The Study of Salvation

By James T. Bartsch,

4 For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, ... Hebrews 6:4-6

Who are the People Described in Hebrews 6:4-6?

This is the fourth installment of a larger treatise entitled,

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

by James T. Bartsch

    Identifying who the author is talking about in Hebrews 6:4-6 is a pursuit fraught with disagreement.  Thomas Constable (Notes on Hebrews) gives an excellent summary of the different views of this passage. I include here his summary, along with his footnotes. Following his quotation I document his examples under the appropriate footnotes he provided, along with an introductory tag in brackets [ ] for each note:

The writer pointed out the consequences of not pressing on to maturity to motivate his readers to pursue spiritual growth diligently (cf. 2 Pet. 1:5; 3:8).

Christians have interpreted this passage in many different ways. Some believe that those who fall away (v. 6) are believers who lose their salvation. [310] Others hold that those who fall away are people who have professed to be believers but really are not. [311] One writer who held this view claimed that they are well-instructed unbelievers. [312] Still others take the whole situation as hypothetical. They believe that if a Christian could lose his salvation, which he cannot, it would be impossible for him to be saved again. [313] A fourth view is that only Hebrew Christians, living before the destruction of the temple (A.D. 70), could commit this sin, whatever it is. The view that I believe harmonizes best with the writer's emphasis is that those who fall away are believers who turn away from God's truth and embrace error (i.e., apostates). [314] The majority of scholars view these people as genuine believers. [315]

    Dr. Constable's explanatory footnotes are as follows. Occasionally I add a brief comment in brackets, introduced by my initials, as in [JTB: ....]. The links provided in the footnotes direct the reader back to the footnote in Constable's commentary. When he has referred to certain writers prior to these footnotes, he does not cite the book title, but only the author. The reader of this article who wishes to identify the particular book title not listed here will have to search backward in Constable's lengthy notes.

310: [Believers who lose their salvation] E.g., Westcott, pp. 148-53; Moffatt, pp. 76-82; Lenski, p. 185;  I. Howard Marshall, Kept by the Power of God; et al.

311: [Professing, but not genuine believers] E.g. Henry, p. 1916; Bruce, pp. 118-25; Philip E. Hughes, pp. 206-24; Arthur W. Pink, An Exposition of Hebrews, pp. 298-320; Saphir, 1:260; Gaebelein, 4:1:263-264; E. Schuyler English, Studies in the Epistle to the Hebrews, pp. 160-68; Homer A. Kent Jr., The Epistle to the Hebrews, pp. 107-15; R. Kent Hughes, 1:156-57; Stedman, pp. 84-90, 175;and The New Scofield Reference Bible, p. 1315. [JTB: To Constable’s list, I would add here John MacArthur, Hebrews, 142-145.]

312: [Well-instructed unbelievers] E.g. Pink, p. 290.

313: [Hypothetical view] E.g., Westcott, p. 165; Guthrie, pp. 140-46; Thomas Hewett, The Epistle to the Hebrews, pp. 106-11; Thomas, pp. 72-75; Kenneth S. Wuest, "Hebrews Six in the Greek New Testament," Bibliotheca Sacra 119:473 (January 1962):45-53; Homer A. Kent, Jr., The Epistle to the Hebrews, pp. 113-114; Wiersbe, 2:297; idem, Word Studies ..., 2:2:117; The Ryrie Study Bible: New Testament. King James Version, p. 404.

[Time-sensitive view] "A fourth view is that only Hebrew Christians, living before the destruction of the temple (A.D. 70), could have committed this sin, whatever it is."

314: [Christians who apostatize] See Morgan, An Exposition …, p. 515; Swindoll, p. 1569, for a similar view. [JTB: Constable himself holds to this view. He states, "The view that I believe harmonizes best with the writer's emphasis is that those who fall away are believers who turn away from God's truth and embrace error (i.e., apostates)." However, he does not believe these apostate Christians lose their salvation, but that they are unable to repent and, presumably, unable to return to fellowship. Zane Hodges (Hebrews, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 794), writes, “a warning is given of the danger of a Christian moving from a position of true faith and life to the extent of becoming disqualified for further service (1 Cor. 9:27) and for inheriting millennial glory.”]

315: ["The majority of scholars view these people as genuine believers."] Marshall, p. 142.

    Let us now examine the group of people identified by the author, phrase by phrase. We will then seek to explain what each phrase means. Let it be said first of all that all six of these characteristics below identify the same group of people. What is true of those identified in characteristic 1, for example, is also true of those identified in characteristics 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. It is not advisable, for example, to separate category 6 as a conditional clause that may or may not describe the individuals identified in characteristics 1-5. All six of these characteristics describe the same group of people. John A. Sproule maintains that all of the five participles are adjective-substantival participles. The last participle (characteristic 6 below) cannot be taken as an adverbial participle functioning as the protasis of a conditional statement.

    Moreover, each of the five participles below (item # 5 does not have its own participle -- the reader must supply the participle from item # 4) is an aorist participle. That means that the action described took place at some point in the past.

    In addition, the author speaks of the people contemplated in Heb.6:4-6 in the third person, "those who ...". One could argue, and some do, that he is dissociating himself with the people contemplated. Obviously that is true because he himself has never, along with his readers, he presumes, taken the final step of falling away (item # 6). But that is no evidence in and of itself that Christians cannot participate in characteristic # 6.

(1) Those having once been enlightened (Heb. 6:4).  Item Index

     The writer, in Heb. 6:1-3, has used first person plural (we/us) pronouns – “let us press on to maturity” (Heb. 6:1); “this we will do” (Heb. 6:3). In Heb. 6:4-6 he abruptly changes his manner of speaking. He speaks, literally, of “the ones having been enlightened” (Heb. 6:4); and that the people thus envisioned, literally, “are again crucifying to themselves (third person pronoun) the Son of God” (Heb. 6:6). In so doing the writer seems to dissociate himself and his readers from the people in Heb. 6:4-6. This is consistent with his exhortation and belief in Heb. 6:1-3 that he and his readers will press on to maturity. It is also consistent with his statement in Heb. 6:9, “But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way.”

    These facts are not necessarily to be construed, however, as proof that the people whom the writer describes in Heb. 6:4-6 are not Christians. To the contrary, the vocabulary seems to indicate that they are. He takes the stance that his readers are not among that kind of Christians. Nevertheless, the readers must be warned, and that is why he writes as he does.

    "Having been enlightened" is the aorist plural passive participle of ph˘tiz˘ (5461). It appears but eleven times in the NT, two of them here in Hebrews (Heb. 6:4; 10:32). Both times it appears in the passive voice, which means that some force or person outside the individuals contemplated performed the enlightening. Doubtless the one who had enlightened them was God.

    I believe that the writer is stating that those about whom he is writing in Heb. 6:4-6 had been enlightened with the gospel of Christ and had responded affirmatively to that enlightenment. Zane Hodges agrees. He states, “This is a natural way to refer to the conversion experience (cf. 2 Cor. 4:3-6). The writer’s only other use of the verb “enlightened,” is Hebrews 10:32, where the reference to true Christian experience can hardly be doubted” (Zane Hodges, Hebrews, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Vol. II, p. 794).

    Elsewhere, Jesus used the present subjunctive form of the verb in Luke 11:36, comparing someone with healthy, perceptive spiritual vision to one who might be illumined with the rays of a lamp. John (John 1:9) spoke of Jesus as the true light, who, by His coming into the world, illuminates every man (JTB paraphrase). That illumination, it might be pointed out, makes every man responsible, but does not save every man. 1 Cor. 4:5 seems to speak of a time of coming judgment when “the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men's hearts ....” In Eph. 1:18, Paul prays that the eyes of the Ephesians’ heart might be enlightened so they would know certain spiritual truths.  In Eph. 3:9 Paul stated that one of his responsibilities was “to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God ....” In 2 Tim. 1:10, Paul spoke of the appearing of Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” .... The three occurrences in Revelation seem to refer to physical light (from an angel) illuminating the earth (Rev. 18:1), and the city of New Jerusalem as being illuminated by the glory of God and of the Lamb (Rev. 21:23; 22:5).
The two occurrences in Hebrews – “those who have once been enlightened” (Heb. 6:4) and (Heb. 10:32) “But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings ....” are the most critical, however. It is most likely that the same writer will use the same word in the same way.

    It is difficult to make the case, from the passages outside of Hebrews, that “being enlightened” always means one has been saved. In John 1:9, for example, it can hardly be argued that Jesus’ enlightening every man saves every man. Clearly it does not mean that. And many other passages are not discussing salvation at all. But in the two Hebrews passages, the writer seems to use the word in the same way. And in both cases, it seems more likely he is using the term “having been enlightened” to refer to an appropriate response to the message of salvation rather than that he is not. However, it is difficult to be dogmatic. Yet, the writer, in both warning passages, certainly takes the position that the readers are genuinely saved people, and that they will heed his warnings (Heb. 6:9; 10:39). That view is supported by the fact that, in Heb. 6:1-3, the writer uses the first person plural (“we”) in his discussion, while in the warning passage (Heb. 6:4-6), he changes to the third person (“those, them”).

(2) Those having tasted of the heavenly gift (Heb. 6:4).  
Item Index  

    "Have tasted" is a translation of the aorist participle of geuomai (1089), lit., “having tasted.” John MacArthur argues that the people envisioned in Heb. 6:4 tasted, or sampled the heavenly gift, but did not truly partake of it. He writes (Hebrews, p. 143):

This great gift, however, was not received. It was not feasted on, but only tasted, sampled. It was not accepted or lived, only examined. That stands in contrast with Jesus' work on our behalf. Having tasted death for every man (Heb. 2:9), He went on to drink it all.

    The difficulty is that the Scriptural example he gives, Heb. 2:9, does not support his conclusion. In Heb. 2:9, Jesus’ tasting (geuomai) of death was not just a sampling. It was a full-blown participation. Jesus didn’t merely sample death. He partook of it fully. Why would the Biblical author employ a different meaning for tasting in Heb. 6:4 than he did in Heb. 2:9? It makes more sense and provides greater consistency if we argue that the writer's use of geuomai in Hebrews 6:4 is the same as his use in Hebrews 2:9. Jesus fully partook of death, and the people under consideration in Heb. 6:4 fully partook of the heavenly gift. See the author's word study on geuomai.

    What was the "heavenly gift" which the people described in Hebrews 6:4 tasted? No one knows for certain, of course. We can only make an educated guess. MacArthur's opinion is as good as any:

The greatest heavenly gift, of course, is Christ Himself (God's "indescribable gift," 2 Cor. 9:15) and the salvation He brought (Eph. 2:8). Christ's salvation is the supreme heavenly gift, and no doubt the one referred to here. (Hebrews, p. 143)

We conclude, then, that when the writer described people as "having  tasted of the heavenly gift" (Heb. 6:4), he meant that they had fully received the gift of Christ and the salvation which He offered. They were Christians.

(3) Those having been made partakers of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 6:4).  
Item Index  

     What does it mean to have been made a partaker (metochos, 3353) of the Holy Spirit? Does the terminology indicate that the people in question were genuinely believers in Jesus, and thus partakers of the Holy Spirit? Or does the terminology fall short of salvation? Were they possessors of the Holy Spirit, or were they merely onlookers who witnessed His power and appeared to be saved, but were really only masquerading as Christians?

    Proponents of the view that the people envisioned in Heb. 6:4-6 were not believers point out that the phrase in question, “partakers of the Holy Spirit,” is atypical when compared to other designations about Christians having the Holy Spirit. For example, Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit “living in” (oike˘, 3611) a believer (Rom. 8:9, 11; 1 Cor. 3:16; see also 2 Tim. 1:14 – enoike˘, 1774); he speaks of believers having been “sealed” (sphragidz˘, 4972) with the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30); he speaks of Christians having been baptized (baptidz˘, 907)  by one Spirit into one body (1 Cor. 12:13); he speaks of the Holy Spirit as having been given as a pledge (arrab˘n, 728) of our inheritance (2 Cor. 1:22; 2 Cor. 5:5; Eph. 1:14). So the argument goes that, since the writer to the Hebrews failed to use any of these Pauline designations, he cannot have meant that the people in question in Heb. 6:4-6 were believers. But that, it seems to me, is an argument from silence. It proves nothing with regard to the book of Hebrews, except, perhaps, that Paul did not write the letter! It would be far more instructive, it sees to me, to look at how the word partakers” (metochos, 3353) is used in the New Testament.

    In the NT “partaker” (metochos, 3353) is used but six times – five of those times in the book of Hebrews. Why would we not want to find out how the writer of Hebrews did use this word rather than obsess over how Paul did not use the designation Holy Spirit? Let us examine each of the uses of

    (1) In Luke 5:7 it means “partners”, i.e. fellow-fishermen in another boat. One is either a partner in a commercial venture or not. (2) In Heb. 1:9, the Messianic King will experience even greater joy than His companions (supporters). These are individuals who will partake of the King’s reign here upon earth. No argument can be made that these companions are not genuine believers in the King – sharers with Him in His mission and values. (3) In Heb. 3:1, the writer of Hebrews addresses his readers as “holy brothers,” “sharers” (partakers) of a heavenly calling.” There is no indication that these sharers were not really Christians. The description, “holy brothers,” demands that they were. (4) In Heb. 3:14, the writer addresses his readers as “partakers of Christ.” That partaking of Christ is conditioned upon their holding fast “the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.” Once again, there is no evidence that the writer envisioned someone who was not really a Christian. (5) In Heb. 6:4, based upon the evidence we have, a partaker of the Holy Spirit is someone who is a believer, who genuinely partakes of the ministry of the Spirit. (6) In Heb. 12:8 the writer asserts that all believers have become partakers of discipline. There is no indication that this was a shallow, non-genuine participation in discipline.

    To sum up the matter, the most likely meaning of metochos (3353) in Heb. 6:4 is that the people envisioned were genuine partakers of the Holy Spirit. They were fully believers in Christ, and as such, fully partook of, or possessed the Holy Spirit. Every other use of this adjective in the NT suggests a genuine and full participant / partaker in the other person’s activity or ministry, whether on a human level (the fishermen in Luke 5:7; fatherly discipline in Heb. 12:8) or on a human /Divine level (partaking of Christ or the Holy Spirit) (Heb. 1:9; 3:1,14; 6:4).

(4) Those having tasted the good word of God (Heb. 6:5).  
Item Index
     "...and have tasted the good word of God" (Heb. 6:5): Once again, the word for “tasted” is the plural aorist participle of geuomai (1089), “they having tasted” (at a point in time). MacArthur opines that the people addressed had sampled the word of God, but had not eaten (Hebrews, p. 145). But the same objection can be raised. How could the tasting of the good word (hrŕma, 4487) of God in Heb. 6:5 and the tasting of the heavenly gift (of salvation) in Heb. 6:4 be qualitatively different than Jesus’ tasting of death for everyone in Heb. 2:9? If Jesus did not merely sample death, but actually took part in it (Heb. 2:9), why should not the people addressed in Heb. 6:4-6 have actually partaken of the gift of salvation in Heb. 6:4 and have actually partaken of the good word of God in Heb. 6:5? See an examination of all the uses of geuomai (1089) in the NT.

    It makes the most sense, when examining the writer's use of the word geuomai, to conclude that the people in question were actually Christians. They had read the Word of God, listened to it, examined it, and benefited from it. They had previously concluded that, according to the Scriptures, Jesus of Nazareth was actually the Messiah, the Anointed One of Israel.

(5) Those [having tasted] the powers of the coming age (Heb. 6:5).  
Item Index  

     "and (have tasted) the powers of the age to come" (Heb. 6:5): The words "have tasted" or better, "having tasted" do not appear in the original text. But they are understood to be there because the (participial) verb form in the preceding phrase, geuomai, is linked to this phrase with the connective "and" (te). The word “powers” (dunamis, 1411), appears here in the plural. Of the 119 uses in the Greek NT, it appears in the plural 26 times. Of these 26, three refer to the powers of the heavens being shaken in connection with or immediately following the Tribulation (Matt. 24:29; Mark 13:25; Luke 21:26); and two seem to refer to supernatural powers, like angels, whether good or evil (Rom. 8:38; 1 Pet. 3:22). The other uses all indicate miracles being done. Of this remainder, on four occasions “powers” is linked with other miraculous words, such as “signs” and “wonders” (Acts 2:22; 8:13; 2 Cor. 12:12; Heb. 2:4).

    So the people in question in Heb. 6:4-6 had experienced miraculous powers. It does not mean they had performed them. But they were beneficiaries of these powers, just as it is stated in Heb. 2:4. In Heb. 2:3-4 the writer refers to “so great a salvation” that was initially “spoken through the Lord,” then “confirmed to us by those who heard,” (Heb. 2:3) “God also testifying with them, both by signs (sŕmeion, 4592) and wonders (teras, 5059) and by various miracles (dunamis, 1411) and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will” (Heb. 2:4).

    “Having tasted” of these miraculous powers is not meant to serve as an indicator of their having merely sampled the powers without swallowing them. The tasting is just as real and participatory as Christ’s having tasted death for everyone (Heb. 2:9). The writer’s reference to the powers of “the age to come” suggests that, just as JesusFirst Coming was marked by a miracles, so His Second Coming will be marked by miracles also. The age of Christ’s Millennial Kingdom will evidently be characterized by miracles.

(6) Those having fallen away (Heb. 6:6).  
Item Index  

     Heb. 6:6 - "and then have fallen away," better, “and having fallen away”.... The writer has already listed five characteristics of the people under consideration in Heb. 6:4-6. Now he adds a sixth – they have fallen away (the aorist participle of parapipt˘ (3895), used only here in the NT. Far from being a hypothetical “falling away”, this is one of the six characteristics that describe these people. A good article to read in this regard is Παραπεσόντας in Hebrews 6:6, written by John A. Sproule:

The author defends the view that the participle παραπεσόντας in Heb 6:6 must be understood as an adjectival-substantival participle rather than an adverbial participle. As such, the participle cannot be taken as a conditional participle and translated as the protasis of a conditional statement.

The logic is, therefore, that, in the thinking of the author of Hebrews, all six of these characteristics go together. It will not do to take the sixth item (the fifth participle) as a conditional factor to be added on to what is assumed to be true about the five preceding characteristics. In other words, what is understood about one portion of this group under consideration is true of each of them. And if one characteristic is true about these people, all of the other characteristics are true as well. Let us first examine the meaning of the word "have fallen away," parapipt˘, 3895. The word is an aorist participle. The opening two words (in Greek) of Heb. 6:6 should be translated, literally, "and having fallen away." What did the author mean?

    It is impossible to gain a full understanding of parapipt˘ from other NT uses, for this is the only appearance. Its lexical meaning is “literally, fall beside or aside, go astray, become lost; figuratively in the NT of abandoning a former relationship turn away, commit apostasy (Heb. 6:6)” (Friberg Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament).

    Nevertheless, the writer has already introduced this concept under different words. In Heb. 2:1 he stated, “For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. “Drift away” = pararrue˘, 3901, “to flow by, hence slip away” (used only here). Observe that the writer included himself in this warning. In Heb. 3:12 he admonished, “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.” Falls away” = aphistŕmi, 868. Observe that the writer was talking to believers, “brethren.” In Heb. 4:1 he worried, “Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it.” “Come short of it” translates hustere˘, 5302. In Heb. 4:11 he exhorted his readers, “Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.” “Fall” = pipt˘, 4098. Again, he includes himself in the warning.

    So what did the writer have in mind here? First, I believe he was addressing Christians. Second, I believe he was addressing a largely Jewish audience. “Under repeated pressures from their unbelieving fellow Jews they were tempted to give up their Christian profession and to return to their ancestral faith.” (Zane Hodges, Hebrews, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Vol. 2, 779.)

    Comparing Scripture with Scripture, we know that this cannot mean that they are in danger of losing their salvation. The very concept of “eternal life” (John 3:16, 36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:40; 17:3; Acts 13:48; Rom. 6:23; 1 Tim. 1:16; 1 John 5:11, 13) precludes that. So also do the clear statements of Jesus (John 10:24-30) and Paul (Rom. 8:26-39). Zane Hodges (Hebrews, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 795) writes,

Naturally the words “fall away” cannot refer to the loss of eternal life which, as the Gospel of John makes perfectly clear, is the inalienable possession of those who trust Christ for it. But the writer evidently has in mind defection from the faith, that is, apostasy, withdrawal from their Christian profession (cf. Heb. 3:6, 14; 10:23-25, 35-39).

    So what was it the writer of Hebrews feared? He feared that some Christians would revert to Judaism, or in some way deny their confession of faith (Heb. 3:1; 4:14; 10:23). In so doing they would become disqualified for service (1 Cor. 9:27). He feared that many of their works would be burned up so that they would suffer great loss (1 Cor. 3:11-15). And he feared that, like the slave who declined to invest his mina, they would be deprived of serving the King in a meaningful way during His coming Kingdom (Luke 19:20-26; cf. Rev. 2:25-27).    

Conclusion: The writer of Hebrews contemplates a group of people possessing six characteristics. He describes them as (1) those having once been enlightened; (2) those having tasted of the heavenly gift; (3) those having been made partakers of the Holy Spirit; (4) those having tasted of the good word of God; (5) those [having tasted] the powers of the coming age; and (6) those having fallen away.

    The vocabulary, examined in the context of the writer's own use of the words, seems decisively to indicate that the people under consideration are believers, albeit believers tempted to apostatize from their previous confession of faith in Jesus.

    The writer of Hebrews made it very clear from the beginning of his description (in Heb. 6:4-6) in the Greek text (not in the NASB) that it is impossible for those believers who are described in all six of these characteristics 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 ...." What does he mean by "it is impossible ... again to renew to repentance"? The next article seeks to answer that question.

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(Scripture quotation taken from the NASB 1995.)

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Published December 23, 2013

Updated February 26, 2022