by Chris Ritter

Those of us in the Quad Cities area have enjoyed watching the construction of the new I-74 Bridge over the Mississippi River. This $1.2 billion project reached a major milestone recently as the first of the the basket-handle arches was completed with the insertion of a capstone piece. It’s going to be so very nice having that new bridge completed.

We are coming into a section of Hebrews about the priestly ministry of Jesus. The word “priest” in Latin is pontifex… meaning “bridge-builder.” Priests connect God to humans and humans to God. Jesus is our pontifex maximus… our Great High Priest.

But another aspect of the I-74 bridge project is detours. They always seem to be changing as the approaches to the new bridge on the Iowa and Illinois sides are completed. And Hebrews also contains a detour or two.

I have argued that Hebrews is best understood as a sermon. It contains some memorable one-liners. It is written to bring us to a point of decision. Sometimes preachers take detours. The best are “Holy Ghost digressions” when the Spirit moves the preacher in a direction she/he had not planned to go. Sometimes something happens in the congregation that gets the preacher off track a bit. And then there is what Bishop Frank Beard calls “chasing a skinny rabbit”… meaning a side trip that was not that worthwhile.

The author of Hebrews sets out in 4:14 to tell us about Jesus our Great High Priest. But, something happens and he goes off on another topic of twenty-four verses. So I decided to cover the detour today and we will cover the main argument next week. Let’s go off-road today, starting at Hebrews 5:11:

Hebrews 5

11 We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. 12 In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

Hebrews 6 

Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so.

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.

Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation. 10 God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. 11 We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. 12 We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.

If I had to summarize the Book of Hebrews in one sentence, it would probably be something like this: The Supremacy our Savior and Sufficiency of our Salvation calls us to Persistent and Purposeful Faith. The original hearers are in danger of slipping backwards in their faith. If Hebrews is a kick in the pants, it is a beautiful one. The motivation for pressing forward is none other vivid portraits of Jesus through the lens of the Old Testament.

Jesus is greater than the angels…meaning that we have a better covenant with a better mediator of that covenant. Jesus is greater than Moses… meaning that we have a better deliverance, a better destination, and a better Sabbath. In Chapter Four, we have an extended section high-lighting that we have a better bridge-builder, a better priest, in the person of Jesus. And the preacher finds precedent for a Higher Priesthood in an obscure Old Testament character named Melchizedek.

Sometimes, a preacher mentions something and she/he can almost see everyone’s eyes glaze over simultaneously.  When I was a kid I remember preachers saying they were going to tell us seven important things. About a half-hour into the sermon, they say, “Secondly.” This just went from a sermon to a hostage situation. People might stay in their seats, but they have mentally checked out. Mention of Melchizedek has that effect on people.  (Next week we are going to spend a whole message on Melchizedek and see some amazing spiritual truths about Jesus, our Great High Priest.)

In my imagination, the mention of Melchizedek and everyone’s eyes glazing over at once triggers this passionate detour related to spiritual growth and progress:

“About this we have much to say, and is hard to explain since you have become dull of hearing.” (Hebrews 5:11)

The preacher wants to wade into some deeper water and the people don’t seem to be very ready to listen. “You ought to be teachers by now, but you seem to need someone to go over the basics with you again and again.  I want to do some trigonometry and you guys are still one single-digit addition. You need milk, and not solid food.”

Have to ever fed a baby? Sometimes those strained peas get spit right back out at you. The preacher wants to put the jar of Gerbers away and is inviting us to a steak dinner. Let’s get out of elementary school and on to higher learning.

The preacher lists the things that he considers elementary-level stuff:

  • Repentance from dead works.
  • Faith in God.
  • Instructions about washings (Baptism seems to have grown up out of ritual washing done in certain Jewish Communities.)
  • The laying on of hands. (That may refer to prayer during baptism, or maybe to set someone aside for ministry.  These are formal acts of worship.)
  • The Resurrection of the Dead and eternal judgement… our basic Christian hope for the future.

Can the Found Be Lost?

Hebrews 6 is Famous because it is THE PLACE in the New Testament with the starkest warnings (alongside Revelation) about falling away from the Faith. And Hebrews our passage today gets sucked into a long-standing debate within Protestant Christianity.  Namely, can a Christian lose their salvation?

In the 1600’s there were two schools of thought that developed about Salvation out of the Reformation, based on the evidence of Scripture.  One is focused around John Calvin.  Calvin put high emphasis on the sovereignty of God in salvation.  His theology was later systematized into Five Points… and the Acronymn TULIP.

T stands for “Total Depravity.”  Humans are totally sinful and completely lost.  There is nothing that we can do to save ourselves.  In fact, we are so lost that we wouldn’t know salvation if it bit us on the leg.  We are dead to God.

U stands for “Unconditional Election.”  God selects certain ones of his totally depraved creatures for salvation, not based on anything other than His divine choice.  This is sometimes called Predestination.  God predestines some to be saved.  And that implies a sort of Double Predestination.  If he selects some to be saved, that means that he selects others to be damned.

L stands for “Limited Atonement.”  Jesus died for the sins of the elect.  His death would have been enough for the sins of all, but the merits of his death are only applied to the elect.

I is “Irresistible Grace.”  If God wants you to be saved, there is nothing you can do about it.  You will become a devoted Christian.

P is “Perseverance of the Saints.”  If you are one of the elect, there is nothing you can do to lose your salvation.  “Once saved, always saved.”

Hebrews 6 gives Calvinists heartburn.

Now the other side of the argument springs from Dutch Theologian Jacob Arminius.  But the most popular Arminian was and is John Wesley, the fountainhead of the Methodist movement.  So often this gets pitted as John Calvin vs. John Wesley.

John Wesley would say, yes, humans are sinful.  But that fact that God calls and convicts by his Holy Spirit is a type of grace that awakens us to a point at which we can say yes or no to his offer of salvation.  Because God is wooing everyone, everyone has the ability to respond.  This isn’t our doing, this is God’s doing.

John Wesley would say that Calvin misunderstands what election (predestination) is.  It is not God individually choosing some to be saved and some to be damned.  It is God, rather, predetermining that all who believe in His Son, Jesus, will be saved.  And all who reject His Son will be lost. This is not an individual predestination but a corporate one.

John Wesley would starkly disagree with Calvin that Jesus died for some.  Jesus died for all!  This is simple John 3:16.  God so loved the world that WHOSOEVER believes on him should not perish but have everlasting life.

Irresistible grace? Wesley would say that humans are always resisting God’s grace.  We have free will and grace does not override that.  Humans resisting God’s grace is the whole story of human history. Our ability to choose is part of the imago dei, the image of God in us.

And that brings us to Perseverance of the Saints (aka “once saved, always saved”).  Wesley would argue that just as faith is the God-ordained means of salvation, rejecting that faith puts us right back where we were before we received Grace.  This doesn’t mean that we are lost every time we sin.  But walking away from faith is walking away from Jesus and the salvation he provides for us.

Baptists and Methodists

As America pushed westward, the dignified, established churches waited for the railroads to be built. Two less-dignified groups set out to evangelize anywhere and everywhere on horseback: The Methodists and the Baptists. Back on the East Coast, Baptists tended to be TULIP Calvinists.  Wesleyan Methodists have always been Arminians.  Out on the frontier together, the Methodists beat the Calvinism out of our Baptists friends. Five-point Calvinism did not play well on the American frontier… It was so pre-determismistic and potentially elitist.  Methodists preached Free Grace “for all” which resonated with the American spirit. But one idea from Calvin stuck with the Baptists: One Saved, Always Saved.

Calvin taught that Perseverance is one of the marks of Election.  How can you know if you are one of the elect?  You won’t fall away from the Faith. When a Baptist leaves the church and goes off into a life of sin, the other Baptists say, “Well, he must not have really been saved to begin with.” But do you know what Baptists worry about at night?  Am I really saved or not?  So a doctrine that was meant to be a source of huge comfort has become a source of anxiety.

We Wesleyans have always allowed that someone can lose their faith and be lost. But that does not equate with eternal insecurity. We emphasize the witness of the Holy Spirit.  God’s Spirit testifies to our Spirit that we are the children of God.  The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts. We experience the ongoing love and direction of God through the Holy Spirit, and so we know we are the children of God.

Someone said it this way, “Methodists know they have it, but are afraid they are going to lose it.  Baptists know they can’t lose it, but are afraid they don’t have it.”

BUT YOU KNOW WHAT BOTH SYSTEMS ARE REALLY SAYING?  Christians must continue in the Faith… growing, loving, worshipping, serving.  Period. So both Arminians and Calvinists agree with Hebrews 6 in this way: Sticking in the faith is essential.

And that is exactly what Hebrews 6 is saying.  But the way that it says it has caused a lot of consternation:

Hebrew 6:4-6

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

For sure, this passage gives Calvinists heart-burn.  (Don’t put your faith in a theological system, put your faith in a person, Jesus Christ.)  They have to argue that the author here is not talking about real Christians, but about unsaved people in the church, etc. 

But how can you fall away from a place you have never been?  You can’t fall off a wagon I never got on, anymore than you can come back from someplace you have never been.

But Hebrews should give Methodists heart-burn, too.  Because it not only seems to say that you can fall away, but also… once you fall away, it is impossible to repent and come back.

Hebrews 6 is as problematic for us free grace folks as it is for the Calvinists.

The Impossible

There are four “impossibles” in Hebrews:

  • Hebrews 6:18: “It is impossible for God to lie.”  That speaks to God’s covenant faithfulness.
  • Hebrews 10:4: “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”  That speaks to the need for a New Covenant.
  • Hebrews 11:6: “Without faith, it is impossible to please God.”  That speaks to the great condition of our salvation.
  • And, of course, Hebrews 6:4:  “It is impossible for those once enlightened, who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance.”

Humanly speaking, our repentance and salvation is always impossible.  But Jesus said it best, “All things are possible with God.”

The word “impossible” in Hebrews 6:4 is a warning. Don’t just wander off from the faith assuming you can wander back whenever you want. Your salvation depended upon a special moment of recognition of sin enabled by the Holy Spirit. If you walk around with a hard heart, you will be less open to the work of the Holy Spirit than ever. You are putting yourself in a very dangerous place.

The preacher, here, is dangling us over hell for a minute.  He is warning us.  He is even scolding us. Be careful about walking away from the faith.  How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?

A Change in Tone

But in Hebrews 6:9, the preacher takes a much different tone.  Today is Father’s Day. Raise your hand if you have ever been yelled at by your dad. Hebrews 12 says that our earthly fathers disciplined us as seemed best to them because they love us. If we are not disciplined by our dads, then we are not legitimately their children. Some of our dads were better at this than others.

Anyone ever go running to your room crying after dad yelled at you? About twenty minutes later, there would be a knock on the bedroom door. Dad would ask to come in and sit on the corner of your bed. He would speak in a must softer tone: “I love you. I believe in you. Here is why I was upset. Here is the better thing I want for you.”

After the scolding and the warning, Hebrews turns to this same sort of kind, fatherly, pastoral tone:

Hebrews 6:9-12

Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation. 10 God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. 11 We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. 12 We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.

He goes from warning to encouragement. “I don’t want you to be lazy.  I want you, with faith and patience, to press on toward the promised land.” After the warning comes a call for growth, faith, and obedience. The best defense from falling away from the faith is a good offense of spiritual growth, love for God’s word, and abiding in prayer.

Even though this is a detour, it hits upon one of the grand themes of the larger Book of Hebrews: Pressing on toward spiritual maturity. John Wesley talked about growing toward a perfect love or God and neighbor. The Christian life is not really about how much you know but how much you love. That doesn’t mean that we can check our brains at the door. We must be formed both mentally and spiritually by God’s Word. We need to be able to handle spiritual meat, not just milk. Chapter five says we need to be skilled in the Word of Righteousness. We need to be able to discern good from evil. God forms our conscience so that we hate what He hates and love what God loves.

Hebrews 5:12 says that we should be able to teach the oracles of God. The goal is not just to understand the Scriptures, but to be able to teach the Scriptures to others. Can you walk someone through the Bible on how to be saved? Can you sit a child down and say, “Here is what you need to know.”

And, above all else, spiritual maturity is abiding in Christ. This means abiding in the Word, abiding in prayer, and staying vitally and spiritually connected with Christ.

I remember the summer before high school. My dad informed me that I would not be spending that summer playing by Atari 5200. My help was needed in the field. He put me on his John Deere 4020 (with tricycle tires designed to throw dirt in your face) and gave me a lesson. He told me to pick out a fence post way on the opposite side of the field. “Don’t look to the right or the left. Just keep heading toward that post. If you do that, you will lay a straight furrow.”

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The preacher of Hebrews is inviting us to choose our destination and head there with all expediency. “Fix your eyes on Jesus” he says more than once. If you do that, you won’t have to worry about falling away.