Perseverance of the Saints Part 7: Who is Sanctified in Hebrews 10:29?

We will now examine one of the alternative interpretations offered by the proponents of unconditional security concerning the apostate of Hebrews 10:29 being “sanctified by the blood of the covenant”.  Calvinists are well aware that if the text is stating that the apostate had truly been sanctified by Christ’s blood, then their doctrine cannot stand.  It is for this reason that these alternative interpretations are offered despite the clear language of the warning.The first attempt is to assert that the one sanctified by the blood of the covenant is not the apostate at all, but Christ Himself.  Grudem does not hold to this view but believes it is worthy of careful consideration (Still Sovereign, pg. 178, footnote #91), while Calvinists Peterson and Williams find it unacceptable (Why I Am Not An Arminian, pg. 86, footnote #24).

The argument is well presented in James White’s book, The Potter’s Freedom, and for this reason we will interact with his defense of this particular interpretation.  He writes:

The error that is often made in regards to this passage is to understand “by which he was sanctified” to refer to the person who goes on sinning willfully against the blood of Christ… But remembering yet again the argument of the writer we see that the writer is referring to Christ as the one who is sanctified, set apart, shown to be holy, by his own sacrifice, and that this is why it is such a terrible thing to know of the power and purpose of Christ’s blood and yet treat it as “common,” like any of the sacrifices of goats and bulls offered under the old system. (pp. 244, 245)

James White then quotes John Owen as support for his unusual interpretation, and then concludes,

The dire warning of this passage, then, comes from understanding that there is no more sacrifice for sins.  Christ has offered Himself once, and has, thereby, perfected those for whom he dies.  To treat that perfect sacrifice, then, as “common” by going back to the repetitive sacrifices of the old system is to spit in the very face of the Son of God.  What kind of punishment, indeed, is fitting in such a situation! (ibid. 245)

In examining White’s claim that the one “sanctified” by the “blood of the covenant” is “Christ, the Son of God”, and not the apostate, it is very important that we have a clear understanding of what “sanctified” means in this passage.  While the word generally means “set apart”, the context must determine how the word is being used.  Does sanctified simply mean “set apart” in this passage, or does it have reference to something more?  It is clear that Mr. White wants us to look no further than “set apart” as it will allow him to better apply this word to Christ, and not necessarily to the apostate being addressed in the passage.

Again, White writes, “But remembering again the argument of the writer [Christ’s superiority as a high Priest] we see that the writer is referring to Christ as the one who is sanctified, set apart, shown to be holy, by his own sacrifice.” He quotes Owen favorably, who offers John 17:19; Heb 2:10; 5:7, 9; 9:11, 12 as Scriptures supporting this novel interpretation.  We will therefore examine each text to see if they are applicable to the verse in question.  But first, we will look at some other passages in Hebrews, as well as related passages elsewhere in Scripture, in order to determine if something more than being “set apart” is meant by the word “sanctified” in Heb. 10:29.

Chapters 9 and 10 are, as James White has pointed out, addressing Christ’s superiority to the Levitical priests of the old covenant.  The writer is especially concerned with the soul cleansing power of Christ’s blood in contrast to the blood of animals used in the old economy.  While the blood of “goats and calves” could “sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh”, the holy blood of Christ is able to “cleanse” our “conscience” (9:13, 14).  We are reminded that it is “impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:4), but that “the blood of Christ has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (10:14), and that having been so cleansed by Christ’s blood we “have confidence to enter the holy place” (10:19), “having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (10:22).  The blood of Christ is the means by which we are forgiven and justified.

We can conclude from these passages that the blood of Christ sanctifies sinners by a real and powerful cleansing.  While the blood of animals merely represented cleansing, and could therefore “never take away sins” (10:11), the blood of Christ truly cleanses the sinner from the guilt and stain of sin, and thereby makes him holy.  This same concept is expressed in 1 John 1:7, “but if we walk in the light…we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (Emphasis mine), and in 1 Peter 1:1, 2 with regards to those “who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with his blood…”(Emphasis mine).  Here we also see that the Spirit of God is the Agent who applies the cleansing power of Christ’s blood to the sinner (see also 2 Thess. 2:13).

We should especially mention Hebrews 13:12, “Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through his own blood, suffered outside the gate” (Emphasis mine).  The language here is important as it closely parallels the language of Heb. 10:29, “…who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified” (Emphasis mine).  We see that in Heb. 13:12, it is the “people” who are sanctified by Christ’s blood, and not Jesus Christ Himself!  It is also the most natural reading of Heb. 10:29 that it is the person who has regarded the blood as unclean who had, himself, been previously sanctified by that same blood.  It is hard to imagine that any honest reader would conclude that the apostate and the one sanctified are different persons, unless driven by a prior commitment to “Reformed” theology.   Nowhere in the book of Hebrews, or anywhere else in Scripture, do we read that Christ Himself was sanctified by His own blood, nor could there be any reason for the holy and blameless Son of God to need such a cleansing.  The blood of Christ was shed for the sanctification of sinners and not for Himself!

So what of John Owen’s Scripture references cited by Mr. White?  Do they teach that Jesus Christ was sanctified by his own blood?  We will first examine the passages cited from Hebrews, and then deal with the reference made to John 17:19.

Heb. 2:10 reads, “For it was fitting for Him [God the Father], for whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect forever the author of their salvation through sufferings.”  It is hard to see why Owen would refer us to this passage in support of his position.  While the passage tells us that Christ was perfected through “sufferings”, this is far from teaching that He was sanctified by His own blood.  If we read a little further we will see what these “sufferings” have reference to, “For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (verse18).

While this passage does not lend any real support to James White’s interpretation, it does further verify that only sinners are sanctified by Christ’s blood.  The very next verse reads, “For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren.”  Clearly, Christ is the one “who sanctifies”, and the people are the ones who are “sanctified”, and are therefore made worthy to be called His “brethren”.  This passage says nothing of Christ sanctifying Himself by His own blood, but rather teaches the exact opposite of what White is contending for.

Heb. 5:7, 9 reads,   “In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety….And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation.”  Again, we must ask ourselves where it is said in these verses that Christ was cleansed [sanctified] by His own blood?  If we simply supply the verse between 7 and 9, which Owen strangely omits, we see again that Christ was perfected through His sufferings, “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience through the things which He suffered.”  These “sufferings” may have reference to His being tempted as in 2:18, or it may have reference to His agonizing in the garden- offering “prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears” (vs. 7), or it may have reference to His suffering and dying on the cross, or all of these, but there isn’t the slightest reference here to Christ being sanctified by His own blood!

Heb. 9:11, 12 reads, “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the Holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.”  Certainly, Owen and Mr. White want us to focus on the words, “but through His own blood, He entered the holy place, once for all…”

Again, we must ask ourselves whether this means that Christ had to be sanctified by His own blood.  The key to understanding this passage is context.  Verse 7 says, “…but into the second [the Holy of Holies] only the high priest enters, once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance.”  The point that the writer is trying to make is that the priests of the old covenant were, themselves, sinful and therefore had to offer blood both for the purpose of cleansing themselves as well as the people.  They went into the Holy of Holies with the blood of goats and calves in order to offer them to God for cleansing.  Christ, unlike the priests of the old covenant, has no need of personal cleansing.  He does not enter the Holy of Holies with the blood of goats and calves to be offered to God, but rather enters through His own blood “once for all”, for He will never need to repeat His atoning sacrifice.

Verse 14, as we have already seen, again verifies that this precious blood was offered for the sole purpose of cleansing sinners.  We also see in verse 14 that Christ offered Himself “without blemish”, and for this reason did not, like the priests of old, need personal cleansing.  He was “without blemish” before He offered Himself, and could therefore not possibly have been sanctified by His own blood.  Heb. 7:26, 27 unmistakably drives this truth home,

For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself (emphasis mine).

Christ offered up Himself as the sacrifice perfectly acceptable to God, and He shed His precious and holy blood for the purpose of cleansing sinners, and not Himself.  Christ consecrated (sanctified) Himself through His life of perfect submission and obedience to the Father’s will, including His self sacrifice at Calvary’s cross.

John 17:19 reads, “And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.”  Here it is clearly taught that Christ “sanctified” Himself.  This is, without a doubt, Owen’s strongest argument.  We cannot assume, however, that the same concept expressed in Heb. 10:29 is being conveyed in this passage.  After all, this passage appears in an entirely different context and should be carefully considered in light of this context.  We must heed Mr. White’s advice and be very mindful that we are not “pressing onto Scripture a meaning that is not a part of the original context” (ibid. 27, 28).

We have seen that the purpose of sanctification in the context of Heb. 10:29 is primarily for the cleansing of the soul from the guilt and stain of sin, and that the means of this sanctification is the blood of Christ.  This is not the case in John 17:19.  In this passage, the word hagiazo is primarily concerned with being “set apart” from the world, and consecrated for a certain mission, and has no reference to the cleansing and purifying power of Christ’s blood (see John 10:36).

Jesus is praying to the Father concerning His disciples.  They have been “set apart” by their obedience to the “word” Jesus has given them (vss. 6, 14).  They are “in the world”, but not “of the world”, just as Christ is “not of the world” (vs. 16).  For this reason “the world has hated them” (vs. 14).  In verse 17 Christ prays that the Father will “Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth.”  Christ then says, “As you have sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.  And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves may be sanctified in truth.”

The means of sanctification for the disciples in this passage is “the word of truth” (see John 15:3), and not the blood of the covenant. They are “set apart” by their obedience to the word (vs. 6), and are consecrated for the purpose of bringing the word of truth to the world (vss. 21, 23).  In the same way Christ sanctifies Himself through His continued obedience to the Father’s will, culminating in His death on the cross (see Phil. 2:8).  The disciples are to follow His example of obedience in the face of suffering and death as they bring His message of truth to the world.  Christ’s obedience in holiness is what qualified Him to be the only acceptable and perfect sacrifice for our sins (Heb. 5:8, 9; 7:26).

It is for this reason that the interpretation James White wishes to press onto Heb. 10:29 is impossible.  Christ was a “faultless and pure lamb…. without blemish…holy, innocent, undefiled, and separated from sinners” (1 Pet. 1:19; Heb. 9:14; 7:26), and therefore had no need of being sanctified by His own blood.  To claim that Christ needed to be made holy by His own blood is like the erroneous Jewish teaching that the gold of the temple was more sacred than the temple (Matt. 23:16).  The temple made the gold sacred, and not the other way around.   Likewise, Christ’s blood is “holy” and makes “holy” (sanctifies) because it is His blood.  The holy and innocent Lamb makes His blood holy, and not the other way around.

We may find it disturbing to accept the possibility that one truly cleansed by Christ’s blood can yet apostatize and perish eternally, but we should be far more disturbed by any interpretation that seeks to make the holy and blameless Lamb of God in need of purification by His own blood.  Christ Himself made it perfectly clear that his blood was given to provide forgiveness for sinners (Luke 22:20; Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24, cf. Eph. 1:17), and could therefore never be given for the purpose of sanctifying Himself.

We conclude in agreement with Williams and Peterson who “reject as contrived John Owen’s idea, accepted by Roger Nicole and others, that en ho hegiasthe refers to Christ.” (Why I Am Not An Arminian, pg. 86, footnote #24).  In my next post we will examine the alternative interpretation offered by Robert Peterson and Michael Williams as well as the nearly identical interpretation suggested by Wayne Grudem.

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Perseverance of the Saints Part 6: Hebrews 10:26-30

We now examine what I consider to be the most significant warning against apostasy in the entire Bible: Hebrews 10:26-30, 35-39.  I will quote the entirety of the text I wish to examine below but this post will deal only with verses 26-30.  Verses 35-39 will be examined in a future post.

[26] For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, [27] but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. [28] Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. [29] How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? [30] For we know Him who said ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay.’  And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.” [31] It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God…[35] Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. [36] For you have need of endurance, so that you will have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised. [37] ‘For yet in a very little while, He who is coming will come, and will not delay. [38] But My righteous one will live by faith; and if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him.’  [39] But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.

We will examine this passage verse by verse with exegetical notes along the way.

Verse 26: “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins”

The willful sin described here is generally understood to be the sin of apostasy (the same as in Heb. 2:1; 3:12; 6:6 and 12:25).  It is the decisive act of repudiation of the faith.  This is the general consensus despite the present participle.  Calvinists Peterson and Williams write:

Because of the severity of the rest of this verse, we understand sinning “deliberately” as indicating a deliberate renunciation of one’s faith rather than speaking generally of intentional sin. [Why I Am Not An Arminian, pg. 85]

Donald A. Hagner agrees:

The words if we deliberately keep on sinning do not refer to ordinary sins, but to the most grievous and final sin, apostasy.  (NIV’s keep on sinning is an interpretive addition intended to reflect the present participle of the Greek; here, however, it may be that the KJV’s and the RSV’s straightforward “if we sin” is a more appropriate translation.) [NIBC: Hebrews, pg. 169]

The parallel with the other warning passages in Hebrews would support this interpretation.  The use of the present participle could also have reference to the continuing rebellion which hardens the heart to the point of outright apostasy, while it is the repudiation which results from this hardening that is specifically in view in the rest of the passage.

The second part of the passage tells us that this repudiation takes place “after receiving the knowledge of the truth”.  This is a significant phrase especially in light of the use of the Greek epignosis for “knowledge.” I will quote from my post on 2 Pet. 2:20 with regards to the significance of how this Greek word is used here:

It is significant that the Greek word for “knowledge” used in this passage is epignosis.  This Greek word is predominately used by NT writers with reference to a full and complete knowledge, in contrast to an investigative or superficial knowledge (gnosis).  Strong says of epignosis, “full discernment” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Greek word # 1922).  Kittel says, “The compound epignosis can take on almost a technical sense for conversion to Christianity” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 121 [one volume edition]).  Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words says of gnosis, “primarily a seeking to know, an enquiry, investigation”, and of the stronger epignosis: “denotes exact or full knowledge, discernment, recognition, and is a strengthened form of No. 1 [gnosis], expressing a fuller or a full knowledge, a greater participation by the knower of the object known, thus more powerfully influencing him” [pg. 631]. The NASB renders epignosis as “real knowledge” in Phil. 1:9, and “true knowledge” in 2 Pet. 1:3, 8. In Col. 1:9 epignosis has reference to “all spiritual wisdom and understanding” and “a spirit of wisdom and revelation” in Eph. 1:17 (also see Philemon 4-6).”

Especially consider the salvation language of 1 Tim. 2:3, 4, “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge [epignosis] of the truth”, compared with Heb. 10:26, “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge [epignosis] of the truth…”  While this is strong evidence in favor of viewing the apostate as one who had come to a complete and saving knowledge of the truth, the choice of epignosis by the writer of Hebrews does not, by itself, prove that such is the case.  Epignosis and gnosis are sometimes used interchangeably in Scripture but the stronger sense of epignosis should not be ignored.  Even if gnosis were used the context would still suggest saving knowledge.  Paul Ellingworth writes in his commentary on the Greek text that this “knowledge of the truth” is:

…the content of Christianity as the absolute truth (Bauer 2b); ‘the decisive knowledge of God which is implied in conversion to the Christian faith’ (R Bultmann in TDNT 1.707).  The language is not typical of the author, and suggests a formula.  The closest NT parallels are 1 Tim. 2:4; 2Tim. 2:25; 3:7; Titus 1:1, all anarthrous; cf. John 8:32; 1 Jn. 2:21; 2 Jn. 1…Kosmala’s view (137) that ‘the knowledge of truth’ in this verse ‘does not yet include faith in Jesus Christ’ has not won support and is alien to the context. (The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text, pp 532, 533)

The last part of the verse creates big trouble for Calvinism with regards to the doctrine of limited atonement: “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.”  By repudiating the faith there is no longer any sacrifice available for the apostate.  However, if Calvinism is correct then there never was any sacrifice made for the apostate to begin with.  The “apostate”, according to Calvinism, is really just a reprobate who came to the very edge of saving faith and then turned away.  The apostate never put faith in Christ and his turning away only revealed his true unregenerate and irrevocably reprobated nature.  Calvinism asserts that Christ did not die for reprobates and never made any provision for their sins.  How then can it be said that by the act of apostasy that there “no longer remains a sacrifice for sins?”  This difficulty only magnifies later in the passage as we shall see.

Some may object that the verse could be understood as simply stating that there is no other sacrifice available for the apostate to turn to and no other sacrifice that can be made since Christ died “once for all [time].”  The fact remains, however, that such a statement seems unnecessary in light of the warning itself as there would never have been any sacrifice provided for the apostate (reprobate) to turn to in the first place (according to Calvinism). It also seems clear from the context that the fact that no sacrifice remains is directly connected to the act of apostasy itself rather than to some secret decree which eternally barred the reprobate from any benefits of the atonement.  The fact that there is nowhere else to turn, then, is directly related to the act of rejection (apostasy) and not to any secret eternal decree.

Verse 27: “…but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.”

There remains no more sacrifice for sins for the apostate but there is something which remains, the promise of eternal fiery judgment.  This verse plainly teaches that the destiny of the apostate is Hell fire.  The destiny of the apostate is “the fury of fire which will consume the enemies,” for the apostate has made himself an enemy of God through his rejection of Christ’s sacrifice and will therefore suffer the fate of God’s enemies.

We need to pause briefly to consider an interpretation offered by some proponents of unconditional eternal security which looks to draw a parallel between this passage and 1 Corinthians 3:14-15:

If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward.  If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.

Based on their understanding of 1 Cor. 3:14-15 it is claimed that only a loss of rewards is in view in Hebrews 10:27.  However, the context of Heb. 10:27 does not allow for such an interpretation as it is describing the destiny of the apostate and not his or her rewards.  The apostate has become God’s enemy and will suffer the same eternal ruin as all God’s enemies.  The parallel with Heb. 6:8 is significant:

…but if [that land] yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.

It is important to note that the land is burned and not just the thorns and thistles.  The land plainly represents the final state of the apostate in Heb. 6:8 and parallels the final state and destiny of the apostate in Heb. 10:27.  It is forced exegesis at best to insist that rewards are in view in either of these passages.  We should further comment on the context of 1 Cor. 3:14-15.  Those who may “suffer loss” are those workers (Paul and Apollos specifically in the immediate context cf. 3:6-9) who have “built” on the foundation of Jesus Christ (verses 11-12).

This passage is speaking of the quality of the work done by those who were building on the foundation of Jesus Christ.  Only believers can be in view here, which is not the case in Hebrews 10:27.  1 Cor. 3:14-15 is not speaking of the fruit of faith and the Holy Spirit in someone’s personal life (e.g. John 15:1-6; Gal. 5:22-23), but the quality and effectiveness of ministerial work in building the body of Christ (verses 12-15).  These workers will remain saved because they built on the sure foundation, but they will have nothing to show for their labor because they did not build on that foundation wisely.  Their efforts, therefore, will prove to be in vain.

Verses 28 and 29:  “Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?”

These verses pose great difficulty for Calvinism and have endured some of the most unfortunate acts of exegetical torture by those who have desperately tried to keep their doctrines from suffering shipwreck on the plain implications of these verses.

Verses 28 and 29 indicate that the punishment in view goes beyond physical death as was noted above.  The writer is here demonstrating God’s justice in His wrathful and eternal punishment of the apostate that was so vividly described in verse 27.  This “more severe” punishment is well deserved because the apostate has “trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace.”

The greatest difficulty for Calvinism in these verses is the fact that the apostate is said to have been sanctified by the blood of the covenant.  We will discuss this further in a moment, but it is also important to note that the apostate has “trampled under foot the Son of God” and “insulted the Spirit of Grace.”

The nature and scope of the atonement comes into sharp focus in these passages in view of God’s just judgment of the apostate.  We need to remember that in Calvinism no provision has been made for the reprobate.  Jesus Christ did not shed His blood for the reprobate.  His sacrifice was not intended for those whom God had decreed to destroy even before the world was created.  Most Calvinists say that the Holy Spirit “passes over” these reprobates and denies them the necessary grace to believe and be saved.

If the Holy Spirit has no intentions of saving the reprobate and has deliberately withheld saving grace from them, then how can it possibly be said that these supposed “reprobates” (i.e. apostates) have “insulted” the Spirit of Grace?  In what sense could they possibly have trampled under foot the Son of God when the Son of God made no provision for them?  They have not truly rejected the blood of His sacrifice, for that blood was neither intended nor provided for them.  The reprobates have nothing to reject for God has not made anything available for them.  How then is God justified in judging them with regard to that “rejection?”

The passage answers this question for us in a way that creates even bigger problems for Calvinism’s cherished “P”.  The apostates are condemned because the blood of Christ was not only truly shed for them but had in fact “sanctified” them.  God’s gracious gift of salvation had not only been truly provided for the apostate but also applied to the apostate.  The decisive act of apostasy is, for that reason, such a grievous sin and outright insult to the Spirit of grace who Himself applied that sanctifying blood of the covenant (cf. 1 Pet. 1:1, 2; 2 Thess. 2:13).  This is why the apostate deserves such “severe” punishment (vs. 29).

Calvinists are well aware of the implications of these verses and have come up with some ingenious ways in which to alleviate the difficulty.  We will examine two of these proposed interpretations in our next two posts.  After that we will examine verses 31-39.

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Perseverance Of The Saints Part 5: Hebrews 6:4-9

Audience:

There is general agreement that this letter was written to Hebrew believers who were in the midst of some sort of testing which threatened their faith. “To the Hebrews” is a later addition to the epistle, but it is clear from the context of the letter that the writer assumed his audience to be very familiar with both Jewish history and rituals. The writer of Hebrews seems to have a few goals in mind which are closely related. He wants to expound on the supremacy of Christ and warn against defection from Him to some inferior and inadequate belief system. It would seem that His emphasis on Christ’s supremacy is partly, if not primarily for the purpose of demonstrating to his readers the foolishness and spiritually fatal nature of such a defection. He seems particularly concerned that his readers might be persuaded to return to Judaism. He is also concerned about the hardening affects of sin in the hearts of those who let it go unchecked. The nature of this sin is not always clear, though it is certain that the inspired writer sees the ultimate culmination of such sins and the spiritual hardness that results from them as the decisive and deliberate act of apostasy.

I am personally convinced that the writer of Hebrews is specifically addressing believers and warning them of the real danger of apostasy throughout the epistle. There are many passages that could be referenced to support this conclusion, but chapter three alone seems to be sufficient. The writer of Hebrews addresses his audience as “holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling” who have confessed Christ (verse 3). It is to these “holy brethren” that the writer directs his warnings against allowing their hearts to be hardened, the end result of which is the apostasy in view in the numerous warning passages throughout the epistle (3:8, 12, 13, 15, cf. 2:1-3; 4:1; 6:4-8; 10:26-39; 12:15-17, 25). Despite this, I believe that even if we take the position that the writer of Hebrews viewed some of his intended audience to be those who have yet to make a genuine profession of faith, the warning passages that we will be examining still give conclusive evidence that true believers can abandon the faith to their own eternal ruin.

While there are several such warning passages throughout the epistle, we will only be examining the warnings found in Hebrews 6:4-9 and 10:26-39. We will begin with a brief analysis of Heb. 6:4-9, acknowledge some objections to our conclusions, and then move into Hebrews 10:26-39 where I believe the main objections to our conclusions drawn from 6:4-9 will be sufficiently resolved. This post will focus on Hebrews 6:4-9 and the next post in the series will deal with Hebrews 10:26-39.

Hebrews 6:4-9:

[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, [6] and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame. [7] For the ground that drinks the rain which often falls upon 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. [9] But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way. (NASB)

The Arminian position is that this passage describes truly saved individuals as they had been “enlightened” (see Heb. 10:32), and made “partakers of the Holy Spirit”. This “partaking” of the Holy Spirit means full participation, and cannot properly refer to mere influence, as some have claimed. Notice how this same Greek word is used in Heb. 3:1- “…holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling”, 3:14- “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.”, and 12:8- “partakers” in God’s chastisement as true sons. No unbeliever can rightly be said to partake of the Holy Spirit in such a way. (Rom. 8:9; Jn. 14:15-17).

They also “tasted” the “heavenly gift”, “the good word of God”, and “the powers of the age to come.” The word “tasted”, like “partakers” denotes not a partial, but complete experience, as evidenced by the way the same word is used of Jesus in Heb. 2:9, “that…he might taste death for everyone”. F. Leroy Forlines elaborates on the use of “taste” by the author:

It is my position that the word taste is one of the strongest words that could have been used. In tasting, there is always a consciousness of the presence of that which is tasted. There is always an acquaintance with the distinctive characteristics of that which is tasted. This is evidenced by 1 Pet. 2:3. By tasting, the believer learned that one of the distinctive characteristics of the Lord is that He is gracious. There is also the matter of contact in tasting. In other words, tasting may be called conscious acquaintance by contact.

He continues…

When we apply the previous observations to the subject under consideration, we learn that those mentioned here have had an experience in which they became consciously acquainted by contact with the heavenly gift. The heavenly gift either means Christ or salvation. In either case, it would mean that the person would be saved, because only a saved person has such an acquaintance with Christ or salvation. (The Quest for Truth, pg. 278)

We also note that the seemingly hypothetical “if they fall away” rendering of the NIV and KJV is inaccurate. All of these clauses are in the aorist tense in the Greek denoting completed action. There is no hypothetical “if” in the Greek text. The apostates spoken of have just as surely fallen away as they have been enlightened, made partakers of the Holy Spirit, etc. The aorist tense may also demonstrate that the inspired writer is speaking of actual instances of apostasy that have already occurred. It is likely that these instances of actual defection are what prompted the writer to compose his epistle of exhortation to these Jewish believers. This would shed more light on the encouragement and confidence expressed in verse 9:

But beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking this way.

Some have concluded, based on the confidence expressed in verse 9, that the writer of Hebrews is speaking only of hypothetical defection in verses 4-6 which could not, in fact, befall the believers he is addressing in verse 9. They see the warning of 6:4-6 as a warning against impossibility. In addition to the use of the aorist in verses 4-6, Robert Shank rightly observes:

Some appeal to verse 9…to contend that such apostasy cannot actually occur. But they fail to reckon with the transition from the third person (‘those, they, them’) in verses 4-6 to the second person (‘you’) in verse 9. The writer is ‘persuaded of better things of you,’ but not of ‘them.’ While he is persuaded that ‘you’ have not as yet apostatized, he declares that ‘they’ indeed have done so. Instead of assuming that the apostasy which engulfed ‘them’ cannot overtake ‘you’, the writer holds them up before ‘you’ as a tragic example for their solemn warning and proceeds earnestly to exhort his readers, ‘And we desire that every one of you do show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end; that ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises’” (Life in the Son, pp. 177, 178)

Some have taken the approach that all of the descriptive terms of verses 4-6 could just as well refer to unbelievers who came to the brink of saving faith but then rejected it. Grudem takes this position in Still Sovereign. He labors to cast doubt on the common interpretation that these descriptive terms can only be properly used of true believers:

[My] interpretation…would argue that the [Arminian] view has been premature in reaching the conclusion that the terms must describe genuine saving faith and true regeneration. It would argue, instead, that a closer examination of the terms used will show them to be inconclusive regarding the question of whether they indicate genuine salvation. (Still Sovereign, ed. Shreiner and Ware, pg. 140)

Grudem argues that these terms might be used in a way other than what Arminian exegetes have long assumed. He appeals to the way that the terms are used elsewhere in the NT and in extra-Biblical Greek sources, as well as a comparison with other terms used to describe believers in the epistle. Strangely, he believes this to be his most significant argument, but the fact that other terms are used to describe true believers elsewhere in the epistle in no way demonstrates that the terms in verses 4-6 were not also intended to describe spiritual blessings that only regenerate believers could experience.

While I find his approach to be strained and problematic on many fronts, I am convinced that the context of the passage, as well as a careful comparison to the similar warning given in Heb. 10:26-39, renders Grudem’s extensive argumentation moot. The lynch pin of his argument, in my opinion, is not the terms used in verses 4-6, but his understanding of the metaphor of the field used in verses 7-8. Grudem is convinced that the descriptions of the fruitful and barren field make his case that the descriptive terms used in verses 4-6 are not describing true believers [see also Peterson and Williams, Why I Am Not An Arminian, pp 84-85]. He states:

…these terms tell us that the people had experienced many of the preliminary stages that often precede the beginning of the Christian life, but they do not tell us that the people had experienced any of the decisive beginning stages of the Christian life…However, an examination of the metaphor of the field in verses7-8, which the author uses to explain verses 4-6, showed that the people in 4-6 were like a field that received frequent rain but only bore thorns and thistles. This indicated that, in the authors mind, the people in 4-6 had received many blessings but had never borne good fruit because they had been like bad ground the entire time: There had never been true spiritual life in them. (Still Sovereign, pg. 172)

We will re-visit this claim in a future post when dealing with Hebrews 10:26-39. Grudem also appeals to the confidence expressed by the writer of Hebrews in verses 9-12, which we briefly dealt with above. For now we will take a closer look at verse 6 to see if the further description of these apostates comports with Grudem’s claim that they are unbelievers who “had simply heard the gospel and had experienced several of the blessings of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Christian community.” (ibid., 172)

Verse 6: “…and then having fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame.”

The important elements to focus on in this verse are the facts that these apostates cannot be renewed again to repentance, and that by their actions they have re-crucified the Son of God to themselves. The first thing that must be acknowledged is that these apostates had repented. If this were not the case then it would not be proper to say that they could not be renewed again to repentance. So what kind of repentance is in view here? If this repentance was only superficial, then what would it matter that these apostates could not be renewed to it again? Is the writer of Hebrews trying only to say that these apostates could never again be renewed to a repentance that was not genuine in the first place? The most natural way to understand this is that the writer is describing the impossibility of being renewed again to genuine, and therefore saving repentance. This is a startling and grave warning, but the weight of it can only be felt if the repentance being described is saving.

Repentance, here, is the experience of spiritual reorientation. This is the way that the author uses the word just a few verses prior to this dreadful warning:

…let us press on towards maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith towards God.” (Heb. 6:1)

This “repentance” has reference to a turning away from “dead works” towards God in faith. You can’t have one without the other. One cannot place saving faith in Christ while still clinging to “dead works” (which could refer either to sinful acts or attempts to earn the favor of God through obsolete Jewish rituals), and one cannot truly repent of these dead works without also turning to God in faith. Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. It could be described as one motion of turning towards God viewed from two different perspectives. Forlines’ observations are excellent:

While repentance includes a ‘from’ and a ‘to,’ the stress of repentance is on the to instead of the from. Repentance is a forward moving word. This is not to diminish the importance of the from. It is to place primary focus on the to. The ‘to’ of repentance is identical with faith. In Acts 20:21 Paul speaks of repentance toward God.’ In 2 Timothy 2:25, he speaks of ‘repentance to the acknowledging of the truth.’ Faith and repentance are involved in each other. To exercise faith implies a change from unbelief, whatever the from of unbelief may be. Repentance terminates in faith. If we tell a person to repent, or if we tell him to believe, we are telling him to do the same thing. Repent stresses that change is involved. Faith stresses the end to which change is directed. (The Quest for Truth, pp. 254, 255)

Grudem, however, looks to drive a wedge between repentance from “dead works” and “faith towards God”, but can only do this by appealing to passages outside of Hebrews which have nothing to do with the text in question. Four of the passages he mentions actually serve better to establish the vital connection between faith and repentance described by Forlines above [Mark 1:15; Acts 19:4; 20:21; 26:20]. To hold these up as examples of repentance taking place without reference to saving faith is to beg the question. The only other passage Grudem can come up with to keep his sinking ship afloat is Luke 17:3-4. Here he argues that repentance is being used only of sorrow for sins which falls short of genuine repentance “unto salvation” (Still Sovereign, pg. 149). The most glaring problem with Grudem’s appeal to the Luke passage is that it is plainly addressing inner personal relationships and has nothing to do with repentance toward God; so of course it is not addressing repentance unto salvation. That is not, however, the case in the Hebrews passages.

With this in mind, we have no reason to think of these apostates as anything other than defectors from genuine saving faith and repentance. In fact, in a very real sense these apostates have now “repented” of their former commitment to Christ. This is not a case of backsliding or a general lack of commitment, but a total repudiation of the faith once held. Grudem agrees with the seriousness of this act when he says:

“This is a public repudiation and mockery of Christ characteristic only of hardhearted unbelievers” (ibid. 151)

This reality leads us into the second important clause in verse 6, “…since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put him to open shame.” It is important to note the “again” (i.e., afresh, re-crucified, etc.) in this phrase as it parallels the “again” of repentance in the first part of the verse. Just as surely as they had repudiated their “dead works” in turning to God in saving faith; they have now repudiated the Lord in whose blood they had once trusted (cf. Heb. 10:29). They have done a 180 which required such a state of hardness that the affects are permanent. They cannot be renewed again to repentance having now fully “insulted” (Heb. 10:29) that blessed Spirit of Grace in whom they had come to partake of through faith in that blood they now disdain (Heb. 6:4, cf. 10:26, 29). The context would suggest that the “dead works” spoken of in 6:1 include those ceremonial “works” which foreshadowed Christ. The apostates had previously abandoned these ceremonial practices in order to cling to the perfect work of Christ in faith. Now they have abandoned Christ’s perfect work and returned, in unbelief, to these now meaningless shadows that prefigured Him.

He later comes to the arbitrary conclusion that this repentance was not “repentance unto life”. Grudem seems to envision that these apostates had somehow made a “decision to forsake their sin” without actually following through. But there is no contextual warrant for this assertion. In fact, as we have seen, the context argues strongly against such an interpretation since verse one spoke of true repentance from dead works and faith toward God. There is no contextual reason to believe that the writer of Hebrews has some other view of repentance in verse 6. Certainly, if the author was suddenly describing something other than true repentance we would expect him to have given some indicator of this to his readers. We would especially expect such a qualifier since the descriptive terms being used in verses 4-6 would most likely be understood by his intended audience as describing true believers, and even more so since these terms directly follow an address to genuine, albeit immature, believers in verses 1 and 2. To claim that the metaphor of the fields would remove any ambiguity is to engage in an unreliable hermeneutic. The proper method should be to interpret the metaphor of the field in light of the clear language of verses 4-6 and not the other way around, as Grudem has done. We noted a similar error in the Calvinistic interpretation of 2 Peter 2:20-22 here.

In closing we again quote F. Leroy Forlines’ important insights into the significance of these apostates being said to have re-crucified Christ to themselves:

In 6:6 it is said ‘they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh.’ Let us note that this is a crucifixion in relationship, that is, to themselves. An example of crucifixion in relationship is found in Galatians 6:14 where Paul says, ‘By whom the world is crucified to me, and I unto the world.’ So far as reality was concerned, both Paul and the world were living and active; but so far as relationship was concerned, they were dead to each other. They had no relationship existing between them. The relationship of Christ to the unsaved is that of a dead Christ; but to the saved, He is a living Christ. A person could not crucify to himself the Son of God afresh unless he were in a living relationship to Him; therefore, such could be committed only by a saved person. (The Quest for Truth, pg. 279)

Conclusion:

We have so far shown that the descriptive terms used in 6:4-5 can only properly be used of true believers. Any doubts or objections to this have been sufficiently answered with a careful examination of verse 6. Only true believers can be said to have repented from dead works, and only those who have fallen away from genuine faith can be said to re-crucify the Son of God to themselves. We have mentioned that the metaphor of the field and the confidence expressed in verse 9 do not negate the implications of verses 4-6 with regards to apostasy from genuine faith. We will deal more with Grudem’s objection regarding the metaphor of the field in our next post dealing with the warnings found in Hebrews 10:26-39.

Go to Part 6

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