One of the most terrifying passages in the entire Bible is Hebrews 6:4-6a, which states:
“For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away” (NRSV).
What a frightening prospect! Could we lose our salvation so utterly that we could search across the whole world and never find it again?
And, if so, is there any way we can buy a passport to heaven that we can stick in the bank, or under our mattress, in safe keeping, something we can pull out on the Day of Judgment and show the Lord to get a pass?
In the year 1095, Pope Urban II thought he’d figured out a way to offer just that: a passport to heaven. You see, he had a problem confronting him. He was also well aware of the people’s fear of being carelessly lost and going to hell irrevocably or, short of that, suffering long punishment before getting into heaven, and he figured that calming the people’s fears might also help him solve his problem.
What was his dilemma?
By 1095, a militant religion called “Obedience” or “Submission” (in Arabic, the word is Islam), established by a man named Mohammed (who lived some 500 years earlier, from A.D. 570-632), had swept over northern Africa and even across the Mediterranean Sea into Europe and had come up through Spain and across the near east as far as Palestine, where it captured the city of Jerusalem.
To Christian leaders, this was a deplorable state for the holy land to be in, so Pope Urban II sought to talk wealthy land owners into financing and leading military expeditions to recapture Jerusalem from the Moslems (who were then being called the Saracens). But few of the aristocrats he talked to wanted to go.
The trip was long and treacherous and costly and, for business people, the long absences left the field open for their competitors to corner the market on sales and – frankly - who cared who controlled Jerusalem: Jews or Moslems? After all, none of them were Christians, they reasoned.
What to do?
So Pope Urban II remembered a passage in one of those historical books that were written between the end of the Old Testament and the time of the New where the great Jewish warrior, Judas Maccabeus, in one of his many battles to keep Israel from being overrun by its enemies, discovered after a battle, to his horror, that some of his slain soldiers had been hiding idols under their coats.
The General went right to the Temple in Jerusalem and paid 2,000 drachmas as a sin offering (a drachma was about a day’s wage – so it’s a lot of money – about 6 years worth of pay). He paid this great sum on behalf of his dead soldiers, since, we are told, “he was mindful of the resurrection, for if he had not hoped that they that were slain should have risen again, it had been superfluous to pray for the dead” (2 Maccabees 12:43-44).
Adapting this idea, Pope Urban II offered all who were willing to go and fight in Jerusalem out of pure devotion in the First Crusade that they could “count that journey in lieu of all penance,” just as Judas Maccabeus sought to pay for God’s clemency in the afterlife cleansing of his dead warriors.
The result for Pope Urban II was such a smashing success that, by the time of the late Middle Ages, a full blown practice of paying off the punishing of sins in the afterlife was in play. What these payments were buying came to be called “indulgences.”
The theory they were operating on was that Jesus’ death on the cross bought you a place in heaven, but, if you sinned on earth, after you took advantage of Jesus’ death for you, then you still needed to be cleansed from that new post-conversion sin.
At the same time, since Jesus and the saints had done so many good deeds, it was reasoned, there was extra merit hanging around. So you could buy some of that as an indulgence for yourself, or a dead loved one, and shorten your time in a place that was theorized between earth and heaven called Purgatory, where the dead were sent to get purged so they could enter heaven. But purging was a very painful process.
To avoid that purging, a good work, like making a donation of money to a worthy cause, would cancel out a bad spiritual debt. But, friends, this is cheap grace to the max! The discount store bin version of buying temporary grace on the installment plan.
Still, back in the Middle Ages, this was a fundraiser par excellence! Priests even made up slogans to sell the idea among us common people, like: “Another coin clinks in the chest, another soul finds peace and rest!”
And the way they got that point across was to send preachers out to the various towns of Christendom and literally scare the florins out of people.
But, is this what Hebrews 6 is talking about? Are these verses placed in the Bible to terrify us, or to make us pay a whole lot of money to try to make things right with God - - or worst of all – are they telling us we could actually become so careless that we could lose our salvation so utterly that even an indulgence couldn’t buy it back for us?
What on earth is this scary passage all about?
Well, if you begin reading with Hebrews 5:14-6:3, you’ll notice that the context has several parts that all relate to one another. The writer of Hebrews tells us readers it’s time to explore the deep issues and not just stop with the basics.
Our goal is to become perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect, as Jesus counseled in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:48), a goal we start on earth and finish up in heaven.
How do we do this?
We don’t keep trying to get saved over and over again.
When I was a small child, we used to have altar calls in my birth church, along with stern warnings about hell and comforting urgings to come forward. I remember certain boys who would go forward again and again, trying to make sure they were saved.
But, the writer of Hebrews tells us that’s not necessary.
When we’re building a house, we don’t build the foundation again and again. How many basements do we need? We just need to build the foundation once – then we get on with the rest of the building.
Our foundation of faith is repenting from our sins (called here our “dead works”), declaring our faith in God, getting baptized once, having the elders’ hands laid on us to encourage our calling and spiritual gifts, confessing that we believe in Christ’s resurrection (as Paul teaches in Romans 10:9-10, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”). And, we stay mindful that someday we will be judged by what we do for – or to – our neighbors, those who share the planet with us, but even with the judgment still ahead, we who are serving Jesus as Lord – or boss – of our lives are already saved.
We don’t need to do it over and over again.
It’s in this context of assurance that the writer of Hebrews tackles the tough question that was plaguing the Jewish readers who were the target of the letter to “The Hebrews.” Can this salvation we have been given by God ever be misplaced, or ever be lost like a set of car keys that fall through a hole in your pocket or you put down somewhere and just can’t find again? Or, perhaps, misplaced like a precious coin you drop on the floor that rolls under the floor boards and you sweep everywhere, but it just doesn’t come to light (which is what troubles the woman in Jesus’ parable of the lost coin. And, by the way, Jesus told his hearers in Luke 15:10 that “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” So, God is not trying to have us lose our salvation, but all of heaven rejoices when we are retrieved! ).
So, in this light, we can see what this puzzling passage of Hebrews 6:4-8 is actually saying.
Here is a literal rendering of what the writer of Hebrews set down in these verses:
“For it is not possible for those who once and for all have been enlightened also, who after they tasted (or experienced, or have eaten) the heavenly gift and have come to share in the Holy Spirit and have tasted the good word of God and the powers (or supernatural strength, or miracles, or abilities or capacities) of the future age and [then] have committed apostasy (or a religious revolt, called falling away), again to restore into repentance (or conversion, or turning about), again they are themselves crucifying and exposing to public ridicule the Son of God“ (Heb 16:4-6).
And then an illustration follows - literally: “For earth (soil) having rain come upon her many times and having yielded a crop useful for those for whom it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God, but having yielded thorn plants and thistles, it is worthless and close to cursed, its end will be burning” (Heb 6:7-8).[i]
One thinks with these illustrations of Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree in Mark 11:13, as his own cautionary illustration to his disciples to be fruitful for God’s Kingdom, or his warning that by people’s fruits (that is, their actions) you know them (Matt 7:16-20), or his parable of the Sower, whose seeds fall on rich soil and on shallow soil in Matthew 13.
What the unforgiveable sin appears to be in this passage is not somehow misplacing one’s salvation by carelessness or neglect or even sin. This is about rebelling against God in open apostasy. The passage is not telling us to point fingers at others, but to warn ourselves.
Since we began with an illustration from Reformation times, I thought it might be helpful to see how the great Reformer John Calvin understood this passage and I discovered that he drew the same conclusion that I did. Calvin writes,
“All sins are so many failings. But the Apostle speaks not here of theft, or perjury, or murder, or drunkenness, or adultery; but he refers to a total defection of falling away from the Gospel, when a sinner offends not God in some one thing, but entirely renounces his grace.”[ii]
The way Hebrews 6:6 explains it is that it is crucifying Christ again – killing him off so utterly in our lives that we hold him up once again in contempt as he was murdered and scorned so long ago. He is dead to us and so we have made ourselves dead to him.
What kind of examples might describe such an extreme action? Would it be former Christians creating a false religion in order to turn people from Christ to something or someone else, often being themselves?
My Korean students have suggested someone like the self-styled “Lord of the Second Advent,” who had been a Korean Presbyterian but who created a syncretized faith between Christianity and Eastern Religion, identifying himself as superseding Jesus and making many demands on his followers, including a ritual called “blood separation,” where he demanded women who joined his movement have sex with him in order to be “purged” from their sin, as he assured them that was what was happening.
Christians in our church’s bordering town Salem, Massachusetts, posit it might be a high Satanic Priest who was an ordained Christian priest or minister who left the faith and went into Satanism, helping wreak all its abuse and perversion.
On the other hand, for years, I “reasoned” with Rastafarians, 90% of whom were born into Christian churches but who became confused and began to worship Haile Selassie as the second coming of Jêsus, as they call Christ. But after Haile Selassie carefully explained that he was not Jesus but he himself worshiped Jesus, the entire 12 Tribes of Israel, the group that Bob Marley had belonged to, in 1997 switched allegiance, declaring their faith in Jêsus, alone, as God-Among-Us. So, we should not be too hasty to point out anyone and conclude they have committed the unforgiveable sin. After all, the Holy Spirit inspired this passage in Hebrews and only God knows in whose heart Christ has been irrevocably slaughtered, scorned, and vilified.
In short, what we can conclude is that those who have never become Christians are not the kind of people this passage is talking about. It is talking about those who have been active Christians, but have thrown salvation back into God’s face. In their speech and action, Hebrews 6:6 says, they throw public ridicule on Jesus, shaming him again the same way he had been shamed on the cross when he was on earth.
Quintilian, who was born in the probable year of Jesus’ execution, A.D. 30, points out in his Declarations,that being made a public spectacle was a prelude to crucifixion; it’s about shaming someone by nailing them up on a public road to disgrace them[iii], and, indeed, Hebrews 6:6 says they are crucifying the Lord all over again in what they say and do.
But if we love God and have tasted the blessings of heaven, why would any of us do that? All of us can fall into sin, but not the kind of sin that mocks God and rejects God’s gift of salvation.
And that’s why verses 9-10 in the next section of Hebrews 6 hasten to add words of comfort for dismayed readers, assuring us that those who persevere to the end, as both John Calvin and James Arminius explained, will be saved.
Why? Because, verse 10 tells us, God is not unjust and God takes all of our work for the gospel into account. So, Hebrews 6:11 and 12 urge us we should persist in doing good deeds and sharing the gospel and pleasing God, who has given us such a great gift of salvation.
And then the chapter ends with another illustration, this one underscoring the faithfulness of God’s promise to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people.
When God makes a promise, “it is impossible that God would prove false,” verse 18 assures us. We can all “anchor” our “souls” on that fact. And we are reminded of one more fact that should comfort us: If we do sin, falling short and missing the mark of what God intends we do, we have a high priest who pleads for us in heaven: Our Lord Jesus Christ.
You see, God sets up the way of salvation so we won’t fail in following it. But, if once we have enjoyed God’s blessing and have seen God work marvelously in our life and then throw that back in God’s face and strike out against God, shaming Christ again, that’s not God’s fault! Then the passage tells us we have decided to choose death over life. And God respects our choice.
But, again, if we want to love and obey God and are seeking to continue in God’s grace, even if, in our weakness, we still stumble and fail, we have an advocate who pleads for us, Jesus Christ, God-Among-Us himself, and his once and for all gift of forgiveness will help the willing heart to persevere. And that’s a message of joy.
[i] This blog is adapted from a sermon I preached on Hebrews chapter 6 (centering on verses 4-8), on October 27, 2013 at the church I helped plant and at which I still volunteer as pastor of encouragement, Pilgrim Church of Beverly, Massachusetts. All Literal translations are by the present author, otherwise NRSV and TNIV.
[ii] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries: Ephesians-Jude (Wilmington, DE: Associated Publishers and Authors, n.d.), 2348.
[iii] This information I acquired from Ben Witherington, Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Hebrews, James & Jude (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007), 274.