Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Prone to wander

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I'm constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for thy courts above.
Q&A by Ra McLaughlin:

Hebrews 6:4-6 seems to teach that people who have strayed from their faith cannot be saved. Also, in C.H. Spurgeon's book When Christ Returns, Spurgeon assigns the following interpretation to Matthew 16:28: "This verse may well have been aimed directly at those followers who would defect from the faith, grasp at the world, endeavour to save their lives but really lose them, and barter their souls."

Can someone truly be a Christian, lose his/her faith over a period of years, and then become a Christian again? Can you get back on right terms with God, or do you just have to hope that God will, in his own time, have mercy on you and take you back into his family?


The Bible teaches that once you are saved you cannot lose your salvation. There are many, many arguments and proofs for this doctrine, including:

1. Christians are predestined not just to initial salvation but to eternal salvation (Acts 13:47-48; Rom. 8:28-30; 9:18-24; Eph. 1:3-14; 1 Thess. 5:9-10).
2. Christ's death secured salvation for those for whom he died (Heb. 9:11-15).
3. Justification (being declared righteous and forgiven by God) cannot be lost or revoked (Rom. 5:8-10,15-19; 8:1-4,9-11,29-30; Heb. 9:11-12).
4. The saved/elect are given to Christ as a permanent possession (John 6:35-40; 10:25-29).
5. The saved/elect are kept secure in Christ by God (John 6:35-40; 10:25-29; Rom. 8:28-39; 1 Cor. 1:4-9; 2 Cor. 4:13-14; Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30; Phil. 1:6; 3:20-21; Col. 3:3-4; 1 Thess. 5:23-24; 1 Pet. 1:3-5; 1 John 2:19; 5:4; Jude 1,24-25).
6. Eternal life begins at conversion, and by definition may never end (John 3:14-16,36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:35-40,44-58; 10:25-29; 17:1-3; 20:31; Rom. 6:22-23; 1 Tim. 6:12; Heb. 9:15; 1 John 5:11-13,20).
7. God is sovereign in salvation, his will must be accomplished, and he wills the perseverance of the saints (Job 42:1-2; Isa. 14:24,27; 46:8-11; Matt. 18:12-14; John 6:35-40).

The passages you mention, as well as others, sometimes cause people to think that salvation can be lost, or they cause people to think that they may never have been saved in the first place. While it is impossible to lose salvation, this second problem is not impossible. Some people we think are saved really are not saved.

Matthew 16:28, contrary to Spurgeon, does not refer to anybody perishing eternally. Rather, it is a simple statement by Jesus that the things of which he spoke would transpire within the lifetimes of some of those who were listening to him at the time.

Hebrews 6:4-6 is much more troublesome. To many, this passage appears to be teaching that a person can lose his salvation, and then can never regain it. In fact, even though this passage talks about partaking of the Holy Spirit and tasting of the heavenly gift, it isn't talking about people who are saved. As Hebrews 6:9 says, "But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way." That is, even though the author speaks in this threatening way, he means his words to apply to those in the church who are not saved and who then despise Christ, not to those who are saved. Of those who are saved, he expects "better things...things that accompany salvation."

The things which this passage mentions that sound like salvation (e.g. tasting the heavenly gift and the good word, partaking of the Holy Spirit, etc.) may not only legitimately describe believers, but also unbelievers within the church. Unbelievers in the church hear the Word of God preached, see it in action in the lives of believers, and even benefit from the spiritual gifts of the believers in the church as these believers minister to them. They experience firsthand the good things of God manifested in the church, but nevertheless are not saved. As John writes in 1 John 2:19: "They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us."

This still leaves the us with the question: "What happens to an unbeliever who is part of the church, experiences these good things, and then rejects Christianity? Can such a person be saved?" I believe the answer is yes.

First of all, the Bible teaches that there is only one unforgivable sin, namely blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:31-32). All other sins will be represented and forgiven among those who are saved - including blasphemy against Christ. Since sin against Christ is in view in Hebrews 6:4-6 (e.g. they crucify to themselves the Son of God and put him to shame), and not blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, this sin must be forgivable. Therefore, those who commit this sin can repent and be forgiven.

Why then does the passage say it is impossible to renew these people to repentance? There are a couple possible solutions to this dilemma. First, it is entirely legitimate to translate the latter part of Hebrews 6:6 as the NRSV does: "since...they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt." This translation (which is actually closer to the original Greek) states that these people cannot be renewed to repentance because of what they are doing, not because of what they have done. That is, they cannot repent while they are still in the midst of this sin. Further, the sin in question does not seem to be a passive state of remaining away from the faith, but rather an active state of continually and publicly despising Christ. The text says nothing of these sinners' ability to repent once they cease from such sinful activity.

Second, looking back to Hebrews 6:1-3, we find that verses 4-6 appear as an explanation of why the author is not going to "lay again a foundation of repentance." The author was not going to write about the need for repentance and conversion because it would not have persuaded those particular unsaved individuals in the church(es) to which this letter was written. It would not have persuaded them because they already knew the message and actively disdained it. This refusal to teach about repentance "again" is very similar to Jesus' instruction to his disciples that they give up and move on when they encountered people who would not receive the gospel (Matt. 10:14; Mark 6:11; Luke 9:5; 10:11). Paul and Barnabas also set such an example (Acts 13:51). Thus, the purpose of the passage is not to show that these unbelievers cannot repent, but rather that preaching to them will not bring them to repentance. However, this does not mean that these unbelieves will never reach a point in their lives when they will be open to the gospel and repent upon hearing it.
Another Q&A by Ra McLaughlin on blasphemy against the Holy Spirit:
Jesus taught that every kind of sin may be forgiven except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-29; Luke 12:10). That is, if anyone blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, that person demonstrates that he or she is not among the elect — that person will never be saved ("a tree is recognized by its fruit"; Matt. 12:33). But what exactly is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? How can we know if we have committed this unforgivable sin?

The general idea of “blasphemy” is "speaking impiously," "slandering," or "using abusive language." Jesus warned the Pharisees that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit was unpardonable both in this age and in the next (Mt 12:32; Mk 3:29-30) in response to their insistence that he exorcised demons by being in league with Satan (Beelzebub). By denying that the Holy Spirit was the power behind the exorcism, attributing that power to Satan, the Pharisees spoke against the Holy Spirit. On this basis, theologians have commonly understood blasphemy of the Holy Spirit to be “attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan or other demonic forces.”

Even this definition, however, needs refining. In responding to the Pharisees, Jesus also made the point that the work he did was obviously from the Holy Spirit (according to the logic of his argument in Matt. 12:25-29 and Mark 3:23-27). There was no reasonable explanation for the exorcism other than the power of the Holy Spirit, and this should have been evident to all. The Pharisees rejection of the Holy Spirit was thus informed and willful; they had not simply made a mistake. Speaking from the evil of their hearts (Matt. 12:34-35), they had intentionally blasphemed what they knew to be the power of the Holy Spirit.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is informed and intentional, motivated by evil. Because it is unforgivable, it cannot be committed by a Christian, or even by someone who is not yet a Christian but who later will come to faith. A college professor, who, while knowing the truth about God, dedicates his career to turning away young adults from the Christian worldview, would be a modern example.

Even so, sincere Christians sometimes fear that they, in an unguarded moment, have blasphemed the Holy Spirit. Usually, these people have simply misunderstood the nature of such blasphemy, or have misjudged their own actions. In any event, since the reprobate (those who will never come to faith) cannot feel true remorse for their sin (cf. Acts 11:18), Christians who fear that they may have committed this unpardonable sin generally show by their very anxiety and remorse that they have not done so.


  1. Patrick is RA McLaughlin a good exegete

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  3. "That is, they cannot repent while they are still in the midst of this sin."

    That is like saying they can not repent while they are not repenting. But the passage says they can never repent.

    Also the last sentence said that the reprobate can not show true remorse for their sins, but Judas clearly showed remorse when he hanged himself.

    I think the passage means exactly what it says, if one denies christ after knowing the true about him, he can never come back, even if he may want to come back very badly.

  4. Rach said:

    I think the passage means exactly what it says, if one denies christ after knowing the true about him, he can never come back...

    I think that's more or less true.

    ...even if he may want to come back very badly.

    But I don't think this is true. For, by definition, one who intentionally and continuously denies or rejects Christ does not want to come back to him.

    However, the Lord Jesus Christ said in John 6:37b: "whoever comes to me I will never cast out."

    Here's Craig Keener on Heb 6:6: "But as some writers have pointed out, this verse refers to intentional apostasy, not a single sin or drifting away that can be addressed by repentance; drifting away may be covered under Jas 5:19–20...The point here is not that God does not accept the repentant, but that some hearts become too hard to consider repenting, because they refuse to acknowledge Christ, the only means of repentance. By willfully choosing the kind of belief that nailed Jesus to the cross, they accept responsibility again for killing him."

    Also, here's David Peterson on Heb 6:4–6: "More specifically, the writer has in view those who see clearly where the truth lies, conform to it for a while, and then, for various reasons, renounce it. Continuance is the test of reality. Those who persevere are the true saints and a passage like this will be used by God to sustain them in faith."

  5. Patrick,

    what you have written out is sound thinking here.

    The problem, as I see it is only those who have the Holy Spirit will be able to understand it.

    Would you give it your best shot exegetically with regard to Heb. 6:3?


  6. Natamllc said:

    Would you give it your best shot exegetically with regard to Heb. 6:3?

    Unfortunately, I don't have anything to offer. Sorry about that. But hopefully this will be helpful:

    "[T]he 'Hebrews' were exposed to a subtle danger which could not be experienced by converts from paganism. If a convert from Christianity gave up Christianity and reverted to paganism, there was a clean break between the faith which he renounced and the paganism to which he returned. But it was possible for the recipients of this letter, yielding gradually to pressures from various quarters, to give up more and more those features of faith and practice which were distinctive of Christianity, and yet to feel that they had not abandoned the basic principles of repentance and faith, the realities denoted by religious ablutions and the laying on of hands, the expectation of resurrection and the judgment of the age to come. For the writer to go on insisting on these things, therefore, would not really help them; it would be better to press on to those teachings which belonged to spiritual maturity, in the hope that the maturity would come with the teachings. 'This, then, we will do, God permitting' - that is to say, not merely will our author go on to give his mature teaching about the Melchizedek priesthood, but he and his readers together will advance to full growth in Christ, please God." (F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews)

    Of course, it'd probably be best to get a commentary on Hebrews by someone like Peter O'Brien. D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo have forthcoming commentaries on Hebrews as well. See here for other Hebrews commentaries.

  7. O'Brien's commentary was published recently.