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A closer look at a controversial chapter.
Hebrews 6 is one of the key texts used to defend the biblical doctrine of apostasy. Apostasy refers to the rejection of the Gospel by those who had previously known it.
However, the real tough question that has been asked over the years is whether or not apostasy has to do with genuinely converted sons (daughters) of God or unconverted outwardly religious folk. I believe Hebrews 6:4-6 can help us to answer that question.
The writer of Hebrews is admonishing the church because many had grown stagnant in their relationship with God. Rather than pressing on into the deep things of God, they needed to be reminded of the elementary principles of the faith.
In this context of spiritual indifference, the author makes mention of apostasy- a falling away from the Gospel back into the legalistic trappings of the Mosaic Law.
Analysis of Hebrews 6:4-6
Verse 4: “It is impossible for those who were once enlightened.”
‘Enlightened’ means that the apostates had been instructed in the ways of the Gospel. The verb ‘teach’ in Hebrew is quite frequently translated as ‘enlighten’ in the Septuagint (Judges 13:8; 2 Kings 12:2; 17:27).
They had been taught about Christ. But, as we all know, it is one thing to be taught about Christ intellectually; it is quite another thing to be transformed by Him spiritually.
Verses 4 and 5: “And have tasted the heavenly gift” and “have tasted the good word of God.”
Christ doesn’t merely want us to taste His teaching but to devour it (John 6:50-56). Tasting is not the same as swallowing, eating and digesting. The false converts of this text had merely tasted the Word of God superficially but it hadn’t penetrated into their inner parts.
They had evidently experienced something of the power of God in their local community, but they still hadn’t surrendered to Christ.
Verse 5: “And were made partakers of the Holy Ghost.”
The word ‘partakers’ here in Greek is not the same as in Colossians 1:12 or 2 Peter 1:4 where true saints are mentioned. In Hebrews 6, the author is alluding to folk who associated themselves with the local church and who had seen amazing works of God first-hand (as Hebrews 2:4 leads us to understand).
They were partakers of the preaching ministry of the church and witnessed astonishing works of the Spirit. In this external sense, they partook of the Spirit’s work; but their hearts had not been regenerated from within.
They were like those who crossed the Red Sea without a heart of faith who were afterwards destroyed (Jude 5). They saw the power of God; but they didn’t know Him in a saving sense.
Verse 5: “And the powers of the world to come.”
This is a reference to the last days which were inaugurated following the outpouring of Pentecost and in which we will continue until Christ returns. Those apostates knew that the Law of Moses had been superseded.
They saw the worshippers of their local community praising God for His redemption carried out through Christ (and no doubt they worshipped alongside them), but they did not feel the glory of the New Covenant.
They preferred Moses and stuck to him by going back to the Judaism from which they had proceeded. Thanks to the life of the local church, the apostates felt something of the coming glory; but they distanced themselves from it once the going got tough.
Verse 6: “It is impossible […] if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance.”
Repentance doesn’t necessarily mean salvation. In Greek it just conveys a change of thought or opinion regarding a matter. In spite of sympathizing with the Gospel for a time, the apostates ultimately denounced it openly and publically, thus breaking any previous connection they had with the church.
The writer of Hebrews explains that such folk cannot be renewed to repentance. Their minds will not be changed. They opted for Moses and with him they will remain. Their counterfeit repentance cannot be renewed afresh. They crush Christ underfoot by approving the religious system that handed Him over to death.
Some further observations
The author of Hebrews is careful to distinguish between true saints and hypocrites. After penning Hebrews 6:4-6 he directs himself to the believers saying that, “but with respect to you, oh beloved, we are persuaded of better things.”
In other words, the author knew that the genuine believers were not apostates. There is good ground (true believers) and bad ground (religious apostates).
The last thing I would add is that we should realize what the text doesn’t say. In no place does it speak of these apostates as elected, justified, sanctified or glorified. When he speaks of apostates he refers to “those” who were enlightened.
But when he speaks of true saints he says “you” or “us”. The author was very conscious of two distinct groups within the church, namely, a sector authentically birthed of the Spirit and another group of nominal believers who had never come to the full knowledge of Jesus Christ.
By means of these warnings, true saints would be stimulated to seek the Lord so that they could examine themselves to see if they were truly of the faith.
So, to answer the initial question: were the apostates of Hebrews 6 true believers? No. Not at all.
An apostate may be enlightened intellectually, taste the Gospel superficially, partake in an external manner in the work of the Spirit and know something of the glory of the economy of the Gospel, but he (she) has not been transformed from within by the power of the God.