Hebrews (Part 06) – Impossible to Repent
In Hebrews 5:11, the heart of the author begins to come through. And it is in this verse that we begin to see the dual purpose of this letter. So many scholars have found it difficult (and even impossible, considering the current lack of consensus) to organize the book effectively. I think part of that difficulty is because of the dual emphasis that weaves in and out of the discussion. The emphases are these: (1) Jesus, the Son, provides, through his high priesthood (which is different from the Aaronic [old covenant] priesthood), that which is perfect for our righteousness, peace, perfection, and eternal life, and (2) the Hebrew Christians in Rome to whom the author is writing have a particular lack of disposition and intensity in their Christian pursuits, resulting in lack of growth in their relationships with God and harm to those of their professing Christian community who may, in fact, not have come to a saving knowledge of Christ. The letter so far has included a few stops in discussion in order to press the second of these emphases. Here in 5:11 we have a major pause in doctrinal dissertation to address this lack of growth.
The author has to this point set the stage for major emphasis number 1. We learned that Jesus is the Son, the inheritor of promise. We learned that Jesus is superior to the angels, prophets, and priests. And we learned that the “rest” of God is based on relationship with God—possible only through the righteousness we have from Christ. Those thoughts are the basics of our salvation. The feeling of intensity within the epistle builds as the author nears the meat of the discourse. But suddenly comes a pause. It is the pause that most teachers have experienced at times. The teacher is rapt in lecturing intensity, caught up in the coalescence of the material. For a flicker of an instant the teacher’s eye looks beyond the subject to the faces of the students and suddenly realizes that no one is following along. They’re asleep or distracted or blank. And the teacher abruptly stops and says something along the same lines as what the Hebrews’ author says in verse 11: “About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.”
That Greek word translated “dull” means sluggish or slothful. But how does the author know this?—this is a letter, not a face to face conversation. Most likely, these are people the author knows. Most likely, the author had spent time in Rome with these Christians, recognized their lack of growth, felt burdened by it, and wrote this letter (having since moved to Ephesus) to address this problem. That’s one of the reasons why many believe Priscilla and/or Aquila authored the epistle. Their travels follow exactly this progression.
The author states that they “have become to need milk.” We can imagine several paths that lead to such a state. Sluggishness in our Christian walk is often associated with lazy disinterest. But it also can be associated with desire for emotional satisfaction without working at intellectual pursuit. The feelings of joy, peace, love, and gratefulness come with salvation. And thinking back on our conversion experience, we indulge once again in those emotional highs. That is all good, right, and satisfying. But there is, nevertheless, a danger that lurks here. When the entire pursuit of our Christianity is limited to regaining those emotional goods through a simplified look at only the salvation experience, we do harm to our relational growth with God. It is the teeter-totter effect of weighing down one side of our commission to witness of Christ and make disciples. There is more to Christianity than conversion. Discipleship requires training and growth beyond the emotional joys of our salvation experience. We must know Christ to the fullest extent of what the Word of God has available to us. That’s growth. And that’s where the author intends to take these Christian Jews of Rome.
In chapter 6 the author mentions the intent to leave these elementary doctrines of Christ—those having to do with salvation, including (1) instructions about washings, (2) laying on of hands, (3) resurrection, and (4) eternal judgment (or its opposite—eternal life). Notice that these four elements relate to specific aspects of what transpires at salvation. The washings, of course, relate to the purification or cleansing from sin. The laying on of hands was most associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Resurrection here speaks of the first resurrection—the first exchange of death for life that occurs at conversion (Romans 6:4). Finally, at salvation we receive hope—hope that avoids eternal judgment and clings to eternity with our Lord. These things, the author says, we will leave. The leaving is not giving up on these, but rather recognizing that as the foundation, these uphold the ladder. For growth in relationship, we climb the ladder, using, although leaving, the foundation.
The author then warns in verse 3 of chapter 6 that this leaving or advancing in doctrine “we will do if God permits.” Why say this? Why would God not permit it? Well, as we said, it is not just nice to have a foundation, but the climbing of the ladder requires a foundation—a foundation in the elementary doctrines of Christ. As mentioned in earlier summaries, the congregation of professing Christians to whom the author wrote did not necessarily include only Christians. Just as in our churches today some may be included who are not saved, surely this was true in the Roman church—doubly possible since the true Christians of that church were having growth problems. The author explains verse 3 by verses 4 through 6.
Verses 4 through 6 are among the most difficult to interpret. The main thrust of the verses states that “it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened…if they then fall away.” Extracted from its context and taken at face value, the verse seems to imply that believers can lose their salvation. But we should never interpret Scripture extracted from its context and taken at face value. The Arminian thought that we can lose our salvation just doesn’t hold with the rest of Scripture. Romans 8 provides the principles that state (1) Christians cannot commit a sin that results in condemnation (Romans 8:1-4), and (2) Christians cannot simply lose faith because the Holy Spirit lives within, testifying to our spirits that we are children of God (Romans 8:16). By those principles against the possibility of salvation loss and by the context of the discussion so far to this community of professing Christians, we can understand these people who could “fall away” were part of the professing community, but not true Christians.
Assuming, however, that these who have the potential to fall away are professing, but not true Christians, what then does verse 4 mean when it says that these people were “enlightened”? Does not enlightenment mean these people are able to understand spiritual truth? The understanding of spiritual truth through the revelation by God is certainly how Paul uses this same word in his prayer in Ephesians 1:17-18. He prays that the Ephesians would receive from God “a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of [their] hearts enlightened.” This enlightenment occurs by God’s grace through his revelation. But according to the Calvinist, spiritual truth may be understood only by those who have been regenerated. How can the Calvinist say both that these people have been enlightened (understanding spiritual truth through God’s revelation), but still not saved?
Though the Calvinist has difficulty here, the Faith Electionist does not. In Faith Electionism, God does provide an enlightening grace by which unregenerate man can understand spiritual things. Those spiritual things that can be understood through this God-revealing enlightenment are listed for us in verses 4 and 5 as (1) tasting of the heavenly gift, (2) sharing in the Holy Spirit, (3) tasting the goodness of the word of God, and (4) tasting of the powers of the age to come. These four “tastes” relate to the four points of elementary doctrine listed earlier (washings – cleansing from sin; laying on of hands – receiving the Holy Spirit; resurrection – the goodness of God in the newness of life; and avoidance of eternal judgment – hope in eternal relationship). But notice that they are described as tastes. In other words, the enlightenment by God gives understanding of these doctrines of Christ’s salvation, but it is the faith response that brings the transformation of regeneration, justification, and adoption.
The outlook of those who rebel against this enlightenment is most serious. The passage indicates unmistakably that God withdraws from these who do rebel—never to return. This is an issue between God and an individual soul. It is not something that we can see and adjudicate. Our witness and explanation to someone who is lost is not the same as God’s grace in enlightenment. Therefore, we can never make the judgment that any individual is beyond redemption. We just do not know the heart. It is a matter of God’s grace, discernment, and activity.
Verses 7 and 8 illustrate this point. The land (each person) drinks the rain (God’s enlightening grace) and responds either in useful crops (faith) receiving God’s blessing (transforming salvation) or responds with thorns and thistles (rebellion) receiving its burning end (hell’s destruction).
These sobering words seem to elicit the author’s next words of encouragement and hope. For these people (those still unsaved), the author feels “sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.” And then the author tells them (these same unsaved people) that God will not overlook their works. Wait just a second…God won’t overlook the works of the unsaved? Salvation is by faith, not works, right?
Again, understanding this passage comes more easily through the Faith Electionist perspective. Paul argued in Romans 2:6-7 that the works of an individual may reveal the heart. That’s also the point of James in saying that faith is shown by works (James 2:14-26). As God provides revelatory grace, the response of the individual in faith (evidenced by this “work and love” shown “for his sake in serving the saints” 6:10) will not be passed over by God. He will continue to reveal and ultimately according to the response in faith to his enlightening grace (that enlightenment that provides understanding of the essentials of Christ’s salvation), God will save.
This promise of salvation, which encompasses all the individual promises of the old covenant, is firmly made by God. The author encourages confidence in that salvific hope through the story of God’s promise and oath made to Abraham. These two things—God’s promise and God’s oath as guarantee of his promise—are the two unchangeable things mentioned in verse 18 by which it is impossible for God to lie. God will not break his promise. But even though this is true, he adds additional confidence to that promise for the heirs of the promise (us through Christ) by guaranteeing it in swearing an oath by himself—the greatest one by whom he can swear. We may, then, have absolute confidence—a strong anchor of the soul—in this hope.
Now the author begins to turn back from the exhortation purpose of the epistle to the doctrinal purpose. Our hope is through Jesus who has entered the holy of holies—the throne room of God, to represent us perfectly before God. How can Jesus do this? He can do this because Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchizedek. But what does it mean to be a priest “after the order of Melchizedek”?
We know very little about Melchizedek. In fact, everything we know is contained in only three verses in Genesis (14:18-20). In the first three verses of Hebrews 7, the author recounts just about everything from the Genesis account. And it is in these three verses that we see developed that which is the “order” of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is described as king of righteousness, king of peace (from the Hebrew shalam which more literally means “place of peace”), superior to Abraham (which, we will find out later, means superior to the levitical priesthood), and eternal.
We will expand on this discussion in the next summary.