The Impossible Impossibility

February 7, 2013 | 20 comments

Hebrews 6:4-6 reveals a rather unsettling truth: We can lose our state of grace and fall away from the Lord.

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.

For those who teach what Calvinists call "the final perseverance of the saints," this text presents real problems. Some will argue the above description only refers to people who "knew about the Lord," but were never really saved to begin with. I have always wondered if those making that argument can really be satisfied with it. It seems the inspired author makes clear, almost to the point of redundancy, that he was speaking about those who have been saved and then "commit apostasy."

Another Protestant tack is to claim the author is presenting an impossible hypothetical. In other words, he's saying it would be impossible to restore again to repentance one who had truly been baptized into Jesus Christ because it is impossible for such a person to fall away to begin with.

This doesn't work, either. The author is presenting a warning of the peril of falling away from the Lord. He would hardly warn his readers of something that is impossible to actually happen.

Protestant attempts to circumvent the obvious are weak at best. Most Protestants with whom I have spoken will even acknowledge this to be true. In the end, I have found that the one defending his "eternally secure" status will nearly invariably attempt to turn the tables on his Catholic opposition by claiming the Catholic proves too much. If this text is saying one can fall away, then it also says the one who falls away cannot be restored. This would be contrary to Catholic teaching.

The greater context of the entire epistle gives us the answer to this apparent difficulty. Hebrews was written to... you guessed it... Hebrews. But more specifically to Hebrew Christians who were being tempted to go back to the Old Covenant priesthood, sacrifices, and other practices, like circumcision, in order to be saved. It is in this context—from start to finish—that the inspired author runs the gamut on Jewish belief showing how Christ is greater than and/or is the fulfillment of the entire Old Covenant.

In chapters one and two, Jesus is revealed to be greater than the angels; he's revealed to be God. In chapters three and four, he is our true high priest, greater than Moses, and fulfillment of what the Sabbath symbolized. In chapters five and seven, he is the antitype of Melchizadek. In chapter eight, he is superior to and the fulfillment of the Old Covenant in establishing the New. In chapters nine and ten, he is superior to the temple and its sacrifices. And it is in this context that the inspired author then exhorts his readers to endure the persecution that had already begun by this time (see 10:32-39). He calls them to "hold fast the confession of [their] hope without wavering" (10:23), and to remain faithful to the Church Jesus established rather than go back to an Old Covenant and its sacrifices that have no power to save (10:25-31; 12:18-25; 13:7-10).

If we understand the greater context, we understand that the author of Hebrews is not saying it is impossible to be forgiven of the sin of apostasy; rather, it is impossible for those who "have tasted the heavenly gift" of the New Covenant and would then return to the Old Covenant to be saved. Why? Because they are trusting in a covenant, law, priesthood, sacrifice, and more that do not possess the power to save. They are returning to a well without water.

If these same Hebrews, or by allusion anyone down through the centuries who may have apostatised, turn back to Christ and his Church trusting in the graces that alone come from the sacrifice of Christ, then of course they can be restored to a saving relationship with God.

 

  

 


Tim Staples is Director of Apologetics and Evangelization here at Catholic Answers, but he was not always Catholic. Tim was raised a Southern Baptist. Although he fell away from the faith of his childhood, Tim came back to faith in Christ during his late teen years through the witness of Christian...

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Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Joshua Fitzgerald - Jackson,

This is not an explanation of the passage. It is explaining away the passage.

December 6, 2013 at 7:18 pm PST
#2  Joshua Fitzgerald - Jackson,

Actually, I apologize, I'm not sure I understood what you meant.

December 7, 2013 at 9:34 pm PST
#3  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

What part didn't you understand?

March 30, 2014 at 10:31 am PST
#4  Joshua Fitzgerald - Jackson,

Well did he mean to say that one could be saved, then lose their salvation and then regain their salvation? That is what I thought. Honestly I think that is what he was saying. I just didn't want to say something offensive so I apologized, but I would still like to know.

June 15, 2014 at 6:19 pm PST
#5  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Joshua,
It is certainly true that one could be saved, then lose one's salvation, and then regain that salvation. But that is not the point the inspired author is making in Hebrews 6:4-6. He is simply saying that it is impossible for those who fall away to be restored if they are going to a source that cannot save them. The "Judaizers" were doing just that. They were attempting to be saved by going to the Old Covenant, sacrifices, priesthood, etc.

June 25, 2014 at 9:07 am PST
#6  Joshua Fitzgerald - Jackson,

I'm getting more confused. I thought the goal of this blog post was to prove that this passage "reveals a rather unsettling truth: We can lose our state of grace and fall away from the Lord." So are you saying that a person who falls away can repent unless thay join another religion?

June 25, 2014 at 12:23 pm PST
#7  Joshua Fitzgerald - Jackson,

The last paragraph of this blood post seems to contradict that notion. The blog post says they can be restored to repentance.

June 25, 2014 at 12:45 pm PST
#8  Joshua Fitzgerald - Jackson,

Blog post*

June 25, 2014 at 12:46 pm PST
#9  Joshua Fitzgerald - Jackson,

Are you saying "fall away" means someone can lose salvation but only if they join another religion?

June 25, 2014 at 12:58 pm PST
#10  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Joshua,
In response to your #6: I'm not sure what you are confused about. I demonstrated that Heb. 6:4-6 teaches one can lose their state of grace. You then asked if it taught one can lose their salvation and get it back again. I said that is not what those verses are saying. Those verses speak of falling a away and it being impossible to regain salvation because the ones who have fallen away are rejected the source of our salvation, Jesus Christ. Going beyond those verses, we know it was because these Judaizers were going back to the Old Covenant priesthood, law, sacrifices, etc. for salvation. I don't know what you are confused about.

Also, when you said, "So are you saying that a person who falls away can repent unless thay join another religion?" The answer is no. What I said was the people that the inspired author was writing about were folks who could not be saved because they were rejecting Christ and his Covenant that they had known and experienced. We can extrapolate from that that anyone who does this will be lost. You can't be restored to Christ if you are rejecting Christ and his New Covenant.

June 28, 2014 at 9:10 am PST
#11  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Joshua,

In response to your #7:

Yes, anyone can be restored to repentance, but only if they truly repent and accept Jesus Christ and the New Covenant.

June 28, 2014 at 9:12 am PST
#12  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Joshua,

I response to your #9.

No. I never said one can only fall away by joining another religion. I don't know where you got that from. One falls away from Christ by rejecting Jesus Christ and/or the New Covenant that he established. One can fall away by committing adultery, for example. That is a grave act that is contrary to the New Covenant. If someone were to commit this sin and refuse to repent, he will be lost. But he can be restored by repenting and confessing that sin. One can fall away by any number of sins against faith, hope, or charity. But if one truly repents, he can be restored.

In the case of the Judaizers about whom the inspired author of Hebrews speaks, they fell away because they rejected the New Covenant Jesus established (and in so doing, they rejected Christ), and were attempting to be saved through a priesthood, law, sacrifices, etc. that have no power to save them. They must repent and come back to Christ and his New Covenant in order to be saved.

June 28, 2014 at 9:19 am PST
#13  Joshua Fitzgerald - Jackson,

I know you recognize that Hebrews 6:4-6 doesn't talk about regaining salvation, but this blog post's purpose was also to demonstrate that these veres didn't teach that is impossible to regain a state of grace. I am confused about how the fact that Hebrews is directed to Hebrew Christians that were in danger of returning to the Old Covenant priesthood, law, sacrifices, etc. means that this passage can't possibly mean that it is imossible for apostates to be restored to repentance. How is that? That was probably a run on, but I think you'll understand my question.

June 29, 2014 at 2:16 pm PST
#14  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Joshua,

Read my post. That is what it is about. If you disagree, you disagree.

But I will say this. Those who take this text to mean those who fall away cannot be restored at all are taking this text out of context. It is not saying it is impossible for any apostate to be restored. The entire letter is dealing with Judaizers who were attempting to be saved apart from Christ and his New Covenant. That is why it would be impossible for them to be restored. They are attempting to be saved by rejecting God's salvation.

By allusion we could say that anyone who would so attempt could not be restored. But we can't say that no one who falls away can be restored. Not only does that fly in the face of the entire context of Hebrews, but it rejects the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15, the purpose of excommunication in I Cor. 5:5, and what Scripture reveals in many places about the mercy of God (Matt. 18:22, Prov. 24:16, etc.).

If those Judaizers to whom the inspired author were to return to Christ in his Church, of course they could be restored. That is one of the reasons why the inspired author was writing his letter. He was writing to bring folks to their senses and to bring them back to Christ in his Church.

June 29, 2014 at 9:08 pm PST
#15  Joshua Fitzgerald - Jackson,

So your saying it's not likely that they would be restored if they rejected Jesus and I'm saying it's impossible like the passage does. I don't see how I'm taking it out of context, I'm believing what the Bible says.

June 30, 2014 at 9:19 am PST
#16  Joshua Fitzgerald - Jackson,

Mabye it's somthing with the Greek.

June 30, 2014 at 9:20 am PST
#17  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Joshua,

As I said in my last comment, it is impossible for people to be saved who knowingly reject Jesus and the New Covenant.

July 1, 2014 at 2:47 pm PST
#18  Alex Key - FPO, Armed Forces Pacific

Hi,

This verse has greatly troubled me. I thought he made it clear he was addressing people who had not done this when saying "But we believe better things regarding you, things that lead to salvation...".
I suppose I am bothered because I am afraid that this verse says that I can not repent of apostasy, even if I want to do so.
I am also bothered by multiple interpretations...how do I know what to think?
I am not trying to be contrary, maybe I am being scrupulous. It does seem to contradict God's history of forgiving Israel multiple times....
Any help is appreciated.
Thank you

July 13, 2014 at 12:54 am PST
#19  Tim Staples - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Alex,
As Catholics we know that God's grace is always extended to anyone who wills to be saved. So there is nothing to worry about. If we have sin in our lives, we repent, go to Confession and get back on track.
As I said in my post, it is only impossible to be restored to the Lord if you are going to a source that cannot save you. That is the point of Hebrews. These were folks who knew and experienced the truth, but were rejecting that truth in favor of a lie.

July 14, 2014 at 11:25 am PST
#20  Alex Key - FPO, Armed Forces Pacific

Thank you. I do find that helpful.
God bless, and thank you for your help and patience.

July 17, 2014 at 3:12 am PST

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