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
Today we will consider the meaning of the phrase “it is impossible to renew them to repentance, seeing they recrucify the Son of God and put him to open shame” in v. 6, and connect the passage with the incident at Kadesh-Barnea in Numbers 14.
The use of “impossible” is emphatic by word order, being placed first in the sentence. The subject of the infinitive “to renew” is unstated, raising the question, “impossible for whom?” Some interpret the sense here to mean it is impossible for men to renew them to repentance, but not for God to do so. Most, however, take this as a reference to actual impossibility, and this is supported by the other three occurrences of “impossible” in Hebrews, which are unambiguous in their meaning of absolute impossibility (6:18; 10:4; 11:6). Contextually, it is impossible to renew them because God himself won’t permit it (v. 3).
The object of “renew” is “repentance.” If, as many argue, the group described in Heb 6:4–6 are not genuine believers, how is it possible for them to be “renewed” to repentance? They would never have repented the first time. If they cannot be “renewed” to repentance, implicit in the use of “renew” is the fact of previous repentance. If they had repented (6:1), then they are genuine believers; and if genuine believers, then they cannot be mere professors. Both John Owen and Roger Nicole attempted to blunt the force of this problem by suggesting that what is in view here is outward repentance, and not inward repentance, which is the genuine fruit of regeneration. If repentance initially was spurious, why would it be desirable to renew anyone to that kind of repentance?
It will likewise not do to argue that the repentance was real but ineffective because it was not accompanied by faith. In fact, according to Heb 6:1, the author mentions repentance and faith as the first two fundamentals of Christian doctrine and the clear implication is that he viewed these as being true of his readers, including the group described in Heb 6:4–6. Repentance is often associated with believers, not just unbelievers (2 Cor 7:10; 12:21; 2 Tim 2:25; Rev 2:5, 16). The point to notice is what the text says as well as what the text does not say. It is “repentance” to which they cannot be restored, not salvation.
Two participial clauses follow the statement “to renew them to repentance,” expressing the cause or reason why there can be no renewal to repentance: “crucifying again” and “exposing.” This is followed by the dative of reference meaning: “with reference to themselves.” The sense of the whole would be: “it is impossible to renew to repentance those who had been once enlightened . . . and who fell away.” Verse 3 explains why they cannot be renewed in v. 6: because God will not permit it.
The fact that the author makes much of the finished work of Christ theologically does not necessarily mean he does so because the readers are near to repudiating that work. When the author says they “crucify” and “expose to shame” “with reference to themselves,” his focus is not on what happens publicly, though that is a dimension of Christian disobedience, but on the internal contradiction between the confession and commitment a believer has made to Christ and the illogic of failing to honor that confession and commitment by choosing sin. All sin dishonors Jesus, and persistent sin, metaphorically speaking, carries the ironic stigma of having a Christian act like a non-Christian, hence “crucifying” to themselves the Son of God.
The context of Hebrews 3-4 makes clear that the Kadesh-Barnea incident is uppermost in the author’s mind and he is using that incident as a negative example for his readers. The Kadesh-Barnea debacle is narrated in Numbers 14 and is poetically referenced in Psalm 95, which the author quoted in Heb 3:7-11. In addition, notice Psalm 78 also speaks of the Kadesh-Barnea incident. Similar terminology is used in all three Old Testament passages to describe what the sinful people did and what God did to them as a result. Note also in Numbers 14 and Psalm 78 there is a reference to God’s forgiveness for their willful sin.
These verses underscore the fact: although God clearly forgave the exodus generation of their sin, yet he refused to allow them to enter the Promised Land. It was impossible to renew them to repentance because God had sworn in his wrath that they would not enter the Promised Land. He did not disinherit them or remove them from his covenant people. He did not send them back to Egypt. In fact, after the Kadesh-Barnea incident, for the next thirty-eight years God continued to feed them with manna, provide water, protect them from enemies, and even kept their shoes from wearing out. Yet over that period of time, one by one their bodies “fell” in the wilderness until all of that rebellious generation died.
We can now see how the concept of “falling” has been consistently used by the author since Hebrews 3. We have seen that the word “falling away” in Heb 6:6 (in any Old Testament context, or in any extra-biblical example) does not mean apostasy in the sense of willful rejection of Christ by those who are believers or by those who are unbelievers. Given the usage of the word in the LXX combined with the author’s dependence upon the Kadesh-Barnea incident here and elsewhere, the word means to transgress against the Lord in a way that parallels what happened in Numbers 14 when Israel rebelled against God.
Israel in the wilderness had become hardened in their hearts against the Lord, and this hardness culminated in their disobedience recorded in Numbers 14. The present readers of Hebrews were in danger of something similar. If they do not hold fast their confession of faith in Christ (Heb 3:6; 4:14; Heb 10:23); if they disobey and rebel against the Lord and remain in such an unrepentant state, if they refuse to press on to maturity, God himself will not permit them to repent because of the high-handed and blatant sin that they have committed. Contextually, the key to the warning is actually Heb 6:3: “This we will do, if God permits.”
Verse 4 begins with gar, a subordinating conjunction. God may make the decision that it is not possible for them to press on to maturity because of their disobedience, just as He did not permit Israel to enter the Promised Land for the same reason. Contextually, the meaning of “fall away” in v. 6 should be understood as the opposite of “pressing on to maturity” in v. 1. The sin of “falling away” should be compared to the experience of the exodus generation who “fell” (same Greek root word) in the wilderness (3:17; 4:11; 6:6).