by Bruce Mills
Sometime back a good friend approached me, concerned that it might be possible that a true believer in Jesus Christ might be able to lose his salvation. His concern arose after reading one of the most misunderstood passages in all of Scripture, Hebrews 6:4-6. This passage says, “For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.”
Admittedly this is one of the most difficult passages in Scripture to interpret properly. Numerous views have been postulated as to how to best understand this difficult passage. But the key issue to keep in mind is that whatever view one takes, it must be consistent with the rest of Scripture.
After studying this passage and the various views that have been proposed to explain it, I have concluded that the individuals who are discussed in this passage are those who were never genuine believers, but who participated in the activities of the church, understood the message of the gospel with full understanding of its impact on their lives, shared in the blessings which came from the Lord upon those who were genuine believers, and yet never genuinely trusted in Christ as Savior and Lord, but instead chose to turn their back on him.
While the terms used in Hebrews 6:4-6 can be used of genuine believers, they are terms which can also be used of those who participate in the fellowship of the church but who have never genuinely received the forgiveness that Christ offers and submitted their lives to His authority. They have been partakers of some of the benefits that the Holy Spirit gives, but only in a peripheral sense; that is, because of their affiliation with genuine believers, they have seen what the Holy Spirit does in the life of a true believer, they have understood the gospel with full comprehension of its implications for their lives, they have received the “overflow” of the blessings which come from the Holy Spirit’s work within a group of true believers, and they have understood the message of God’s Word and the power of the coming age. But despite having all those benefits and that full revelation of the truth, they reject and walk away from it to their eternal perdition.
So let’s go through and examine each part of these verses and see if we can determine what they mean.
First, it says that the Jews whom the writer is addressing were “those who have once been enlightened.” That term does not conclusively mean “born again” or “made righteous.” None of the normal New Testament terminology for salvation is used. The enlightenment here has to do with intellectual perception of spiritual and biblical truth.
When Jesus first began His ministry, Matthew’s gospel tells us that this was to fulfill Isaiah 9:1-2 which says, “The people who were sitting in darkness saw a great light.” All who saw and heard Jesus saw this “great light,” but not all who saw and heard were saved. They were enlightened, but they were not transformed by that light. They had natural knowledge; that is, factual knowledge about Him. They experienced firsthand the power of His message and His miracles, yet they rejected the truth of who He was and His claim on their lives. The light of the gospel had personally broken in on their darkness, but most of them did not genuinely believe in Him.
The same is true of those being discussed in Hebrews 6:1-8. They were enlightened but not saved. Consequently, they were in danger of losing all opportunity to be saved and, instead, of becoming apostates. They are just like those Peter discussed in 2 Peter 2:20-21— For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them.
Next, the writer says that this group had not only seen the heavenly light, but had “tasted of the heavenly gift.” There is an interesting Greek word, horaō, which is translated in our English Bibles as “to see.” But the implication of this word is more than just “to see.” It is better understood as “to see with understanding”; that is, to see something with comprehension as to the meaning and purpose. In Hebrews 3:7-11, another warning passage which is parallel to the Hebrews 6 passage under discussion, the writer uses horaō in describing how the Israelites in the wilderness responded to the Lord. Here was a group of people who were led by God’s Shekinah glory in the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. They had the blessings of God given to them via manna from heaven and water from a rock. They were the beneficiaries of all of God’s blessings upon them. Yet the writer warns his Hebrew readers: “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tried Me by testing Me, and saw (horaō) My works for forty years. Therefore I was angry with this generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, and they did not know My ways’; as I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’”
So here was a group of people who were enlightened by God and received all of His blessing. They saw and understood His works for forty years! That means they understood that what they saw was God at work. They understood His purposes and meaning for them, and yet they still rejected His leadership and authority over them. And the sad result is that God killed all of them in the wilderness and none of them entered into His rest. After forty years, they still did not believe and trust Him; they only followed Him for the blessings He gave them.
And the writer of Hebrews concludes that warning passage in chapter 3 with these words: “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God” (3:12). That is the same message as that found in Hebrews 6:1-8. The writer is saying, “Don’t be like those who were enlightened and tasted God’s heavenly gift (a parallel to the manna), and partook in the pouring of blessings from the Holy Spirit (a parallel to the water from the rock; i.e., the Holy Spirit is often compared to water in the NT; examples: Luke 3:16, Acts 2:33), heard the message of God, and saw the demonstrations of His power, yet walked away. If you do, you will never be able to repent.”
So these verses do not teach that a true believer can lose his or her salvation. Instead, they serve to warn those who, with full knowledge and understanding of who Jesus Christ is, what He has done, and have been the beneficiaries of His blessings by their association with believers, continue to reject Him as their Lord and Savior.