Preservation and Perseverance: Part VI

leatherbook.jpg“The differences between God honoring, Bible believing denominations is which parts of the Bible they choose not to believe.”

That is an excerpt from one of the comments on the first post in this series on the doctrines of the preservation and perseverance of the saints. To be quite honest, I’m not sure I am quite that pessimistic about the possibility of a cogent theological paradigm that handles all of the relevant texts well. I desperately want not only to believe all of the biblical texts, but I also to be optimistic that all of the texts can be accounted for on this issue in a way that respects the meaning and context of all of the relevant texts.

I think it might be better to say that the best theological paradigm is the one that best accounts for all the texts and respects each one of them by refusing to twist them to fit a given paradigm. Of course, a paradigm should not be consider “settled” if it does not account well for all the texts. The Calvinistic paradigm as a whole, for example (in my opinion), should not be viewed as entirely settled because, as it stands, it probably does not account for all of the texts particularly well. I do think it is the paradigm that comes closest, by far, to achieving this end, but it is by no means perfect. It certainly still needs work, careful thought, and nuancing. Nevertheless, I tend to think that the doctrine of the preservation of the saints, as a stand-alone doctrine, is admirable in its ability to account for all the relevant texts.

Invariably, the “warning passages” (or “apostasy passages,” depending on who you’re talking to) of Hebrews are brought in to argue against the doctrine of the preservation of the saints. Often times, Hebrews 6:4-6 is raised as the exemplary, and most difficult conundrum, of the six or seven disputed passages in Hebrews. This is the passage I want to deal with here:

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”

Now, first of all, what is baffling about the Arminian interpretation of this passage is the lack of explanation of how it is, if genuinely apostasized believers are in view, that they cannot possibly return to God through repentance. This passage seems to rule out the return of the offenders (whomever they may be), which does not square with the classic Arminian understanding that one is able genuinely to fall from grace, but to return again if repentance is sought and faith is exerted. So, whatever else we say about this passage, it seems that it cannot possibly be referring to an average backsliding or apostasizing Christian, who is fully capable of returning to Christ should he so choose.

So the question, then, is: In what circumstance is saving repentance impossible?

Those in view in this passage are those who have “tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.” It is important to see that these are not necessarily (perhaps not even probably) descriptions of genuine believers. It’s difficult to know exactly how the author of Hebrews intends these words, because we cannot compare his vocabulary with other letters he has written, this being his sole contribution to the New Testament. Nevertheless, words like these are interesting choices, since they tend to denote sampling rather than full partaking and participation.

For example, the word rendered “tasted” in vv. 4 and 5 is the Greek word geuomai, which means “to have perception of something either by mouth or by experience, especially in reference to a relatively small quantity” (BDAG). Again, we cannot know exactly what Hebrews means by this word because we can’t compare it with much, but this hardly seems like a description of a genuinely Christian experience.

I tend to think that the best reading of the passage then, is that those in view are people who have been a part of the Christian community, who have witnessed the benefits and change brought by the gift of salvation, who have experienced some of the benefits of Spirit-filled Christian community, who have sampled some of the effects of the goodness of the Word of God, and yet in not genuinely accepting Christ, they have, perhaps, slided into a slow process of indifference and hardening of heart and eventually they fall away and reject Christ, putting him to open shame and eventually find it impossible truly to repent due to their hardness and callousness of heart.

Of course, everyone needs to decide for themselves whether this is a fair reading of the text, but it seems to me that it is the reading that makes best sense of the entire passage. If so, then the passage does not speak of genuine believers and is therefore irrelevant to the discussion of the doctrine of eternal security.


5 thoughts on “Preservation and Perseverance: Part VI”

  1. Hey B,
    Good post. I actually think there are other passages that help us understand Hebrews 6. I believe it is one form of the blasphemy of the Spirit Jesus spoke about (Mark 3). I just preached on it last week, and if you’re interested I can send you the link.

  2. PB,

    Excellent post.

    I most certainly agree that we must strive to have a theology that does not neglect any part of Scripture (Tota Scriptura). And it most certainly is possible. Such a view forces us to admit when pre-suppositions and Traditions are being read into God’s word.

    I placed that quote in the context I did because I happen to think that most Arminians (The FWB’s in particular, for whom I can speak) are seeking to be Bible Believing,and God Honoring Christians in the way they interpret Scripture. However, their pre-suppositions force an unnatural hermeneutic on passages such as Romans 9, Ephesians 1, etc, that would never be used on other parts of scripture. This change in hermeneutic points to a Tradition that is being upheld at the expense of sound exegesis.

    I expect the author of that quote had a similar thought in mind.


  3. PB,

    You give us a great example of sound exegesis in this article. Thank you.

    “…it seems to me that it is the reading that makes best sense of the entire passage. If so, then the passage does not speak of genuine believers and is therefore irrelevant to the discussion of the doctrine of eternal security.”

    Do you think in addition it also could be taken as a pastoral warning with the intent of making us take our perseverance seriously?

    –sorry I’m posting follow-ups on an article 5 days old, I haven’t been able to keep up lately.


  4. I wish this series was more convincing. I do appreciate the hard work putting it together however.

    Theologically and biblically, I think the Calvinists have it right with “P”.

    YET, empirically, with real-life observation and data, the Arminians look to have it right with not-P.

    Here’s the example that’s difficult to address: Suppose a baptized Christian who’s done a tremendous amount of *fruitful* ministry (which other mature Christians will attest to) completely abandons the faith 10 years before his/her death and never returns or repents. Let’s say s/he actually becomes a militant atheist or militant pagan and does not persevere at all.

    Saved or not saved??? Was this person a Christian to begin with?

    This 6-part series has not addressed this *empirical* scenario. It has addressed the biblical passages and the logic behind the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. But nada on the empirical data.

  5. Truth,

    I know exactly where you are coming from.

    My thoughts in no particular order: (by “we” I think I’m referring to popular evangelicalism)

    1). We’ve made a sacrament of the sinner’s prayer
    2). Accountability for discipleship has almost no priority
    3). Church discipline is not practiced
    4). It is almost considered heresy to say things like “Examine yourself to see that you are in the faith” or “Work to make your calling and election sure”

    However, Christ does make it clear in the parable of the sower that there will be those who have all the appearance of salvation, yet fall away because the roots are not deep enough. Ultimately, something else was more important, acting the christian was a facade.

    Being raised a pretty strict Arminian, I still get the heebie jeebies when eternal security (I still don’t like that phrase) is preached with no mention of the need to persevere.

    /end stream of consciousness


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