Those who deny that God preserves those whom Jesus saved so that, once saved, they are always saved, argue that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews1 lists several distinguishing marks of a true Christian. Only Christians, they insist, can be referred to as “those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come” (Hebrews 6.4-5).
The author of Hebrews teaches that for some people who have received these gospel privileges, “It is impossible…if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance” (vv.4-6). You may go after them and try to persuade them to return to Christ, but they will never come back.
So, did the author of Hebrews teach that true Christians can fall away? There is a four-part answer that resolves this question with a resounding no.
Firstly, we can see from the Old Testament illustration that the author of Hebrews uses, that those who “fall away” had not become Christians.
Starting our consideration earlier in the epistle, to get the context, we see that the author embraces his intended readership as members of his own spiritual family: Israelites who had received their Messiah and had become Christians—the saved, covenant people of God. He writes of them lovingly and inclusively in such terms as “us” (e.g. 1.2), “we” (2.1,9; 3.6), “brethren” (3.1,12), “partakers of the heavenly calling” and “partakers of Christ” (3.1,14), and of whom he says “we have a great high priest [Jesus Christ]” (4.14).
He encourages these brethren in the Christian church to “go on unto perfection” (6.1)—to get on with living and growing in the Christian life. He exhorts them to not be merely interested in “the principles [i.e. the basics] of the doctrine of Christ,” and not be content with eating spiritual baby-food (see 5.11-14).
The author of Hebrews drew his intended readers’ attention to an event in their history, where there had been some among the people of Israel who had remained unbelievers during the wilderness journey, and who had hardened their hearts against God. And God had been grieved with them for forty years, and he had slain them, so that they could not enter the Promised Land “because of unbelief” (3.16-19).
Quoting Psalms 95.7-11 (in Hebrews 3.7-11), he applies his lesson directly: “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God” (3.12). Keep watch over your own heart, and encourage your brethren. “For we are made partakers of Christ,” he says, but only “if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end” (3.14). Or else, if our belief in Christ is only temporary, or tentative, then we are not really a partaker of Christ after all.
In the fourth chapter, continuing with the same lesson, the author focusses in on the parallel: “For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them” in the time of the Old Testament (4.2)—including to those who hardened their hearts against God, who therefore could not enter into the “rest” of the Promised Land (4.3; referring back to 3.11 where he quoted Psalms 95.11). So likewise, if any of his intended readers did not hold fast onto the Christian’s confidence, namely the Saviour Jesus Christ, then (it is not that they will lose their salvation, but that) they shall not enter into the prophesied “rest for the people of God” today—they shall not receive salvation at all (4.6-10). “Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief” (4.11); which unbelief he had previously described as an evil heart, a heart hardened against God.
However, all along the author of this epistle considers his intended readers to be true Christians already, for he says of them, “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession” of faith (4.14)—i.e. prove that your faith is not that temporary, tentative kind of those who are not saved.
Secondly, these gospel privileges that the author of Hebrews lists are not distinguishing marks of a true Christian. For some people can receive all these things, but ultimately fall away from the Saviour, having never been saved by him. The author of Hebrews never said that these people were saved, whom he described as having been “enlightened,” and as “tasting,” “partaking” etc. He said only that they had come to know the gospel and that it had affected them in some measure. Merely understanding the gospel, being moved in the feelings (affections) by its truths, and tentatively believing it for a while—is not salvation, and it is not an evidence of having been saved.
We must be clear on what a Christian is, and what evidences a true Christian:
- Christians are born again by the Holy Spirit (John 1.13; 3:3-8; 1 Peter 1.3);
- Christians have a new nature (2 Corinthians 5.17; Romans 7.18-25; 8:1-11);
- Christians genuinely believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and they hold fast their profession of faith (John 3.16; Acts 15.11; 16.31; Romans 10.9; Hebrews 10.19-23);
- Christians trust the Lord Jesus Christ alone as their Saviour (Romans 4.5-7; Galatians 2.16; 2 Timothy 4.10; Hebrews 9.14-15);
- Christians follow and obey Christ as their Lord, Prophet, Priest, and King (Philippians 2.5-11; Acts 7.37; Hebrews 1.1-2; 4.14; 1 Timothy 6.15);
- Christians grow and mature as Christians, and bear spiritual fruit unto God (Romans 6.22; Philippians 2.12-13; 2 Peter 1.2-11);
- Christians persevere to the end, and they are preserved by God so that they can never be lost (Philippians 1.6; Colossians 1.3-6; 1 Peter 1.3-9);
- Christians are saved, and their salvation is eternal (John 3.16; Hebrews 5.9; Romans 8.28-30; 10.9-13).
Even where the small beginnings of these marks of grace are seen, there is a true Christian.
In Hebrews 6, after all the author’s lovingly inclusive “we”/“us”/“bretheren” language with which he embraces his fellow Hebrew Christians, and after his solemn warnings and encouragements to keep the faith, he nonetheless still warns them that turning aside from Christ is irreversible. “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame” (6.4-6).
So yes, it is true, some people can receive all these gospel privileges, but ultimately reject the Saviour, and never enter into his rest.
Merely learning Christian doctrine is not enough, the author of Hebrews is saying. Even being somewhat, or tentatively, persuaded is not enough. It is not being merely enlightened by gospel truths that saves people—but it is the Saviour who saves people; and those whom he saves have a true faith in him, and they will maintain it all their lives after they are converted.
All the phrases in this list of gospel privileges mean the essentially same thing. The author of Hebrews, in the typical Hebrew multiple emphasis style commonly found in the Psalms, Proverbs, and prophets, layers up several ways of referring to knowing the gospel:
- Some people may have been “once enlightened” by the truth about how Jesus is the Christ, the fulfiller of all the Old Testament prophecies and types, through being taught true Christian doctrine from the Bible, from the pulpit, from their parents, or however they learned it—but they didn’t accept it as the truth; they didn’t fully believe it, and they fall away.
- Some people may have “tasted of the heavenly gift” of the gospel of Christ, but they did not drink deeply enough, so to speak, to benefit savingly from it. A person can hear faithful, Holy Spirit enabled gospel preaching, and to receive it into their minds, and think about it, and understand it—all without actually believing it—and they fall away.
- Some people may become “partakers2 of the Holy Ghost” in some measure, though learning from the Holy Ghost-inspired Scriptures (see 2 Timothy 3.16; 2 Peter 1.21). But even so, they may remain unbelievers. Theirs was a partaking that did not save them, since it turned out that they later fall away.
- Some people may have “tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come” but they spat it all out—they rejected God’s word, and hardened their hearts against God. Their faith was still as “dead” as their spiritually dead hearts, and no good works and no spiritual fruit came from it (see James 2.14-26; Ephesians 2.8-10). And they fall away.
The Lord Jesus Christ himself also teaches us that there are some people can “receive the word with joy” and “for a while believe,” but they, sadly, fall away in a time of temptation (Luke 8.13). Theirs is the temporary kind of faith.
Some people can become “almost persuaded,” like king Agrippa (Acts 26.28). And some can go further than Agrippa in actually attending a Christian church, and having some appreciation of the preaching, worship and fellowship there. But they remain essentially unchanged—they are not saved by the Saviour.
In their ultimate rejection of Christ, after getting to know so much about him, they effectively “crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh” (Hebrews 6.6)—though separated by centuries—just as surely as those who had campaigned for his crucifixion, and those who had hammered in the nails. This unbelief comes from an evil heart (3.12).And “It is impossible” (v.4) to renew such people even to the measure of repentance that they had before, i.e. even to the level of “Christian” morals that they previously seemed to have for a while. Of course, with God nothing is impossible (Luke 1.37)—but if God will leave them in their state of hardened deadness against him, then you cannot reach through to them, and it is still impossible for them to regenerate or convert themselves.
Thirdly, the author of Hebrews never affirms that those who fall away ever had a true faith, or that they were saved, or born again, or converted, or that that they were saints (i.e. Christians).
Throughout his epistle, the author is careful to distinguish believers (whom he embraces as us) and unbelievers (whom he contrasts as them). He speaks of those who visit our churches or live among Christian believers for a while, but who do not themselves become believers, and so they remain unsaved.
Believers are saved. Unbelievers are not saved. Some unbelievers in the Old Testament came along with the believers in the wilderness journey for a while, but they ultimately rejected God, and they hardened their hearts against him. And, as Hebrews warns, some fellow-travellers in these New Testament times (in which we live) sadly remain unbelievers. They do not enter into Christ’s provided “rest” for the people of God.
Hebrews says nothing about the saved becoming unsaved again. The author admonishes us to examine our own hearts and prove that ours is not the temporary, tentative, non-saving kind of faith—the proof is in whether you keep going and actually grow as a Christian.
Fourthly, the original intended readers of this epistle were true Christians.
The author of Hebrews wrote, “But, beloved, we are persuaded of better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak” (Hebrews 6.9).
That is a key point to grasp here. The author had seen “things that accompany salvation” in these Hebrew Christians to whom he had written—real marks of saving grace. He knew they would not fall away.
So, he wasn’t warning his Christian brothers and sisters that they could fall away and lose their salvation. On the basis of the “things that accompany salvation” that he had seen in their lives, he was persuaded that they wouldn’t, and they couldn’t, fall away.
He was warning his readers not to follow those who do fall away, but he was encouraging them (with warnings about them that do not) to further distinguish themselves by “go[ing] on unto perfection” (6.1), and by “hold[ing] fast their profession” (4.14; 10.23). And as he was already persuaded that his intended readers true Christians, he knows that this is what they will do. He issued them with warnings that he knows they would take seriously.
Another objective is in the mind of the author. He had written this epistle “to the Hebrews” who had become Christians. They had newly emerged from Judaism, a religion that was officially recognised by the Roman authorities in those days.
But now they were “babes in Christ” and they were subjected to both Jewish and Roman hostility. The great temptation was to revert back to the safety of Judaism. The epistle throughout warns against this, and of the dire consequences that apostatizing from Christ would incur.
Later in his epistle, the author repeats his expression of confidence that his intended readers are true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore they will never turn back and lose their salvation. He says, “Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we [including both himself and his embraced readers] are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul” (10.38-39).
The Old Testament dispensation was now “ready to vanish away” in his day, the author says (Hebrews 8.13; 10.5-10; see also 2 Corinthians 3.6-14). The Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, the crucified Son of God—has himself fulfilled the types and shadows of the Old Testament. Outside of the Messiah there is no salvation, and there never was. All who are saved in this gospel age, and who were saved in earlier times, are saved by Christ.
After the author of Hebrews has given his select catalogue of Old Testament believers in chapter 11, all listed as examples to encourage New Testament believers, he concludes, “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (12.1-2).
Follow Jesus’s example. Our Saviour ran his race with joy even though for him it meant much “contradiction of sinners” and even crucifixion—he “endured the cross, despising its shame” (v.2-3). Ours is not the race of the Saviour but of the saved; but nonetheless the author of Hebrews instructs us to follow Jesus’s example, running our race with joy and determination to obey God, and not being “wearied and faint in your minds,” resisting unto blood if necessary in our striving against sin (v.4), even though sometimes in our case it may involve heavenly Father chastising us for our sins (v.5-11).
“Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (12.28).