Interpreting and Preaching Hebrews 6.1-8, part 9

by Dr. David L. Allen
Dean of the School of Theology
Professor of Preaching
Director of the Center for Expository Preaching
George W. Truett Chair of Pastoral Ministry
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

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Click the links below to read previous posts of
Preaching & Interpreting Hebrews 6.1-8.

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post 8
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We now consider the “Loss of Rewards” view concerning Heb 6:4–6. Essentially, the Loss of Rewards view interprets the group in Heb 6:4–6 as referring to genuine believers who “fall away” in the sense of willful disobedience to God. They do not commit apostasy in the traditional theological sense of the term. They do not once and for all deny Christ. They do fail to press on to spiritual maturity by virtue of direct disobedience to God’s will and word. The judgment that these believers incur does not involve loss of salvation. Their judgment is more accurately designated “discipline,” which involves both a temporal and an eschatological aspect. It is not final judgment in the sense of eternal loss. Temporally, this discipline involves loss of opportunity to go on to maturity in the Christian life, loss of effective service for Christ in this life, loss of the blessings of God that come from an obedient life and in some cases perhaps premature physical death. Eschatologically, it involves loss of rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ (Rom 14:10–12; 1 Cor 3:10–15 and 2 Cor 5:10). These are genuine believers who are in danger of forfeiting some new covenant blessings in this life as well as rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ.

This interpretation incorporates several contextual factors within Hebrews. First, in the immediate context of Heb 5:11–6:8, the author is addressing genuine Christians who were failing to press on to maturity (6:1). The context of the passage is not salvation but sanctification. Second, ascribing genuine believer status to the people described in Heb 6:4–6 favors this interpretation as well. Third, the immediately following verses, Heb 6:7–8, support this interpretation. The author follows the warning with an illustration introduced by gar connecting it with the previous context and showing that the previous audience continues in view. This agricultural illustration speaks of a single plot of land, not two different lands as is implied in the NIV translation. The word “land” occurs only once in the Greek text—v. 7. It is not two kinds of land being described, but rather two possible outcomes from the same land. The ground has received the rain necessary for cultivation and growth. Verse 7 speaks of the positive result of fruitfulness when the rain falls on the land and the result is vegetation. Verse 8 speaks of the same land, which received the same rain, but “thorns and thistles” are the result, not fruit.

In actuality, the contrast is not between two different groups of people as two possibilities that may affect one group of people. This is evidenced by the illustration of two different results occurring to the same land in Heb 6:7–8. The author is using this illustration to depict in somewhat of a typological fashion the two possible outcomes of Christians: those who press on to maturity through obedience and those who willfully continue in disobedience. Verse 8 describes the three-fold result of the land that brings forth “thorns and thistles: It is “worthless,” “near to being cursed,” and “its end is for burning.”

Upon first blush, one might assume by the use of the word “curse” that eternal loss is in view in Heb 6:8. But the text does not say the ground is “cursed” but in danger of being cursed. If the reference is to apostasy, then the reference is not to those who are “near” to being cursed, but to those who would indeed be cursed with eternal loss. In Scripture, “fire” can be used in context of the unregenerate in hell, and it can also be used to speak of God’s judgment of Christians. The latter is clearly the case in 1 Cor 3:10–15 where the focus is on the nature of the believer’s works at the Judgment Seat of Christ. The quality of the work is tested by fire, but the result for those who do not pass the test is not eternal damnation. It is works of “wood, hay and stubble” that are burned up, not the individual, who entered heaven “as by fire.” The context of Heb 6:10, where the author mentions the “works” of his readers, make the comparison to 1 Cor 3:10–15 all the more appropriate. The “burning” of land that did not produce vegetation was a common act in the 1st century AD. The purpose was to cleanse the land of the “thorns and thistles” so it would bring forth fruit. The land was not destroyed in the process. By analogy, the author of Hebrews is not suggesting that those who had “fallen away” were eternally destroyed. The better interpretation is to take Heb 6:7–8 as referring to loss of rewards.

There is an interesting correspondence between Paul’s description of the wilderness generation’s privileges in 1 Cor 10:1–4 and Heb 6:4–5. Five positive things are stated about the wilderness generation, followed by a negative statement, just as we find in Heb 6:4–6: (1) all were under the cloud; (2) all passed through the sea; (3) all were baptized into Moses; (4) all ate the same spiritual food; and (5) all drank from the same rock that followed them, which was Christ. Then follows the negative statement in v. 5: “but God was not pleased with most of them and they were scattered in the wilderness.” Paul does not state they were “apostates” or that they were “cursed” by God and removed from their covenant status. Other parallels occur between 1 Cor 10:1–13 and Heb 6:1–8. Hebrews 6:5 speaks of the “age to come” and 1 Cor 10:11 speaks of “the ends of the ages” having come. First Corinthians 10:3 speaks of “eating” and Heb 6:4–5 speaks of “tasting.”

The deaths of the rebels in the exodus generation are no indication they were unconverted, since both Moses and Aaron also died in the wilderness as a result of God’s discipline for their disobedience. It is significant that the same Hebrew words in Deut 9:23–24 and Num 20:12, 23 are used to describe their sin as are used to describe the sin of the exodus generation. They forfeited the blessing of the Promised Land but this had nothing to do with their eternal spiritual condition.

The author appears to affirm the redeemed status of the wilderness generation in Heb 11:31 when he says: “by faith they passed through the Red Sea.” Hebrews 6:9 also points in this direction. Notice the author does not say “we are persuaded of better things concerning you, namely, your salvation.” Rather he refers to “things that accompany salvation,” contextually a reference to fruitfulness that accompanies salvation.

Those who affirm that Heb 6:6 refers to apostates who were not genuine believers cannot conceive of such language being applied to believers. However, if the “falling away” does not refer to apostasy as has been argued on the basis of the meaning and usage of the word, there is no reason to think it cannot refer to willful disobedience on the part of Christians. It is clear that the word was so used in the LXX for sin among God’s covenant people. Jesus used harsh language at times even when speaking to his own disciples. In Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus has some harsh words to say to some of his seven churches. The Pauline epistles are filled with serious warnings to deter Christians from sinning.

Next: Final Post, Part 10 – Preaching Hebrews 6.1-8.

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