Joe and Marissa have never met. But they have a lot in common. Both found that spending 4 years in a state university was hard on their faith.
Marissa became a follower of Jesus at a spiritual retreat during her last year in high school. Joe made his decision of faith at the age of 11 at a Christian camp.
Neither, however, was ready for the way campus life would test their belief in God. Joe’s faith seemed to flounder in proportion to the partying he did on the weekends. Marissa had a philosophy class that caused her to doubt whether anyone can know the truth about anything.
A few years after graduating, however, both found themselves wondering how they could have wandered so far from their belief in Christ. Joe saw his need of forgiveness. Marissa saw her philosophical doubts answered by the honesty, realism, and wisdom of Jesus’ life and teaching.
Yet, while trying to jumpstart their lapsed faith, Joe and Marissa stumbled separately on a Bible passage that caused both of them to wonder whether they had reached a spiritual point of no return. This New Testament text seemed to say that some who wander away from Christ cannot return to Him even if they want to (Hebrews 6:4-6).
Even though the stories of Joe and Marissa are not meant to be taken literally, they represent the real worries of many. Countless readers of the New Testament have feared for themselves or someone they love when they read in Hebrews, “For in the case of those who . . . have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame” (Hebrews 6:4-6 NASB).
What people like Joe and Marissa need to know is that they are not the only ones to wonder what it means to fall away or to be renewed to repentance or to crucify to oneself the Son of God and put him to an open shame. This is one of the most debated and difficult texts of the Bible.
Many interpretations have been offered. Some are convinced that this text means that it is possible to wander so far from Christ that it is impossible to turn back. Others think the author was primarily concerned about first-century, Jewish followers of Jesus who were tempted to fall back into the practice of temple ritual sacrifice. Still others suggest the reason it is impossible for someone to be renewed to repentance is that, if the gift of salvation is eternal, then it cannot be either lost or repeated without implying that Jesus’ once-and-for-all sacrifice was not sufficient.
So what then can we say to someone like Joe or Marissa? To begin with, we can assure them that this text was not written to cause anyone to wonder whether they had wandered from Christ to a point of no return.
The author is clear in his intent. He is writing to urge those who have stopped growing in their faith to go on to spiritual maturity and fruitfulness (Hebrews 5:11–6:1).
To get their attention, he uses a word picture that those in an agricultural community will understand. He reminds them of the worthlessness of farmland that, after drinking in the rain, deserves only to be burned if it doesn’t produce a harvest (Hebrews 6:7-8).
But even though the author finds it necessary to use such an alarming illustration, he wants to make sure that his readers don’t get the wrong impression. He assures them that he has already seen evidence of their relationship to Christ (Hebrews 6:9-10).
However, he has seen something else. In all candor, he acknowledges that his readers have become like infants who are failing to thrive (Hebrews 5:12-14). Whether they are being held back by outward persecution, inner complacency, or some other factor, we don’t know. He doesn’t say.
So does it matter if we can’t be certain about what slowed their growth? Do we need to be sure about all that the author was saying as he urged them on to maturity? Or is it possible that being kept in the dark on those matters can actually help us to see that anything that keeps followers of Christ from going on to a fruitful life is a problem (Hebrews 6:10-12)?
Maybe what we can’t know for sure is meant to help us focus on what we do know—that our failures, whatever they are, don’t have to stop us from moving forward in Christ.
What the author of the letter to the Hebrews says with clarity and certainty is that his readers can keep moving forward with confidence because, in Christ, we have a great High Priest who will intervene eternally on our behalf.
By offering Himself as a once-and-for-all sacrifice for our sins, He has entered into the presence of God, on our behalf, to anchor our souls in a hope that because of Him is firm and secure (Hebrews 6:18-20).
Father in heaven, thank You for answering our fears with the certainty of what Your Son has done for us. Please help us to show our eternal gratefulness through a harvest of Christlike actions and attitudes. —Mart DeHaan