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Contrasting Those Who Have Fallen Away and Those Who Belong to Salvation

 

Hebrews 6:4-12 (text); Hebrews 3:12-4:2; Isaiah 5:1-7; Canons of Dort V Articles 3, 6, 7
© April 13, 2014 (Pasig and Trinity Covenant Reformed Church) • Download this sermon (PDF)

Introduction

Beloved congregation of Christ: Last week, we began the study of the Fifth (and last) Head of Doctrine of the Canons of Dort. We have already finished our study of the first four Heads—unconditional election, particular atonement, total depravity, and irresistible grace.

The Fifth Head is what’s commonly called the perseverance or preservation of the saints. Of this perseverance and preservation, Article 3 of this Head says, “those who are converted could not persevere in that grace if left to their own strength. But God is faithful, who, having conferred grace, mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves them therein, even to the end.” This is the minority report among evangelicals, of whom the majority believe and teach, according to Paragraph 3 of the Rejection of Errors, “that the true believers and regenerate not only can fall from justifying faith and likewise from grace and salvation wholly and to the end, but indeed often do fall from this and are lost forever.”

Peter's conflict with Simon Magus by Avanzino Nucci, 1620. Simon is on the right, dressed in black.

Peter’s conflict with Simon Magus (dressed in black), by Avanzino Nucci, 1620. (Click image to enlarge)

And our text this morning, among a few other passages, is often used by this majority to prove their view. They argue: You see, Hebrews 6:4-6 says, “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” can “fall away” completely without restoration. Aren’t these the experiences of true believers?

But what about the various Scripture texts that says God preserves and protects true believers from finally falling away from their faith in Christ? Among these clear passages are John 10:28-29, which we studied last time, “no one is able to snatch them out of [my hand and] the Father’s hand.” Or Jesus’ assurance, “that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (Jn 6:39). Or Paul’s comforting words, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Php 1:6).

Does the Bible contradict itself? By no means! This is what we will study today.

When various passages seem to contradict one another, we are to harmonize them. It cannot be that Jesus and Paul are right, but the writer of Hebrews is wrong. Since Scripture is the inspired, inerrant and infallible Word of God, all of them must be perfectly true.

But before we can harmonize these passages, we must briefly consider the whole book. The problem the author of Hebrews addresses is the danger of Jewish converts forsaking Christ and returning to Judaism and its old covenant temple sacrifices and practices. This was happening because of persecution from fellow Jews and the sufferings and trials of life as a result. Because Christ is superior to the old covenant temple, priesthood and sacrifices, it is futile to return to them.

This is the reason for the exhortation to “leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity” (6:1). But in the verses that follow, there is a real danger among professing Christians of not ever attaining maturity in Christ, and going back to the old covenant.

So we see that the church, then and now, is a mixture of true believers who go on to maturity in Christ and those who profess to be Christians but never attain spiritual maturity. In the end, these false professors eventually fall away from the faith, while true believers persevere to the end.

Our theme this Lord’s Day is “Contrasting Those Who Have Fallen Away and Those Who Belong to Salvation.” We will proceed under three points: (1) Both Receive Benefits from the Covenant Family; (2) The Fallen Away are Worthless and Their End is to be Burned; and (3) The Saved Have Full Assurance of Hope Until the End.

Both Receive Benefits from the Covenant Family

Hebrews frequently encourages the audience to endure and warns against leaving Christ (Heb 2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:12; 10:19–39; 12:1–29). These warning passages start out with exhortations, then follows them with warnings of dire consequences if the people do not heed the exhortations. For example, in our Reading of the Law, we read, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,” followed by a warning, “So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief” (Heb 3:15, 19).

Our text in Hebrews 6 follows the same pattern. Verse 1 begins with an exhortation to “go on to maturity” in Christ, but it is followed by a warning with dire consequences:

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.

Verse 4 tells us that there is an impossibility of repentance under certain circumstances. “Impossible” is decisive and definite in other places: “it is impossible for God to lie” (6:18); “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:4); “without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (11:6). So there is finality in the warning of the “impossibility” of restoration of those who have “fallen away.”

This likely refers to persons who have apparently “fallen away” in a permanent and irrevocable manner. In the case of these Jewish converts, they have gone back to the elementary, childish doctrines of the temple sacrifices. In this way, “they are crucifying once again the Son of God … and holding him up to contempt” (6:6). They have no regard for the completed work of Christ.

From a human perspective, we can not know if a person is in this irrevocable “fallen away” because only God knows his heart. But there is real danger in a person who has shared in the covenant privileges, but later turned against the God of the covenant—who knows if he is in this final fallen state or not? These people are also often the most difficult to persuade to turn back from their apostasy. It is only God’s mercy that will make the “impossible,” from our perspective, possible. So the preaching of the gospel to those who are in the backslidden state must continue to the end. 1 Article V:7 explains this important principle, “in these falls He preserves in them the incorruptible seed of regeneration from perishing or being totally lost; and again, by His Word and Spirit He certainly and effectually renews them to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for their sins.”

What are these covenant privileges attached to membership in the church? There are four that are mentioned here:

  1. “those who have once been enlightened.” In the early church, this was interpreted as water baptism. But more likely, this is the initial entrance into the covenant community through the preaching and teaching of the gospel. In 10:32, the writer mentions “the former days… after you were enlightened.” He likely alludes back to Jesus as the light of the world (Jn 8:12; 1:9), or the gospel itself as light (2 Co 4:4). To give up the light of Christ and his gospel for his former ways is going back to his dark past.
  2. “who have tasted the heavenly gift.” If enlightenment refers to baptism, this heavenly gift might be the Lord’s Supper in the church. But the word “gift” in the singular often refers to to the Holy Spirit (Ac 10:45). So this “gift” might be a word for all the spiritual blessings in the heavenly places that are given to the covenant community.
  3. “have shared in the Holy Spirit.” There are two main interpretations of this. First, since the Spirit is present in the church, this refers to the “partaking” of the Spirit by the whole congregation. Second, the early church viewed this as the experience of the laying on of hands in the Christian community. In Acts 8, Simon Magus believed after hearing the gospel, was baptized, followed Philip around, and the apostles laid their hands upon him. Yet, he turned out to be an unbeliever, “in the bond of iniquity.” Judas Iscariot had a similar experience, but he turned out to be a “son of perdition” from eternity past (Lk 22:22; Ac 2:23). So it is possible for a person to have an experience of the Spirit’s works in the church and in him personally, but not be truly saved.
  4. “tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.” Just like Simon Magus and Judas, these people heard the gospel explained to them and saw signs and wonders week after week. Christians “have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet 2:3; Psa 34:8). Jesus said that with his preaching and miracles, the kingdom of God with all its powers has been inaugurated (Mt 4:23; 12:28). Hebrews says that the “last days” have already come (1:1) with its “signs and wonders” (2:4). But Jesus also condemned false prophets—presumably part of the church— who will claim on Judgment Day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” But Jesus will reject their false profession, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Mt 7:22-23).

Since Hebrews was written to Jewish converts, the writer uses allusions to the wilderness wanderings of Israel after their exodus from Egypt. “enlightened”—pillar of fire (Neh 9:12, 19; “He spread a cloud for a covering, and fire to give light by night” Ps 105:39).

  1. They “tasted” the heavenly manna “given” to them (Ex 16:15; “and he rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven”; Ps 78:24; Nh 9:15).
  2. The Spirit went with Israel all throughout their wanderings. The Spirit of the LORD dwelt in the pillars of cloud and fire that went with Israel (Ex 14:24). But Israel “rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit… Where is he who put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit?” (Is 63:10-11).
  3. goodness of the word of God: The LORD gave them his Law, “You gave your good Spirit to instruct them” (Nh 9:20, 13). “Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass” (Jos 21:45).
  4. powers of the age to come: The signs and wonders the LORD performed before Pharaoh was a foretaste of the powers of the coming age (Ex 7:3-4). The psalmist exalted “the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done” (Ps 78:4; 106:8)

The writer’s warning uses Psalm 95 (Call to Worship). In Numbers 14:21–35, the people had listened to the report of the 10 faithless spies and refused to enter the land to take it. The Lord swore that not one of those who grumbled in disbelief “shall come into the land.” Those who refused in unbelief to heed God’s voice (Num. 14:11) would never enter the Promised Land of rest. The warning is to obey and not harden their hearts against God.

This is the same exhortation to us today: remain faithful to the end, in spite of persecutions, sufferings, trials, false teachers and prophets. Hold fast to the faith, because that faith is grounded in the better Mediator and Prophet, better than Moses, Christ the mediator of the new covenant.

The Fallen Away are Worthless and Their End is to be Burned

So the warning is not that true believers can completely fall away from the faith and commit apostasy. The warning is that the danger is real, and the condition has a finality to it. Those who fall away are even more accountable for crucifying Christ again. They are worse than those who never turned to Christ, because it means that they hold Christ in contempt. So make sure it is not you!

And if true believers can fall away, what assurance does anyone have of persevering to the end?

Some believe that the warning is only hypothetical—it never happens—a worst-case scenario. To be sure, there is no mention of any of the readers who had actually fallen away. But the warnings are all over the epistle, so falling away is a real danger, then and now. Jesus prophesied that beginning in his earthly ministry, there will be apostasy (Mt 24:10), so did Paul (1 Ti 4:1-3; 2 Th 2:3) and Peter (2 Pt 3:17).

There are many examples of those who fell away in the New Testament. John speaks of those who “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” (1 John 2: 19). After Jesus’ difficult discourse on partaking of his flesh and blood, many of his disciples left (Jn 6:66). Paul names Hymeneus and Alexander (1 Ti 1:19, 20) and Demas (2 Ti 4:10).

What are the reasons why some professing Christians fall away? In the New Testament, we find persecution (Mt 24:9, 10), false teachers (Mt 24:11), temptation (Lk 8:13), pleasures of life (Lk 8:14), love of unsound teaching (2 Ti 4:4), unbelief (Heb 3:12), neglecting worship and willful sinning (Heb 10:25-31), lack of knowledge (1 Jn 2:19-20). A short time before Jesus returns, there will be a great falling away because of the deception and persecution by the man of lawlessness (2 Th 2:3-10).

So be forewarned! The above reasons confront all Christians. It is possible for a human being to arrive at a spiritual state of complete hardening of heart, because God finally “gave them up” to their lusts, passions, and debased minds (Rm 1:24-31).

These are those who are like land that is fruitless and bears only thorns and thistles (verses 7-8), much like the curse spoken of by God in Genesis 3:17-18. Isaiah 5:1-7 talks of the fruitless vineyard, in spite of all the cultivation by the vinedresser. In the end, it is cursed and burned, like the weeds among the good seed and the unfruitful branches in the parables (Mt 13:41-42; Jn 15:6).

The Saved Have Full Assurance of Hope Until the End

After his warning about those who fall away, the writer then contrasts them to those who are truly saved, comparing them to land that is watered and fruitful, “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.” Verses 7-8 then is a Parable of the Two Lands: one fruitful, the other worthless.

Verses 9-12 quickly shifts the focus to his faithful readers, even using a term of endearment, “beloved.” He is sure that they are better than those who fall away, because they “belong to salvation.” The writer is certain of their salvation because of (1) God’s justice; (2) readers’ works, love and service. This is because of the the evidence of salvation in their lives, “your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints” (6:10). The Jews loved their fellow-Christians, some of whom were Gentiles. Conversely, Gentiles in the early church showed love and care for their Jewish brethren by giving the Jerusalem church material help during a famine. So should we when disaster strikes brethren in other places.

Those who are truly saved have the “full assurance of hope until the end,” fitting for those who persevere to the end (Heb 10:22). Since their hope and salvation are not yet complete, they are encouraged to avoid being “sluggish,” or “dull of hearing.”

Finally, the writer exhorts them to imitate those “who through faith and patience inherit the promises,” including Abraham (6:13) and other faithful Old Testament saints in Chapter 11. Paul also exhorts believers to be imitators of him (Jn 13:15; 1 Cor 4:16, 11:1; 1 Th 1:6, 2:14). All of these Old Testament saints had the spiritual fruit of “patience” (Rm 9:22; Gl 5:22).

Dear Congregation of Christ: Do not be troubled by these warnings from Hebrews. You are assured of your salvation. God promises in his Word that he will preserve you with his Spirit, “You have full assurance of hope until the end.” Article V:6 is very comforting and reassuring:

But God, who is rich in mercy, according to His unchangeable purpose of election, does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from His own people even in their grievous falls; nor does He allow them to proceed so far as to lose the grace of adoption and forfeit the state of justification, or to commit the sin unto death or against the Holy Spirit; nor does He permit them to be totally deserted and plunge themselves into everlasting destruction.

Our experience here in the covenant community in this age cannot be compared to what God has in store for you in your heavenly Promised Land in the age to come. You will be enlightened forever with Jesus the Light of the world. You will not only taste the heavenly gift, but feast on the Lord’s table before him. The Father, the Word and the Spirit will dwell with you forever.

So, be encouraged with these words from Hebrews 12:1-2:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

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Notes:

  1. A word of caution: “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” Matt. 12:31–32, the unpardonable sin, is different from this “falling away.” This is ascribing Christ and his work to the devil!

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