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Reformed Spirituality

If They Shall Fall Away

By Simon PadburyNovember 26, 2019
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Those who say that Christians can lose their salvation assert that author of the Epistle to the Hebrews1. lists several distinguishing marks of a true Christian. Only Christians, they assert, 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). If that point can be established, then they are unanswerable in their argument that true Christians can “fall away”, and that this falling away means they lose their salvation (v.6).

But if true Christians can fall away from salvation, then why did the author of Hebrews not explicitly say that these people were Christians, or that their regeneration can be undone, or that they had a true faith, or why did he not evensay that they were saved—and thus explicitly warn the Lord’s people that they could indeed lose their salvation?

Starting our consideration earlier in the epistle, we see that the author is writing to a group of people whom he embraces as members of his own spiritual family—the adopted covenant people of God—where he writes of them lovingly and inclusively as “we”, “us”, “our”, “one another”, “sons”, “children”, and even “brethren” of Christ. Just read through from the beginning of Hebrews up to the sixth chapter and you will see what I mean.

He encourages his readers to “go on unto perfection” (Hebrews 6:1; see also 10:14)—to get on with living the Christian life, and to bear spiritual fruit. He exhorts them to not procrastinate or be merely interested in the “principles [i.e. the basics] of the doctrine of Christ”.

In reading the earlier chapters of Hebrews, you will notice how the epistle writer has reminded his readers how there had been some among the people of God in Old Testament times who had remained unbelievers and rejectors of God—who had hardened their hearts against God, and God had been grieved with them for forty years in the wilderness (3:16-19).

Now in Hebrews 6, after all the lovingly inclusive “we” and “us” language with which he embraces his fellow Hebrew Christians, the writer contrastingly speaks of “those who were once enlightened”, who fall away, etc. Was he warning the “we” that they could fall away—or was he warning them not to be like “those” who fall away, without implying that true Christians can fall away?

A taste is not a full meal

The Epistle’s author affirms that some people had merely “tasted” of the “heavenly gift” of the Gospel of Christ, but who did not drink deeply and benefit from it, so to speak.

They had become “partakers2 of the Holy Ghost”—but this is a kinf of partaking that would not save them, if it turns out that later fall away. For it is possible for a person to 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.

Some people can become “enlightened” through being taught Christian doctrine from the Bible, from the pulpit, from their parents, etc. This teaching has affected them in some measure—they have become “partakers of the Holy Ghost” though learning from the Holy Ghost-inspired Scriptures (see 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21). But they haven’t personally believed in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Merely learning Christian doctrine is not enough, the author of Hebrews is saying. Even being somewhat persuaded is not enough.

Temporary faith

Christ himself also teaches us that 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).

Some people can become “almost persuaded,” like king Agrippa (Acts 26:28). Indeed, they have gone further than Agrippa in that they have attended a Christian church and they have some appreciation of the preaching, worship and fellowship there. But they remain essentially unchanged—they are not born again.

These people of whom the author of Hebrews warned his readers had “tasted…of the powers of the world to come” (Hebrews 6:4-5), to the extent that they had become somewhat interested in sound preaching on salvation—for a while, and maybe they had persuaded themselves that they too would have a place in heaven. But their faith was still as “dead” as their spiritually dead hearts, and no good works came from it (compare James 2:14-26; see also Ephesians 2:8-10).

In their rejection of Christ, after getting to know so much about him, they in effect “crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh” (v.6)—just as surely as those who had campaigned for his crucifixion, or who had actually hammered in the nails. That they “crucify to themselves” Christ does not imply that he was crucified for them. Do not think that Christ’s blood has been shed in vain for such people.

“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 had. 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 of convert themselves.

Persuaded of better things

The original intended readership of this epistle were true Christians, but immature: as it is written, “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—marks of saving grace, which he had not seen in those whom he refers 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”.

So, he wasn’t warning his Christian brothers and sisters that they could fall away and lose their salvation. He was warning his readers not to follow them in their falling away, but to distinguish themselves from them by “go[ing] on unto perfection” by continuing their fellowship with Christ.

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 increasing 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 apostatising from Christ would incur.

However, the Old Testament dispensation was now “ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13; 10:5-10; see also 2 Corinthians 3:6-14). So, they must grasp hold of the Gospel and never let go. 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.

Chapter 50 of God’s Grace In Our Experience.

  1. See footnote 1 in chapter 23, Evidence of Things Not Seen.
  2. To partake of something means to eat it (food), or to participate in it (e.g. a study course, a parade). It is not necessarily implied that for everything you partake of or participate in, you really approve of or fully identify with.
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