Hebrews 6:4–6 (cf. 10:26–31)—Does this passage teach that it is possible for Christians to lose their salvation?

Problem: Hebrews 6:4–6 seems to be written for Christians because it contains certain characteristics that would be true only of them, such as “partakers of the Holy Spirit” (v. 4). But it declares that if they fall away, it is impossible “to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame” (v. 6). Does this mean that Christians can lose their salvation?

Solution: There are two basic interpretations of this passage. Some take it to refer to believers and others to nonbelievers.

Those who say this refers to unbelievers argue that all of these characteristics could belong to those who merely profess Christianity, but who do not really possess the Holy Spirit. They note that they are not depicted in the normal ways of describing a true Christian, such as, being “born again” (John 3:3), being “in Christ” (Eph. 1:3), or being “sealed by the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 4:30). They point to Judas Iscariot as a classic example. He walked with the Lord, was sent out and commissioned by Jesus on missions having “power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease” (Matt. 10:1). However, Jesus, in His prayer in John’s Gospel, spoke of Judas as “the son of perdition” (John 17:12).

There are several problems with taking this to refer to nonbelievers, even for those who hold that a believer can lose his salvation (i.e., Arminians). First, the passage declares emphatically that “it is impossible ... to renew them again to repentance” (Heb. 6:4, 6). But few Arminians believe that once a person has backslidden it is impossible for him to be saved again. Further, while the description of their spiritual status differs from other ways of expressing it in the NT, some of the phrases are very difficult to take any other way than that the person was saved. For example, (1) those spoken of had experienced “repentance” (Heb. 6:6), which is the condition of salvation (Acts 17:30); (2) they were “enlightened and have tasted the heavenly gift” (Heb. 6:4); (3) they were “partakers of the Holy Spirit” (v. 4); (4) In addition, they had “tasted the good word of God” (v. 5); and (5) have tasted the “powers of the age to come” (v. 5).

Of course, if they were believers, then the question arises as to their status after they had “fallen away” (v. 6). Here interpretations differ along theological lines. Arminians often argue that these people actually lost their salvation. However, the text seems to indicate that they cannot be saved again, something even most Arminians reject.

On the other hand, those who hold a Calvinistic point of view (such as the authors) point to several facts. First, the word for “fall away” (parapesontas) does not indicate a one-way action. Rather, it is the word for “drift,” indicating that the status of the individuals is not hopeless. Second, the fact is that it is “impossible” for them to repent again indicates the once-for-all nature of repentance. In other words, they don’t need to repent again since they did it once and that is all that is necessary for “eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12). Third, the text seems to indicate that there is no more need for “drifters” (backsliders) to repent again and get saved all over any more than there is for Christ to die again on the cross (Heb. 6:6). Finally, the writer of Hebrews calls those he is warning “beloved,” a term hardly appropriate for unbelievers.

In any event, there is no problem here with the inspiration of Scripture. It is simply an intramural question of interpretation of Scripture among Christians who share in common the belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God in whatever it affirms.

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.