Interpreting and Preaching Hebrews 6.1-8, part 4

November 14, 2013

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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Today we examine the meaning of each individual participial clause in Heb 6:4-5.

“Those who have once been enlightened” most likely refers to the initial illumination that results from a response to the preaching of the gospel, as in Heb 10:32. The question of the meaning and extent of hapax, “once,” must be addressed. As to meaning, it implies a once for all act that cannot be repeated. As to extent, “once” at the very least connects with “being enlightened,” and may modify all four participles in vv. 4–5.

The “heavenly gift” is a euphemism for salvation, which the readers have “tasted.” The Greek word for “tasted” is the same here and in v. 5 and is used metaphorically indicating “to eat or drink,” thus experiencing something fully. There is no hint in the word of a superficial participation in something. There is no connotation in the word itself of tasting but not swallowing. This can be seen from the usage in Heb 2:9 where Jesus “tasted” death for everyone, meaning he experienced the full force of physical death.

The third participial phrase describes those “who have shared in the Holy Spirit.” The author used this word previously in 3:1 and 3:14 to describe the close relationship that his readers share in the heavenly calling and in Christ. To become a “partaker” of the Holy Spirit indicates primarily “participation in” and denotes a close association with the Holy Spirit, implying reception of the Holy Spirit into one’s life.

The fourth phrase found in v. 5 combines two concepts:  “the good word of God” and “the powers of the coming age.” Notice the use of the participle “tasting,” the same Greek word in the previous verse. God is the source of this “good word,” whose content includes the full revelation of God spoken and written. The second half of the clause speaks of the powers of the coming age, which can be  interpreted in one of two ways. First, the New Testament authors, following Jesus’ teaching, viewed the new age as having dawned with Christ’s first coming, and yet there is an eschatological sense awaiting final fulfillment. The powers of this “coming age” may be viewed in this sense. Second, the author may be thinking of the new age as beginning with Christ’s second coming. Either way, the powers of the age to come are experienced now, although they await ultimate experience in the eschaton.

It is pertinent at this point to ask what is the spiritual condition of those described in vv. 4–5? Later we will bring into the discussion the participle translated “falling away” in v. 6. Upon first blush, the obvious implication is that these four phrases describe believers. It is difficult to imagine the author using such terminology to describe apparent or pseudo-believers.[1]

The sheer force of the descriptive phrases militates against interpreting 6:4-5 in reference to false believers. How can it be conceivable that such descriptive phrases as enlightenment, experience of the heavenly gift of salvation, full sharing in the Holy Spirit, sharing in the Word of God and the powers of the coming age, do not have as their referent believers? Each of these statements finds their counterparts scattered throughout the New Testament, and when used in the same context as here, they refer to those who are genuine believers.

By the descriptive language he chooses, the author clearly indicates their status as believers. Had he wanted to convey their status as unbelievers, he could have done so. There is no direct statement that those described in Heb 6:4–6 were unbelievers. If the author is indeed referring to unsaved people, this is the only place in the New Testament where such language can be said to be used in this fashion. Delitzsch asks: “[H]ow can we doubt for a moment that it is the truly regenerate whom he is here describing?”[2] Hebrews 2:1–4 and 3:7–4:13 both are lengthy expressions of concern the author has for his readers, yet it is clear in both of these passages that he affirms his readers as believers. Furthermore, the immediate context beginning with 5:11–14 clearly refers to the readers as genuine believers, although spiritually immature believers. There is no evidence the author ever addresses anyone in the epistle other than those whom he considers to be believers whom he alternatively instructs, warns, and encourages. Hebrews 10:35 would seem to make explicit the point that the audience is composed of genuine Christians.

There is a growing consensus crossing the Calvinist/Arminian divide that the language of Heb 6:4–6 describes genuine believers. David Armistead stated, “if one follows the standard exegetical methodology of looking first at the pericope itself, honesty demands that Heb 6:4–8 speaks of a true Christian.”[3]

The general approach of those who suggest the reference in Heb 6:4–6 is to apparent believers is to point out these descriptive terms “normally refer to Christians” but “might” or “could” mean something other than their clear and obvious meaning. What is it that drives them to this conclusion? It certainly is not exegesis. From a Calvinistic perspective, the driving factor is the interpretation of “falling away” in v. 6 as apostasy. Since, by definition, Calvinists correctly affirm the New Testament doctrine of the eternal security of believers, whatever “falling away” means in Heb 6:6, it cannot in their view mean apostasy that results in loss of salvation. Since most Calvinists usually argue for apostasy in Heb 6:6, they are forced theologically into a corner as to the spiritual condition of those described in Heb 6:4–5: they must be unsaved.

More to come!

[1] Appeal is sometimes made to the fact that the author shifts from the first person in Heb 6:1–3 to the third person in Heb 6:4–6 to support the contention that the group described here are merely professors or false believers. This is taken to indicate that the author is no longer thinking of his readers, but is referring to a group who, in the final analysis, are not genuine believers. However, there are no third-person pronouns in the Greek text of this passage. The pronominal translation renders the meaning of the articular participles, literally, “the having been enlightened ones,” etc.

[2] Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Trans. by Thomas L. Kingsbury (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1871, 1952 reprint), 1:287.

[3] D. Armistead, “The ‘Believer’ Who Falls Away: Heb 6:4–8 and the Perseverance of the Saints,” STJ 4, no. 2 (1996): 144. See also Herb Bateman, ed., Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007). Notice the tension moderate Calvinist Buist Fanning feels on this issue on pages 180 and 217. The other three contributors to this volume, Arminians Gareth Cockerill and Grant Osborne, along with moderate Calvinist Randall Gleason, all affirm Heb 6:4-6 refers to genuine believers.