I want to say at the outset that this is known as one of the most difficult passages in all the Bible. There are all kinds of interpretation. In fact, I have a whole book that was written on nothing but this passage, four different views of it. The Greek is incredibly difficult. And even once you land on a certain translation it's still hard to know exactly what the author is saying. The amazing thing is, he puts this in the context of he's complaining to the Hebrews that he has to spoonfeed them, that they're not mature enough to take what he really wants to teach them.
(Read Heb. 5:11-6:12)
Let's remember that the Book of Hebrews is about moving forward. We can't drift backwards. The author is writing to the Hebrews, lest they become nostalgic and go back to their previous way of life and Judaism. He wants them to pursue Christ, to live for Christ, to love Christ. Don't go back into the law. So, the whole theme of Hebrews is to keep moving forward in faith in Christ.
Here is an example where he's telling them that they're not moving forward enough. They're in danger of going back. He pushes them personally. Then he gives them this warning.
We need to ask ourselves when we read those first four verses there in chapter five, "Am I moving forward in maturity?"
Dull of Hearing
His big gripe with them, is that he can't really teach them what he wants to because he has to spoonfeed them. They're not ready, they're not spiritually mature enough. He says, "About this we have much to say, and it's hard to explain." It's something that's very difficult to explain. Why? Because it's inherently difficult? No, "Since you have become dull of hearing."
How do I know if I'm moving forward in maturity? Here's the first question you got to ask yourself, "Am I responsive when the Word is preached? Or am I dull of hearing?" It's easy to get in the routine of coming to church and hearing the Word preached and you admonished. To go back and keep doing the same thing. We get comfortable in our sin. We get so insensitive to our sin and the sin around us, that it's easy for us to grow dull of hearing.
James even talks about that in the Book of James. He talks about being hard of hearing, and that we don't hear the Word. James even uses the word there for ear wax. I think that's what happens, we let something build up between us and the Lord. We get dull of hearing. Sometimes when someone is trying to teach us the Word of God a little bit deeper it's easy sometimes just to go, "Oh, that's too deep. That's too hard."
Well, the writer to the Hebrews ask us this question, this author says, "Are you dull of hearing or are you responsive?" What do you want to be? Because if you want to hear the Word, then God will help you do it. We have to have an open heart and ask God to give us a mind to receive it. I think the problem is we don't ask.
Can you imagine that any Christian would go to the Lord and say, "Lord, I really want you to help me understand the Word." God wouldn’t answer, "No, I'm not going to help you understand the Word." Jesus said when the Holy Spirit comes, that he'll be our teacher. We won't have need of a human teacher. So, I've got to ask the question, are we really in any way relying on the Holy Spirit? Am I dull of hearing or am I responsive to the word?
Am I Teacher or only a Student?
The author goes on to say, verse 12, "For though, by this time you ought to be teachers. And yet you have need of somebody to again, teach you the elementary things, the basic elements of your faith." By now, you should know better. So ask yourself, "Am I a teacher or only a student?”
At Buck Run, we're going to have people of all different levels of maturity. We have people who've just recently trusted the Lord in the last year or two. So, they're learning, they're growing. But you know what? We've got a lot of people here that have been saved for 20 years or more. If you've been walking with the Lord for 20 years or more, there comes a point where you need to be discipling somebody. You ought to be teaching. It's good to be taught. There are always going to be people who know a little bit more about the Word than you do. We need to teach one another, admonish one another. But you should be teaching somebody, if you've been walking with the Lord long at all. Don't be making excuses for your lack of maturity.
The author is rebuking them. He says, "By now you ought to be teaching. And yet you have need that somebody teaches you." He's not talking about something new. He says that someone needs to teach you again, the elementary things.
When you go to college, they don't ask you now on your application, "Do you know your ABCs?" They assume if you're entering college that you know your ABCs. In fact, you never go beyond the ABCs, right? All the knowledge and all the books in the library are contained in the 26 letters of that alphabet. So, you don't ever go beyond them, but you sure have to know more than that.
The writer here is astonished. He said, "How come you've been following Christ so long, and yet you're not teaching somebody." Am I a teacher or only a student?
He said they need milk, not solid food. For everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness. Here's the test. How do you know that you're living on milk? Well, one evidence we are untested in the word of righteousness. He's saying that if you are walking with the Lord and you're growing in the Lord, that you're able to understand the righteousness of God and its impact on your life. You're growing in holiness yet without legalism.
Now, there's no place for legalism, a mere moralism. As though we begin to think that if I do this and do that and do this just right and keep this rule, this regulation, that buys me points with God. That gets me closer to God, if I do that. That's not what he's talking about. I think that's part of being unskilled in the word of righteousness. That shows immaturity.
But maturity in faith means I want to be holy because it makes me look more like my Savior. The author is telling us to ask ourselves, "Am I self-feeder or am I spoon fed? Am I skilled enough in the word of righteousness that I can go to the Word and I can grow in the Word, and I can learn from the Word, and that I can apply that to my life, so that I am growing in sanctification, that I'm growing in Christ's likeness, because I'm feeding on the Word?"
If you're the most faithful attendees of the church, it's still not enough for you. You have to grow in your own faith. You have to learn. You have to apply the Word.
So, am I moving forward in maturity? Solid food is for the mature. For those who have their powers of discernment, trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. That is as we're in the Word, then we see. We become sensitive to things that other people are quite comfortable doing, we're not. Things that other people don't even notice in their attitudes or their actions or their tone of voice, it gets our conscience. We have to deal with it. We get trained in righteousness because we're in the Word as we're living through life. So, this is the evidence of maturity.
Am I Moving Forward in Doctrine?
These first four verses his emphasis is on our behavior in maturity. That we get skilled in what he calls the word of righteousness. We know good from evil.
Now, he's going on into doctrine, Hebrews 6:1 says, "Okay, therefore, let us leave the elementary doctrine." I think he's saying, "Why am I even having to convince you to not turn away from Christ and go back to the law?" That is the most basic thing. The most basic doctrine of Christianity is Christ. I mean, that's what makes us Christian. If we don't have the right view of Christ, we cannot be Christian.
He goes on, "… and go on to maturity. Not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God." He said, "How often do I have to tell you that salvation is just repenting of your sins and putting your faith in Jesus Christ."
Then he focuses on instruction about washings. Now, interestingly, the word he uses here is a form of the word baptism, but it's not the word for baptism. It's like the washings. At the south wall of the temple there are literally hundreds of baptisteries there. Pilgrims would come on their way to the temple, and before they would go up into the temple, they would go down one set of stairs into the baptistry, immerse themselves, come up out of the other side of stairs, put on a white robe, and then proceed into the temple. This was one of the washings. There were many ceremonial washings the Jews had to go through.
I think the author is saying to them that these are elementary things. Again, their desire to go back into these rituals and routines of their Jewish faith, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. I mean, these are things that you see in both Testaments. He says, "Let's leave that behind and let's go on." He said, "This we will do, if God permits. This is our desire."
So, here's the question: “Am I moving forward in doctrine?” Do we know the basics? Are we eager to learn? If you're a follower of Jesus Christ, then you ought to be eager to learn what this Book says. If you're a believer, this Book is going to change your desire and your outlook.
Am I Moving Forward in Genuine Repentance?
But now having said that, he wants to bring up an unfamiliar theme. This is the third time in the Book of Hebrews that he's given us a very solemn warning about testing whether or not you are genuinely born again. Apparently, many of this community are falling by the wayside. They're going back to Judaism. The question is: What happened? Did they lose their salvation? Were they genuinely saved and they lost their salvation? Or did they look like they were saved, but they weren't and then they turned back?
He's also warning them, if it happened to others, it could happen to you. If it happened among the 12 disciples that Jesus chose, it could happen to you. If Judas was deceived, you could be deceived. If Judas fooled others, you could fool others. So, he's warning us. These warning passages in Hebrews are as solemn as they can be.
This is serious business. We're talking about whether or not we have eternal life. But I also want to say as heavy as this is, don't mistake this for a lack of joy. The writer to the Hebrews wants them to have real joy. The joy of knowing we're saved. The joy of knowing that our salvation is real. If you don't have that, then he wants you to get it. I want you to have that. I want you to understand that you can know that you're on your way to heaven, but it is found in perseverance. So, you've got to ask the question. Not only am I moving forward in maturity, not only am I moving forward in doctrine, but am I moving forward in genuine repentance in faith?
Now, he said, repentance and faith toward God that's elementary stuff. That's the basics. He said, I don't want have to lay that foundation again, but I need to make sure that you've got the basics down because here's a serious condition. He says, there's something that's impossible.
Verse four is a long sentence. When you have an impersonal construction, like it is impossible, the next part of speech you're anticipating is an infinitive, the “to do” something. It is impossible to what? I want you to notice what he does not say. He does not say it is impossible for these to repent. It says it is impossible to renew. It is impossible to restore them again to repentance, since they or while they are crucifying once again the Son of God, to their own harm and hold him up to contempt.
There's a category of people out there. This category of people, he says, it's possible for them to end up being lost. Let's lay aside the question of whether or not they were ever saved. Let's talk about the end result of whether they were saved or whether they weren't saved. The end result of this group he's talking about is that they are not saved. That's the end result. Whether they were, or they weren't, we know the end is they're not. So, let's begin there.
It is possible to have been enlightened, to have tasted the heavenly gift, to have shared in the Holy Spirit, to have tasted the Word of God, to have tasted the powers of the age to come, the coming age, and fall away. In Greek, it says to the fall beside. This is not the word apostasy in Greek. It's the word, parapipto. It's not apostacy of falling away. It's falling along beside. All right, so it's possible to fall away. Let's translate parapipto as fall away.
So, whether they were, or they weren't, whether they were saved or not saved, either way, they end up still lost. It says that we know that they're lost because they are not repentant, because he says you can't renew them to repentance. They are crucifying Jesus to themselves all over again. They're making an open display of him. So, clearly that's not the behavior of saved people. Again, whether they were, or they weren't. We know at that point in time he's talking about they're clearly not.
So, here's the question. Is it possible for a person to have been enlightened and be lost? Is it possible for a person to have tasted the heavenly gift and still be lost? Is it possible to have shared in the Holy Spirit, and as one who is shared in the Holy Spirit to still be lost? Is it possible to have tasted the Word of God and still be lost? Is it possible to have tasted the powers of the coming age and still be lost? Well, I'm going to tell you, my answer to this is yes.
I think that all of those things are possible for a person, because these are things that were true of the children of Israel in almost exactly this way. That the children of Israel coming up out of Egypt they were all baptized unto Moses in the sea, in the cloud. They were all delivered from Egypt. They all tasted of that heavenly food that God gave them, that manna in the wilderness. They all drank from that spiritual drink. That drink that they drank was from the Rock that followed them. But God was not pleased with the majority of them. They were scattered in the wilderness. Then he said, you need to make sure that you're not in the same condition, they are.
The Bible is clear that there is a state where you can have everything right on the outside. You can have baptism. You can be fed the Word of God. You can even have an initial joy at hearing the Word of God preached and still be lost.
Isn't this exactly what Jesus said in the parable of the sower? Jesus gave four kinds of soil, and only one of them was what he considered real salvation. There's the soil that the seed falls on it and nothing happens. There's no root. There's no shoot. There is no fruit. Then there's the soil the seed falls on it and takes root. But it's quickly choked out. Then there's the soil that the seed falls on it, it takes root. It bears a shoot, but there's no fruit. Three kinds that Jesus said are not genuine salvation.
The fourth soil Jesus says, that if the seed falls on it, there's a root, there's a shoot, there's a fruit. That is what salvation is. Salvation is only proved, it's not earned. It was salvation from the beginning, but we looking at it, we don't know. The experience might feel the same.
We've all got people like that in our lives that we once knew who were faithful to the Lord's house, faithful to serve the Lord. Maybe they tithed. Maybe they taught Sunday school. Then there's a turning of their back on him. Someone might look at them and say, "Well, they lost their salvation." Well, you know what? Here's what Jesus says.
Jesus said on that day of judgment, there’s going to be people who are going to say, "Just a minute, I worked for you. I did stuff for you. I cast out demons in your name. I prophesied in your name. I did a lot of mighty works in your name." Jesus said, "I will say, depart from me you workers of iniquity. I no longer know you." Is that what he says? No. What did he say? “Never.” “Never knew you.”
Sometimes people hold up Judas as example of someone who lost his salvation. Yet, what did Jesus say? Jesus said that he is going to his own place. Meaning hell. That's a place prepared for him. Judas didn't lose his salvation. Judas, might've been deceived, deceived himself, and deceived others. But you see, he was called the son of perdition of his father the devil from the beginning.
So, the warning here is that if you don't persevere, if you don't continue in faith, what you do is you prove you never really had faith to begin with. It's possible to have all that stuff true in your life and fall away. The author of Hebrews uses that word specifically because I think he has in mind here the children of Israel, as they're coming out of Egypt and wandering through the wilderness and on their way to the Promised Land, the bodies are just dropping. They're just dropping. They're falling along the side. God scattered them in the wilderness. They never make it to the Promised Land. That wasn't a few of them. That was almost all of them.
So, in 1 Corinthians 10, as it says it here in Hebrews, there was an evil heart of unbelief. It's not continuing to do good works and that keeps your salvation. If you stop doing good works, you're going to lose your salvation. No, it's not about what you do. It's about your faith in Christ, resting in Christ.
Here's the warning. It is possible to have all that stuff true of you at some point in your life and fall away. You're still lost. You might've fooled everybody, but you didn't fool God.
The author’s real point is that there's something that's impossible. He's describing this person and he says it is impossible to restore, to renew that person to repentance. Wow, that's frightening. Let me say lest I be unclear at all today. There will never be a time that any person would genuinely repent and ask God for forgiveness and salvation to whom he would say no, never, never, never. That is not what's in view here. The fault does not lie with God.
The problem is, is that we get so caught up in thinking that, "I've tasted the heavenly gift. I've been enlightened. I have tasted the Holy Spirit. I know the powers of the age to come." And you think, "Well, because I've had this happen or that happen, or this experience or that experience, then I'm okay." This is what the author’s saying, that the danger is that a person like that who thinks that they're okay. Yet they fall along beside, they fall away. As long as they stay in that state, it is impossible.
Notice, he doesn't say it's impossible for them to repent. He says, it's impossible for you to restore. You see the difference? The impossibility is on what the church can do and on what others can do.
It's impossible to restore someone to repentance while they remain in their sin, their sin of trusting in themselves, their sin of trusting in their experiences, their sin of thinking that they're okay, because they're good enough. There still remains in them an evil heart of unbelief. The author of Hebrews says, if we do that, then it's like they're crucifying Jesus all over again. Because he offered one sacrifice for sins forever. And then he sat down. So, if you act like what he did is not enough, you have to do your thing too in order to achieve it and earn it, then it's like you're crucifying him all over again. As long as someone persists in that, it's impossible to renew them.
All of these words we have looked at so far are past tense, they're participles. Then at the very end, the author changes to present participle, so that it reads like this, "It is impossible in the case of those having once been enlightened and having tasted the heavenly gift, and having shared in the Holy Spirit, and having tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then having fallen away to renew them again to repentance, since they, while they are crucifying, once again the Son of God, to their own harm and making a display of him." Those last two are present participle. So he says, "If these things have been done, have been true, it's impossible to renew them while they are persisting in this."
So, it's not saying that just because this is all once been true in somebody's life, it's impossible for them to be saved. It's saying that while they are persistent in that, you can't do anything. They will not repent. They will not come to Christ until they're willing to let go of their unbelief, that evil heart of unbelief. The issue is not God's willingness to forgive, but a hardened heart's ability to repent.
What has been his admonition all along? Today, if you hear his voice, harden not your heart. To these that seem to be dull of hearing that it's possible for you to sit there, trusting in your church membership, trusting in your good works, trusting in your mortality and for you to think you're okay. If you're doing that, you are crucifying Jesus afresh and anew, and it's impossible for anybody to renew you to repentance because you're putting him to open shame. Your heart is not ready and willing to repent. You've hardened your heart from trusting in your deeds and in your yourself.
Now he says, here's the evidence. He talks about two different pieces of land. "For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it's cultivated, receives a blessing from God."
All right, here's the first analogy he uses of salvation. Here's the land, God blesses it. It's receiving the rain and nourishment and it bears fruit. There it is again, what is salvation? Salvation always results in fruit bearing. He said, well, that's clear when it bears fruit, that's evidence of God's blessing on it.
But now let's look at another piece of land. "But if it bears thorns and thistles." Now, it's received the same blessing. Rain has fallen on it. Sunshine has shined on it, but it does not produce crops. It doesn't produce bear fruit. It brings forth thorns and thistles. If it bears thorns and thistles, it's worthless and near to being cursed. Its end is to be burned.
Am I moving forward and bearing fruit? Does our walk with Christ bear evidence more than just an emotional experience. The Israelites had that. He's used them as an example throughout the entire book. Numbers 14, he's told us about Psalm 95, and now he's reminding us again, that it's possible for us, like them, to trust in all this stuff, this good stuff that's happened to us, the rain and the sunshine of God's favor. But instead if you're producing thorns and thistles and not bearing fruit for the Lord, that you can be lost.
If you can read that without trembling, something's wrong. It's designed to make us tremble. It's designed to make us think, "Am I really trusting in Christ? Is my faith really in him and not in my works? Am I responding to that faith by bearing fruit for him?"
But listen to verse nine, "Though we speak in this way, yet in your case beloved, we feel sure of better things. Things that belong to salvation." God is not unjust. So, as to overlook your work and the love that you've shown for his name and serving the saints as you still do. We desire each one of you to show the same earnestness, to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. Am I moving forward in the full assurance of hope?
The author’s whole theme here, is that there's going to be evidence. There's going to be a progress in your life. You've been claiming to know Christ for 20 years and you've not made progress. You're not growing. You're no holier today than you were then. You have no deeper love for Christ now than you did then, maybe even less. Can you really say that you're walking forward in the full assurance of hope that because your hope is in Christ alone, you have the assurance of salvation?
He says, "Now, beloved I'm persuaded better things of you." I don't think that you are ones that are like the ground that produces thorns and thistles whose end is to be burned. I'm persuaded that you're bearing fruit. Can you say that? Are you relying on some emotional experience, but not on faith?
I can't renew you to repentance so long as you're persisting in crucifying afresh the Son of God, making an open display of him by trusting in your works, instead of in his sacrifice. No one can renew you to repentance. But you know what? Today you can repent. My life is the evidence that I either rest in Christ or I desperately need Christ. Only you and God can make that judgment.
Hershael York is pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, as well as professor of Christian Preaching and dean of Southern Seminary's School of Theology in Louisville, Kentucky.