The Nature of Apostasy in Hebrews 6

Hebrews 6 has been a challenging passage to interpret for ages. What does it mean to fall away? What is the specific nature of the apostasy? Do majority interpretations do justice to all the features of the text? In this episode, we present a redemptive-historical interpretation of the text, identifying the apostasy as a desire for New Covenant members to revert to the Old Covenant. In effect, such apostates desire to move from the mediation of Christ back to the mediation of Moses and its attendant forms of worship.

11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. 1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits. 4 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, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 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. 7 For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. 9 Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, (Hebrews 5:11–6:11, ESV)

Links

  • Camden Bucey sermon on Hebrews 6:4–8
  • Martin Emmrich, “Hebrews 6: 4–6-again! (A pneumatological inquiry).” Westminster Theological Journal 65, no. 1 (2003): 83–95.

Participants: ,


Christ the Center focuses on Reformed Christian theology. In each episode a group of informed panelists discusses important issues in order to encourage critical thinking and a better understanding of Reformed doctrine with a view toward godly living. Browse more episodes from this program or subscribe to the podcast feed.

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CM

3 weeks ago

Great insight on a tough passage. I would love to hear more though, on how this passage applies to those beyond first century Jews desiring to return to the types and shadows of the Mosaic covenant. If Machen was right in Christianity and Liberalism then “progressing” beyond biblical teaching into Modernism is not really progress at all, but a retrogression to the pagan past. This would seem to be an analogous (Gentile) equivalent to the sub eschatological unbelief found in the book of Hebrews.

Tim Heinen

3 weeks ago

“Messiah Mulligan” — Pastor Bucey, your next book?

Tim Heinen

3 weeks ago

In all seriousness, this was helpful. I think I may need to listen to it over again to better think through some of these things.

Ben Mordecai

3 weeks ago

Brothers, there were many excellent insights in this episode on the passage. What I like about your position is that it arrives organically from the text. Since this is a classic “problem text” for reformed theology, it is especially important that the explanation makes sense within its own context as the most natural explanation for the argument as opposed to merely being an explanation that preserves the system.

One additional thought is concerning the harshness of the illustration the Author of Hebrews uses: Crucifying once again the Son of God and holding him up to contempt. While most of Hebrews views the crucifixion in light of the Old Testament sacrificial system purging sins definitively for his people and purifying the heavenly copies, from the human perspective, when Jesus was crucified it was on the ground that he was a false Messiah and a blasphemer.

If Jesus really were a false Messiah, there would have been valid grounds to crucify him as others were and their movements came to nothing. Just as Gamaliel recognized in Acts 5:36-37, people who falsely exalted themselves had their movements squashed by their executions. The Sanhedrin called for Jesus to be crucified specifically because of their unbelief. They thought that their position would be vindicated by the death of Jesus being the end. So to revert course and return to the Old Covenant is to judge Jesus as a false Messiah and blasphemer, which in essence renders the exact same judgment against him that his enemies did when they crucified him. This explains not only the crucifixion side of Hebrews 6:6, but also the “contempt”.

It is likely that the primary reason that these Hebrew Christians were tempted to revert to Judaism is because of the influence of the Judaizer parties who were dividing the church. They had already endured persecution (Hebrews 10:32-34), which, whether from Jews or Romans, would have ended if they reverted to the Old Covenant. So then, the author probably wants to establish firm theological, biblical grounds for being certain that the Old Covenant must be abandoned in favor of the New Covenant.

So then the Hebrews 6 warnings can integrate very naturally into the thrust of the whole letter. Likewise for us modern, primarily Gentile believers who are not often tempted to revert to Judaism, we can gain helpful warnings about reverting to any regressive soteriological views of all types (Roman Catholicism, Pelagianism, Universalism) as similarly holding the crucified Christ in contempt by rejecting the once-for-all atoing sacrifice of Jesus for our sins.

If in fact the point of the letter is to teach about the relationship of the testaments so that these Christians not be led astray back into the Old Covenant, then the Hebrews 6 warning can be warning those who experience the illumination of the Holy Spirit testifying to them the truthfulness of the gospel and deliberately reject it, just like we see in blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.

Phyllis Speed

2 days ago

I enjoyed your comments and I had not thought of many of the things you brought up. Thank you for taking the time to make your comments, it gives me a lot to think about.

Phyllis Speed

2 days ago

Great program. I’ll be listening to it again. About 10 years ago I came to the same strong hunch that Apollos was the author of Hebrews and on the same basis as you cited. I also came to a conviction that the intended audience were converted Jews because of the content of the letter. It would be strange to be writing that content to Gentiles who converted from paganism. Pagan Gentiles would not have the background to even understand what is being said and it was not an issue for them to revert back to Judaism. I think the Letter of Hebrews was definitely to a converted Jewish audience. It also seemed to me that the danger of reverting back to a prior understanding that is argued against in Hebrews is a reversion back to Judaism. That the intended audience were converted Jews and that the danger warned of was reversion back to Judaism seems clear and convincing to me.

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