Just a few weeks ago the popular website The Gospel Coalition posted a quote to their Facebook page. The quote was from pastor John MacArthur, who said: “If you could lose your salvation, you would.” The quote sparked a firestorm of debate. Some of the comments were firm, yet respectful. Other commenters fell significantly short of loving.
It’s an important question, one whose responses could easily fill whole libraries. And it’s also the sort of question that defies a middle ground—we must either answer “yes” or “no.”
Why should this matter? For some, these sorts of questions might seem to only elicit the kinds of in-fighting that makes you wonder if Christians really have any love at all (!). To be fair, it’s certainly true that well-meaning Christians can get in fights over points of theology. If I ever needed proof that the devil is real, it’s that theology students can get in fights over the definition of “love” (no, seriously). Yet the way we answer this question reveals our view of God’s character, and it also sheds light on personal situations we all may have witnessed. Because surely you may have known someone who seemed such a strong believer—growing up in youth group, serving on missions trips, listening to worship albums, etc.—who now seems to have abandoned their faith as they’ve grown older.
The question is raised by today’s passage from Hebrews—a passage that appears as part of the larger warning expressed in Hebrews 5:11-6:14:
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. (Hebrews 6:4-8)
Does this passage teach that a Christian can lose his or her standing with God? Let’s explore both positions.
YES WE CAN
First, let’s admit that this is the most natural reading of the Hebrews text. John Wesley—who strongly believed that losing one’s salvation was possible—called this a “plain relation of fact.” The various descriptions used here seem hard to separate from someone who really, truly is a Christian.
Yet if we examine the text more closely we can see that while this might be the case, it’s not really a necessity. The word “enlightened,” for example, has a range of meanings in both Jewish and Greek culture. The Greeks might have associated it with their own mystery religions, while Jews would have understood it in light of God’s provision of light in the desert. Other evidence suggests it might only have referred to Christian baptism. So it’s hard to connect this word directly to Christian salvation.
But what about having “shared in the Holy Spirit?” This seems perfectly clear: only a believer can share in God’s Spirit, right? The Greek word (metochos) can indeed mean a direct connection, as it does in Hebrews 3:14 where believers are said to “share in Christ.” But the same word is used elsewhere to refer to Jesus’ earliest followers—some of whom were fishermen by trade—working together on their boat (Luke 5:7). So the word may refer to close intimacy, but it may equally be used to describe work associates. In other words, there’s no conclusive evidence in this passage to indicate that the people referred to are, in fact, genuine Christians.
Further, Wayne Grudem notes that the image that follows in 6:7-8 seems to also indicate that these folks were less than true Christians, because they never bore actual spiritual “fruit:”
“When we recall the other metaphors in Scripture where good fruit is a sign of true spiritual life and fruitlessness is a sign of false believers…we already have an indication that the author is speaking of people whose most trustworthy evidence of their spiritual condition (the fruit they bear) is negative, suggesting that the author is talking about people who are not genuinely Christians.” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 796)
NO WE CAN’T
Those who say “no we can’t” have approached this passage from several different perspectives, which we’ll address in reverse order of their popularity:
- The situation in Hebrews was historically unique. No one outside the first century culture can commit this type of sin—whatever it exactly was. But the sin doesn’t seem terribly unique. People wander from the faith all the time. And besides, why should we assume this position when we assume other letters (such as Philippians, Colossians, etc.) do apply to us today? It’s not surprising, then, that few hold this position today.
- It’s purely hypothetical. The writer of Hebrews must be saying: “This is what could happen in you could lose your salvation.” This is a little better, but for one thing, that’s pushing your theology into the Bible, rather than letting the Bible speak for itself. Further, if it’s merely hypothetical, it really takes away the force of this warning, does it not?
- Loss of rewards. The writer of Hebrews is referring to those whose loss of conviction leads to a loss of future, heavenly rewards, as well as the joy of fellowship here on earth. This is a more popular position, but it’s hard to quite fit “rewards” into the passage as it stands. Still, this view takes the warning quite seriously.
- They were never saved to begin with. This is the most popular view, one that simply says: “The people in view aren’t necessarily Christian, therefore if they ‘fall away’ from the faith it just proves they never really were Christians to begin with.” This view harmonizes well with other scriptures, such as when John tells his readers that some “went out from us but were not of us” (1 John 2:19). What sense might we make of the warning, then? That our only true assurance of salvation is a lifetime of faith.
I personally take the latter view, though I’m sympathetic to those who see a “loss of rewards” here. Wesley, of course, hated this idea, calling it “fallacious reasoning.” And I must admit, if this passage in Hebrews was all we had, I might be inclined to agree with him. But thankfully we can measure this passage against the entirety of scripture, where we find other passages that read:
- I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:27-29)
- For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Romans 11:29)
- he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 4:6)
- For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
I believe these passages clearly teach something called “eternal security.” Does that mean I believe “once saved, always saved”? The answer is a resounding “no.” Why not? Because I agree with the “always saved” part—I just disagree with the “once saved” part. The term “saved” is a carryover from our revivalist heritage, particularly of the 19th century. In scripture, salvation is something that takes place over a person’s lifetime—beginning in justification (being declared righteous) but proceeding through sanctification (being made righteous) and culminating in glorification (being totally righteous). God extends mercy to a variety of people—just think of the thief on the cross. But the Hebrews warning seems to stress that our surest sign of salvation is a diligent, lifelong commitment of faith.
But wait, doesn’t the text say that restoration is “impossible?” What do we make of that? Even if you believe that salvation is something you can lose, you have to wrestle with a God that does not welcome his children back—and that’s a harsh warning indeed. In his commentary on Hebrews, Peter T O’Brien writes:
“What is meant by this? It does not imply that God does not have the power to bring back an apostate, since he is the one ‘for whom all things and through whom all things exist’ (2:10), and his word is able to shake the foundations of the universe (12:26). But he may refuse to restore an apostate. To say that it is ‘impossible’ for God to lie (6:18) does not suggest that he lacks the power to lie, but that he refuses to do so….By not restoring those who commit apostasy, God allows their firm decision to stand. He does not force men and women against their obstinate resolve but allows them to terminate the relationship.” (Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews, p. 225-6)
If this sort of thing makes you nervous, then the warning in Hebrews has had its effect. I realize we can’t solve this difficult question in so short a space, but you may already be aware of the dangers of both extremes. If you believe that yes, salvation can be lost, then you face the danger of judging others—particularly their outward behavior—under the guise of “inspecting their fruit.” The end result can turn into a works-righteousness, which is ultimately the opposite of what Hebrews is trying to convey. If you believe that no, salvation is forever, then you face the danger of taking your spiritual life too lightly, taking God’s mercy for granted, and treating salvation as a form of insurance to cover your behavior.
Both extremes are alien to the text of Scripture, and both are alien to the character and mercy of God. One thing is for sure: we live in a world where it’s both easy and tempting to stifle our growth by abandoning our faith. What Scripture is saying here is that your life—your character, your actions, your decisions—matter in the grand scheme of eternity. What impact are you leaving?