4For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame. 7For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; 8but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned.
What did the author of the Book of Hebrews mean when he wrote of the impossibility of renewing apostates to repentance?
This passage has bothered many Christians for a long time. I remember how it greatly bothered me for a number of years.
Actually the interpretation is rather straightforward and easy to explain if one’s theology allows the possibility of genuine believes falling away from the Lord. (If, however, one’s theology doesn’t allow for this possibility, then this passage poses a major problem.)
Believers Are Under Consideration (vv 4-5)
There can be no reasonable doubt that believers are in view. The five participial phrases in vv 4-5 cannot reasonably be understood any other way. Only believers can be said (1) to have been enlightened, (2) to have tasted the heavenly gift, (3) to have become partakes of the Holy Spirit, (4) to have tasted the good word of God, and (5) to have tasted the powers of the age to come. One commentator has noted that it would be exceedingly difficult to come up with a stronger way of identifying those in question as believers.
Apostasy Is in View (v 6a)
Verse 6 is clearly dealing with falling away from the faith. The Jewish Christians being addressed were considering a return to animal sacrifices (cf. 2:1-18; 3:12; 7:11-28; 10:1-18). They were being influenced to give up believing that the death of Jesus was enough to pay the penalty for their sins and provide eternal life to those who believe.
Renewal to Repentance Is Impossible (v 6b)
The person who commits doctrinal apostasy cannot be reasoned with. Once a person apostatizes it becomes humanly impossible to renew him or her to “repentance.”
The word repentance here means a change of thinking. No human being can change the thinking of a believer who has fallen away from the faith. (Only God could possibly do that.)
Many interpreters err here because they assume that the author is saying that such a person is eternally condemned. Actually the text doesn’t say anything even approaching that. All it is saying is that it is humanly impossible to change the thinking of a believer who falls away from the faith. This passage in no way questions eternal security. Once a person is saved he forever remains saved. However, a saved person may have a fiery experience here and now!
Temporal Judgment Is at Stake (vv 7-8)
Like any good preacher, the author of the Book of Hebrews gives a practical illustration to clarify his point. The illustration is the easiest way to explain vv 44.
Thorns and briers–or thorns and thistles are a common OT motif going back to the Garden of Eden. God cursed the ground as a result of Adam’s sin and said that it would yield thorns and thistles (Gen 3:18). There is an obvious allusion here to that passage. Just as the curse resulted in thorns and thistles, so thorns and thistles will result in a curse. The ground–that is, the believer–that yields thorns and thistles is near to being cursed and indeed it will soon be burned.
Burning is seen by some commentators to refer here to hell. However, there is no good reason to draw such a conclusion. Except where qualified by modifiers like eternal or unquenchable, fire and burning in Scripture most often picture temporal judgment (cf. Gen 19:24; Lev 10:2; Joshua 7:15; 2 Sam 22:9; 2 Kings 1:10ff.; Dan 3:22ff.; Amos 1:4,7,10,12,14; 2:2,5; Luke 9:54; John 15:6; 1 Cor 3:13-15; Heb 11:34; Jude 23). Such an understanding fits perfectly well here.
The ground represents the believer. The thorns and thistles represent the worthless (Gk. adokimos–a term used of believers being disapproved for eternal rewards in 1 Cor 9:27!) and wicked production of his life similar to the wood, hay, and stubble of 1 Cor 3:12-15. When the ground is burned, the thorns and thistles are destroyed, not the ground. The ground remains.
It was a common practice in the agriculture of the day to burn the worthless overgrowth of a field that it might be restored to productivity (see the reference in Elder Pliny, Historia Naturalis, XVII. 300. 72). The author of the Book of Hebrews apparently holds out the possibility that God might restore the apostate, via chastisement, without taking him home. (The impossibility of renewing apostates to repentance concerns a human impossibility prior to God’s chastising work. Fiery chastisement will certainly fall on the apostate. However, once this fire has done its work, it is conceivable that the apostate might come back to the faith. Compare 1 Tim 1:19-20.)
Our faith requires watering and care. We need a daily intake of God’s Word. Fellowship with other believers is vital to our spiritual health. Prayer and ongoing obedience are essential as well.
It is a terrible mistake to assume that because we are clear on the Gospel today that we will always be. We must take care. Any of us can fall. My prayer is that we would stand firm in the faith and would produce works that are pleasing to the Lord.