A Calvinistic Explanation of Hebrews 6:4-6, by Ean Theron

OK! Here is a portion of my new book on Calvinism. I hope you like it!
Hebrews 6:4-6
The last passage we will deal with is Hebrews 6:4-6. Out of all the passages that the Arminians use to try to prove that one can lose his salvation this one appears to be the most extensive. Therefore, we will spend some considerable time on what the writer of Hebrews was wanted to communicate. The passage reads:
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, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 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 (Hebrews 6:4-6, NASB).

This is generally where the Arminian stops to make his case. However, an adequate expiation cannot be rendered without examining the next three verses. We will quote them here and return to them when we come to the Calvinistic explanation of this passage:
For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned. But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way (Hebrews 6:7-9, NASB).

The first thing we must do is look seriously at the warning. The writer of Hebrews is saying that if this group of people (the people mentioned in 4-6) fall away, it is impossible to renew them to repentance. Their fate is sealed and they cannot be saved again. The writer of Hebrews is not giving a, “saved, then lost, then saved…” theology that is so popular with many Arminians. To put it directly, if a Christian can lose his salvation, then he can never gain it back.
The reason we need to feel the weight of this warning is that many Arminians will back off of these verses after realizing what is actually being said. However, there are some Arminians who are consistent with their theology, and they would teach that a Christian who loses their salvation cannot be saved again. It is not enough, therefore, to give cursory attention to this passage. We must understand its warning and the explanation.
Of course Calvinists have maintained that these verses do not teach that one can lose his salvation. However, there has been a verity of ways Calvinists have argued for this. We will deal with three explanations that I have found most viable.
Every explanation depends on whether or not this group of people is truly saved or they only appear to be saved. We are given five attributes:
1. Once Enlightened.
2. Tasted the Heavenly Gift.
3. Partakers of the Holy Spirit.
4. Tasted the Good Word of God.
5. [Tasted] the Power of the Ages to Come.
Some Calvinists have agreed with Arminians that the group of people under discussion is truly saved. They even agree that that if someone who displays these attributes falls away they will be lost forever. However, the Calvinists who believe this also take the warning of the writer to be only hypothetical. To justify this belief these Calvinists draw upon the term “if” used in some translations. For example, the New King James renders this passage:
For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame (emphasis added, Hebrews 6:4-6, NKJV).

Those who hold this explanation also draw upon the phrase, “though we are speaking in this way” found in verse nine. According to Calvinists who argue in this way, the author of Hebrews is speaking in a manner contrary to reality. This is taken to be a sort of a literary wink. The writer is only giving the Church something that is hypothetically true, not true in actuality.
An analogy would go something like this: Suppose a loving father warns his child not to stray from the house into the road. He warns the child that if the he goes into the road, he could get hit by a car and die. This is a true and sound warning. However, also suppose that the father is perfect and was watching the child at all times. Every time the child wondered too close to the road, the father would run out and grab the child and bring him back into the yard.
The Calvinist argues that if someone is saved, and if they fall away from grace, then, yes, they would be lost forever. However, the Father will never let that happen. The writer is speaking in a “manner” that is not necessarily a reality.
Nation of Israel
Another interpretation is that this passage is talking about the nation of Israel. Those who argue for this position advocate that the description given in verses four through six fits Israel as a nation. They had once been enlightened, and had tasted the heavenly gift. They had become partakers of the Holy Spirit under the Old Covenant administration. They had the word of God, and had tasted the power of the age to come.
Those who argue for this say the warning is for the nation of Israel not to reject Jesus and the administration of the New Covenant. If they do, there is no way to renew them to repentance under the Old Covenant.
Apostasy
Still another section of Calvinists would agree with the Arminians that the author is talking about apostasy. Apostasy was a real issue in the early Church particularly among the Jews. There were many Jews who had come over to the Christian faith and for one reason or another went back to the religion of Judaism. However, the Calvinists would say that those who do go into apostasy were never saved in the first place. Those who adopt this model look for a different way to understand the list of attributes found in these verses. Let’s look at the list again and see if there is a viable alternative to the Arminian interpretation:
1. Once Enlightened.
2. Tasted the Heavenly Gift.
3. Partakers of the Holy Spirit.
4. Tasted the Good Word of God.
5. [Tasted] the Power of the Ages to Come.
The first thing to notice is what is not on the list. It does not say these people are justified. This list also does not mention the new birth or any synonyms associated with the new birth. It does not say that these people are: born again, born from above, or regenerated. It does not even specifically say that these people are saved. In fact, none of the phrases used in the Bible to identify a Christian is used in this list. And what is here is not necessarily taking about salvation.
The first attribute is Once Enlightened. It is possible to be enlightened and not necessarily be saved. Or to put it another way: There are a variety of ways one can be enlightened that does not entail salvation. For example, a person’s mind can be enlightened to theological truth and yet that person’s heart still remains spiritually darkened. Unbelievers, particularly those who have had close association with the Church, can often know a great deal of information about the Bible. A good example (but a sad one) is that of Children who grow up in reformed Churches. They often can know all the answers to their Church’s catechism. Often, they can even admit that they intellectually agree with truths of the Bible. However, they remain unsaved.
The second description is that these people have Tasted the Heavenly Gift. The fact of the matter is that this heavenly gift is not identified. What is likely being referred to here is the Holy Spirit. In other words, the second description is a literary introduction to the more direct wording of the third description. The third description is more direct, Partakers of the Holy Spirit. The idea that the Holy Spirit is the gift makes sense in light of what Jesus said about sending the Holy Spirit after He is gone (John 14:15-16).
What should we say about this description? It does seem to at least hint at salvation. In fact, people who are saved do partake in the Holy Spirit. However, the truth is that the Holy Spirit has done many works in both the New and Old Testaments that are not necessarily associated with salvation. In the Old Testament, Balaam prophesied accurately over Israel (Numbers 37:7-10, 18-24; 34:3-9, 15-24). Surly one might think that someone who displayed the spiritual gift of prophecy was saved. But Balaam is condemned in the New Testament as someone who will for sure suffer the pains of eternal Hell (2 Peter 2:15, Jude 11).
The forth and fifth description are also a bit difficult to break apart. In fact, all the descriptions kind-of function as a unit and are generally talking about the same thing, namely spiritual blessings. Tasted the Good Word of God and Tasted the Power of the Age of Come along with the rest of these descriptions are all references to partaking in genuine spiritual blessings in a genuine and legitimate way.
The assumption by the Arminian is that you must be saved in order to participate in the spiritual Gifts in any meaningful way. However, this is just not the case. At the establishment of the New Covenant, the visible Church received gifts. The gifts to the Church are not necessarily indications of personal and individual salvation. Rather the signs that were poured out on the Church were to establish that God was genuinely behind the establishment of this New Covenant Community. Remember what Jesus said:
Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, we prophesied in your name, drove out demons in your name, and performed many miracles in your name, didn’t we?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Get away from me, you who practice evil!” (emphasis added, Matthew 7:22-23).

Notice that Jesus did not say, “I knew you at one time, and now you have fallen away.” Rather, He said, “I never knew you.”
The interpretation that the spiritual gifts are given to the visible Church, and that these gifts are not signs of individual salvation makes sense in light of what the writer goes on to say:
For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned (Hebrews 6:7-8, NASB).

We need to pay close attention to this analogy because it is the key to understanding the previous description and warning. The analogy is that the rain falls on ground and it feeds both good plants and bad plants. The writer does not say that good plants somehow turn into bad plants. But that the thorns and thistles soak up the rain just like the useful plants do. Likewise, spiritual blessings are poured out on the visible Church and bless the truly regenerate and in many ways the unregenerate.
In the end, the writer himself indicates that the description and the warning are not talking about true converts when he says, “But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way” (emphasis added, Hebrews 6:9, NASB). The people who fell away and the people who do fall away permanently were never saved in the first place. They did not have those qualities that accompany salvation.
Apostasy is a real phenomenon in the Church. And the warning here is for the visible body of people who gather together to worship in the Christian manner. There is no way the writer or any of us can tell with certainty those who are truly saved and who are false converts. This is why the warning must go out to the visible institution. The writer is not suggesting that a saved person can become lost any more than he is warning that useful plants can turn into thorns.
As I said above, apostasy is a real phenomenon. However, there is only one passage in the entire Bible that explains this phenomenon. That passage reads:
They left us, but they were not part of us, for if they had been part of us, they would have stayed with us. Their leaving made it clear that none of them was really part of us (emphasis added, 1 John 2:19).

Those who fall away permanently are not saved people who lost their salvation. They never were really saved in the first place.

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About nextluther12

Ean has a BRS, and an MTS from Columbia Evangelical Semenary. He is currently working on a doctrite from the same school. Ean was ordained to the ministry by Dr. Robert Morey in 2005. He has written a book that is not yet published called The Theology of Jesus.
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One Response to A Calvinistic Explanation of Hebrews 6:4-6, by Ean Theron

  1. Bryan says:

    Ean thanks for your article. I would encourage you to take a closer look at verse 4 in the Greek text related to your comment: “The first thing to notice is what is not on the list. It does not say these people are justified (I agree–it doesn’t). This list also does not mention the new birth or any synonyms associated with the new birth. It does not say that these people are: born again, born from above, or regenerated…” 4Ἀδύνατον γὰρ τοὺς ἅπαξ φωτισθέντας, γευσαμένους τε τῆς δωρεᾶς τῆς ἐπουρανίου καὶ μετόχους …γενηθέντας (this is the same phrase Jesus uses and translates as “born of the Holy Spirit)πνεύματος ἁγίου. But all english traslations leave out the verb for “born again” even the formal equivalent NASB and NRSV. I assume to fit the position adopted by the Reformers since the Council of Orange. Your conclusions are inaccurate because you have not looked at the original language. Knowing that verb is there, what conclusions do you draw now? This is a common occurrence for those “theologians” who do not take the time to translate each text they are handling. Appreciate your work though.

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