This is one of the most disturbing passages in the New Testament

When I first encountered Hebrews 6, I remember being confused and scared. I had always believed “once saved, always saved.” I thought it was impossible for you to lose your salvation, but that seems to contradict the plain sense of this difficult passage.

Hebrews 6 seems to teach there may be those that genuinely believe and participate in the life of the church, and still irrevocably fall away to such an extent that some will not repent of their sin. Here’s the really disturbing part:

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (Hebrews 6:4-6, ESV)

To be in this blatant unrepentant state is damning, and will end in fire (cf. Hebrews 6:8). Despite this dire warning the author is quick to reassure the original readers that he or she believes that they are saved–through their faith and patience and good works.

Although this passage can be disconcerting, I suppose that if it is disturbing to you or me, it’s a good sign we haven’t fallen into that state of permanent rejection of God.

I’m reminded in this passage that we never look to ourselves for assurance of our salvation, but rather to the promises of God for those that believe.

And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. (Hebrews 6:11-12, ESV)

For what it’s worth, here is a passage from the Anglican liturgy that helps me when I have my own doubts:

Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.

Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. Matthew 11:28

God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16

This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. 1 Timothy 1:15

If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the perfect offering for our
sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:1-2

What do you think of this passage? Where do you find your assurance of salvation?

6 thoughts on “This is one of the most disturbing passages in the New Testament

  1. If you are on a plane going to Africa and are confident the plane & pilot will get you there, you could relax or you could get up, open the door and jump out! The Father says that no one can snatch us out of HIS hand. However, according to the passage above, I believe one could act foolish and take oneself out of HIS hands.

  2. I agree with Gram, and that’s something I’ve said for a long time. No one can snatch us from the hand of God—but we can sure as heck walk our own way out.

    You may or may not remember a discussion we had in 10th grade Bible class, when Mr. Philips was our teacher, on eternal security. It went about like this: I thought you could walk away from true salvation; everyone else who spoke up, including Mr. Philips himself, was on the “once saved, always saved” side. Your position at the time was that if a person turned away (or “backslid”), then he must not ever have been truly saved.

    Here’s why I remember these details so clearly. About a week later, we were having a discussion on a different topic, I forget which. Stacie stated a position on the topic that was, I believe, a fairly common one, but didn’t reference any Scriptural support for her position (not that it wasn’t supported by Scripture; she just didn’t happen to give any). Mr. Philips took that moment as an opportunity to warn the entire class against making a theological point without scriptural support, and he spoke of “someone” who had “recently” done that in a different discussion but hadn’t provided any scriptural support for their position. It was excruciatingly clear exactly what discussion and which person he was referring to.

    I left that class, went to the computer lab, and emailed him a lengthy discussion of multiple Scripture references that supported my position. This one was one of them; the Parable of the Sower was another. In both passages, it is very clear that we’re not talking about someone who never truly receives the Word, but someone who is, in fact, a believer in and follower of Christ, in whom the Word has taken root. The “must not have truly been saved” category would have applied to the seed on the path, not the seed in the shallow dirt. I also listed several others, but I can’t remember them. And by the way, Mr. Philips hadn’t really given any Scriptural support for his own position in our class discussion, either.

    He also never emailed me back. I never did hear a single reference from him in support of his “once saved, always saved” position.

    1. One difficulty for Evangelicals in interpreting this passage and others like it is that we generally don’t view “salvation,” “justification,” or “being born again” as a process but rather a particular moment in time only. This is one way my thinking has shifted from mainstream Evangelicalism (though I’m certainly still an Evangelical, see http://nathanrhale.com/evangelical/)

      I certainly think one must be born-again, and that there are often decisive conversion-moments for many individuals, but salvation is consistently described in terms of a process throughout the NT, with perseverance being a vital part of that process.

      Put it in a process framework, and this passage (as well as the parable of the sower) become easier to understand.

      1. Yeah, that definitely makes sense. My view is more Wesleyan, which seems similar to Anglican, seeing a distinction between justification and sanctification. I’ve got 1 John 2:6 tattooed on my wrist, which says, “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” As I like to put it, followers follow.

        I also think that the misunderstanding of sola fide is another key reason Evangelicals (which I also definitely still am) have difficulty with this. If we are saved by faith alone, and faith is misunderstood merely as intellectual assent, then a person must be saved from the moment of belief. You already know my take on James 2—Evangelicals tend to see both Ephesians 6 and James 2 as being about how we’re saved, and thus have to come up with a way to explain James in light of Paul. I see James 2 as not really being about how we’re saved—I don’t think James is disputing that we are saved by faith in Jesus. I think James is saying, Yes, we’re saved by faith—and this is what faith is. In that, he agrees with the epistles of John, Peter, and Paul in many places other than Ephesians 2:8-9. (For example, Ephesians 2:10.)

        Anyhow, as to another point raised in your post, this passage doesn’t disturb me. Rather, it serves as an important warning to me. It is often easy, and seems to generally be the default perspective, to view Old Testament Israel and the Pharisees of the New Testament from a perspective of our own faithfulness and true belief. But when I read both the Old and New Testaments, I am struck by how incredibly easy it is for me to be wayward Israel, to become Pharisaical in my faith. I think we often don’t take seriously enough to warning of Scripture to be realistic about and guard against our very strong Pharisaical tendencies. This is one such passage.

        I’m a little fuzzy on this, but I think I’ve heard my dad say before that faith is sufficient, but not enough. It is sufficient for salvation, but it is not enough for the Christian life. The Christian life must reflect Christ, or James and John, Peter and Paul, and Jesus’s teaching on fruit, all put the lie to inactive “faith.”

        1. Within Anglicanism you’ll find a diversity of convictions on this issue. We have plenty of Reformed folk that would argue passionately (and thoughtfully, I might add) against the notion of being able lose one’s salvation. Over time I’ve definitely gone a more “catholic” direction on this. I hold it kind of loosely though.

          Great point on the misunderstanding of sola fide.

          Your perspective is a good one, and even those that still choose to interpret it in a way that fits more easily in a “once saved, always saved” framework should certainly see this a very serious warning about a “faith” that doesn’t actually result in–as you said–“follow.”

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