Hebrews 6:4-6: Is Repentance Ever Impossible?

Most Christians know of individuals who for one reason or another have left the faith. They may not have actually denied the faith, but they are certainly not practicing the faith. For such people this is a very troubling passage. Is there anyone who cannot be brought to repentance? Can a person have shared the Holy Spirit and then be lost? And are these people really eternally lost? Is this really a description of a Christian?

First, this passage is not unique but rather is part of a group of passages concerning people who cannot be forgiven or brought to repentance. Mark 3:28-29 refers to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which will never be forgiven. The context is that of people observing the work of the Spirit through Jesus and calling it the work of the devil. In 1 John 5:16 the author speaks of a "sin unto death" (KJV) about which, the elder implies, prayer is useless. Finally, the verse under consideration here refers to a class of people who cannot "be brought back to repentance." The issue is not whether God would forgive them if they repented, but whether there is any way to bring them to repent at all. The answer is no. They are like farmland that produces nothing useful; "in the end it will be burned." People can so harden themselves against God that nothing will keep them from hell.

Second, the people under discussion are fully initiated Christians. In the preceding passage, the author contemplates whether he should discuss Melchizedek, a difficult teaching, or return to the basic teachings of the faith. He lists these foundational experiences as repentance, faith and teaching on (a) baptism (differentiating the Christian baptism from other types of cleansing rituals), (b) reception of the Spirit (laying on of hands), (c) resurrection of the dead and (d) eternal judgment. If the instruction they received had been defective, there would be some reason to go over it again. But he will not return to these teachings, for he knows these readers. They are fully initiated Christians. There was nothing defective in how they were brought to Christ, so there is no use in going back over the basics.

These individuals are "enlightened" (often a reference to baptism, but at the least meaning that they have received accurate teaching about God), "have tasted the heavenly gift" (often a reference to participating in the Lord's Supper, but at the least meaning salvation or reception of the Spirit), "have shared in the Holy Spirit" (who except Christians receives this?), and "have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age" (probably indicating their experience of prophetic words and miracles, seen as a present experience of what would be fully realized in the coming age; see Gal 3:1-5). These are people with a full Christian experience, defective in no way. In fact, this is one of the clearest descriptions of Christian initiation in the New Testament.

Third, what is the author's concern about these people? Hebrews 6 is an excursus the author inserted into the argument because he is afraid that when he gets to the difficult subject of Melchizedek the readers will "turn him off." He is not afraid that they will not understand or go to sleep while this section of the book is read, but that they will reject the teaching and with it their commitment to Christ. Throughout the book he is concerned that they will leave their Christian faith and return to Judaism. The concept of an order of priests after Melchizedek (namely Jesus, the only one he cites as being in that order) contrasts with, and is an implicit criticism of, the Aaronic order that served in Jerusalem, which is something the readers may not have wanted to hear. The author is warning them before he brings the difficult teaching not to apostatize, because the consequence of such an action is damnation.

His warning comes as a description of what it would mean to apostatize. That he is talking about full-blown apostasy is clear, for he uses the phrase "they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace" (Heb 6:6). That is, they once confessed that Jesus was Lord and Messiah, which means they repented of the injustice of the crucifixion. Now in rejecting the faith they are declaring that the crucifixion was correct after all--Jesus was a blasphemer and not Messiah. Such a public recantation exposes Jesus to public disgrace.

Is it possible that the author is simply writing about a hypothetical situation? If so, there are two possible ways to understand it. The first is that both the author and his readers know that this cannot happen, so it is hypothetical for all of them. In that case one wonders why the author wasted his ink. His purpose clearly is to exhort them not to return to Judaism. If his warnings are only hypothetical, how would they keep people from apostatizing? The second possibility is that the author knows this is hypothetical, but he believes his readers will take it seriously. In that case it would serve as a warning, but it would be deceptive. Is the author of Hebrews likely to defend the truth with deception? Would he scare his readers with a situation he knows could never happen?

What, then, is the author of Hebrews saying? He is refusing to return to basics on the grounds that there is no use in doing so for people who have been accurately initiated into the Christian faith. His arguments to keep them in the faith must come from deeper truth, not from a clarification of the foundational truth. He then points out by way of warning that if fully initiated Christians turn their backs on Christ, they will so harden themselves that nothing anyone can do will bring them back to repentance. Their end result will be eternal damnation. But, he concludes, while this is a real possibility for some, "we are confident of better things in your case" (Heb 6:9). If he were not, at least for some of them, there would have been no use in writing the letter at all. They may be on the verge of apostasy, but they have not made the decision and crossed the line.

In so writing the author strikes the balance found throughout the New Testament. The New Testament authors write out of an experience of the grace of Christ and a firm conviction that they are on their way to a greater inheritance in heaven. At the same time, they write with a concern that they or their readers could apostatize and thus lose what they already have. So long as people are following Christ they are supremely confident about them. If their readers turn back to the world, rejecting the rule of Christ, then the New Testament authors never express any hope that without repentance such people will enter heaven. This is a sobering, but not a fear-producing, type of tension seen in Paul (1 Cor 9:27; Gal 5:2, 7-10; Phil 3:12; 2 Tim 4:7, sometimes speaking of the tension in his own life and sometimes speaking of his concern for others), James (Jas 5:20, the purpose of the letter being to "save [a sinner, meaning a believer who has turned to the world] from death"), Jude (Jude 23) and John (1 Jn 5:16-17 KJV, the emphasis being on praying for people before they commit the "sin unto death"). The call to the modern reader is to pay attention to the warning and "to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised" (Heb 6:12) so that the author would say of us as well, "We are confident of better things in your case--things that accompany salvation."