The Danger of Rejecting Christ from within the Church

October 11, 2010

by Bill Brown

An Exposition of Hebrews 6:4-6

Hebrews 6:4-6 For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.

There is no greater honor than to be raised in a Christian home; a home where Jesus Christ is worshiped through word and deed. A child born into such a home is exposed to the words of life. The rich heritage of faith is able to be observed at home and also in the church. If that child is so blessed, he will spend many Lord’s Days hearing the Word of God preached by a faithful man of God. He will be the recipient of the love of the saints. In short, he will be witness to a bit of heaven as he sees God’s people operate within a covenant community.

There is a strong probability that this child will make a profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This profession will most surely be followed by believer’s baptism. The child, his family, and his larger church family will rejoice over he who was once lost, now being found. Within the incubator that is the local church, this child will most likely participate in church or youth functions. He will share his faith in Christ with others. He may even go on a mission’s trip or two. By all accounts he will be considered a child of God and meet with the approval of those within the church.

Contrast this to the adult who was not raised in the church. He is invited to church by a friend and hears the Gospel for the first time. He responds to the Gospel call claiming faith in Christ. He also submits to the waters of baptism and joins the church. While he may not come from a lineage of faith, he displays evidence of being a genuine believer. He participates in church activities, attends Sunday school, and even comes out to mid-week prayer and bible study. Just like the child who is born into a Christian home and professes faith in Christ, this adult convert is also blessed by being part of the covenant community of believers. All the blessings that God provides the visible church are his to share.

While these two scenarios are often played out in real life in churches throughout the world, there is also another scenario that is just as real. The Apostle John describes this other scenario. “They went out from us, but they were not really of us…” No Christian is surprised at the rejection of the Gospel by unbelievers. Indeed, Jesus warned us that the majority of people will not heed the Gospel call. “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” But while we expect the majority of sinners to turn their back to the call of repentance and life, it is another thing entirely when those who once professed to be Christians leave the faith. It is not a trivial matter to turn ones back on Christ and to deceive the Holy Spirit. For the Arminian it may be less of a problem. Their deficient gospel allows for a person to go in and out of a state of grace. But to those who possess a fervent desire to understand the Word of the Lord, what is the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews saying? Is it truly impossible for those who have fallen away to be renewed again to repentance? Are they forever lost, and like Bunyan’s character in the iron cage who lamented, “I laid the reins upon the neck of my lusts; I sinned against the light of the Word and the goodness of God; I have grieved the Spirit, and He is gone; I tempted the devil, and he has come to me; I have provoked God to anger, and He has left me; I have so hardened my heart that I cannot repent.” To come to an answer we need to examine the text closely.

Jews and their bent towards the Law

The most common doctrinal heresy among converted Jews was the mixture of law and grace. Those who promulgated this heresy were called Judaizers. John MacArthur writes, “It was when their own priests and prophets compromised God’s truth that the Israelites were most prone to idolatry and other pagan practices. It was false teachers claiming to preach the gospel who were most successful in weakening the early church, epitomized by the legalistic Judaizers who wreaked spiritual havoc on the churches of Galatia.” (MacArthur) The Epistle to the Hebrews was written to a Jewish audience. The same ancient heresy that plagued the region of Galatia was also at work among Hebrews intended recipients. Indeed, the epistle continually informs its Jewish audience that Jesus Christ is the One of whom the prophets foretold (Heb. 1:2). The Old Testament ceremonial law is carefully unpacked and revealed to be fulfilled in Jesus. The supremacy of Jesus over Moses (and the Law) is explained in chapter 3. “For He has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, by just so much as the builder of the house has more honor than the house. (Heb. 3:3)” Jesus did away with the ritual act of animal sacrifice for the atonement of sin by the “better sacrifice” of Himself. “For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; nor was it that He would offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. (Heb. 9:24-26)” In the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul confronted the Galatian church with the seriousness of their error. “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal. 3:1-3)” And to dispel any doubt as to the seriousness of this doctrinal heresy, Paul indicated the outcome of such apostasy. “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! (Gal. 1:8, 9)” By pronouncing an apostolic anathema (accursed), Paul was stating that it would be impossible for these false teachers to repent. Serious business, indeed!

Enlightened but not in the light

Hebrews 6:4 tell us that those who have fallen away were once enlightened to the things of God. Literally this means that the light shined on them. However, this does not mean they possessed that which the light exposed. The light that shined on them was the ordinary work of the Holy Spirit in making known the saving power of the Gospel. John Owen writes, “They were enlightened by the instruction they had received in the doctrine of the Gospel and the impression made on their minds by the Holy Spirit. This is the normal work of the Spirit. (Owen) The tragedy contained in this passage is easily dismissed if the reader is not careful. Those who have been enlightened have been shown the light of the world, Christ, but they have not made the light their own. They remain on the outside of the house, illumined by the light within, able to peer inside the heavenly contents, but they have not entered the house to be immersed in the light. They do not, as the Apostle John writes, “abide(s) in the light. (1 Joh. 2:10). This abiding means to remain. Those who have fallen away do not remain in the light. As we will see, the true light becomes to them as a mocking shadow of death.

Taste, Partake, and Forsake

Those who have fallen away “have tasted of the heavenly gift.” On first glance this may appear as strange verbiage to describe an apostate. How does an apostate taste of Christ; of eternal life? This phrase describes the Lord’s Supper. The apostate has been an impostor inside the covenant family of God. He has partakien of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. By all outward indicators he is a Christian; a legitimate receiver of the cup and the bread, and the grace contained within. And isn’t that what believers do when they come to the table of the Lord? Do they not in a real spiritual sense partake of Christ’s body and blood (1 Cor. 11:23-25)? So then, the apostate comes to the Lord’s Table and joins with the covenant body. He tastes, but he is not satisfied (Lev. 6:26). Has not the cup of blessing now become a cup of cursing?

By partaking of the Holy Spirit, the apostate enjoys the benefits of the Spirit as a guest, not a son. As the saints display their Christian love for each other, the apostate will be in their midst. He will witness the supernatural work of the Spirit in ministering to the saints. Because he is counted as one of them he will receive of these blessings, but he will not possess them. He will experience the “powers of the age to come” by seeing souls genuinely saved and lives changed. He will be in the midst of those who are citizens of heaven while he will remain under the dominion of the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience (Eph. 2:2).

Finally, their true character can no longer remain hidden. Paul admonished the Corinthians, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness (2 Cor. 6:14)? Light and darkness cannot co-exist. They cannot not remain with the body because they were never of the body.

Impossible to Repent

This is the most difficult part of this passage. Is it truly impossible for the apostate to repent? The short answer is, yes. This is not a contingent passage. Those who leave the faith are not coming back. Of course, they’ve never actually left the faith as in having once possessed it. But they have still left the communion of the true saints. They will never return for it is impossible for them to do so? Why? Because they have despised the cross of Christ. By their apostasy they actually mock the cross. Since they have turned their back on the only means for their forgiveness, there no longer remains any hope. Now, we do not know who has actually fallen away. The most extreme form of church discipline, excommunication, exists to call the wayward Christian to repentance. I have personally seen this happen in the life of a brother who had seemingly abandoned the faith for nearly sixteen years. Through the work of the Spirit, and God’s glorious mercy and grace, this brother repented of his sin and was reconciled back to the church that had lovingly disciplined him. He is now walking in obedience to our Lord’s commands. His repentance is proof that he had not forsaken the Lord completely.

Our Charge and Warning

We are not in the position of the Apostles. It is not for us to pronounce an anathema upon those who, for all intents and purposes, have abandoned the faith. Perhaps they are wayward sheep whom the Lord is severely chastising by turning them over to their sinful desires. Once they have drank of the cup of bitterness, perhaps the Lord will show them mercy and bring them to repentance. We must be willing to receive the repentant brother back in the family of God. But there remains a warning to the child of God who has not fallen away. “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God (Heb. 3:12).” We are to patrol our own hearts for they are deceitfully wicked. Although the child of God will persevere until the end, he cannot take that for granted and presume upon the grace of the Lord.

MacArthur, John. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary – Galatians. Chicago: Moody Press, 1983.
Owen, John. Hebrews, Crossway Classic Commentaries. Nottingham, England: Crossway Books, 1998.

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