Monday, March 30, 2015

Answering Calvinist Proof-Texts, Part 1 - John 6

When I was a Calvinist, the lens through which I interpreted the whole of the Bible was Romans 9.  When I talked to my Calvinist friends, however, they all agreed that John 6 was the text they felt was the conclusive proof for Calvinism.

The verses in question are especially 37 and 44.  Here are the relevant paragraphs for context (John 6:35-51, NIVUK):

35 Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.’

41 At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ 42 They said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I came down from heaven”?’

43 ‘Stop grumbling among yourselves,’ Jesus answered. 44 ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets: “They will all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. 46 No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

On verse 44, I’ve mentioned before that my view of the drawing/enabling is that it is best understood as prevenient grace (Link).   Notice especially that the "drawing" in this verse parallels the "giving" in verse verse 37 (as Dr Allen shows below), and compare verses 37 & 44-45 with the situation Jesus describes in the chapter before (at 5:37-47).

In understanding verse 37, for me the two keys were:
(1) Looking at the larger context in John to see who it is that the Father gives to the Son -- is the Lord Jesus intending to convey an abstract choice by the Father of some individuals and not others? Especially considering John 1:11-13, 3:14-18, 4:23, 34-38, and 5:16-47 I think the answer is “no”-- and
(2) Getting a better understanding the language/grammar used, which is not as clear in our English translations as in the Greek. On this point, Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers (available on says (Link):
It is not easy to improve the English rendering of this verse, and there is a sacredness in the sound of the old, old words; but still, they convey to few readers the full meaning of the original. The word “come” is made to serve, within two or three lines, for three different Greek words. Literally, we should read, All that the Father giveth Me shall arrive at Me, and him that is on the way I will in no wise cast out: for I am come down. . . .

Similarly, the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges (also on, Link) says, “... it would be more literal to translate all that the Father giveth Me, to Me shall come, and him that approacheth Me I will in no wise cast out; for I have descended...”

Two outlines of the passage:

Below are two outlines of the passage which helped me to understand and answer the questions/keys I posed above. One is from Dr David Allen's blog, and the other from Craig Adams of Commonplace Holiness.

    Dr David Allen

First, an exegesis was included in Dr David Allen’s review of Matthew Harmon’s chapter of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her.  Dr Allen writes (Link):

John 6
From John 6:37-40, 44, Harmon correctly points out that Jesus came to do the will of the Father. From verse 37, he notes the Father gives a specific group of people to the Son, and from verse 44 he notes no one can come to the Son unless the Father draws him. Harmon concludes:
“Thus it is the Father’s election of a specific group of people that defines who comes to the Son…” (270).
Several points call for explication.
First, Harmon is interpreting “all the Father gives me” as referencing election. This assumes two things: 1) the Reformed interpretation of election is correct, and 2) that this passage is referencing it. For the sake of argument, let’s grant the first assumption for the moment.
Even so, nothing in the passage speaks to “election.” John 6 must be read in the light of the preceding context of chapters 1-5 as well as in its immediate context.
In John 1:6-9, John makes clear that God’s intention in sending John the Baptist was that all might believe in Christ. Jesus, not John, is the “Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.” Again in John 1:29, Christ comes that he might be the savior of the world. In John 3:16, God’s love for the world is the motivation for his sending Jesus so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. John is establishing a universal desire on God’s part for the salvation of the world and a universal remedy for such through Christ’s death on the cross.
Second, when did this “giving” take place? Not in eternity past, for the use of the present tense verb indicates contemporary action: the Father was in the very process of giving to the Son those who were believing on Him.
Third, in what sense did God “give” people to his Son? Frequently in Scripture one finds the terms “gift” and “given” are idiomatically employed to denote God’s favor expressing His redemptive work for mankind. See Psalm 2:8 and Acts 4:25-26 as examples. Here the Gentile nations are said to be “given” to Christ as an inheritance. Yet this language clearly does not indicate that all the nations or all people in those nations are somehow “elected” to salvation in eternity.  
John makes a connection between the “giving” and the “coming” in v. 37.  Notice how verses 44-45 use different imagery but express the same meaning. “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him: and I will raise him up in the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.”
Notice God’s “drawing” is parallel to His “giving” in v. 37. How is the drawing accomplished according to vv. 44-45?  By means of hearing, learning, and coming to the Lord. This is John’s notion of what it means for some to be “given” to Christ. The refusal of unbelievers to come to Christ was due to their refusal to listen to the Father, as the context of John 5:37-38 and John 6 makes clear.  
The reason many of the Jews did not come to Christ is not that they were not “given” to him by the Father, but is found in their own stubborn hearts. John 5:40 says they were not willing to come to Christ, not that they could not come to Christ because they had not been “given” to him by the Father. Notice how John 5:43-47 speaks often of “belief.”
Election is simply not in the picture in this passage.
The “coming” of John 6:37 is synonymous with “believing” as v. 35 indicates.
What does “all that the Father gives Me” refer to in vv. 37 and 39? In v. 39 the phrase is equivalent to “everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him” in v. 40. The phrase in v. 39 is equivalent to the phrase in v. 37. John is oscillating between believers viewed as a group and believers viewed as individuals, as the Greek text demonstrates.
Thus, the limited group of those given by the Father to the Son are those who have believed. It is incorrect to interpret the passage as teaching that certain persons are eternally elected to become believers.
What did Jesus mean when he said “will come to me” in v. 37a? Some Calvinist interpreters link the word “come” in verses 35, 37b, and 44 with “will come” in verse 37a. But this fails to recognize the two different Greek words used. Hēkō is the Greek word translated “will come” in v. 37a, while erchomai is the word used in vv. 35 and 37b. Jesus appears to be thinking about all believers considered as a group in v. 37a.
What is intended by the phrase “will come to me”? Verse 39 answers the question. All believers are given by the Father to Christ and they will reach final salvation in the eschaton via the resurrection in the last days. Thus, it is final salvation that is in view, not pre-temporal election.  
There is a difference in saying John 6:44 indicates specific efficacious grace given only to the elect and in viewing it as meaning no one can come to believe in Christ unless the Father draws  him via enabling grace.
It is significant to note that Jesus has declared numerous times, before he speaks of the “drawing” of the Father, that only believers possess eternal life (6:27-29, 40). What John affirms in chapter 6 is that God initiates and consummates the salvation process. Grace precedes human response.
There is nothing in this passage that affirms definite atonement.

    Craig Adams 

Another very helpful explanation is from Craig Adams in his answer to a question which came to his website (Link, emphasis in original):
An email and my response:
Hello Mr. Adams,
I read with interest your comments on Calvin's comments on John 3:16 on your web site. I was wondering what your thoughts are on Jesus' words as recorded in John 6:44:

“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.” (NKJV)

(It is unfortunate that English editions tend to translate the Greek as "draws" rather than the more accurate "compels" — especially since it is also translated more accurately as "dragged" elsewhere.)

Have you considered that perhaps Calvin's "on the other hand" was intended to recognize what the whole of scripture says about this issue?

He just may have been appealing to theology that is rooted in scripture itself.

In the first place, I would like to point out that my correspondent is attempting to play one Scripture off another. So, we are playing dueling Scripture passages here. Since the meaning of John 6:44 seems closely tied to its context, using it to fend off the idea of God’s universal love in John 3:16 (which seems to me to have a more general meaning) is a bad idea.
The context here has to do with the relationship of the Father and the Son. Jesus is claiming that the Jews are rejecting him because (in actuality) they have rejected the Father. So, the context of this passage is not a discussion of whether God has chosen to send the mass of humanity to an eternal Hell, while choosing to arbitrarily save (by compulsion: “dragged”) a few. The context concerns why these particular Jews have not been drawn to Jesus as Messiah and Son, while others have.
And, Jesus asserts here that it is because they have first rejected the Father and the testimony of the Scriptures. Jesus denounces their claim to knowledge of the Father. He asserts that their resistance to the Father & the message of the Scriptures is the reason they have not subsequently been drawn to the Son. The point is made repeatedly. “And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form…” (John 5:37). “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.” (John 5:39). “How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?” (John 5:44). “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” (John 5:46, 47). And, earlier in chapter 5 it is stated the other way around: “Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.” (John 5:23).
Thus the point is that the Jews who are rejecting him are doing so because they have first rejected the Father. But, Jesus asserts that those who acknowledged the Father were “drawn along” into acknowledging the Son.
My correspondent is right in saying that ἑλκύω can mean “dragged.” It is a stronger word than is evident in our translations. In John 21:6 & 11 it is used of the drawing of fish in a net, in John 18:10 of the drawing of a sword, in Acts 16:19 & 21:30 of forcibly dragging the apostles through the streets, and in James 2:6 of being dragged into court. But, the context tells us what Jesus means. Those who acknowledge the Father and the testimony of the Scriptures are compelled to also acknowledge the Son.
However, the same word (ἑλκύω) is also used in John 12:34 where Jesus says : “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (NRSV) If ἑλκύω always means “forcibly dragged” then this passage would have to mean that all people (πάντας) are saved! Yet, in Matthew 23:37 (parallel in Luke 13:34) Jesus says: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” Thus, it appears, that Christ desires to draw to Himself people who are nonetheless unwilling to come! And, they do not.
It is not that God chooses to arbitrarily save a few by divine compulsion. Though the Cross of Christ, He draws all. But, all do not come.
And, here, I think is where we get to the crux of the matter. The Bible continually assumes human moral responsibility. These Jews were responsible for their rejection of the Father and their rejection of the testimony of the Scriptures. It is everywhere assumed that a choice can be made, and that people can be held responsible for their choices. The early Methodists objected to Calvinism on practical grounds, and not simply on theoretical grounds. Fletcher opposed what he called “Solafideism” because it was antinomian (“against the Law of God”): it undermined human moral responsibility through an appeal to God’s unconditional election to salvation. Clearly, if you are saved, and you can’t be un-saved, and it is solely God’s choice — then it doesn’t matter what you do. Nothing is riding on it. While classical Calvinists never drew this conclusion, some people were willing to follow the logic of Calvinism to this inevitable conclusion. And, this is one of the things Arminians and Wesleyans and Methodists have always found objectionable: allowing an appeal to grace to undermine our responsibility to respond to God.
A call to repentance, for example assumes the ability to respond. And, so forth. In many, many ways the Bible continually assumes both the capacity to respond and the responsibility to respond.
And, to my correspondent’s question “Have you considered that perhaps Calvin’s ‘on the other hand’ was intended to recognize what the whole of scripture says about this issue?” I have to give a terse: “No.”
And, a too-quick harmonization of one Scripture with principles I think I have derived from another is always dangerous.
What do we mean by a “theology that is rooted in scripture itself”?
I think Calvin came to his theological views, to a large extent, by way of Augustine. Certainly Augustine also appealed to Scripture for support of his views (though he was no Bible scholar), but his views were also shaped by the controversies of his day and the personal issues they raised for him.
None of us comes to the Scriptures in a vacuum. The notion that one simply shakes out all of the Bible’s teachings on the floor and arranges them systematically like a jigsaw puzzle is a mistake. All of us have been influenced by preachers and Bible teachers. And, I wouldn’t say that is a bad thing — far from it. It’s a good thing.
Not everything Augustine or Calvin said is wrong. I agree with much of what they said. They both can be read (critically) to great benefit. But, I also believe some legitimate objections can and should be raised against much of what they said.
Look folks: not everything Wesley or Fletcher or Clarke or their followers said is right, either.
Nevertheless, if we read critically we can benefit from the insights of all.

Related Posts:

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Great Quotes: Dr Robert E Picirilli on Interpreting the Bible

Here is a very helpful reminder from Dr Robert E Picirilli to those of us who spend time studying and meditating on the Scriptures. This comes from the concluding paragraph of chapter seven, "New Testament Evidence for Universal Atonement" in Grace, Faith, Free Will (italics in original):
All of us who handle God's Word do well to remember that we do not honor Him with our interpretive ingenuity but with submission to what He says.  To say, even to show, that a given statement can be interpreted in a certain way does us no credit at all.  The question is always not what the words can mean but what they do mean, here.  In 1 John 2:2 and in 1 Timothy 2:1-6, the most obvious meaning of "world" and "all men" is universalistic.  In these cases, careful exegesis supports the obvious meaning. [1]

The Google Book preview is available here, and be sure to try the "Find in a Library" feature on Google Book if you would like to read the whole thing.

[1] Robert E Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will, (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2002), 137.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Thomas Grantham, "Christ did, in the place and stead of mankind, fulfil the Law by which the whole World stood guilty before God"

In an earlier post (Link) I provided a short quote from Thomas Grantham on the extent of the atonement, which I first read in J Matthew Pinson's article, Thomas Grantham’s Theology of the Atonement and Justification.  Here is the full section from Thomas Grantham's 1678 work, Christianismus Primitivus [1]:
Sect. V.
According to the Will of God, and his Eternal Wisdom, Christ did, in the place and stead of Mankind, fulfil that Law, by which the whole World stood guilty before God. 
How deeply Mankind stood indebted to the Righteous God of Heaven and Earth, and how unable he was to pay that score; and how consequently he must inevitably undergo the eternal displeasure of God, with the malediction of his Righteous Law, is excellently set forth, Rom. 3. 9, &c. Are we better than they?  No in no wise: for we have before charged both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; As it is written, there is none Righteous, no not one.—They are all gone out of the way, they are altogether unprofitable, there is none that doth good, no not one. — Now we know, that what things soever the Law saith, it saith to them that are under the Law; that every Mouth may be stopped, and all the World may become subject to the Judgment of God. Therefore by the Deeds of the Law shall no flesh be justified in the sight of God; for by the Law, is the knowledge of Sin. So then, we see there is a Law, by which the whole World stands Guilty; and upon that account, subject to the Judgment of God. It matters not then for the Mode, or Circumstances, under which the Law is given, they both fall short before God. He hath therefore shut up all in Unbelief, or concluded all under Sin; and surely we may conclude, it is, that he may magnify his Mercy unto all, even to the whole World in this case, as well as to the Jews, Rom. 11. 32. 
And as he, even so we, have reason to ascribe Wisdom to God, for it hath appeared Wonderfully; he having designed to magnify his Mercy in Christ, as the only Physician to Cure the Malady of Mankind, would certainly provide a Plaister commensurable with the Sore, that none may cry out and say, I am undone, I am wounded with the unavoidable wound of Mankind: And there is no Balm for me, the Physician hath made the Plaister too narrow, that Thousands, and ten Thousands, cannot possibly have Healing by it; nay, he hath determined to see us perish without any Remedy. Alas! there is none to save us, neither could we come whole and sound into the World; we are born to be destroyed, and destroyed we must be. To quell which hideous (and indeed most just) complaint (if indeed God had not in his Wisdom provided Relief for them): Behold, thus saith the Lord, Isa. 45.22. Look unto me, and be ye saved all the ends of the Earth: for I am God, and there is none else. Therefore seek to me, and none but me, and ye shall be saved: for I am God; even such a God as delight to save, but not to destroy. Ezek. 18. 23. Have I any pleasure at all in the death of the Wicked? This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who will have all Men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth, I Tim. 2.3,4. 
When we are bid to behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the Sins of the World, John 1.29. are we to except any Person in the World, or the greatest part of the World?  God forbid. Are they all become guilty per force (except Adam) and have none to justify them? Where is then the Lamb?  Behold, here is Fire, the Wood, and the Knife, but where is the Sacrifice, may many say, if indeed the Lamb of God died not for them?  But the Holy Ghost resolves the Query to the full, 1 John 2.1. He is the Propitiation for our Sins, and not for ours only, but also for the Sins of the whole World. 
Acts 17. The Apostle speaking of Mankind, indefinitely declares that they are all the Off-spring of God. And can we think that he will harden himself (like the Estridg) against his Off-spring, as though they were not his?  We which are evil by Nature, would not so deal with our Off-spring; and surely God transcends us in all Goodness whatsoever.  
Under the Parable of the Creditor, and the two Debtors, Luke 7.40. may fitly be understood Jew and Gentile, even whole Mankind; and some Expositors do take it so. Now they were both in one Predicament in this; they had nothing to Pay, though the Debt was not equal. Now the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to him that takes an account of Persons thus engaged, Mat. 18.21. to 28. Now, saith our Saviour, when they had nothing Pay, he frankly forgave them both, viz. caused the Bond to be cancelled by which they stood obliged, nailing it to his Cross; requiring them in their Capacity, to do likewise one unto another, and to love him.  
And from hence, that all Men are bound to love Christ, as their indispensable duty, under pain of Anathema, or Execration; Maran-atha, till the Lord come (or, as some) even for ever, I Cor. 16. 22. Hence we justly infer, that God in Love gave Christ for all Men, even to bless them, in turning every one of them away from their Iniquities, Acts 3. ult.  And shew me the Man which ought not to love Christ, and then I will shew the Man whom Christ did not love.  But if all Men are bound to love him, then it’s certain the Will of God was, that his Love should extend to them: For we love him, because he first loved us. And herein is Love, not that we loved God, but God loved us, and sent his Son to be a Propitiation for our Sins, I John 4. 10, 19. And again, herein perceive we the Love of God, because he laid down his Life for us. The result is this, whom God loved, them Christ died for.  All that Christ died for, ought to love him; but all Men ought to love him. Ergo, God loved, and Christ died for all Men, who hath therefore obliterated the condemning power of the Law, by which they were indebted to him; so that according to the Will of God, and his Eternal Wisdom, the Door of Salvation is opened to them, and they exhorted to enter therein with thanksgiving, Psal. 100. 1, 2, 3, 4.

[1] Thomas Grantham, Christianismus Primitivus: or, The ancient Christian religion, in its nature, certainty, excellencey, and beauty (internal and external) particularly considered, asserted, and vindicated, from the many abuses which have invaded that sacred profession (London, 1678), Book II, 62-64, (online: Link). I have updated some of the spelling for readability.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Prevenient Grace in the Hebrews Warning Passages and a Link to a Free eBook

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.

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