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Hebrews 6:4–6 and Losing One’s Salvation

By Written: February 24, 2008

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), 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 Salvation1

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). We don’t earn salvation by our obedience; rather, when we accept Him, Jesus gives us His righteousness (Romans 3:22-25). 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, 312).

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). And the same will that can choose to believe can also choose to stop believing. Several texts illustrate this. Hebrews 3:12-14 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 103 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, 24. 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. The Bible in 2 Peter 2:20-22 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, those who won’t have their names blotted out of the book of life are those who overcome. And in 1 Corinthians 9:27, 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 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), 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) and holding firmly to the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1, 2). 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.

Hebrews 6:4-6

With this background in mind, let’s consider Hebrews 6:4-6. 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; Ephesians 1:13, 14).

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.

Option One

Some commentators see this verse as a reference to the unpardonable sin (see Matthew 12:31, 32). Since 1 John 1:9 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, 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). After Saul continued to reject God, God rejected Saul (1 Samuel 15:26) and directed Samuel to anoint David king. Eventually, Saul had rejected God so consistently that God stopped answering him (see 1 Samuel 28:6). 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.

Option Two

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 used the alternate reading and swapped “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 (ἀνασταυροῦντας5). 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.

Conclusion

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).

Final Note Regarding the Comments

This post has generated some theological controversy. While comments are welcome, please remember that if you make a theological argument without supporting it from the Bible, you really haven’t made much of an argument; you’ve only stated an unsubstantiated opinion. Please support each major theological point you make with scripture. If you don’t, I reserve the right to edit or delete your post.

Endnotes

  1. 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.

  2. Unless otherwise noted, all quoted texts in this document are from the New International Version (NIV).

  3. “At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other.”

  4. 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.”

  5. From anastauroō (ἀνασταυρόω).