Hebrews 6:1-8 is famous for a reason. For Christians, there are few passages in the Bible that strike terror in the heart like the warning located at the mid-point in this letter to the Hebrews. While fear is an appropriate response to this text, I’ve found that Christians are often confused about its meaning, its intended audience, and how to apply it to their lives. This confusion has led some believers to seriously doubt their salvation, and others to conclude they’ve committed apostasy and are therefore unable to return to Christ, repent, and be saved. Others have ignored this passage, suggesting that it cannot apply to them because they are saved and assured of their salvation. In each case, perplexity about the warning in Hebrews 6:1-8 has led to sub-optimal, even dangerous, spiritual results.
Wrestling with Assurance and Hebrews 6
My initial engagement with this passage occurred early in my Christian life. I had come to Christ my sophomore year of college and immediately transferred from a Catholic university to a Christian university to study the Bible with the aim of pursuing vocational ministry. It wasn’t long until I was introduced to the warning in Hebrews 6:4-8:
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, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 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. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.
Already wrestling with my assurance, Hebrews 6 proved to be spiritually devastating. As I turned to commentaries for help to understand the passage, I landed on an interpretation that I took to be the correct reading. I will discuss this interpretation in detail below. Suffice it to say at this point that this interpretation perpetuated my struggle with assurance and (along with other factors) led me to take off eight months from college. I became convinced that I was the apostate described in Hebrews 6:4-8, and there was no longer any opportunity for me to come to Christ and be saved. My previous experiences were a superficial sham, and I had failed to really believe in Christ. I was so depressed during that season that I could barely function from day-to-day.
Thankfully, God drew me out of that thick spiritual mire, eventually placing me in ministry, giving me excellent mentors, and enabling me to get a better grasp on the gospel. Hebrews still haunted me, but I wasn’t dwelling on chapter six every waking hour.
Teaching Hebrews and Gaining Clarity
Nevertheless, despite feeling intimidated by the book, I wanted to better understand it. A few years after getting spiritually resettled, I decided to teach the book to a group of middle school students. I walked us through the book at a quick pace, covering about a chapter or more per week. This flyover approach helped me gain a better perspective on the book as I was now able to see more than the terrifying warning in Hebrews 6. There were wonderful passages about the deity and humanity of Christ, the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice, encouragement from past saints, and that helpful promise in the last chapter:
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.Hebrews 13:20
I had made some good progress in my grasp of Hebrews, but I still didn’t possess adequate clarity about how the book’s warnings fit into the life of the believer or into a larger theology of eternal security, assurance, and perseverance.
Nearly ten years later, I came across a book that addressed these very issues with careful, thorough argument, with the authors offering an interpretation of the warnings in Hebrews that seemed to make the most contextual, theological, and pastoral sense. Furthermore, they laid their interpretation alongside four common interpretations of the warning passages in Hebrews and demonstrated, with compelling exegetical evidence and logical clarity, that their interpretation fit best with the individual passages and book’s argument as a whole.
For the first time since I had come to Christ, I sensed that I finally understood the warnings in Hebrews, particularly the warnings contained in the sixth chapter. But I wanted to test this interpretation against a study of the actual text. The answer? Teach Hebrews again.
This time I would be teaching the book to a group of college students. We took a slightly slower pace than seven years before, but we also made sure to move through the book in a way that didn’t just acquaint these students with disconnected bits and pieces but allowed them to see how the book’s entire argument fit together. It was during this teaching series that my conviction about how to interpret the warnings in Hebrews solidified.
Eight years later, I find myself in the book of Hebrews again. Over the past few months I’ve been preaching through Hebrews to our congregation, and my convictions have deepened as I study the text afresh. I’ve also become convinced that the other common interpretations have each missed a vital element of the passage and the author’s larger theological and pastoral concerns. For these reasons, I believe these interpretations are likely to cause confusion for the Christian about how to apply the warnings or so blunt the warnings that they can no longer accomplish what the author intends them to accomplish. Neither of these outcomes are acceptable.
In this article I want to help Christians rightly interpret and apply Hebrews 6:1-8. It is my conviction that a misinterpretation of the warnings in the book of Hebrews in general and chapter six in particular will destabilize believers and rob them of the assurance this passage is intended to produce. Conversely, a right understanding of Hebrews 6 will bring life, joy, and diligence to the Christian’s life and enable them to persevere all the way to heaven.
Four Common Interpretations of Hebrews 6:4-8
In order to gain some clarity by way of contrast, I will take a little time to discuss the four most common interpretations of Hebrews 6. The first interpretation argues that the warning in Hebrews 6:4-8 implies that a Christian can lose their salvation. This view says that the recipients of the warning are Christians. But due to the severity of the warning—it is about falling away from Christ and being hardened beyond repentance—we must conclude that believers can lose their salvation.
A second view agrees with the first by acknowledging the recipients as believers but they rejects the idea that Christian can lose their salvation. They conclude, therefore, that the passage must not be talking about eternal judgment. Rather, the warning against falling away is about losing eternal rewards, not salvation.
A third view agrees with the first two that the audience are believers and agrees with the second that salvation is permanent and can’t be lost. But this view rejects the notion that the warning can be construed to refer to a loss of heavenly rewards: the text is clearly teaching that the person who falls away will face eternal judgment, not a loss of heavenly rewards. The solution in this view, then, is to take these warnings as hypothetical warnings that can’t occur in the life of the believer.
A fourth view agrees with views two and three about the security of the believer, and it agrees with the first and the third view about the content and nature of the warning. But in order to solve the problem of applying a warning about eternal judgment to a believer, proponents of this view argue that the author of Hebrews is speaking to a different audience in this warning. In this case, the warning is directed at the almost-believer—i.e., the professing Christian who hasn’t come all the way to Christ. This person needs to stop fence-riding and believe in Christ once-and-for-all.
Assessing the Four Common Interpretations
While I happily agree with elements in each of these interpretations, it is my judgment that none of them deal adequately with the passage. While the first view is right about the author’s intended audience and the nature of the warning, it fails to reckon with the author’s view of eternal security and the broader New Testament teaching on the permanence of salvation (e.g., John 5:24; 10:27-30; Rom 8:28-39). Thus, believers are robbed of any grounds for lasting assurance because they may finally fall away from Christ and not go to heaven.
The second view is correct in recognizing the audience as believers and holding to the doctrine of eternal security. But this view badly twists the warning by suggesting that it refers to the loss of eternal rewards. The passage has troubled Christians over the years because the common reader can see that the author is talking about the potential inability to repent and the possibility of eternal judgment for the person who has tasted of the heavenly gift and partaken in the Holy Spirit and then fallen away.
The third view is correct about the audience, the permanence of salvation, and the content of the warning, but it misinterprets the nature of the warning. That is, this view takes the warning to be hypothetical since it cannot be the case that Christians can lose their salvation. But this argument is inadequate because it fails to reckon with how warnings function. A warning, by definition, must be genuine: the consequences included in the warning will occur if the condition of the warning is met. A hypothetical warning is ultimately meaningless and powerless.
The fourth view is right about eternal security and the content of the warning. But like the previous two, this view must reconcile a warning about eternal hell with the truth concerning the Christian’s permanence of salvation. This view attempts to solves the impasse by arguing that the author is addressing a different audience; namely, the almost-Christian. The problem with this view is that it doesn’t fit the context of the book as a whole or the immediate context of the passage. Concerning the context of the book, the author is addressing believers. He’s made this clear by the way he groups himself together with the congregation when he delivers the warnings and when he speaks of God’s gracious promises (see Heb 2:1; cf. 4:18). When we come to chapter six, the author groups himself together with the congregation in his exhortation for them to grow in maturity. (Heb 6:3) which he immediately follows with the content of the warning: “For, it is impossible in the case of…” thus including himself in the warning.
This view also reads the warning retrospectively rather than prospectively. That is, according to proponents of this view, the aim of the warning is to get the listener to ponder whether their profession is genuine so that they don’t fall away. The problem with this retrospective reading is that the text itself exhorts the reader to consider what will happen in the future if certain conditions have been met, not what has happened in the past.
The Means of Perseverance View
A fifth view, articulated by Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Caneday in their book, The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance, holds that salvation is secure and that the warning is about falling away and going to hell. But this view also states that the warning is directed at believers. In this way, it is similar to the hypothetical view. But unlike the hypothetical view, Schreiner and Caneday argue that the warning is real: if the conditions are met, the consequence will follow. I believe this view makes the most sense of the passage and aligns with the author of Hebrews’ pastoral aim.
|Interpretation||Audience||Eternal Security?||Content of the Warning||Nature of the Warning|
|Loss of Salvation View||Believers||No||Eternal judgment||Real warning against losing salvation|
|Loss of Rewards View||Believers||Yes||Loss of Rewards||Real warning against losing rewards|
|Hypothetical View||Believers||Yes||Eternal judgment||Hypothetical warning|
|Different Audiences View||The Almost-Believer||Yes||Eternal judgment||Real warning to come to Christ for the first time|
|Means of Perseverance View||Believers||Yes||Eternal judgment||Real warning to make sure God’s people persevere in the faith|
First, we know that the warning is directed at believers because throughout the book the author consistently includes himself with the congregation whether he is discussing wonderful promises of salvation or dreadful warnings of eternal judgment (see Heb 2:1, 4:18). The author give us no hermeneutical or exegetical signals that tell us when we should switch between audiences. Furthermore, the warning itself is introduced with inclusive language. Immediately after rebuking the congregation for their spiritual dullness and regression (5:11-14), the author says, “Therefore, let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity…and this we will do if God permits” (6:1, 3). He then follows the warning with what I like to call, the breath-of-relief verse: “Though we speak this way, yet in your case, beloved, we are sure of better things—things that belong to salvation” (6:9).
Second, we know that the author does not believe genuine Christians can lose their salvation. He applies the New Covenant to these believers which is, by its nature, unbreakable (see Heb 8:8-12; cf. Jer 31:31-33). By his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus has secured eternal redemption for his people (Heb 9:12). The author is confident that neither he nor his listeners will fall away (Heb 10:39; see also 6:9).
Third, there are no indications in Hebrews 6:4-8 that the warning is hypothetical. It is a basic conditional statement in which the consequence inevitably follows if the condition is met. Actually, the hypothetical view can be refuted by simply appealing to definitions: there is no such thing as a hypothetical warning. For a warning to deter someone from potential danger, the warning itself must speak truthfully about what will occur if the condition in the warning is met. A “hypothetical warning” is a theological invention that’s been conjured and mobilized to solve the apparent conflict between the doctrine of eternal security and a passage that seems to say a Christian can lose their salvation.
The question we must ask is, How do we put these three truths together in a coherent synthesis? If the warning is about falling away and going to hell, and it is directed at Christians, how do you reconcile these truths with the doctrine of eternal security? We do so by recognizing how the author intends for these warnings to function in the life of the believer. The means-of-perseverance view states that the warning in Hebrews 6:4-8 serves as one of the ways that God ensures his children will keep believing and make it all the way to heaven.
Those who have trusted in Christ and been born again can rest in the confidence that our salvation is secure (Heb 6:17-20; John 10:27-30; Rom 8:28-39). But we are saved by faith (Eph 2:8; Rom 3:26; 4:5), so we must keep believing to get make it all the way to heaven (Matt 24:13). But this world is rife with temptation, stumbling blocks, worldly pleasures, and distractions. On top of that, we still have indwelling sin, our hearts are easily enticed by desires for other things (Mark 4:19), and we occasionally get bored with spiritual realities. Not to mention that Satan is on the prowl for our souls (1 Pet 5:8). Everything in this world is working against our faith. So, to keep us believing, God must, now and again, bring out sharp, serious, and severe warnings of what will happen if we turn our backs on Christ.
That’s precisely what he’s doing in Hebrews 6:4-8. He wants his listeners to ponder the terror of regressing spiritually and getting to the point where they fall away and are no longer able to repent. By pondering this horrific future, the believer is roused to take serious action to make sure that they never fall away from Christ.
How Should a Christian Apply the Warning in Hebrews 6:4-8?
So, how should a Christian apply the warning in Hebrews 6:4-8? First, we must hear it in its undiluted fullness. I’ve quoted it above. Here I will press its truths home. If you’ve been enlightened to see the beauty of the gospel, and shared in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit; if you’ve tasted of the heavenly gift, and enjoyed the inner delights of the word of God; if you’ve felt in your soul the power of the age to come and after all of that you walk away from Christ and say you are done with Christianity, you can never come back. Hell is your sure and inevitable future. Game over. All you can do now is wait for the final judgment. You may even want to come back at some point in your life, but you won’t be able to. Repentance will be impossible.
That’s a brutal word. But we make the best use of this hard word when we allow it to provoke in us the Spirit-empowered resolve to never fall away from Christ. We use this passage according to its intended purpose when we allow it to send us to the throne of grace for help and protection (Heb 4:16-18). For Christians who sense spiritual dullness and regression (Heb 5:11-14), the warning is intended to motivate repentance and the serious pursuit of spiritual maturity.
Ironically, those Christians who claim that this passage doesn’t apply to them because they are presently enjoying assurance and they know their salvation cannot be lost, actually indicate that they don’t fully understand the doctrine of eternal security and how God keeps them in the faith. The warning in Hebrews 6:4-8 is for every Christian, even those who are presently enjoying the blessings of genuine assurance. Why? Because warnings are one of the means that God uses to facilitate our secure salvation.
It’s vital to remember that the warning is not intended to destabilize your assurance, but deepen it. It is for this reason that the author follows the severe warning in vv.4-8 with v. 9: “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.” The aim in offering this warning is to motivate diligence in our lives so that we might attain full assurance of our salvation and inherit the promise of eternal life: “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have full assurance of hope until the end.” Assurance is the goal of the warning, not spiritual bewilderment, confusion, and endless introspection about whether you are a true believer.
It is also important to keep in mind that spiritual dullness is not apostasy. Some believers may be blown off course if they conclude that that their spiritual dullness is a sure sign they’ve fallen away from Christ and become unable to repent. Such a conclusion will not lead to the assurance the passage is designed to produce. While spiritual dullness is a serious condition that a believer must immediately attend to, it is not the same as apostasy. Rather, spiritual dullness leads to apostasy, which is precisely why the author follows his rebuke about the congregation’s spiritual dullness in Hebrews 5:11-14 with the warning about apostasy in Hebrews 6:4-8. Nevertheless, the two realities are not the same, and Christians who recognize their dullness are not to fall into total despair, but rather take serious action, by God’s grace, to remedy their condition and make progress in their spiritual maturity (Heb 6:1-3).
But Who is the Author Talking About?
A question that often arises whenever I teach on the warning in Hebrews 6:4-8 relates to the identity of the person the author is describing in that passage. Usually, this question will be followed by a story of someone they once knew who professed Christ, appeared genuine, and then fell away. “Should we place that person who used to profess Christ and fell away in the Hebrews 6 category?” they wonder. “Is that person now unable to repent?” My response to this inquiry is to note that the primary aim of Hebrews 6:4-8 is not to help us identify true apostates who can’t repent, but to spur believers on to stronger assurance and spiritual growth (Heb 6:1-3; 9-11). Furthermore, we can’t know with any certainty what kind of spiritual experiences a person has enjoyed prior to falling away.
When it comes to trying to understand a scenario where a person once professed Christ but has since walked away from him, we must turn to another text: 1 John 2:19. Speaking of those who were previously in the church and submissive to apostolic teaching but had since left the church and spurned the apostles, John writes “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” When someone who once professed faith and then leaves Christianity, we don’t use Hebrews 6:4-8 to assess their situation. We use 1 John 2:19. Folks who walk away from Christ make it clear that they were never really Christians to begin with. Should we be concerned for their spiritual condition? Of course. But we cannot ultimately make the spiritual judgment if they are in the throes of Hebrews 6:4-8 and now unable to repent and be saved. That’s not the author’s intended purpose with Hebrews 6. The warning is given to enable believers to persevere all the way to the end and make it to heaven.
But if Christians Can’t Be Lost, Isn’t the Warning Hypothetical?
Another objection I often hear relates to the nature of the warning. If it is true that Hebrews 6:4-8 is addressed to believers and believers cannot ultimately fall away from Christ and be lost, the warning itself cannot be real—it must be hypothetical—because a genuine believer will always obey it.
We must keep in mind, however, that a warning always obeyed is not the same as hypothetical warning. A hypothetical warning, by definition, is a warning that isn’t real. Actually, I believe the phrase “hypothetical warning” is prima facie non-sensical because a warning must be real in order to create the desired affect; namely, protection from danger. There is no evidence in Hebrews 6:4-8 that the warning is not real. It is a straightforward conditional statement: if the condition is met, the consequence will follow.
But how can it be the case that the warning can be real while there remains no possibility for a genuine believer to fall away? To answer this question, we must understand how God facilitates our secure salvation. Yes, a genuine believer can’t be lost. But how does God make sure you won’t be lost. By giving you serious warnings about apostasy. Therefore, when we are confronted with the warning in Hebrews 6:4-8, we shouldn’t only to rest on the promises of a secure salvation as precious as those promises are: we must take action that is in accord with a secure salvation and apply spiritual diligence to our walk with Christ (Heb 6:11-12). Consider this illustration.
An Illustration of Real Warnings that are Always Obeyed
Let’s say I am walking with my seven-year-old daughter on a nice, wide trail. We’ve been walking happily along the trail for a few miles, and she hasn’t needed any warnings about the terrain. All of our conversation has been encouraging and fun because the trail has been relatively easy up to that point. But as we come to a clearing, we see that our trail turns into a sharp, single-track ridgeline with serious drop-offs on either side. But this ridgeline must be crossed to get back to the car and go home. Now, I’ve been on this trail several times, but my daughter has never traversed this section with me before. I know that this portion of trail is very dangerous. But I also know that all she needs to get across is a sharp, straightforward warning of what will happen if she doesn’t pay close attention to the trail and hold tightly on to my hand.
Now, because she is my daughter, I know that she will obey this warning and make it across just fine. But the warning is necessary to get her through the ridgeline. That is, I would never just walk her across the ridgeline without a warning, for that would allow her to become careless and make missteps that would lead to her demise. The ridgeline must be traversed, and she must make it all the way safely to the other side. In order to get her to the other side, she needs a sharp warning. But just because I know she will obey the warning doesn’t make the warning hypothetical. On the contrary, a real warning is a necessary means to get her safely to the other side.
The warnings of Scripture are the necessary means of our perseverance. We can’t get to heaven without them. Yes, a Christian will always obey those warnings, but that doesn’t make them any less necessary.
A right understanding of the warnings in Hebrews, particularly the warning in Hebrews 6:4-8 is crucial for spiritual stability and health. I learned the hard way that misinterpretations of this passage can lead to serious turmoil in one’s soul. Yes, this article is on the longer side. But that’s because it is not always easy to gain clarity on difficult biblical topics and passages. We often need to take our time and patiently walk through the text and test our interpretations with the details of the passage and its surrounding context in order to grasp exactly what Scripture is teaching. I believe the reward of theological clarity is worth the effort.
Nevertheless, despite the painstaking work we’ve put into understanding the warnings in the book of Hebrews, particularly Hebrews 6:4-8, the point can be summed up in a few simple sentences. God gives his people severe warnings of what will happen if they fall away to ensure that they never do. These warnings are intended to deepen our assurance, not overthrow it. Therefore, believers must allow these warnings to stoke in them spiritual diligence and a serious pursuit of assurance. This is the way to heaven.