Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at email@example.com.
I’m scared for my brother. He’s turned his back on Christianity. All of us kids grew up in church and got baptized when we were children. Mom and dad took us to church every Sunday and we received great Christian training. Now he criticizes Christianity and says that he doesn’t believe in it anymore.
I was doing a Bible study to see if he committed the unpardonable sin and I came across Hebrews 6:4-6 which says that if you are a Christian and reject Jesus, then you never can come back and be saved again. Does this mean that he can’t come back to Christ even if he wants to?
From Anxiously Awaiting Your Answer
Dear Anxiously Awaiting,
I’m scared for your brother, too. This is a frightening passage with far-reaching implications.
“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 fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace” (Hebrews 6:4-6).
Much discussion has centered around the proper interpretation of this passage. I’ll try to make it simple. Of course, no one seems to have the final say about exactly what the writer meant. However, I hope my thoughts clarify some of the issues for you.
1. This book is called Hebrews because it was written to the Jews. The people described in the passage were Hebrews who were attracted to Christianity. They almost committed their lives to Jesus Christ as their Lord Savior. Unfortunately, they turned their backs on Jesus without making a commitment.
They “fell away” (the Greek word is “apostasy”).
2. What does it mean that they cannot be brought to repentance after falling away from Christ?
3. Sorting through complex Greek conditional sentences, if true Christians commit apostasy, then once they are lost, they are always lost. They can’t repent and return to Christ. But the fact is, true Christians can never commit apostasy.
4. The issue in the early church was whether or not those who crumbled under persecution and committed apostasy by denying Christ could return to the church or not?
5. What does this passage imply for us today?
First, how do we know that these people who fell away, and committed apostasy were not Christians?
It’s quite clear that these people experienced much of real Christianity, but they personally never truly gave their hearts to Christ. They had five great advantages; yet, they eventually exposed themselves as non-Christians.
“They once were enlightened” but were no more (Numbers 24:4).
- “They tasted the heavenly gift” (eternal life), but never swallowed it.
This is a key revelation. The gift of God is not given to tasters. In John 6:50-56 Jesus said: “except you eat my flesh, and drink my blood, you have no part of me.” Jesus was talking about total commitment. Tasters just taste; there is no swallowing commitment (Matthew 13:20-21).
Wine tasters sniff, look at, and swirl wine in a glass. They choose whether or not to actually drink it. There is no commitment until they actually swallow.
“They have shared in (tasted) the Holy Spirit.” Unfortunately, they were not sealed (Ephesians 1:13-14; 4:31).
“They have tasted the goodness of the word of God.” These people cannot say with Jeremiah, “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight.” Jesus said in John 6:46: “Why do you call me, Lord, Lord, and not do what I say.”
- “They had tasted the powers of the coming age.” Many were personal witnesses of the miracles of Christ. However, they were without excuse because convincing evidence was set before them with no answering faith in their hearts.
Second, what does it mean that they cannot repent and return to Christ after falling away?
Understanding this statement means that we we consider the major theme of Hebrews. Again and again the writer points out that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross trumps all the sacrifices of Mosaic Law.
If you turn away from Jesus then you have no place else to go. Returning to Judaism will do you no good because Jesus’ sacrifice to forgive our sins is the only way to find forgiveness and entrance into heaven.
“But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands... He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death…” (Hebrews 9:11-14)
In other words, if you don’t want Jesus, there’s no place else to turn.
Third, if Christians could commit apostasy, they could never return to Christ because they’ve put Him to open shame. But the truth is, true Christians will not commit apostasy.
Regarding Christians, the writer to the Hebrews is not declaring, "Once lost, always lost." He is affirming just the opposite, "Once saved, always saved."
The writer is utilizing a mix of Greek conditional statements. Conditional statements come in four basic manifestations. A first class conditional statement is without a doubt, true. For example, Satan said to Jesus, "If you are the Son of God..." You could also translate this "Since you are the Son of God..." In a first class conditional statement the differences between "if" and "since" are slight.
Basically, a third class statement is true, but it can never happen. For example, if I could go to the moon tonight, I would have a lovely view of earth. Now, that is true, but it could never happen. I can't get to the moon tonight.
Hebrews 6:4-6 is understood like this. If I were to fall away from Jesus, then I could never return; but, the truth is, I can't fall away from Jesus.
The writer is making a point of just how horrible it would be if a Christian fell away and committed apostasy. Jesus would have to be crucified all over again just for them. But, since they can't fall away, Jesus does not have to suffer and die again on the cross. Such is the height, depth and width of the love and grace of God (Ephesians 3:14-19).
Fourth, one of the big controversies among the early church Christians was what to do with believers who committed apostasy while under intense persecution and torture.
While Julie and I were teaching pastors in the Ukraine we heard several stories about secret Christian meetings interrupted by the entrance of soldiers whose job it was to ferret out Christians and put them to death.
During one meeting, secret policeman broke into the room and announced that they were there to kill all the Christians. However, in a moment of grace, one of the secret policemen said that anyone who wanted to leave could do so. Several got up and left.
“Comrades, we are Christians, too. We just wanted to make sure we would be safe in here.”
One of the critical problems facing Christians in the early centuries was the Roman insistence on emperor worship to solidify Caesar’s control of the empire. Each year, everyone in the empire was required to bow before an altar, burn a pinch of incense and declare, "Caesar is Lord."
Confessing "Caesar is Lord" was an abomination to Christians. Many refused to comply and died with the words, "Jesus is Lord" on their lips. But, what about those who acquiesced? Were they Christians or not? Some wanted to forgive them and welcome them back into the church. Others wanted to deny them re-entrance on the grounds that real Christians would never turn their backs on Jesus.
Thankfully, once our Heavenly Father bestows on us the gift of salvation, nothing that we could do in the future would so surprise Him that he would cause Him to take it back.
Fifth, implications for us are far-reaching.
We must do all we can to assure that we ourselves and those we love are fully committed to Jesus Christ. If we do not have Jesus then there’s no place else for us to go for forgiveness and eternal life.
Unfortunately, it seems that some people could not come to Christ even if they wanted.
One afternoon I visited a 78-year-old man in the hospital. His Christian family had shared the gospel with him for many years–always with a negative response. They pleaded with me to go and try one more time.
He was sitting on the edge of is bed as I frankly told him why I was there. Out of politeness he allowed me to share with him the gospel.
When I finished, I was deeply saddened by his sorrowful reply: “I’ve said ‘no’ to Jesus so many times that I don’t think I could become a Christian even if I wanted to.”
This is why the writer to the Hebrews pleaded again and again with his readers, “Today! While it is still today! Give your heart to Jesus while there’s still time.”
Finally, if someone who seems to be a Christian falls away, then that proves that they were never a Christian in the first place.
Well, Anxiously Awaiting, I hope that my thoughts give you guidance about how to proceed.
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.
Publication date: December 29, 2016