Impossible: Hebrews 6:1-12

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The Bible is wondrously simple. Often there’s no need to return to its original languages for clarification, although tools like the BLB Searches box on the right sidebar of blbclassic.org’s homepage or a physical lexicon or concordance make fascinating and enlightening study even for those with no or little understanding of foreign tongues such as I. Every so often, however, the Bible reflects the complexities of the Spirit who engendered it. Hebrews 6:1-12 is a case in point. Passages like this put me off for years, but I’m finally ready to tackle the first section in Hebrews which gave me pause.

Scholars disagree about which human agent wrote this book, so I defer to their disunity and will refer to the human author anonymously, even though I think it’s Paul. In the New American Standard Bible (NASB) translation, Chapter 6 starts, “Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.” It’s a pretty comprehensive list, and the word for “leaving” is aphiemi, which depicts shocking division such as divorce and death. Hebrews’s writer warns that he’s completely abandoning “the elementary teaching about the Christ” and pressing us “on to maturity.” His language indicates that the task ahead will be lofty, burdensome, unconnected to the topics he’s left in his dust and possible only with the aid of God (verse 3).

Before proceeding, then, please join me in asking for His help in understanding what lies before us.

The NASB dives into our topic a bit more gently than the King James Version (KJV):

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, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 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. 

The NASB passage above palatably sandwiches the same statement in verses (vs.) 4-6 which in the KJV’s verse (v). 4 opener is like biting a rock: “For it is impossible”.

Ouch. I don’t like impossibilities. I’ve even told my kids that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37), so for Christ-followers the word “impossible” doesn’t exist. Yet here it is in Hebrews, and lacking the operative “with God” that makes all things possible (Matthew 19:26).

In Matthew 19:25-26, Jesus says that salvation is impossible without God, and the first question in our Hebrews passage seems to be, are we talking about salvation? According to the Hebrew author’s lengthy list of excluded topics, it would seem not. The writer says we’re only discussing the narrow case of those who have been “enlightened,” translated photizo, which definitely includes the idea of light. It does not definitely include “salvation” in any of its 11 New Testament (NT) uses. Geuomai is our next word of interest and means, “to taste (i.e. perceive the flavour of, partake of, enjoy), to try the flavour of), to feel, make trial of, experience; to take food, eat, to take nourishment, eat.” It’s used 15 times in the NT, 3 of those in Hebrews, and makes a stronger but still unconvincing case that our Hebrews 6 passage is discussing salvation even though geuomai is paired with “the heavenly gift” translated “epouranios dorea.” Gift, or dorea occurs 11 times in the NT, but when referring to salvation it is used with such verbs as “gave,” “receive,” “poured out” or “knew,” not merely “tasted.”

Ginomai, similar to geuomai and italicized in the phrase “have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit,” lends by far the most credence to the argument that salvation is being discussed in this passage–if not for the heftier contrary evidence before and after it. Variants of ginomai occur 678 times in the NT and can mean many things both literal and figurative, whereas “partakers” in the phrase above is metochos which occurs 6 times in the NT (5 in Hebrews alone) and has 2 meanings: “sharing in, partaking” and “a partner (in a work, office, dignity).” Three of the 5 Hebrews appearances (3:1, 14; 6:4) do seem to indicate a more permanent relationship similar to that of salvation.

V. 5 offers 2 of the last qualifiers: “and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come”. “Tasted” is geuomai again. “Good word” is simply kalos rhema, the generic sense of something good with the generic sense of something spoken. Both words are used many times in the NT. “Powers” is dynamis meaning physical or moral force, and “age” is aion meaning “for ever, an unbroken age, perpetuity of time, eternity; the worlds, universe; period of time, age.” Both words are used a lot in the NT. “To come” is mello, conveying something that will happen in the near or distant future.

V. 6 offers the final qualifier: “and then have fallen away (emphasis not mine).” This phrase is translated parapipto which means “to fall beside a person or thing or to slip aside as in to deviate from the right path, turn aside, wander; to error; to fall away (from the true faith): from worship of Jehovah”. In the entire NT, parapipto occurs only once: in our passage.

It’s bad practice to develop any doctrine from a single verse. Our passage dangles from a single word. Parapipto is the last qualifier in a string of others that all must be met for the outcome. Some commentators believe such preposterousness signifies impossibility: with all its ifs, the theoretical case study in vs. 4-6 could never happen in reality to anyone. I’m inclined to agree. Is it simply a warning, then? “Hey, Christian, you’re eying a really dangerous bunny trail. I’m sure you won’t, but if you did go down it, you’d hate the destination. Like forever.”  

The consequence of such an incredible theoretical action is eternal punishment. A rationale for this severe judgement is in the NASB’s middle third of v. 6: “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance”. “Impossible” is adynatos: literally, without power. It occurs ten times in the NT and always refers to something that is impossible—without God. As you might guess, our previously cited Matthew 19:26 is among this ten, along with the parallel gospel passages of Mark 10:27 and Luke 18:27. In the majority of the ten vs., God makes the impossible possible.

This is a key concept, along with the phrase, “to renew them again,” translated anakainizo. Like parapipto, it is used in the entire NT only once: in this verse. We’re now on even shakier theological ground, but anakainizo means “to renew, renovate” and is derived from kainos meaning “recently made, fresh, recent, unused, unworn” or “of a new kind, unprecedented, novel, uncommon, unheard of.” The definition is a good summary of this passage. “Again” is palin, which combined with anakainizo in “to renew them again to repentance” results in a lot of emphasis on “again”: to again make new again to repentance. Does this, too, point to the impossibility of the situation? “Repentance” is metanoia, appearing 24 times in the NT and generally referring to the repentance leading to salvation. In v. 1 of Hebrews 6, however, it occurs in the phrase “repentance from dead works,” which I believe is essential to a correct interpretation of this difficult passage.

The writer argues that the impossibility of renewal to repentance is justified “since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.” As you might expect by this time, the phrase “again crucify” (anastauroo) occurs only in this passage. By now, I’m pretty much unwilling to accept a reading of this passage which contradicts many other established passages when it so sorely lacks precedence, and but here’s another abnormality: “put Him to open shame” is paradeigmatizo, used only one other time to describe what Joseph wished to avoid by exposing Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus. It’s a unique, interesting parallel to ponder.

Hebrews’s author offers a word picture of his argument in vs. 7-8: “For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.” “Blessing” contrasts with “close to being cursed,” a fate the ground escapes, though it ends up being “burned,” translated kausis: another word occurring only this once in the entire NT.

Burning destroys what’s on the ground, not the ground itself. For this and the preceding reasons, I believe our passage does not treat salvation but the fruit of it: works. Its author anchors this in the concluding vs., assuring those who have stuck with him through his challenging teaching that they will not suffer the fate he warns them about:

But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way. 10 For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints. 11 And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you will not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

The author is sure of better things concerning his readers, “things that accompany salvation,” because the things he’s described don’t. He notes his readers’ works and encourages them to keep working “so as to realize the full assurance of hope until they end” that they may “through faith and patience inherit the promises.” V. 12 would be the perfect place to emphasize his point about losing salvation–if that was his point.

I believe the crux of our passage is that those who are truly saved will produce good fruit. Slacking in works results in missing out on “the full assurance of hope” and failing to “inherit the promises.” Fruitless Christians will live more hopeless lives and receive fewer to no rewards even after death, but Hebrews 6:1-12 is not about anyone losing anyone’s salvation. Trying to prove that from these vs. would be very difficult. I would almost say impossible.

Greek translations and lexicon from the KJV (King James Version) of  The Blue Letter Bible

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB (New American Standard Bible) Copyright by The Lockman Foundation http://www.lockman.org

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