Hebrews 6:4-6 is one of the most commonly cited passages to prove you can lose your salvation. The NIV renders it as follows:
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.
Indeed, those who adopt the view that you can lose your salvation seem to be taking the passage in a very straightforward manner. It seems to say that Christians can fall away and lose their salvation.
Those who believe you cannot lose your salvation, however, have offered for other possible meanings. Some argue the passage actually teaches that, eventually, a non-Christian can come to a place in which they have rejected the Gospel for the last time, and salvation is no longer possible. Others argue that the author is only presenting a hypothetical possibility of what it would mean to lose one’s salvation. For a Christian to fall away, he would have to crucify Jesus again, which is impossible.
Both alternatives are possible, but we think they strain the text. We should never adopt a meaning to explain away a problem. The three key issues in this verse are:
- Who is being addressed?
- What are they in danger of?
- What is the consequence they are being warned about?
Those who think it is possible to lose your salvation would answer, “Christians, apostasy, and loss of salvation,” respectively; those in favor of the first alternative above would answer, “None Christians, apostasy, and the loss of the possibility of salvation”; advocates of the hypothetical view would answer the same as the first group, with the caveat that the falling away isn’t really possible. Let us then, look at how the text answers these three questions.
Who is being addressed?
First, it seems evident that the passage does refer to Christians. The entire book of Hebrews is written to Jewish Christians, and in a similar warning passage (Heb. 10:26-31), the author includes himself (“we”, see. 10:25) in the warning. In any case, while we agree that any of the individual descriptions in 6:4-5 could refer to non-Christians, that they are all found together makes it much more likely that Christians are in view.
What are they in danger of?
The danger is “falling away,” and so we can sum up the passage so far as, “If Christians fall away . . .” The word for this falling away implies a falling away from a previously position and is the word from which we get the word “apostasy.” This implies that Christians can reject their faith. We should stop here to note that this actually fits with the context of the entire book. Hebrews was written because Jewish Christians had begun to walk away from their faith because of the persecution they were suffering. That is why the author spends so much time showing the supremacy of Jesus over the Old Testament prophets, the Temple, and the sacrificial system. You could sum up the entire message of Hebrews this way: “Don’t go back to Judaism; Jesus is better!”
What is the consequence being warned about?
What is the consequence for this apostasy? Verse six says such a one cannot be “renewed to repentance.” Notice it does not mention salvation. That is often read into “repentance,” which itself does not mean “salvation.” It means “a change of mind.” Therefore, we can summarize the passage this way:
“If a Christian rejects his faith, it is impossible to get him to change his mind [and become a Christian] again.”
If a person loses their faith, does that mean they have lost their salvation? Most believe this is so. Notice, however, that this passage does not say that. No one can appeal to this passage to teach that a person can lose their salvation, because it simply does say that. It says that if a person does lose their faith then they cannot be brought back.
This is confirmed in the illustration the author provides to further his point in 6:7-8:
“Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.”
He is thinking of a crop of land that is well watered but produces weeds instead of fruit. What was a farmer to do with such land? He had to burn the land. He literally set it on fire to destroy the weeds.
Many interpreters mistake this “burning” as the author’s way of speaking of Hell, but the nature of the illustration does not allow such a reading. The farmer did not burn the land to destroy it. He burned it so that he could start over. The burning, in this case, refers to divine discipline. This passage actually teaches the same thing as 1 Corinthians 5:5, “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (NASB)
So far from teaching you can lose your salvation, this passage actually teaches eternal security. If a Christian falls away then there is nothing we can do to bring them back. Instead, God disciplines such a person—to the extent of death if necessary.
We can even see that this is exceedingly practical. Suppose a Christian loses his faith and rejects the Bible as God’s Word. What could you possible say to bring them back? You can point to all the Scripture want, and what will the person say? They will simply shrug their shoulders. For the same reason Christians are not impressed by the claims of the Koran, they have become unimpressed with the claims of the Bible. We have no common ground any longer, since they have rejected the one ground we once had. The only thing left is for God Himself to deal with them. That is certainly not a place any of us would like to be!
In conclusion, there is no reason to take this passage as referring to the loss of salvation. We certainly are not justified in appealing to it as a basis for such a belief. At best, the passage says that Christians can fall away from the faith. If that means that such people have lost their salvation, such a doctrine will have to be proved from elsewhere in Scripture, as that idea is found nowhere in these verses. Instead, the text goes on to teach that such a person will be disciplined by God so that He may start His work over in their lives. If we cannot bring them to repentance, then, perhaps God’s discipline can.