represents God’s Word (Isa 55:10-11). This should all sound very familiar. It is similar to the parable of the sower and the four soils (Mt 13:1-15; Mk 4:1-20; Lk 8:4-10).
Last week I mentioned Judas Iscariot as the quintessential example of an apostate member of the covenant community. He experienced everything just like the other disciples, but in the end, he fell away. His betrayal of Jesus comes as a heavy twist to the pattern of his ministry. Instead of the Pharisees finally getting to Jesus — he was betrayed by someone among his twelve closest companions.
On the other hand, Peter also denied Jesus after declaring his undying loyalty. As confidently as he declared his faithfulness — we are utterly shocked by his vehement denials (Mk 14:66-72). The next time they encounter one another, Jesus is enjoying fresh fish for breakfast with the disciples. Three times, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Each time, the affirmative response is met with a request to feed/tend my sheep (Jn 21:15-17).
Why don’t we consider Peter to be an example of apostasy? Because, unlike Judas, Peter was restored through genuine repentance. Jesus assured Peter that he had a purpose for him.
Of course, this is symbolic of the spiritual situation in which some people find themselves within the covenant community. They haven’t prepared their mind and heart to truly engage in worship. They come before the Lord with spiritual lives that have grown cold and dry, or maybe they’ve never experienced the warmth of a genuine interaction with God. They have hung around the fringes, but never become fully involved. Whatever the fear or hesitation, for all intents and purposes, they have remained little more than outside observers.
If that describes you, ask the Lord to prepare the soil of your heart to drink the rain, produce the corp, and receive the blessing that God intends to provide his covenant community!
As you open the Word of God, open yourself up to the work of the Word made flesh (Jn 1:1-14)! The same Lord who merited our salvation in his perfect life and substitutionary death, now intercedes on our behalf — seated at the right hand of his Father — causing us to persevere!
When we are tempted toward apostasy by Satan, the world, or the remaining corruption of our flesh…we need to realize that we become like what we worship (Ps 115:8). The only response to our idolatrous apostasy is to turn away from the it and put our trust in the Lord — so that he becomes our help and shield (Ps 115:9-11).