Tuesday, June 21, 2011

When repentance is impossible

I've been wrestling with the warning passages of Hebrews 5 and 6 in preparation for teaching them in Sunday School. In particular 6:4-6. . .

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

Does this passage teach that genuine Christians can lose their salvation? As a believer in the Calvinist doctrine of the preservation of the saints (the P in TULIP) I want to quickly answer no, but that wouldn't do this text justice. As I said, I'm still wrestling with the text -- and various commentaries on it -- but herewith a few thoughts.

- To see this as merely a hypothetical scenario put forward to scare the original readers would be to trivialize the seriousness of the warning.

- The language used in verses 4 & 5 is of a piece with language used in the rest of the New Testament to describe conversion i.e. enlightenment, tasting the good things of God, sharing in the Spirit. The writer seems to be describing a genuine experience of conversion.

- He isn't speaking here of believers who have fallen into sin, or who have doubts, or who've grown lukewarm (though this is a dangerous state to be in), but of people who've become outright opponents of Christ and his gospel. They have become like those who crucified Jesus.

- Before applying this warning to our own context we should view it in light of its original context. If, as is likely, Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish Christians, then the apostasy described would have been forsaking The Way and returning to Judaism.

Going on to verses 7 and 8 we find a familiar metaphor. . .

For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.

One hears echoes of the parable of the sower (see Matthew 13, Mark 4 & Luke 8) and Jesus's teaching on the vine and the fruit in John 15:1-6. I look at the case of Judas. Here is someone who fits the description of someone who had experienced Jesus -- at least partially -- as the light of the world (enlightenment) and tasted the bread of life, even casting out demons along with the rest of the twelve. Yet in the end he was irretrievably lost -- unable to repent.

So, does this text disprove "once saved always saved"? In light of the totality of scripture I don't believe it does. Nevertheless it's a sobering warning that a great start is no guarantee that we'll finish the race. Sin and spiritual sluggishness (see Hebrews 5) can have such a hardening effect that we reach a state where repentance becomes impossible. Here's a helpful and sobering quote from F.F. Bruce:

God has pledged Himself to pardon all who truly repent, but Scripture and experience alike suggest that it is possible for human beings to arrive at a state of heart and life where they can no longer repent.

Hebrews gives us the biblical definition of faith as hope plus perseverance. Calvinists and Arminians can agree that a life of fruit-bearing perseverance is the validation that our initial faith in Christ was genuine. 2 Peter 1:10 reminds us to be be diligent in making our calling and election sure and in Hebrews 12:1-2 we read these stirring words.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Incidentally, my friend Paul Copan points out that classical Arminianism does not definitely teach that a genuine Christian can lose his or her salvation. Quoting from the Fifth Article of the Remonstrants of 1618:

But for the question whether [Christians] are not able through sloth or negligence to forsake the beginning of their life in Christ, to embrace again this present world, to depart from the holy doctrine once delivered to them, to lose their good conscience and to neglect grace -- this must be the subject of more exact inquiry in the Holy Scriptures, before we can teach it with full confidence of our mind.

Arminians of more recent vintage who teach an "easy un-believism" are departing from their own tradition.


estesp said...

Thanks for writing this Stephen--good thoughts. It is a very difficult passage and doesn't lend itself to any easy /quick answers.

1955mark said...

Hi Stephen, my take on this portion of scripture, is that it's a description of the actual, realized process of reprobation. To me, this is an example of a person in which middle knowledge has informed the Godhead, that this person would not remain in the presupposed redeemed/enlightened position provided by the person and work of Christ alone, regardless of any hypothetical circumstance. The concept of "counterfactuals of freedom" intrinsic to middle knowledge, would apply. I happen to know that Paul Copan is also a proponent of middle knowledge. Mark K.