Sermon preached on Hebrews 6:1-8 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 6/17/2018 in Novato, CA.
“Let Us Go on To Perfection”
In last week’s passage, we dealt with the theme of Christian maturity. The text brought to us the concern to be growing via the Word of God. It spoke to us of the importance not only of the milk of the Word but the solid food of the Word. In other words, as we grow as Christians we need more than just the basic doctrines of Christianity, but we also need a diet of the more substantive teachings of Scripture. In today’s passage, we see that concern is still in mind when verse 1 speaks of us going on to perfection, or in other words, to Christian maturity. It makes that call for perfection or maturity by referencing the elementary doctrines of Christianity in verses 1 and 2 and saying that we need to then move on to the more advanced teachings. But then in verse 4 Hebrews changes direction for a moment to explain why it has this concern for our growth and maturity. Basically, the concern is that if our faith is not growing, we could end up in the opposite state. We could end up falling away from the faith; in apostasy. Verses 4-8 speak of the great danger associated with that. He speaks of the impossibility of someone being renewed again to repentance who falls into such apostasy. That then is our topic for today. To consider the dire warning here given against apostasy.
To start this discussion, I’d like to begin with two qualifications to this passage. Scripture must always interpret Scripture, and the more clear passages must govern how we interpret a less clear passage. Certainly, that rule applies here. This is a passage that has sparked much discussion because of people failing to follow that rule. So then, the first clarification is that this passage is not contrary to the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Some have wrongly said this passage teaches that a true believer can fall away from the faith and be lost eternally. That’s contrary the biblical doctrine of the perseverance of the saints which teaches that the elect of God, those God has predestined to salvation, will be saved, and nothing can stop that from happening. Those who are God’s elect, will in due time, be born again, repent of their sins, and believe in the gospel. They might struggle and stumble in their Christian faith at times, but ultimately God’s grace will persevere their faith and bring them to glory. God will not lose any of his elect, nor will he begin the work of salvation via regeneration in someone and not complete it. Yes, some might make an outward profession of faith that then fall away and never come back, but Scripture would teach us that such a person was never truly converted. As is described in 1 John 2:19, such people go out from Christ’s church because they never really, truly belonged to Christ’s church.
There are so many Scriptures that teach this. Romans 8:30 lays out the chain well. There it says that all who are predestinated, do become effectually called, and justified and ultimately glorified. Two verses before that it says that God works all things together to make this happen. Similarly, Philippians 1:6 says that God begins the work of salvation in someone but also is the one who brings it to completion. 2 Timothy 1:12 speaks of how God keeps Christians until the day of glory. The end of Jude speaks of God’s persevering of his saints. In John 10:29, Jesus speaks of how the father gives him the elect and that no one is able to snatch them out of the father’s hand. Ephesians 1 which speaks of God’s predestinating the elect from before the foundation of the world, describes the various stages of our salvation, including how he guarantees to us who are the elect a glorious, eternal inheritance by giving us his Holy Spirit. Similarly, Romans 9:6 says that if the elect were to fall away that would mean that God’s Word had failed, but Paul goes on to make it very clear that God’s Word does not fail, and that all the elect will in fact be saved (11:26). I could go on. But the point is what we’ll find said in Hebrews 12:2. Jesus is the author and the perfecter of our faith. Those who are truly born again, will never truly fall away from the faith. He will keep them, preserving them to glory.
That’s the first qualification. The second clarification to this passage is that this passage does not mean that we should reject repentant people who are looking to be restored in the church. Some have argued for that, like during the early church when some momentarily lapse in their faith under persecution during Emperor Decius, but after the emperor died, sought to be restored to the church. Some said this passage should forever exclude such lapsed people from the church, but the church at the time rightly disagreed with that interpretation. Whatever is meant here by the language in verse 4 about it being impossible to restore to repentance those who fall away, it must not mean that someone who is repenting can’t be restored. Again, Scripture must interpret Scripture and there are various examples of wayward people being restored to the church. Isn’t that the very heart of God’s grace that we see in the parable of the prodigal son? The wayward son finally comes to his mind, finally repents, and returns unto the father and is accepted with love and grace. Jesus himself said he came to seek and save that which was lost; that he was a doctor there to minister to tax collectors and sinners among Israel because they were the sick who needed a physician. Isn’t this what we see with King David, that after such great sin with Bathsheba, he repented and found forgiveness. Or in 2 Corinthians 2, we find that the one who was under church discipline from 1 Corinthians had repented and Paul says to receive him back with love. In fact, that’s exactly what Paul says is the purpose of church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5:5, that a wayward believer might be delivered over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so they would be saved; in other words that they’d repent of their sin and be restored. Of course, maybe the best example is to point to the Apostle Peter, who denied Jesus three times, and yet did repent and was restored by Christ and even became a foundation-laying leader in the new covenant church. So, whatever this passage means, it can’t be interpreted to say that the church should exclude repentant people from rejoining the church after some lapse or waywardness or even excommunication.
So then, we have these two qualifications or clarifications. This passage is not contrary to the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. And this passage does not forbid receiving back into the church repentant people. Those teachings from elsewhere in Scripture should encourage us as we study this passage today. So then, what does this passage mean? What does it refer to? Well, it means that there is a category of people who do truly fall away from their outward profession of faith who will never repent, who will never return. We see here that this describes people who have truly experienced certain positive benefits of being a part of the visible church, with all the good that entails, who renounce the faith and fall away permanently. It is saying that such apostates have so rejected Christ and the gospel, they have so hardened their hearts against Christ, that they will not, cannot, return to a place of repentance. It says that true apostates are impossible to bring back to a place of repentance. Likely this is what John describes in 1 John 5 as someone sinning the sin unto death. This is meant to be a genuine warning to all of us. As much as we know that doctrine of the perseverance of the elect, we also know that we don’t have an a priori knowledge of our election. We don’t have the book of life before us to look up our names. Our knowledge of our election must come a posteriori, meaning through examination and seeking it out. That’s why Peter says that we need to make our calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10). Similarly, as much as we know the case of someone like the Apostle Peter who was restored, we just as well remember the Apostle Judas Iscariot who after betraying Jesus was never restored, despite his grief for his sin afterwards. Thus, this warning is meant to be a real warning to the church to see that you are growing and not ending up falling away into the apostasy described here.
Let’s look further at the details that describe this apostasy here. Notice in verses 4 and 5 the rather long list of benefits such apostates have experienced. Realize this is part of the definition of a real apostate. An apostate is not simply an unbeliever. They are someone who was in the church, who had some contact with the things of God, and even made a profession of faith, yet then fall away from the church. And so, starting in verse 4 it says that these apostles are those who have been enlightened, have tasted the heavenly gift, have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the age to come. What this must mean is that they had come to experience these things in a way that outsiders to the church do not. They had been involved in a real way with various blessings of the things of God and being in his church. Yet, their experience and enjoyment of such things was ultimately external and not something that really changed their heart.
And so, for them to be enlightened doesn’t mean that they had come to a true, saving faith in the gospel, and yet they were personal recipients of divine revelation and the truth of the gospel. They surely had in some sense a proper understanding of such truth from God and even initially claimed to accept it. Scripture tells us the danger of this. This statement pairs nicely with the reference in verse 5 to them tasting of the good word of God. Well, the more light of revelation someone has, the more accountable they are. Apostates have an enlightening from God’s Word that makes them all the more guilty when they later reject it.
When it says that they have tasted of the heavenly gift it likely refers to what it goes on to say, that they have partaken of the Holy Spirit since scripture elsewhere refers to the Holy Spirit as a gift (e.g. Acts 2:38). In a similar way, it speaks of how they have tasted of the powers of the coming age. Again, based on what we’ve been saying, all this must not refer to the apostate actually having the Holy Spirit come into their heart and making them born again. However, think of all the ways false believers in the church would experience the Holy Spirit and the powers of the age to come (those things are obviously intimately connected). There are the spiritual gifts from the Holy Spirit that believers have an exercise to bless and encourage those in the church. The Spirit works through such gifts in power. Back then many would have also seen and experienced the supernatural, extraordinary works of the Holy Spirit in the church, various signs and wonders and miracles working powerfully in the church during that charismatic period in the church. We can also think of how the Spirit works powerfully in the church when the Word is preached. Surely, such apostates experientially shared in that. Think of how such apostates would even see the Spirit powerfully convert others and change them into new creations. Surely this tasting of the powers of the coming age and of the Spirit would also include things like personally receiving the sacraments and sitting as a recipient of the benedictions in the service. The list could go on. The point is, there are many ways that an apostate would experience the Spirit and the powers of the age to come even if they themselves are not truly converted. Being a member of the church, even if only outwardly, is one that would bring you into contact with many divine blessings.
So, it’s these people, who had seen so much, learned so much, and experienced so much, that are described as falling away. This falling away is placed as the opposite of faith and repentance. It is a repudiation of Christ, per the vivid description of verse 6, where it describes their falling away in terms of re-crucifying Christ. Remember it was the opponents of Jesus who crucified him. It was those who hated Jesus, who were envious of him, who denied that Jesus was the Christ, who dared speak the blasphemous words that Jesus’ works were of the devil – they were the ones who crucified Jesus the first time. Well, here Hebrews says that such apostates who recant their faith – it’s like they are crucifying Jesus again in their own hearts! Just like those who originally crucified Jesus out of hatred and envy and rejection of him – that’s what an apostate does when he knows so much of Christ and his claims, when they knowingly reject him.
So then, these are the people that Hebrews says that when they fall away, it will be impossible to renew them again to repentance. When it talks about renewing them to repentance, it must speak of their external state of repentance, not that they had really repented before. Our understanding of this passage would want to say that they never came to a state of either a true faith or a true repentance. Yet, we know that there are people who give a credible profession of faith and repentance who aren’t true believers and aren’t truly repentant. We know this by experience, but we also know it by the teaching of Jesus. Remember the parable of the sower. Jesus spoke of the seed of God’s Word which lands on the rocky ground which at first is received with joy but doesn’t ultimately last. Jesus says the person eventually stumbles because the Word hasn’t really taken root in them. That is the state of the apostle. And so, this passage acknowledges the sad reality that there will be those who have so experienced the Word but then turn away and never find themselves renewed to repentance. Of course, this is why we offered that second clarification earlier in our first point. If someone truly does repent after some form of wandering or stumbling, they must not be the person this passage is describing. If they were, then they wouldn’t be repenting. The fact that they are repenting, shows they don’t match what is being described here.
Well, our third point will briefly explain all this from a different angle, using figurative language. Look with me at verses 7-8. Here we see an agricultural analogy of what the earth produces. It paints the picture of the different things the earth produces even though it’s the same rain from heaven that waters it all. Sometimes the earth produce something useful like herbs and some produce something useless like thorns and briars. The herbs are to be cultivated and used. The thorns and briars are to be rejected and burned. Peeling away from the analogy, it speaks of how the one is blessed by God and the other cursed. And here we have confirmation of what we’ve been saying all along. Think of why one plot of land would produce herbs and another thorns and briars when they both get the same rain from heaven. It’s because they come from different seeds. At the core, they are something different. Good plants come from their good seeds. Bad plants from their own bad seeds. Each according to its kind. But you won’t know what’s in the ground until they grow up. And that’s what we have been talking about. The apostates at their core were always evil. Eventually, time will tell and we will see who they really are at their core. True Christians, because their nature and heart has been changed by God, will eventually grow up and bear much fruit. Only the elect who have been truly regenerated from God will grow up into something good and blessed by God. The apostates will eventually show themselves to be evil and cursed by God and ready for destruction, as they had been destined.
So then, let me offer this gospel encouragement to us all today. Though this passage speaks of the sobering truth that it is impossible for a true apostate who has fallen away to be restored to repentance, look at what we’ll see later in verse 18. There another impossible thing is mentioned. It is impossible for God to lie. And that is said in the context of the eternal blessings he has promised to his elect. And so, though this passage speaks of the impossibility for the apostates to be saved; we also should be reminded today of the impossibility for the elect to be lost. We who do trust in Christ, will be certainly, surely, saved. Praise God for his wonderful grace that we have come to know in his Son!
So then, beloved, heed this call for examination. This is a call to make your calling and election sure. And it tells us to do that by the exhortation to growth and maturity. The point is that we can see and know our election as we grow in Christ. Let us indeed go on to perfection, to this Christian maturity, as verse 1 commands.
And as we pursue this maturity, see the connection with doctrine. In the context of growth that brings fruit, we are told to seek such growth by seeking the more advanced doctrines of the Word. This connection is so important to remember. Sadly, too often today you hear in Christian circles that we need to be less concerned about doctrine and more focused on growth in Christian living and virtue. Too often Christians try to say that we need to focus only on the essentials of the faith and put our real energy into growth of godly living. But here we see how counter intuitive that is. That’s like expecting a child to grow up into adulthood but keeping him at his mother’s breast all his life as his only form of sustenance. That’s not going to work. So then, let us pursue growth, let us pursue maturity, let us pursue godliness and virtue, and let us pursue perseverance of our faith; but let us do this by digging more into the meat of God’s Word and digging into the substantive doctrines of Scripture. Thankfully, Hebrews will gladly help us to continue to do that! Praise God who cares about our growth and perseverance to provide so richly, not only for the beginning of our faith, but also the completion of it. God’s given us his Word with all its teachings as our food for growth! How gracious our God is! Let us keep pursuing this growth and maturity until the glorious day of Christ. Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.