Do All We Can to StandBy Bob Lepine
February 8, 2022
I received a text last week from a friend, a pastor who lives in Tennessee. He was working on his Sunday sermon and he was stuck. I was his “phone a friend” lifeline (sorry to use an obscure reference that will make no sense to those who weren’t watching Who Wants To Be A Millionaire two decades ago).
My friend’s text for his sermon was Hebrews 6:1-6. If it’s been a while since you read it, it’s maybe the best known of the five warning passages in the book of Hebrews. The writer of Hebrews describes 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” (Hebrews 6:4-6). These people, he says cannot be moved to repentance. It’s impossible.
On first blush, it sounds like the writer is talking about Christians who, after being saved decide to no longer follow Jesus. For those who believe that a person can experience the new birth and be brought into the family of God and then decide at some point to walk away and reject Christianity, this is a go to passage.
But a careful reading of these verses, combined with the clear teaching we find in other passages of scripture, points us in a different direction. Elsewhere we read statements Jesus makes, like “I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:28-29) and passages like Ephesians 4:30 which describes believers as “sealed until the day of redemption” and we come away understanding that it is God who saves us and God who keeps us. He who began a good work in us, Philippians 1:6 tells us, will be faithful to complete it.
But back to Hebrews 6. The writer of this letter is describing Jews who had a first hand, up close and personal exposure to the ministry of Jesus before His crucifixion. They were enlightened, but not converted. They tasted the heavenly gift, but that’s as far as it went. It was a sample, not a meal. They shared in the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, but were not part of the 3,000 who were saved that day. The writer of Hebrews is telling us that if, after all this, these people continue to reject Jesus – to fall away – God has nothing more to show them that will change their mind. They’ve seen the full revelation of the Father in both the Son and the Spirit, and they aren’t convinced. “It’s impossible to renew them to repentance,” the Bible says.
By the way, most people who point to Hebrews 6 and conclude that a believer can lose his or her salvation seem to ignore the clear statement that whoever is being talked about here can’t be brought to repentance. You will hear people urging you to pray for these lapsed believers, that they might come back to church and back to Jesus. But if Hebrews 6 is telling us that a Christian can fall away from his or her salvation, it’s also telling us that the walking away is irreversible.
My friend’s text was asking for a clear statement on what the Bible teaches us about apostasy. That word means literally to stand off from or stand away from. It’s describing those who were once near to the faith who have moved away. I pointed my friend to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which addresses the subject. It says that believers in Jesus may, “through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalence of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their perseverance, fall into grievous sins; and for a time continue therein: whereby they incur God’s displeasure, and grieve his Holy Spirit; come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts; have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.”
In other words, a true believer can get off in a ditch. And can be stuck there for a while. Maybe a long while. It’s not a good place for a child of God to be.
So what do we conclude about someone who has stepped away from their faith and is standing far off? Is this a true believer who is snared in sin? Or is it someone like the people John describes in 1 John 2:9 when he says “they went out from us because they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us?”
The answer is, we don’t know. Jesus said that wheat (genuinely saved people) and tares (people who act like they’re saved but who aren’t) will grow together in the same field. He told us to leave the tares alone. At the harvest time, the reapers will sort out the wheat from the tares.
When we know someone who has walked away from following Jesus – and all of us do, right? – our job is the same. We need to pray for them and continue to remind them of the gospel. If they’ve never truly believed, they need to continue to have the good news declared to them, that it might penetrate and soften their heart and bring them to faith. “Faith comes by hearing,” the Bible tells us, “and hearing by the word of God.” So we continue to point them to the word.