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Can a Regenerate Christian Fall Away from the Faith?: Biblical Reflections on Hebrews 6

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  • Can a Regenerate Christian Fall Away from the Faith?: Biblical Reflections on Hebrews 6

    by John Hendryx

    There are those who teach that Hebrews chapter six is a clear statement that Christians can fall away from the faith and thereby lose their salvation. The purpose of this short reflection is not only to show this to be a erroneous interpretation, but also that the persons making such assertions are in danger of making the very error which the passage is warning about. Lets take a look at the passage together:

    "....it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.: - Hebrews 6: 4-8


    Perhaps this is one of the most terrifying passages in Scripture, but, as is usually the case, when a passage is read in isolation and without regard to the context of the surrounding passage, theological error is bound to creep in.

    We all know that Hebrews was written to give witness to the superiority of Jesus Christ to all other means of pleasing God such as temple sacrifice and the Law. In fact He is seen as replacing them all. Jesus Christ is shown to be more excellent than the Prophets (1:1), Angels (1:4-14), Moses (3: 3-6), the Levitical Priesthood and sacrifice (Heb. 5 & 9) and even Abraham (7: 4-14). The new covenant is shown to be better than the old because it fulfills everything the old covenant pointed to (Heb 8). Jesus Himself is revealed as the climax of the covenant of grace. The author of Hebrews says, "Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises." (Heb 8:6) Since this is the case, the text warns that, we must pay more attention and not fall away from believing that Jesus alone is sufficient, and is therefore more excellent, by order of magnitude, than all other means of pleasing God. There is no hope in trusting, even partly in, anything else as they can never forgive sins or make you just before God.

    The passage that warns the Hebrews against falling away is warning them against one thing: abandoning trust in Christ alone by going back to now worthless and obsolete things, such as trusting in the temple sacrifice and obedience to the Law in order to be justified. The warnings are given to those in the faith community that they would not be tempted to turn from trusting Jesus alone (who is God over all) to some lesser, meaningless or obsolete ritual act that supposedly now can curry God's favor. Trusting in anything except Christ alone, who is the light that scatters all shadows, is said to be tantamount to "trampling under foot the Son of God" believing that His once of all sacrifice is insufficient in itself to save. If something in place of, or in addition to, Jesus is trusted in it is no different than a denial of Him. So in context, the persons who go back by trading in Christ for the now-empty ritual of the temple (that itself was meant to point to the fulfillment in Christ), are then re-crucifying the Son to their shame. Hebrews 6:4-8 is often read in isolation apart from this context.

    Tragically, the very next text (which is crucial) is also often left off by those who claim regenerate Christians can fall away ... a text which qualifies the preceding text. The writer of Hebrews in verse 9 says, "Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things--things that belong to salvation." If the author of Hebrews is confident of better things of the persons he is speaking with, things that belong to salvation, then obviously falling away does not belong to it. This is a clear statement that the author was not describing saving faith of those who are in danger of falling away in the preceding passage, because the kind of response that falls away, he says, are not among the "things that belong to salvation." So whatever the things the author just described about falling away in Heb 6:4-8 are not the characteristics of true regenerate persons. People can be enlightened and taste and partake .... They may be externally a part of the church and receive external blessings, yet if they abandon trust in Christ for ritual or something else, there is no hope for their salvation. They were never regenerate to begin with for falling away does not accompany or belong to true salvation, according to the text.

    Ironically, those who teach that this passage speaks of the ability of regenerate Christians to fall away are actually committing the very error the passage itself warns against. How do I figure? The very assertion that a Christian can lose their salvation is tantamount to saying that what Christ accomplished on the cross was insufficient to save completely and so you need to (at least partly) trust in yourself to maintain your own righteousness, and this is not unlike Roman Catholic theology. To say Christ can lose us is the same as believing that what Christ did is not enough for us... That you MUST MAINTAIN YOUR OWN JUSTIFICATION.

    This is a form of legalistic self-justification to believe that you can either attain or maintain your own righteousness before God and it is itself a denial of Christ, the very error the Hebrews were tempted to make, that the author was speaking of. In fact this is a backdoor to the Galatian heresy where Paul says, "Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" (Gal 3:3) To believe one can lose salvation, therefore, is trusting in something other than Jesus Christ to keep you righteous in Him. The Hebrews were tempted to go back to temple sacrifice (trusting in something other than Christ) and the doctrine that one can lose salvation is likewise trusting in ones' own moral ability to maintain a just standing before God, since Jesus, according to them, is unable to save completely those who He came to save. Even though the author of Hebrews declares that Jesus "is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him (Heb 7:25) and "by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified" (Heb 10:14), Either we are trusting in Christ alone to both attain and maintain our just standing before God or we are trusting in something worthless which the author of Hebrews gives severe warnings about. Quite ironic. That passage is a warning passage for the very error those who teach we can lose salvation are making.

    In the passage, turning back to Judaism is a deliberate and final forsaking of Christ and the guilt of His blood. They had been enlightened by the Word, tasted of the sacrament of the Lord's supper, shared as companions in the Holy Spirit i.e. shared the benefits of His supernatural work and manifestations.... ... Perhaps you may recall the passage in the gospels where Jesus describes something similar about those who approach Him on judgment day. "On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'" These persons shared in the outward benefits of church but trusted in something other than Jesus alone to both attain and maintain their salvation. "I never knew you" spoken to those who did miracles clearly indicates that while such people shared outwardly in covenant benefits, were themselves never at any time saved. Jesus did not say, "I knew you at one time and now I don't know you any longer." No, never means never. Again, the belief that a regenerate Christian can fall away, like some Hebrews were tempted to do, is dangerously close to believing that Christ in Himself is not sufficient to maintain our just standing before God: "we must do something in addition to what Jesus did to remain justified." Those who believe such things take heed to the warning and trust in Christ, not self, who is both the author and perfecter of our salvation.

    Question: "But doesn't that go against the doctrine of efficacious grace? Is it possible for the Spirit to work on someone only partly?"

    Answer: The doctrine of efficacious grace does not mean, nor has it ever meant, that every influence of the Holy Spirit cannot be resisted. In Acts 7:51 Stephen says to the Jewish leaders, "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit as your fathers did." And Paul speaks of grieving and quenching the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30; 1 Thessalonians 5:19). It means, rather, that the Holy Spirit can and does overcome all resistance and make his influence irresistible according to His sovereign good pleasure at a time of His choosing. The Spirit does not exercise efficacious grace every time we preach the gospel to someone. When God undertakes to fulfill his eternal purpose to save those he covenanted with the Son to save (John 6:37, 39), no one can successfully resist Him. Notice in the passage in Acts above it says those who resist the Holy Spirit are "uncircumcised in heart and ears" >>> a phrase used for the unregenerate and yet in this passage the Spirit at work is being resisted. The gospel is being preached, the Spirit is at work but men are resisting. WHY? Because, the passage says, their hearts are "uncircumcised"!!!! They are natural men and cannot think spiritual thoughts. Water does not rise above its source. Their ears must first be circumcised by the Spirit or they will continue be hostile to the gospel for that is what they are by nature. Not being willing to repent is the same as resisting the Holy Spirit. So if God gives repentance (John 6:65, 2 Tim 2:25) it is the same as removing that hostile resistance. This is why we call this work of God "irresistible grace".Also see 6:67-39

    So this should be sufficient evidence in itself that the Spirit does often work partly, and not savingly, toward individuals. This is also what Paul explained in Romans 9:14-18, which caused a similar opponent to say, "Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" To which Paul answers: "Who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, 'Why have you made me thus?' Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use?" (Romans 9:20f).

    Efficacious grace refers to the sovereign work of God to overcome the rebellion of our heart and bring us to faith in Christ so that we can and will be saved. That is why no one can enter the kingdom unless they are first born again. As for Hebrews 6:9, this text clearly proves that whatever was described in the previous text about falling away was not equal to salvation. So this alone disqualifies this verse from meaning what you may believe it to mean.

    Question: if perseverance of the saints is true then why do we need to give true Christians warnings?

    Answer: Because the Holy Spirit almost always uses means to accomplish His purposes. Just as the Holy Spirit does not usually save people in a void but through the preaching of the gospel, so likewise He sustains and feeds the saints through the preaching of the word, prayer, fellowship and sacraments. The Word only has value to us if the Holy Spirit applies it to our heart and likewise the Holy Spirit does not work in a void but uses means just as a seed needs water to grow. There may be extraordinary circumstances where a Muslim may be converted to Christianity in some remote region of northeastern China after hearing a radio broadcast, a person who does not have a Bible or a preacher at hand. In such circumstances the Holy Spirit may sustain a true believer by pouring out an extra portion of Himself, but commonly the Spirit only feeds/sustains His people though the appointed means. God both calls us to persevere and promises to preserve us (John 15:16).

    Here are some passages which show that we MUST persevere to the end: Colossians 1:21-23; 1 John 1:5-10; 3:3-6; Hebrews 10:26-3; Hebrews 12:1

    And likewise here are passages which teach that true believers WILL persevere to the end: John 6:38-40; John 10:28-29; Romans 8:28-39; Philippians 1:4-6; Philippians 2:12-13 1 John 2:19

    Question: So if a fake Christian falls away (thus, proving he was never saved in the first place), he can "never be renewed unto repentance"? Why -- now we are confronted with a problem against Unconditional Election. Some people are too evil to become saved.

    The sin these persons were tempted to commit, according to the text we are investigating, is they had received all possible external benefits, light and conviction of the Spirit, to bring them to faith yet they chose to finally reject Christ alone as Savior ...going back to Temple sacrifice.

    There is a point, the gospels testify, where sin against the Holy Spirit results in God giving persons over to their sin to such a degree that there is a point of no return. This is a seared conscience. Obviously, that is not something for us to determine, but for God. We will always continue to proclaim the gospel to the most hardened persons (from our perspectives).

    Question: Would you consider those who teach a Christian can "fall away" i.e. lose their salvation; are these people false teachers and therefore not saved? I make mention to this because it this current paper, it seems you are saying those who teach this doctrine (falling away) are trusting in something other than Christ? i.e. "another gospel". Any thoughts or comments on this?

    We would all probably agree that anyone who denies that salvation is by Christ alone is teaching a false gospel. Those who assert that someone can lose their salvation are essentially saying that what Jesus did for them is insufficient .. that something else needs to be added to His incomplete work. This is exactly the kind of nonsense from Roman Catholicism that was the major cause of the event we call the Reformation. Of course, our theology does not need to be perfect to be saved, and Jesus often saved people in spite of their bad theology, but in this case, it is quite clear that those who teach there is something you must do to maintain your own just standing before God are undermining the gospel at its core. I would be quite concerned about such a person ... that may have never understood the gospel at all.

    To such a person I might say "salvation is based ENTIRELY on who Jesus is and what He has done for us, not on what you have done for Him. As long as you put hope in yourself (even partly), you have no hope you will ever be good enough to please God. There is no hope save in the mercy of Jesus Christ alone. He alone has fulfilled the Law and absorbed the just punishment of death due to our sin upon His own body and was raised to life on the third day. Trust not in yourself to attain or maintain your salvation - it is an absolutely frivolous exercise. The gospel is about what Jesus has done. If your faith is in Him, not in yourself, then you can have assurance that your sins are forgiven. But as long as you retain some hope in your own efforts or morality to save you, you will be lost. This does not mean that, with the help of Christ, we should not strive to be moral ... we should... it means, rather that we should not trust in it.

    In Christ, God does not treat you as your sins justly deserve. Cling to Christ. Do not look to your own failures, but to Christ. No one on earth measures up to God's holy standard save Jesus Christ alone. if you trust in Him you can be assured by the word of God that your sins are forgiven..
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