Hebrews 6:4–6 and Losing One’s Salvation
Hebrews 6:4-6 is a passage which has puzzled many people. On the surface, it appears to contradict other teachings in the Bible such as grace and forgiveness. Since the Bible plainly teaches that forgiveness is available to everyone who asks (see, for example, 1 John 1:9, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."), we know that there must be something more to this text. Furthermore, this passage raises questions about whether it is possible to lose one's salvation.
Losing Salvation  (With apologies to Mark Finley and page 11 of his book Studying Together. I paraphrased and otherwise borrowed some portions of his study on whether it is possible to lose one's salvation.)
In order to understand Hebrews 6:4-6, we must first determine whether someone who is saved can lose his or her salvation. There are sincere Christians on both sides of this debate; however, what's most important is what the Bible says. Let's let the Bible answer that question.
First, it's important to remember that salvation is by God's grace, not our works (Ephesians 2:8, 9: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast."). We don't earn salvation by our obedience; rather, when we accept Him, Jesus gives us His righteousness (Romans 3:22-25: "This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished."). Acts 16 tells about when Paul and Silas were doing missionary work in Philippi and were falsely accused and thrown in jail. When God miraculously opened the jail doors, Paul and Silas didn't leave; instead, they saved the jailer's life. The jailer "asked, 'Sirs, what must I do to be saved?' They replied, 'Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved' " (verses 30, 31  (unless otherwise noted, all quoted texts in this document are from the NIV)).
Belief is a function of the will. No one can force a person to believe. He or she must choose to believe (John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."). And the same will that can choose to believe can also choose to stop believing. Several texts illustrate this. Hebrews 3:12-14 ("See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.") cautions against turning away from God and urges the need to hold firmly to the confidence we had at first until the end. In Matthew 24:13, Jesus says that "he who stands firm to the end will be saved." That suggests that those who don't stand firm to the end won't be saved. Verse 10 ("At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other.") makes it clear that Jesus is talking about Christians when He says that those who stand firm to the end will be saved.
One of the clearest passages on this subject is 1 Corinthians 15:1, 2 ("1Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain."). Notice how verse 2 says that if we don't hold firmly to the gospel, we've believed in vain. Clearly, such a person was saved at one time. This passage tells us as much. But equally clearly, it's possible for that belief to become in vain, or worthless. In other words, Paul is talking about those who lose their salvation.
There are several other texts that confirm what 1 Corinthians 15:1, 2 tells us. Second Peter 2:20-22 ("If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: 'A dog returns to its vomit,' and, 'A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.' ") tells us that those who turn away from knowing Jesus and become entangled in the world's corruption are worse off than they were at the beginning. According to Revelation 3:5 ("He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels."), those who won't have their names blotted out of the book of life are those who overcome. And in 1 Corinthians 9:27 ("No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize."), Paul says he takes care so that he doesn't become disqualified for eternal life.
Because of what we've just discovered, some people wonder, "If it's possible to lose my salvation, can I really be sure that I'm saved?" The Bible is clear that we can have confidence in our salvation. Acts 16:31 ("They replied, 'Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.' ") is a promise that if we believe in Jesus, we'll be saved. And God's promises are trustworthy. In John 10:28, Jesus promises, "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand." In other words, when we trust Jesus, we need not fear. No adversary can take the gift of salvation from us. (Some people argue that this verse means that it's impossible for someone to lose their salvation. But it doesn't say, "No one can leave my hand." We need to avoid reading more into a text than is there, and consider each text in the context of all the other Bible verses on the subject.)
In reality, the view that salvation can't be lost can easily lead to doubting one's salvation. When I was a teenager and learning to drive, one of my instructors was a seminary student preparing to become a pastor. One day when we were out driving, we fell into a discussion about whether it's possible to lose one's salvation. I asked my instructor about those who are converted and whose lives show every indication of conversion, but who nevertheless turn their backs on God and reject Him. "Haven't they lost their salvation?" I asked. In reply, he told me that such people had never been saved in the first place.
If that reasoning is true in every such case, then it's easy to see why some people are unsure of their salvation. After all, anyone who has decided that they want to follow Christ and then falls back into their old way of life could wonder, after they return to Christ, "Was I really saved before? What if I fall again? Am I really saved now?" How much better to live by the Bible truth, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31)!
Another objection some raise against the possibility of losing one's salvation is the issue of works. Some people believe that whenever you commit a sin, you lose your salvation. However, since we're saved by grace, not works (Ephesians 2:8, 9: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast."), such a belief is clearly unbiblical. If you lose your salvation by committing a sin, that's works. But that's not what scripture says. The Bible talks about enduring to the end (Matthew 24:13: "But he who stands firm to the end will be saved.") and holding firmly to the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1, 2: "Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain."). That isn't works, it's a choice—a state of mind—just as accepting the gift of salvation and believing in Jesus is a choice and a state of mind. In other words, we lose our salvation only when we choose to stop believing. We can't be unborn, but we can die.
With this background in mind, let's consider Hebrews 6:4-6 ("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."). As we read the text, something jumps out at us: This passage is clearly referring to those who at one time were saved. Only the saved share in the Holy Spirit, for example (see Acts 2:38: "Peter replied, 'Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.' "; Ephesians 1:13, 14: "And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his glory.").
The real problem is in verse 6. It says that it is impossible for those who have been saved, "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." We'll consider two possible interpretations.
Some commentators see this verse as a reference to the unpardonable sin (see Matthew 12:31, 32: "And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come."). Since 1 John 1:9 (If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.) promises that God will forgive our sins if we confess them, then the unpardonable sin must be the sin we refuse to confess.
An example of this is the life of King Saul. Shortly after Samuel anointed him king, the Holy Spirit came on him and worked mightily in him (see 1 Samuel 10:9, 10 ("As Saul turned to leave Samuel, God changed Saul's heart, and all these signs were fulfilled that day. When they arrived at Gibeah, a procession of prophets met him; the Spirit of God came upon him in power, and he joined in their prophesying."), and surrounding verses). Yet Saul grew proud and began to defy God. First, God decreed that Saul's royal line wouldn't endure (1 Samuel 13:14: "But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD's command."). After Saul continued to reject God, God rejected Saul (1 Samuel 15:26: "But Samuel said to him, 'I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you as king over Israel!' ') and directed Samuel to anoint David king. Eventually, Saul had rejected God so consistently that God stopped answering him (see 1 Samuel 28:6: "He inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets." ). In this last occasion in which Saul tried to inquire of the Lord, it wasn't out of a heart of repentance; Saul was simply trying to save himself from the Philistines.
Like Saul, if we persistently reject God—even if we once were saved—there will come a time when God respects our freedom of choice and the Holy Spirit stops drawing us. That is the unpardonable sin. It isn't that God refuses to forgive it, it's that we refuse to repent. (By the way, anyone who wonders whether they've committed the unpardonable sin hasn't done so. Those who have have no desire or concern for the things of God since the Holy Spirit has left them.)
So according to this view, when the writer of Hebrews refers to falling away in Hebrews 6:6, he's referring to those who have persistently turned their backs on God, thus committing the unpardonable sin.
Another angle on this passage is illustrated by the alternate translation of the word "because" in verse 6 as given in the NIV's footnote on that verse. If we use the alternate reading and swap "while" for "because," then the verse would read, "if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, while to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace." So we can't be brought back to repentance while we're crucifying Jesus all over again.
Neither "because" nor "while" is present in the original Greek. Those words were supplied by the translators in order to make the verse more understandable to English-speaking readers. Young's Literal Translation (YLT) renders the phrase this way: "Having crucified again to themselves the Son of God."
The Greek word that YLT renders as "having crucified again" is anastaurountas (ἀνασταυρουντας). It's a present (continuous) participle. In English, our verb tenses describe time. If I say, "I will come," then you know that I'm referring to the future. If I say, "I come," you know that I'm referring to right now. And if I say, "I came," you know that the action already happened. Greek is different. Instead of describing time, Greek tenses describe the type of action. In the case of the present tense, the action is described as continuous; any time significance is secondary. And since anastaurountas is in the present tense, we know that it's describing a continuous action.
In other words, our text is describing those who are continually crucifying Christ by their falling away. According to the unpardonable sin view, this makes sense. Those who have persistently rejected Christ are obviously crucifying Him again and subjecting Him to disgrace.
However, when we realize the continuous nature of anastaurountas, another option for interpreting this verse presents itself. As long as we insist on a fallen away life, we're crucifying Christ and we can't repent because repentance requires submission to God. But if we truly submit to God, then we're no longer crucifying Christ and so repentance is possible.
In the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), the younger son started out with his father. Because this is a parable, it should be understood in a symbolic sense. The father is clearly a symbol for God the Father, and the father's house refers to heaven or a life in fellowship with God. So we can safely argue that the son was saved at the beginning of this story. But the prodigal son fell away; he took his inheritance and traveled to a far country where he lived a wild life. Eventually, he hit rock bottom and decided to return home. But he had to leave his old life before he could return home. He didn't return home with a prostitute on each arm! In other words, while the son was living his wild life, he was crucifying Christ. But in order to return home, he stopped crucifying Christ.
I'm not sure which of these two interpretations (option one or option two) is best. They both have merit. In either case, it's clear that the situation isn't hopeless for those who have a sincere desire to repent. Remember, David committed adultery then killed a man to hide his previous sin. Yet when he repented, God forgave him. In the end, "if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).