It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. Hebrews 6:4-6
Mmm… this sounds a bit grim.
Whoever wrote the Letter to the Hebrews seems to be saying that if you have come to faith in Christ but then “fallen away”, there’s no way back: “It is impossible… to be brought back to repentance.” It’s that word “impossible” (not just “very difficult” or “very unlikely”) that seems so hard.
Why should it be impossible?
Is it because God has made it so? – as if he has said: “Sorry, but I’m afraid you’ve blown it. You had your chance, you took it, but then you went back on it. Now it’s too late…” Is God washing his hands of a person in this position?
That is hard to believe – it simply doesn’t chime in with the nature of God as we see it in the Bible as a whole, and above all in the love and mercy of Jesus.
All right. So is it impossible, then, in the sense that the person in question has, him or herself, made it impossible – that they have hardened their own heart to the point of no return, so that repentance is simply ruled out? As far as salvation goes, God has no Plan B – it’s either Jesus or nothing. So given that the person in question is, in effect, “crucifying the son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace”, what hope can there be?
That seems rather more plausible – and it could be borne out by Hebrews 10:26-27, where a similar point is made: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left…”. There is no Jesus Mark 2, no second Calvary.
But even there the question “Why so final?” won’t quite go away. However “far gone” a person may be, why shouldn’t a change of heart still be possible?
It’s a tricky one, and if you look up the various commentaries you find that the experts struggle to make sense of it, and to agree with one another. So it’s unwise, I think, to be too dogmatic.
One thing is clear, though. The writer isn’t talking about somebody who has had, if I can put it this way, just a brief, shallow flirtation with Christianity. No; they have “been enlightened”, they have “tasted the heavenly gift”, they have “shared in the Holy Spirit”, they have “tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age”. It isn’t like when people turn up at our churches for, say, a few weeks, show a bit of interest, but then disappear again. No. The person in question has been pretty deeply into Christianity – so their “falling away” is all the more grave.
For many of us today the question of deciding to follow Jesus can seem terribly casual, even trivial – if, after a bit, you decide to change your mind, well, what’s the problem? Against that, bear in mind that the writer to the Hebrews was writing against a background of persecution, where many Christian people had paid a heavy price – even including death – in order to remain loyal to Jesus. (See, for example, Hebrews 10:32-35.)
And that, of course, is exactly how it still is for many Christians in many parts of the world.
So while perhaps we have to live with uncertainty about the precise interpretation of these verses, we can draw from them a clear lesson we still need to learn at regular intervals…
Putting it bluntly: Don’t trifle with God! He is to be taken with the utmost seriousness, and the decision we make to obey, serve and love him is the most important we will make throughout our lives. To call ourselves “Christians”, and to proclaim “Jesus is Lord”, is a big, big thing. Christianity isn’t a pastime or hobby; it’s the very guiding star of our lives.
Is that how we see it? Or is it something we have “fallen away” from?
When Jesus was asked by some of the religious leaders of his day “which is the greatest commandment?” he went straight to the Old Testament and replied, first, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (that, more or less, is Deuteronomy 6:5), and then, second, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (that’s part of Leviticus 19:18). See Mark 12:28-31.
There can be no half-measures in following Jesus. The people who received the Letter to the Hebrews needed to be reminded of that. Many Christians today, suffering appalling hardship, need no reminder.
So… What about us?
Lord God, please save me from becoming casual or shallow in my attitude to the gospel. Help me to grasp its seriousness and its sheer wonder, and so bring me to that day when the veil is torn aside and I will see Jesus, crucified, risen and ascended, and worship him as I should. Amen.
(This concern about “falling away” that we find several times in this letter prompts the question: Why does it happen? Why do Christians so often tend to fall away?
There’s no room now to tackle that. But I hope to come back to it next time – so, watch this space…)