So how is this good news? Well, look once more at Heb 6:4-6. Nowhere does it say God will not forgive. Rather, it says the person who falls away will not repent. “It is impossible … to restore them again to repentance.”
But what if someone is saved, then turns his back on Jesus and lives in deep sin, and then returns to Jesus in repentance? Well, then — obviously enough — it was not impossible to restore this person to repentance. Therefore, he did not fall away. He was always saved. Once for all. Perfect for all time.c Because the only people who have fallen away are those who cannot repent.
Paul also speaks of people who have lost the ability to repent —
(1Ti 4:1-2 NASB) But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron … .
(Eph 4:18-19 ESV) 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.
— as does Peter —
(2Pe 2:20-22 ESV) 20 For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. 21 For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. 22 What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.”
How on earth could Peter be right that it’s better for those who’ve fallen way to have never known Jesus? Well, if they’ve become so hard-hearted that repentance is impossible, then they are indeed far worse off than if they’d never heard the gospel.
But, I repeat, this is never about God’s refusal to forgive those who approach him with penitence and faith. It’s about the sinner being unable to repent because he’s become so hardened against the things of God.
Why did the Israelites die in the desert? Not because God no longer loved them and not because God did not want them to enjoy the Promised Land. It was because God had done everything he could do for them to bring them to a faith strong enough to let them go there, and they were still faithless and disobedient. They missed out on the Land of Milk and Honey because they chose to reject the promises of the same God who’d taken them out of Egypt.
Today, if a Christian falls away, it’s not because God has given up on him. God never gives up on anyone. Rather, it’s because the Christian has given up on God — and has lost the ability to change his mind.
The fire of the Spirit
Think of a campfire. It’s burning brightly and giving off incredible heat. But the night is over, and it’s time to break camp and move on. According to my Cub Scout training, it’s critically important that the campers put the fire out entirely. They should stir the ashes. They should cover the ashes in dirt. They should pour water over the embers. The great danger is that, even if the embers look to be entirely out and even feel cold to the touch, there just might be a spark of fire left in there, and that spark will be enough to burn down the entire forest.
Just so, Paul writes,
(1Th 5:19 ESV) Do not quench the Spirit.
Well, it’s a weak translation. If I quench someone’s thirst, he’ll be thirsty again. The word refers to quenching a fire. “Douse” would be better. Hence, the NIV is truer to the Greek —
(1Th 5:19 NIV) Do not put out the Spirit’s fire;
— and just like a campfire, the Spirit can be nothing but an invisible spark deep within an ember and yet still be burning. And if a Christian has the Spirit at all, no matter how grieved (Eph 4:30) and resisted (Acts 7:51), the Christian remains saved (Rom 8:9-11). He may be in desperate danger of irrevocable damnation, but he’s not there yet. The Spirit is still striving to turn him around.