[revised on 7/17/08]
Is Restoration Really Impossible?
After studying the warning passages in Hebrews the question naturally arises: can an apostate ever be restored again to salvation? Is the repudiation of saving faith irrevocable and the condition of the apostate permanent?
In this series we have attempted to let exegesis guide our theology. I would like for the doctrine of eternal security to be true for many reasons just as I would prefer to believe that there is no place of eternal fire waiting for all those who reject Christ. However, I believe that hell is a terrifying reality and that genuine believers can fall away from the faith to their own eternal ruin because I find that careful exegesis force these truths upon us. In dealing with the question of whether or not apostates can be restored, we must look beyond what we would most like to believe and concern ourselves only with what the word of God teaches.
We have found in Hebrews 6:4 that it is impossible for the apostate to be renewed again to repentance. The Bible is clear that only through repentance can one be saved (Acts 2:38; 11:18). Hebrews 10:26 tells us that there is “no sacrifice for sins” remaining for the apostate. “The apostate has sins but no available sacrifice for his sins. Having rejected the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ, there is no other sacrifice to which to turn.” (F. Leroy Forlines, The Quest for Truth, pg. 281)
Some have focused on the part of the warning which states, “seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and exposed him to an open shame.” Robert Picirilli notes that the “seeing” is provided by the translator as a transition showing cause and effect. The literal meaning of the passage is “(they) re-crucifying to (or, for) themselves the Son of God and exposing (Him) to public shame.” (Grace, Faith, Free Will, pg. 222) He later notes that some see in this passage the possibility of restoration from said apostasy. He makes reference to Robert Shank’s suggestion that the passage should be understood as “It is impossible to renew them to repentance so long as they are crucifying…and publicly shaming Him.” (ibid. 223- emphasis mine). Picirilli rightly points out that this view turns the warning into meaningless tautology:
Shank’s interpretation winds up saying that it is impossible to renew them to repentance so long as he persists in rejection- which is not much of a point since it is always impossible to bring anyone to repentance so long as he persists in rejection. (ibid. 224)
He then goes on to quote F.F. Bruce who calls this interpretation “a truism hardly worth putting into words.” It makes far more sense to see the passage as speaking of the causal relationship between the act of apostasy and the result of that act (re-crucifying the Son of God and putting Him to open shame).
Apostasy and the Presumptuous sin of Numbers 15:30, 31
It is important to remember that the sin of apostasy described in Hebrews is an “eyes wide open” type of sin. It is done with an attitude of arrogance and disbelief. It is not a matter of doubting the truth of the gospel, but actively and deliberately repudiating that truth. It is not an issue of struggling with sin and failing in that struggle, but fully and rebelliously surrendering to sin in a deliberate act of defiance towards God. There is no way to accidentally slip into such an act and not realize it. It is done deliberately and is an outright act of unbelief.
Forlines sees a connection between the sin of the apostate and the presumptuous sin that is described in Numbers 15:30, 31. He writes:
I do not think there is any doubt that the writer of Hebrews meant to say that the ‘willful sin’ of Hebrews 10:26 was the same kind of sin as the presumptuous sin in Numbers 15:30, 31. There was no sacrifice for the presumptuous sin. There is an obvious connection between the words ‘There remaineth no more sacrifice for sins’ (verse 26) and the fact that there was no sacrifice for sins in the case of the presumptuous sins in Numbers 15:30, 31…Presumptuous sins were committed with a ‘high hand.’ They came from an attitude of arrogant, defiant, unbelief. According to Numbers 15:30, 31, there was no sacrifice for presumptuous sins. If, in fact, the sin of apostasy mentioned in Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-29 is to be equated with the presumptuous sin of Numbers 15:30, 31, that should settle forever the question of whether apostasy is without remedy. (The Quest for Truth, pg. 282)
Forlines is careful to distinguish between the presumptuous sin and “sins of ignorance”:
The Old Testament makes a clear distinction between sins of ignorance and presumptuous sins. Sins of ignorance (also called “unintentional sins”) were basically sins of weakness. The person who committed such a sin had better desires, but these desires were defeated. The one committing such a sin was to offer a sacrifice (Num. 15:27-29)…Once we see the distinction between presumptuous sins and sins of ignorance in the Old Testament, it is clear that this distinction comes over in the New Testament. It is evident that when Jesus said, ‘Father forgive them; for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34), He was considering the sins of those who crucified Him to be in the category of sins of ignorance. In Acts 3:17, Peter said that the Jews had crucified Jesus through ignorance. For that reason, they could be forgiven (Acts 3:19). In describing himself before his conversion, Paul said, ‘Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious.’ In explaining how it was that he could be forgiven, he said, ‘But I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief’ (1 Tim. 1:13). It is clear that Paul was placing his sins of blasphemy and his persecution of the church in the category of sins of ignorance. It was for that reason that they could be forgiven. (ibid. 282, 283)
And in the case of Peter he writes:
I believe that if Paul’s persecution of the church could be considered a sin of ignorance that surely Peter’s denial of Christ on the night of the betrayal of Christ should be considered a sin of ignorance (or weakness). If that be true, the case of Peter would have no bearing on the question of whether there is or is not a remedy for apostasy. (ibid. 283)
We will return to the case of Peter shortly. Forlines finds further evidence for the connection between presumptuous sins and apostasy in the description of the apostate teachers of 2 Peter 2:
Verse 10 of 2 Peter 2 sheds more light on the subject. In this verse Peter describes these apostates teachers as tolmetes. The KJV translates tolmetesas “presumptuous.” The NASB renders it as “daring.” The NIV translates it as “arrogant.” Tolmetesoccurs only here in the New Testament. Concerning its use here, J.A. Moyter explains, ‘The single occurrence of the noun (tolmetes) is clearly in the bad sense…, the arrogant man of 2 Peter 2:10 who brooks no restriction on self-will and recognizes no authority to which he will be answerable.’
It is clear that Peter is considering these false teachers to be guilty of the presumptuous sin of Numbers 15:30, 31. The arrogant, defiance of these apostates gives a finality to their action. Before they were saved they did not have this finality about their lost condition. The presumptuous, daring, arrogant decision with which they committed apostasy means that it was done with finality. This puts them in worse condition then they were before they were saved. (ibid. 284)
I believe that Forlines has correctly identified apostasy as described in Hebrews 6 and 10 with the unforgivable presumptuous sin of Num.15:30, 31 (though in the OT presumptuous sins might be any sin that is done in arrogant rebellion, whereas in Hebrews such a “sin” would pertain only to outright rejection of saving faith). It would also be correct then to identify apostasy with the unpardonable sin described by Jesus in the Gospels. The important Biblical distinction between presumptuous sin and sins of ignorance will help us better understand what apostasy entails and what it does not entail:
I believe that we can rest assured that the person who comes to talk to us about his or her fears of having committed the unpardonable sin does not fit the description of the people described in 2 Peter 2:20, 21; Hebrews 6:4-6; and 10:26-29. If there is concern to be restored to a right relationship with God, such a person has not committed apostasy. (ibid.)
It seems certain that the “sin unto death” described by John in 1 John 5:16-17 is the unforgivable sin of apostasy as described in Hebrews 6 and 10. This would suggest that one can, in certain situations, know that someone is an apostate without any hope of renewal since John instructs us not to pray for such types. There is no need to pray for those who have sinned in such a way since there is no possibility for renewal. Our prayers would therefore be a waste of time and would be better served towards those who have not yet committed apostasy. This does not, however, mean that we can always tell when someone has committed irrevocable apostasy. It only means that there are cases in which the apostasy could be obvious enough that we should not waste time praying for that person. We need, however, to be careful not to make rash judgments concerning those who may seem to have committed apostasy. Forlines gives us some good practical advice along these lines:
The people in the U.S. who have come to me with their fears have not said that, in their past, they had made a decision to denounce their faith in Christ. The situation in Russia presented a different problem. When I spoke on this subject there, some real concerns were expressed. In a discussion period, someone said that he had known someone who under persecution had renounced his faith in Christ. Later on the person had repented.
In order to evaluate a case like that we need to keep I mind the distinction between presumptuous sins and sins of ignorance. It is not simply what a person does or says that determines the case. Attitude is a decisive factor. In explaining how he was able to get forgiveness for persecuting the church, Paul is certainly implying that if he had done what he had done “presumptuously,” there would have been no forgiveness.
We cannot imagine the suffering inflicted, in times past, upon some people in Russia [not to mention the early Christians] to get them to deny their faith. Death was merciful in light of the severe torture to which some were subjected. I think we should have to say that it was certainly possible for the lips to utter the words of a denial of faith that did not represent an arrogant, defiant, unbelief toward God. If that be the case, the words of denial that the person uttered would not be equivalent to apostasy or shipwreck of faith. It appears that there were some who spoke words of denial that did not in fact commit apostasy. But I do not think that we can explain all cases that way…based on my experience in talking with people, I would caution preachers about jumping too quickly to the conclusion that the person who talks with them about having committed apostasy has, indeed done so. I think it would be better to take it as a plea for help. (ibid. 284, 285)
Is There Another Type of Apostasy?
But is there perhaps a type of apostasy that can be remedied; an apostasy that does not constitute an outright repudiation of the faith from the heart? There are several passages which speak plainly of the fact that those who live in sin will reap death and have no inheritance in the Kingdom of God (Rom. 8:12-13; Eph. 5:-7; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; 6:7-8). These warnings are directed toward believers. Is it possible that one can fall into a pattern of sin and rebellion without fully repudiating the Lord in their heart?
I think that the evidence is clear that believers are warned against living in sin with the consequence of such lifestyles being spiritual death and being cut off from God’s Kingdom. Would such a lifestyle only be possible after one finally apostatizes from the faith? The writer of Hebrews again and again warns his readers of the deceitfulness and terrible hardening affects of continued sin. This hardening, if left unchecked, will ultimately lead to that dreadful act of apostasy from which there is no possibility of restoration.
The case of Peter may serve as an example. We have determined that Peter did not commit apostasy as described in Hebrews, but it seems clear that Peter did commit some form of apostasy since Jesus speaks of when he shall be again “converted” or “turned back.” (Luke 22:31, 32). There was a sense, then, in which Peter turned from the Lord. Why else should he need to be converted again?
Perhaps there is an apostasy from which one can be restored. But it may be that these passages are warning against a life characterized by sin because such a life will soon lead to apostasy. So when Paul speaks of not inheriting the Kingdom of God, he is speaking of what will happen if sinful living persists to the point of apostasy. One who sows to please the flesh will surely reap spiritual death and eternal destruction, but only if one does not repent. Therefore, the dreadful consequence looks ahead to what will inevitably transpire if sin is not dealt with. Sin is extremely dangerous because if one persists in it and does not fight against it, apostasy and spiritual death lie just around the corner.
James reminds his Christian readers [brothers] that, “if one should wander from the truth and someone bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19-20) What does James mean here? Is he suggesting that one who wanders away from the truth can experience a spiritual death and yet be restored again? Or is he merely saying that the wandering saint is being rescued from the spiritual death that surely awaits him if he persists in sin and continues to wander to the point of outright apostasy? Either interpretation seems possible.
And what of 1 John 2:11, 15? John plainly tells us that anyone who hates his brother is in darkness and does not possess eternal life. Is it impossible then for a Christian to ever hate? Such a conclusion seems very unlikely. Don’t these passages then tell us that spiritual death results when a believer hates his brother? But again, John may only be speaking of persistence in hate which is characteristic of unbelief. While a Christian may hate his brother, he will not persist in that hatred unto spiritual death. Rather, he will yield to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, confess his sin and be cleansed from all unrighteousness. Persistence in hatred would then indicate that one has become an unbeliever.
In Romans 11:23 we are told that the unbelieving Jews (branches) may yet be grafted in again if they do not persist in unbelief. Many have concluded from this that apostasy can be remedied. However, it may be that these Jews would fall into the same category as Paul before his conversion. They had been broken off due to their rejection of the Christ but that rejection may be the result of ignorance which would therefore make restoration possible. However, Paul does not hold out hope for those Gentile believers who have been grafted in by faith in Jesus Christ. He tells them that they should not be arrogant, but afraid because if they fail to continue in God’s grace they too will be broken off. Paul says nothing of the possibility of their being grafted in again. Perhaps this is because for them being broken off could only result from outright apostasy from which there is no possibility of restoration.
What then of Peter’s second “conversion?” His turning back may simply be a description of his repentance. If what we have concluded about the nature of apostasy is true, then this would further confirm that Peter’s denials did not constitute apostasy. If he had committed apostasy as described in Hebrews 6 and 10, it would have been impossible for him to “turn back.”
But what about those who have gradually stopped living according to their faith without outright repudiation of that faith? Is it still possible to become an apostate of sorts without repudiating the faith in quite the same prideful way as described in Hebrews 6 and 10? Some of the passages above could fit comfortably with such a concept and at least two more passages come to mind that might make room for such an apostasy:
Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you- unless indeed you failed the test? (1 Cor. 13:5)
Paul’s words seem to suggest that one could abandon saving faith without being fully aware of it. For this reason, we need to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith. It seems possible then that a believer can slowly slip away from the faith while clinging to the false hope that he or she is still saved. In other words, a believer may begin to cling to the world and indulge the sinful nature more and more until his faith is no longer characterized by true trust and surrender to Christ as Lord and Savior. For this reason, we are admonished to examine ourselves and be sure that we are living in faith. If our lives do not reflect the walk of faith, then we have no grounds for presuming to be in saving relationship with Christ (Rom. 8:12-14). We cannot assume that Christ’s grace continues for those who desire to live for themselves, even while claiming to believe on Christ (Titus 2:11-14). To be in the faith means more than just head belief. It is a faith that affects our lives and attitudes. It is dangerous business to assume that the grace of God allows for us to live any way we want as long as we continue to give lip service to the Lord:
They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed. (Titus 1:16)
If we examine ourselves and find that our profession of faith is nothing more than mere profession, then we have “failed the test” and as a result, Christ is not in us. If Christ is not in us then we are surely lost (Rom. 8:9). Is there any hope of restoration from such an abandonment of saving faith? Paul does not explicitly affirm the possibility of restoration, but his words seem to suggest the possibility. There is reason to examine ourselves. The reason would seem to be for the purpose of returning to the faith and re-committing ourselves fully to the Lord.
So perhaps this would constitute an apostasy that can yet be remedied. This would then not be the same as the apostasy described in Hebrews 6 and 10 which seems to be characterized by an attitude of arrogance and deliberate unbelief. In either case we need to guard ourselves against complacency in our walk with the Lord. If we begin to take God’s grace for granted and make room for sin and rebellion in our lives, there is no guarantee that we will not continue down that path to our own destruction, and even to a point of making restoration impossible. We should heed well the words of the inspired apostle:
Grace and knowledge be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence…Now for this reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these qualities is blind or shortsighted, having forgotten his purification form his former sins. Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you. (2 Peter 1:2-11-emphasis mine).
There are several things to note in this passage. First, God gives us the power we need to persevere in saving faith. It is not something we can do of our own strength. Second, the walk of faith should not be stagnant. It should be a walk of continual growth and maturity. If we are not maturing in our faith then we are putting ourselves at risk of falling away from that faith. Third, Peter makes it clear that those who do not persevere and mature in their faith were truly forgiven of their past sins though they have forgotten the significance of their initial cleansing. Therefore, Peter is not just speaking of false professors who had never experienced saving faith. Fourth, only by continuing in the maturity of faith does one make his calling and election sure, avoid stumbling [falling] and gain the certainty of entering the eternal kingdom of Christ.
It may be wise then to make a distinction between apostasy and irrevocable apostasy based on these passages. There is certainly an apostasy that cannot be remedied if our exegesis of the Hebrews warning passages is correct. However, it also seems that there may be a lesser apostasy. This apostasy is not lesser because spiritual death does not result, but because there may still be hope of restoration through repentance and re-commitment to Christ in saving faith.
Conclusion: The evidence seems clear that apostasy as described in Hebrews 6 and 10 is a deliberate act of rebellious unbelief. It is done with all the heart in an attitude of arrogance and defiance. Occasional doubts or struggles with sin do not constitute such apostasy. Rather, it is the act of willfully walking away from Christ and completely rejecting the truth of the gospel once embraced. This apostasy is without remedy since “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance.”
There are passages that seem to suggest that there is a type of apostasy from which one may yet be restored. However, some of these passages may also be understood as warnings against the sinful lifestyles that will inevitably result in apostasy if those sins are not dealt with through confession and repentance. They may be emphasizing the dangers of sin by looking ahead to the most dreadful of consequences if that sin is persistently ignored and surrendered to. Still, there are a few passages that may yet describe an apostasy from which one may be restored again to faith and salvation. This apostasy could be described as no longer living according to the faith one professes (1 Cor. 13:5; Titus 1:16). It would, for this reason, fall short of the outright rebellious abandonment of faith described in Hebrews 6 and 10.
Sin can lead to apostasy by hardening the heart to the point of unbelief. That is why sin is such a dangerous thing and should never be trivialized in the life of the believer. If believers persist in sinful living and refuse to repent, irrevocable apostasy may be just around the corner. This “sinning” could be the unrepentant indulgence of the flesh, or the gradual tolerance of false teaching. There is still hope of restoration and repentance prior to the decisive act of willful unbelief. We can therefore be sure that if one desires to repent and be restored to right relationship with the Lord that irrevocable apostasy has not yet occurred.
While there will be cases of outright apostasy that we can observe and conclude with certainty that apostasy has occurred, there are other times where it will not be so easy to determine whether irrevocable apostasy has taken place. We should hold out hope for the one who appears to have committed such apostasy as long as some doubt remains concerning the genuineness of the act.
Related Post: Does Scripture Describe Two Types of Apostasy?