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.

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Alan House


Just for a moment, try to imagine that all the verses that those who hold to OSAS point to for substantiation indicate God’s desire, ability and willingness to save those who place their faith in Christ.

Now, imagine that all the “problem” passages that seem to contradict OSAS are loving warnings from Our Heavenly Father that it is possible for a person who has begun in genuine faith to:
1. Quit believing because of persecution
2. Finally quit believing because their faith has been choked to death by giving their attention completely over to riches and the cares of this world.
3. Finally quit believing because they have become hardened against God thru the deceitfulness of (continued, unrepented of) sin
4. Quit believing because they have come to a settled decision that Jesus death has no saving merit.
5. Quit believing because they have discarded their faith to follow another (false) way of salvation

Now imagine that the passages that seem to indicate God requires that we persevere in faith until our death in order to enter our heavenly reward really mean just exactly and precisely what they say.

Now what you have is a framework that allows all the verses on either “side” to mean exactly what they say! Imagine! No more having to figure out complicated schemes that torture the scriptures of Truth! What a concept!

By the way, I got this from a book. Actually 27 books. All kidding aside, isn’t it time to lay aside all the circuitous eisegesis and just let the scriptures say what they say regardless of what our denomination has subscribed to for how ever many hundreds of years? Our Heavenly Father is DEADLY serious about believers CONTINUING in faith and the blunting or muting of that message constitutes a serious departure from the plain testimony of scripture. Not to mention the fact that if the above framework is correct, you would be fighting God Himself by making His loving warnings null and void.

If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.

David L. Allen


I appreciate your comment. Let me say that that the only way any one of us can come to the meaning of a text of Scripture is through exegesis. I eschew eisegesis as I’m sure you do as well. I cannot agree with you that my exegesis amounts to eisegesis.

I am not committed to the eternal security of the believer because my denomination affirms it. Rather, I believe Scripture affirms it. We are in agreement that the warnings in Scripture to persevere to the end should be taken with the utmost seriousness by all believers. If someone does not persevere to the end in the Christian life, they are giving evidence they were never truly converted in the first place.

Scripture also records examples of genuine believers who went through periods of carnality. That does not mean they lose their salvation, nor does Scripture indicate such.

I presume you and I would never deliberately “blunt” or “mute” the warnings of Scripture. I could just as easily say to you that your interpretation of these passages “blunts” or “mutes” Scripture. One man’s “plain meaning” of Scripture is another man’s “wrong meaning” of Scripture.

I hope you will read the rest of my installments on this subject. It will at least give you a big picture perspective of why I believe what I do about the passage. You may ultimately disagree, and that is fine!


David L. Allen

Alan House

Dr Allen,

Thanks for your kind reply. I think it is plain that OSAS, pressed to its logical conclusion, leads to the position(s) held by JD Faust, Joseph Dillow, Zane Hodges, Bob Wilkin and regrettably, Charles Stanley.

I encourage all believers to assume a heightened sense of awareness regarding any teaching that stands plainly written scriptures on their heads. I think we should be extraordinarily careful when we conclude that scriptures that bluntly warn us of the danger and result of not continuing in faith “just can’t apply to us!” I have also come to believe that teaching that a clearly written scripture that reads more or less the same in a dozen or so English translations ACTUALLY means something else (or the complete opposite) when properly exegeted from the Greek is nothing short of latter day Gnosticism.

Trying their best to protect the biblically indefensible OSAS even has Dr. Stanley agreeing with the GES crowd that the place where there is “wailing and gnashing of teeth” is a compartment of Heaven! What a sad state of affairs! Anytime anyone spends many hundreds or thousands of words explaining away the plain intent of simply written scriptures there is a significant problem there. (For an example, see Calvin’s Institutes on Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, and Irresistible Grace) Jesus plainly told the apostle Peter that if he (Peter) began to drink and party and neglect the care of the flock that Peter’s master would “cut him in pieces and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” How could Our Loving Heavenly Father have made the warning any clearer?

I am not asking that question rhetorically; it is an honest question that requires a clear response that does something other than explain the question or the clear implication of scripture away. What part of “cut him in pieces and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” needs further explanation? Elementary school children can read this and understand it. Again, I did not see this glaring problem for OSAS as a result of reading books by others. I saw it being led by The Holy Spirit as I was reading His Word. I would be interested in knowing how you explain the import of this conversation between Jesus and Peter and exactly what Our Lord wanted Peter to understand as a result of the conversation?


Alan House

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