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If They Shall Fall Away

Any salvation a saved sinner can lose is a salvation grace did not produce! Any salvation a man earns by good works is a salvation he must maintain by good works and can lose by the cessation thereof. If a sinner is saved by good works, it stands to reason he can lose his salvation by bad works. But scripture affirms our justification is “not by the [good] works of the law” (Galatians 2:16). Paul wrote to the Romans: “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work” (11:6). If salvation is by works, then grace is turned on its head. Grace is no longer grace if our salvation is in ANY way contingent upon works or the lack thereof. And if our salvation is by works, then works MUST be redefined to constitute grace since salvation can ONLY be by grace! 

Scripture teaches God makes his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to be “wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption” for every believer (1 Corinthians 1:30). Salvation is IN Christ. The believer is IN Christ. Christ is IN the believer. Salvation is NOT Jesus plus (+) something or minus (-) something. Jesus IS salvation. There is NONE OTHER NAME under heaven given among men whereby we MUST be saved (Acts 4:12). He that has the Son has life (1 John 5:12).

Despite the unassailability of salvation-by-grace doctrine, there are those in the religious realm who insist that salvation is contingent upon good works and the keeping of it contingent upon maintaining them. The majority of 'good works' proponents do so as an expression of “confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3-4), But there are honest folks who genuinely struggle with biblical passages that appear to teach otherwise. One of those texts is Hebrews 6:4-6, which reads:

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.”

In our treatment of this text, we'll seek to identify what it means to “fall away” and whether any genuine born-again believer is capable of doing so. There are several interpretive keys that will enable us to do this. But first we'll examine the text itself and then bring to bear other biblical considerations.

Textual Comments  

The words fall away are the translation of παραπίπτω (parapiptō), “to fall beside, slip aside, fall away.” While it implies apostasy, this is its only NT usage. Some scholars see it as equivalent to an OT word for “trespass” that signifies departure from the true worship of Jehovah (Ezekiel 14:13; 15:8). As such, παραπίπτω would represent departure from the true worship of Christ. The fact the Holy Spirit used it only once in the NT means it probably has unique application to the writer's target audience—Jews who had professed faith in Jesus Christ but still had an affinity for Mosaic Law and a propensity to mix Law and Grace. The mixing of the new covenant in Christ's blood with the old covenant of Law is a recipe for spiritual disaster!

The verb fall away is a predicate nominative in past participle form: literally, “ones having fallen away.” It is the fifth in a series of five predicate nominatives introduced by the definitive article those. Literal translation: “For [it is] impossible to renew again to repentance the ones having been enlightened, ones having tasted of the heavenly gift, ones having become partakers of the Holy Spirit, ones having tasted the good word of God and the powers of the impending age and ones having fallen away.” The word if does not appear in the Greek as a condition for the first four verbs. The Greek is καί (and) as a continuation of them. It can mean and or even. The force of καί is: “EVEN IF if they [are] ones having fallen away [after having experienced the first four influences].” 

The writer expresses this falling away as a remote and almost unimaginable possibility. What is the possibility of ones having experienced the first four blessings abandoning the Lord Jesus Christ as the total sufficiency for salvation? As remote as that possibility is, it is even more remote—yea, impossible—for God to renew them (or bring them back) to a place of repentance and faith after they've abandoned it. Question: If a professor of faith DOES fall away, what would God use to renew them again to repentance? Answer: The same influences he already used to draw them to himself in the first place. See Romans 2:4, which affirms “the goodness of God” is the means he uses to lead men to repentance.

The writer makes clear the falling away in view is much more than a believer being beset by his or her sins. It is a falling away that's fundamental to the gospel. The ones having fallen away are guilty of recrucifying the Son of God and putting him to an open shame. The cross of Christ is the crux of the gospel—its gravamen! The cross was the means whereby God the Father laid upon Jesus the iniquities of us all (Isaiah 53:6). It is also the basis upon which God meted out JUSTICE for the world's sins so he could be the JUSTIFIER of those who believe in Jesus (Romans  3:26). If one who falls away is guilty of recrucifying Jesus and openly shaming him, that falling away MUST therefore  involve a tacit repudiation of Christ and his cross as the total sufficiency for our salvation. In other words, he has ultimately rejected the gospel of grace to which at one time he gave mental assent.

The verbs crucify and put to an open shame are also predicate nominatives, but in present participle form. Literal translation: “Seeing they are ones continuously recrucifying the Son of God and ones continuously putting him to an open shame.” The Greek syntax teaches the ones having experienced (past tense) the first five participles are now engaged in continuously practicing (present tense) the last two participles. The verb put to open shame means “to expose to infamy, make a public example of.” Its only other NT usage is in Matthew 1:19, where it is said Joseph was not willing to make Mary a public example. In other words, he had no desire to bring reproach upon or embarrass her in a public manner. The professor of Christ recrucifies and openly shames the Lord Jesus when, having been exposed to heavenly dynamics, abandons the cross as the crux of the gospel. A genuine, born-again believer is incapable of falling away. If a professor of Jesus Christ EVER falls away, it is evidence that individual NEVER believed. 

In ascertaining what it means to fall away, it might be helpful to contrast two prominent men in scripture—one who DID fall away and one who did NOT fall away. They are Judas and Peter. Jesus hand-picked Judas to be one of the Twelve. Judas experienced many displays of Holy Ghost power. He preached the gospel of repentance and of the kingdom. He cast out demons and healed the sick in Jesus' name. He experienced enlightening, tasting and partaking. Sadly, he fell away in the end. His betrayal of Jesus revealed he was NEVER a true believer. 

Peter NEVER fell away although we know he rebuked Jesus on one occasion for predicting his death (Matthew 16:22), denied Jesus three times (as attested by all four gospel writers), quit the ministry and endeavored to return to his fishing profession after the resurrection (John 21:3). The difference between Judas and Peter lies in these words of Jesus to Peter after predicting his denial: “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:32). These are the words of an Advocate—the same Advocate that pleads the cause of EVERY true believer (1 John 2:1-2). The faith of those for whom Jesus prays NEVER fails! They may be overly confident, spiritually impotent, beggarly in weakness and cowardly in denial. But none of these shortcomings constitutes a failure of faith or a falling away. Peter would need to be converted (restored) with a view to usefulness; but NEVER renewed with a view to repentance! 

John 6 further reinforces the truth concerning Peter. After Jesus had fed the five thousand (6:5-13), many Jews took to following him. In a practical sense, they became his disciples. Things went well until Jesus claimed to be the “Bread of life” (6:35,48,51,58), giving ETERNAL life to those who consume him in contrast with Moses and his TEMPORAL manna. Jesus knew many of those FOLLOWING him were not BELIEVING him (6:64). So he made this statement: “No man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father” (6:65). John tells us: “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (6:66). Jesus then asked the Twelve, his inner circle, this question: “Will ye also go away?” (6:67). Peter rejoined: “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (6:68-69). The verbs believe and are sure are both perfect tense. Paraphrase: “Lord, we're firmly convinced and know with unshakable certitude that YOU are the Son of the living God, possessing the words of eternal life NO ONE else can offer! We're not going anywhere!” Peter never wavered from this persuasion!

Judas, on the other hand, NEVER came to such a persuasion, which is why he finally fell away, went back. He followed, but never believed. Jesus never became his Advocate, one to whom he was so close, whose glory he experienced first-hand. It wasn't until AFTER Judas left the Eleven on his betrayal errand that Jesus interceded for his own. He asked the Father to KEEP them (John 17:11,12,15) and to SANCTIFY them (17:17,19). According to Jesus, NONE of them was lost, but the son of perdition (17:12). Jesus extended his advocacy to future believers with this request: “Neither pray I for these alone, but for THEM also which shall BELIEVE on me through their word” (17:20). Jesus petitioned the Father to keep and sanctify ALL of us who have believed. If so much as one genuine believer EVER falls away, it would call into question Jesus' role as Advocate. For if he lost one, what assurance would the rest of us have that he could save and keep us to the uttermost?

Contextual and Biblical Considerations

There are several interpretive keys from both the immediate context and the broader scope of scripture that can provide some light. First, the immediate context is an exhortation to build upon the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith and achieve spiritual maturity (6:1), wherein are “things that accompany salvation” (6:9). When the writer uses persuaded in the perfect tense, he makes it clear that, even though warning about the dangers of falling away, he has no one specific in mind, certainly not his target audience. Contrariwise, he recognizes their “work and labour of love” and ongoing “ministry to the saints” (6:10). But he realizes tares grow alongside the wheat. For that reason, he is bold to caution them concerning “an evil heart of unbelief” (3:12). 

Secondly, the word repentance in 6:6 builds upon its use in 6:1. The impossibility of renewal unto repentance is due to the destruction of the foundation previously laid. According to Paul, Jesus Christ is the ONLY foundation that can be laid (1 Corinthians 3:10). One falls away when he abandons the foundation. The reference to “dead works” juxtaposed with “faith toward God” is a contrast between the works of the Law, which have NO ability to give life, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who IS eternal life. 

Thirdly, a prominent event in Hebrews is “the provocation” of 3:8,15, which looks back at Number 13-14. The Israelites were in Egyptian bondage for 400 years. God sent Moses to deliver them. They observed as the Lord brought nine plagues upon the Egyptians, from which they were immune. With the tenth plague, immunity from death would be secured ONLY by application of lamb's blood to the door posts. The Lord prescribed the manner in which this was to be done. Every detail prefigured Jesus, the Lamb of God. When Israel was hemmed in at the Red Sea, they watched as God (1) appeared in a pillar of fire protecting them from Egypt's army, (2) parted the Red Sea as an egress for them, and (3) drowned their enemy. 

At Mount Sinai, they beheld God's awesome glory for forty days while he sustained his servant Moses for that same period without food or water. The Lord led them to Kadesh and instructed Moses to send twelve spies to survey the land, to ENLIGHTEN them concerning the land God promised, to PARTAKE of its beauty and bounty before taking possession, to get a TASTE of things to come. After forty days of exposure to the land, ten of the spies gave the majority report—an evil report. The minority—Joshua and Caleb—argued: “We are WELL ABLE to possess it NOW!” But the majority said: “We are NOT ABLE to possess it, God or no God, promise or no promise! The inhabitants of the land will destroy both us AND our kids!” The majority opinion won the day. With that opinion, they FELL AWAY from God, his promise and their future.

After all they had seen God do, it was not enough to convince the majority to take God at his word. Instead they expressed a desire to go back to Egypt. This spirit of unbelief infuriated the Lord. He smote the ten unbelieving spies and told Moses to tell the people over twenty years of age they would spend the next forty years wandering and dying in the wilderness, one year for every day the spies spent in the land. The death sentence jolted them into confession of sin and reversal of thinking about taking the land. But it was too little, too late. God refused to RENEW his promise to that generation. He would fulfill his promise with the next generation—their kids. Their rejection made renewal of the promise IMPOSSIBLE!

If one properly understands what happened with the provocation in Numbers 13-14, which the author references in Hebrews 3:8,15, he'll have a handle on (1) what the falling away means in 6:6, (2) why it's impossible for one who falls away to be renewed to repentance, and (3) why a believer, who is IN Christ and IN whom Christ lives, can NEVER fall away. Many believe the wilderness wanderings prefigure the life of a carnal believer. But that comparison just doesn't hold up if you understand the truth of Hebrews 3. What the wilderness wanderings teach us is how God provides for a covenant people, which Christians indeed are. Spiritual lessons abound. But the better OT parallels with the Christian life begin with the book of Joshua, which documents ENTRY into the land (salvation) and CONQUEST of the land (discipleship), including the KEYS to spiritual victory and the PITFALLS that portend spiritual defeat.


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