These are some of the most terrifying words in the New Testament:
“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.” (Hebrews 6:4-6)
For anyone but the hardest core Calvinist, these words are enough to make one shudder. No one wants to fall away. But we often do what we know we shouldn’t. The mind is willing, but the flesh is weak. Though we may be born again, the old man lurks incessantly beneath the service and around every corner. The struggle is real.
Most people, however, (me included) tend to read these words out of context. As an isolated statement, we might be strongly tempted to believe these words speak to sin, especially those nagging, habitual, ingrained sins that we have a hard time overcoming. We feel as if, one day, we will sin one too many times and will have fallen away – completely lost and irredeemable!
But the context speaks to something different than the direction our mind is prone to go.
The statement in Hebrews 6 quoted above is prefaced with the following introduction:
“Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God ….” (Hebrews 6:1)
What is the “elementary doctrine of Christ”? What are these “dead works” from which we must repent? This is the key to keep from “falling away”.
We must have “our conscience purified from dead works to serve the Living God; we “do” this by believing in Jesus Christ, “who offered himself without blemish” for that very purpose! (Hebrews 9:14[*]) This echoes the words in Hebrews 6:1 where we are urged “to leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God.” Jesus is the key!
The thrust of Hebrews, from Chapter 2 forward, where we re urged that we must not “neglect such a great salvation”[†], is establishing Jesus as the new high priest, freeing us from the works of the law, described in 6:1 as “dead works” or “useless rituals”. Jesus was the perfect sacrifice, given once for all, so that we can cease from our own dead works and useless rituals and enter into God’s rest.[‡]
“Jesus is the apostle and high priest of our confession….” (Hebrews 3:1) Therefore, we must not go back to the old Mosaic law (or any faith in our efforts to appease God and atone for our sins) that is imperfect and cannot save us. What Jesus offers is greater than what the law offers, greater than what our efforts can achieve.
When Hebrews says, “Take care Brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God”, it is talking about going back to the Mosaic law (going back to our own efforts).[§] When it speaks about exhorting one another “that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin, for we have come to share in Christ’s, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end”, it means holding to our confidence in Christ, rather than going back to works of the law, believing that they can save us, rather than the once for all sacrifice of Christ.
The writer of Hebrews his talking about entering into God’s rest, which means ceasing from our own striving to save ourselves by sacrifices that we offer. Rather, we enter into God’s rest by resting by placing our faith in the one sacrifice God offered, the sacrifice of Jesus. This sacrifice is reminiscent of the sacrifice that God gave to Abraham. Though God instructed Abraham to take his son up to the mountain for a sacrifice, Abraham believing God went, but God ultimately offered Abraham another sacrifice. This foreshadowed Christ. It isn’t our own sacrifice that saves us. It is God sacrifice who saves us.
The writer of Hebrews is was talking to Jews when he says, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the son of God, let us hold fast our confession.” (Hebrews 4:14) He is reminding them that Jesus is our high priest, that we should not look to ourselves or each other.
The writer of Hebrews goes into several chapters of comparing Jesus to Melchizedek (a high priest directly from God, not of the Levitical tradition), and setting him apart from Moses and the law. When it says, “let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and a faith toward God,” it means repenting from the dead works of the law (useless rituals). It means letting go of substitutes for the sacrifice God provided and putting our faith in God alone.
When Hebrews warns “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 falling away” (Hebrews 6:4-6), we are being warned of the temptation to go back to thinking there is something we must do to be saved. We are being warned of going back to dead works, useless rituals, thinking that we must accomplish our own worthiness in the sight of God.
And the warning is stern: “[I]t is impossible to restore them again to repentance because they crucify once again the Son of God to their own harm, holding him to contempt.” (Hebrews 6:6) If we go back to thinking we must accomplish earn our way to salvation (going back to works of the law, dead works, useless rituals) By doing that we are reject God’s sacrifice. We are choosing our own substitute rather than placing our confidence completely and finally in the sacrifice God provided us – Jesus.
The way that we avoid “falling away’ is place our confidence once and for all in the sacrifice of Jesus, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”[**]
Postscript: It can be a struggle to let go of our own sense of self-worth and ability and to grasp ahold of what God has done for us. It seems ingrained into us that we have to “do something”. We feel that we must earn our own ways. It seems like the “fair” way, but it isn’t God’s way. He was us to cease our striving and to sacrifice our own striving to accept his ultimate sacrifice for us. The difficulty of grasping this elemental truth can be seen in the following response to a description of a “born again” experience”
“I’ve theoretically been a Christian most of my life, and I’ve never felt this way. Or thought this way. Or anything. It’s never made much sense to me, it just feels like something I have to do.” (You can red the interchange on Reddit)
To grasp the difference requires a paradigm shift that we tend to call being “born again”. This is the ultimate “light bulb moment”. It is the continental divide between our way and God’s way. We the shift happens within us, we see the world in a whole new way.
[*] Hebrews 9:11-14 (“11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”)
[†] Hebrews 2:1-3 (“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?”)
[‡] Hebrews 4:1-3, 11, 14 (“Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. 2 For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.[a] 3 For we who have believed enter that rest…. 11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience…. 14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.”)
[§] Hebrews 3:12-14 (“12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”)
[**] Hebrews 6:18-20 (“[H]old fast to the hope set before us. 19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”)