There are many people who have taught (and others still teach today) that this passage clearly shows that a Christian can lose his or her salvation. And in a cursory reading, it does seem that this interpretation is correct.
But, as it is with many Scriptures, we should be aware of the “heresy of the first glance.”
So let’s take a close look at this passage and see what it is really teaching.
Hebrews 6:4-6 (NKJV):
4 For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit,
5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come,
6 if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.
This passage begs the question, “How can one be ‘enlightened’ and fall away?” It does seem to be speaking of someone losing his salvation.
Or does it?
The key to answering this is discovering who is the “they,” and from what have they “fallen away?"
To begin with, it is important to know that this section of Hebrews is about apostates/heretics--those who may have, to some degree, embraced the truth but have now abandoned it. It’s also important to know how the believers who originally read this message of “those who were once enlightened” would understand it. Today, we might think it means that they were enlightened about the truth or that they were regenerated. But what was the intent of the original author, and how would his readers have understood it?
“Enlightened” doesn’t always mean “regenerated” or “saved” in the Scriptures.
In this verse, it is speaking of people who were involved, perhaps heavily involved, in a church. It is likely they would have joined a congregation, heard the Gospel, and saw the Spirit working in the life of Believers. They may have received some of the blessings of being part of a covenant community, and they may have even publicly confessed Christ and have been baptized (in early Christian writings, conversion and baptism were sometimes termed “enlightenment"). But they never had a saving knowledge of Christ.
Another key word in understanding who is being described here is the word “tasted.” They only “tasted” or “sampled” Christ. They were never truly converted to faith in Him.
A good analogy would be the difference between marrying someone and just going out on a few dates with them. A person can learn things about Christ, and thereby come to admire Him; and they may enjoy being part of a fellowship but have no real lasting commitment to Him. This is not the same thing as the repentance and faith by which a person is savingly joined to Christ.
This is seen in the not uncommon situation people who have been in a church for many years, been involved in many things, never missed a service, yet are not saved. They’ve been “enlightened” by seeing God at work but only just “tasted” what was going on, never really being a part of it. They most likely would have even partaken of the Lord’s Supper as the wording in the passage suggests. But they were never really saved. To sort of paraphrase Scripture, they were “in the church but not of the Church.”
So to be a member of a church and be “enlightened” by the life of the Church and seeing God at work doesn’t guarantee salvation. Neither does being baptized, for that matter. “Enlightened” does not necessarily mean “saved.”
Ephesians 1:15-21(NKJV) uses “enlightenment” differently, but still does not mean “saved”:
15 Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints,
16 do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers:
17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him,
18 the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints,
19 and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power
20 which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places,
21 far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.
The passage is referring to a Christian (the person is already identified as such in v15), but it is a prayer that God would grant them wisdom (v16-17), and once they are given that wisdom they would then be in a state of “being enlightened” (v18) regarding their calling. So, again, the term “enlightened” is not necessarily synonymous with being saved.
In both of these cases, the Greek word for “enlightenment,” photizo, refers to doctrinal knowledge. While we need doctrine for salvation (we can’t have faith in just anything, can we?), we aren’t saved by a doctrinal understanding.
And regarding the word “partake,” metakhos, Hebrews 3:14 (NKJV) sheds further light on the matter: “For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end.” It’s not by a believer’s holding fast that they make themselves a partaker; but if they have truly partaken of Christ, they will indeed hold fast. One has to be a believer in order to hold fast, to not fall away.
Now the question is, “If the ‘they’ is someone who has ‘tasted’ of the Church, has seen what has been going on and seen God at work, has been ‘in the church but not of the Church,’ what exactly have they ‘fallen away’ from that they can’t be 'renew[ed] again to repentance’? And doesn’t that imply that they were originally brought to repentance?
John Calvin addresses this problem of “falling away” in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He writes that “experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way so similar to the Elect.” In fact, they can “truly feel the efficacy of the Gospel,” and there is no reason why the Lord could not allow the reprobate “some taste of His grace" or “irradiate their minds with some sparks of His light.” However, this is only what is called a “temporary faith.” Calvin writes further, “Not that they truly perceive the power of spiritual grace and the sure light of faith; but the Lord--the better to convict them, and leave them without excuse--instills into their minds such a sense of His goodness as can be felt without the Spirit of adoption.” Calvin states that the unsaved person in this situation lays hold to the “shadow” instead of the “substance.”
Louis Berkhof in his Systematic Theology also covers “temporary faith” as being distinguished from “true saving faith.” Berkhof writes that temporary faith is most likely “grounded in the emotional life and seeks personal enjoyment rather than the glory of God.” That’s why it is not difficult to understand why this kind of false faith is quickly lost when God or the church ceases to be fun when it loses its appeal.
Unlike saving faith, temporary faith, Berkhof writes, “is not rooted in a regenerate heart.” He locates temporary faith in God’s Word in Matthew 13:18-23 (NKJV):
The Parable of the Sower Explained
Matthew 13:18-23 (NKJV)
18 “Therefore hear the parable of the sower:
19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside.
20 But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy;
21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles.
22 Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful.
23 But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”
They were given just enough repentance in that they became members of the Visible Church, which is comprised of both wheat and chaff. Not everyone who sits next to you in a pew has been brought to repentance and faith.
That’s what they have “fallen away” from--the Visible Church, not salvation. Salvation is final as repentance is a gift of the Lord. Once you have been adopted into God’s family, you are not let go. In John 10:27-28 (NKJV), Jesus states: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.” Once we are saved, we have an eternal security that is final.
There is also a kind of falling away that is final, too. We have to keep in mind that this is not just a simple falling away where they just don’t go to church anymore but one in which a person fully renounces Christ. Once they fall away and put the things of Christ completely behind them, they simply won’t ever be gifted with any degree of repentance again. Anyone who makes such a decision was never a member of the Invisible Church.
This does not mean that those who stray for a season cannot be restored. Those who have not completely fallen away, who have not held the Son of God up to contempt, can indeed be restored to repentance. A sinner who has genuine sorrow over sin shows that the Holy Spirit is working in his heart and is not forever lost. But those who have indeed fallen away completely are impossible to restore, and God will not permit those who have committed such apostasy to come to repentance.
As for “crucify again the Son of God” and putting Him to an open shame, this is similar to the warning given in Hebrews 10:26-29 (NKJV):
26 For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,
27 but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries.
28 Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.
29 Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?
If someone leaves the Church because they don’t feel that Jesus is the Christ or that He is the only Way, it is as if they “trample the Son of God underfoot” and count Christ’s sacrifice a “common thing.” What those who fall away have done after having received the knowledge of the truth (being “enlightened”) and have gone beyond the point of repentance by rejecting God’s Son is they have joined the ranks of those who rejected Him and sentenced Him to death; in effect, “they crucify again for themselves the Son of God.” They would, if they were there, have joined the crowd who chanted, “Give us Barabbas!” “Give me something else!” is what the person is saying in abandoning Christ.
Even the leaders in Jesus’ day knew He was from God but declared Him otherwise when they strived to put Him on the Cross. Those who fall away after experiencing the truth of Christ join the religious leaders of Christ’s day in their crucifying again for themselves the Son of God.
Yet, as Hebrews 10:29 says, the punishment will be much worse for those who abandon their confession.
In rejecting Christ and thinking that there must be another way other than this narrow path, such as thinking that there are many roads to Heaven or that God gives people another chance after death or that everyone will eventually be saved, this puts Christ “to an open shame,” because it makes Him out to be a liar; and it makes a mockery of His dying once for all time for the full payment of sin. If Christ being the only Way is insufficient, if it isn’t right in a person’s eyes, this “shames” the Lord by saying, in effect, that God didn’t get it right if this is the way it is--that there must be another way. The person is saying that God has to try doing it a different way in order to get it right. It is a denial of Christ’s atonement being sufficient and that there must be more or different or better ways than this.
Yet Christ will not be crucified again--there is no need, no matter what the apostate may say. Christ died once for all time, for those who would believe in Him. He is the only Way into Heaven, and outside of Him there is no hope as there is nothing or no one else where one can find forgiveness of sin. If one chooses to abandon Christ after tasting of His goodness, they will not find salvation anywhere else, no matter where or how hard they look.
But for those who are truly His, there is nothing to fear. And that is because, as always, the focus isn’t on us but on God. The final point of TULIP ( http://carm.org/calvinism ), “Perseverance of the Saints,” would perhaps best be viewed as “Preservation of the Saints” as it is God who holds us and preserves us to the end, not ourselves (John 10:27-28: My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand). Christ is not only the author but also the finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2 looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God).
We cannot lose our salvation--as, from beginning to end, it is all undergirded by God.
For more information on some of the issues dealt with in this article:
Can the believer lose his salvation? http://carm.org/questions/about-doctrine/can-believer-lose-his-salvation
If you can lose your salvation, then what must you do to keep it? http://carm.org/if-you-can-lose-your-salvation-then-what-must-you-do-keep-it