We have considered three views along the spectrum of differing Christian positions on this subject. We saw how the typical Calvinist might argue her case. But since the Calvinist’s case rests on hotly debated presuppositions, I am not convinced that Calvinism handles the data well. John Lennox’s view represents a non-Calvinist approach to defending the eternal security of believers. Relying on the high priesthood of Jesus and his will to keep everyone who comes to him, Lennox reasons that the people of Hebrews 6:4-6 cannot be Christians. It is important to stress that both positions recognize that the issue at stake is not just any sin; everyone agrees believers will continue to have issues with sins—even if they get better day by day. The issue at stake is apostasy—the sin of willfully and finally rejecting Jesus and his salvific work.
Nonetheless, I think the views above have difficulty. Both classical Calvinism and the view which Lennox defends make little sense of the narrative world of the book of Hebrews. As observed in Part 3 of this series, it is quite challenging to not construe the people described in Hebrews 6:4-6 as Christians considering the other warning passages in the book. Indeed, this point is so salient that some modern Calvinist theologians, like Thomas Schreiner of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, have conceded it—though they would still argue that a believer will ultimately not fall away.
Many scholars now believe that Hebrews 6:4-6 describes true Christians. However, there are still different ways by which people proceed. The Calvinist argues the warnings are God’s means of ensuring that the saints will persevere. In other words, God knows that if he sends the struggling believers some stern warnings, they would straighten up. It is worth noting in passing, though, that this Calvinist view may confuse two issues. The question is not whether a believer will fall away, but whether she can fall away. We want to know whether a Christian can lose her salvation.
David Curtis’ Free Grace View of Apostasy
There is an interesting view that argues for the perseverance of saints, though acknowledging that the people in Hebrews 6:4-6 are Christians. This view does so by defining apostasy as a temporal judgment of God on apostatizing Christians. Such is the position of David Curtis, the Pastor of Berean Bible Church. In a sermon series on apostasy delivered in 2001, Pastor Curtis argues that life in Jesus being eternal, it is impossible for someone who once had the life to lose it. Furthermore, Curtis teaches that any doctrine that claims that there is something a Christian can do to lose her salvation would be teaching salvation by works—and that is a heresy.
Also, Curtis interprets Romans 5:18-19 to say that Christians’ eternal security solely lies in the atoning work of Jesus just as the condemnation of humanity to sin resulted from the disobedience of Adam. In his words, “The gift of eternal life is indefectable (sic), not the faith that laid hold of it.” In other words, once a person is saved, she is always saved. As mentioned earlier, Curtis holds to a “free grace view” of apostasy, which states that apostates are Christians who “fall away from their fellowship with the Lord and come under his temporal judgment.” The key term here is “temporal” which restricts the judgment on apostates to this world only with no disqualifying effects on the afterlife; “temporal” is used here as the opposite of eternal.
The immediate strength of the view defended by Pastor Curtis is that it provides a satisfying solution to the problem of determining the eternal destination of some individuals like Moses. Moses sinned against God towards the end of his life and died without crossing over into the promised land. Are we to think that Moses is eternally lost? I do not think so. Moses’ penalty seems temporal. We can say the same about Jonah, Elijah, and Solomon. Solomon’s case is probably the worst of the three. 1 Kings 11 details how the aged Solomon turned to Israel’s neighbors’ gods because of the influences of his other-gods-worshipping wives. He even built temples for these gods in Jerusalem. As 1 Kings 11:6 states, “Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done.”
Critiquing Curtis’ View
However, I think Curtis’ view has some major problems. First, Curtis’ view of work in salvation seems overly influenced by Calvinism. Does an individual have any role, however slight, to play in her salvation—a role specifically restricted to believing or trusting? Calvinism denies this role to a person, arguing that this would amount to work. I firmly affirm that an individual can freely choose to receive God’s salvation or reject it—and this would not amount to working for one’s salvation. It seems to me that if someone comes to faith by believing or trusting in God, they must continue to believe—and, once again, this does not amount to work; indeed, the Holy Spirit aids the continuing belief. So, “eternal life” may already have the idea of enduring belief built into it. Consider John 6:38-40, which John Lennox used to argue his case:
For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
Notice how verse 40 essentially repeats the message in verse 39, but with additional information that is easy to miss. The verb “believes” is an active and present tense. We may take this passage to teach continuous belief as a condition for eternal life.
Besides, I think Pastor Curtis’ free grace view of apostasy is guilty of lumping all sins together as equals. Yes, God may sometimes judge believers, often including physical death, but without disqualifying them from the afterlife. However, we must pay close attention to the sin. There is an enormous difference between the sins of Moses and Solomon, for instance. There would even yet be a huger difference between the sins of the two above and that of the believers in Hebrews 6:4-6. With Solomon, he went astray in his old age, when his mind and strength were weak. But even then, notice that Solomon did not renounce Yahweh. The record concerning him states that “he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done.” Perhaps, in all his idolatry, Solomon still recognized Yahweh as the supreme deity.
In the case of the Hebrew Christians, however, renouncing Jesus and his atoning work would be equivalent to covenant people in the Old Testament renouncing Yahweh as their God. Indeed, in the various times that Israel and Judah apostatized, they were exiled into foreign lands and under the dominion of foreign gods. They only got rescued whenever they repented and believed again in Yahweh as their God. So, we see that even in the Old Testament, belief in God was a key condition for the elect of God. Israelites could not profess Yahweh one day and then turn to Baal, Dagon, or Molech on other days without consequences. Similarly, one cannot say the sinner’s prayer and then turn to other gods or no gods at all. Belief, it seems, must endure.
Someone sympathetic to Curtis’ position might say, “but even the judgment of the Old Testament people who apostatized was temporal.” In response, I would say that we cannot be sure that all the Baal-worshipping apostates were temporally judged. That would be arguing from silence as we do not have the data. Personally, I am not convinced that there would be Baal, Molech, or Dagon-worshipping Israelites in heaven.
Concluding Remarks and Life Applications
As stated at the beginning of this series, my primary goal is to show just how difficult Hebrews 6:4-6 is to exegete and to present various, but not exhaustive, positions on it. However one reads the passage, there are difficulties to work through. If one reads the passage as referring to non-believers, then this would affect how one reads other passages like 1 Timothy 1:19-20, which refers to Hymenaeus and Alexander as having shipwrecked their faith and become blasphemous; or 2 Timothy 4:10 which refers to Demas as loving the world and having deserted the Apostle Paul. One’s position on the issue might also influence how one reads Judas Iscariot’s story.
There are practical applications to life that I believe an exploration like this one presents to Christians. As William Craig shared in a podcast devoted to the apostasy question, Christians should always bear the following in mind:
- When we see a faltering, struggling, or backslidden Christian, we should never assume that such a person has gone past the no-return point or that he or she is now irredeemable. Only God can have such knowledge. Believers should live life assuming that every person, being the image of God, is yet redeemable.
- We ought to always self-examine our lives, ways, and motives for actions to make sure that we are not compromising and are holding firm to the faith.
- We ought to always look to gather and mutually encourage one another in our meetings, just as Hebrews 10:26 says. We should keep spurring one another on to good works.
Curtis, David B. “Apostasy Part 2: Hebrews 6: 4-8.” 11 Feb. 2001. Berean Bible Church, Sermon. Hebrews 6:4-8 – Apostasy Part 2: Berean Bible Church. Transcript.
Craig, William L. “Doctrine of Salvation (Part 21): Assessment of the Competing Views on Perseverance.” 23 Dec. 2020. Reasonable Faith, Podcast, Doctrine of Salvation (Part 21): Assessment of the Competing Views on Persererance | Reasonable Faith. Transcript.