By Rev. WILFRED H. ISAACS, M.A.
(Heb. 6: 1-8.)
Can a man be saved to-day and lost to-morrow? The Arminian says “Yes,” and points confidently to verses 4‑6. The Calvinist, for whom the sovereign grace of God outweighs every other consideration, says “No,” and quotes John 10: 28, Romans 11: 29 and 1 John 2:10. But he feels nevertheless that this passage is a rather weak spot in his case. He believes that it is possible by careful exegesis to bring this passage into line with convictions based upon those other data, but he cannot quite make up his mind how it is to be done. Ultimately he adopts one of two expedients. One is to admit that the man here described is really lost, but was never really a believer: that is a view firmly held by many prominent teachers among “the Brethren.” The other is to admit that the man here described is really a believer, but is not really lost, inasmuch as the statement of his delinquency and its punishment is supposititious. The late Dr. Griffith Thomas is a good representative of those who hold this view.
It is the purpose of this article to suggest that in both of these interpretations certain contextual and translational considerations have been overlooked - considerations which indicate not that there is a third way of surmounting the difficulty, but that the difficulty does not arise.
1. All interpreters have assumed that the topic of the passage is human destiny. That assumption is incorrect. The topic of the passage is not human destiny, but ministerial methods.
The general topic of the Epistle is Christian progress - Go on, go on, go on. You there in the pew, go on in your learning from milk to meat! (5: 11-14), and you there in the pulpit! you whose business it is to formulate statements of doctrine - you builders of the house of God whose business it is to lay foundations - you teachers! go on in your teaching. Foundations are an absolute necessity: they must be well and truly laid, but no serious builder would dream of laying foundations twice over. The extreme importance of foundations is no excuse for never bringing anything but old stuff out of the store-room (Matt. 13: 52). The prime importance of salvation from the penalty of sin, salvation in the first degree, is no reason for neglect to go on to salvation in the second degree, i.e., from the power of sin.
2. Observe that this thing that the Apostle was telling his readers not to do twice, was a thing which could not, from the nature of the case, be done twice.
“Once enlightened,” does not mean enlightened once upon a time, but enlightened once for all - once, as distinct from twice. From the very nature of the case a man cannot go back from light into darkness - from knowledge to ignorance. Therefore enlightenment is from the nature of the case not susceptible of repetition.
The antithesis between the “once for all” of verse 4 and the “a second time” of verses 1 and 6, is obviously intentional, and significant.
3. Observe the sequence of thought: the relaying of foundations is undesirable, impossible and unnecessary. verse 1, “don’t”: verse 6, “you can’t”: verses 7 and 8 “you needn’t.” Repentance (change of mind) is foundational; it is not however sanctification. Sanctification is a change of character - the bad becomes good. Repentance is the change from ungodly to godly - the change of attitude, direction, position, which precedes sanctification. David in 2 Samuel 11. was a contemptible scoundrel, but he was not ungodly.
Not only is this repentance the initial once for all foundation repentance, but by means of the word “renew” it is closely connected with another aspect of the first unrepeatable item of a soul’s salvation - the emergence of the new creature in Christ Jesus in regeneration.
4. Observe that one assumption upon which the current interpretation of this passage is based is that he who falls away is an apostate, and by his apostasy forfeits, in fact flings from him and negatives, the four privileges which have just been enumerated. This assumption lies upon the surface of the Authorized Version: it is the inference drawn by the Jacobean translators, and they translated accordingly. There are two features of their translation by which they effectively passed on to their readers the particular view by which they were obsessed. One of these features is wholly unnecessary - not an impossible rendering, but an error of judgment.* The other is a manifest blunder.
[* This criticism errs on the side of moderation.]
A. We have here in the Greek a series of seven participles:
1. having been enlightened
2. having tasted
3. having been made partakers
4. having tasted
5. having side-slipped
and then after a resumption of the main sentence
Glance at the Authorized Version and the reader will see at once the turn of speech by which the translators have conveyed the impression that No. 5 negatives the four which precede it. They have rendered them in such a way as to answer the question:‑ “Who is the man of whom we are speaking?” To the 5th they allotted quite a different function, making it answer the question:‑Under what circumstances is it impossible to restore that man to a state of salvation? And yet this 5th is linked to No. 4 by precisely the conjunction as that by which No. 4 is linked to No. 3, and No. 3 to No. 2 - the emphatic continuative kai.
The translators were convinced and determinedto indicate that the first four and the 5th were mutually exclusive. The writer of the epistle was careful to use a conjunction which implies emphatically that they were not mutually exclusive.
No, on second thoughts, this rendering is worse than an error of judgment: it is a translational offence due to a pre-conception of the meaning of the passage.
B. Undoubtedly the crime which THEY imputed to the man here described is the crime of apostasy, for they use the same term “fall away” in Luke 8: 13 of the deliberate withdrawal of those whom our Lord in the parable of theSower described, as shallow-soil hearers, and in 2 Thessalonians 2: 3 of the purposeful rebellion of the last days.
Both in those passages and in this the expression “fall away” is a translational blunder. Here the word “away” is too strong: there the word “fall” is not strong enough. There the word is “apostasy” (verb or noun). Apostasy is a Greek word spelt in English letters, and applicable to a man who intentionally adopts a certain position. One does not “fall” on purpose.
Here the word used means a “fall,” but a fall sideways. not a departure.
Observe that a man who falls sideways is not an apostate. He hurts himself, he suffers, but he has not changed direction, he is still on the road Godwards. That is the case with which the Apostle is dealing here.
5. - But it may be said:- Granted that the separation of the 5th participle from the four that precede cannot be justified, yet surely, by the resumption of the main sentence between Nos. 5 and 6, the 6th and 7th are separated from the first five.
As we read the rendering of the Authorized Version this certainly seems quite obvious, but when we read the Greek, translating each participle as we go along literally as a participle, this impression is by no means so strong, in point of fact it disappears. It actually dawns upon the mind of the reader that there is nothing in the Greek to prevent the conclusion that these last two participles qualify - not the word “impossible,” which is forty-eight words away but - the words “renew again to repentance” which are actually next door to them.
It is of course a simple rule of all rational writing that a qualifying clause is placed as near as possible to that which it qualifies.
Here surely it is the renewal of these delinquents to repentance, on the ground that they are crucifying the Son of God afresh and shaming Him, which is said to be impossible.
Some little time ago, a few believers were sitting round a table discussing fundamentals. Suddenly one of the party - well-beloved and honoured by many of my readers- asked: “Has anybody got a coin on him?” The friend next him promptly produced half-a-crown, and put it in front of him. Our brother who had asked for it, with a grave face, but a characteristic twinkle in his eye, looked at it, picked it up, and quietly put it into his trouser pocket. “I’ll take good care,” he said, “that you don’t give me that half-crown again!”
I think you see the point: That gift could not be repeated unless the recipient first returned it to the donor. The man who gives himself to God cannot do it twice: for what we have once given to God we cannot take back, thank God. He sees to that.
Do you then see that the believer’s position in Christ is unalterable. In the case of the man of whom the Apostle is speaking his position (like David’s in 2 Sam. 11.) was all right. It was his condition that was all wrong, and for that contingency - sins committed after conversion (as indeed also for the reward of services rendered after conversion) there is special provision, Psalms 89: 32, 33, Hebrews 12: 6, 8. God chastises his children when they misbehave, but He does not disinherit them. The love that would not let David go after his deliberate infamy will not let you go, will not let me go. Hallelujah!
There is no truth, however sacred and precious, that
cannot degenerate into an untruth if harped upon to the neglect of balancing
truths. Even the basic and glorious
truth of sovereign grace can be so misused.
We find no such lack of doctrinal balance in Holy Scripture. Our Lord and all the N.T. writers,
That which beareth thorns and briars is rejected - the time word that is grievously mistranslated “cast-a-way” in 1 Corinthians 9: 27 - and is - accursed? certainly not: but something that so far as any onlooker could tell is awfully like it- “nigh unto cursing.”
No, there is no need to fear that the most outrageous and scandalizing sins of a believer shall be allowed on that ground to claim, and take shelter under, privilege. He is incurring such outward darkness, such wailing and gnashing of teeth as many have actually mistaken for eternal death. We shall never understand the tragic bitterness of that cry of agony: “Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son,” unless we recognize David’s perception of the fact that the whole miserable business of Absalom lay at the door of the man who had given the Lord’s enemies great occasion to blaspheme.
So we see in VERSES 7 AND 8 that that is unnecessary which the Apostle deprecates in verse 1 and declares to be impossible in verse 6.
Verse 1. Do not go on laying foundations over and over again.
Verse 4. For it is impossible to do over again that which from the nature of the case is unrepeatable.
For those who have once for all been enlightened
have tasted of the heavenly gift
have also been made partakers of the Holy Ghost
have also tasted the good word of God, and powers of the coming age
have also side-slipped into sin –
to re-enact the new birth and conversion for these
men who are crucifying the Son of God afresh
and are giving his enemies great occasion to blaspheme -
This is not only impossible but also unnecessary for they incur a penalty similar to that which befalls an unfruitful garden. If, when its soil has drunk in the frequent showers, its produce meets the need of its cultivator’s, God’s blessing is upon the tillage and the land shares the benefit; and if it produces thorns and thistles it is judged worthless: it incurs something very like a curse: the rubbish makes a bonfire and there’s an end of it (1 Cor. 3: 13).
It is surprising to find Westcott alluding to [the Greek word …] as “an act of apostasy.”
His interpretation of … is, however, quite in harmony with that which I have put forward. “The necessity of progress,” he says, “lies in the very nature of things. There can be no repetition of the beginning. The preacher cannot again renew to repentance ... he must go on to the completion of his work. ... It is indeed necessary, the Apostle seems to say, that I should add this reserve,”if God will, “for ... it is impossible for man to renew to …” (those who have taken a false step).
To argue from the present tenses … that what the Apostle means is that it is impossible to convert men while they are sinning - in other words that it is impossible to convert them until after they have reformed, is to invert the obvious order of events. What need is there for conversion after reformation? It is those who are in enmity against Him whom God invites to reconciliation.