Dear Moses & Mathew,
I am going to re-post this from my files with few minor changes. I remember posting this few years ago. If I am not mistaken Bro. Koshy also had posted on this subject before. But I hope he would also contribute [again] on this passage since this is an important one.
I am sure that all recognize this is one of the more difficult passages to deal with in regard to the permanence of salvation. What most people do not know is that verses 4-6 have a long sentence whose syntax (grammatical structure) is improperly represented in some of the translations. For instance, KJV, NKJV, NIV, and RSV add an “if” at the beginning of verse 6 (“if they fall away”). NASB and NRSV have corrected this but supply “then” (because the last item in the list is climactic) and render “and then fall away.” NASB has the “then” in italics, so we know that it is added by the translator. Malayalam also adds the condition (incorrectly) in this place by rendering “pinmaarippoyaal.”
[I have verified the above comments with a recognized authority of Greek language that I frequently interact with and had studied under. This professor’s book is being used as an approved Greek grammar text in some of the US Seminaries and is increasingly getting popular here and Europe.]
If we follow the syntax more strictly, what the author of Hebrews says can be explained as follows:
It is impossible to renew (certain people) to repentance
(What sort of people?)
Those who (have had these experiences)
1. were once enlightened
2. tasted of the heavenly gift as well as became partakers of the Holy Spirit
3. tasted the good word of God as well as the powers of the coming age, and
4. fell away.
Those who cannot be renewed to repentance are those who have come to appreciate the gospel of Jesus Christ and conclude they do not want it. They would be in a hopeless position since they (by their rejection) themselves crucify the Lord again and hold him to public contempt—v. 6b (< this is what the unbelieving Jews did through the crucifixion, and any Hebrews who showed openness to the gospel but then reject it would be joining the part of Israel that rejected the Messiah).
I would not say that Hebrews 6 warns of the peril of falling away as people usually consider it. Hebrews 6 encourages those who have followed after Christ to persevere and move on to perfection/ completeness/ maturity. But it is possible that some before whom was presented the beginning of the teaching concerning the Messiah, such as repentance from dead works and faith, teaching about washings (it is “washings” not “baptisms”—most likely implications of Levitical practices, or against Pharasaic ritual washings), laying on of hands (again possible implication of instructions involved in the levitical offerings), resurrection from the dead and eternal judgment, may not move on to maturity. They have heard an exposition of the gospel, why we need Christ, how the OT prefigures Him etc. They may have been those who experienced the miracles of apostolic work, which prefigure the perfect age of the Messiah (powers of the age to come). Yet in view of persecution, they are reconsidering whether Jesus is worth the trouble. If after all this, they fall away, it is impossible to renew them to repentance since they have already decided they do not want Christ.
Let us now address the major focus of the usual question, which is, “In light of # 5 (cannot be renewed again to repentance), how can we say that this passage is dealing with non-believers? Their repentance seemed to be genuine because the writer is warning them that they could not be brought back to the original ‘repentance level.’” The text does not require that they had come to repentance. The statement, more exactly, is “It is impossible to renew them again, leading to repentance.” But the text does speak of something “again.” And, even by the way I presented it, it must mean they had been renewed once already. However, it is quite possible that the text should be understood to say, renew to repentance again. Either way, there is need for explanation.
The easiest way to deal with it is to say that even those who follow for some time before deciding permanently that they are not interested, did undergo some change, although transitory. Actually, it is easier to explain that since repentance is something about which we can repent. It addresses the human response which is subject to change. Not all repentance lead to commitment or obedience. Even in verse 1, repentance from dead works is referred to separately from faith in God (although they go together). Consider Ahab in the OT. He actually did repent in a certain way, but that did nothing for his soul, although it was such a response that God postponed the judgment He would bring on him (see 1Kings 20:25-29).
It is part of the language here that makes the teaching here somewhat tantalizing. It is like we say in Malayalam, “thoTTu thoTTilla,” almost, but not quite.
In regard to whether this passage teaches that a believer can be lost I would answer as follows: Yes, if you mean someone who professed faith and then turned away and did not want Christ any more. No, if you mean, a believer could commit a moral or such sin that makes him unsaveable or unforgivable.
Consider the following matters.
1. The issue here is perseverance, that is following Christ, rather than some sin putting us out of grace.
2. The people described in vv. 4-6 are compared in v. 8 to the earth that receives rain (their positive experiences stated in v. 4-5) but produce briars and thorns afterward (their response of rejecting of Christ). So whatever their experience, is like the rain. They are the field, and the response to that rain, is the issue.
3. Verse 9 reads, “But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way.” Therefore, despite the warning that precedes, such an outcome is not for one who has salvation (for, if salvation can be lost, there is no guarantee of anything that accompanies salvation). So we may conclude that if there are such people as fit the description in the warning, they have not inherited salvation.
4. The passage also warns those who fall away that such falling away is permanent. So, it definitely is not a passage that may be used to teach that a believer can be saved and lost and saved and lost any number of times. If it is argued by the strength of these verses that a saved person can be lost, that person cannot be saved again.
5. The warning passages in Hebrews do challenge us to examine our commitment to Christ and persevere. It does affirm the teaching of the perseverance of the saints.
Your brother in Christ,