There is remarkably sobering picture in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian, as he makes his way toward the celestial city, comes to the house of a man named Interpreter. Now this interpreter is clearly the apostle Paul by the description made of him; and interpreter shows Christian seven different scenes in this house that highlight various aspects of the Christian life, dangers and realities. The sixth of these is a man in a cage who is in utter despair. When Christian goes to this man and asks him why he is in the cage, and why he is in such despair. The man responded by saying:
“I was once a fair and flourishing Professor [professor of faith in Jesus Christ], both in my own eyes and also in the eyes of others: I once was, as I thought, fair for the Celestial City, and had then even joy at the thoughts that I would get thither.”
Christian then asked him what happened to him. The man said, “I am now a man of despair, and am shut up in it, as in this Iron Cage. I cannot get out; O Now I cannot.”
Christian followed up by asking him how he came to be in this miserable condition; and the man said:
“I left off to watch and be sober; I laid the reins upon the neck of my lusts; I sinned against the Light of the Word, and the Goodness of God; I have grieved the Spirit, and he is gone; I tempted the Devil, and he is come to me; I have provoked God to Anger, and he has left me; I have so hardened my heart that I cannot repent.”1
The imagery found in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is one that has disturbed many people throughout the centuries, and yet, it is functionally the imagery of the teaching of Hebrews 6:4-6. What are we to make of the language of this passage? Surely these are some of the most sobering and even frightening words in all of Scripture. What do we do with the language of “those who were once enlightened,” those who “have tasted the heavenly gift,” those who “have become partakers of the Holy Spirit” and those who “have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come” falling away and perishing? How are we to understand the teaching that there are some who it is “impossible to renew to repentance?” Are we to conclude that they were saved and lost their salvation? Are we to understand that somehow they did not do enough to stay in a state of grace? Are we to understand that it is possible for someone to sin so much that they are past the point of repentance? A prima facia reading of the language certainly seems to lend itself to such an interpretation; but a careful consideration of them leads to a vastly different conclusion. Prior to answering the question of what the text means, a warning must be raised about how it has been inappropriately used in a number of ways that can cause damage to true believers.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, toward the end of his ministry, remarked on what he believed to be the portion of Scripture that the devil loves to twist and use to hold true believers in bondage. He wrote:
I can definitely say, after some 35 years of pastoral experience, that there are no passages in the whole of Scripture which have more frequently troubled people and caused them soul agony than the passage in Hebrews 6:4-8, and the corresponding passage in Hebrews 10:26-29. Large numbers of Christians are held in bondage by Satan owing to a misunderstanding of these particular statements. I do not say that these are the two most difficult passages in the Bible. I do not regard them as such. But I do assert that they are passages that the devil seems to use most frequently in order to distress and to trouble God’s people.2
If we read the warning in chapter 6 together with the warning in chapter 10 we must conclude that the warning relates specifically to what is called, “sinning willfully.” Here too, we must tread lightly when settling on a meaning of the clause, “to sin willfully.” It might help us to say what it cannot mean prior to suggesting what the author’s meaning must be.
“Willful sin” cannot mean what the Scriptures call “presumptuous sin” (i.e. that sin that we know we should not do and yet do it anyway). We know the writer cannot be speaking of this because the Psalmist prayed that God would deliver him from “presumptuous sin” (Ps. 19:13)–thereby acknowledging that he had, at times, fallen into presumptuous sin–and that he was susceptible of falling into it again. Surely the sin of David with Bathsheba and Uriah would have been categorized accordingly. We also know that Peter’s denial of Jesus cannot be said to be the sin intended since he was personally restored by Christ. So what are we to make of the “willful sin” that is tantamount to “falling away” from Christ and putting oneself in a place in which it is “impossible to renew again to repentance?”
We must further state that the phrase cannot mean that a true believer can fall from saving grace. We know this to be true because of such passages as John 6:37; 10:28; Romans 5:1-21; 8:1; 8:28-30; Phil. 1:6; etc. There are so many passages that speak of the definitive safety true believers have in the Person of Jesus Christ. Because of the perfections and finality of His saving work, those who are in union with Him by faith are also safe; since we cannot have an infallible knowledge of who has a true and saving profession of faith–in contrast from those with a false and temporary profession–all we can do is look for the fruit and perseverance they exhibit. This is why the writer of Hebrews can follow what he said in vv. 4-6 with what he says in verses 10-12. The “we are confident of better things concerning you beloved…things belonging to salvation” is meant to be an encouragement to them that there is evident fruit in their lives. This is important because the writer rebuked them for not going on to maturity in the things of God in 5:13-6:3. Then he gave them the teaching on apostasy, and how he comes with the evidence of a real and saving faith: “God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister.” That’s how we know that he cannot mean that those who have had saving faith can lose that saving faith. Those who have saving faith will most certainly persevere to the end. The need the warning, the encouragement and the exhortation to persevere in “showing the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end,” and that they “do not become sluggish” in regard to faith and patience.
The very real danger of departing from a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, the Messiah, to return to a form of Judaism and the Old Covenant rituals of religion in order to avoid the persecutions that follow being a Christian is indisputably the context of the book of Hebrews . Some were in danger of returning to the sacrificial system, and, in doing so, were in danger of “trampling the Son of God underfoot, and counting the blood of the Covenant, by which they were sanctified, a common thing” (Heb. 10:29) and of “crucifying again for themselves the Son of God” (6:6). Reflecting on the language of “crucifying again for themselves the Son of God,” William Still explained, “the great danger is that converts reamin only what I think we must call half-converted…who do not want to go on to work out their faith with fear and trembling…therefore, in that halting, static state of mind they are in imminent danger of apostatizing…that is, quietly renouncing the faith and almost surreptitiously calling for the hammer and the nails yourself to recrucify the Lord Jesus personally–and on your own account–thus personally rejecting Him, just as much as you had been involved in killing Him.”3 If this is an apt description of apostasy, we must ask the question, “How does it happen?”
There is a recurring teaching in the book of Hebrews about the nature of sin and departing from God. In chapter 3, the writer presses the fact that the more we walk in unbelief and disobedience the more we are in danger of hardening our hearts and in so doing we “depart from the living God.” The more we embrace and love sin, the more our souls are in danger of rejecting the Gospel. While the Gospel is for sinners (and not for those who clean themselves up to be accepted by Jesus), once someone has made a profession of faith in Jesus, the more they need to bear fruit and so evidence that profession in their lives by “laying aside every weight and the sin that so easily besets them” (Heb. 12:1-2). If we are not putting sin to death, then we are in danger spiritually. It was John Owen who coined that now famous phrase, “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.”4
While we must be clear that a true believer cannot fall away we also must note that the warning comes to all who profess faith, because all are to take seriously the reality of this warning. In order to distinguish between what happens to a believers when they fall into grievous sin, and a false professor of faith who falls away (the who is given over to irremediable hardness of heart) we must distinguish between the categories of “apostasy” and “backsliding.”
The issue of backsliding, as distinguished from apostasy, must be carefully broached. It is possible that the souls of true believers may be damaged by a careless approach to this subject, or that the souls of unbelievers may be wrongfully comforted. The Westminister Confession of Faith carefully charters the waters of the subject in the chapter on Perseverance of the Saints (ch. 17). There, the Divines expound the theology of perseverance of the saints:
I. They, whom God has accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.
II. This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ, the abiding of the Spirit, and of the seed of God within them, and the nature of the covenant of grace: from all which arises also the certainty and infallibility thereof.
III. Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God’s displeasure, and grieve His Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.5
While the first two points in this chapter must become a cherished part of the fabric of our souls, the last section of the chapter must be known and believed as well. Do we really believe that, for the various reasons listed above, believers may “fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein?” Do we really believe that as a consequence they may “incur God’s displeasure, and grieve His Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves,” and yet, not be in a place of irremediable hardness of heart? We must fear being in such a condition, and yet, we must be careful not to deny that a true believer may be, for a time, in such a place. I have written a short article on the Scripture’s teaching about the sinful weakness of the saints here.
When we consider our own spiritual condition, and we acknowledge that it is possible for a true believer to backslide, we must–with fear and trembling–acknowledge that the first signs of backsliding should drive us back to the Savior in repentance and faith. Sinclair Ferguson–in his excellent article, “Apostasy and How it Happens“–explains, so well, the danger of backsliding when it comes to the reality of the danger of apostasy when he writes: “The solemn fact is that none of us can tell the difference between the beginning of backsliding and the beginning of apostasy. Both look the same.”6 If we see in our souls, “thorns and briars” (Heb. 6:8), we must go to the one who Himself wore the crown of thorns–the symbol of the curse upon the ground. He is the sin-bearer who takes the spiritual thorns upon Himself when He bore the wrath of God that we deserve. When we see spiritual thorns, we must swiftly flee to Him in faith and repentance.
The subject of apostasy is one of the most difficult and challenging subjects in all of Scripture. It is one that has massive implications on our lives. The point of this teaching is to drive true believers in the arms of Jesus by faith–and to encourage them to zeal in faith and obedience to Christ. The writer of Hebrews transitions to this exhortation in vv. 8-12 when he writes:
But, beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner. For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
In church history, no one has dealt more thoroughly with this subject than did John Owen.7 In vol. 7 of his works (On the Nature and Causes of Apostasy from the Gospel), Owen takes up the plethora of objections and perversions of this teaching. He deals with the theological nuances that must be drawn out, and brings rich application to the lives of Christians. It would do ministers of the Gospel a great deal of good to revisit this subject on a somewhat regular basis. You can listen to my attempt to preach Heb. 6:4-12 here.
1. John Bunyan Pilgrim’s Progress (New York: P F Collier and Sons) pp. 38-39
2. Martyn Lloyd-Jones Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 8:17-39 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975) pp. 318-319
3. Excerpt taken from a sermon Rev. William Still preached on Hebrews 6:4-20.
4. John Owen The Mortification of Sin (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1842) p. 9
7. John Owen The Works of John Owen, vol. 7 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1862)