In two earlier posts I hinted that my view of the Hebrews warning passages is that they refer to those enlightened through prevenient grace but who had never truly believed on the Lord Jesus (Link, and Link). I recently found support for my position in Dr David Gooding’s primer on Hebrews, An Unshakeable Kingdom, which is available online in full for free (Link). Dr Gooding is professor emeritus of Old Testament Greek at Queen's University Belfast.
Dr Gooding deals with the warning passages most extensively in "Chapter 1: The Hebrews" and "Chapter 7: On to Perfection (6:4-20)". In "Chapter 11: The Superior Sacrifice (Ch 10)" he sets out a bit more but most of the warnings from Hebrews 10 are covered in the first chapter.
Below are a few excerpts, but I encourage you to read the whole thing (it's free!).
In the first chapter, under the heading “Genuine believers?”, he writes:
We should observe how carefully the writer chooses his words when he recalls their initial experience of Christianity. At 6:4 he talks of ‘those who have once been enlightened’ - not ‘saved’, mark you, but ‘enlightened’. At 10:32 again he says, ‘Remember those earlier days after you had received the light’ – not ‘after you were saved’, or ‘after you believed’, but ‘after you received the light’. So once more at 10:26: ‘If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth ... not ‘after we have believed the truth’, or ‘have received the love of the truth’, but simply ‘have received the knowledge of the truth’. And it is all too possible to know the truth without believing it.
Granted. Yet many people still feel that other phrases which the writer uses elsewhere imply quite clearly that his readers were, or at one time had been, true believers. He may not use the actual word “saved”, but he uses other equivalent terms which imply the same thing.
Well, later on we shall investigate these terms in detail. But for the moment let us notice that the writer himself tells us explicitly how he assessed the spiritual history and state of the people to whom he was writing. We had better let him speak for himself. After describing the sad fate of those who, after being enlightened, go back to Judaism, he remarks, ‘Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case – things that accompany salvation’ (6:9). That makes his position very clear. He is speaking as if they were not saved, although in actual fact in his heart of hearts he feels sure they are. He thinks indeed that he can see evidence in their lives that they are saved; things, as he puts it, that accompany salvation. But he is speaking as if there were no evidence that they had genuinely been saved. He will take no risks. A whole generation of their ancestors had professed to believe Moses and God, but in the end it became apparent that they had never believed the gospel. So he holds up their experience to warn his readers against – not ungodliness, or worldliness – no, against something more serious than that: unbelief. You see, if you have never believed the gospel, you are an unbeliever, whatever spiritual experience you may have subsequently had.
Earlier, in the same chapter, he writes:
At first sight the answer might seem obvious: you can’t deliberately and knowingly deny the deity of the Lord Jesus, deny the atoning value of his blood, and still be a genuine Christian, a true believer in the Lord Jesus.
But then if that is what some of these Hebrews were doing, or were in danger of doing, it raises another question. Were they ever true and genuine believers in the first place?
Many people feel they must have been, but that is not necessarily so at all. Consider a parallel case.
The apostle John in his first letter (2:18-19) refers to people who not only for some time professed to be believers and were members of a Christian church, but even, it appears, had played the role of teachers in it. Eventually, however, they abandoned the fundamental, apostolic doctrines, denied that Jesus was the Christ and left the church. John’s comment is that in spite of earlier appearances, they never had been true believers at all. ‘If they had belonged to us’, he says, ‘they would have remained with us’. Their departure from the church and from the apostles’ fellowship revealed, according to John, that none of them had ever ‘belonged to us’, that is, been genuine believers.
Some argue, of course, that these Hebrews must have been believers at one time because the writer says explicitly (10:29) that they had been sanctified by the blood of the covenant even though now they were in danger of denying Christ. And you can’t be sanctified, they assume, without being a genuine believer.
But again, this assumption is not necessarily correct. Scripture itself indicates that there are senses in which you can be sanctified without being a believer. 1 Corinthians 7:14 says that the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife. Notice how impossible it would be to substitute the word ‘justified’ for ‘sanctified’ in this statement, for no-one can be justified without faith. But obviously there are senses in which people can be sanctified without being genuine believers.
Let’s look again at 10:29. It speaks of our Hebrews having been sanctified by the blood of the covenant. It will help us understand this phrase if we remember that their ancestors in the desert had similarly been sanctified by the blood of the old covenant. Moses, we are told, took the blood of the calves and the goats and sprinkled both the book itself (i.e. the book containing the terms of the covenant) and the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which God has enjoined on you’ (See Ex. 24:5-8 and Heb. 9:18-20). So they were sanctified by the blood of the covenant. But in spite of that most of them later refused to enter the promised land. And what did that show? It showed, says our writer, who recalls this incident in great detail, that they did not believe the gospel. They never had believed (see 4:2 and Nu. 14:11, 22).
Similarly, then, these Hebrews had professed to believe in the Lord Jesus, and to accept the new covenant, and they had taken their stand with the Christians and had separated themselves from the murderers of the Messiah (see Acts 2:40). They had been sanctified by the blood of the new covenant. But as with their ancestors, so with them, that still leaves open the question whether they had ever genuinely believed the gospel. And it was precisely this that their behaviour was beginning to put in doubt.
And on Hebrews 6, under the heading, “The impossibility of renewal to repentance”:
Well, in the first place they have already been enlightened once (6:4).
‘There you are,’ you say, ‘they were saved, then. They must have been, if they were enlightened.’
But wait a minute. Is being enlightened the same as being saved? Surely not. John 1:9 says that the true light sooner or later enlightens (it is the same Greek word as in our passage here in Hebrews) everyone. Does that mean that everyone is then saved? Sadly, no. To be enlightened is certainly a necessary part in the process of being saved; but it is not the same thing as being saved. It is all too possible to be enlightened, and then to shut one’s eyes against the light, and to do it knowingly and deliberately. There is no salvation for those who do that.
It is indeed an exceedingly serious thing to do, which in turn is what makes ‘being enlightened’ such a solemn matter. If being enlightened is followed by repentance and faith, it is salvation and glory. If it is followed by persistent rejection of Christ, it is fatal, and eternally fatal.
‘Yes,’ you say, ‘but the people envisaged in Hebrews 6 have not only been enlightened. It says they have tasted the heavenly gift, have shared in the Holy Spirit and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age (6:4-6). That surely implies that they have gone beyond being enlightened, and have actually been born again.’
Well, not necessarily so at all. Let us notice the terminology the writer uses here, and try to get at its meaning by putting it in its historical context.
He talks of tasting the powers of the age to come. Now that is language which we Gentiles scarcely use. You would, I imagine, think me a bit odd if I asked you, ‘Have you tasted the powers of the age to come?’ But such language would make immediate sense to Jews of New Testament times. They thought in terms of two ages, the present age and the coming age of the Messiah. The present age was full of evil; the coming age of the Messiah would be an age of millennial bliss and happiness.
Now when Jesus came and claimed to be the Messiah, the Jewish nation, led by their rulers, crucified him. They did it, we should have thought, with their eyes open. In spite of all his unique miracles, they deliberately put him to death. Yet Peter, when he talked to them after the resurrection, said, ‘Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders’ (Acts 3:17). In ignorance? Yes. They had not yet been personally enlightened by the Holy Spirit. They were in darkness when they did that foul deed. So there was mercy for them, even for the crucifixion of Christ, if they would have it; and Peter called on them to repent, and assured them that upon repentance they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
Moreover, to authenticate the gospel and demonstrate that Jesus was indeed risen from the dead the apostles were empowered to do outstanding miracles: a congenitally lame man was healed (Acts 3), as were the sick and the demon possessed, so much so that people laid their sick relatives on beds in the streets that as Peter passed by his shadow might fall on them and they be healed (Acts 5:15-16). Later in Acts we are told that God did extraordinary miracles through Paul: ‘handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured’ (19:ll-12).
What tremendous evidence this was and how irrefutable, that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. These mighty signs and wonders, as Peter pointed out, were nothing less than anticipations of the time when God would restore everything as he promised long ago through his holy prophets, in a word foretastes of the Messianic age to come. That age would dawn with the second coming of Christ. Meanwhile Israel must repent and turn to God (Acts 3:17-26).
The multitudes, then, that were physically healed certainly had evidence that the prophets’ promises were true, God’s word was good. Their healing was effected by the power of the Holy Spirit. They tasted the powers of the age to come. They had overwhelming evidence that Jesus was the Messiah. Does that mean that they were all saved? that the moment Peter’s shadow fell on them and the Holy Spirit healed them, they were simultaneously born again? that Paul’s apron, when they touched it, effected not only physical healing but spiritual regeneration? Hardly! They had been given a share of the Holy Spirit and had received tremendous physical benefit from it; but receiving physical benefit through the power of the Holy Spirit is not the same thing as being born again spiritually.
Some of them, however, received undeniable spiritual benefit from the Holy Spirit. He enlightened them. Like Saul of Tarsus, in spite of seeing many miracles performed, they had continued to reject Christ. But they acted in ignorance – until the moment came when the Holy Spirit by his direct and personal operation enlightened them. Now their eyes were opened and they knew through the Holy Spirit’s illumination that Jesus was the Messiah. They had partaken of the Holy Spirit, they had tasted the heavenly gift in a real and wonderful way.
Does that mean that having been enlightened, they all went on to believe in the Lord genuinely, and to be saved? Sadly, no. Some were like the Jews mentioned in John 8:31-58. They believed on Jesus, says Scripture, so we must not say they didn’t. But what was their faith worth? An hour or so later, when they discovered what Jesus actually taught, what his salvation would imply and what truly believing on him would mean, they rejected his teaching out of hand. He then pointed out that they were not children of God. They were of their father, the devil – were, and always had been. And at that they picked up stones and drove him out of the temple. So it was after the resurrection: some who professed to believe, subsequently fell away.
But if having once been enlightened, a Jew (or anyone else for that matter) deliberately rejects Christ, what is his position? In the first place he can no longer say he is acting in ignorance. He has lost the ground on which mercy could be shown him.
Secondly, he now takes upon himself personally the responsibility for crucifying the Son of God. The nation crucified him, denying that he was the Son of God. But they did it in ignorance. This man personally, not now deceived by the priests, nor any longer in ignorance, but having felt the power of the Holy Spirit, with his eyes enlightened, knowing all the facts, nevertheless deliberately takes on himself the personal responsibility for crucifying the Son of God (6:6). That is what is means for such a person to cling to, or go back to, Judaism.
- See my post “On Assurance” for differences between my view and the Calvinist view.