Sunday, March 20, 2011

Scripture Cookie O’ the Week – Hebrews 6:4-6

Hebrews 6:4–6 (ESV)
4 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.

This Scripture Cookie is frequently used by those who believe that actual, real Christians can “lose” their salvation, and in the process they ignore not only the context of the passage, but the whole counsel of Scripture. Of the five or so warning passages in Hebrews (Hebrews 2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:12; 10:19–39; 12:1–29), this seems to be that group’s favorite.

Keep in mind that Hebrews (often referred to as a sermonic letter) was written to churches with mainly Jewish Christians. Remember that just as it is now, churches then had both true and false (or deluded) congregants (i.e. wheat and tares). The letter was written to them apparently on the verge of expected persecution and one stated purpose was to exhort and encourage perseverance in the faith. It also encourages with promises of preservation (the complementary concept with perseverance) – Hebrews 7:25; 9:15. This was during the time that Christianity had begun to be recognized by Rome as a separate religion from Judaism, rather than just an offshoot sect. Judaism, at that time, was still a religion that was in many was “protected” by the polytheistic leaders in Rome, as part of their usual practice of allowing the locals to have their own beliefs as long as it was not seen as a threat to Rome. But Christianity did not have that protected status. The author knew the temptation would be great to return to Judaism to avoid persecution. Plus, those among the recipients who weren’t truly born again would also be nostalgic about the atmosphere (sights and sounds) of Temple worship. After all, Christians generally met in unglamorous house-churches.

Therefore, I believe the thesis sentence for the epistle is

Hebrews 2:3–4 (ESV)
3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, 4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (emphasis added)

The word “neglect” is key here. It means to disregard or ignore (NIV). It does not imply “losing” salvation, it is warning against “playing-around” and not taking seriously the Gospel message. Also note that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are spoken of as bearing witness to the great salvation; compare this to Hebrews 6:4 regarding “tasting the heavenly gift” and “sharing in the Holy Spirit”.

One question in regard to this Scripture Cookie is: “What does it mean to ‘have once been enlightened, [to] have tasted the heavenly gift, and [to] have shared in the Holy Spirit, and [to] have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come’?” Many will define that as being converted to Christianity, but I think the wording is way too indefinite for that determination. Plus, see the previous paragraph on how Hebrews 2:4 might inform our understanding of 6:4-6. I think it all means that they have had extensive and repeated instruction in the Gospel and maybe even participation (unworthily) in the Lord’s Table, and have been exposed to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and have ignored all these witnesses to the Gospel – to their peril.

Art Azurdia makes an interesting point: note the change from first- and second-person pronouns (weyou) in the verses immediately preceding, to third-person pronouns (those, them). This could be another clue that the author isn't addressing true Christians.

Next, observe the next three verses (the ones the Scripture Cookiers always leave out):

Hebrews 6:7–9 (ESV)
7 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.
9 Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.

Verses 7-8 are about bearing fruit. See Jesus’ doctrine on fruit-bearing: Matthew 7:15-20; Matthew 13:24-30; Luke 6:43-44. True converts bear fruit; false converts don’t.

Finally verse 9 tells the true Christian (“beloved”) that the preceding warning was to those who are neglecting salvation.

So, the lesson here is context, context, context.

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