Hebrews 6:6 - Is Conversion After Apostasy Impossible? A Look at Hebrews 6:6
Fifteen years ago, the first professor in the New Testament Department at our College, Professor L. Selles, retired. At that occasion he presented a farewell speech devoted to the explanation of Hebrews 13:14. It reads (RSV): “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.”
In the beginning of his address, Professor Selles said that in order to come to the right understanding of a text, it is very important to pay attention to its context. He took this term “context” with a double meaning, namely in a historical sense and in a textual sense. “Context” was for him the historical situation in which a text is written; at the same time, it was the textual situation, the chapter or even the entire book to which it belongs. Agreeing with this approach, I shall follow the same method. My address tonight deals with a different text from the same Epistle to the Hebrews, namely 6:6. The sentence begins in verse 4. It reads (the words not in verse 6, but in verses 4-5 are placed within brackets):
(It is impossible) to restore again to repentance (those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift (=Christ), and became partakers of the Holy Spirit, and tasted the good word of God), and have fallen away in apostasy, because, as for them, they crucify the Son of God again and expose Him publicly to contempt.
We shall first try to determine the historical context or situation, and then we shall look at the written context in chapter 6, restricting ourselves to the verses 4-6.
The author of this letter states that it is impossible to renew to conversion church members who have fallen away. People have struggled with this text. Someone even wrote that it is the most difficult problem in our epistle. The difficulties are not only of an exegetical nature (what does the text really mean?). The problem is also of a theological and a practical nature. Theologically, it can be asked: Is this not in conflict with the teaching of God’s love? Practically we can ask: If conversion of church members who have fallen away from the faith is impossible, does it then make sense to pray for their conversion? What does this mean for the efforts of ministers and elders, and of the congregation, not to mention the efforts of parents and other relatives, to bring them back to the Lord and his service? Does this text declare all those efforts and prayers beforehand unsuccessful, and, therefore, useless?
Our investigation consists in three sections.
First we shall deal with questions concerning the historical situation, as indicated in the letter.
In the second section, we shall pay attention to the written context of the text.
And we shall end with two conclusions and two consequences.
Part I: The Historical Context
1. Who Were the Readers?
We should begin by reading this hard to understand statement within its historical context. The first question which must be considered concerns the original readers. Who were they? For our purpose, it can be narrowed down to this question: Were the first readers believers from the Jews or from the Gentiles? Up to the nineteenth century, practically all the interpreters of Hebrews agreed that it was clear from the epistle’s contents that the first readers were Jewish Christians. The basic ground was that Hebrews focuses so much on the contrast between the Old Testament, or covenant with its worship in the earthly sanctuary as shadow over against the New Testament, or covenant as fulfillment of the old in Christ Jesus. An additional point should be brought forward. In the Greek text there is a superscription above our epistle which reads “To the Hebrews.” It is generally assumed that it is not put there by the author himself but comes from later copyists. However, the oldest manuscript that is still extant, Papyrus 46 from about 200 A.D., contains this superscript already. Its truth was not denied in the early church but has always been accepted until a more critical approach came up. Due to time constraints, we cannot discuss counterarguments here now. We accept this conclusion: the addressees were Christians of Jewish descent.
2. Where did these Jewish-Christian Readers Live?
Again, up to roughly the nineteenth century, practically every interpreter was convinced that the addressees lived in and around Jerusalem. For the last two hundred years, however, there is quite some disagreement. Some scholars argued that the first readers were living in cities in Asia, such as Ephesus or Colossae. The main contender with Jerusalem, however, became Rome. And presently Rome gets the majority of the votes. So we restrict our brief discussion of this second question to these two places.
One of the arguments in favour of Rome as the residence of the Hebrews is the use of the term “leaders” in Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24 for the officebearers instead of terms like “elder” or “bishop” (i.e., overseer). The reasoning is as follows: Two later Christian authors who were members of the Church in Rome, used this term “leaders” for the officebearers. This means that the term was familiar in the Church at Rome. The conclusion is then that the addressees belonged to the Church at Rome. However, other explanations are possible. For example, one can just as well reason from the Church at Rome’s familiarity with this term “leader” that the author of our letter lived in Rome. And this leaves open the possibility that the addressees had their residence somewhere else. It is also possible that they lived in Jerusalem. The following texts point to it that the term “leader” was well-known in Jerusalem. See Acts 7:10 (where Stephen in Jerusalem uses the term to indicate Joseph’s position in Egypt) and 15:22 (where the term is applied to Judas and Silas as “leaders among the brothers” in Jerusalem); see also Luke 22:26 (where the Lord uses the term in the circle of the disciples and applies it to them in their future position as leaders). Therefore, this use of the term “leader” in Hebrews does not convincingly point to Rome. It can just as well be used to prove that the letter was directed to Jerusalem.
One of the arguments used against Jerusalem in favour of Rome as destination of our letter, is the assumed poor condition of the church in Jerusalem. The New Testament speaks of collections gathered for the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:29-30 and Romans 15:26-27, 31; Galatians 2:10; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8-9). Many scholars claim that this is in conflict with the picture presented of the addressees in Hebrews 6:10 and 10:32-34. For these verses mention the works of love for the Lord’s name and of support and service which the addressees provided to each other in former days. They were then persecuted and their earthly possessions confiscated. These verses also indicate that this support was still going on, when the author wrote his letter to them. However, this picture in Hebrews 6 and 10 is not really in conflict with the condition of the Jerusalem church as we know it from the New Testament, nor with Jerusalem’s receiving support from the Gentile churches. First of all, the picture of the early Jerusalem church which Luke presents in Acts 2-5 is one of love for the Lord and of sharing earthly possessions with one another. In the second place, Acts 8:1-3 mentions the ravaging persecution under the fierce Saul of Tarsus. This was in the same early period, and agrees also with Hebrews 10:33-34. The members of the church in Jerusalem were scattered, though the apostles remained in the city. It must have been with some members, while others returned, especially after the persecution had ended. The church in Jerusalem not only continued to exist but also grew. Before his three missionary journeys and at the end of each of them, the apostle Paul visited the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30, 15:2, 18:22 (“he went up” is a standing term for going up to Jerusalem), 21:15). Moreover, the few collections from outside do not deny further ongoing help from inside. Besides, if the churches in and around Jerusalem were so poor that they completely depended on aid from abroad, these collections from Antioch (Acts11:29-30) and from Macedonia and Achaia (Romans 15:26-27) would have been a mere drop on a hot plate. There is no reason to think that Hebrews 6:10 and 10:32-34 would not fit the church at Jerusalem.
On the positive side, a very strong argument in favour of Jerusalem as destination is that the epistle presupposes that the temple worship in Jerusalem is still practiced but is close to disappearance (see 5:1-3, 8:3-5 and 13:10-11 in combination with 8:13). Our epistle speaks here about the appointment of the Levitic priests and the offering of animal sacrifices in the present tense. And in 13:10 the author says, “We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.” These words state in the present tense, as a present reality, that believers in Christ Jesus eat from his sacrifice at the Lord’s table. In the same present tense, as a present reality, it says that the Jewish priests who serve in the temple, have no right to eat from this table of the Lord. Further, the author writes in 8:13 that the old sacrificial order is close to disappearance. This is a clear indication that our epistle was written before 70 A.D. But this point will be elaborated later. We can now already say that these data are much more in favour of Jerusalem than of Rome as residence of the first readers. Our conclusion is therefore that Jerusalem as the place of residence of the addressees is to be maintained with the early church and the interpreters up to the nineteenth century.
A supporting argument can be derived from the epistle of Clement of Rome, written on behalf of the Church at Rome to the Church at Corinth. Two things in this letter can be mentioned. First, in this letter of Clement our epistle to the Hebrews is extensively quoted. This shows that Clement knew our epistle. Clement also writes about grave persecutions in the congregation at Rome (chapters 5-6), connecting this persecution with the recent death of Peter and Paul. This points to the days of Nero, about 64 A.D. Second, we find the present tense as description of the still functioning temple worship in Jerusalem, as we found it in Hebrews, also in this epistle of Clement of Rome (chapter 41). These two points indicate that this early Christian letter of Clement indicates a date of writing soon after the death of the apostles. And since Clement quotes Hebrews, his letter confirms that Hebrews, too, is written before 70 A.D. (see Edmundson, 194-195) (see the next point).
3. When did these Jewish Readers in Jerusalem receive this Epistle to the Hebrews?
This is the most important of the first three questions for determining the historical situation. There are basically two approximate dates competing here: the one before 70 A.D. and the other about 90 A.D. The arguments in favour of the early date of before 70 are convincing, in my opinion, on the following basis. There is first again the point that the author writes that the disappearance of the old order is near (8:13). Since this disappearance took place in 70 A.D. with the destruction of the temple, our epistle appears to have been written not long before that date.
We should take note of the fact that there is an intense urgency in our epistle. The warning against apostasy comes with increasing forcefulness in 2:1-3, in 3:6 and 12, in 4:11-13, in 6:4-8 (of which our text is part), and is presented in a climactic way in the chapters 10:19-39 and 12:25-29. We read in the last part, among other warnings, that “God will judge his people,” while it is “a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:30-31), and that God is a “consuming fire” (10:27 RSV).
In this connection, 10:25 is of great significance. We have there the well-known words, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (RSV). The crucial question is here: What is the meaning of this term “the Day?” We shall try to determine the meaning first from the context of our epistle; then from the Old Testament revelation, and thirdly from the teaching of Christ.
Many (e.g. F.W. Grosheide, 243) are of the opinion that the author meant with this Day the day of Christ’s return to judge the living and the dead. The very remarkable thing is, though, that our author writes, “...as you see the Day drawing near.” At that moment, he himself and the readers see that the Day is coming near. Everyone who had eyes could see the Day coming. This makes it difficult to assume that the author refers to the day of Christ’s return. For with respect to that final Day, our Lord has said that no one knows when it would be there. Here, however, it is stated: you see it is near.
Now the author has already said in chapter 8:13 what he saw coming near. In chapter 8 he placed over against each other the old covenant with the animal sacrifices, as established at Mount Sinai, and the new covenant with the one perfect sacrifice of the perfect High priest, Christ Jesus. As conclusion, the author writes then in verse 13, “By calling it (this covenant in Christ) ‘new,’ He (God) has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging is near disappearance.” Combining these two texts (8:13 and 10:25), we conclude that what the author and the readers saw drawing near as the Day was the Day of the disappearance of the Old Covenant.
Furthermore, there is an important question: How this disappearance of the old order would take place? Would it take place in a slow, gradual process, step by step? Would the Jewish leaders, the teachers of the Law, the priests and the Levites, and the people as a whole, willingly allow the entire mosaic temple service with its animal sacrifices to cease and disappear? The answer is obvious. They definitely would not do so. Instead, they would fight to hold on to the Law of Moses. In other words, the disappearance of the old temple system would take place through a compelling violent action. Therefore, we conclude that the author, seeing the near disappearance of the old mosaic system of worship, sees drawing near the violent destruction of the temple, and of the people of the temple. When we now connect 8:13 and 10:25 with the verses following the latter, 10:26-31, which speak about the Lord’s punishing vengeance and his judging of his people, then the Day appears to be another day of God’s terrible wrath and judgment.
In this light of the following verses, the expression “the Day” reminds us of the Old Testament term “the Day of the LORD,” which is always a day of wrath and judgment. It occurs in Amos 5 for the Day of God’s punishing wrath over Israel, the ten tribes, bringing the Assyrian captivity. More than a century later, in Isaiah 2:12 and Zephaniah 1:14, this Day of the LORD is Day of his anger, that brings the Babylonian captivity on Judah. Then, after Israel’s return from captivity, in Malachi 3:2 and 4:1, God speaks again about a coming Day of the LORD as a day of wrath. This time the Day of wrath is linked to the LORD ’s own coming in his Son Christ Jesus with his forerunner John the Baptist.
We learn from these texts that the term “the Day of the LORD” in the Old Testament is not one specific Day, once in Israel’s history. It occurred more often, and as day or time of God’s covenant wrath and judgment. (We leave out here that this Day also carries an aspect of redemption for the believing faithful.)
In this light, and especially with Malachi’s prophecy in the background, it is not strange that also the New Testament can speak of the Day as such a Day of the LORD’s coming in anger and with judgment, both against Jerusalem about 70 A.D., and again at the time of Christ’s return as the final judge. We find this term “the Day of the LORD” in different formulations, for instance, as “day of judgment” in Matthew 10:15; 11:22; Jude 1:6; as “the Day of the Lord (which) will come like a thief in the night” in 1 Thessalonians 5:2; and as “the great Day of their wrath” (of God and the Lamb), in Revelation 6:17.
We mention also the expressions “the Day of the Lord (Jesus) (Christ) (1 Corinthians 1:8; Philippians 1:6, 10). In all these and other cases the Day points to the last Day as the day of Christ’s return as judge. When, just as in 10:25, the term is used in an absolute formulation as simply “the Day” in Matthew 25:13, Romans 13:12 and 1 Corinthians 1:13, the context points also there to the last Day. However, as is argued above, the term “the Day” in Hebrews 10:25 refers to a day of wrath and judgment over his people (cf. 10:30), preceding “the last day.”
The interpretation of “the Day” in the light of the Old Testament “Day of the LORD” as a time of the LORD’s wrath and judgment finds further support in many words of our Lord Jesus as recorded in the gospels. He spoke frequently about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. This destruction would be so radical that not a stone would remain on the other (Matthew 24:2). The Lord also said, “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near” (Luke 21:20). These words of Christ, “When you see” and “(its desolation) is near,” could well be the background of the formulation in Hebrews 10:25, “...as you see the Day drawing near.”
Referring to the words of Christ as a background for Hebrews is all the more justified, since the author himself referred to them in 2:3 (cf. 1:2). Christ’s words were handed over to the author and his readers by those who had heard them from the Lord. And because the Lord’s words of judgment on Jerusalem, its temple, and unbelieving Israel received an important place in the gospels, we may assume that they belonged to the words which the ear-witnesses handed over to the author and his readers. We may further assume that the Lord’s words about Jerusalem’s killing of the prophets and of the Son of Man, and about the blood of them being avenged on “that generation” (Matthew 23, Luke 13) were included. We can point here also to texts as Matthew 11:16; 23:32-35; 24:34; Luke 7:31; 11:50; and 21:34, where the Lord uses the expression “this/that generation” in connection with coming wrath and judgment against the people of his days who harden in their refusal to believe in Him.
In this connection special attention is to be paid to Matthew 10:23, where the Lord says to his disciples whom He would send out as his apostles, “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” The Lord speaks here of the task of his apostles after his return to heaven, when they have to go on with the work of preaching and teaching to Israel. The Lord’s coming, pointed to in the words “before the Son of Man comes” cannot refer to his coming before his death at the cross. Nor is there any indication that it refers to his coming at the end of history. Therefore, it rather points to his coming to punish Jerusalem after a period of patience for Israel from his death and resurrection to the fall of Jerusalem. This is in line with the prophecies of Malachi. In 3:1 God says through this prophet: “‘See I will send my messenger who will prepare the way before Me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant whom you desire will come,’ says the LORD Almighty.” We take note of the verb “to come,” used twice here for the coming of the Lord Himself. Then it says in verse 2, “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when He appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire.” And in verse 5 it says, “‘So I will come near to you for judgment..,’ says the LORD Almighty.” In chapter 4:1, we hear Malachi continue, “Surely, the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace.” Another indication is verse 6, speaking about the coming of Elijah who will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers. This can be connected with the end of Malachi’s prophecy: “...or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” Since this coming of Elijah refers to the coming of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:14; 17:10-13), the coming of the Lord with judgment against the unrepentant unbelievers refers to wrath connected directly with the Lord’s first coming, which then is his coming with judgment in 70 A.D.
Our conclusion with respect to the historical context is that the addressees of the Epistle to the Hebrews were Jewish Christians who lived in and around Jerusalem, shortly before the destruction of this city and its temple when also the old order of worship ceased. In other words, the addressees received this letter most likely sometime between 65 and 70 A.D.
Part II: The Written Context
We now go to Hebrews 6:6 in its immediate written context. The basic question is: Do we deal here with a general rule which is always to be applied in all cases of apostasy? If this were the case our text would be in conflict with many other words of Scripture. I mention here as example James 5:19-20. James writes there, “My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth, and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” A careful explanation of our text, read in the immediate context of the verses 4-6, will show that we do not have here a general rule for every case of apostasy, but a reference to a very specific case of apostasy. The verses 4-6 tell us, in the first place, for whom specifically the renewal unto conversion is impossible, and in the second place, what exactly is impossible, while in the third place, we learn what the reason is that this renewal unto conversion is impossible in this case. And so it will become evident that there is no conflict between Hebrews 6:6 and other texts like James 5:19-20. James writes, “My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth, and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”
The immediate context of our text, namely the verses 4-6, needs to be considered to find answers to the following questions: First, for whom is renewal unto conversion impossible? Second, what exactly is impossible? And third, why is this renewal unto conversion impossible for them?
1. For Whom is being Renewed to Conversion Impossible?
The verses 4b and 5 provide the answer to this question. It is those who once have been enlightened, etc. The term “enlightened” occurs also in 10:32 (RSV), “Recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a struggle with sufferings.” Thus, this being enlightened refers to the time when these readers heard the Gospel and accepted it in faith, and as a result were placed in the light of Christ Jesus. “When they were enlightened” must be taken as “when they became believers.”
Further, they are people “who have tasted the heavenly gift.” The heavenly gift is Christ Jesus Himself with all his benefits. To taste is not just to take a little sip, so that one knows whether something is good or not. To taste means the same as “to eat” so that one experiences the food or drink, either in its bitterness (2:9), or as something good (as here).
Thirdly, they are church members who have shared in the Holy Spirit. We are to think here of Peter’s word on the day of Pentecost. At the end of his sermon he said to the crowd, “Repent and be baptized ... in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” On that Pentecost day, and also later, repenting from sins included repenting from the sin of rejecting Christ and calling for his crucifixion. Believing what Peter and the other apostles said meant joining the Jerusalem congregation and sharing in what the congregation received, namely forgiveness of sin and the gift of the Spirit. According to 10:32-34, they were not only hearers but also doers of the Word, for they endured suffering for Christ’s sake and showed their love for their suffering brothers and sisters in the church.
In the fourth place, they tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come. As members of the church they had been fed by the rich and encouraging apostolic preaching of God’s Word. Their faith was further strengthened through seeing and possibly even themselves experiencing healing miracles (cf. 2:3-4). This tasting of the powers of the coming age may also refer to receiving the strength to persevere under suffering.
With these four strokes of his brush, the author has painted a picture of the riches of God’s promises in Christ Jesus to those who come to faith. How great were the gifts God in Christ had given them. That they shared in these gifts meant that they were active, members of the church in Jerusalem. They knew the truth. They knew God’s gifts.
And yet, in spite of all this, there was the real danger of apostasy from the faith. This is expressed with the next negative phrase: “and who have (then) fallen away.” This falling away does not refer to an accidental sin out of weakness under pressure. It is a conscious “deliberate apostasy” (Bruce, 124). It is a maintained willing disobedience to God’s Word in a situation of temptation, when a choice had to be made for or against Christ Jesus as He had been preached to them by the apostles. It was a situation in which the danger was very great to make the wrong choice in full awareness.
The expression “falling away” (falling beside the goal) is paralleled in other passages of Hebrews. The author speaks of “sailing past the harbour” (2:1), “falling away in apostasy” (3:12), and “trampling down of the Son of God by considering unholy the sanctifying blood of the covenant” (10:29). In the light of the fact that God has now spoken through his Son (1:1-2), it means a rejection of Him, God, who spoke to them (12:25). After the first four positive statements, this having then turned away is not just a matter of lack of insight. It means a conscious decision not to go along with God on God’s way. It is, therefore, overt disobedience.
Acts 21:20-21 gives us some background information about the cause of this choice against Christ, this apostasy. We read there how, at the end of the third missionary journey (58 A.D.), the apostle Paul with his travel companions (Acts 20:4-5), visited James and the other elders and told them about the great works of God done through their hands among the Gentiles. Hearing this report, the elders praised God. Then the elders, in turn, spoke about the tremendous church growth in and around Jerusalem, among the Jewish people. Also, many thousands of Jews had come to faith in Christ as Saviour. The elders added, “And all of them are zealous for the law.”
The leaders then related to Paul that false rumours had been spread in Jerusalem about him: that Paul had taught all the Jews among the Gentiles, outside of Palestine, no longer to circumcise their children and no longer to live according to their Jewish customs. So, for Paul’s own safety and to show that the rumour was false indeed, they suggested that Paul join four men who had made a vow to the LORD of purification according to the law of Moses. If Paul now paid the cost for all five, this would show even more that he himself was not against the Law of Moses and that he was supportive of other Jews keeping it. The suggestion makes clear that this being zealous for the Law here concerned particularly the ceremonial law.
For a pious, righteous Jew it was important to keep God’s law, including the ceremonial law. Obviously, combining faith in Christ Jesus as Saviour with abiding by ceremonial purification rules was not rejected in the church. Paul did not object to the suggestion of the elders. He himself wrote (1 Corinthians 10:32), that the believers must not put a stumbling block before one another, neither for the Jew nor for the Greek. This meant for him that he had to be a Jew with the Jews and a Gentile with the Gentiles. A Jew who had come to faith in Christ was allowed to continue to live as a Jew, according to Jewish customs, but he should not compel a Gentile Christian to live as a Jew. In line with this, Paul accepted the advice of the elders of Jerusalem’s church. It is clear from what is said further in Acts 21 that James and the elders agreed with Paul that Gentile believers did not have to become Jews and live as Jews.
And yet, a dangerous temptation was lurking in being zealous with respect to the law. Paul fought against placing the law beside Christ which really amounted to being in the place of Christ. The author of the epistle to the Hebrews does the same. While Paul fought against placing the law as supreme above Christ on the point of becoming righteous before God, Hebrews fights against placing the ceremonial law with its temple worship above Christ Jesus and his sacrifice as the way in which access is given into the presence of the holy God.
In the situation of the revolt against Rome, a choice had to be made. The fundamental question was: What came first for the Christian Jews in Jerusalem who were zealous for Israel’s mosaic Law? Was for them belonging to Israel combined with keeping the law the most important thing? Would that mean: choosing against Christ Jesus as Saviour who would bring us to God? Or should they maintain that we come to God only through Jesus Christ?
Our conclusion is that the statement in verse 6 that it is impossible to renew to conversion must not be read as a general rule that applies to all cases of every kind of falling away from the faith. It refers here to specific church members in a specific situation, in which they are confronted with a conscious, specific choice: being a nationalistic, old-covenant Jew, or being a new-covenantal, Jewish Christian (cf Longenecker, 162).
2. What is Exactly Impossible?
The answer to this second question is given in verse 6a: “It is impossible to renew again unto conversion” (those who have fallen away). The Greek word (metanoia, literally meaning “a change of mind”) is rendered here with “conversion” but can also be translated as “repentance.” This latter translation is found in connection with the preaching of John the Baptist: he preached a “baptism of repentance.” I will here use the translation “conversion,” though it will be good to keep in mind that we could just as well use the rendering “repentance.” Now we have a remarkable formulation here in verse 6a. Translated literally, the text speaks of a “renewing again unto conversion.” Usually we meet a reverse word-order: “to convert again unto renewal.” For Scripture teaches that conversion from unbelief and sin leads unto renewal of life. Apparently the author wants to indicate that these apostates need a renewing change to be able to come to conversion.
The meaning of the word “conversion” should be understood in the usual way as conversion from unbelief and sin unto obedient faith in Christ and a new life for God. This is the meaning of the expression “conversion from dead works” in 6:1. Dead works are, according to 9:14, works done outside of faith in Christ. For it is the blood of Christ that cleanses one’s conscience from dead works to serve the living God. The author wrote in 6:1 that he did not want to return to the elementary beginning of the teaching of Christ and to lay down again the foundation of, among other matters, this “repentance from dead works.” He refused to do this, because it is impossible to renew again to conversion those who have been enlightened and have fallen away.
The question can be asked why it is impossible to be renewed to conversion. Is the reason to be found in man or in God? Is man’s apostate mind set the cause why renewal is impossible or is God’s wrath the cause? In other words, is the mind of the apostate not receptive for God’s words anymore? Or does God in his anger no longer accept him in his presence?
Hughes, in a discussion of the verses 4-6 (206-222) writes correctly, that these people who fall away in the end, were hypocrites and never became true believers, because true faith is an enduring work of God that cannot fail. They did accept the gospel of Christ Jesus as Saviour and were actively involved in the congregation and in congregation life, but they kept playing the role of believers without belonging to them. We can formulate it in line with the Epistle to the Hebrews in this manner: These apostates played the role of true believers in Christ as their Redeemer, but they remained first of all nationalistic Jews and their Christian faith was to fit into their Judaistic thought frame and world view. That is why they slackened off in their faith when a clear choice had to be made. And it explains their turning away and denying Christ in the end. In other words, the Epistle to the Hebrews, also in our text, does not deny the promise of the perseverance of the saints, of those whom God chose from eternity and gave to Christ to save. Rather, it is similar to the Lord’s word in Matthew 7:21-23. He speaks there about people who prophesied, drove out demons, and performed miracles in his Name, and to whom He will say on judgment day, “I never knew you. Away from Me, you evildoers!” We can, therefore, say that this impossibility of their being renewed to conversion had to do with their hypocritical unbelieving mind set.
However, these people did enter the new covenant established in Christ when they professed their faith in Him and by baptism joined the church. They received the position of members of the covenant. They also acted as such. When they went the way of apostasy, they broke God’s covenant in Christ with them. And for those breaking the old, and even more the new covenant God is a consuming fire (12:28). We should recognize that God’s covenant anger with these covenant breakers who reject his Son as their King and High Priest is the first cause of this impossibility (see K. Schilder in Heidelbergse Catechismus I, 467-468, in a discussion of this sin of apostasy together with the sin against the Holy Spirit). God’s anger does not allow them to turn to repentance. It is similar to Jeremiah who was not allowed to pray anymore for the people of Judah (Jeremiah 14:10-12). Repentance, conversion is God’s work. Regeneration comes from above, from the Holy Spirit (John 3:3, 5). Their renewal unto conversion is impossible because God will not work it. God can and does hand over sinners who abide in their sin to their sin (Romans 1:25-32, 1 Peter 2:7-8).
Our conclusion is that the expression “renewing unto conversion” refers to a renewal of position before God. The persons described in our passage were not in such a position. God was no longer willing to work conversion. At the same time, their mind was so stuck in their own views that they were not open for repentance. They did not want to change. This has to do with the character of their sin. What this character is, is presented in the next point.
4. Why is this Renewal unto Conversion for these Apostates Impossible?
The reason is given in verse 6b: “because they are crucifying Christ all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace.” The two verbs indicate two aspects of the same action. When Christ was crucified, He was subjected to public disgrace. When then these church members again reject Christ, they again publicly submit Him to contempt and disdain.
This action of “crucifying again” is usually understood as stressing the object of the verb, Christ Jesus. As far as the apostates are concerned, Christ is crucified once again. This aspect is certainly present. However, we should put no less stress on the subject of the action, they. These apostate Jewish church members, by falling away from the faith, do this crucifying for the second time. They repeat what they did almost four decades ago (cf. Bornhäuser (18-20, [314-6]). They were present, in Jerusalem. They belonged to the crowd that cried before Pontius Pilate, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”
The fact that Hebrews is written shortly before the fall of Jerusalem, thus some thirty-five or more years after the Lord’s physical crucifixion on Golgotha, does not make this interpretation impossible. In the first place, many of those who had been between twenty and forty years old when the Lord was crucified would be still alive when Hebrews was written. Even younger people may still have remembered his crucifixion. In the second place, on and after the Day of Pentecost, Peter accuses the Jewish people in Jerusalem that they have rejected and killed the Lord (Acts 2:23, 36; 3:13-15; 4:10; 5:30); they were the people who lived or resided in Jerusalem at that time.
With this verb, as with the surrounding formulations, the author succeeds in painting the sin of this specific apostasy in all its horribleness before the eyes of the first readers. They crucify not just a man, but the very Son of God; and they do it for the second time! In this way, it becomes clear why for this sin a renewal unto conversion is not possible. When the Lord was crucified in person, He prayed for those who committed this sin, “Father, forgive them because they do not realize (know) what they are doing” (Luke 23:34, see also Acts 13:27, 1Timothy 1:13). Ignorance was a valid ground for forgiveness in the eyes of Christ Jesus and of his Father. But this plea of ignorance can no longer be submitted. They had been enlightened and had accepted God’s words spoken through the prophets to the forefathers and to them through his Son. Rejecting Him now meant, in fact, declaring publicly that Christ was of no real worth to them and to the people. It was spurning the atoning blood of the Son of God again, and exposing the Son of God to contempt and disdain. It was crucifying Him for the second time. Therefore, only God’s judgment remained. A renewal unto conversion was no longer possible for them. Here is a parallel with the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. It is that unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit.
Part III: Conclusions and Consequences
The first conclusion is that Hebrews 6:6 speaks in a very specific situation about a specific, even unique sin of apostasy. No one today can crucify Christ for the second time, as they were in danger of doing. The unique character of this action means that we should not apply what is said about this apostasy to every instance of someone falling away from the faith. Hebrews 6:6 does not state a general rule that conversion is impossible for someone who abandons the faith.
The second conclusion is that the horrible sin of crucifying Christ again is in line with the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. The common element is that aspect of knowing and understanding the grace of God in Christ, and yet choosing against it. It is the sin of covenant people deliberately rejecting what God says and what He gives with Christ. If God meets such sin with his covenant wrath, this cannot be called a lack of love. God is a God of wrath, when his promising words of love in Christ, his Son, are rejected.
In Hebrews 6:6, we have to do with a very specific situation and with a unique form of apostasy, and not with a general truth and a general rule. The first consequence is that in different cases of someone falling away from the faith, church councils and believers in general must not think that our text would declare useless all prayers and efforts to bring wayward church members back to the Lord and his service. Much less should we conclude that it would forbid such prayers and efforts. On the contrary, they should intensify prayers and efforts to bring those who fell away or are in danger of falling away unto conversion. There is still more joy in heaven over one sheep who repents and returns than over the ninety-nine who do not need such repentance. And the admonition with which James concludes his epistle should remain an incentive for the church for calling unto conversion those who fall away (5:19-20), “My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death, and cover over a multitude of sins.”
Another consequence should be that we as church members who know the truth, abide by it, watching out for apostasy, and living humbly with our God, accepting of his Word as given to us. Especially in the church, we should tremble and fear that we, who have known Jesus Christ from an early age, do not ignore Christ Jesus. It is still possible to turn away from Him knowingly. And it is still terrible to fall in the hands of the living God as the avenging God of the covenant that is broken.
There is still another Day of the LORD coming. Also for today, Hebrews 6:6 remains a serious warning to submit by Him who spoke to us through his Son and to abide by this Son.
May this address serve to keep alive the fear of the LORD