It is a remarkable fact that the word impossible makes only rare appearances on the pages of the Bible––not once in the English translation of the OT, and just a handful of times in the NT. Yet it occurs three times in the epistle to the Hebrews, and it is to these occasions that I wish to draw your attention, particularly as one of them has given great concern to many souls. The passage to which I refer is Heb. 6: 4, 6: “For it is impossible to renew again to repentance those once enlightened … and have fallen away, crucifying for themselves [as they do] the Son of God, and making a show of [him]”. Now some have used these verses to assert that a person, although once saved, can still be lost, and many have been led thereby to doubt their salvation. Others simply do not know what to make of the passage. What is indisputable is that these are some of the most solemn words found anywhere in the Bible, and demand our careful consideration.
The Hebrew Epistle
Hebrews, although classed as an epistle, is really more of a treatise or essay. While no addressee is given, it is clear from the terminology employed that it is directed to Jews, not Gentiles. Again, the frequent use of the word us and the copious use of Hebraisms (Jewish figures of speech) identify the writer likewise as a Jew.
Now it is a mistake to think that Hebrews was written to Christians as such. Rather it was written to Jews who had embraced Christianity, but Christianity still viewed as linked to Judaism (comp. Acts 24: 5; 28: 22). There is a distinct absence of that which views Christianity in its unique character. To give two examples: collectively, there is nothing of the Church as the body of Christ, and individually, nothing of God as Father. Those addressed by the writer are viewed as the people of God who are already in a relationship with Him. That is, there is no thought of a sudden break with the OT but rather a continuum. Hence the opening words: “God having spoken in many parts and in many ways formerly to the fathers in the prophets, at the end of these days has spoken to us in [the person of the] Son” (Heb. 1: 1, 2). Those written to were the generation of Israel that had crucified Christ (see Acts 2: 36, 41), realised their awful sin, repented (Acts 2: 41) and had thus embraced Jesus as the true Messiah. However, the expectation of Israel was of a visible Messiah present on earth, not an absent Christ in heaven who, like Moses on Mt Sinai, could not be seen. They might well have said, as their forefathers did, “we do not know what is become of him!” (Ex. 32: 1). Hence there was a very real danger of them going back to that which they had left. Spiritually, they were not growing––they were still babes when they should have been men, and they were still students when they should have been teachers (see Heb. 5: 12–14). The great thrust of the epistle is to show that the blessings available now as a result of Christ’s present position in heaven are far greater than that which is linked with Him as Messiah on earth. Coupled with this the writer peppers the epistle with warnings (see Heb. 2: 1, 3; 3: 6, 12; 4: 1; 6: 4–6; 10: 26; 12: 5)––for as a nation Israel’s history had continuously been marked by unbelief. These severe warnings against going back are balanced by exhortations to go on as seen in the simple fact that twelve times in the epistle we have the words “Let us …”.
The Previous Warnings.
Having initially given a warning with the words “… how shall we escape if we have been negligent of so great salvation …” (Heb. 2: 3), the writer feels the need to go back over Israel’s history of unbelief as a warning to them in Heb. 3 and 4. This section must not be ignored if we are to rightly interpret the first “impossible” of Heb. 6. The section begins with the Holy Spirit’s warning through the psalmist (Heb. 3: 7 quoting Ps. 95: 7–11) referring to the nation’s unbelief in a previous day in the wilderness. However, the word is not “as said the Holy Spirit” but “as says the Holy Spirit” (my emphasis) giving the warning a present application. God spoke to Moses’ generation, to the Psalmist’s generation, and now speaks to the present generation, and the warning is the same for all: “if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Heb. 3: 7, 8). Moses’ generation “saw my works forty years” (Heb. 3: 9) and the present generation had a similar testimony (see Heb. 2: 4; 6: 5). The unbelief of Moses’ generation caused God to swear in His wrath that they would not enter the land, figure of the ultimate rest of God (see Heb. 3: 10, 11). If God swore that they would not enter the land then it became impossible for them to do so. Were they Israelites? Yes! Had they believed the “glad tidings presented” (Heb. 4: 2) to them? No! Hence “they could not enter in on account of unbelief” (Heb. 3: 19). While the words “it is impossible …” of Heb. 6: 4 are not in Heb. 3 and 4, the fact that God swore to bar their entrance into the land clearly carries that sense. Thus the writer warns his generation “lest there be in any one of you a wicked heart of unbelief, in turning away from [the] living God” (Heb. 3: 12). Again, he says “Let us therefore fear, lest, … any one of you might seem to have failed [of it]” (Heb. 4: 1—my emphasis). Note the accurate language: he does not say that any had failed but (because of their lack of growth) any might seem to have failed. He was worried about the reality of their faith. Those that had fallen in the wilderness, while outwardly Israelites, had, in fact, no faith. It is only believers who enter into God’s rest (see Heb. 4: 3). Hence, as we shall see in a moment, Heb. 6: 4–6 could never refer to true believers.
The First Impossibility in Hebrews 6
Heb. 6: 4–6 is set in a parenthesis stretching between Heb. 5: 11 and Heb. 7: 1 in which the writer has turned aside from his theme of Christ as High Priest because of his concern for the lack of growth in the Jews who had outwardly embraced Jesus as the Messiah (see Heb. 5: 11–14). These Jews needed to be taught when they should have been teachers and were babes when they should have been men. They still needed milk—“the elements of the beginning of the oracles of God” (Heb. 5: 12) and “the word of the beginning of the Christ” (Heb. 6: 1). The six elements of the beginning of the Christ listed were all essential but linked with Christ on earth, not Christ in heaven and Christianity. Indeed, every one of them would have been familiar to an OT Jew. Their descendants here now needed to leave these elements behind and to go on to what belongs to the full growth of Christianity.
Now in examining the warnings of verses 4 to 6 there is an important change that must not be ignored. The writer no longer addresses his readers directly but puts the three verses in the abstract. In v1 we have “us”, in v3 we have “we”, but in v4 it is “those”. Thus he introduces an abstract hypothetical class. Hence the words could refer to all of them, some of them or even none of them. As we shall see, the writer was persuaded that it was the latter––though he had not sufficient confidence to leave out these grave warnings.
Five features mark this hypothetical class as set forth by the writer: they had been enlightened, they had tasted of the heavenly gift, they had been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, they had tasted the good word of God and also the works of power of the age to come. Yet despite all this, they had fallen away. How could that be? It is because none of these features are actually guarantees of a living and true faith. This is proved by verse 9: “But we are persuaded concerning you, beloved, better things, and connected with salvation, even if we speak thus”. Clearly, the “beloved” are in contradistinction to those “once enlightened”, and these latter did not have “salvation”. What Heb. 6: 4–6 does demonstrate is how far one can go in profession without being real.
The first characteristic of the hypothetical class is “once enlightened”. The word enlightened means to shine light upon. These people had light shone upon them. It is the same word as in John 1: 9: “The true light was that which, coming into the world, lightens every man”. Now this is not the same as “God who spoke that out of darkness light should shine who has shone in our hearts” (2 Cor. 4: 6—my emphasis). Here the light had not penetrated their hearts. They had light, but light is not life. How could a Jew listening to an apostle expounding the OT Scriptures not be enlightened? Yet it does not follow that they must have repented. Again, men may know the terms of the Gospel and in doing so are enlightened and have light. That does not mean that they are converted and have life.
The next characteristic is that they “tasted of the heavenly gift”. The participle here (tasted) is in the middle voice in the Greek which gives the matter greater force than is apparent in the English. The sense is that they have tasted for themselves. When the word is used metaphorically, as here, it carries the thought of proving or experiencing. We are not told directly what the heavenly gift is but it is obviously set in contrast to the earthly gifts so familiar to the Jew. Indeed, there may be an allusion to the gift of the land of Canaan (see Ex. 12: 25; Num. 13: 1 etc.)––a land which ten of the spies experienced or tasted, but then rejected (see Num. 13: 21–33). In the same way, their descendants were in danger of rejecting the heavenly inheritance.
Some have objected to this explanation of the word taste, pointing out that in Hebrews 2: 9 the Lord Jesus is said to “taste death for every thing”, and clearly He did not merely sample death, but entered into it fully. Thus, they argue, taste in Heb. 6: 4 and 6: 5 must also mean more than just sampling. However, the point of the word taste in Heb 2: 9 is that the Lord experienced the bitterness of death––its taste. Likewise the point of Heb. 6: 4 is that these false professors experienced all the sweetness of the heavenly gift––again, its taste. In the language of Numbers 13, they searched out the land “forty days” (v25). He experienced death, they experienced the land. As really as He had tasted death, so they tasted the heavenly gift.
Thirdly, they “have been made partakers of [the] Holy Spirit”. This is not the “communion of the Holy Spirit” as in 2 Cor. 13: 14. The word there (koinownia: communion) means fellowship—what we have in common. Here the word (metocos: partaker) always refers to what I take part in outside of myself, and means to take a part without saying how far a taking part it is. As those who had linked themselves with Christians, they had, as it were, become the companions of the Holy Spirit (as Judas was of Christ), shared in the blessing of being where He was, and participated (if only externally) in the spiritual activities of the company. Their profession did not last, however, and they went back to the synagogue––hence the warning of Heb. 10: 25.
With the fourth characteristic it is important to see that it does not say that they tasted that the word of God is good, for then that would have been their assessment. The statement is that they tasted the good word of God––the assessment as to the goodness of God’s word is the writer’s. So what is this tasting? As before, it means they experienced––felt the power of the Word, even enjoyed it––without ever getting hold of life. It is no more than Herod hearing John “gladly” (Mark 6: 20).
Finally, they had experienced the powers of the world to come. These were the signs and miracles of the Kingdom that had proved that Jesus was the Messiah––and hence we cannot literally apply this passage today as the miracles have long gone. Having seen many signs and wonders these Jews were, for a time, intellectually convinced of the truth of the new doctrine.
Yet after experiencing all this these persons had fallen away. They had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, having heard and seen the apostolic testimony of the twelve, confessed their nation’s awful sin in crucifying the Christ, and then given Him up. In doing so they had crucified for themselves––done again for themselves as individuals, what the nation as a body had done at Calvary. As part of that generation of Israel they had had their responsibility in crucifying Him the first time. The Lord’s prayer had put it down to a sin of ignorance and had prayed for the nation’s forgiveness ( Luke 23: 34). Now with all the testimony that God had given, they go back and do it effectively a second time for themselves––not in ignorance now, but wilfully. They are now beyond redemption. God had expended everything, there was nothing left. There was no recovery. It was impossible.
However, don’t the words “it is impossible to renew again to repentance” assume that they had once repented and thus exercised faith? No, for the word to in “to repentance” is eis in Greek which has in view the end result. The end result in this case is repentance––it does not imply that they had reached it. They had been brought up to it but had not crossed the threshold. The same word is used in the writer’s agricultural illustration: “nigh to a curse, whose end [is] to be burned” (Heb. 6: 8—my emphasis)––it was about to be cursed, and in the fulfilment of time would be put to the flame. Cursing and burning were the ends in view. This example also illustrates the perilous position of these professors. Just as ground which partakes of blessing from God (in drinking the rain which comes upon it) should produce useful herbs––so those who have been made partakers ought to bring forth fruit for God. In both cases, to be found worthless leaves only the sentence “whose end is to be burned”. The example is reminiscent of the parable of the sower and the seed that fell in rocky places. The word was easily received and they even “believe for a time” (Luke 8: 13), but under the pressure of tribulation and trial they fell away. Human faith as possessed by those who “believed on his name, beholding his signs which he wrought” is worthless––and so “Jesus himself did not trust himself to them … for himself knew what was in man” (John 2: 23–25). Saving faith is God–given (see Eph. 2: 8).
The Second Impossibility
While Heb. 6: 4–6 applies literally to the generation of Jews in the writer’s day, the principles involved have a voice for all who profess the name of the Lord. Yet it is only unbelieving professors who can fit the abstract description of these verses. True believers have nothing to fear from the passage. In v9 the writer begins to use the pronouns “we” and “you” again, saying “But we are persuaded concerning you, beloved, better things, and connected with salvation even if we speak thus” (Heb. 6: 9—my emphasis). Despite his necessary warnings, he had a well–placed hope that they were not mere professors.
Now those who use Heb. 6: 4–6 to question the permanence of salvation generally gloss over the rest of the chapter and miss the second impossibility in the parenthesis. This comes in relation to Abraham—“[the] father of all them that believe” (Rom. 4: 11)––and his fellow–heirs regarding God’s promise. To encourage these spiritually weak Jews to “shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end” (Heb. 6: 11), the writer reminds them that God had given Abraham “two unchangeable things, in which [it was] impossible that God should lie” (Heb. 6: 18). This impossibility is repeated by Paul in Tit. 1: 2. It is not just that God should not lie or that God will not lie, but that He cannot lie. It is an impossibility. Now the Lord says of genuine believers “they shall never perish, and no one shall seize them out of my hand … and no one can seize out of the hand of my Father” (John 10: 28, 29). In the light of such verses, where is the possibility of a believer once saved being lost? How could it be unless God failed to keep His word? But God cannot lie—it is an impossibility. Again, “All that the Father gives me shall come to me, and him that comes to me I will not at all cast out” (John 6: 37) even though “No one can come to me except the Father who has sent me draw him” (John 6: 44).
“Salvation is of Jehovah” (Jon. 2: 9)––it is God’s work, not mine. These words were first recorded in Ex. 14: 13 when Israel stood at the shores of the Red sea. Who saved them that day? Jehovah! What part did the children of Israel play in that salvation? None! Thus it is God that saves me, and if it is God that saves me, how can I ever be lost? If that were possible, then God would fail. Indeed, He would not and could not be God.
The Third Impossibility
This is found in chapter eleven, the great chapter on faith and substantiates the interpretation given here of the parenthesis of Heb. 6. It is bound up with the other two impossibilities. The writer says “But without faith [it is] impossible to please [him]” (Heb. 11: 6). God cannot be pleased without faith—it is impossible. Divine faith was absent in those referred to in the parenthesis of Heb. 6 . In terms of divine testimony they had everything that God could give for faith to respond to but in spite of all had gone back and so rendered their salvation impossible. Faith is the soul’s link with God and without it there is no salvation. Without faith in the soul, there is nothing for God. God has provided everything from His side, my responsibility is to take God at His Word knowing that it is impossible for God to lie.
Three ‘impossibilities’ and three important lessons . The first shows the hopelessness of apostasy. The second demonstrates the security of God’s salvation. The third proves that nothing avails without faith.
Saved Today—Saved Forever
There are many sincere Christians who hold to an erroneous and damaging doctrine which can be loosely described by the words “saved today and lost tomorrow”. They believe that their salvation in Christ can be forfeited on account of failure on their part. Scripture, however, teaches no such thing––thank God. This is strikingly illustrated by a verse in Hebrews ten. Describing what the Lord Jesus has achieved for His own by His sacrificial death, the writer of Hebrews says “For by one offering he has perfected in perpetuity the sanctified” (Heb. 10: 14). The plain force of this passage will be accepted by all who are willing to be taught by the Word: perfected…in perpetuity…the sanctified. Could anything be clearer?
Sadly, misguided theology has muddied the crystal–clear waters of divine truth, and plain and simple words have taken on altered meanings in the hands of religious ‘experts’. It is my intention therefore, to demonstrate that these three marvellous truths––perfected…in perpetuity…the sanctified––are exactly what they appear to be. Having done that, we shall then be able to rejoice in the fact that we are not only saved today, but we are saved forever!
The Greek word for perfected is teleioo and means to finish or make complete. Thus in John 17: 4, the Lord Jesus declares to His Father “I have glorified thee on the earth, I have completed the work which thou gavest me that I should do it”. His work was finished, completely done––there was no defect, no falling short, it was perfect. That is the meaning of the word. Thus if we question the fulness of the perfection spoken of in Heb. 10: 14, then consistency demands we do the same in John 17: 4, since the same Greek word is used in both instances.
Teleioo also occurs elsewhere in Hebrews. In chapter seven we are told that the Mosaic law “perfected nothing”(v19), and in chapter nine we are further informed that the gifts and sacrifices which were offered were “unable to perfect as to conscience him that worshipped” (v9). Finally, in chapter ten the same truths are reiterated: “For the law, having a shadow of the coming good things, not the image itself of the things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually yearly, perfect those who approach”. (v1). The plain meaning of all this is that there was a defect in the state of the worshippers which the sacrifices of the law were incapable of addressing. The law could not perfect the worshippers––it was unable to bring about a state whereby sin was removed and the conscience put at rest. Only the sacrifice of Christ could do that: “For by one offering he has perfected in perpetuity the sanctified” (v14). The meaning of perfected here then, is to the complete removal of defect. Under the Mosaic law “every priest stands daily ministering, and offering often the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (v11). There is the defect––sins. Now read the next verse: “But he, having offered one sacrifice for sins, sat down in perpetuity at [the] right hand of God” (v12). There is the contrast––here is One who has offered one effectual sacrifice (not many ineffectual sacrifices), a sacrifice that can take away sins. By this one offering “he has perfected in perpetuity the sanctified” (v14)––He has removed their defect. Once imperfect, they are now perfect. This is what Christ’s sacrifice has achieved.
Having considered perfected, we must next consider “in perpetuity”. Perpetuity is an English translation of one Greek word: dienekes. This word occurs only four times in the Scriptures (all in Hebrews), and means continuously. Thus Melchisedec, on account of his having no record of forebears or descendants, is said to abide “a priest continually” (Heb. 7: 3), without beginning or end––in stark contrast to the Aaronic priesthood which was constantly being interrupted by death. Now it is quite easy to see that if dienekes is associated by the Spirit of God in the Scriptures with our perfection, then it means that our perfection abides continually without interruption or diminishment. To suggest otherwise is to imply that the Holy Spirit was either careless in His choice of words or worse, guilty of downright deception. Both notions are clearly blasphemous.
The other three occurrences of dienekes all occur in chapter ten of Hebrews. In verse one we are told that the Mosaic Law “having a shadow of the coming good things, not the image itself of the things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually yearly, perfect those who approach”. Here dienekes is translated as continually in the English. The plain sense of this is that the offering of the prescribed sacrifices went on never–endingly for the simple reason that they could not perfect those who approached. This is proved by the reasoning of the second verse: “Since, would they not indeed have ceased being offered, on account of the worshippers once purged having no longer any conscience of sins?”. A little further on, we have a similar truth brought before us: “And every priest stands daily ministering and offering often the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (v11), which is contrasted with: “But he, having offered one sacrifice for sins, sat down in perpetuity at [the] right hand of God” (v12). Since Christ's “one sacrifice for sins” (v12) is eternally effectual, He is able to sit down “in perpetuity”––that word dienekes again. The priests of the law could never sit down because their work was never done––His work complete, He has sat down forever.
Dienekes is used in the same way in verse 14. Just as Christ has sat down “in perpetuity”, so He has “perfected in perpetuity the sanctified”. Just as His sacrificial work is forever over, so also is the perfection of the sanctified forever secure. It abides continuously and without end. They cannot be perfected on account of Christ’s work and then subsequently become defective through failure on their part, for they have been perfected “in perpetuity”. The word will not admit any watering down of its sense.
The last section of Hebrew 10: 14 that must be considered is “the sanctified”. The Greek word for “the sanctified” here is hagiazo and means separated or set apart. It is closely related to another Greek word, hagios, which, depending on context, is translated either as holy or saints in the English Bible. Now many simple Christians, whilst perhaps not understanding the depth of meaning in the words “the sanctified”, have no difficulty in seeing to whom it applies. They rightly take it to refer to believers on the Lord Jesus Christ––“them that are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26: 18). In this respect, they are wiser than some of their teachers, who have long laboured to make a distinction between saints and mere believers. Saints, as perceived by some, are persons of extraordinary piety and holiness of life, and are not generally recognised as saints until long after they are dead! The Scriptures, however, link sainthood (if one can use such an expression), not with the standard of our walk (for then we would be saints one minute and not the next, on account of our failures), but on account of our being called of God. Thus we are “called saints” (Rom. 1: 7)––saints by divine calling, and that “holy calling” is “not according to our works, but according to [his] own purpose and grace” (2 Tim. 1: 9). Put simply, God has separated a people to Himself. Of course, we ought to live up to our “heavenly calling” (Heb. 3: 1), which is why we read “but as he who has called you is holy, be ye also holy in all [your] conversation” (1 Pet. 1: 15) and “walk worthy of the calling wherewith ye have been called” (Eph 4: 1) but this does not alter the fact that our being saints depends not on what we do, but on what God has done––we are “called according to purpose” (Rom. 8: 28).
This spurious idea that sainthood is only conferred on a special elite class of Christians is disproved conclusively by Paul’s address to the assembly in Corinth: “to [those] sanctified in Christ Jesus, called saints” (1 Cor 1: 2)––and this to brethren specifically told that they were “yet carnal” (3: 3). A little later on the apostle tells the Corinthians “And these things were some of you; but ye have been washed, but ye have been sanctified, but ye have been justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6: 11)––despite it being “universally reported [that there is] fornication among you, and such fornication as [is] not even among the nations” (1 Cor. 5: 1)!
Certainly we are to ensure that our lives are sanctified in a practical sense (see 1 Thess. 4: 3–7), but as regards our position before God, we are viewed as saints––“the sanctified”. Thus in Hebrews 10: 10, hagazio, is used again: “by which will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all”. On account of the death of Christ, this is where we are before God––separated to Him. When we come to verse 14, these same persons are in view, and the apostle can say that it is the sanctified––those sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all––that are “perfected in perpetuity”.
These are simple but blessed truths. Let us never be robbed of their real and abiding sense. Lay hold, and never let go of the fact that “he has perfected in perpetuity the sanctified”! If we strive to lead holy and blameless lives here below, it is not in order to avoid forfeiting our salvation. No, rather it is because everything as regards our salvation has been settled forever, and we have a great desire to live up to the blessed and eternal position into which we have been placed, a position where we are “holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph. 1: 4). This, my friend, is the grace of God––Saved today, and saved forever.