Apostasy (4): From What?
Reformed Free Publishing Association
The following is Part Four in the Apostasy series. Read the last section, Part Three, here.
“For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame” (Hebrews 6:4-6).
In the last three blog posts, we examined Hebrews 10:26-29, one of the apostasy passages of the epistle to the Hebrews. Perhaps even better known is Hebrews 6:4-6, the subject of this series of blog posts. It, too, describes apostasy. If Hebrews 10:26-29 describes fearful apostasy, Hebrews 6:4-6 emphasizes that such fearful apostasy is irreversible. The apostate, warns the writer to the Hebrews, cannot be recovered from his sin. That, too, makes apostasy a uniquely fearful sin.
APOSTASY: FROM WHAT?
The text speaks about falling away. Before we look at what falling away means, we must first identify from what the apostate falls away. The text describes the apostate in terms of his experiences and privileges. The apostate falls from enlightenment (“those who were once enlightened”—verse 4). Enlightenment or illumination is to give light or knowledge by teaching. Man as a sinner is dark, ignorant, blind and foolish. He must be enlightened. The apostate in the text received a certain kind of enlightenment. First, he has been intellectually enlightened with natural light. But, second, the enlightenment of the apostate goes beyond the light of nature: he has by the preaching and by the work of the Holy Spirit come to a knowledge of God, Christ and salvation. He has heard and even enjoyed hearing the preaching; and the preaching has had an emotional effect upon him.
The rest of the text further explains this enlightenment. The phrase “once enlightened” is the key of the text determining everything else. The other phrases in verses 4-5 are subordinate to “enlightened,” They are a further description of the enlightenment. They answer the question: “How or in what manner were these people enlightened?” We could even translate it this way: “those who were once enlightened by tasting, by being made partakers, by tasting …”
The apostate has tasted and been made a partaker of certain privileges, things which the common unbeliever has not tasted. These privileges can only be tasted in the church and can only be repudiated by leaving the church and a profession of Christianity. An apostate has to be a professing Christian before he apostatizes. The three things that the apostate tastes are the heavenly gift, the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come. That the gift is heavenly stresses its origin and its nature and, therefore, the seriousness of despising it. It is a gift from heaven. This is the Holy Spirit as he is pleased to operate in the church and among believers. The good word of God is the word uttered in the preaching of the gospel. The apostate has not merely heard it, but has for a time “tasted” it. The powers of the world to come are powerful operations of the Holy Spirit either working on the apostate, worked by the apostate, or witnessed by the apostate. Very likely the apostate received some of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, whether miraculous or ordinary, and exercised them in the church.
Moreover, the apostate was made a partaker of the Holy Ghost. The apostate was made to share in the operations of the Holy Spirit who worked in him, but he did not graciously indwell the apostate or regenerate him. We must understand there are ways in which the Holy Spirit works in a person, even giving supernatural gifts and abilities but without grace and without salvation. Canons 3-4.9 says that God “calls men by the gospel and confers upon them various gifts.” Therefore the apostate was not merely one who attended some worship services: he was a member, maybe even an officebearer; he was baptized, made confession of faith, worshiped with the congregation, but he rejected it all.
These things the apostate has tasted. There is a difference between tasting and eating. To taste is to try something to see what it is like. Your taste buds will determine if it is sweet, sour, bitter or salty; and then, depending on its taste, you will swallow it or spit it out. Perhaps you have seen that with a professional wine taster. He will take a small sip of wine; he will swirl it around in his mouth and enjoy it for a few moments but he will not drink it or swallow it; he will spit it out; rinse his mouth with water and try another wine. That is what the apostate does with the privileges of the gospel: with the heavenly gift; with God’s good word, and with the powers of the world to come.
Therefore the taster of the good things of the gospel comes very close to salvation but is never saved; and although he has religious experiences, he never believes, never repents and never truly possesses Christ. The apostate will say after he leaves the church, “I tried the gospel of Christ. I tasted it. For a while I enjoyed the Christian experience, but I spat it out and now I want nothing more to do with Christ.” A person who simply tastes food might receive some refreshment, a pleasant sensation for a while but no lasting benefit. It would be better for the apostate that he had never tasted the gospel than having tasted it to turn away from Christ and spit him out as a piece of gum which has lost its flavor. There is no greater sin than this!
This text has always been used by the Roman Catholic, the Arminian, and by the men of the Federal Vision to teach that a true Christian can lose salvation, and the text has troubled some believers because it seems to describe true believers who perish. But, although the description of the apostate seems similar to the description of a true saint, the apostate is not at all the same as the true saint.
First, there is the contrast with verse 9. In verses 4-6 the writer addresses the church with some sobering and frightening words, but in verse 9 he reassures the reader, “But, beloved, we are persuaded of better things concerning you.” Notice that in verse 9 the writer identifies these “better things” as “things that accompany salvation.” Therefore, whatever the “things” of our text might be, they are not the things that accompany salvation. The privileges and the operations of the Holy Spirit, which the apostate has for a time and which he repudiates, are things that fall below salvation. They come very close to mimicking salvation, but they are not salvation itself.
Furthermore, the writer to the Hebrews does not use any language in our text that speaks unambiguously of the blessings of salvation. He does not speak of people elected unto salvation; redeemed by the blood of Christ or regenerated by the Holy Spirit (but only “enlightened and tasted”). He does not say that these apostates were in union with Christ, that they were justified or sanctified; he does not speak about adoption, washing, cleansing or the forgiveness of sins. Indeed, he writes of tasting of the heavenly gift, of the good word of God and of the powers of the world to come. These are certainly great privileges, but they fall short of eternal life. From the former one might fall away, but not from the latter.
In addition, the text is explained by the verses that follow it. The apostate and the true saint are described in terms of two fields. The same rain falls upon both fields: the rain is a symbol of the Holy Spirit working by the Word of God through the preaching. Both fields receive the rain: the apostate “tastes” the rain and brings forth thorns and briars; the saint “drinks in” the rain and brings forth herbs. One field is rejected, nigh unto cursing and its end is to be burned; the other field receives blessing from God (vv. 7-8). The point is that the apostate is not a field that was once blessed, but then is cursed. The point is that the apostate never brought forth herbs, but only thorns and briars. The apostate was always cursed; he was reprobate. Never does a true saint become an accursed apostate; the one who is an apostate was never a true believer. However, the apostate had the same outward privileges: the same preaching, the same sacraments; and therefore the apostate has greater responsibility than the one who was never a member of the church. The apostate tastes and despises the heavenly gift, but is never regenerated; the apostate tastes and despises the good word of God, but is never justified; the apostate tastes and despises the powers of the world to come, but is never adopted and made an heir of eternal life; and the apostate is made a partaker of certain operations of the Holy Spirit and despises him, but is never sanctified.
Read the next section, Part Five, here.
Martyn McGeown is a pastor in the Protestant Reformed Churches. He is also the editor of the RFPA blog and the author of multiple RFPA publications.