The Study of Salvation

By James T. Bartsch,

"and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame." Hebrews 6:6

What is Impossible to Do?

This is the fifth installment of a larger treatise entitled,

Does Hebrews 6:1-8 Teach Us We Can Lose Our Salvation?

by James T. Bartsch


    In the previous article we discussed the identity of the people to whom the author of Hebrews referred in Hebrews 6:4-6. He described them briefly under six different characteristics. Before he stated the six characteristics, he began by asserting that it was impossible (for them to do something). Literally, he wrote, "For it is impossible -- those once having been enlightened, and having tasted of the heavenly gift, and having become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and having tasted of the good word of God and powers of the coming age, and having fallen away, again to renew to repentance ..." (Heb. 6:4-6, author's literal translation). What does he mean by "it is impossible ... again to renew to repentance"? This article seeks to answer that question.

What does "having fallen away" mean? (Heb. 6:6)

    We have already discussed this term.
But I will mention it here again because it is a pre-requisite to the understanding of "what is impossible to do." The opening two words (in Greek) of Heb. 6:6 should be translated, literally, "and having fallen away," the Aorist Particple of the verb parapiptô (3895), preceded by the conjunction "and," kaí (2532). We have already determined that, in the context of the book of Hebrews, "having fallen away" identifies genuine Hebrew Christians who have reverted to Judaism. They still believe in Jesus, but they have felt compelled to add the keeping of the Law of Moses to their Christianity.

"It is impossible to renew them again to repentance" – Some Preliminary Comments

    I once had a discussion with someone else about this passage. He mentioned that it was impossible to renew these people to salvation. I stopped him. I said, the text does not say, "salvation." It says "repentance." He agreed and then asked the next logical question, "Then what does repentance mean?" Along with asking the identity of the people described in Hebrews 6:4-6 – "Are they Christians or unbelievers? Are they genuine Christians or merely pretenders?" – the question of the meaning of repentance is the most critical question of this passage!

    First of all, because of the vocabulary the author of Hebrews used in describing the people contemplated in Hebrews 6:4-6, I believe he thought they were genuine believers. However they had fallen away from their original confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Had they lost their salvation? No, I don't believe so. I believe they had lost many rewards. And I believe they had lost their ability to serve Jesus. And furthermore, and this is the crux of the matter here, they had lost their ability to repent from their defection! They had made a fateful, irrevocable decision to forsake their belief solely in Jesus as Messiah and add Judaism. Once they had done that, there was no change of mind possible. They would be confirmed in that reversion, unable to repent about Jesus as being the only way of salvation.

    Let me say something very forcefully. There are those who believe the people identified in Hebrews 6:4-6 are Christians who lose their salvation. If what they lose is their salvation, this passage says too much! It says that, if you lose your salvation, it is irrevocable. You can never regain it!

    "Salvation" (σωτηρία, sôtêria, 4991) is used seven times in Hebrews: Heb. 1:14; 2:3, 10; 5:9; 6:9; 9:28; 11:7. In the first six instances, it refers to eternal salvation in its broadest sense – salvation of spirit and body from eternal damnation, and the consequent ability to participate with Christ fully in His kingdom. In the last instance, Heb. 11:7, it refers to the physical salvation of Noah and his household from drowning in the Great Flood.

    The writer of Hebrews is not fearful that his readers could lose their salvation. He is fearful of the consequences if they neglect or ignore the salvation they already possess (Heb. 2:1-4; see esp. Heb. 2:3).

    He has already asked them to "consider Jesus, the Apostle and  High Priest of our confession" (Heb. 3:1). He went on to explain that we Christians constitute the house of Christ "if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end" (Heb. 3:6). Then the writer, in Heb. 6:7-11, quoted at length from Psalm 95:7-11. He did not want his audience to "harden" their hearts (Heb. 3:8). He continued, "Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God" (Heb. 3:12).  "For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end" (Heb. 3:14). Quoting Psalm 95:7, he again warned them not to "harden" their "hearts" literally, "as in the rebellion" (Heb. 3:15 margin rendering). In Heb. 3:16-17, the writer described those of the first generation of the nation of Israel -- those God led forth in the exodus from Egypt. He asserts that they had provoked God, and that He had been angry with them forty years, and that they had died in the wilderness. God had sworn to them that they would not enter His rest because they were disobedient (Heb. 3:11, 18). And they were disobedient because they did not believe that God could give them victory over the Canaanites (Heb. 3:19; cf. Num. 14:2, 11, 30; Deut. 1:35, 36, 38).

    Let me pause here and draw some conclusions. (1) For the 1st Generation, Exodus era Israelis, "entering God's rest" meant entering the land of Canaan. That is the "Ground Floor" meaning of "entering God's rest." (2) Entering God's rest demands faith. It demands that one believe God -- trust in Him. (3) The 1st Generation of Israelis did not enter the rest God had provided for them in Canaan because they did not believe God could help them conquer the local Canaanite population. (4) There is a difference (and this is critical) between possessing God's eternal salvation and entering His rest. The only 1st Generation Israeli men to enter Canaan were Joshua and Caleb. (Presumably their wives entered with them.) So Joshua and Caleb were the only 1st Generation men to enter God's rest. Are we going to assert that they were the only ones who were (in New Testament evangelical terminology) "saved"? Were they the only Israelis from the 1st Generation to possess eternal life, salvation? If you answer in the affirmative, you will have to conclude that we will not see Miriam in heaven. Nor will we see Aaron, the original high priest, in heaven. Nor will we see Moses, the mediator of the Mosaic Covenant, in heaven! I do not know of a single Christian who would be so brazen as to suggest that Miriam, Aaron, and Moses lost their eternal salvation because they did not enter the Promised Land!

    Let me draw a fifth conclusion at this point -- a critical one. (5) The writer of Hebrews was fearful, not that his readers would lose their salvation, but that they would fail to enter God's rest. What does that mean? At its most basic level, "not entering God's rest" means for a Christian today, "not possessing all the blessings and opportunities God had planned for you"! It does not mean losing your salvation. It does mean compromising your salvation you already possess (Heb. 2:3). Failing to enter God's rest, for the 1st Generation Israelis, meant failing to enter and access their goal -- conquering and  possessing and living in the Promised Land. I suspect for us Christians today, failing to enter God's rest means failing, through unbelief, to partake of all the service and ministry God had planned for us. And I believe that failure to be able to serve God as much as He had planned will extend into Christ's Millennial Kingdom, and, indeed, perhaps even into the Eternal Kingdom described in Revelation 21:1 - 22:5.

    So we ask the question, "From what is the writer fearful of these Christians falling away?" The answer: He is fearful of their falling away from completely trusting in Jesus the Messiah as their sole means of salvation. These readers were being pressured to add observance of the Law of Moses as their means of salvation. I do not think they were necessarily tempted to jettison their faith in Jesus as the Messiah. But they were tempted to dilute their faith in Jesus and return to Judaism.

    One final comment here. Faith is of the utmost importance in entering God's rest. That is why the writer spends an entire chapter challenging his readers to trust God!!! (Hebrews 11:1-40).

"It is impossible to renew them again to repentance." What does that mean? (Heb. 6:6)

    "For it is impossible" (Heb. 6:6). What does this mean? In the Greek text, the word translated "it is impossible" actually occurs in Heb. 6:4. "Impossible" is the Nominative Adjective adúnatos (102), "impossible" or "incapable" or "not having the capacity." The writer used this adjective four times, more than any in any other book of the New Testament. In Heb. 6:6 "it is impossible to renew them again to repentance." In Heb. 6:18 there are "two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie." In Heb. 10:4 "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." In Heb. 11:6, "without faith it is impossible to please" God (emphases mine).

    "to renew them again to repentance" (Heb. 6:6). What does this mean?
  • "To renew" is the Present Active Infinitive of anakainízō (340), used only here in the NT. According to Friberg it is used "figuratively in the NT renew, restore to a more desirable state (Heb. 6:6)."
  • "again" is the adverb pálin (3825), "(2) denoting a return to a previous state or activity again (John 4:13)," excerpted from Friberg.
    First of all, I do not believe this passage is teaching that they had lost their salvation and could never again be saved. The writer does not use the word "salvation" here. He uses the word "repentance". What did he mean? If they reverted to Judaism after having participated in the activities of Hebrews 6:4-5, it would be impossible for them to change back to trusting only in Jesus.

    I go back to the discussion I had with another person about this passage. He assumed that, if the people under consideration in Heb. 6:4-6 were really believers, the passage was teaching that, if they fell away, they were falling away from salvation. He also assumed that it would be impossible for them ever to be saved again. But the passage does not say that they have lost their salvation. And it does not say they cannot be renewed to salvation. It says that they cannot be renewed again to repentance. So what does repentance mean? In this context, repentance, changing one's mind, would mean changing one's mind to the stance of believing that faith in Christ alone is sufficient for salvation.

    Let me say very clearly once again, I do not believe this passage is talking about losing one's salvation. I think it is talking about forsaking Jesus as the only way of salvation. It is talking about reverting back to Judaism as a necessary means to salvation. The person contemplated may still believe that Jesus is the Messiah. But he also believes he needs to revert to Judaism to make sure he is saved. So he believes that he needs Jesus, but he also believes that he needs Judaism. Faith in Jesus, the Messiah, in his view, is not sufficient for salvation. Jesus is not enough!

"since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God" What does that mean? (Heb. 6:6)
  • By reverting to Judaism, these believers will have fallen away from the sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. For example, Judaism required repeated burnt offerings (Lev. 1:1-4). A burnt offering consisted of a young bull or a ram from among sheep or goats or of a turtle dove or young pigeon (Lev. 1:5, 10, 14). The animal was to be killed and then burnt on the altar. Burnt offerings were prescribed every morning and evening (Ex. 29:38,39); every Sabbath (Num. 28:9,10); at the beginning of each new month (Num. 28:11) (also called "New Moon," Num. 29:6); at every Passover (Num. 28:16, 19); at every Feast of Weeks (Num. 28:26, 27); at every Feast of Trumpets (Num. 29:1, 2). To revert to Judaism is to say the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross was not sufficient (Heb. 7:26, 27; 9:12, 28; 10:10). There is a need to rely upon the sacrifices mandated under the Old or Mosaic Covenant. The whole point of Hebrews 10:1-18 is that Jesus is the inaugurator of a superior sacrifice.
  • The cumulative effect. These defectors from "faith in Jesus only" are saying that Christ's sacrifice on Calvary was not enough. In effect they are saying He needs to be sacrificed again! and again! and again!
"and put Him to open shame." What does this mean? (Heb. 6:6)
  • By reverting to Judaism these Hebrew Christians will be shaming Jesus by denying that His sacrifice on the cross was sufficient to pay for their sins. They will also be depending on animal sacrifices that have to be repeated over and over again.
  • By reverting to Judaism these Hebrew Christians will be shaming Jesus by denying the superiority and adequacy of His priesthood. They will be placing themselves back under the inferior priesthood of Aaron, with sacrifices that have to be repeated perpetually.
  • By reverting to Judaism these Hebrew Christians will be shaming Jesus by denying the superiority of the New Covenant He ratified with His death on the cross. They will be ignoring the fact that the Law was never given to obtain justification, but rather to provide a grim realization of how sinful we humans are (Rom. 3:20). They will be ignoring the fact that Christ was the fulfillment of the purpose of the Law (Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3:23-25; Eph. 2:15).
Practical Applications.

    I have Catholic friends that I worry about. Do they believe in Jesus? Yes, I believe they do. But I worry about what else they  believe. When I talked to one Catholic man and told him about my having trusted in Jesus as a child, he said, "Why I do that every Sunday." What did he mean? I'm not certain I know. But I suspect that what he meant was that every time he goes to mass on Sunday he receives a wafer and drink of wine. He is told that he is actually receiving Christ. Is he? I don't know what he is trusting. Is he trusting in Jesus or is he trusting in the wine and the wafer? Or is he trusting in both the Savior and the ritual? If he is merely trusting in the ritual, he is not saved. No ritual can save you. Rituals could not save the OT worshiper, and rituals cannot save the NT believer. No water (as in water baptism) can wash away my sins. No wine or wafer can pay for sins. Rituals can never take the place of realities.

    I talked with another Catholic about the meaning of Revelation 22:17. The invitation is issued, "...And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost." What is the water of life? I was told it was the Eucharist. So does taking the Eucharist provide one with the water of life?

    Now I am not saying that my Catholic friends have "fallen away" in the same sense that the writer of Hebrews spoke. I think the writer of Hebrews was concerned about Messianic Jews who believed that Jesus was their Messiah, but under pressure felt compelled to revert to Judaism and forsake the Church and keep quiet about Jesus. However, there are some similarities. Is Jesus enough, or are certain religious accouterments also necessary? That would apply in both cases -- Judaism and Catholicism. Is Jesus enough, or must we also trust in certain prescribed rituals?

    In that same vein I am concerned about Roman Catholics who have defected from Biblical Christianity to Roman Catholicism. (They would say converted to the church Jesus founded.) I know people who have done so. I would never say that they do not believe in Jesus. But apparently faith in Jesus alone was not enough for them. Apparently His sacrifice on the cross was insufficient to pay for their sins. Now they also believe that the water of baptism washes away their sins. As Pope Eugene IV stated in part, "The effect of this sacrament [of water baptism] is the remission of all sin, original and actual; likewise of all punishment which is due for sin." And they find forgiveness in eating a wafer and drinking wine. I wonder which of their sins Jesus failed to forgive on the cross that they can pay for by being baptized and partaking of holy communion. Why does Jesus have to be sacrificed again and again and again at every mass? Was His death on the cross anemic?

    And why do Catholics need priests? There are in the NT Church no clergy level priests. In the church, each of us is a believer priest (1 Pet. 2:5, 9). But there are no clergy-level priests. I believe Catholics have imported the idea of priests from the Old Covenant. Why do they need to go back to the Old Covenant? Is not Jesus' New Covenant far superior? There is, in the NT Church only one legitimate priest over others, and that is Jesus, our great High Priest.

    If my concern is valid, by way of application, Hebrews 6:6 may be saying that it may be impossible to renew to repentance back to Biblical Christianity a Christian who has forsaken Biblical Christianity for Catholicism. I fear that present and future usefulness for Christ may well be at stake. I fear that rewards and future ministry may be at stake when what we have done as believers is evaluated at the Judgment Seat of Christ (1 Cor. 3:10-15; Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10).

    I'm also concerned about another kind of person. A person who was converted to Christ from a life of sin and decadence. For years, perhaps, that person, under great duress, attempted to be faithful to Jesus. But then personal difficulties and disappointments entered in. There was a questioning of God's goodness and God's guidance. There came a disillusionment with people in the church. Now that person has chosen a life in opposition to the clear teaching of Scripture. There is no effort any longer to fellowship with Christians.

    Was that person saved? Apparently, but only God knows for certain. Will that person lose his salvation? Not if he was genuinely a believer. Will that person lose reward? Unquestionably. Both now, and throughout eternity. Has that person lost an ability to serve Jesus in this life? Possibly so, if that person did what the writer of Hebrews contemplated. Will this decision be reversible? Again, if that person did what the writer of Hebrews contemplated, no. Will this decision have eternal consequences as far as that person's ability to serve Jesus throughout eternity? Sadly, I fear, yes.

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(Scripture quotation taken from the NASB 1995.)

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Updated February 28, 2022