Hebrews 5:11 – 6:12

Jimmy JoHebrews, SermonsLeave a Comment

Read Hebrews 5 here.

Read Hebrews 6 here.

Our passage today represents a bit of a digression (or an apparent digression) from the flow of the author’s argument.  So far, we’ve seen that the author seems primarily concerned with establishing the superiority and sufficiency of Jesus.  And in a very small nutshell, we’ve seen that he asserts this first by comparing Jesus to angels, and then (so far) by comparing Jesus to Moses.  In his assertion of Jesus’ superiority to Moses, the author focuses on Jesus’ faithfulness to the Father’s purposes and exhorts his readers to respond in likewise faithfulness.  And in last week’s passage, we saw that inasmuch as we fall short of faithfulness or struggle with faithfulness, we can have confidence in God’s mercy because Jesus, being fully human, is our great high priest. 

Now this brings us to our passage today, which again seems like something of a digression (or departure from the main flow of argument).  And what the author essentially says, at least in the first verses, is that his audience is not as mature as they should be (or at least could be), and so the exhortation now is to seek to move forward, to strive to grow up in Christ. 

Now contained within that argument (in our verses today) is one of those passages that has caused all kinds of debate and even doubt within the Christian community.  Specifically, I’m talking about those verses that say:  “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 and who have fallenaway, to be brought back to repentance…”  What exactly does the author mean by this?  How literally do we take it (i.e. how literally do we take the phrase, “it is impossible…”?  And what does that mean for our Christian walk? 

And we will spend a little bit of time discussing this (though not nearly enough).  But lest we get lost in the details, I want to back up and think about the passage as a whole.  So let’s walk through the entire passage and try to understand what’s going on. 

So, beginning with the first paragraph, again this passage seems like a digression from the main flow of argument.  The text itself seems to indicate this as the author says essentially, “I want to talk more about this, but I can’t because you don’t get it.”  However, if we remember what we mentioned last week, this is perfectly in keeping with the author’s overall concern.  That is, we said that the author is primarily not trying to present a theological treatise, but rather is trying to encourage his readers to remain faithful, to not fall away from the faith, to continue to trust in Christ alone. 

Here the exhortation to remain faithful expands (?) to encompass complacency.  That is, the author’s exhortation is not merely to not fall away, but to continue to move forward, to grow in faith in Christ.  The author essentially accuses the readers of still being children, not having reached (or even desiring to reach) maturity. 

This seems like a particularly harsh word – calling the recipients children.  But it’s something that we’ve all encountered, if not something we have all been guilty of ourselves.  The pull to complacency seems like a universal human experience.  And the problem is particularly pervasive when we think we’ve already made it.

Again, we’ve likely all encountered something like this, or been guilty of it ourselves.  We see it in all manner of contexts – it might come up in the workplace, it might come up in a recreational activity like a sport, maybe it comes up in a hobby.  But when we think we’ve already achieved a certain “level,” we’re prone to succumb to “good enough” disease.  When we think it’s good enough, we lose all desire and motivation to learn more, to grow more, to increase in proficiency and competence.  And the irony is, when we think we’re good enough, it’s likely because we have no idea what “good” actually looks like. 

As usual, I don’t want to go on and on about this.  What I’m simply trying to say is that when we think we’re good enough, we’re likely to fall into the trap of ceasing to grow. 

The author goes on to say, in the second paragraph: 

1 Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so.

Hebrews 6: 1-3

Pretty clearly, the author moves to explicit exhortation.  He says in essence, “let us not settle for good enough, resting on our laurels, but let’s continue to real maturity.”  Now what’s interesting for is that he says, “let us move beyond the elementary teachings…”  And what are those elementary teachings?  While being careful not to assume that the author is being comprehensive or even particularly specific, the things he lists are: 

  1. The foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death
  2. Faith in God
  3. Instruction about
    • Cleansing rites
    • Laying on of hands
    • Resurrection of the dead
    • Eternal judgement

And this is interesting because if we were to talk about the foundational things about the Christian faith, this is likely not what our list would look like.  And it might be useful to talk about why the author lists what he does.  But what I would simply say is that he seems to have in mind both the things they believe and the things they practice (although that is over-simplified). 

But I want to move on because the next paragraph, as we already noted, is the one that causes the most trouble for most folks.  Even still, we are going to spend a lot less time on this than it deserves (partly because it’s a topic that raises so many questions; partly because I want to be mindful of our time today). 

In short, it appears that the passage says that those who were at one time Christians and have at a later time fallen away, can never be saved again.  Now some folks have no problem with this.  At the very least, it is logically coherent – that is, the logic of it makes sense.  However, there are a number of questions – and potentially concerns – that this passage raises.

Firstly, it raises the question of whether or not someone can lose their salvation.  Now depending on you theological position, this may or may not be obvious.  For an Arminian, it is obviously true that one can indeed lose their salvation, since it is dependent on the individual’s choice.  For a Calvinist, it would seem that one cannot lose their salvation since it is dependent solely on the will of God.  The Calvinist, then, has to wrestle with how to understand this passage. 

For the Arminian, however, the passage also raises questions because it seems to state that, having lost one’s salvation, it is impossible to be saved again.  And most of us certainly know someone in this situation – someone who at one point declared their faith in Christ but have since turned away from the faith.  Is all hope lost for folks such as these? 

Also, what might this mean, then, for the character of God?  Does God’s love, grace, and mercy have limits?   

Of course, this is not a comprehensive list of questions and concerns.  And again, we cannot examine these ideas in detail.  But I want to share a few thoughts based on what some commentators and theologians have said that may help us wrap our heads around it. 

One of the main ways of dealing with the passage is to suggest that what we usually have in mind are people who were never really saved at all.  Certainly we know people who belonged to the church, said and did all the right things, but never really knew or trusted God.  This passage, then, is dealing with such folks – those who have heard and understood the message, who dipped their toes in the waters, but never really took the full plunge.  The argument might be, then – though this is making some leaps in logic – for those who truly have become saved, it takes a particular leap of apostasy to leave that salvation.  And for such as these, a return to grace is impossible because of the willful, decisive nature of apostasy that such a departure would require. 

One commentator focuses on the word “impossible.”  The suggestion is that the author is speaking of a practical impossibility and not an ontological one.  That is, it might be ontologically or logically possible for someone to return to faith, but practically speaking this would never happen.  According to this interpretation, the author’s argument hangs on the fallenness of human nature.  That is to say that God might be willing (and even eager) to accept such a second repentance, but such a person would not or could not make that return.  The impossibility, then, lies in human sinfulness. 

Another argument is that the author of the Hebrews simply doesn’t think in the same way that we might regarding salvation – specifically, the argument is that according to the theology of the author of the Hebrews, the very notion of “is already saved” does not make sense.  For the author of the Hebrews, salvation is ultimately an eschatological category.  We cannot properly say, “one is saved.”  We can only say that “one is being saved,” or that, “one will be saved,” on the final day of judgement.  To say that one “has lost his/her salvation,” therefore, does not make sense. 

Now I want to mention one final approach – one that I think is really interesting and has a lot of promise.  And this has to do with the rhetorical approach or method of the author.  That is, the author is speaking in the way that he is in order to advance a particular argument or a particular emphasis.  In short, by saying that “it is impossible to return to faith, once one has abandoned the faith,” the author is emphasizing the importance of the converse and his main point, “it is important to grow and mature in faith.”  Therefore, according to this approach, we should not get lost in the details of vv. 4-8 (with respect to the various questions and perspectives we’ve already mentioned), but rather the author wants us to focus on vv. 1-3. 

That being the case, we can see how and why the author closes this section with exhortation. 

Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation. 10 God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. 11 We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. 12 We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.

Hebrews 6: 9-12

Says the author of Hebrews, he is not worried about his readers “losing their salvation.”  “We are convinced of better things in your case,” he says.  And this alone might point to the “losing salvation” situation as hypothetical.  But of his readers, he knows and encourages them to hold on to the end, until the promise is fulfilled, until God’s rest is realised.  But until then – until the end – don’t be lazy, but imitate those who have gone before.  Remain faithful. 

So, in short, what I’m saying is that our passage today is a reiteration of the call to remain faithful.  Using a different rhetorical advice – arguing in a different way – the author of Hebrews encourages and exhorts his readers to remain faithful, to not lose their faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.  And as we have seen (though we might have missed it) and as we will see, for the author, remaining faithful has a lot in common with keeping hold of God’s promise.  In other words, rather than saying, “remain faithful because it tells us something about you.”  In other words, faithfulness isn’t a test that demonstrates that we are good enough (or not).  Rather, what the author is saying might be something along the lines of, “Hang on to God’s promise.”  “Don’t let go of God’s promise.  Keep trusting in Him, and in Him alone.”  In other words, faithfulness is (perhaps) precisely looking to God and rather than in anything else. 

Therefore, the exhortation today might be taken to mean something quite particular.  The author tells us, “Let us move beyond the elementary teachings…”  And I am completely adding my own opinions and assumptions here.  But perhaps we can put that into practice by saying, “Let us move beyond the elementary teachings, and learn well, know deeply, and trust completely the goodness and faithfulness of God.”  Let us not assume we have God figured out.  Let us not assume that we’ve grasped everything that God has offered in His kingdom.  But let us continue to seek Him; let us continue to pursue this life in Christ; and let us continue to take hold of and drink deeply of the promises of Christ. 

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