Thursday, July 17, 2014

In Search Of Truth, Hebrews 6:4-8

We've arrived now at a passage that is often looked at out of context and interpreted to indicate that believers who have placed their faith in Jesus to gain eternal life can somehow lose the forgiveness and eternal life they've been given. Alternatively, some believe these verses teach that a person can experience a number of blessings that true believers experience, but not truly be a believer themselves. This view plays along nicely with the "Lordship Salvation" view, which teaches that a person is not truly saved from the judgment of God and granted eternal life unless their faith produces a certain amount of good works. What that certain amount might be is never clear, leaving those who accept this position with uncertainty regarding their eternal future.

I've accepted both of these views at various times in the past, but in recent years have concluded that neither represents what is being said in the text. Many of us hardcore geeks already have plenty of trouble worrying too much about our status in the eyes of those around us. We certainly don't need a misunderstanding of this text to give us uncertainty about where we stand with God.

First, and as always in scripture, context is key. So let's review the context.

In Hebrews chapter one, Jesus is introduced as God's Son and heir. (1:2, 1:4) These verses indicate his eternal nature and begin hinting at an incredible future time in which he will rule. (1:8, 1:11-13) Salvation ("rescue" as the Greek word very broadly means) is a gift of "inheritance" for believers. (1:14)

In light of Jesus' superiority over previous messengers of God, we are to "pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it".(2:1)  Drifting away from and neglecting God's rescue plan ("salvation") will have consequences. The text does not specify whether these are temporary or eternal, though it compares this "drifting away" to Israel's previous times of neglecting relationship with Yahweh, which largely resulted in temporary consequences, such as persecution or death.(2:2-3) It's worth noting that even if eternal consequences are in mind, which they may be, Hell or loss of eternal life is nowhere named as a consequence here.

Believers are described as "brothers" of Jesus, implying a shared inheritance with him. Believers will also inherit the earth and positions of authority over it. This is the result of Jesus' perfect life and sacrifice on our behalf. (2:5-13)

Jesus was a faithful servant over God's agenda or "household affairs" in the world, and we can be a part of that agenda if we do not drift away but instead "hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope". (3:1-6)

The alternative is to miss out on rest and reward as the Israelites did when they hardened themselves against relationship with Yahweh. (3:7-4:13)

As we pursue rest, reward and partnership with Yahweh in this life, Jesus is the ultimate facilitator. He is sympathetic toward our weakness and allows us to confidently approach the throne of God to receive mercy and undeserved favor whenever we need it. (4:14-5:4)

Jesus was the ultimate high priest and secured eternal rescue for all who listen and respond to his message. (5:5-10)

The author wants to expand on this, but his audience is not mature enough in scripture and discernment  to be ready for it. (5:11-14) So he urges his audience, and himself, to move onward in spiritual maturity, committed to that course if God permits it. (6:1-3)

Hebrews 6:4-8 reads:
4 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, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 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. 7 For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.(ESV)

Up to this point, the author has clearly been speaking to believers. So to suggest that he is suddenly referring to people who are involved in the church but are not true believers or are lacking "saving faith" strikes me as a jarring and uncalled for leap in assumption. In addition, the list of experiences shared by the group being described here is very difficult to imagine as describing those who aren't truly believers. The author describes this "fallen away" group as having once been enlightened, having "tasted" (literally partake/enjoy/experience) the heavenly gift, having shared in the Holy Spirit himself, and having experienced the goodness of God's word and the powers of the age to come. I'm not even sure Green Lantern could will himself to see non-believers in that description.

Further, in verses just following this section, the author says he is hopeful that his audience is not like this "fallen away" group, but is instead engaged in the things of "salvation"(literally "rescue", a broad term used to refer to both rescue from judgment/hell, present rescue from sinful patterns and eventual complete rescue from the presence of evil). Specifically, he says that God will not unjustly ignore their work for God and love for other believers.

Now, since we know that our efforts play no role in our salvation from judgment/hell, and that our efforts are in fact related to our increasing rescue from sinful patterns in our lives, I have to conclude that the intended context in all of this is "Sanctification", that aspect of salvation having to do with how our lives conform more and more to the pattern of Christ over time. It is this aspect of salvation, "Sanctification", that has been the stronger theme up to this point, so I think  it's best that we view these verses in that light as well.

So if these are genuine, "justified" believers being described as "falling away", what does it mean when the author says that it is impossible for these "fallen away" believers to be restored again to repentance? In what way are they "crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt", resulting in their inability to repent and be restored?

First, the word "repent" does not by definition refer to the initial moment of trust in Jesus, where a person decides to place their faith in him for forgiveness and in doing so receives freedom from God's wrath and the promise of eternal life. Repent just means "to have a change of mind". As believers we should be repenting every day as we reflect on our lives, choices and priorities. We ought to constantly be "changing our minds" to more and more be in line with God's vision for our lives.

This constant repenting is part of the maturity the author of Hebrews urges his readers to pursue in Hebrews 6:1-3. Why should we pursue this kind of maturity? The author answers that (notice he starts verse 4 with the word "For") in verses 4-8, warning us of what can happen to believers who don't pursue maturity in their faith.

The picture I see in verses 4-8 is that of believers who, for whatever reason, have given up pursuing maturity or sanctification in their walk with Jesus. In fact they've gone so far as to regard Jesus with contempt. Maybe this happened because of a slow and increasing fall away from their relationship with Yahweh, or maybe it happened in a short span of time in response to extremely difficult or painful circumstances. Whatever the reason, this is a picture of believers who now philosophically side with those who crucified Jesus, thinking of him with disgust and bitter hatred.

Does this result in the loss of forgiveness and eternal life even if they stay in this mode of thinking until they are dead? There is nothing here or elsewhere in scripture that indicates this.

Even so, this is a dark scenario to consider, and one that the author warns is at the end of a path that refuses to engage in spiritual growth. As believers, we can take in the nourishment of God's word and produce useful fruit in response. Or we can allow thorns and thistles to be our product, and watch that useless and even harmful result be burned away in the end. (v.7-8)

The choice is ours. We can live a life that prioritizes going from one fun experience to the next, producing nothing and setting ourselves up to become embittered against God when the storms of life hit us. Or we can partner with Jesus in the household affairs of Yahweh, and help create something beautiful that will last forever.

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