Today’s reading: Hebrews 1-6.
“What happens when a believer turns away from God?”
The author of Hebrews wrote to a group of Jewish Christians who were struggling with persecution. The relative safety of their previous Jewish faith tempted them to renounce Christianity. In the face of this temptation, the author challenged them with the superiority of Jesus Christ. He proclaimed Jesus as superior to angels, Moses, and the priesthood of Aaron. Then he told them it was time to move out of their childhood in the faith and grow up into spiritual maturity.
Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so. Hebrews 6:1-3
These principles were foundational, but they were not sufficient for mature believers. They were the necessary food for baby Christians, but believers needed to exercise their faith in order to grow. Instead of growing, some were threatening to back away from their faith. The author gave them a grave warning about the dangers of such falling away.
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned. Hebrews 6:4-8
Who is the writer talking about? Some say that he is not talking about true believers, but his description says otherwise. His subjects are enlightened and have shared in the Holy Spirit along with its powers. These are Christians, the same people who have mastered the “elementary teachings about Christ.” Some commentators, including John Piper and Calvin, disagree, but the plain sense of the description is that these are believers.
What danger do they face? They are on the verge of falling away. This is not a falling down into sin, such as all believers experience, but a rejection of their faith in Jesus Christ. Again, the fact that they could fall away or reject their faith confirms that they were people of faith. Some, including Spurgeon, have written that the danger is only hypothetical, an example meant to instruct us, but it seems to me the danger is no danger if it cannot possibly occur.
How would they fall away? They would reject Jesus as Messiah and savior, agree that the authorities were justified in crucifying him, and return to the observance of all the Jewish laws.
What is impossible? The writer warns them that it will be impossible for them to return to repentance. Two possibilities exist here. Those who have fallen may be forever lost to the faith, unable to be saved because they have voluntarily rejected the only means of salvation. Another interpretation says they keep their salvation but are cut off from any future hope of changing their mind and returning to God. Everything they do afterward will be godless and meaningless. Personally, it is hard to see how such a state could be compatible with salvation.
The author uses a farming illustration to drive home the danger of falling away. Though such people have received showers of blessing from God, they have not born fruit. Instead they are like a field full of thorns and thistles. One day their field will be burned.
Hebrews is a book of hope rather than despair, and the author tempers his warning with words of encouragement:
Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case–things that accompany salvation. Hebrews 6:9
He speaks confidently, not because the Hebrew Christians can’t fall away, but because he has seen evidence of their faith and he knows the strength of God’s grace.
It is nowhere said in Scripture, that if a man fall he cannot be renewed; on the contrary, “the righteous falleth seven times, but he riseth up again;” and however many times the child of God doth fall, the Lord still holdeth the righteous; yea, when our bones are broken, he bindeth up our bones again, and setteth us once more upon a rock. He saith, “Return, ye backsliding children of men; for I am married unto you;” and if the Christian do backslide ever so far, still Almighty mercy cries, “Return, return, return, and seek an injured Father’s heart.” He still calls his children back again. Falling is not falling away. – Charles Spurgeon
It is one thing for a stranger to the faith to resist Christ. But it is another thing for a person who has been in the church and has been enlightened and tasted of the heavenly gift and become a partaker of the Holy Spirit and tasted of the good word of God and the powers of the age to come—it’s another thing for that person to say after all those blessings and all those experiences: I think what the world offers is better than this. That is a re-crucifying of Jesus and a putting him to public shame worse than any outsider could, who never tasted the truth. – John Piper
Image by Dave Rogers on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0