(Heb. 6:1-9) Does this passage threaten eternal security?

CLAIM: The author of Hebrews writes of apostate believers that “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance” (Heb. 6:6). Does this passage threaten the notion of eternal security?

RESPONSE: Before we see the various options for this passage, let’s consider it verse by verse:

(Heb. 6:1-3) Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do, if God permits.

The NIV states that these are “baptisms” (v.2). However, Morris writes, “‘Baptisms’ (here baptismōn) is a word usually used of purification ceremonies other than Christian baptism (9:10; Mark 7:4), and it is plural (which would be unusual for baptism).”[1] It would also be odd for the author to speak about plural baptism, when Scripture only speaks of “one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). Instead, the author is referring to OT ritualism:

(Ex. 30:19-21) Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet from it; 20 when they enter the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water, so that they will not die; or when they approach the altar to minister, by offering up in smoke a fire sacrifice to the Lord. 21 So they shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they will not die; and it shall be a perpetual statute for them, for Aaron and his descendants throughout their generations.

(Lev. 16:21) Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness.

(Heb. 6:4) For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come,

The author goes one step short of affirming that they are “in Christ.” He says that they have “tasted,” but not that they have drank or been indwelt by the Holy Spirit, as other passages teach (c.f. 1 Cor. 12:13). Some interpret “tasted of the heavenly gift” as referring to communion, which would fit with the notion that these are non-Christians, who have been partaking in Christian community. Likewise, some interpret “tasted the good word of God” as referring to the OT—not the gospel.

On the other hand, the author uses this language of “being enlightened,” “tasted of the heavenly gift,” and being “partakers of the Holy Spirit” to refer to believers elsewhere in the book:

Once being enlightened: The word “enlightened” (Greek phōtizō) is also used for believers: “But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened (Greek phōtizō), you endured a great conflict of sufferings” (Heb. 10:32).

Tasted of the heavenly gift: The word “tasted” (Greek geuomai) is also used for Jesus having to “taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9).

Partakers of the Holy Spirit: The word “partakers” (Greek metochos) is also used for believers being “partakers of a heavenly calling” (Heb. 3:1) and “partakers of Christ” (Heb. 3:14).

(Heb. 6:6) and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since [or “while”] they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.

The NASB footnote shows that “since” can also be translated as “while.” Morris writes, “The tense, however, does convey the idea of a continuing attitude.”[2] In other words, the sin here is putting Christ’s ultimate sacrifice to shame by continuing on in sacrificing animals at the Temple (c.f. Heb. 7:25-28). This is what is meant when he writes that they “crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.” The sin here is the sin of false religion (animal sacrifices in the new covenant)—not the sin of fornication, drunkenness, etc. In other words, these people are trying to atone for their own sins, rather than relying on Christ. He is arguing that the OT sacrificial system is mutually exclusive with Christ’s new way.

(Heb. 6:7-8) For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; 8 but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.

If this is referring to the consequences of a non-believer, then this would fit with Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:17-20, where he says, “So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So then, you will know them by their fruits.” In this way, the person bears bad fruit, because they aren’t a believer.

If this is referring to the consequences of a believer, then notice that the person isn’t burned up in hell; instead, their fruit is burned up. This is certainly the plight of a believer, who is stuck under legalism and ritualism. At the bema seat (2 Cor. 5:10), their rewards will be burned up.

(Heb. 6:9) But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way.

This verse might change the audience to believers from nonbelievers. In verse 4, the author could be referring to nonbelievers (“For in the case of those…”). The language actually switches from “they,” (v.6) “them,” (v.6) and “those” (v.4) over to “you” (v.9). This could be the author’s way of switching his audience from non-Christians, back to Christians.

This being said, there are at least three separate possible interpretations for this passage:

VIEW #1: Christians losing their salvation

Advocates of this view do not believe that Christians can lose their salvation because of sin (e.g. drunkenness, fornication, etc.). Instead, they lose their salvation because they go back under the ritualism of the Old Covenant, rather than embracing the New Covenant. This would be similar to someone coming to Christ, denying him, and becoming a Muslim. In other words, this would be a case of denying or rejecting Christ, but it would not be a case of sinning your way out of salvation.

Even with these caveats being made, we still don’t find this view tenable, when pitted against other passages that teach the impossibility of losing our salvation (c.f. Jn. 5:24; 6:37-40; 10:27-30; Heb. 7:25; Rom. 8:1; 1 Pet. 1:3-5; Eph. 1:13-14; see our earlier article “Eternal Security”).

VIEW #2 Christians who are caught in ritualism

This position argues that these are believers, but they will not bear fruit, while they are under legalism and ritualism. This interpretation hinges on an alternate reading of verse 6. It is possible to read this as “while they again crucify to themselves…” (see NASB footnote) This would mean that they are not able to repent “while” they are engaging in OT ritualism. Here the people are not the ones who are burned up; it is the fruit that is burned up. This might refer to current spiritual fruit or judgment at our reward seat (1 Cor. 3:10-15; 2 Cor. 5:10). We find this view highly possible, and it would resolve the problems regarding eternal security.

VIEW #3: Non-Christians who never had salvation

Advocates of this view note that this passage uses guarded language about these apparent believers. For instance, they don’t drink of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13); they merely taste it (v.4-5). They are not sealed with the Spirit (Eph. 1:13; 4:30); they merely partake in it (v.4). This would be similar to a non-Christian who comes around fellowship for a while, but he never actually receives Christ.

It’s possible that the author is ambiguous about whether or not these are actual believers, because his audience is a mixed-bag of regenerate Jews and unregenerate ones. Imagine if you met a “believer” who still performed animal sacrifices to earn forgiveness! Wouldn’t you question whether or not this person was actually a Christian? Therefore, the author of Hebrews uses this warning to polarize these people in the church who may or may not be true Christians. Moreover, the author uses “They, them, those…” language to refer to these false believers, but he contrasts this in verse 9 when speaking to the true Christians (“But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you…”). We find this view to be possible—given the background of Hebrews. It also resolves the problem of eternal security.

[1] Morris, Leon. Hebrews. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12: Hebrews through Revelation (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1981. 53.

[2] Morris, Leon. Hebrews. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12: Hebrews through Revelation (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1981. 55.