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About "Christians" who "Fall Away"

Hebrews 6:4-6

For in the case of those
          who have once been enlightened
          and have tasted of the heavenly gift
          and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit,
          and have tasted the good word of God
                             and the powers of the age to come,
          and then have fallen away,
it is impossible to renew them again to repentance,
          since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God,
                              and put Him to open shame.


This passage mentions people who have experienced many of the blessings that Christians experience, but who have apparently "fallen away" and are now no longer able to turn back to Christ in repentance. (This does not refer to temporary "backsliding," but to a permanent falling-away.) Interpretations of this "problem passage" are quite varied. On one extreme, we might be told that this "falling away" is only theoretical - that in "real life" it can't happen, because (according to this view) salvation cannot be lost. On the other extreme, we might be told that this passage is proof that a person can lose his salvation, and so a person is never able to know for sure that he is saved (since, at any time in the future, he could "fall away").

Notice how these views have superimposed assumptions into the passage. This passage has been assumed, for instance, to be a reference to salvation - yet the word "salvation" does not occur anywhere in these verses. Views about "eternal security" (or the absence thereof) have also made their impact. However, if we accept this passage "as is," without adding assumptions or superimposing already-held theological viewpoints, we discover that the concept of "eternal security" is also absent from these verses.

It will be seen, as we explore this passage (and compare it to other passages), that what is mentioned here is nothing more than an expression of a common theme that can be found many other places throughout the Word (especially in the New Testament).

As we examine this passage, and others like it, we will make the assumption that they are accurate and true, when stated "as is." Our goal is to not add to them any already-held theological perspectives, nor to take-away from these verses anything that is directly stated by them.


We will begin with this passage in Hebrews 6. The first thing we need to do is to take a look at the context. We do not need to grab verses from other contexts! This passage has a right to exist on its own merit. It does not have to be propped-up with verses we have picked-up elsewhere.

It is a common practice of many, to bring together passages from unrelated contexts, so as to "determine the meaning" of passages that don't say what they want to hear. They take verses that support their already-held viewpoints, "apply" them, so as to determine the interpretation of the verse in question. Then, when they look at the passage, they "see" their viewpoint!*

When we examine the context, we discover that there are two categories of people mentioned. The first category is comprised of those who have "tasted," etc., and who "fall away" - the things mentioned in verses 4-6. But as we look further, we discover that a second group of people are also mentioned: those who have lives characterized by "things that accompany salvation" (verse 9). These two groups are also described in verse 12, as (1) those who are "lazy" (or "sluggish"), contrasted with (2) those who "inherit what has been promised."

Note that the second group is associated with the concept of salvation, and the first group isn't. Doesn't this contrast tell us something? If nothing else, it should at least make us willing to re-examine our previously-held assumptions, to see if they are really expressed by this passage.

At this point, we have two categories of people. And we can describe them in the following terms:

General Statement:

They (the readers) are told that they must go on to maturity; they need to "grow up." (6:1; also the end of chapter 5)

Two Types of Responses:

Group 1

Group 2

Those in this group (v. 4-6):

  • Were once enlightened
  • Have tasted of the heavenly gift
  • Have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit
  • Have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come
  • Have fallen away
  • Cannot be renewed again to repentance

Those in this group (v. 9-10):

  • Have things that accompany salvation
  • Have work and love (shown to God by the way they help God's people)

Described as ground that:

  • Yields thorns and thistles
  • Is worthless and in danger of being cursed [if conditions don't change]
  • Ends up being burned (v.8)

Described as ground that:

  • Drinks in the rain which often falls upon it
  • Brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it was tilled
  • Receives a blessing from God (v.7)

They are:

  • Sluggish (v. 12a)

They are:

  • Diligent (so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end) (v. 11)
  • Imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit what was promised (v. 12)

Those in the first group have many characteristics that people often associate with being saved. Yet, when the author of Hebrews mentions salvation, he does so only with reference to the second group. This indicates that, even though the first group has (for a while) many good characteristics, they are not the characteristics that identify a person as being saved, distinguishing him from people who are not.

Note that we have not superimposed our own views into this passage. We have NOT claimed anything beyond what the author of Hebrews has claimed - namely that it is the second group that has characteristics that "accompany salvation." He does not claim that the first category of people are (or ever were) saved.

At this point, we do not necessarily have a full understanding of all the implications of this passage (especially if what we have discovered so far goes against views we have cherished for many years). We may be wondering how it is possible for so many "Christian" characteristics to NOT be "things that accompany salvation." But we have allowed the passage to speak on its own (without superimposing our own views into it) and now we are ready to go on to the next part of our study: we are ready to find out if a similar concept exists in other places in the Bible.

As before, we will let each passage remain in its own context, without adding our own theological perspectives. And as we do so, we will discover that this kind of theme occurs many other places.

*Often, they will describe this practice in a way that sounds good - maybe even "spiritual." They may, for example, call it, "Rightly dividing the Word of Truth." Or "Using Scripture to interpret Scripture." Interestingly, people who reach opposing viewpoints will often use the same "slogans" to justify their actions! [For additional comments about adding "interpretational schemes" to the Word, read the article, "Three Characteristics of God's Word, the Bible."]


First, remaining in the book of Hebrews, we discover that, in chapter 10, there is a contrast between the one who is "my righteous one" and the one who "shrinks back" (verses 36-39). (Note that the term "righteous one" seems to parallel the group described as "saved" in Hebrews 6. And the one who "shrinks back" seems to parallel the one who "falls away.") There is a slight question as to the exact way to translate verse 38, but verse 39 seems to explain the intent of that verse. So with this in mind, we find ourselves with two groups described as follows:

A General statement:

They are told that they need endurance, so that (after having done the will of God) they will receive what was promised (10:36).

Two types of response:

Group 1

Group 2

  • They shrink back; God has no pleasure in them
  • They shrink back to destruction (v. 38b, 39a)
  • They live by faith
  • They have faith to the preserving of the soul (v. 38a, 39b)

One issue, which we might not be able to answer, is whether or not the term "my righteous one" also applies to the second half of verse 38. If so, we then need to determine if the term "righteous" can be used in a sense that does not necessarily imply salvation - at least in some contexts. (A quick study would show that it does, as illustrated by Ezekiel 18 and 33, in the Old Testament, and Matthew 23:28, in the New Testament.)

In chapter 12, we read about another contrast: the "true sons" contrasted with the "illegitimate children."

Two Types of "Sons":

Group 1

Group 2

  • They do not experience discipline
  • They are not true sons, but illegitimate children (12:8)
  • They experience hardship as discipline
  • They are true sons (12:7)

One other passage we will look at, in the book of Hebrews, is chapter 8:8-12. This has to do with two covenants. Note that these covenants have been placed under the two "group" categories used above. This is because the first group/covenant represents people who the Lord "turned away from," whereas the second group/covenant represents people who the Lord calls "my people." This parallels the thoughts described in the passages we have already examined. [Hebrews 9:4 is included because of its contrast with 8:10.]

Two Covenants

Group 1

Group 2

The Old Covenant (8:9):

  • [God's laws on two stone tablets - Heb. 9:4]
  • They did not remain faithful to the covenant
  • The Lord turned away from them

The New Covenant (8:10-12):

  • God's laws in their minds and hearts
  • "I will be their God, and they will be my people."
  • They will all know the Lord
  • Their wickedness and sins will all be forgiven

Note that in these Hebrews passages, the people represented by "Group 1" have been exposed to the Word. They even have (or had) many characteristics that seem to be "Christian" (or the Old Testament equivalent). Yet nowhere in the text does it say that they were saved. For there were certain things missing - things that are the distinguishing factor, as far as their eternal salvation is concerned. It DOES say, however, that, at least in certain matters, they fully comprehend what Christianity is all about ...and that their rejection of it is deliberate, without excuse and (at least in some instances) permanent. [Jude 22-23 suggests that there may be hope for some.]

Dennis Hinks © 1998
Hebrews 6:4-6 quotation taken from the NASB.

"Christians" Who "Fall Away" Title Page