This question is not one that has troubled me, but I think it’s a very important one. It’s also related to two of my previous posts: Is It Possible for Jesus to Be Your Savior but Not Your Lord? and What Happens to Those Who Never Hear the Gospel?
There’s a puzzling passage in Hebrews 6:4-6 that I want to look at: “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace.” At first reading, it seems that this passage is saying that it’s possible to lose your salvation. I remember a conversation many years ago with a brother in Christ who said that very thing. Is that really what the writer of Hebrews is saying?
The Hebrews were the immediate audience of this book of the Bible. Who were the Hebrews? The Jews of the first century A.D. In light of that, the last part of this sentence is worthy of a closer look. As a whole, the nation of Israel at that time rejected Jesus as Messiah; that’s why they asked the Romans to crucify Him. Before Jesus died, the Jews sacrificed animals as commanded in the Mosaic law. Because they rejected Jesus, they continued these sacrifices after His death and resurrection. In other words, His sacrifice meant nothing to them; I think that’s what “crucifying the Son of God all over again” means. “It is impossible…to be brought back to repentance” then would probably refer to the nation of Israel. And in 70 A.D., the nation was destroyed by the Romans, just as Jesus had said in Matthew 24:2: “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
Another possible interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6 is that it refers to people like those described in Matthew 13:20-21 in the parable of the sower: “The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.” Alistair Begg, one of my favorite preachers, spoke about Hebrews 6:4-6 here: https://www.truthforlife.org/resources/sermon/the-peril-of-spiritual-apostasy/. He mentions Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Jesus, as a “chilling reminder” of someone who was actually with the Lord and yet who was not saved. He was an example of someone who certainly appeared to be a follower of Jesus but in fact was not. In contrast to Judas, Alistair refers to John 10:28, which I also referred to in last week’s post: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” Alistair says, “The fact of the matter is, we are not strong enough to jump out when God is determined to hold us in.” I couldn’t agree more. On the other hand, people who have tasted the goodness of the Lord but have chosen to reject Him may get to the point where their heart is like stone; in both their words and their actions, they deny Him. If they ultimately don’t repent, it proves that they were never really Christians in the first place.
In summary in regard to Hebrews 6:4-6, we have two very plausible alternatives to the idea that a person can lose his/her salvation. I favor the first one, regarding the passage referring to the nation of Israel in the first century A.D. However, the second alternative is also very reasonable: there are people who ostensibly used to be Christians but who ultimately reject Jesus as Savior and Lord. Even if this passage does not refer to the second alternative, there are others that do. One particularly chilling one is Matthew 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'”
What is not at all plausible is that we can lose our salvation. In last week’s post, I wrote about God’s choosing us in John 6:44: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.” In Philippians 4:6, we have even more assurance because of God’s choosing us: “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
So, what of those who used to be churchgoers, who were baptized, and who appeared to be believers? Do we have any basis in Scripture for hoping that they will repent? Thankfully, the answer is yes! You’re probably familiar with the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32; maybe you and I need to reread this story as we think about those we know who used to profess faith in Jesus. Pray for their repentance, and trust the Lord regardless of how they respond.