In defense of the error of the falling away of the saints reference is made to the Scripture passage in Hebrews 6:4-8, which reads as follows:
“For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good Word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame. For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God; But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.”
It is not hard to see that those who are seeking proof from Scripture for maintaining that a saint can fall from grace would appeal to this passage. The text actually speaks of falling away. Besides that, from the description of those who fall away one might draw the conclusion that they were once a part of the church of Jesus Christ, children of God and heirs of salvation. We read that they “were once enlightened,” which would then refer to regeneration. They “tasted of the heavenly gift,” which would apply to such benefits as conversion, faith, justification, and sanctification. They “were made partakers of the Holy Ghost.” What else could that refer to, one might ask, but the presence of the Holy Spirit in their hearts? They “have tasted of the good Word of God,” which would mean that they enjoyed the preaching of the Word, were edified and enriched with the blessings of salvation. And, finally, it is mentioned that they were partakers of the “powers of the world to come,” that is, they would rejoice in the hope of everlasting life with Christ in glory. And, if this is still not convincing, these defenders of the falling away of saints will refer you to the fact that the text speaks of “renewing again,” which, they say, would be quite impossible if there had not been a first renewing.
One basic error of these opponents of the truth of the perseverance of the saints is that they ignore the fact that all Scripture speaks of their preservation. This would not be difficult to prove, but it is hardly necessary in this article. A fundamental rule is that Scripture must be interpreted in the light of all the Scriptures, so that it is a serious error to isolate this passage from the rest of the Word of God. Moreover, although this particular text obviously refers to a complete break with the church and rejection of all that is holy, the word that is used in the original for “falling away” can well be translated as “to depart from the right path,” “to wander.” No one would dare to say that anyone who falls into sin, becomes delinquent for a time, can never be restored. Especially those who quote this passage to defend the conditional promise of salvation to every baptized child certainly would not want to conclude that the child who does not “accept the proferred promise” by the time that he is 18 or 20 years old is, therefore, hopelessly lost forever.
The text plainly teaches that there are individuals who either are born in the church or enter it later in life, who for a time show a highly emotional excitement or enthusiasm about salvation, who profess to be children of God and heirs of eternal life, but whose enthusiasm soon lags, possibly because they are confronted with persecution for the faith, possibly because they must make sacrifices for the faith they profess. Or they may even be disillusioned by the imperfections of the saints, or have had trouble with one or more of the members of the church. In any case, they make an about-face, leave the church, and heap reproaches on the church, upon Christ, and upon God.
Those were “once enlightened.” They knew sound doctrine and even had a thorough understanding of the truth, so that they could ardently defend it. This knowledge, however, was purely intellectual and might be called an “historical faith.” The word for “enlightened” in the original does not always refer to regeneration, as some would maintain. See for example such passages as John 1:9, Ephesians 3:9.
They “have tasted of the heavenly gift.” They professed repentance for sin, faith in Christ Jesus as their Savior, the assurance of forgiveness of sin, and the grace to walk a godly life. In one word, they professed to be partakers of Christ and all His benefits, and did so with great enthusiasm. They were like the stony hearts in Jesus’ parable of the Sower, “where they had not much depth of earth.” Of whom Jesus says, ‘”he heareth the word, and soon receiveth it. Yet hath he no root in himself, but dureth for a while; for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended” (Matthew 13:5, 20, 21). This is commonly referred to as “temporary faith.”
Of these individuals it is also said that they “were partakers of the Holy Ghost.” This cannot possibly refer to the indwelling Spirit of Christ, the Comforter, Whom Christ sends into the hearts of His people, for this Spirit never departs, but abides with us forever (John 14:16; I John 3:24). If this did refer to the Comforter, we would surely expect that this would appear at the beginning of this series, as the very first work of grace in the heart of the sinner. Reference is made here to the gift of the Holy Spirit which came upon the church by the laying on of the hands of the apostles, whereby the members of the church prophesied, performed miracles, and spoke in tongues. Unbelievers among the saints also received these gifts, just as Judas had special powers given to him when he went out with the other disciples to preach and to teach. Scripture says of them that, “They went out from us, because they were not of us.”
Of these individuals it is added that they “have tasted the good Word of God.” They listened attentively when the Word was preached, talked about it afterward, even enthusiastically. One is reminded of the parable of the Wedding Feast of the King’s Son, at which a man appears not wearing a wedding garment, and is cast out. It must be that he was attracted to the idea of being guest at a wedding feast with all its luxuries and pleasures, especially when that wedding is given by the king in honor of his son. But he felt that he was worthy to come as he was. His clothing was sufficiently neat and attractive to qualify him to be a guest in the royal palace. He was enthusiastic about sitting at the feast and enjoying its bounties, but purely for his own satisfaction. In other words, he did not come with a broken and a contrite heart to seek his salvation only in Christ and His righteousness. The Word of God isglad tidings that proclaim to him who receives it blessedness, peace, and joy unspeakable and full of glory. God’s promises are rich and glorious, beyond our comprehension. Even the unbeliever must admit that. At death even he likes to have eulogies spoken over his casket and hopes to have a joy hereafter.
These same individuals could taste of “the power of the world to come.” This tasting is again purely external, intellectual, or emotional. What a number of songs are sung with strong feeling about the beauties and glories of heaven, even by unbelievers. When the oratorio “Messiah” is sung by an unbelieving opera singer, the singer can make a strong impression by his or her beautiful voice, perfect enunciation, and proper expression of the music. A person can enthusiastically speak of the coming of the Lord, the blessedness of the saints in the life to come, and the glory of the new creation, without having any desire to join the saints in singing everlasting praises to God and His Christ.
The text is speaking, therefore, of people who profess to have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit and incorporated into the Body of Christ. To all outward appearances they are saints in Christ Jesus. They are accepted as such by the members of the church. They may hold some prominent position in the congregation, even as deacon, or elder, or minister of the Word. Yet they fall away. They break completely with the church, become blasphemers of God and of His Christ, mock with sound doctrine, and speak evil of the people of God, even to the extent that they heap reproach and shame upon the church. Their former exuberance now turns to vehement opposition to all that is holy. They join, as it were, the angry mob that crucified the Lord of glory, putting Him to open shame. They do this to themselves, judging and declaring themselves unworthy of eternal life, worthy only of God’s righteous condemnation in hell, where they are eternally beaten with double stripes (Acts 10:39; Heb. 10:29).
The result is that it is impossible to renew them unto repentance. This does not mean that God cannot renew them, as if they were beyond the reach of Almighty God. Nothing is impossible with God. Nor does it mean that it is now impossible for them to come to repentance; for no man can come to the Father ever, unless the Father draw him. But it does mean that any effort on the part of the church or of any individual member will prove absolutely useless in trying to make them see the error of their ways. They have become so completely hardened, that any attempt to change them meets with bitter opposition.
The prophet Isaiah refers to individuals of this kind in his 6th chapter, which is quoted by Jesus in connection with the teaching of parables: “And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their hearts, and I should heal them” (Matthew 13:14, 15).
That this is the meaning of this passage is evident from the verses 7 and 8, which follow. There the figure is used of two fields, which receive the same rains that fall upon them. As a result, the field that is sown with good seed produces a good crop, pleasing to the husbandman. But the field that is sown with bad seed produces nothing but thorns and briers, fit only to be burned. The good field is the heart that is regenerated by the Holy Spirit and has the life of Christ implanted in it. When the Word is preached, that heart brings forth fruits of repentance, conscious faith, righteousness and holiness. The bad field is the unregenerate heart that is filled with evil. The plants that sprout forth are only evil continuously. They may appear for a time to be the same as the products of the good soil, but as they ripen they prove to be only thorns and briers, evil works that bring God’s righteous judgment upon them unto everlasting condemnation in hell.
This only confirms the truth of the eternal security of the saints. For God Who begins a good work in His people will surely finish it even unto everlasting life with Him in glory.