Friday, September 16, 2016

Impossible to Restore

Hebrews 6:4–6 is often associated with the perennial debate as to whether or not Christians can “lose” their salvation. Here’s that passage:

“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.”

To my knowledge, there are basically three views as to what exactly is going on in this passage, and each of them, in my assessment, has strengths and weaknesses.

The first view is, to an extent, the most straight-forward. It maintains that the people here spoken of are indeed true believers who are sincerely born again, and that they lose this salvation once they “have fallen away.”

But one of the main problems with this view is that those who hold to it typically believe that once a person has “lost” his salvation, he can still be saved again at some point in the future. In other words, he can still be restored. But that’s precisely what the passage says is impossible. So whoever wants to maintain this first view needs to make sure they’re willing to stand toe-to-toe with everything that the passage says.

The second view argues that the people in view in this passage are those who outwardly appear to be believers, but are not in fact true believers. Those who hold this view are thus faced with the task of explaining the numerous ways in which these supposed non-believers are described in the passage. These are people who have been enlightened, have tasted the heavenly gift, have shared in the Holy Spirit, have tasted the goodness of the word of God, and have experienced the powers of the age to come. Yet for all this, these people are not truly born again, according to proponents of this view.

Being enlightened is said to refer to the general sense in which every man is enlightened by the incarnation of Christ and the message of the gospel (John 1:9). Tasting the heavenly gift might refer to participation in the Lord’s supper, or to an acceptance of salvation in a general sense. But the notion of “tasting” indicates a very momentary and fleeting experience, rather than something deep and heart-felt. Sharing in the Holy Spirit might simply refer to a close proximity with the Spirit through participation in corporate worship, and not necessarily an experience of regeneration. Tasting the goodness of the word of God might simply refer to hearing the preaching of the word, while experiencing the powers of the age to come could simply refer to the witnessing of miracles. And none of these experiences necessarily indicates that a person is truly born again.

One initial weakness in this view is that it seems to fight against a face-value reading of the passage. This isn’t a critical flaw, since face-value interpretations aren’t always best, but it’s at least noteworthy. Yet this view has a greater problem, in my judgment. If the people spoken of are not truly born again, then why does the passage say that it’s impossible to restore them? Restore them to what? Restore them to something they never had to begin with? How does that make sense?

There’s a third view which might seem fanciful to some, but I think it deserves a place at the table. This view holds that the people spoken of in the passage are in fact true believers, but that their falling away is being presented as a hypothetical scenario, rather than something which might actually happen.

To draw an analogy, consider the way Paul talks in Galatians, when he says, “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). Here, Paul’s clearly not talking about something that might actually happen. He’s not telling the Galatians that an angel of heaven might actually preach to them a different gospel. Rather, he’s presenting this as a hypothetical scenario in order to make a strong point about something else, namely their commitment to the true gospel.

A similar rhetorical technique could be happening in Hebrews 6. When the writer speaks about true believers falling away, he’s not presenting this as something that might actually happen. Rather, he’s presenting this as a hypothetical scenario in order to make a strong point about something else, namely the finality of Christ’s work on the cross. Which is why the writer goes on to say, “they are crucifying once again the Son of God.” If someone truly becomes a partaker in the salvation that Christ purchased on the cross, and then somehow removes themselves from that salvation, then there’s no possible way to be saved again, as that would require Jesus to be crucified all over again, which is absurd.

Like I said earlier, I think each view has strengths and weaknesses. But as for my own perspective, I tend to be pulled back-and-forth between the second and third views. Just depends on the day of the week.

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