Apostasy (6): Unto What?
Reformed Free Publishing Association
The following is the final part, Part Six, in the Apostasy series. Start from the beginning with Part One 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 first three blog posts of this series, 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 these last three 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: UNTO WHAT?
The apostate is doomed: he is doomed because he has tasted and rejected the only way of salvation and because he cannot be restored to repentance. The text underlines the irreversibility of apostasy by placing the word “impossible” at the head of the sentence: “impossible the one having been once enlightened…” From three points of view the recovery of the apostate is impossible.
First, the apostate cannot repent: he cannot be brought to change his mind. The apostate never truly repented in the first place, that is, his repentance was never a true sorrow over sin, never rooted in true faith in Christ. For a time the apostate joined the company of the faithful and penitent, but he always loved his sins: having tasted that Christianity demands a godly life in thanksgiving for grace, he spat out Christ and returned to the world. And now he has neither the will, nor the inclination, nor the power to repent. The apostate does not want to repent, and he can never change his mind to repent.
Second, the church cannot persuade the apostate to repent. For a time the apostate might even come under Christian discipline, but the church has no means to bring him again to repentance. The apostate has rejected the only truth designed to bring sinners to repentance; he rejects Christ, Christ’s blood, and he despises Christ’s Spirit. One who crucifies to himself the Son of God afresh and puts him to an open shame can never repent of such a wicked sin. And the church has no other message: if the gospel will not prevail in the sinner’s heart, nothing else ever will or can. The apostate might join the false church and be told there that all is well with his soul, but he will perish despite what the false church says.
Third, God will not grant repentance to the apostate. That is an awful judgment, but just. God has given the apostate to taste something of the heavenly gift, something of his good word, something of heavenly powers, but the apostate has spat them out into the face of Christ. By the time the apostate has done this, God has hardened the apostate in sin. The apostate has put the Son of God to open shame. God will openly shame the apostate: here is a man who tasted but spat out my Word; now I will spit him out into hell! Better for the apostate that he had never been born! From this we see that the text proves too much for the Arminian. The Arminian believes that a Christian can lose his salvation but regain it; and indeed that a man might be an apostate many times and be restored many times. But the text speaks only of one, final, complete, decisive, irreversible apostasy.
Surely, we need to end on a positive note as well as on a serious warning. We would be untrue to the text if we did not. “But, beloved we are persuaded of better things of you and things that accompany salvation though we thus speak” (v. 9). Why is such a warning necessary and what should we learn from it?
First, we learn that religious experience is not the same as faith. Many emphasize experiences, and the more exalted and exciting the experience the greater is the Christianity. Reformed churches, which put the emphasis on doctrine rather than experience, are dismissed as cold without the Spirit. But a person can have experiences where he is filled with ecstasy, where he is moved to tears, where he has tasted amazing things, but he can still perish. The important thing is faith: we must be rooted and grounded in Jesus Christ.
Second, we learn that warnings are necessary to preserve us in true faith. Sometimes we wonder, if the true saint cannot fall away or be plucked from the Father’s hand, why is a text like this necessary? The answer is: in the way of warning us God keeps us from perishing. We have the capacity to perish; we are prone to wander; the seeds of apostasy are in our flesh, but God preserves us by his Word, even by sharp preaching on texts like this.
Finally, we learn that the preventive to apostasy is growth in grace. That is why the text begins with that word “for.” The context of Hebrews 6 is that the Hebrew Christians were intolerably slow, and really careless and negligent in learning the truth. The writer brings up the subject of apostasy to stir them up more earnestly to grow in grace. These Christians were showing signs of being mere tasters and of being content with the milky first principles of the truth, but without the stomach for the more substantial strong meat of the truth. The person who does not seek to grow in grace by the knowledge of the truth ought most to fear apostasy. Disinterest in and disdain for the truth are always early warning signs of apostasy. Let us heed the warning; let us watch and pray; let us cling to Christ, feed on Christ and grow up into Christ, the only Savior. He will preserve us from apostasy. May God graciously grant it!
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.