We have already seen that the first step in this Spiritual Digression (Hebrews 1-6) consists of drifting away through a lack of attention. “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” (2:1) This appropriate counsel is for all believers at all times and not just for the Hebrews. Any digression in our spiritual lives usually begins almost imperceptibly—not as the result of catastrophic change, but through a lack of intentionality.
We have also seen that the second step in this process consists of turning way because of an unbelieving heart. “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” (3:12) The context of this section is the refusal of Israel to enter the promised land of Canaan because of their fear of the giants. Instead of trusting God and his promises, they became afraid, rebelled, maligned his motives, and wanted to go back to Egypt.
The final and ultimate step in this digression is the scariest of all; it consists in falling away from God’s grace. “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.” (6:4-6) Wow! Arguably one of the more difficult passages to interpret.
Let’s look at our options. The NIV Application Commentary by George Guthrie (pp 226-230) is helpful here by listing some of the main interpretive theories.
The Pre-Christian Theory. Some believe that the text speaks of those coming out of Judaism (seekers within the Christian Community) who fall away before they are fully committed; like the seed falling on the path is snatched away before it can take root. The difficulty with this view is that the writer uses the language of full inclusion and participation, not just seeking.
The Hypothetical Theory. Some believe that the writer is using such graphic language to warn his readers of the danger that awaits them if they fall away. (6:6) In other words, the message is motivational and the writer is convinced they would never do such a thing. “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better thing in your case.” (6:9) This theory has merit and is a legitimate option.
The Lost Salvation Theory. There are some who feel that the proper interpretation is the simplest one—that the people being described are those who were genuine Christians, but who apostatized and lost their precious salvation, thereby becoming enemies of the gospel. Thus, they were Christians at one time and now they are no longer, and can never again be restored to the faith. While this option seems to fit the reality of the textual language, it fails to satisfy the test of compatibility with other Scriptures; “And this is the will of him who sent me that I should lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:39) Also, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.” (John 10:27-30) Other passages to consider are Romans 5:9; 8:1; 8:29, 30: 8:37-39; Phil 1:6; 1 Peter 1:3-5; Hebrews 10:14.
The They Were Not of Us Theory. The final theory to consider is one that claims the people being described were never Christ-followers in the first place. In spite of outward appearances, they demonstrated a lack of saving faith by their failure to hold firm to their confession in Christ to the end. They were like those who left Egypt with Moses (both Israelite and Egyptian); covered by the blood at Passover, shared in the Red Sea Crossing, who appeared to be a part of the covenant community at Sinai—until they showed their true colors in the wilderness, ultimately refusing to trust God’s authority and hold fast to his Promises about the Land. The Apostle John called these people “antichrists” and described them like this: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” (1 John 2:19)
This last interpretation is one that I think best captures the reality of the writer’s thought, while at the same time passing the test of compatibility with Scripture that teaches the perseverance of those who having saving faith. In other words, continuing in the faith (continuing to remain in the believing community) is a sign of saving faith. It is the theme of the very book of Hebrews itself. “For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end.” (Hebrews 3:14) This reflects the very words of Jesus, “But the one who perseveres (endures, holds out) to the end will be saved.” (Matt. 24:13)
I would like to make one last point. This passage about falling away from the faith should never be used as a tool of judgment to determine who is a true believer and who isn’t. Remember the parable Jesus told of the wheat and the tares growing together in the same field, and that they should be weeded out only by God in the day of Judgment? The reason is that we will usually get it wrong, because only the Lord knows those who are his. Not only that, but there will be occasions when true believers will drift away or turn away for a time, before the God of mercy who has begun a good work in them will bring them back to himself. In those intervening moments/months/years, these wandering ones do not need our judgment, as much as they need our prayers, our challenges, and our encouragement. Therefore, for anyone who claims to be a Christ-follower, Hebrews 6:1-6 should motivate us to make our calling and election sure and challenge us to persevere in the faith, knowing that it is those who continue to the end who will be saved.