Interpreting and Preaching Hebrews 6.1-8, part 8

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 6
post 7

We are now ready to examine the major interpretations of Heb 6:4–6 and to synthesize all of the evidence into an interpretive framework. There are five major interpretations of Heb 6:4–6: (1) the Loss of Salvation view, (2) the Hypothetical view, (3) the Tests of Genuineness view, (4) the Means of Salvation view, which is in reality a variation of the Tests of Genuineness view, and (5) the Loss of Rewards view.[1]

The Loss of Salvation view has been most ably defended in recent times by Scot McKnight. This interpretation identifies the people described in Heb 6:4–6 as genuine believers who forfeit their eternal salvation due to the sin of apostasy. This is the classical Arminian position. Most modern day Arminians affirm the possibility of repentance and regaining salvation, though Heb 6:6 would appear to make repentance and salvation impossible for those who have committed apostasy. The key weakness of this viewpoint from within the context of Heb 6:4–6 is the participle translated “falling away” is not an adverbial conditional participle and does not refer to the act of apostasy. The key weakness from the standpoint of the New Testament is the difficulty of explaining the plethora of passages that affirm eternal security of the believer. The key weakness of this interpretation from the standpoint of the context of Hebrews as a whole is three-fold. First, the book repeatedly affirms the “once-for-all” character of the salvation procured by Christ on the cross and speaks of believers’ salvation in covenant language using the aorist and perfect tenses in Greek. Second, crucial for the author’s argument throughout the epistle is the solidarity between Jesus and his redeemed people. The permanent identity of believers with Christ in 2:10–18 makes the loss of salvation view untenable theologically. When the author of Hebrews warns his readers to “hold fast” their confidence (3:6) or their confession (4:14; 10:24) there is no hint that any genuine believer has failed to do so. Third, the view inconsistently excludes the pastoral encouragement statements that follow immediately upon the heels of the warning passages, especially Heb 6:9 and 10:39. This view does not adequately interpret the meaning of Heb 6:4–6.

The Hypothetical view is predicated upon interpreting the first participle in Heb 6:6 conditionally: “if they fall away.” This perspective argues that the writer is presenting a hypothetical case for illustrative purposes to show what would happen if it were possible for someone to fall away from salvation through committing apostasy. The intent of the passage is still a warning, but the writer does not intend for his words to be understood other than hypothetically. From the immediate context of Heb 6:4–6, the greatest weakness of this position is taking the participle “falling away” in v. 6 adverbially rather than substantivally and then giving it a conditional translation. Exegetically it is best to take this participle in a substantival fashion as with the previous four participles in vv. 4–5 with which it is grouped. If the participle cannot be taken adverbially, as the majority of Greek scholars and commentators suggest, the hypothetical view cannot be correct. The “Hypothetical” view likewise incorrectly interprets “falling away” in verse 6 as “apostasy.”

The Tests of Genuineness view harks back to Calvin and especially the Puritan John Owen. Its ablest contemporary defender is Wayne Grudem. The essence of this view is that those in Heb 6:4–6 may profess faith in Christ, but they are not genuine believers. These false believers come to a point where they abandon Christ and the church, thus committing apostasy. When they fall away, they give evidence that they were not genuine believers. First John 2:19 is often used to support this position.

A variation of this view, called the “Means of Salvation” view, has been popularized by Schreiner and Caneday, who develop it primarily from C. H. Spurgeon, William Shedd and G. C. Berkouwer. The essence of the view declares the warning of Heb 6:4–6, and other like passages, coupled with the promises given by God concerning salvation, are the means God uses to preserve his saints. The warning of Heb 6:4–6 is future oriented. Warnings as well as promises in Hebrews (and in all Scripture) should not be seen as opposites. God preserves Christians by means of warnings and conditional promises.

The “Tests of Genuineness” view has several weaknesses. First, those described in Heb 6:4–6a are said to be false believers, yet we have seen they were believers. Second, the participle “falling away” is wrongly taken to mean “apostasy.” Third, by asking the question whether those in Heb 6:4–6 were genuinely converted, the orientation of the passage is redirected from a prospective focus, which the author intended, to a retrospective focus, which is forced upon the text by a preconceived theology. The result is a conclusion that apostasy reveals they were never genuine Christians in the first place. As Schreiner and Caneday correctly remarked, this is a case of the right theology from the wrong text. In the final analysis, the warning passages end up being applied to unbelievers rather than to believers. Fourth, past good works of the believer are viewed as evidence of faith in a retrospective manner. Such a retrospective focus is at odds with the author’s own soteriological focus, which is future oriented.

The “Means of Salvation” view fairs little better. Is it not conceivable that NT authors would use warnings addressed to genuine believers? Of course it is. First, this view wrongly assumes the meaning of “falling away” to be “apostasy.” Second, though forensic justification is correctly affirmed in this view, it appears that final justification awaits the completion of a life of perseverance. This is, of course, contrary to the Reformed theology, but more importantly, contrary to Scripture. Third, Schreiner and Caneday assert that warnings like Hebrews 6 have the objective of causing us to think what is conceivable or imaginable, not of things likely to happen.

Such language is at best confusing and at worst contradictory. Fourth, Schreiner and Caneday identify the rewards spoken of in the New Testament as referring to the gift of eschatological salvation. The denial of future rewards for the Christian in the face of 1 Cor 3:12–15 and other New Testament passages is difficult to sustain. If God uses the warnings like Heb 6:4–6 as the means to insure the perseverance of the saints, then one of two things must be true. Either Christians could or would fall away from Christ without the warnings (a departure from Reformed theology), or Christians could or would persevere without the warnings, which makes them unnecessary. In the Means of Salvation view, apostasy becomes the impossible possibility.

Other problems face the Tests of Genuineness and Means of Salvation views. First, if one knows he is unconditionally secure, the warnings lose their force if they are interpreted to mean warning against loss of salvation. Second, for the reason previously stated, the warnings become logically contradictory. Third, they fail the test of human experience. How can one be alarmed by a warning concerning something that can never happen? Fourth, it subtly redefines the basis of salvation by making perseverance almost a condition of salvation rather than an evidence of salvation.

There is one key point that the Loss of Salvation, Hypothetical, Tests of Genuineness, and Means of Salvation views all have in common. All believe that the participle in v. 6 translated “falling away” means “to commit apostasy.” The latter three views all interpret Heb 6:4–6 to refer to unbelievers, with the exception of some Calvinists who interpret Heb 6:4–6 to refer to believers, and the latter three deny that genuine believers can commit apostasy and thus lose their salvation.

Yet show I unto thee a more excellent way. . . in the next post!

[1] For bibliography on each of these views, see my Hebrews, New American Commentary, 35 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2010), 370-86.