In my many years as a professor of theology and conference speaker, one of the questions I am most frequently asked is, “Doesn’t the Reformed (or Calvinist) tradition teach the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints?” “Yes, it does,” I reply. “But how can a Bible-believer teach something like that since Hebrews 6 says that people who once became Christians turned away from faith in Christ and lost their salvation?” is the common response. I have always felt that this is an honest question that deserves an honest answer. Let me devote this brief article to what, I hope, is a fair and biblical response to those who sincerely believe that Hebrews 6 teaches that believers can lose their salvation.
Just before this point in the epistle, the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ has been lifted up as the only way sinners can enter into the eternal rest of God. True faith in Christ’s priesthood takes us spiritually into the heavenly places (Heb. 4:14 and Eph. 2:6), even while we are still on earth physically. Eventually our bodies will be raised and taken there as well. The reality of our High Priest bearing us upon His heart into heaven means that as we pray in Jesus’ name, we are taken directly to “the throne of grace,” where we “obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:14–16). Surely all of God’s people will be given the grace they need through the mercy of their High Priest to get them to their final home, where He is.
Thus, for a believer, who is being represented directly by the High Priest, to be lost before he reaches heaven would imply that the High Priest is weak and powerless. Jesus, however, has been given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18). He is the great Shepherd who gives His sheep eternal life, and nothing can pluck them out of the Father’s hand (John 10:28–29). The same Lord prayed to the Father in John 17 that the Father would keep those whom He has given the Son (v. 11) and that not one of them would fail to get to heaven to behold their Savior’s glory (v. 24).
So then, what does Hebrews 6:4–6 mean? If human language means anything, then these verses teach that some people, who experienced great privileges with the Holy Spirit and Christ Himself, can become apostate, die, and tragically wind up in hell. Five massive spiritual experiences are attributed to these people in Hebrews 6:4–5: They were once enlightened, tasted of the heavenly gift, made partakers of the Holy Ghost, tasted the good Word of God, and tasted the powers of the world to come. Yet in spite of such glorious experiences in the very midst of the church, they may fall away so that it is impossible to renew them again to repentance (Heb. 6:6).
What can this be but a sad and solemn illustration of what Jesus taught about the seed that fell on rocky ground, received the word with joy, grew rapidly, but soon dried up because it had no roots (Matt. 13:5–6, 20–21).
As the Holy Spirit ministers in the life of the church, the seeds of truth are spread everywhere. Even unbelievers are profoundly influenced as the Spirit ministers to His people. The Spirit ministers in answer to prayer (Luke 11:13), He ministers in worship, and He ministers in Word and Sacrament. In His work among the sheep, His power is felt by all — even by those who are not sheep but goats.
People who are never born-again by the Holy Spirit can be touched by His tender and mighty power in such a way that causes them to break down and weep. People who never submit to Jesus as Savior and Lord are able to feel the anointed preaching of the eternal Gospel of God. Thus, they have really been enlightened; they have tasted of the powers of the world to come and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit.
Nevertheless, as wonderful as such impressions are, some are never born-again. The feelings and impressions get no deeper than seed on stony ground. There will be superficial growth for a time, and many will express joy that comes as a result of being around the ministry of the Spirit. But, as a seed without roots dries up, the professing faith of the unregenerate vanishes.
It would take a greater mind than my own to comprehend pastorally and psychologically how people can have such spiritual impressions and not believe. Indeed, I have grieved to see it more than once. But as tragic as it is to see, the experiences listed in Hebrews 6 in no way constitute an argument against the perseverance of the saints. Rather, it shows how high some can go in terms of spiritual experiences, without going all the way to a saving knowledge of God in Christ.
What must we say to those who have strayed? It is the same thing that the author of Hebrews says to us: If we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firmly unto the end, we can rest assured that we are the house of Christ (Heb. 3:6). If those who have strayed humble themselves in prayer and repentance, they will find a throne of grace and a seat of mercy (Heb. 4:15–16).