This is undoubtedly one of the most controversial and frequently debated passages in all of Scripture. It would not be going too far to say that those who believe a genuine believer can forfeit (or lose) his/her salvation appeal to this passage more often than any other. Read the passage closely.
Who are these people 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 important for us to know because 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.
There are probably a dozen or more interpretive options of this passage that may be found in the commentaries and journal literature. It isn't my purpose to interact with them here. Rather, I am focusing solely on the question of whether the terminology in vv. 4-5 would lead us to conclude that these individuals were born-again, justified, believers.
Are these born-again Christian men and women? If so, the doctrine of eternal security is shattered. Or is it possible for a person to experience some form of spiritual 'enlightenment' and to 'taste' spiritual blessings and to 'partake' of the Holy Spirit and yet never know Jesus in a saving way? I believe the answer to this latter question is Yes. Let me begin by giving six reasons from the book of Hebrews itself why these people are not born-again believers who have apostatized.
First, the situation described in vv. 4-6 is illustrated in vv. 7-8. There we read, 'For ground that drinks the rain which often falls upon it [this drinking of frequent rains refers to the blessings of vv. 4-5: enlightenment, partaking of the HS, tasting spiritual blessings, etc.] 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 [this corresponds to the 'falling away' of v. 6a], it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.'
Rain falls on all kinds of ground, but one cannot tell from that alone what kind of vegetation, if any, will appear. The picture here is not of ground that receives frequent rain, yields life and vegetation, and then loses it. The picture is of two different kinds of ground altogether. One responds to the rain [spiritual blessings and opportunities] by producing bountiful vegetation, while the other is barren, lifeless, and thus condemned. Likewise, people who hear the gospel and respond with saving faith bring forth life. Others, however, who sit in church and hear the truth and are blessed by the ministry of the HS but eventually turn their back on it all are like a field that never yields vegetation and thus comes into judgment.
As Wayne Grudem notes,
"the idea of land that once bore good fruit and now bears thorns is not compatible with this picture. The implication is this: While the positive experiences listed in verses 4-6 do not provide us enough information to know whether the people were truly saved or not, the committing of apostasy and holding Christ up to contempt do reveal the true nature of those who fall away: all along they have been like bad ground that can only bear bad fruit. If the metaphor of the thorn-bearing land explains verses 4-6 (as it surely does), then their falling away shows that they were never saved in the first place" ("Perseverance of the Saints: A Case Study from Hebrews 6:4-6 and the Other Warning Passages in Hebrews," in Still Sovereign, Baker; 156-57).
Second, in 6:9 we read of a significant contrast: 'But beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking this way.' The 'better things' in view are stated in vv. 10-12, things like 'work' and 'love' and 'ministry' and 'diligence' and 'full assurance of hope' and 'faith' and 'patience' and 'inheriting the promises.' These 'things' are 'better' than the experiences of vv. 4-6 precisely because they 'belong to' or 'accompany' salvation. In other words, 'the author says he is confident that most of his readers have better things than the people he described in verses 4-6, and these things are better in that his readers also have things that belong to salvation. This implies that the blessings in verses 4-6 were not things that belong to salvation' (Grudem, 159).
Before going further, let's summarize vv. 7-12. ?'Verses 7-8 describe the people in verses 4-6 as unfruitful land that repeatedly bears thorns and thistles, and thus indicate that they were never saved. Verses 9-12 say that the readers, in general, have better things than the temporary experiences of vv. 4-6, and that those better things include salvation. Therefore both verses 7-8 and verse 9 indicate that the people in verses 4-6 who fell away never had salvation' (Grudem, 160).]
Third, according to Hebrews 3:14 (and 3:6), 'we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.' Note well: he says we 'have become' partakers of Christ, not 'will become' or 'are now partakers,' if we persevere in faith. In other words, holding fast in faith, i.e., persevering, proves that you became a partaker of Christ in the past. Failing to hold fast, i.e., apostatizing from the faith, proves that you never were a partaker of Christ. Apostasy or falling away (6:6a) doesn't mean you once were in and have now fallen out of partaking in Christ. It means you never were or never became a partaker in the first place.
Fourth, we read in Hebrews 10:14 that 'by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.' Here we are told that for those who are now being sanctified (i.e., indwelt by the HS, growing in holiness by faith) 'the offering of Christ on the cross has perfected that person for all time. For all time! In other words to become a beneficiary of the perfecting, justifying work of Christ on the cross is to be perfected in the sight of God forever. This suggests that Hebrews 6:6 does not mean that those who re-crucify Christ were once really justified by the blood of Jesus and were really being sanctified in an inward spiritual sense' (John Piper, Sermon, 5).
Fifth, our author concludes this letter with a prayer relating to the fulfillment in us of the blessings of the New Covenant. He prays that God would 'equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ' (13:20-21). The promise of the new and 'eternal' covenant is that God will put in his people a new heart and cause them to walk in His ways and not turn away from doing them good (see Ezek. 11:19; 36:27; Jer. 24:7; 32:40). Thus, Piper concludes that
"in verse 21 he says that it is not finally dependent on us whether we persevere in faith and bear fruit. It is finally dependent on God: He is working in us that which is pleasing in his sight. He is fulfilling the new covenant promise to preserve us. This means that Hebrews 6:6 would contradict the new covenant if it meant that people could be truly justified members of the new covenant and then commit apostasy and be rejected. That would mean that God did not fulfill his promise to "work in them what is pleasing in his sight.' He would have broken his new covenant promise" (Piper, 5).
Sixth, we must take note not just of what is said of these people in vv. 4-6 but what is not said of them that is usually said of Christians. Typical terms used to describe believers, such as regeneration, conversion, justified, adopted, elect, faith in Jesus, are conspicuous by their absence. This is more than merely an argument from silence when we consider the way Christians are described in the book of Hebrews itself. Here is a listing of what is true of the true believer, all of which are absent from the description of those who apostatize in 6:4-6.
(1) God has forgiven their sins (10:17; 8:12)
(2) God has cleansed their consciences (9:14; 10:22)
(3) God has written his laws on their hearts (8:10; 10:16)
(4) God is producing holiness of life in them (2:11; 10:14; 13:21)
(5) God has given them an unshakable kingdom (12:28)
(6) God is pleased with them (chp. 11; 13:16,21)
(7) They have faith (4:3; 6:12; 10:22,38,39; 12:2; 13:7; etc.)
(8) They have hope (6:11,18; 7:19; 10:23)
(9) They have love (6:10; 10:33-34; 13:1)
(10) They worship and pray (12:28; 13:15; 4:16; 10:22)
(11) They obey God (5:9; 10:36; 12:10,11,14)
(12) They persevere (3:6,14; 6:11; 10:23)
(13) They enter God's rest (4:3,11)
(14) They know God (8:11)
(15) They are God's house, his children, his people (3:6; 2:10,13; 8:10)
(16) They share in Christ (3:14)
(17) They will receive future salvation (1:14; 7:25; 5:9; 9:28).
Someone might object by saying: "O.K., typical descriptions of the saved are not found in 6:4-6, but neither are typical descriptions of the lost found there either!" Grudem responds: "I agree that the phrases [in 6:4-6] alone do not match the author's descriptions of the lost, and they do not indicate that these people are lost (before they commit apostasy). But that is just the point: Before they commit apostasy their spiritual status is uncertain. It remains to be seen whether they are among the saved or the lost. They have not yet given decisive indications either way. That is the reason the author warns them not to turn away - they are still at a point where a decision to be among the saved or the lost must be made"(171).
What about the terms used in 6:4-5 (enlightenment, tasting, partakers, etc.)? On the one hand, it is certainly the case that all Christians experience these realities. But do only Christians experience them? Or is it possible for these experiences also to be true of people who have been repeatedly exposed to the gospel and to the benefits it brings, yet without personally embracing the person of Christ as Lord and Savior? Let's look at each one in turn.
They have 'once been enlightened' - Have true Christians been 'enlightened'? Yes. But this term need mean no more than to hear the gospel, to learn or to understand. "Certainly such intellectual understanding of the facts of the gospel is an important step toward saving faith, but it does not itself constitute the element of personal trust in Christ that is essential to faith" (Grudem, 142-43). All of us know people, perhaps family members, who have been repeatedly exposed to the truth of the gospel, understand what it means, can articulate the claims of Christ with incredible precision, yet refuse to put their trust in Him as Lord and Savior. Thus, whereas all true Christians have been enlightened, not all those who are enlightened are true Christians.
They have 'tasted of the heavenly gift' and 'the good word of God' and 'the powers of the age to come' - This certainly points to a genuine spiritual experience. But must we conclude that it was a genuine saving experience' These are not strangers to the gospel or to the church. These are people who have come under conviction of the HS, who have experienced some degree of blessing both through common grace and through their close, intimate contact with genuine believers. Perhaps they have been healed. Perhaps a demon has been cast out. They have heard the Word of God and have come to taste and feel and enjoy something of its power and beauty and truth. They have felt the 'wooing' of the HS and have seen great and wonderful things in the body of Christ. Those in Matthew 7:22-23 preached, prophesied, performed miracles, and cast out demons in Christ's name . . . but were not saved. Jesus said to them: 'I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers' (v. 23). These, then, 'have tasted' the power and blessings of the new covenant, but they have not personally prized, cherished, embraced, loved, trusted, treasured, or savored the atoning death of Jesus as their only hope for eternal life.
They have been made 'partakers of the Holy Spirit' - Whereas the word translated 'partaker' can certainly refer to a saving participation in Christ (cf. Heb. 3:14), it can also refer to a looser association or participation. See Luke 5:7; Heb. 1:9 ('comrades' or 'companions'). These people had in some way come to share in some aspect of the HS and his ministry. But in what way? Must we conclude that it was a "saving way"? Why does our author not use terminology that would put the question of their spiritual status to rest, such as 'filled with' or 'baptized in' or 'indwelt by' the Holy Spirit'
They have in some sense 'repented' - There is a "sorrow for sins" and a turning from them that even non-believers can experience. This is clear from Heb. 12:7 and the reference to Esau, as well as the 'repentance' of Judas Iscariot in Mt. 27:3. Paul refers to a repentance 'without regret that leads to salvation,' the implication being that there is a repentance that does not lead to salvation. As with 'belief' and 'faith', so too with 'repentance,' we must always distinguish between what is substantial and saving, on the one hand, and what is spurious on the other.
Wayne Grudem provides this helpful summation:
"What has happened to these people? They are at least people who have been affiliated closely with the fellowship of the church. They have had some sorrow for sin and a decision to forsake their sin (repentance). They have clearly understood the gospel and given some assent to it (they have been enlightened). They have come to appreciate the attractiveness of the Christian life and the change that comes about in people's lives because of becoming a Christian, and they have probably had answers to prayers in their own lives and felt the power of the Holy Spirit at work, perhaps even using some spiritual gifts (they have become 'associated with' the work of the Holy Spirit or have become partakers of the Holy Spirit and have tasted the heavenly gift and the powers of the age to come). They have been exposed to the true preaching of the Word and have appreciated much of its teachings (they have tasted the goodness of the Word of God). These factors are all positive, and people who have experienced these things may be genuine Christians. But these factors alone are not enough to give conclusive evidence of any of the decisive beginning stages of the Christian life (regeneration, saving faith and repentance unto life, justification, adoption, initial sanctification). In fact, these experiences are all preliminary to those decisive beginning stages of the Christian life. The actual spiritual status of those who have experienced these things is still unclear" (153).
I conclude that the people described in 6:4-5 who, according to v. 6, 'fall away' are not now and never were born-again believers. They are not Christians who have 'lost' their salvation.
I believe the spiritual state and experience of those described in Hebrews 6:4-6 is virtually identical to that of the first three of four soils in the parable of the sower (see Matthew 13:3-23; Mark 4:1-9; Luke 8:4-15). In that parable, only the fourth soil is called 'good' and subsequently bears fruit. The other three represent those who hear the gospel and respond with varying degrees of understanding, interest, and joy, none of which, however, bear fruit that would testify of genuine spiritual life. That is to say, they experienced 'enlightenment' and 'tasted' the goodness and power of the ministry of the Spirit and the blessings of the kingdom, yet turned their back on the truth when trials, troubles, or temptations came their way. Their apostasy was proof of the falsity of their initial 'faith' (see esp. John 8:31; Heb. 3:6,14; 1 John 2:19).