Hebrews 6:4-12 – “It is Impossible…” (Part 2)

Have some in the congregation actually drifted away to the point of apostasy? Chapter 6 and chapter 10 both have strong words of warning against apostasy.  It is possible that some have, but the writer’s intention may be to drive the point home well enough that the readers do not recant their faith when the difficult persecution comes.  This is a rhetorical strategy, to describe the worst case imaginable, then show how the reader has not gone quite that far yet.

Thanks, Derri

For example, I might tell my students, “you will fail Greek if you do not study for the exam!” to encourage them to study, although I know that none of them will fail the exam because I have fully equipped them for success.  Some might struggle more than others, but I have given them the necessary tools to pass the exam.

Does the text say that it is impossible for them to repent?  Perhaps, but perhaps not.  The word “impossible” does mean “not able,” but it can also mean “not capable.” Louw and Nida gloss the word, “pertaining to being impossible, presumably because of a lack of power to alter or control circumstances.”  I might use this word to describe my chances of breaking the world record in the pole vault.  It is so unlikely, so out of the range of my capabilities (not to mention the principles of science!) that I can call it “impossible.”

As we work through the passage this will become more clear, but what we seem to read here is that those that do recant and reject Jesus in a public way are not able to repent, because they are no longer capable of repenting. This is not necessarily the “unpardonable sin,” but it is a sin that is so deep and so destructive to the person who commits it that they are no longer capable of making act honest act of repentance and be restored to fellowship.

The reason that it is impossible is that the individual has “once for all” been enlightened, the same phrase used to describe Jesus’ “once for all” sacrifice for sin.  Just because it is impossible for a man, it does not mean that God cannot move that person to repentance and bring them back.  He very well may let a person go, but if He wills he can bring them back.

The two most powerful words in the Christian faith are …”but God.”

Hebrews 6:4-12 – Other Views on the Warning Passages

Collin Hansen has an excellent interview with Peter O’Brien which specifically discusses the warning passages in Hebrews.  Essentially, O’Brien makes the point that there are two kinds of faith in Hebrews, a genuine faith, analogous to the Parable of the Sower.  Some people respond to the gospel, but not fully and therefore recant their faith when a time of persecution comes.  Indeed this is usually the case when the gospel is preached, whether in the ministry of Jesus, people may respond positively but not come to real Faith in Jesus.  That inadequate response is found in John’s Gospel as well.  Nicodemus was positive towards Jesus, even friendly towards his teaching, but in John 3 I think he falls short of “saving faith.”

Scot McKnight has a response to this interview.  He does not like this two-kind-of-faith approach, stating that it “strains the very language of the letter to the Hebrews.”In essence, McKnight says that it really does not make any sense to warn someone about apostasy (falling away from faith) if they have no faith to begin with! If someone has “spurious faith” then they really ought not be encouraged to continue in that faith.  McKnight does not understand what “spurious faith” means in this context, although late in the article he offers what might be a good definition real faith “perseveres and to salvation” and spurious  faith “doesn’t persevere and that leads to judgment.”

I wonder if O’Brien’s parallel to the Parable of the Sower is not a useful way to understand these warning passages.  Within a group of followers of Jesus, there is a range of responses to the Faith.  They all have heard the real gospel and have some sort of a response to it.  They have all responded positively, but only one type of response is “salvation which perseveres.”  In the Parable, it is the person who bears fruit. To appreciate the faith, or to admire Jesus and his teaching, or to enjoy the gifts of the Spirit is simply not enough.  To be “right with God” one clings tenaciously to the Faith as it has been handed down to them, they bear fruit, and they endure whatever persecution comes their way.  In fact, suffering for the faith seems to be a hallmark of “genuine faith” (Hebrews 12:3-11).

If this analogy is useful, then the exhortations in Hebrews are trying to draw those with weak or inadequate faith into a deeper, more full understanding of this “great salvation.”  The time is coming, says the writing of Hebrews, when you cannot play at being a Christian – you may have to pay with your life!

Thanks to Brian Small at Polumeros kai Polutropos for these links as well as including Reading Acts on his January Hebrews Carnival!