The two views that we have considered so far have some things in common. They both affirm that the people described in the Hebrews passage are not believers, and true believers will persevere to the end. The biggest challenge to this view is the problem of the other “warning passages” of Hebrews. It is difficult to read the book of Hebrews by itself and not wrestle with questions that would point away from the conclusions of the views already explored. Hence, in this installment, we will focus on understanding Hebrews 6:4-6 purely within the narrative world of the book.
Hebrews 2: 1-3 states:
We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?
The author encourages his audience to pay utmost attention to what they have heard and then compared the punishments associated with the old covenant, “the message spoken through angels,” with the new one. Even this early in the book, we know that both the author and his audience are Christians. Now, why warn Christians about drifting away if that were not possible?
Hebrews 3: 12-14 makes a similar point as the passage quoted earlier:
See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.
Here, we observe that the “drifting away” of chapter two corresponds to an “unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” But, once again, why warn believing people about the dangers of their hearts becoming unbelieving and “hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” if, in reality, that were not a possibility? To use an analogy, the reason I will never get a letter warning me against eating too much vegetable lest I turn into an herb is that such a thing is impossible; people do not turn into what they eat. But if the author of Hebrews warns his Christian audience about being hardened by sin’s deceitfulness, would this not suggest that it is a possibility for the believers?
Also, it is worth noting the author’s thought that “we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.” The author here seems to imply that Christians must continue to profess their original convictions to show that they share in Christ. In other words, a Christian can stop maintaining an original conviction. The author further comments in 5:11 that “we have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand.” The people seemed quite discouraged by the pressures they were facing, and they no longer try to understand the teachings of the faith.
Here is a central point to note: all the warning passages, up till the end of Chapter 5, address a believing group of people. Also, the warnings have been clear. They essentially state: “Watch out! A discouraged heart under persecution may soon become unbelieving.” With all this in mind, it is difficult to understand why the warning in Chapter 6 should refer to a different group of persons. It is true, as John Owen points out, that the author of Hebrews employs a subtle change in language in 6:9 when he says, “even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation.” On a cursory reading, this verse suggests that the people described in 6:4-6 are not the same as the ones in 6:9 about whom the author is convinced of things of salvation. Nonetheless, the exegete must reconcile Hebrews’ earlier warnings with the one here in chapter 6.
However, Brent Nongbri argues that the language of 6:9 does not refer to a different group at all. On the contrary, the subtle language shift of verse 9 argues for the same referent as in 6:4-6. He recognizes that the Old Testament informs the author of Hebrews’ message. Particularly, Numbers 14 and Deuteronomy 11 stand out (270, 271). However, Hebrews’ author is not merely drawing a simple typology from the Old Testament. Instead, he uses literary techniques common in his day to make his points. The literary practice of combining exhortation with condemnation being a common persuasion technique among Jewish and Roman writers alike, Nongbri argues, “the author of Hebrews employs threats of eternal condemnation using words and imagery familiar from apocalyptic literature, particularly 4 Ezra, to evoke a specific kind of fear in his audience” (265).
As Nongbri observes, the author of Hebrews does not want his audience to be afraid of everything. Indeed, he encourages his audience not to be afraid of death (2:15), malicious human government edicts (11:23), or a ruler’s anger (11:27). He, however, wants them to be afraid of falling away because that would be a “great pain or destruction” (275); he wants his audience to fear “the eternal wrath of God” (275). Furthermore, the “threat is real, and the author directs it to real believers” (275). Nevertheless, as Nongbri furthers adds, “The author of Hebrews uses this severe language, however, in good rhetorical fashion, following his threats with words of consolation to encourage his audience members to stand fast in their marginalized community” (265).
This reading that Hebrews 6:4-6 addresses believers makes more sense of the earlier warning passages. Also, this reading would account for the warning passage in Chapter 10:
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?
This passage implies that the sinning people are Christians who have received the knowledge of the truth. Though the author continues to encourage his audience to faithfulness, he also points out that the individuals who are about to insult the “Spirit of Grace” are people who have been sanctified by the blood of the covenant. Surely, no unbeliever is sanctified by the blood of the covenant! One must be actively willing to take part in a covenant.
If this reading is right, it would suggest that the author of Hebrews uses “received the knowledge of the truth” to mean “received salvation.” This would then bring to mind the descriptive terms of 6:4-6, especially “who have once been enlightened.” On this reading, this description would equal “salvation.” Indeed, as someone observed, if the descriptions in Hebrews 6:4-6 do not refer to Christians, then no Christian can ever be certain of her salvation. These descriptions are collectively too rich and intimate.
Nongbri, Brent. “A Touch of Condemnation in a Word of Exhortation: Apocalyptic Language and Graeco-Roman Rhetoric in Hebrews 6:4-12.” Novum Testamentum, vol. 45, no. 3, 2003, pp. 265–279. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1561173. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.