One of the most challenging passages in all of scripture is Heb 6:4-6 —
(Heb 6:4-6 ESV) 4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
On first (second and third) reading, the passage seems to deny the possibility of forgiveness after falling away. And so, all sorts of clever arguments are made by the commentators to explain away the text. I’m going to offer a radical theory. I mean, the topic for the month is “radical reconciliation,” and so this would seem to be the time for radical ideas.
And here’s the idea: the passage means exactly what it says. The problem is that the news it announces is so incredibly good, that we actually insist on reading it as bad news. But it’s not. So bear with me while I unpack that claim.
A little context should help.
(Heb 3:14-19 ESV) 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. 15 As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” 16 For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.
The author of Hebrews is building his case on Psalm 95, which is a reflection on the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. The author’s point is that, if you rebel against God today, you may well suffer the same penalty as the Israelites who were freed from slavery in Egypt. They were slaves under Pharaoh, and God rescued them through the Red Sea, brought them to the foot of Mt. Sinai, and finally, two years later, led them to the borders of the Promised Land. And the Israelites, despite having seen God destroy the army of Egyptians — quite likely the most powerful nation on the planet at the time — lacked the faith needed to enter the Promised Land and conquer it. They had seen God on Mt. Sinai, had been fed by his hand, and led by his Glory all the way to Canaan, and they refused to go in.
And because of the rebellion, God had Israel spend another 38 years in the brutal, dry desert so that all but two of the adults who’d left Egypt died in the dust and dunes. And they got no second chance. It was only their children who crossed the Jordan and enjoyed the fruits of Canaan.
Next we turn to —
(Heb 10:10-14 ESV) 10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
Notice the contrast. Under the Law of Moses, a lamb was offered twice daily for the sins of the people. Every time a Jew committed a sin, he was to go to the Temple and offer a sacrifice. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the scapegoat was given for the people’s sins. It took a lot of sacrifices to gain forgiveness, and the forgiveness received did not last long.
This sounds very much like the “grace” I was raised on that I described in the preceding post of this series. Sins will be forgiven, but only one at a time, with the result that we must repeatedly go to God for forgiveness. In fact, under that false theology, we spend most of our lives lost.
But the Hebrews writer declares, in words too good to hear, that Jesus’ sacrifice forgives us “once for all.” One sacrifice, received just once, was and is enough. In fact, the writer declares that “by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified [made holy].”
Read that line again. The news is more than just “good.” It’s amazing beyond belief! Jesus’ sacrifice perfects Christian “for all time.” Even though we are not yet truly holy, we are declared righteous (justified) at baptism, and while we’re not sinless, we are nonetheless growing in Christ, and so we are “perfected for all time.” Not just until the next time we sin. Not until the next time we have a moment of weakness. “For all time.” Until we die. (And, of course, we covered other passages teaching the same lesson in the previous post.)
But the reason we’re saved forever is —
(Heb 10:15-18 ESV) 15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, 16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” 17 then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” 18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
The writer quotes from Jer 31, where the terms of God’s new covenant are prophesied. And, he says, because under the new covenant God will no longer remember our sins, “there is no longer any offering for sin.” Having been once forgiven, we remain forgiven. The sacrifice of Jesus saves us so thoroughly that we need no further forgiveness, and so we need no further sacrifice. We’ve already received the cleansing that the cross promises. We don’t need another.
We are saved “once for all” so that we may be “perfected for all time” by the cross of Jesus. The forgiveness we receive at baptism takes us all the way to the end.
But this incredibly great blessing has a downside —
(Heb 10:26-27 ESV) For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.
Notice the antithesis of v. 26 compared to v. 18. We need but one sacrifice — the cross — for the rest of our lives. But we have available to us but one sacrifice — the cross. Turn your back on it, there’s no plan B. There’s no second sacrifice available. Like the Israelites in the desert, if we rebel against God because our faith is too weak for us to trust him to take us all the way home, we don’t enter the Promised Land.