Falling Away? A Study of Hebrews 6
By Jack Kelley
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. (Hebr. 6:4-6)
Gracethrufaith.com has experienced remarkable growth since we inaugurated our “Ask A Bible Teacher” feature 2 1/2 years ago. In addition, a number of other sites now include our weekly articles as part of their regular offering to their readers. Many of you originally came to us from these other sites.
As a result, we’re continually getting new readers who have questions similar to those previously asked by those who’ve been with us a longer time. A prime example is the barrage of questions I’ve received lately about Hebrews 6:4-6, a passage we dealt with extensively 2 years ago when the site was much smaller. These new questions are based on a view of this passage that while Jesus will never drive us away, we can “fall away” by failing to live a holy life and once we do, it’s over for us. Since this is a controversial and much misunderstood portion of Scripture, maybe it’s time we look at it again.
Let’s Begin At The Beginning
Let’s start by reviewing the basics of our relationship with the Lord. What does it take to be saved? I think the best answer to that question is the one the Lord gave in John 6:28-29.
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
Here was a perfect opportunity to list all the things we have to do to meet God’s requirements. Jesus could have rattled off the 10 commandments. He could have repeated the Sermon on the Mount. He could have listed any number of admonitions and restrictions necessary to achieve and maintain God’s expectations of us. But what did He say? “Believe in the one He has sent.” Period. It was a repeat of John 3:16, confirming that belief in the Son is the one and only requirement for salvation.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. There’s not much here that can be misunderstood. These are two of the Bible’s clearest statements on salvation.
A few chapters later He said that His Father was in complete agreement. And not only would our belief suffice to provide us with eternal life, it’s God’s will that Jesus would lose none of us who believe. You and I have been known to disobey God’s will, but has Jesus ever done so? And isn’t He the one who’s been charged with the responsibility for keeping us? Let’s read it.
“For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:38-40)
Just in case we missed this promise, Jesus made it again even more clearly in John 10:28-30. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” The Father and the Son have both accepted responsibility for our security. Once we’re in Their hands, no one can get us away.
I have purposely only used words straight from the Lord’s own mouth to make this case because I can already hear the choruses of “Yes Buts” mounting as those who refuse to take them at face value get ready to trot out their favorite verses denying Eternal Security, misinterpreted though they are.
The one characteristic of God’s that gives us the most comfort is knowing that He can’t lie or change His mind or contradict Himself. He can’t say something in one place and then say something entirely different in another. He’s consistent. If He says that we’re saved solely because of our belief in Him, and that He’s accepted responsibility for keeping us so, then we can count on that. As we’ll see, anything in the Bible that seems to contradict these simple, straightforward statements has to be talking about something else.
But first, since He puts so much emphasis on belief, let’s take a closer look at that word. What does He mean when He says “believe”? The Greek word for believe is “pistis.” According the Strong’s Concordance, it’s a “conviction or belief respecting man’s relationship to God and divine things, generally with the included idea of trust and holy fervor born of faith and joined with it.” In connection with the Lord Jesus, it means “a strong and welcome conviction or belief that Jesus is the Messiah, through whom we obtain eternal salvation in the kingdom of God.”
The Apostle Paul gave us valuable insight into the nature of this belief. He wrote, If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. (Romans 10:9-10)
The belief he was talking about isn’t just some intellectual thing, or some passion of the moment emotion. It’s a conviction that’s formed deep in our heart, the realization that Jesus is not just a man. He’s our Lord, and He took upon Himself the penalty due us for our sins, which is death. And to prove that God counted His death as sufficient, He raised Jesus from the dead to be seated beside Him in the Heavenly realms. (Ephes. 1:20) Since God can’t dwell in the presence of sin, and since the wages of sin is death, every one of our sins has to have been paid for. If even one remained unpaid, Jesus would still be in the grave. So we have to believe that Jesus rose from the grave in order to believe that we will, too.
It’s that kind of belief that gets you saved and keeps you that way, because it sets in motion a chain of events that’s irreversible. There are four links in this chain. You supply two and the Lord supplies two. You hear and believe, and the Lord marks and guarantees.
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)
The word translated “deposit” is a legal term. It describes a down payment that constitutes a legal obligation to follow through with the purchase. If you’ve ever bought any Real Estate, you’re familiar with the term Earnest Money deposit. It’s just like that. If you’re not, here’s another example. It’s like we’ve been put on “lay away.” The price has been paid and we’ve been taken off the display shelf until the one who has purchased us returns to claim us. In the mean time we cannot be bought by anyone else, because we legally belong to the one who has paid the deposit. “You are not your own,” we’re told. “You were bought with a price.” (1 Cor. 6:19-20) That means we can’t be “un-bought” even by ourselves.
All of this happened at our first moment of belief, before we could do anything to either earn or lose our position. The man on the cross beside Jesus is the prototype for this transaction. Having done something bad enough to get himself executed, he was promised a place in Paradise solely because he believed in his heart that Jesus was the Lord of a coming Kingdom. (Luke 23:42-43) Since Jesus was being executed too, it meant he believed that Jesus would be raised from the dead.
Paul made it even clearer when he repeated this incredible promise in 2 Cor. 1:21-22. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
This time He removed all doubt as to just Who it is that keeps us saved. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. God has put His mark on us and His Spirit in us, as His personal guarantee. What could be clearer?
Union And Fellowship
If the Doctrine of Eternal Security is so clear then why all the disagreement about it? I’ve found two reasons. The first is the two-sided nature of our relationship with the Lord. One side is called Union and is eternal and unconditional, based only on our belief. Ephesians 1:13-14 describes our Union with God, sealed and guaranteed. Once we’re born again, we can’t become unborn. It’s good forever. The Holy Spirit is sealed within us from our first moment of belief until the day of redemption. Nowhere is there even a hint that He will revoke that guarantee.
The other side is called Fellowship and it’s a bit more complicated. Fellowship is that state of continual closeness to God that enables Him to bless us in our daily lives, by making things happen for us and protecting us from attack. It’s like He’s teamed up with us to give us a supernatural advantage. Fellowship is defined by 1 John 1:8-9 as being both Earthly and conditional upon our behavior. Even as believers, as long as we’re here on Earth we’ll continue to sin. Since God can’t abide in the presence of sin, our unconfessed sins interrupt our Earthly relationship with Him and may deprive us of blessings we might have otherwise received. We’re still saved in the eternal sense, but out of Fellowship here on Earth.
When we’re out of Fellowship, we’re legitimate targets for our enemy’s mischief, just like Job was. His sin was self-righteousness and because he wouldn’t confess it, God had to let Satan afflict him in order to bring him to his senses. When he did, he confessed and was restored. (Job 42) God had never left him. Bringing Job back was His intention all along.
For a New Testament illustration, take the parable of the Prodigal Son. (Luke 15:11-32) Here’s a clear example of what it means to “fall away”. The prodigal left his father’s house and struck out on his own, but he never stopped being his father’s son. When he realized his mistake and returned it was like He never left.
Job’s case was real and we know the Lord was managing the entire event, something Job didn’t know. The story of the Prodigal is a parable, but I’m convinced the same principle holds true. Whenever a “prodigal son” takes off on his or her own, God works quietly to undermine the feelings of self-sufficiency, and the attraction of independence, nudging the wayward child back onto the path. This is the way a shepherd keeps the flock, and our Shepherd has pledged never to lose any of us.
Like the younger son, we’ll always belong to our Father’s family. But we won’t receive any of His blessings while we’re out of Fellowship. And like both Job and the Prodigal, when we return to our Father and confess our sins, we’re immediately purified from all unrighteousness and restored to Fellowship.
One reason that many Christians live such defeated lives is that having only learned about the Union part of being a believer, they only know that God has forgiven their sins and that they’ll go to be with Him when they die or are Raptured. They don’t realize that they still need to confess every time they sin to stay in Fellowship. And so, being deprived of God’s providence, they may become discouraged and even stop praying and attending church. Other believers, who don’t understand the dual relationship either, look at the mess they’re in and think they must have lost their salvation. Like Job’s friends, they look in God’s Word to find confirmation of what they already believe, and by taking verses out of context, think they’ve found the proof they were seeking.
Union and Fellowship are not just New Testament ideas. In the Old Testament, even when Israel was being obedient in thought and action, doing their best to please God, the priests still had to sacrifice a lamb on the altar every morning and every evening for the sins of the people. 1 John 1:9 is the New Testament equivalent of those daily sacrifices for sin. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. It was written for believers who are already saved, but are in danger of being out of Fellowship because of their sins.
The Gift And the Prize
The other reason people get confused is that there are two types of benefits in Eternity. The first is the free Gift called Salvation that’s given to all who ask in faith irrespective of merit and guarantees our admission into the Kingdom. Ephesians 2:8-9 is the model, saying that salvation is a Gift from God.
The second consists of Heavenly rewards we can earn for the things we do as believers here on Earth. Philippians 3:13-14 are good verses for explaining this. Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. In addition to the Gift, there’s a Prize.
A gift is something given out of love, irrespective of merit, and is never taken back. A prize, on the other hand, is something we qualify for and earn. And if we’re not careful we can lose it. (Rev. 3:11) Paul had already received the Gift of salvation, it was behind him. Now he was focused on winning the Prize as well.
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 he explained the difference in greater detail. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.
No Olympic athlete was satisfied just to have qualified to participate in the games. Everyone wanted to win the victor’s crown. Likewise, we shouldn’t be satisfied just to have received the Gift of salvation. We must now live our lives as believers in such a way as to win the Prize as well.
The Bible calls some of these prizes crowns, and while the athlete’s crown soon wilted away (it was a wreath of ivy) the crowns believers can win last forever. They’re worth making some sacrifices for. That’s why Paul said, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Cor. 9:27) The crowns are identified as the Everlasting Crown (Victory) in 1 Cor 9:25, Crown of the Soul Winner in Phil 4:1 and 1 Thes 2:19, Crown of Righteousness in 2 Tim 4:8, Crown of Life in Jas 1:12 and Rev 2:10, and the Crown of Glory in 1 Peter 5:4.
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? Here’s a hint. Our tithe is what we owe to God. It’s what we do with the money we have left that really counts. And with the measure we use, it will be measured to us. (Luke 6:38)
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.
The verses 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.
What About Hebrews 6?
Now we’re ready to look at Hebrews 6:4-6, a passage so often often cited in opposition to Eternal Security. Please remember that the entire letter was written to Jewish believers who were being enticed back into keeping the Law, so the context is New Covenant vs. Old. (The reason this letter is in the Bible is that this is still going on today, only now it concerns both Jews and Gentiles.) In Hebrews 6:1-3 the writer said that he was now going beyond the elementary teachings concerning salvation and in verse 9 he confirmed that he’d been talking about things that accompany salvation. That tells us that verses 4-6 are not related to salvation (Union) but to things that accompany it (Fellowship). We know this because the idea that a believer could do something to irretrievably lose his salvation is in direct contradiction to the clear promise that the Holy Spirit is sealed within us from the very first moment of belief until the day of our redemption.
So what could these believers do that would be considered falling away? Remember, they were Jews who had tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, the Church. They were being admonished to return to the Old Covenant, to find remedies for their ongoing sin in the daily sacrifices.
And what could prevent them from being restored? Continuing to practice those remedies rather than simply confessing. By doing so they’d be relegating the death of the Lord to the same status as that of the twice-daily lamb. The Law was only a shadow of the good things to come, not the realities themselves. Once the Reality appeared, the shadow was no longer effective. And what would be their penalty? Loss of Fellowship. Living a defeated life, bearing no fruit, all their works burned in the judgment of 1 Cor. 3. But still saved? Yes.
So, the warning of Hebrews 6 is against interrupting our Fellowship with God, not breaking our Union with Him. The key is the phrase “renew again to repentance.” Those who relied on the daily sacrifice instead of confessing directly to God were in effect crucifying the Lord all over again, since He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The daily sacrifice was a foreshadowing of Him, and when He came the shadow gave way to the reality. The old way was no longer sufficient to restore them to fellowship. The modern application of this is going back to relying on our own works to keep ourselves saved, instead of trusting God to keep us.
Since 1 John 1:9 says that confession brings forgiveness and purification from all unrighteousness (renewal again to repentance), then by implication anything other than confessing our sins prevents forgiveness and purification and causes estrangement from God. It doesn’t revoke our salvation, but because God can’t be in the presence of sin, it does suspend our fellowship, depriving us of blessings we could have otherwise had.
There are many clear verses that unequivocally promise eternal security. Since the Bible cannot contradict itself and still be the Word of God, interpreting Hebrews 6 as having anything to do with salvation is a violation of a basic rule of interpretation, which teaches that we’re to use clear verses to interpret obscure ones, not the other way around. The clearest and most easily understood verses on salvation explain that it’s by grace through faith.
When people say that God doesn’t take back the gift of salvation, but that we can walk away from it it, they not only have to disregard the promises and guarantees God has made to us, they also have to put words in His 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”.
It’s the 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”.
None of this is intended to condone sin. As a demonstration of our gratitude for the gift of salvation, believers are continually admonished in Scripture to live our lives in a manner pleasing to God. Not to earn or keep it, but to thank the Lord for giving it to us. And to help us do that, the Holy Spirit has come to dwell in us to guide and direct us, and to pray for us. Since the Spirit of God lives in us we are no longer controlled by the sin nature and can choose to please God by the way we live. And even though we do this out of gratitude for the Gift He’s already given, which is Union with Him, He blesses us yet again, with Fellowship here on Earth and Prizes in Eternity. Selah.