Interpreting and Preaching Hebrews 6.1-8, part 5

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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The majority of contemporary commentators affirm that the group described in Heb 6:4–6 are genuine believers. The ablest defender in recent times of the viewpoint that 6:4-6 speaks of false believers is Wayne Grudem, who argued the terms alone are inconclusive as to whether the people referred to were genuinely converted.[1] Grudem correctly recognized that until the mention of what he calls “apostasy” in v. 6, “there is nothing negative in the description: the terms all indicate positive events that are generally experienced by people who become Christians.” He then argued that in spite of what is said about them in Heb 6:4–5, the group described possessed none of the signs of saving faith.

Grudem goes to great lengths in analyzing each of the descriptive phrases in Heb 6:4–5 with a view to showing them, individually and together, to be inconclusive as to whether they indicate genuine salvation. He acknowledged that “enlightened” is used sometimes in the New Testament in a manner that could speak of conversion, but pointed out that at other times it has only the literal meaning of giving light or the metaphorical usage of learning in general. The word is used in Heb 10:32, but Grudem argued this does not prove the word means “heard and believed the gospel.” Yet virtually every commentator notes that Heb 10:32 indicates the author was addressing his readers as believers.

Grudem opined that the Greek word photiz? “enlightened” is not a technical term for believing the gospel. This is not in dispute. What is affirmed is that the word is on occasion used metaphorically in contexts in the New Testament that describe the conversion experience, and such is the case in Heb 6:4 and 10:32. Grudem’s appeal to the lexical definition of photiz? and the fact that no meaning of “be converted” is listed is vitiated by his own statement three pages later that “Greek lexicons do not generally define words with reference to unique meanings in each New Testament author.” Context contributes to the meaning of a given word, and the overall context of Heb 6:4–5, even including v. 6, points to a meaning of genuine belief.

Grudem then attempts to show that “tasting” does not mean “fully experienced.” In fact, Grudem claims the people did have “a genuine experience of the heavenly gift and the word of God and the powers of the age to come,” but, as he says, this is simply not the point. “The question is whether they had a saving experience of these things.” Grudem acknowledged that those who “tasted the heavenly gift” had some experience of the power of the Holy Spirit, but such experiences “do not themselves indicate salvation.” It is difficult to explain how and why Grudem does not see that the phrase used does indicate salvation.

Turning to the statement “partakers of the Holy Spirit,” Grudem acknowledges the word metochos, “partakers,” as used in Heb 3:14 refers to a saving experience, but then stated the word can mean a “loose association.” He inexplicably argued that regeneration is not the only way people “partake” of the Holy Spirit, thus we cannot assume that is the sense intended in Heb 6:5. The phrase could simply mean they were partakers of some of the benefits that the Holy Spirit gives.

In this fashion, Grudem whittles every phrase in Heb 6:4–5 to the point that he argues they cannot be used definitively to refer to genuine salvation. He does acknowledge on the basis of the terms alone that a reasonable argument for genuine believers can be made. But he then concludes that the terms can be used “to describe either Christians or non-Christians,” and thus “our decision must be that the terms by themselves are inconclusive.” Grudem goes on to argue against a reference to genuine believers on the basis of the context of Heb 6:7–12.

Grudem drew other disconcerting conclusions when he commented in reference to the group described in Heb 6:4–5: “they have probably had answers to prayer in their own lives and felt the power of the Holy Spirit at work, perhaps even using some spiritual gifts.” Here we have unsaved people receiving answers to their prayers, experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit (other than regeneration of course), and possibly using spiritual gifts. Exactly how or where this is affirmed anywhere else in the New Testament, we are not told. Precisely how an unsaved person can possess a spiritual gift is a mystery left unexplained. Grudem’s treatment of Heb 6:4–6 illustrates the tendentious nature of some Calvinistic exegesis of this passage.

The sheer force of the descriptive phrases militates against such an interpretation. 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.

Grudem’s affirmation that the group’s outward affiliation with the church made it impossible to determine their status until they “fell away” is a fact not in dispute. No matter one’s theological position on this passage, all would affirm such a statement. Clearly, unsaved people can and do participate in the church; the wheat and the tares grow together. At issue is whether unsaved people can be so described by an author who thinks or knows them to be unsaved. The issue of determining their status is not the point for the author. By the descriptive language he chooses, he clearly indicates their status as believers. Had the author wanted to convey their status as unbelievers, he could have clearly 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.

If Heb 6:4–6 refers to mere professors who do not genuinely share in salvation, several questions come to mind. Why would such mere professors be warned of apostasy? One cannot apostatize from something never possessed in the first place. Another problem with this approach is why would the author exhort non-Christians to press on to maturity as he does in Heb 6:1? The obvious thing to do would be for him to exhort those whom he considered unconverted to be converted! The author does not urge his readers to examine themselves to see whether or not they are saved; rather he assumes throughout they are indeed saved. How is it any more difficult to renew to repentance those spoken of in Heb 6:4–6 than any other unsaved church member or non-believer?

Conclusion: All things considered, based on the terms used as well as the immediate and remote context, it seems best to interpret Heb 6:4-6 as referring to genuine believers.

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

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post 2
post 3
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[1]Wayne Grudem, “Perseverance of the Saints: A Case Study from Hebrews 6:4–6 and Other Warning Passages in Hebrews,” in The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will, in Biblical and Practical Perspectives on Calvinism, ed. T. Schreiner and B. Ware, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 133–81.