A Warning About Falling Away

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Sep 9, 1998

Hebrews 6:4-12

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 If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Hebrews 6.  As we have said, Hebrews 1 and 2 emphasize that Jesus is superior to the angels.  In Hebrews 3, after warning us against an unbelieving heart, the author reminds us that Jesus is superior even to Moses.  In Hebrews 4, especially beginning in verse 14, the author of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus is superior to even the great high priests of the Old Testament in the line of Aaron.  He is a Great High Priest.  We come to that great crescendo in Hebrews 5:10.  He is a High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek.  And as we said last time as we were studying this passage, when you get to Hebrews 5:11, you are expecting him to give you a little explanation of what it means for Jesus to be a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.  But the author of Hebrews surprises you.  He surprises you with a warning and with an exhortation.  He is concerned that some of his hearers in that local congregation may be dull of hearing and may not be getting the spiritual message that he is trying to drive home.  May I remind you that these are Jewish Christians to whom he is writing.  Some of these Jewish Christians are being tempted to go back to their old religion, to go back to some form of Judaism, to underestimate the importance of Jesus Christ in living relationship with God.  So they are tempted to marginalize the significance in their spiritual experience.  They are attempting to retain fellowship with God, but somehow to exclude Jesus Christ from that process.  You see, there is a danger of repudiating Jesus Christ in this congregation.  So the author wants them to understand that he is not telling them all these incredible things about the person of Christ for their interest.  He is telling them because they are vitally important to where they are spiritually.  And then he encourages them.  He calls them to spiritual growth in verses 1 - 3 of Hebrews 6.   

Tonight we come to Hebrews 6:4-12, having dispenses this caution from Hebrews 5:11 all the way over to Hebrews 6:3.  The author  of Hebrews delivers one of the most chilling warnings against apostasy, that is falling away from or deserting of our original profession of Jesus Christ.  He delivers one of the most chilling warnings against apostasy found anywhere in the pages of holy writ.  Our brother Derek Thomas’ prayers were right.  This is a fearful passage and it makes the heart tremble.  But it is God’s word and so He wants us to know what it means.  Let’s read God’s holy word.  We will begin in chapter 6, verse 4. 

Hebrews 6:4-12 

Our Lord and our God, we do ask Your spiritual enlightenment for the understanding of this truth.  And then help us, we pray, to embrace Christ as never before, cling to Him, and to persevere in Him, founded upon that rock.   We ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen. 

This is a very, very difficult passage of Scripture.  It is difficult for several reasons and I want to list four for you tonight.

First, respected Protestant interpreters of Scripture have disagreed about the meaning of this passage.  If you, for instance, grew up in a Methodist home or under Methodist preaching or a Wesleyan-Arminian background, this passage was no doubt preached and appealed to as proof of the doctrine that Christians are able to fall away from grace.  That is that one can truly be a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ and yet lose that salvation and then at some point, later in time, regain that salvation, and then yet again lose it again.  And that is why Calvinist says in jest that the official flower of the Arminian is the daisy — the forget-me-not.  “He loves me, He loves me not, He loves me, He loves me not, He loves me, He loves me not, He loves me, He loves me not.”  And you move around the petals, waiting to see how it is going to end up.  And some have used this passage in that way. 

On the other hand, some work very hard to explain away the force of this passage.  You will perhaps have heard some ministers, and I did just a couple of weeks ago, say something like this: “If you have made a profession of faith, it doesn’t matter how bad you live, how much you reject the laws of Christ or the ways of God, you are forever going to be united to God and you will go to Heaven.”  And you will hear something like this:  “If you are too sinful, the Lord may just have to take you home early.”  I heard a minister say this just a couple of weeks ago.  He said, “It may be that if you are wicked enough, the Lord may just have to take you home to Heaven early.”  I thought, “What a picture of Heaven, as a picture for wickedness on earth, being taken home to heaven.  Why, if that were the way to get to Heaven, I would suggest there would be other, more simple ways to pursue in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  I mean, all one would have to do to be transported to the halls of glory immediately,  is to engage in the grossest sin and willful disobedience.  Imagine the impact of that on the church.  So, you have widely, varying interpretations of this passage. 

But second, let me say simply that this passage says things that are hard to understand.  For instance, when we look at the various words and phrases used in verses 4 and 5, these phrases are difficult to understand.  The greatest and most faithful interpreters wrestle with the meaning of the phrases.

Thirdly, however, the fact of the matter is, this passage says some things that are hard to swallow.  Sometimes it is hard to grasp a passage that is hard to swallow, not because of things in it that are difficult to understand, but precisely of the things in it that are crystal clear.  And those things that are crystal clear and yet hard to swallow, sometimes we attempt to explain away in our own experience.  And that makes the passage harder to take in. 

Finally, of course, this passages forces us to do hard work of self-examination.  This passage cannot be studied with detachment.  This passage forces us to think about our ultimate commitments to the Lord Jesus Christ.  Of course, that’s precisely what the author intended it to do.  So I invite you tonight to some hard work for a few minutes.  This is God‘s word, it is good for our souls.  And so, we should beware trying to downplay the hard things in this passage and open ourselves to learning what the Lord would have us learn from it.  And there are two main things that I want you to see in this passage.   

I. Christians must heed God’s warnings against apostasy.

The first thing you will see in verses 4 - 8.  There we see a stout warning delivered about the danger of someone who professes to be a believer, but who does not show the fruit of commitment to Christ.  Here we learn that Christians must heed God’s warnings against apostasy.  Now the author of Hebrews in this passage is issuing us a very clear warning about apostasy.  Apostasy means falling away from the faith, for as we said earlier, apostasy means falling away from our deserting our original profession of Christ. 

Let me say several things by way of qualification.  When we use, at least in this congregation, the term apostasy, we do not mean that a true believer in the Lord Jesus Christ is capable of losing his or her salvation.  But since the Scripture uses this term falling away, there has to be substantive content to it.  This isn’t just a phantom warning.  So what is he talking about?  He is talking about someone who has made what looks like a credible outward profession of faith in Christ and yet at some point down the line has repudiated, has turned his back on Christ.  This is a person who is outwardly professed Christ.  His profession looks very similar, if not identical to the profession of other true believers in the congregation.  And yet, at some point, he turns his back on Christ. 

And so, of course, this warning reminds us that there is such a thing as a false profession.  There is such a thing as claiming to be a believer, and yet not being a believer.  So it is vital for us to recognize that distinction and recognize that that requires us self-examination.  What is it that Peter tells us in II Peter 1:10, 11?  That we are to make our calling and election sure.  This is precisely what the author of Hebrews is calling us to here.  In fact, the book of II Peter has many similar warnings to the book of Hebrews and can help us understand more clearly what the author of Hebrews is saying here. 

So let me say it one more time.  Apostasy does not mean a true believer can fall away from God.  But it does mean that it is possible that a person can make a false profession and that that false profession can be found out to be a false profession by that person’s repudiation or apostasy from Christ.  A classic example of this is John’s description of those who were part of the congregation  and yet departed.  Look at I John 2:18. 

“Children, it is the last hour and just as you have heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen, from this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not really of us, for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us, but they went out in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us.” 

Do you hear what John is saying there?  A group has left the congregation.  They have repudiated their profession of faith in Christ.  They have followed after, perhaps in his case, some sort of a Gnostic heresy.  And he says to them, “We know that they apostatized, but by their apostatizing, we learn that they really never were of us.  And how did we know that they never really were of us?  Because they left.  Because they repudiated their profession.  Their actions showed us that there was actually no spiritual reality in them from the beginning.  It was not that they started out just like us in the state of grace and lost that state of grace.  It was that they only appeared to have that state of grace in the first.  But by their rejection of Christ, they had shown themselves to be false believers.”

Let me say one more thing before we plunge into Hebrews 6: 4 and following.  Christians with depressive and melancholy temperaments tend to fixate on passages and doctrines like this.  They will lock in on the unpardonable sin.  They will lock in on falling away from the faith.  They will lock in on the Antichrist.  Have you ever met a depressive Christian who comes to you, begging you to assure him or her that he or she is not the Antichrist?  And no argument that you can bring can convince them.  So we must be careful as we come to passages like this, knowing that there will be some Christians with a natural proclivity to lock into this and think that they have committed the unpardonable sin, to think that they have truly fallen away, when in fact there are many marks of grace in their own lives.  William Cowper, the great hymnist, whose hymns we sing was such a person.  When Cowper died, he thought he was reprobate.  One of the things I wish that I could have seen was the day of his death when he entered into the halls of grace and the Lord Jesus Christ was able to say to William Cowper, “William, you were wrong.  You weren’t reprobate.  You might have thought you were, but you were wrong.  And you’re here to prove it.”  There are people who have a tendency to lock in on these things.

And so, pastorally speaking, let must just remind you of Lloyd Jones’ distinction between self-examination and introspection.  Lloyd Jones has a wonderful book called Spiritual Depression.  And in that book, one of the things he says is that all Christians are called to self-examination, but no Christian is called to introspection.  The distinction is basically this.  Self-examination opens up the heart and looks inside and asks the Lord to look with you in order that you can take spiritual inventory of what the Lord is doing in your life.  Self-examination does not go on forever.  Self-examination opens the heart, looks at it, closes it back up and looks into the face of Christ, because anyone who stares in there long enough is going to be depressed.  If you are honest, you are going to be depressed.  So if your focus is in there and not on Him and on His face and on the mirror of His promises, I promise you, you will be a depressed Christian, if you have any reality about you at all.  And so Lloyd Jones warns us not to become introspective, to be bold in our self-examination, dependent upon the Spirit as we examine ourselves from time to time, but not to fixate on our inward state without looking back to Christ and to His grace.

Now what is the description of these people who fall away?  Look at verses 4 and 5.  This is frightening stuff.  We are told at least five things about these people in verses 4 and 5.

First, they are enlightened.  Second, they have tasted of the Heavenly gift.  Third of all, they are partakers of the Holy Spirit.  Fourth, in verse 5, they have tasted of the good word of God.  Fifth, they have tasted of the power of the age to come.  What do each of those phrases mean there?  They are difficult.  Let me take a stab at it. 

Many ancient interpreters have view the phrase enlightened to be in reference to baptism.  Because in many of the ancient formulations of baptism, the language of enlightenment was tied in terms of the sacrament of baptism.  But clearly this phrase is better understood by Paul’s words in Ephesians 5, verses 8 and 11,  when he talks about our transformation from darkness to light as believers.  And so the author is saying, you have apparently experienced that kind of enlightenment connected with regeneration.  Notice also in verse 4: “You have tasted of the heavenly gift.”  Again, some ancient interpreters, because of the language “tasted,” applied that to the Lord’s Supper.  These are people who have taken of the Lord’s Supper.  But again, this passage is more likely explained by passages from the Psalms or by I Peter 2:3 — the idea of “tasting and seeing that the Lord is good” and the experiencing of heavenly blessings.  Notice again in verse 4: “partakers of the Holy Spirit.”  This may be referring to the ordinary and the extraordinary graces of the Holy Spirit such as Paul reminds in I Cor. 13: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and yet have not love, I am nothing.”  The possibility he presents there of someone even being able to speak with tongues and yet being spiritually lost. 

Then again in verse 5: “Taste the good word of God.”  This indicates a real and personal experience of the richness of the word of God and it goes on to say “tasted of the powers of the age to come” perhaps referring to the signs and the wonders and the miracles of the kingdom age.   Two examples I’ll give you of this, one from the Old Testament and one in the New Testament.  Remember the author is saying, all of this of people in endangered of falling away.  He says this.  Think of Saul in the Old Testament.  It was a proverb in Israel, “Is Saul among the prophets?”  He prophesied, and yet we know that the spirit was taken away form Saul.  He had extraordinary graces of the Holy Spirit, but he did not have saving graces of the Holy Spirit.  John Owen says, “It is a fearful thing to realize that a man may experience the extraordinary operations of the Holy Spirit and yet not experience the saving operations of the Holy Spirit.”

Think again to Jesus’ words in the gospels as He speaks to His disciples and He says that at the last day, there will some say to Him, “Lord did we not prophesy in Your name?”  What does Jesus respond to that?  “Depart from Me, I never knew you.”  Notice what Jesus does not say to them.  He does not say, “No, you didn’t prophesy in My name.”  He says, “You never knew Me.”  There is no denial of the extraordinary activity.  There is a denial of a saving knowledge of Him.  If that doesn’t frighten you, I don’t know of anything that will.  He is clearly intimating here that these believers may well have participated in seeing these miraculous apostolic gifts that were being manifested in their midst.  And yet they had no saving commitment and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

What does He mean by falling away?  Departing from their profession of Christ.  Abandoning the divine rule and way of Christ.  Rejecting Christ.  That’s what he means in verse 6 when he speaks of falling away.  And what is the result of falling away?  A spiritual hardening that leads to a permanent soul deadness.  Notice what he says.  He says it is impossible that their repentance can be renewed.  Now that phrase strikes us as strange.  We think, “Well, how can that be?”  And by the way, that phrase says a lot more than our Wesleyan friends want it to say.  You see, our Wesleyan friends want you to be able to lose your salvation and get it back.  That verse says that if you have fallen away, that it is an impossibility to recover it.  Recognize the attitude that the author is getting at here.  He is speaking to Jewish Christians who were considering repudiating Christ and going back to Judaism.  They cannot go back to Judaism without saying, in effect, either explicitly or implicitly, they do not need Christ for salvation and fellowship with God.  That is what they must say.  For them to leave the fold of the Christian church and to go back to their Judaism, they must say either explicitly or implicitly, “I do not need Christ in order to have fellowship with God and eternal salvation.”  And that is something that the Heavenly Father is not willing to hear.  He will have no one to say to Him, “Father, You did not need to crucify Your own Son for my salvation.  I didn’t need that.  I can get along without that perfectly fine, thank You.”  The Father will not hear that.  And so the author is warning of these people, and notice what he says of them.  “They crucify to themselves the Son of God and they put Him to open shame. “ How?  Because they reject His necessity.  They reject the whole sufficiency of His work and they say, “No, there is another way to God other than the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

What is the evidence of this spiritual apostasy?  It’s made clear in verses 7 and 8.  Spiritual fruitlessness.  That’s the evidence and proof that they have fallen away.  They do not bear fruit.  Isn’t it interesting that in verses 4 and 5, when we look at those preconditions of those who have fallen away, not one of those preconditions is a fruit.  They all speak of experiences or gifts, but not fruits.  Does that not remind us that it is so important for us to seek as signs of spiritual maturity not gifts of the Spirit, but the fruits of the Spirit?  You see, not all of us are going to be equally gifted and it is frighteningly possible to mistake gifting for fruit.  But what we must seek for is the fruit, the product of the gifts of the Spirit, the work of grace in our hearts, producing love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and gentleness and faithfulness and self-control and those glorious characteristics of a believer listed for us in the New Testament, we ought to be aiming for the fruit of the Spirit.  We ought to be encouraged not just when we see a gifted belief, but when we see a fruitful belief.  And, of course, this passage asks us to self-examination.  Are we solely resting in Christ?  Are we longing to know Him more?  Are we glorifying Him in our lives?  What is the fruit of our experience?  This is a solemn warning. 

II. Christians must also heed God’s words of comfort.

Before we close tonight, let me just mention one thing.  As you look at verses 9-12, I want you to concentrate especially on those words, “Beloved, we are convince of better things concerning you.”  The author of Hebrews is administering this stern warning in the hope that he will keep someone from crossing a line from which they will never return.  Basically in this passage, he is saying, “You cannot trifle with Christ.  You cannot say, ‘Well, I have accepted Christ’ and then ‘Well, I’m not so sure.’” He is warning believers not to cross that line into trifling with Christ.  But he is convinced, he has good hope for them with regard to their salvation.  The ground of his hope is that God is incapable of misjudging the heart and doing an injustice with regard to salvation.  But he is also hopeful because he has seen these people minister to one another.  He has seen their love.  And because he has seen their love, he is hopeful that the reason that they love one another is that the love of God has been shed abroad in their hearts.  And so he woos them by that compliment away from defecting from Christ and back into the arms of Christ.  Now we have raised more questions than we have answered tonight.  And so perhaps we ought to come back to this passage again and look at it in greater detail.  Let’s look to the Lord in prayer.

Our Heavenly Father, this is among the most difficult passages to wrestle with.  We bow before You and we humble ourselves and we recognize, O Lord, it’s our blindness that makes it hard for us to take this in.  But as we study it together, we pray that You would bear fruit in our lives and that You would encourage us at the same time.  We ask these things in Jesus’ name.  Amen

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