Among the sons of Calvin with whom I grew up, apostasy probably is the most misunderstood of all doctrines. We rejected the teaching out of hand, partly because it conflicted with our “once saved, always saved” belief, partly as a reaction against the unbiblical “lose your salvation” doctrine taught at the church across town.

One reason for our misunderstanding was that we failed to look carefully at the verses that deal with security and apostasy. Even some of the most astute Bible scholars and teachers miss (or ignore) important nuances in those passages.
Hebrews 6:4-8 is a particularly good example:

“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. For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.” (NAS)

Much of the discussion on this passage focuses on whether verses 4-6 describe a believer. Many evangelical commentators take the position that it describes someone “almost saved.” They focus on the words ‘enlightened’ and ‘tasted’ and argue this could describe a person who benefits from close proximity to believers but decides not to accept Christ.

They don’t usually focus much attention on the phrase “have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit.” Personally, I’ve never understood how that could describe someone who has stopped short of accepting Christ.

On the other hand, however, those who argue the passage describes an apostate aren’t looking closely at the wording either. Verse 8 says this person is “close to being cursed.” Even dangerously close still is only close.

Each side has to ignore or distort a key element of the passage to make its explanation work. What both sides miss is who this passage says is in danger of going to hell: Someone who has been a Christian for years but has yet to step up and accept his Christ-commanded responsibility to make disciples.

Consider 6:1 – “Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity ….”

‘Therefore’ connects the frightening passage in chapter 6 with these words in the previous chapter:

“Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” (5:11-14 NAS)

When you look at the context, you see the issue in chapter 6 is not backsliding or being “almost saved.” In fact, the person in danger of being cursed is a Christian who refuses to accept the responsibilities of maturity. He continually benefits from the “rain” – good teaching and preaching, spiritual worship, strong fellowship – but he refuses to produce the fruit that is the whole reason the Gardener is pouring good things into his life. Instead, he yields “thorns and thistles.”

Some churches preach and teach about “bearing fruit” for the Kingdom. We have heard sermons on Mark 4:8, about the seed that fell on good soil, “and they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.” (NAS)

But many of us attended church for decades without hearing anyone say that bearing fruit was required. Most members of the churches I grew up in would have rejected that idea outright. Leading others in following Christ is a good thing, but no one is going to hell for not teaching or evangelizing, right? (This is where the “once saved, always saved” rationalization comes in real handy.)

We know John 15:5 tells us that the Christian who “abides” in Christ “bears much fruit,” and 15:8 tells us that “glorifies” God. Too few of us, however, have heard plain teaching on v.6: “If anyone does not abide in me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.”

“Burned”? As in “close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned”?

No, John 15:6 actually is a warning about hell fire, whereas the fire faced by the “worthless” Christian of Hebrews 6:8 is more like the one a farmer sets in a field that isn’t yielding good harvests. He burns it off to restore nutrients to the soil, so it will become rich and fertile.

Hebrews 6 warns that a resolutely immature Christian is going to be “burned off” like that and even is in danger of experiencing the fate of an apostate. Refusing to help make disciples is willful disobedience to the command of Christ himself. (Matthew 28:19-20) And we remember that “if we go on sinning willfully … there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and ‘the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.’” (Hebrews 10:26-31 NAS)

The longtime Christian who still insists on breastfeeding isn’t hell bound – yet – but he needs to know Daddy takes a very dim view of his refusal to grow up.

Next installment

Chapter 12
Don’t throw this gift away

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