leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ] Lit., “leaving the discourse of the beginning of Christ,” i.e. getting beyond the earliest principles of Christian teaching. He does not of course mean that these first principles are to be neglected, still less forgotten, but merely that his readers ought to be so familiar with them as to be able to advance to less obvious knowledge.
let us go on] Lit., “let us be borne along,” as by the current of a stream. The question has been discussed whether the Author in saying “let us,” is referring to himself or to his readers. It is surely clear that he means (as in Heb_4:14) to imply both, although in the words “laying a foundation” teachers may have been principally in his mind. He invites his readers to advance with him to doctrines which lie beyond the range of rudimentary Christian teaching. They must come with him out of the limits of this Jewish-Christian Catechism.
unto perfection] The “perfection” intended is the “full growth” of those who are mature in Christian knowledge (see Heb_5:14). They ought not to be lingering among the elementary subjects of catechetical instruction which in great measure belonged no less to Jews than to Christians.
not laying again] There is no need for a foundation to be laid a second time. He is not in the least degree disparaging the importance of the truths and doctrines which he tells them to “leave,” but only urging them to build on those deep foundations the necessary superstructure. Hence we need not understand the Greek participle in its other sense of “overthrowing.”
the foundation] Lit., “a foundation.” The subjects here alluded to probably formed the basis of instruction for Christian catechumens. They were not however exclusively Christian; they belonged equally to Jews, and therefore baptised Christian converts ought to have got beyond them.
repentance from dead works] Repentance is the first lesson of the Gospel (Mar_1:15). “Dead works” are such as cause defilement, and require purification (Heb_9:14) because they are sinful (Gal_5:19-21) and because their wages is death (Rom_6:23); but “the works of the Law,” as having no life in them (see our Article xiii.), may be included under the epithet.
faith towards God] This is also one of the initial steps in religious knowledge. How little the writer meant any disparagement of it may be seen from Heb_11:1-2; Heb_11:6.
Therefore – “Since, as was stated in the previous chapter, you ought to be capable of comprehending the higher doctrines of religion; since those doctrines are adapted to those who have been for a considerable time professors of Christianity, and have had opportunities of growing in knowledge and grace – as much as strong meat is for those of mature years – leave now the elements of Christian doctrine, and go on to understand its higher mysteries.” The idea is, that to those who had so long been acquainted with the way of salvation, the elements of Christianity were no more adapted than milk was for grown persons.
Leaving – Dismissing; intermitting; passing by the consideration of with a view to advance to something higher. The apostle refers to his discussion of the subject, and also to their condition. He wished to go on to the contemplation of higher doctrines, and he desired that they should no longer linger around the mere elements. “Let us advance to a higher state of knowledge than the mere elements of the subject.” On the sense of the word “leaving,” or quitting with a view to engage in something else, see Mat_4:20, Mat_4:22; Mat_5:24.
The principles – Margin: “The word of the beginning of Christ.” Tyndale renders it: “let us leave the doctrine pertaining to the beginning of a Christian man.” Coverdale, “let us leave the doctrine pertaining to the beginning of a Christian life.” On the word “principles” see the note on Heb_5:12. The Greek there, indeed, is not the same as in this place, but the idea is evidently the same. The reference is to what he regarded as the very elements of the Christian doctrine; and the meaning is, “let us no longer linger here. We should go on to higher attainments. We should wholly understand the system. We should discuss and receive its great principles. You have been long enough converted to have understood these; but you linger among the very elementary truths of religion. But you cannot remain here. You must either advance or recede; and if you do not go forward, you will go back into entire apostasy, when it will be impossible to be renewed.” The apostle here, therefore, does not refer to his discussion of the points under consideration as the main thing, but to their state as one of danger; and in writing to them he was not content to discuss the elements of religion as being alone suited to their condition, but would have them make higher attainments, and advance to the more elevated principles of the gospel.
Of the doctrine – Literally, “the word” – λόγον logon – “reason, or doctrine of the beginning of Christ.” That is, the word or reason that pertains to the elements of his system; the first principles of Christian doctrine.
Of Christ – Which pertain to the Messiah. Either what he taught, or what is taught of him and his religion. Most probably it is the latter – what pertains to the Messiah, or to the Christian revelation. The idea is, that there is a set of truths which may be regarded as lying at the foundation of Christian doctrine, and those truths they had embraced, but had not advanced beyond them.
Let us go on – Let us advance to a higher state of knowledge and holiness. The reference is alike to his discussion of the subject, and to their advancement in piety and in knowledge. He would not linger around these elements in the discussion, nor would he have them linger at the threshold of the Christian doctrines.
Unto perfection – compare the notes on Heb_2:10. The word here is used, evidently, to denote an advanced state of Christian knowledge and piety; or the more elevated Christian doctrines, and the holier living to which it was their duty to attain. It does not refer solely to the intention of the apostle to discuss the more elevated doctrines of Christianity, but to” such an advance as would secure them from the danger of apostasy.” If it should be said, however, that the word “perfection” is to be understood in the most absolute and unqualified sense, as denoting entire freedom from sin, it may be remarked:
(1) That this does not prove that they ever attained to it, nor should this be adduced as a text to show that such an attainment is ever made. To exhort a man to do a thing – however reasonable – is no proof in itself that it is ever done.
(2) It is proper to exhort Christians to aim at entire perfection. Even if none have ever reached that point on earth, that fact does not make it any the less desirable or proper to aim at it.
(3) There is much in making an honest attempt to be perfectly holy, even though we should not attain to it in this life. No man accomplishes much who does not aim high.
Not laying again the foundation – Not laying down – as one does a foundation for an edifice. The idea is, that they were not to begin and build all this over again. They were not to make it necessary to lay down again the very cornerstones, and the foundations of the edifice, but since these were laid already, they were to go on and build the superstructure and complete the edifice.
Of repentance from dead works – From works that cause death or condemnation; or that have no vitality or life. The reference may be either to those actions which were sinful in their nature, or to those which related to the forms of religion, where there was no spiritual life. This was the character of much of the religion of the Jews; and conversion to the true religion consisted greatly in repentance for having relied on those heartless and hollow forms. It is possible that the apostle referred mainly to these, as he was writing to those who had been Hebrews. When formalists are converted, one of the first and the main exercises of their minds in conversion, consists in deep and genuine sorrow for their dependence on those forms. Religion is life; and irreligion is a state of spiritual death, (compare the notes on Eph_2:1), whether it be in open transgression, or in false and hollow forms of religion. The apostle has here stated what is the first element of the Christian religion. It consists in genuine sorrow for sin, and a purpose to turn from it; see the note on Mat_3:2.
And of faith toward God – see the note on Mar_16:16. This is the second element in the Christian system. Faith is everywhere required in order to salvation, but it is usually faith “in the Lord Jesus” that is spoken of; see Act_20:21. Here, however, faith “in God” is particularly referred to. But there is no essential difference. It is faith in God in regard to his existence and perfections, and to his plan of saving people. It includes, therefore, faith in his message and messenger, and thus embraces the plan of salvation by the Redeemer. There is but one God – “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ;” and he who believes in the true God believes in him as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the Author of the plan of redemption, and the Saviour of lost people. No one can believe “in the true God” who does not believe in the Saviour; compare Joh_5:23; Joh_17:3. He who supposes that he confides “in any other” God than the Author of the Christian religion, worships a being of the imagination as really as though he bowed down to a block of wood or stone. If Christianity is true, there is no such God as the infidel professes to believe in, any more than the God of the Brahmin has an existence. To believe “in God,” therefore, is to believe in him as he “actually exists” – as the true God – the Author of the great plan of salvation by the Redeemer. It is needless to attempt to show that faith in the true God is essential to salvation. How can he be saved who has no “confidence” in the God that made him?
of the doctrine of baptisms] Perhaps rather, “of ablutions” (Heb_9:10; Mar_7:3-4), both (1) from the use of the plural (which cannot be explained either physically of “triple immersion,” or spiritually of the baptisms of “water, spirit, blood”); and (2) because baptismos is never used of Christian baptism, but only baptisma. If, as we believe, the writer of this Epistle was Apollos, he, as an original adherent “of John’s baptism,” might feel all the more strongly that the doctrine of “ablutions” belonged, even in its highest forms, to the elements of Christianity. Perhaps he, like Josephus (Antt. xviii. 5, § 2), would have used the word baptismos, and not baptisma, even of John’s baptism. But the word probably implies the teaching which enable Christian catechumens to discriminate beween Jewish washings and Christian baptism.
of laying on of hands] For ordination (Num_8:10-11; Act_6:6; Act_13:2-3; Act_19:6, &c.), confirmation (Act_8:17), healings (Mar_16:18), &c. Dr Mill observes that the order of doctrines here enumerated corresponds with the system of teaching respecting them in the Acts of the Apostles—Repentance, Faith, Baptism, Confirmation, Resurrection, Judgment.
and of resurrection of the dead] These topics had been severally prominent in the early Apostolic teaching (Act_2:38; Act_3:19-21; Act_26:20). Even the doctrine of the resurrection belonged to Judaism (Luk_20:37-38; Dan_12:2; Act_23:8).
and of eternal judgment] The doctrine respecting that sentence (krima, “doom”), whether of the good or of the evil, which shall follow the judgment (krisis) in the future life. This was also known under the Old Covenant, Dan_7:9-10.—The surprise with which we first read this passage only arises from our not realising the Author’s meaning, which is this,—your Christian maturity (τελείοτης, Heb_6:1) demands that you should rise far above your present vacillating condition. You would have no hankering after Judaism if you understood the more advanced teaching about the Melchisedek Priesthood—that is the Eternal Priesthood—of Christ which I am going to set before you. It is then needless that we should dwell together on the topics which form the training of neophytes and catechumens, the elements of religious teaching which even belonged to your old position as Jews; but let us enter upon topics which belong to the instruction of Christian manhood. The verse has its value for those who think that “Gospel” teaching consists exclusively in the iteration of threadbare shibboleths. We may observe that of these six elements of catechetical instruction two are spiritual qualities—repentance, faith; two are significant and symbolic acts—washings and laying on of hands; two are eschatological truths—resurrection and judgment.
Wherefore (since it is so incumbent on us to advance out of the state of milk-fed infants), leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us press on unto perfection (τελειότητα, continuing the image of maturity). The proper translation of τὸν τῆς ἀρχη ͂ς τοῦ Χριστοῦ λόγον is doubtful, the question being whether τῆς αρχῆς is to be connected with λόγον as an adjective genitive (so taken, as above, in the A.V; cf. Heb_5:12, στοιχεῖα τῆς ἀρχη ͂ ς), or with τοῦ Χριστοῦ, the word of the beginning of Christ, meaning discourse concerning the first principles of Christianity. “Initium Christi, scil. Apud discentes Christum, saepe quippe Christus dicitur Paulo per metonymiam conereti pro Christianismo” (Bengel). A further question is whether the writer merely expresses his own intention of proceeding at once in this Epistle to the more advanced doctrine, or whether he is exhorting his readers to make spiritual progress, using the first person plural, φερώμεθα (as in Heb_2:1 and Heb_4:1, φοβήθωμεν) out of sympathetic courtesy. The correspondence of this delicate form of exhortation with that of the earlier passages, the very words φερώμεθα, “let us be borne on,” “press forward” (implying more than mere passing to a new line of thought), and τελειότητα (which expresses personal maturity, not advanced subject of discourse), as well as the earnest warnings that follow against falling back, seem to necessitate the second of the above views of the meaning of this verse. The writer has, indeed, in his mind his intention of proceeding at once to the perfect doctrine; for he hopes that what he thus exhorts them to do they will do, so as to be able to follow him; but exhortation, rather than his own intention, is surely what the verse expresses. Not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith towards God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. What was meant by τὰ στοιχεῖα, etc., and τὸν τῆς ἀρχη ͂ς, etc., is here specified under the new image of a foundation on which a superstructure should be raised (of. for the same figure, 1Co_3:11, a further instance of Pauline modes of thought). Of course no disparagement of the importance of this foundation is implied: it is necessary for the superstructure: it has in itself the elements of the superstructure, which rises from it in the way of growth. What is meant is, “With us this foundation has been already laid; I will not suppose any need for laying it anew: let us, then, go on to contemplate and understand the building that rests on and rises from it.” The fundamentals enumerated are six—two essential principles of the religious life, and four heads of doctrine; for the word διδαχῆς rules βαπτισμῶν and the three succeeding genitives, but not μετανοίας and πίστεως which precede. These are the fundamentals, or first principles, of Christianity; but (as has been intimated) so defined as to express no more, by the language used, than what even enlightened Jews might accept and understand. Fully understood, they carry the Christian superstructure; but they are such as a “babe” in Christ might rest content with; without seeing their ultimate bearing. The principles first mentioned are repentance and faith, the requisite qualifications for baptism, the essence of John the Baptist’s teaching, and announced by Christ at the commencement of his ministry as the first steps into his kingdom: “The kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mar_1:15; cf. also Act_20:21). By the dead works, from which repentance is to be, the Fathers generally understand simply sinful works, which may be so called because of sin being a state of spiritual death, and having death for its wages (cf. “dead in trespasses and sins,” Eph_2:1), or as being in themselves barren and fruitless (cf. τοῖς ἔργοις τοῖς ἀραρρποις τοῦ σκότους Eph_5:11). In an enumeration of elementary principles like this, the allusion, supposed by some commentators, to the deadness of “the works of the Law,” as set forth by St. Paul, is not likely to have been intended. The faith spoken of is not faith in Christ, but simply “faith towards God,” which is, of course, the foundation and necessary preliminary of Christian faith. The reason for the expression is to be found in the writer’s intention to specify only the first principles of the gospel, in which the Christian was still on common ground with the Jew (of. Joh_14:1, “Ye believe in God, believe also in me”). The four fundamental doctrines follow.
(1) Of baptisms. Observe, the word is not βάπτισμα, invariably used elsewhere for Christian baptism, but βαπτισμὸς, and that in the plural, βαπτισμῶν. In other passages βαπτισμοὶ denotes the various lustra-tions practised by the Jews—”washings of pots and cups” (Mar_7:8); “divers washings” (Heb_9:10). Hence we may suppose these to be included in the general idea, and also the Jewish baptism of proselytes. On the other hand, the elementary doctrines of the gospel being hero spoken of, there can be no doubt that the doctrine of Christian baptism is in the writer’s view, but only with regard to the first simple conception of its recanting, witch it had in common with other symbolical washings, the significance of which was understood by enlightened Jews (cf. Joh_3:10, “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?”).
(2) The doctrine of laying on of hands. This also was a Jewish rite, understood as signifying the bestowal of blessing and of power from above, and was, as well as baptism, adopted into the Christian Church, acquiring there a new potency. The apostles practiced it for conferring the gifts of the Spirit after baptism (Act_8:17; Act_19:6), for ordination (Act_6:6; Act_13:3; 1Ti_4:14; 2Ti_1:6), and also for reconciling penitents (1Ti_5:22), and for healing’ (Mar_16:18; Act_28:8). Mentioned here immediately after “the doctrine of baptisms,” and in an enumeration of elements in which all Christians were concerned, we can hardly fail to understand special refer-once to the imposition of hands after baptism, i.e. to confirmation. The two remaining doctrines of
(3) the resurrection of the dead, and
(4) eternal judgment, were also understood and generally accepted by enlightened Jews, and at the same time are necessary to be mentioned for a complete account of the foundations of the Christian faith. These foundations are, as has been seen—repentance and faith (qualifying for admission into the Church), and then the doctrine of remission of sins (expressed and conveyed by baptism), of enabling grace (expressed and conveyed by confirmation), of the life hereafter, and of final judgment. Of these an elementary conception was level to even babes in Christ, fresh from Jewish training; fully understood, they form the basis of the whole structure of the highest Christian doctrine. It is obvious from the purport of the passage why neither the historical articles of the creed in which Christians were instructed (see 1Co_15:1-8; 1Ti_3:16), nor the doctrine of the Eucharist (which belonged to the more advanced teaching), are included in this enumeration of the στοιχεῖα.
Of the doctrine of baptisms – This is mentioned as the third element or principle of the Christian religion. The Jews made much of various kinds of “washings,” which were called “baptisms;” see the note on Mar_7:4. It is supposed also, that they were in the practice of baptizing proselytes to their religion; see the note on Mat_3:6. Since they made so much of various kinds of ablution, it was important that the true doctrine on the subject should be stated as one of the elements of the Christian religion, that they might be recalled from superstition, and that they might enjoy the benefits of what was designed to be an important aid to piety – the true doctrine of baptisms. It will be observed that the plural form is used here – “baptisms.” There are two baptisms whose necessity is taught by the Christian religion – baptism by water, and by the Holy Spirit; the first of which is an emblem of the second.
These are stated to be among the “elements” of Christianity, or the things which Christian converts would first learn. The necessity of both is taught. He that believeth and is “baptized” shall be saved; Mar_16:16. “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God,” Joh_3:5. On the baptism of the Holy Spirit, see the Mat_3:11 note; Act_1:5 note; compare Act_19:1-6. To understand the true doctrine respecting baptism was one of the first principles to be learned then as it is now, as baptism is the rite by which we are “initiated” into the Church. This was supposed to be so simple that young converts could understand it as one of the elements of the true religion, and the teaching on that subject now should be made so plain that the humblest disciple may comprehend it. If it was an element or first principle of religion; if it was presumed that anyone who entered the Church could understand it, can it be believed that it was then so perplexing and embarrassing as it is often made now? Can it be believed that a vast array of learning, and a knowledge of languages and a careful inquiry into the customs of ancient times, was needful in order that a candidate for baptism should understand it? The truth is, that it was probably regarded as among the most simple and plain matters of religion; and every convert was supposed to understand that the application of water to the body in this ordinance, in any mode, was designed to be merely emblematic of the influences of the Holy Spirit.
And of laying on of hands – This is the FourTH element or principle of religion. The Jews practiced the laying on of hands on a great variety of occasions. It was done when a blessing was imparted to anyone; when prayer was made for one; and when they offered sacrifice they laid their hands on the head of the victim, confessing their sins; Lev_16:21; Lev_24:14; Num_8:12. It was done on occasions of solemn consecration to office, and when friend supplicated the divine favor on friend. In like manner, it was often done by the Saviour and the apostles. The Redeemer laid his hands on children to bless them, and on the sick when he healed them; Mat_19:13; Mar_5:23; Mat_9:18. In like manner the apostles laid hands on others in the following circumstances:
(1) In healing the sick; Act_28:8.
(2) In ordination to office; 1Ti_5:22; Act_6:6.
(3) In imparting the miraculous influences of the Holy Spirit; Act_8:17, Act_8:19; Act_19:6.
The true doctrine respecting the design of laying on the hands, is said here to be one of the elements of the Christian religion. That the custom of laying on the hands as symbolical of imparting spiritual gifts, prevailed in the Church in the time of the apostles, no one can doubt. But on the question whether it is to be regarded as of perpetual obligation in the Church, we are to remember:
(1) That the apostles were endowed with the power of imparting the influences of the Holy Spirit in a miraculous or extraordinary manner. It was with reference to such an imparting of the Holy Spirit that the expression is used in each of the cases where it occurs in the New Testament.
(2) The Saviour did not appoint the imposition of the hands of a “bishop” to be one of the rites or ceremonies to be observed perpetually in the Church. The injunction to be baptized and to observe his supper is positive, and is universal in its obligation. But there is no such command respecting the imposition of hands.
(3) No one now is intrusted with the power of imparting the Holy Spirit in that manner There is no class of officers in the Church, that can make good their claim to any such power. What evidence is there that the Holy Spirit is imparted at the rite of “confirmation?”
(4) It is liable to be abused, or to lead persons to substitute the form for the thing; or to think that because they have been “confirmed,” that therefore they are sure of the mercy and favor of God.
Still, if it be regarded as a “simple form of admission to a church,” without claiming that it is enjoined by God, or that it is connected with any authority to impart the Holy Spirit, no objection can be made to it any more than there need be to any other form of recognizing Church membership. Every pastor has a right, if he chooses, to lay his hands on the members of his flock, and to implore a blessing on them; and such an act on making a profession of religion would have much in it that would be appropriate and solemn.
And of resurrection of the dead – This is mentioned as the fifth element or principle of the Christian religion. This doctrine was denied by the Sadducees Mar_12:18; Act_23:8, and was ridiculed by philosophers; Act_17:32. It was, however, clearly taught by the Saviour, Joh_5:28-29, and became one of the cardinal doctrines of his religion. By the resurrection of the dead, however, in the New Testament, there is more intended than the resurrection of the “body.” The question about the resurrection included the whole inquiry about the future state, or whether man would live at all in the future world; compare the Mat_22:23 note; Act_23:6 note. This is one of the most important subjects that can come before the human mind, and one on which man has felt more perplexity than any other. The belief of the resurrection of the dead is an elementary article in the system of Christianity. It lies at the foundation of all our hopes. Christianity is designed to prepare us for a future state; and one of the first things, therefore, in the preparation, is to “assure” us there is a future state, and to tell us what it is. It is, moreover, a unique doctrine of Christianity. The belief of the resurrection is found in no other system of religion, nor is there a ray of light shed upon the future condition of man by any other scheme of philosophy or religion.
And of eternal judgment – This is the sixth element or principle of religion. It is, that there will be a judgment whose consequences will be eternal. It does not mean, of course, that the process of the judgment will be eternal, or that the judgment day will continue forever; but that the results or consequences of the decision of that day will continue for ever. There will be no appeal from the sentence, nor will there be any reversal of the judgment then pronounced. What is decided then will be determined forever. The approval of the righteous will fix their state eternally in heaven, and in like manner the condemnation of the wicked will fix their doom forever in hell. This doctrine was one of the earliest that was taught by the Saviour and his apostles, and is inculcated in the New Testament perhaps with more frequency than any other; see Matt. 25; Act_17:31. That the consequences or results of the judgment will be “eternal,” is abundantly affirmed; see Mat_25:46; Joh_5:29;; 2Th_1:9; Mar_9:45, Mar_9:48.
And this will we do – We will make these advances toward a higher state of knowledge and piety. Paul had confidence that they would do it (see Heb_6:9-10), and though they had lingered long around the elements of Christian knowledge, he believed that they would yet go on to make higher attainments.
If God permit – This is not to be interpreted as if God was “unwilling” that they should make such advances, or as if it were “doubtful” whether he would allow it if they made an honest effort, and their lives were spared; but it is a phrase used to denote their “dependence” on him. It is equivalent to saying, “if he would spare their lives, their health, and their reason; if he would continue the means of grace, and would impart his Holy Spirit; if he would favor their efforts and crown them with success, they would make these advances.” In reference to anything that we undertake, however pleasing to God in itself, it is proper to recognize our entire dependence on God; see Jam_4:13-15; compare the notes on Joh_15:5.
4–8. The awfulness of apostasy
4. For] An inference from the previous clauses. We must advance, for in the Christian course stationariness means retrogression—non progredi est regredi.
For it is impossible for those] We shall see further on the meaning of the word “impossible.” The sentence begins with what is called the accusative of the subject, “For as to those who were, &c., it is impossible, &c.” We will first explain the particular expressions in these verses, and then point out the meaning of the paragraph as a whole.
once] The word, a favourite one with the writer, means “once for all.” It occurs more often in this Epistle than in all the rest of the N.T. It is the direct opposite of πάλιν in Heb_6:6.
enlightened] illuminated by the Holy Spirit, Joh_1:9. Comp. Heb_10:26; Heb_10:32; 2Co_4:4. In the LXX. “to illuminate” means “to teach” (2Ki_12:2). The word in later times came to mean “to baptise,” and “enlightenment,” even as early as the time of Justin Martyr (a.d. 150), becomes a technical term for “baptism,” regarded from the point of view of its results. The Syriac Version here renders it by “baptised.” Hence arose the notion of some of the sterner schismatics—such as the Montanists and Novatians—that absolution was to be refused to all such as fell after baptism into apostasy or flagrant sin (Tertull. De Pudic. 20). This doctrine was certainly not held by St Paul (1Co_5:5; 1Ti_1:20), and is rejected by the Church of England in her xvith Article (and see Pearson, On the Creed, Art. x.). The Fathers deduced from this passage the unlawfulness of administering Baptism a second time; a perfectly right rule, but one which rests upon other grounds, and not upon this passage. But neither in Scripture nor in the teaching of the Church is the slightest sanction given to the views of the fanatics who assert that “after they have received the Holy Ghost they can no more sin as long as they live here.” It will be remembered that Cromwell on his deathbed asked his chaplain as to the doctrine of Final Perseverance, and on being assured that it was a certain truth, said, “Then I am happy, for I am sure that I was once in a state of grace.”
and nave tasted of the heavenly gift …] These clauses may be rendered “having both tasted of … and being made … and having tasted.” It is not possible to determine which heavenly gift is precisely intended; perhaps it means remission, or regeneration, or salvation, which St Paul calls “God’s unspeakable gift” (2Co_9:15); or, generally, “the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Act_10:44-46). Calvin vainly attempts to make the clause refer only to “those who had but as it were tasted with their outward lips the grace of God, and been irradiated with some sparks of His Light.” It is clear from 1Pe_2:3 that such a view is not tenable.
partakers of the Holy Ghost] The Holy Spirit worked in many diversities of operations (1Co_12:8-10).
It is impossible to dilute this word into difficult.
Those who were once enlightened (τοὺς ἅπαξ φωτισθέντας)
Rend. “once for all enlightened.” Ἅπαξ is frequent in the Epistle. Comp. Heb_9:7, Heb_9:26, Heb_9:27, Heb_9:28; Heb_10:2; Heb_12:26, Heb_12:27. Indicating that the enlightenment ought to have sufficed to prevent them from falling away; not that it does not admit of repetition. Enlightened, through the revelation of God in Christ, the true light, and through the power of the Spirit. Φωτίζειν in lxx usually to teach or instruct; see Psa_119:130; 2Ki_12:2; 2Ki_17:27. Comp. in N.T. Joh_1:9; Eph_1:18; Eph_3:9; Heb_10:32. Erasmus gives the correct explanation: “Who once for all have left the darkness of their former life, having been enlightened by the gospel teaching.” There is no ground for explaining the word here of baptism, although the fathers from the time of Justin Martyr used φωτίζειν and φωτοσμός in that sense, and this usage continued down to the Reformation. See Just. Mart. Apol. i. 62. Chrysostom entitled his 59th Homily, addressed to candidates for baptism, πρὸς τοὺς μέλλοντας φωτίζεσθαι to those who are about to be enlightened; and justified this name for baptism by this passage and Heb_10:32. The Peshitto translates this passage, “who have once (for all) descended to baptism.” The N.T. gives no example of this usage.
Tasted of the heavenly gift (γευσαμένους τῆς δωρεᾶς τῆς ἐπουρανίου)
For γευσαμένους tasted, comp. Heb_2:9. The meaning is, have consciously partaken of. Comp. 1Pe_2:3, and τρώγων eateth, Joh_6:56. The heavenly gift is the Holy Spirit. It is true that this is distinctly specified in the next clause, but the two clauses belong together.
Partakers of the Holy Ghost (μετόχους πνεύματος ἁγίου)
“Heavenly gift” emphasizes the heavenly quality of the gift. The Holy Ghost is the gift itself which possesses the heavenly quality.
For it is impossible – It is needless to say that the passage here Heb_6:4-6, has given occasion to much controversy, and that the opinions of commentators and of the Christian world are yet greatly divided in regard to its meaning. On the one hand, it is held that the passage is not intended to describe those who are true Christians, but only those who have been awakened and enlightened, and who then fall back; and on the other it is maintained that it refers to those who are true Christians, and who then apostatize. The contending parties have been Calvinists and Arminians; each party, in general, interpreting it according to the views which are held on the question about falling from grace. I shall endeavor, as well as I may be able, to state the true meaning of the passage by an examination of the words and phrases in detail, observing here, in general, that it seems to me that it refers to true Christians; that the object is to keep them from apostasy, and that it teaches that if they should apostatize, it would be impossible to renew them again or to save them. That it refers to true Christians will be apparent from these considerations.
(1) Such is the sense which would strike the great mass of readers. Unless there were some theory to defend, the great body of readers of the New Testament would consider the expression used here as describing true Christians.
(2) The connection demands such an interpretation. The apostle was addressing Christians. He was endeavoring to keep them from apostasy. The object was not to keep those who were awakened and enlightened from apostasy, but it was to preserve those who were already in the Church of Christ, from going back to perdition. The kind of exhortation appropriate to those who were awakened and convicted, but who were not truly converted, would be “to become converted;” not to warn them of the danger of “falling away.” Besides, the apostle would not have said of such persons that they could not be converted and saved. But of sincere Christians it might be said with the utmost propriety, that they could not be renewed again and be saved if they should fall away – because they rejected the only plan of salvation after they had tried it, and renounced the only scheme of redemption after they had tasted its benefits. If that plan could not save them, what could? If they neglected that, by what other means could they be brought to God?
(3) This interpretation accords, as I suppose, with the exact meaning of the phrases which the apostle uses. An examination of those phrases will show that he refers to those who are sincere believers. The phrase “it is impossible” obviously and properly denotes absolute impossibility. It has been contended, by Storr and others, that it denotes only great difficulty. But the meaning which would at first strike all readers would be that “the thing could not be done;” that it was not merely very difficult, but absolutely impracticable. The word – ἀδυ ́νατον adunaton – occurs only in the New Testament in the following places, in all which it denotes that the thing could not be done; Mat_19:26; Mar_10:27, “With men this is impossible;” that is, men could not save one who was rich, implying that the thing was wholly beyond human power. Luk_18:27, “the things which are impossible with men are possible with God” – referring to the same case; Act_14:8, “A man of Lystra, impotent in his feet;” that is, who was wholly “unable” to walk; Rom_8:3, “For what the law could not do;” what was absolutely “impossible” for the Law to accomplish; that is, to save people; Heb_6:18, “In which it was impossible for God to lie;” Heb_10:4, “It is not possible for the blood of bulls and of goats to take away sin;” and Heb_11:6, “Without faith it is impossible to please God;” in all of these instances denoting absolute impossibility.
These passages show that it is not merely a great difficulty to which the apostle refers, but that he meant to say that the thing was wholly impracticable; that it could not be done. And if this be the meaning, then it proves that if those referred to should fall away, they could never be renewed. Their case was hopeless, and they must perish: that is, if a true Christian should apostatize, or fall from grace, “he never could be renewed again,” and could not be saved. Paul did not teach that he might fall away and be renewed again as often as he pleased. He had other views of the grace of God than this; and he meant to teach, that if a man should once cast off true religion, his case was hopeless, and he must perish; and by this solemn consideration – the only one that would be effectual in such a case – he meant to guard them against the danger of apostasy.
For those who were once enlightened – The phrase “to be enlightened” is one that is often used in the Scriptures, and may be applied either to one whose understanding has been enlightened to discern his duty, though he is not converted (compare the note on Joh_1:9); or more commonly to one who is truly converted; see the note on Eph_1:18. It does not of necessity refer to true Christians, though it cannot be denied that it more obviously suggests the idea that the heart is truly changed, and that it is more commonly used in that sense; compare Psa_19:8. Light, in the Scriptures, is the emblem of knowledge, holiness, and happiness, and there is no impropriety here in understanding it in accordance with the more decisive phrases which follow, as referring to true Christians.
And have tasted – To “taste” of a thing means, according to the usage in the Scriptures, to “experience,” or to “understand” it. The expression is derived from the fact that the “taste” is one of the means by which we ascertain the nature or quality of an object; compare Mat_16:28; Joh_8:51; Heb_2:9. The proper idea here is, that they had “experienced” the heavenly gift, or had learned its nature.
The heavenly gift – The gift from heaven, or which pertains to heaven; compare the note on Joh_4:10. The expression properly means some favor or gift which has descended from heaven, and may refer to any of the benefits which God has conferred on man in the work of redemption. It might include the plan of salvation; the forgiveness of sins; the enlightening, renewing, and sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit, or any one of the graces which that Spirit imparts. The use of the article, however – “the heavenly gift,” limits it to something special, as being conferred directly from heaven, and the connection would seem to demand that we understand it of some “special” favor which could be conferred only on the children of God. It is an expression which “may” be applied to sincere Christians; it is at least doubtful whether it can with propriety be applied to any other.
And were made partakers of the Holy Ghost – Partakers of the influences of the Holy Spirit – for it is only in this sense that we can partake of the Holy Spirit. We “partake” of food when we share it with others; we “partake” of pleasure when we enjoy it with others; we “partake” of spoils in war when they are divided between us and others. So we partake of the influences of the Holy Spirit when we share these influences conferred on his people. This is not language which can properly be applied to anyone but a true Christian; and though it is true that an unpardoned sinner may be enlightened and awakened by the Holy Spirit, yet the language used here is not such as would be likely to be employed to describe his state. It is too clearly expressive of those influences which renew and sanctify the soul. It is as elevated language as can be used to describe the joy of the Christian, and is undoubtedly used in that sense here. If it is not, it would be difficult to find any language which would properly express the condition of a renewed heart. Grotius, Bloomfield, and some others, understood this of the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. But this is not necessary, and does not accord well with the general description here, which evidently pertains to the mass of those whom the apostle addressed.
And have tasted the good word of God – That is, either the doctrines which he teaches, and which are good, or pleasant to the soul; or the Word of God which is connected with good, that is, which promises good. The former seems to me to be the correct meaning – that the Word of God, or the truth which he taught, was itself a good. It was what the soul desired, and in which it found comfort and peace; compare Psa_119:103; Psa_141:6. The meaning here is, that they had experienced the excellency of the truth of God; they had seen and enjoyed its beauty. This is language which cannot be applied to an impenitent sinner. He has no relish for the truth of God; sees no beauty in it; derives no comfort from it. It is only the true Christian who has pleasure in its contemplation, and who can be said to “taste” and enjoy it. This language describes a state of mind of which every sincere Christian is conscious. It is that of pleasure in the Word of God. He loves the Bible; he loves the truth of God that is preached. He sees an exquisite beauty in that truth. It is not merely in its poetry; in its sublimity; in its argument; but he has now a “taste” or “relish” for the truth itself, which he had not before his conversion. Then he might have admired the Bible for its beauty of language or for its poetry; he might have been interested in preaching for its eloquence or power of argument; but now his love is for “the truth;” compare Psa_19:10. There is no book that he so much delights in as the Bible; and no pleasure is so pure as what he has in contemplating the truth; compare Jos_21:45; Jos_23:15.
And the powers of the world to come – Or of the “coming age.” “The age to come” was a phrase in common use among the Hebrews, to denote the future dispensation, the times of the Messiah. The same idea was expressed by the phrases “the last times,” “the end of the world,” etc. which are of so frequent occurrence in the Scriptures. They all denoted an age which was to succeed the old dispensation; the time of the Messiah; or the period in which the affairs of the world would be wound up; see the notes on Isa_2:2. Here it evidently refers to that period, and the meaning is, that they had participated in the special blessings to be expected in that dispensation – to wit, in the clear views of the way of salvation, and the influences of the Holy Spirit on the soul. The word “powers” here implies that in that time there would be some extraordinary manifestation of the “power” of God. An unusual energy would be put forth to save people, particularly as evinced by the agency of the Holy Spirit on the heart. Of this “power” the apostle here says they of whom he spake had partaken. They had been brought under the awakening and renewing energy which God put forth under the Messiah. in saving the soul. They had experienced the promised blessings of the new and last dispensation; and the language here is such as appropriately describes Christians, and as indeed can be applicable to no other. It may be remarked respecting the various expressions used here Heb_6:4-5,
(1) That they are such as properly denote a renewed state. They obviously describe the condition of a Christian; and though it may be not certain that any one of them if taken by itself would prove that the person to whom it was applied was truly converted, yet taken together it is clear that they are designed to describe such a state. If they are not, it would be difficult to find any language which would be properly descriptive of the character of a sincere Christian. I regard the description here, therefore, as what is clearly designed to denote the state of those who were born again, and were the true children of God; and it seems plain to me that no other interpretation would have ever been thought of if this view had not seemed to conflict with the doctrine of the “perseverance of the saints.”
(2) There is a regular gradation here from the first elements of piety in the soul to its highest developments; and, whether the apostle so designed it or not, the language describes the successive steps by which a true Christian advances to the highest stage of Christian experience. The mind is:
(a) Enlightened; then.
(b) Tastes the gift of heaven, or has some experience of it; then.
(c) It is made to partake of the influences of the Holy Spirit; then.
(d) There is experience of the excellence and loveliness of the Word of God; and,
(e) Finally there is a participation of the full “powers” of the new dispensation; of the extraordinary energy which God puts forth in the gospel to sanctify and save the soul.
if they shall fall away] This is one of the most erroneous translations in the A.V. The words can only mean “and have fallen away” (comp. Heb_2:1, Heb_3:12, Heb_10:26; Heb_10:29), and the position of the participle gives it tremendous force. It was once thought that our translators had here been influenced by theological bias to give such a rendering as should least conflict with their Calvinistic belief in the “indefectibility of grace” or in “Final Perseverance”—i.e. that no converted person, no one who has ever become regenerate, and belonged to the number of “the elect”—can ever fall away. It was thought that, for this reason, they had put this clause in the form of a mere hypothesis. It is now known however that the mistake of our translators was derived from older sources (e.g. Tyndale and the Genevan) and was not due to bias. Calvin was himself far too good a scholar to defend this view of the clause. He attempted to get rid of it by denying that the strong expressions in Heb_6:4-5 describe the regenerate. He applies them to false converts or half converts who become reprobate—a view which, as we have seen, is not tenable. The falling away means apostasy, the complete and wilful renunciation of Christianity. Thus it is used by the LXX. to represent the Hebrew mâal which in 2Ch_29:19 they render by “apostasy”
to renew them again unto repentance] The verb here used (anakainizein) came to mean “to rebaptise.” If the earlier clauses seemed to clash with the Calvinistic dogma of the “indefectibility of grace,” this expression seemed too severe for the milder theology of the Arminians. Holding—and rightly—that Scripture never closes the door of forgiveness to any repentant sinner, they argued, wrongly, that the “impossible” of Heb_6:4 could only mean “very difficult,” a translation which is actually given to the word in some Latin Versions. The solution of the difficulty is not to be arrived at by tampering with plain words. What the author says is that “when those who have tasted the heavenly gift … have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them to repentance.” He does not say that the Hebrews have so fallen away; nor does he directly assert that any true convert can thus fall away; but he does say that when such apostasy occurs and—a point of extreme importance which is constantly overlooked—so long as it lasts (see the next clause) a vital renewal is impossible. There can, he implies, be no second “Second Birth.” The sternness of the passage is in exact accordance with Heb_10:26-29 (comp. 1Pe_2:20-21); but “the impossibility lies merely within the limits of the hypothesis itself.” See our Article xvi.
seeing they crucify] Rather, “while crucifying,” “crucifying as they are doing.” Thus the words imply not only an absolute, but a continuous apostasy, for the participle is changed from the past into the present tense. While men continue in wilful and willing sin they preclude all possibility of the action of grace. So long as they cling deliberately to their sins, they shut against themselves the open door of grace. A drop of water will, as the Rabbis said, suffice to purify a man who has accidentally touched a creeping thing, but an ocean will not suffice for his cleansing so long as he purposely keeps it held in his hand. There is such a thing as “doing despite unto the spirit of grace” (Heb_10:29).
to themselves] This is what is called “the dative of disadvantage”—“to their own destruction.”
We see then that this passage has been perverted in a multitude of ways from its plain meaning, which is, that so long as wilful apostasy continues there is no visible hope for it. On the other hand the passage does not lend itself to the violent oppositions of old controversies. In the recognition that, to our human point of view, there does appear to be such a thing as Divine dereliction this passage and Heb_10:26-29, Heb_12:15-17 must be compared with the passages which touch on the unpardonable sin, and the sin against the Holy Ghost (1Jn_5:16; Mat_12:31-32; comp. Isa_8:21). On the other hand it is as little meant to be “a rock of despair” as “a pillow of security.” He is pointing out to Hebrew Christians with awful faithfulness the fatal end of deliberate and insolent apostasy. But we have no right to suppose that he has anything in view beyond the horizon of revealed possibilities. He is thinking of the teaching and ministry of the Church, not of the Omnipotence of God. With men it is impossible that a camel should go through the eye of a needle, but “with God all things are possible,” (Mat_19:26; Mar_10:20-27; Luk_18:27). In the face of sin—above all of deliberate wretchlessness—we must remember that “God is not mocked” (Gal_6:7), and that our human remedies are then exhausted. On the other hand to close the gate of repentance against any contrite sinner is to contradict all the Gospels and all the Epistles alike, as well as the Law and the Prophets.
and put him to an open shame] Expose Him to scorn (comp. Mat_1:19 where the simple verb is used).
Pop Comm Bible Schaff
Heb_6:4. For. A reason for each of the previous clauses: ‘This will we do,’ for the case is urgent; without further knowledge you may fall away. If God permit,’ for the case may be even now hopeless, and certainly is so without His help.
It is impossible (see below) for those who have been once for all enlightened; once for all a process that needs not, or admits not of repetition. ‘Enlightened,’ a word which, when applied to persons, means ‘instructed,’ ‘taught.’ When applied to professing Christians, it means that they have been made acquainted with the principles of the Gospel, and Have received ‘the knowledge of the truth,’ as it is expressed in Heb_10:26 : they have known the way of righteousness (2Pe_2:20-21). In the later history of doctrine, the word ‘enlightenment’ is used as a synonym, it is said, for baptism, and so many have interpreted here; but in fact it is not used in the Fathers for baptism simply, but for the illumination of the new birth of which baptism was the symbol (Alford). This interpretation was set aside in favour of the common meaning of the word by Erasmus, and nearly all modern commentators have adopted his view.
And have had taste of the heavenly gift, i.e of the gift that is made known by this enlightenment. Some refer the gift to Christ or the Spirit, or forgiveness, or salvation in Christ (2Co_9:15); but the connecting particle in the Greek (τε) shows that the gift refers rather to what is implied in the previous instruction,—a heavenly gift it is in its origin and results.
And became partakers of the Holy Ghost. Partakers, the noun and the verb are common in St. Paul and in this Epistle. When men had been instructed and had tasted of the blessings which instruction revealed to them, the next stage of the Christian life was to become partakers of the gifts and influences of the Holy Spirit, not excluding the influences which bad men may resist, for He has much to do even with hearts in which He never takes up His abode.
And have tasted the good word of God. Tasted, so as to feed upon the rich inheritance of promise and hope, which men have seized in all ages, even when slow to justify their right to it by consistency and holiness. This use of the word ‘good,’ as descriptive of what is comforting and sustaining, is common in Scripture (see Jos_23:15; Zec_1:11).
As well as the powers of the world to come: the gifts and experience of the new economy, its powers both miraculous and spiritual. To taste these is to enjoy the blessings and advantages which follow from the fulfilment of the Divine word. Whatever is striking in evidence, glorious in teaching, solemn and impressive in sanctions—all are included in the powers which these men had felt.
And have fallen away (not, if they should fall); fallen not into sin simply, but so as to renounce the Gospel, so as to go back with a will into a life of sin (chap. Heb_10:26), so as to depart from the living God (chap. Heb_3:12), returning to the false religions they had left, or to determined infidelity and ungodliness. Such are the characters the writer describes; they possessed the knowledge of Gospel truth, and had a certain amount of enjoyment from that knowledge (note the genitive case after ‘taste’); they were partakers of the common influences and miraculous gifts of the Holy Ghost; they enjoyed the promises of the Gospel (note the accusative case after ‘taste’) more fully than some other truths in which they had been instructed, and had felt most of the influences of the new economy miraculous, moral, and spiritual; and yet after all they had abandoned the Gospel and continued to denounce both it and its founder. Every part of this description applies probably to Judas, whose case seems to have been in the writer’s mind; and yet he was never a real believer, but ‘a son of Perdition’ even from the first. Such was the primitive apostate. His counterpart in modern times is easily described: men have made great attainments in the knowledge of Christianity, have had considerable enjoyment of it; they have been striven with by the Holy Spirit, have enjoyed largely the promises and hopes of the Gospel; and yet through neglect of its ordinances, through fear of the persecution to which it subjects them, they have been led to deny its Divine origin, and proclaim its founder a deceiver or mad. They have tried the Gospel and the Lord of the Gospel, and after trial they have rejected both. These miserable men are described as having fallen away. That was the fatal step which they took once for all (so the tense implies). The state in which they now are is described in the other participles, ‘crucifying to themselves, as they still do, the Son of God afresh, and putting Him, as they still do, to open shame.’ It is not the act that ruins them, it is the habit; and it is partly through that settled habit that it is impossible to renew them again to repentance. Some indeed regard ‘impossible’ as used in a popular sense. It is difficult to renew them, so the Latin of D. translates here, and so several commentators have held; but that meaning of the word is unknown in the New Testament. Others regard the impossibility as referring to man rather than God, and hold the meaning to be: We cannot renew men whose hearts are so hard, and whose condition is so desperate as theirs. God can, but we cannot. No new argument, no new motive can we use; the terror, the love, the warnings, the entreaties of the Gospel—all have been applied and understood and resisted. Nothing but a miracle can change and save them. Neither of these explanations, however, is satisfactory. The word ‘impossible’ is very strong, and it seems immoveable. Just as in chap. Heb_10:26, the writer, after describing the sacrifice of Christ, tells us that if men reject and despise it and go back to a life of sin, no other sacrifice remains for them; there awaits them nothing but the fearful reception of judgment: so here, if men deny Christ and crucify Him to themselves—their treatment of Him in their own hearts; if they renounce Him as a blasphemer and impostor—their treatment of Him before the world; and that after having seen the truth and felt the attractiveness of His teaching and life, it is impossible to renew them. The language, as thus explained, is not a mere truism, as Delitzsch holds (‘it is impossible to renew to repentance those who fall away, except they repent’); it is rather a strong assertion of an important truth. The contemptuous rejection of Christ’s sacrifice means no forgiveness, and the contemptuous rejection of Christ’s teaching and grace means no renewal and no personal holiness. There may be a sense in which each is an identical proposition, but each meets the very purpose of the writer an and the needs of the readers. They were tempted to think there was still forgiveness and holiness for them, even if they renounced Christ and treated Him as their fathers had done. The writer warns them that to reject Christ—to reject Him after all they have known and felt, under circumstances, therefore, that made their rejection practically final—was to give up all hope, all possibility of salvation. What would become of them if somehow they had ceased to crucify Him, ceased to scorn and to denounce Him; if they gave up the life of sin to which, in chap, 10, he speaks of them as having willingly returned, we need not discuss, for the case is not supposed. What they were in danger of saying was: There is renewal and forgiveness in the old economy, in heathenism, nay, even in ungodliness. We believe it in spite of Divine teaching and our long experience to the contrary. We may give up this new religion, may trample upon the blood of the covenant, insult the Spirit of God, and live as we please, and yet be saved. What else can meet such doctrine but the strongest rebuke, and the most absolute denial? For men—out of Christ—because they have knowingly and wilfully rejected Him, renewal and forgiveness are alike impossible. Neither man nor God can save them.
Heb_6:4-7. These verses have deep significance and are difficult of interpretation. In the early Church a sect arose who gathered from them that those who sinned after baptism either generally or especially by joining in idolatrous worship under persecution, were to be finally and permanently excluded from the churches, and could not be forgiven; and hence baptism itself was often postponed till death drew near. The Church of Rome, on the other hand, refused for a considerable time to give this Epistle a place in the Canon, because it seemed to teach a doctrine at variance with what is taught in the accepted apostolic writings. In later times, those who deny the perseverance of the saints find in these verses and in others a little later (Heb_10:26) the chief support of their system, as the defenders of that doctrine may perhaps have sometimes been more anxious to confute their argument than to give a fair interpretation of these texts. Nor can it be questioned that the passages have created great anxiety in real Christians who, sinking into spiritual languor, or betrayed into gross sins, as was David or Peter, have been thrown into despondency, unable ‘to lay hold of the hope set before them in the Gospel.’ Of the two passages it may be observed generally that the word ‘if’ (‘if they shall fall away,’ if we sin wilfully) is not found in the Greek of either of them. It has been urged against the translators of the Authorised Version that they inserted ‘if’ for the purpose of lessening the difficulty of the passage; out this should not be hastily assumed. In the Revised Version the ‘if’ is retained in the second passage, though it is struck out in the first; and the ‘if’ is so natural a translation of the Greek that it is inserted in the 8th verse: ‘if it bear;’ where the Greek is simply ‘but bearing,’ ‘on its bearing.’ We need not blame the translators either earlier or later; it is enough to note that a common solution of the difficulty of the two passages, that they are only supposed cases, is not tenable. On the other hand, very few of the commentators note that the persons whom it is impossible to help are described by words that indicate continuous character and not a single act. Those who fall away are spoken of as continuing to crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, while those who sin wilfully are not guilty of a single sin, but of going on sinning. The case, therefore, is the case of those who go back to a life of sin,—who take their place with the crucifiers of our Lord. Not single sins, but settled character or habitual practice, is what is condemned. Three principles more need to be remembered: every Christian grace has its counterfeit, and all the common privileges of the Gospel are shared by multitudes who make no saving use of them. This is the first. Many of the rulers of the Jews believed, and yet they ‘loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.’ There is a real faith that cannot save; there is a repentance, a worldly sorrow, which cannot be distinguished for a time from the godly sorrow of the true convert, as there is a ‘joy’ with which some receive the word and yet have no root in themselves. There is a hope which God will not honour; there is a holiness that is Pharisaism or deception; there is an enlightenment as universal as the knowledge of the Gospel (Joh_1:9); there are miraculous powers shared apparently by Judas, and certainly by men whom Christ never knew as their Lord (Mat_7:22). And, secondly, though there are difficulties on both sides, the general teaching of the New Testament is, that if there be true union with the Lord Jesus Christ it is never to be broken off. If the light of Divine grace be once kindled in the soul, it is never to be extinguished. Sins once forgiven are forgiven for ever. The law written on the heart by God Himself is distinguished from that written on stone, and is not to be effaced; the principle of the Divine life once implanted is kept and guarded even to the end (see Heb_10:19; Joh_10:15; Joh_10:17; Joh_10:28-29; 1Pe_1:4-5). But, thirdly, the precepts and warnings of the New Testament are addressed to men who are still in a state of probation. Every command that deals with essential Christian grace, every promise made to character, as in the Sermon on the Mount, all the watchfulness which Christians are exhorted to practise, and which inspired men practised (‘I keep my body under, lest having preached the Gospel to others I should be a castaway’), are based upon the supposition, not that really saved men will perish, but that any professing Christian man may. We are startled to find the truth so sharply set forth in passages like the one before us; but the truth really underlies the teaching of every Epistle, and practically of every modern sermon. Most startling of all, the warnings and the invitations of the blessed God in the Old Testament, and of our Lord in the New, both of whom may be supposed to know the actual character 2nd the final destiny of those they addressed, speak ever as if the ruin of all were possible, nor can there be probation under any other arrangement. To argue that therefore neither the ruin nor the salvation is known or certain, would be shallow philosophy. We cannot solve the mystery, but we ought to recognise it, and to note that a moral government under which God reveals to every one beforehand his final destiny, speaks or acts as if it were fixed, and thus removes the condition which moral government implies (the force, viz., of motives as if all were uncertain), is a contradiction in terms. There is, of course, an added difficulty in this chapter, that those which are enlightened are not supposed to fall away, but are stated to do so. The difficulty will be examined in due time.
For it is impossible for those who have been once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and have been made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good Word of God, and the powers of the world to come, and have fallen away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame. It is not, of course, implied that the Hebrew Christians had fallen into the condition thus described, or were near it; only that such a condition might be, and that, if they went back instead of advancing, they might arrive at it. The process intimated is that of complete apostasy from the faith after real conscious enjoyment of the gifts of grace. In such a case the hopelessness of the fall is in proportion to the privileges once enjoyed. This is the drift of the passage, though other views have been taken of its meaning, which will be noticed below. “Once enlightened” denotes the first apprehension of the light, which could be but once; when those that saw not began to see (Joh_5:39); when the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ shone once for all upon believers (2Co_4:4); when (according to the cognate passage, Heb_10:26; cf. Heb_10:32) they received the knowledge of the truth. The verb φωτίζω means in the LXX.” to enlighten by instruction,” and was in common use in the early Church to express the enlightenment that accompanied baptism; whence baptism itself was called φωτισμός. Thus Justin Martyr (‘Apol.’ 1.62) says, Καλεῖται δὲ τοῦτο τὸ λοῦτρον φωτισμός ὡς φωτιζομένων τὴν διάνοιαν τῶν ταῦτα μανθανόντων Cf. the title of Chrysostom’s ‘Hem.’ 49., Πρός τοὺς μέλλοντας φωτίζεσθαι, Since the expression was thus commonly used as early as Justin Martyr, there may probably be in the text a special reference to baptism as the occasion of the enlightenment. But, if so, more is meant by the phrase than “those who have been once baptized:” an inward spiritual illumination is plainly pointed to; and it would not have been said of Simon Magus that he had been “once enlightened” in the sense intended. And this is indeed the real meaning of φωτισμός as applied to baptism by Justin Martyr, as his explanation, above quoted, shows. So also Chrysostom, “The heretics have baptism, but not enlightenment (φωτισμα); they are baptized indeed as to the body, but in the soul they are not enlightened; as also Simon was baptized, but was not enlightened.” This consideration is important in view of one misapplication of the passage before us, which will be noticed below. But, further, those whom it is impossible to renew unto repentance are supposed net only to have been enlightened, but also to have “tasted of the heavenly gift,” the emphatic word here being apparently γενσαμένους: they have had experience as well as knowledge (cf. Psa_34:8, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good;” and 1Pe_2:3, “If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious”). The word “gift” (δωρεά) is elsewhere used both for that of redemption generally (Rom_5:15-17), and especially, and most frequently, for the gift of the Holy Ghost (cf. 2Co_9:15, “Thanks be to God for his unspeakable Gift”). They have become also partakers of the Holy Ghost, not merely been within the range of his influence, but actually shared it; and tasted (the same word as before, and with the same meaning, though hero followed by an accusative) what is further spoken of. The expression ῥήματα occurs, Jos_21:45; Jos_23:15; Zec_1:13, for gracious Divine utterances. The idea of the Word of God being what is “tasted” may be suggested by Deu_8:3, quoted by our Lord in Mat_4:4, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proeeedeth out of the month of God.” By the powers (δυνάμεις) are to be especially understood (as in Heb_2:4 and elsewhere in the New Testament) the extraordinary ones in which the gift of the Holy Ghost was manifested, the χαρίσματα of the apostolic Church. But why said here to be μέλλοντος αἰῶνος? For the meaning of this expression, see under ἐνσχα ́τεν τῶν ἠμερω ͂ν τούτων (Heb_1:1), and οἰκουμένην τὴν μέλλουσαν (Heb_2:5). It denotes the predicted age of the Messiah’s triumph. And if (as has appeared most probable, and as μέλλοντος here seems evidently to imply) that age was regarded as still future, not properly beginning till the second advent, still the “powers” spoken of are of it, being earnests and foretastes of a new order of things (cf. Eph_1:14, where the “Holy Spirit of promise” is called “the earnest of our inheritance;” also 2Co_1:22; 2Co_5:5). There are other passages in which Christians are regarded as already in the dawn of the future daybreak, and irradiated by the coming glory. The falling away (παραεσόντας) after such enlightenment and such experience means (as aforesaid) total apostasy from the faith. This appears from the expressions that follow, and still more from those in the cognate passage, Heb_10:26-31. “Non relapses mode dicit in pristina, sed nova pernicie praeterlapsos a toto statu illo lautissimo, simulque a fide, spe, et amore” (Bengel). Such an utter apostasy was possible to Hebrews oscillating between Church and synagogue: they might be so drawn at last into the atmosphere of the latter as, with the unbelieving Jews, to reject with contumely, and so to themselves recrucify, the Son of God. The force of “to themselves” is illustrated by Gal_6:14, where St. Paul says that he so glories in the cross of Christ that through Christ the world is crucified to him, and he to the world; i.e. all fellowship between him and the world is broken off. So here the ἑαυτοῖ ς implies the breaking off of all fellowship with what a man is said to crucify. “They crucify again the Son of God, repeating what their fathers had done formerly when they gave him over to the death of the cross; and this, be it observed, still more culpably., since it is after personal experience proving him to be “the Son of God.” And they not only make him as one dead to themselves: they also expose him (παραδειγματίζοντας: cf. Num_25:4, LXX) to the reproach and mockery of the world. “Ostentantes, scil aliis” (Bengel). The above explanation is adopted from Delitzsch. Be it observed next what is said of those who do this—not that no repentance can henceforth avail them, but that even unto repentance it is impossible to renew them. Such falling away after such experience precludes the possibility of repentance. On such persons the powers of grace have been exhausted. It is not in the nature of things that they should return to Christ, or see the things that belong unto their peace any more. The correspondence between the state here described and the consequence of the “blasphemy against the Holy Ghost” suggests itself at once; our Lord’s words, in speaking of that unpardonable sin, being rightly supposed to point to obduracy in spite of experience of the Holy Spirit’s power. Especially obvious is the correspondence with St. Luke’s account of the Savior’s warning—one of the not infrequent instances of resemblance between our Epistle and the writings of that evangelist. For St. Luke records the saying as spoken, not to the Jews on the occasion of their attributing Christ’s works to Beelzebub, but to the disciples themselves, after a warning to them against “the leaven of the Pharisees,” and against being moved by the fear of men, and immediately after the words, “He that denieth me before men shall be denied before the angels of God.” Compare also the “sin unto death” spoken of by St. John (1Jn_5:16). Misconceptions of the drift of this passage, once prevalent, or possible, remain to be noticed.
(1) It has been from early times a main support of the strict Church discipline according to which deadly sin committed after baptism precludes re-admission to Church communion. It was so cited by Tertullian as early as the second century (‘De Pudicitia,’ cf. 20), and in the third used to justify the Novatians in their refusal of communion, even after penance, to the lapsi. The passage, as above explained, was really irrelevant, since it refers, not to the treatment by the Church of penitents, but to the impossibility of some persons being brought to penitence at all.
(2) The Catholic Fathers, rightly rejecting the Novatian position, generally understood the text as forbidding the iteration of baptism; thus turning it against the Novatians, who rebaptized those who joined their communion. So Ambrose, Theodoret, and others. But, though their position on this subject was in itself sound, the passage, as above explained, is as irrelevant to it as to that of the Novatians.
(3) This, and the other texts referred to in connection with it, have led some Christians to despair of salvation, however anxious for it, under the idea that they had themselves committed the unpardonable sin. This desperate view goes beyond that of the Novatians, who only precluded from Church communion, not of necessity from the mercies of God (Socrates, ‘Hist. Eccl.,’ 4.21). But the very state of mind of those who entertain such fears is a sign that they are not of those to whom this text applies. They cannot have entirely fallen from grace, if they have the grace to repent and long for pardon.
(4) Calvin’s predestinarian views compelled him and his followers to do violence to the plain meaning of the passage. Holding the doctrine of the indefectibility of grace, which involved
(a) that one really regenerate cannot fall away, and
(b) that consequently one who falls away cannot have been really regenerate, he had to explain away the clauses descriptive of the grace enjoyed, as meaning only a superficial experience of it. With this view he laid stress on the word γευσαμένους as meaning “summis labris gustare.” Only dogmatic prejudice could have suggested such a sense of the word as intended in this place, any more than in Heb_2:9, where it is plainly inadmissible. Nor can an impartial reader fail to see in the whole accumulation of pregnant clauses an intention of expressing the very reverse of a mere apparent and delusive experience of saving grace. The depth of the experience is, in fact, a measure of the hopelessness of the fall. Art. XVI. of the English Church is a protest against all the erroneous conclusions above specified.
If they shall fall away – literally, “and having fallen away.” “There is no if in the Greek in this place – “having fallen away.” Dr. John P. Wilson. It is not an affirmation that any had actually fallen away, or that in fact they would do it; but the statement is, that “on the supposition that they had fallen away,” it would be impossible to renew them again. It is the same as supposing a case which in fact might never occur: as if we should say, “had a man fallen down a precipice it would be impossible to save him,” or “had the child fallen into the stream he would certainly have been drowned.” But though this literally means, “having fallen away,” yet the sense in the connection in which it stands is not improperly expressed by our common translation. The Syriac has given a version which is remarkable, not as a correct translation, but as showing what was the prevailing belief in the time in which it was made, (probably the first or second century), in regard to the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. “For it is impossible that they who have been baptized, and who have tasted the gift which is from heaven, and have received the spirit of holiness, and have tasted the good word of God, and the power of the coming age, should again sin, so that they should be renewed again to repentance, and again crucify the Son of God and put him to ignominy.”
The word rendered “fall away” means properly “to fall near by anyone;” “to fall in with or meet;” and thus to fall aside from, to swerve or deviate from; and here means undoubtedly to “apostatize from,” and implies an entire renunciation of Christianity, or a going back to a state of Judaism, paganism, or sin. The Greek word occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It is material to remark here that the apostle does not say that any true Christian ever had fallen away. He makes a statement of what would occur on the supposition that such a thing should happen – but a statement may be made of what would occur on the supposition that a certain thing should take place, and yet it be morally certain that the event never would happen. It would be easy to suppose what would happen if the ocean should overflow a continent, or if the sun should cease to rise, and still there be entire certainty that such an event never would occur.
To renew them again – Implying that they had been before renewed, or had been true Christians. The word “again” – πάλιν palin – supposes this; and this passage, therefore, confirms the considerations suggested above, showing that they were true Christians who were referred to. They had once repented, but it would be impossible to bring them to this state “again.” This declaration of course is to be read in connection with the first clause of Heb_6:4, “It is impossible to renew again to repentance those who once were true Christians should they fall away.” I know of no declaration more unambiguous than this. It is a positive declaration. It is not that it would be very difficult to do it; or that it would be impossible for man to do it, though it might be done by God; it is an unequivocal and absolute declaration that it would be utterly impracticable that it should be done by anyone, or by any means; and this, I have no doubt, is the meaning of the apostle. Should a Christian fall from grace, he “must perish.” he never could be saved. The reason of this the apostle immediately adds.
Seeing – This word is not in the Greek, though the sense is expressed. The Greek literally is, “having again crucified to themselves the Son of God.” The “reason” here given is, that the crime would be so great, and they would so effectually exclude themselves from the only plan of salvation, that they could not be saved. There is but one way of salvation. Having tried that, and then renounced it, how could they then be saved? The case is like that of a drowning man. If there was but one plank by which he could be saved, and he should get on that and then push it away and plunge into the deep, he must die. Or if there was but one rope by which the shore could be reached from a wreck, and he should cut that and cast it off, he must die. Or if a man were sick, and there was but one kind of medicine that could possibly restore him, and he should deliberately dash that away, he must die. So in religion. There is “but one” way of salvation. If a man deliberately rejects that, he must perish.
They crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh – Our translators have rendered this as if the Greek were – ἀνασταυροῦντας πάλιν anastaurountas palin – “crucify again,” and so it is rendered by Chrysostom, by Tyndale, Coverdale, Beza, Luther, and others. But this is not properly the meaning of the Greek. The word ἀνασταυρόω anastauroō – is an “intensive” word, and is employed instead of the usual word “to crucify” only to denote “emphasis.” It means that such an act of apostasy would be equivalent to crucifying him in an aggravated manner. Of course this is to be taken “figuratively.” It could not be literally true that they would thus crucify the Redeemer. The meaning is, that their conduct would be “as if” they had crucified him; it would bear a strong resemblance to the act by which the Lord Jesus was publicly rejected and condemned to die. The act of crucifying the Son of God was the great crime which outpeers any other deed of human guilt. Yet the apostle says that should they who had been true Christians fall away and reject him, they would be guilty of a similar crime. It would be a public and solemn act of rejecting him. It would show that if they had been there they would have joined in the cry “crucify him, crucify him.” The “intensity and aggravation” of such a crime perhaps the apostle meant to indicate by the intensive or emphatic ἀνὰ ana in the word ἀνασταυροῦντας anastaurountas. Such an act would render their salvation impossible, because:
(1) The crime would be aggravated beyond that of those who rejected him and put him to death – for they knew not what they did; and,
(2) Because it would be a rejection of the only possible plan of salvation after they had had experience of its power and known its efficacy.
The phrase “to themselves,” Tyndale readers, “as concerning themselves.” Others, “as far as in them lies,” or as far as they have ability to do. Others, “to their own heart.” Probably Grotius has suggested the true sense. “They do it for themselves. They make the act their own. It is as if they did it themselves; and they are to he regarded as having done the deed.” So we make the act of another our own when we authorize it beforehand, or approve of it after it is done.
And put him to an open shame – Make him a public example; or hold him up as worthy of death on the cross; see the same word explained in the notes on Mat_1:19, in the phrase “make her a public example.” The word occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. Their apostasy and rejection of the Saviour would be like holding him up publicly as deserving the infamy and ignominy of the cross. A great part of the crime attending the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus, consisted in exhibiting him to the passing multitude as deserving the death of a malefactor. Of that sin they would partake who should reject him, for they would thus show that they regarded his religion as an imposture, and would in a public manner hold him up as worthy only of rejection and contempt. Such, it seems to me, is the fair meaning of this much-disputed passage – a passage which would never have given so much perplexity if it had not been supposed that the obvious interpretation would interfere with some prevalent articles of theology. The passage “proves” that if true Christians should apostatize, it would be impossible to renew and save them. If then it should be asked whether I believe that any true Christian ever did, or ever will fall from grace, and wholly lose his religion, I would answer unhesitatingly, no! (compare the Joh_10:27-28 notes; Rom_8:38-39 notes; Gal_6:4 note.) If then it be asked what was the use of a warning like this, I answer:
(1) It would show the great sin of apostasy from God if it were to occur. It is proper to state the greatness of an act of sin, though it might never occur, in order to show how it would be regarded by God.
(2) Such a statement might be one of the most effectual means of preserving from apostasy. To state that a fall from a precipice would cause certain death, would be one of the most certain means of preserving one from falling; to affirm that arsenic would be certainly fatal, is one of the most effectual means of preventing its being taken; to know that fire certainly destroys, is one of the most sure checks from the danger. Thousands have been preserved from going over the Falls of Niagara by knowing that there would be no possibility of escape; and so effectual has been this knowledge that it has preserved all from such a catastrophe, except the very few who have gone over by accident. So in religion. The knowledge that apostasy would be fatal, and there could be no hope of being of the danger than all the other means that could be used. If a man believed that it would be an easy matter to be restored again should he apostatize, he would feel little solicitude in regard to it; and it has occurred in fact, that they who suppose that this may occur, have manifested little of the care to walk in the paths of strict religion, which should have been evinced.
(3) It may be added, that the means used by God to preserve his people from apostasy, have been entirely effectual. There is no evidence that one has ever fallen away who was a true Christian, (compare Joh_10:27-28, and 1Jo_2:19); and to the end of the world it will be true that the means which he uses to keep his people from apostasy will not in a single instance fail.
(This view seems not opposed to the doctrine of the saint’s perseverance. It professes indeed, to meet the objection usually raised from the passage, if not in a new mode, yet in a mode different from that commonly adopted by orthodox expositors. Admitting that true Christians are intended, it is asserted only, that if they should fall, their recovery would be impossible, It is not said that they ever have fallen or will fall. “The apostle in thus giving judgment on the case, if it should happen, does not declare that it actually does.” And as to the use of supposing a case which never can occur, it is argued that means are constantly used to bring about what the decree or determination of God had before rendered certain. These exhortations are the means by which perseverance is secured.
Yet it may be doubted, whether there be anything in the passage to convince us, that the apostle has introduced an “impossible” case. He seems rather to speak of what “might” happen, of which there was “danger.” If the reader incline to this view, he will apply the description to professors, and learn from it how far these may go, and yet fall short of the mark. But how would this suit the apostle’s design? Well. If “professors” may go “so far,” how much is this fact suited to arouse all to vigilance and inquiry. We, notwithstanding our gifts and “apparent” graces, may not be “true” Christians, may, therefore, not be “secure,” may fall away and sink, under the doom of him whom it is impossible to renew. And he must be a very exalted Christian indeed, who does not occasionally find need of inquiry, and examination of evidences. Certainly, the whole passage may be explained in perfect consistency with this application of it.
Men may be enlightened, that is, well acquainted with the doctrines and duties of the Christian faith; may have tasted of the heavenly gift, and been made partakers of the Holy Spirit in his miraculous influences, which many in primitive times enjoyed, without any sanctifying virtue; may have tasted the good word of God, or experienced impressions of affection and joy under it, as in the case of the stony ground hearers; may have tasted the powers of the world to come, or been influenced by the doctrine of a future state, with its accompanying rewards and punishments; – and yet not be “true” Christians. “All these things, except miraculous gifts, often take place in the hearts and consciences of people in these days, who yet continue unregenerate. They have knowledge, convictions, fears, hope, joys, and seasons of apparent earnestness, and deep concern about eternal things; and they are endued with such gifts, as often make them acceptable and useful to others, but they are not truly “humbled;” they are not “spiritually minded;” religion is not their element and delight” – Scott.
It should be observed, moreover, that while there are many “infallible” marks of the true Christian, none of these are mentioned in this place. The persons described are not said to have been elected, to have been regenerated, to have believed, or to have been sanctified. The apostle writes very differently when describing the character and privileges of the saints, Rom_8:27, Rom_8:30. The succeeding context, too, is supposed to favor this opinion.
“They (the characters in question) are, in the following verses, compared to the ground on which the rain often falls, and beareth nothing but thorns and briars. But this is not so with true believers, for faith itself is an herb special to the enclosed garden of Christ. And the apostle afterward, discoursing of true belief, doth in many particulars distinguish them from such as may be apostates, which is supposed of the persons here intended. He ascribeth to them, in general, better things. and such as accompany salvation. He ascribes a work and labor of love, asserts their preservation, etc.” – Owen.
Our author, however, fortifies himself against the objection in the first part of this quotation, by repeating and applying at Rom_8:7, his principle of exposition. “The design,” says he, “is to show, that if Christians should be come like the barren earth, they would be cast away and lost.”
Yet the attentive reader of this very ingenious exposition will observe, that the author has difficulty in carrying out his principles, and finds it necessary to introduce the “mere” professor ere he has done with the passage. “It is not supposed,” says he, commenting on the 8th verse, “that a true Christian will fall away and be lost, but we may remark, that there are many professed Christians who seem to be in danger of such ruin. Corrupt desires are as certainly seen in their lives, as thorns on a bad soil. Such are nigh unto cursing. Unsanctified, etc., there is nothing else which can be done for them, and they must be lost. What a thought!” Yet that the case of the professor in danger cannot very consistently be introduced by him, appears from the fact, that such ruin as is here described is suspended on a condition which never occurs. It happens “only” if the “Christian” should fall. According to the author, it is not here denounced “on any other supposition.” As then true Christians cannot fall, the ruin never can occur “in any case whatever.” From these premises we “dare not” draw the conclusion, that any class of professors will be given over to final impenitence.
As to what may be alleged concerning the “apparent” sense of the passage, or the sense which would strike “the mass of readers;” every one will judge according to the sense which himself thinks most obvious. Few perhaps would imagine that the apostle was introducing an impossible case. Nor does the “connection” stand much in the way of the application to professors. In addition to what has already been stated, let it be further observed, that although the appropriate exhortation to awakened, yet unconverted persons would be, “to become converted; not to warn them of the danger of falling away;” yet the apostle is writing to the Hebrews at large, is addressing a body of professing Christians, concerning whom he could have no infallible assurance that “all of them” were true Christians. Therefore, it was right that they should be warned in the way the apostle has adopted. The objection leaves out of sight the important fact that the “exhortations and warnings addressed to the saints in Scripture are addressed to mixed societies, in which there may be hypocrites as well as believers.”
Those who profess the faith, and associate with the church, are addressed without any decision regarding state. But the very existence of the warnings implies a fear that there may be some whose state is not safe. And “all,” therefore, have need to inquire whether this be their condition. How appropriate then such warnings. This consideration, too, will furnish an answer to what has been alleged by another celebrated transatlantic writer, namely, “that whatever may be true in the divine purposes as to the final salvation of all those who are once truly regenerated. and this doctrine I feel constrained to admit, yet nothing can be plainer, than that the sacred writers have every where addressed saints in the same manner as they would address those whom they considered as constantly exposed to fall away and to perish forever.” Lastly. The phraseology of the passage does not appear to remove it out of all possible application to “mere” professors.
It has already been briefly explained in consistency with such application. There is a difficulty, indeed, connected with the phrase, παλιν ανακαινιζειν εις μετανοιαν palin anakainizein eis metanoian, “again” to renew to repentance; implying, as is said, that they, to whom reference is made, had been renewed “before.” But what should hinder this being understood of “reinstating in former condition,” or in possession of former privilege; Bloomfield supposes, there may be an allusion to the non-reiteration of baptism, and Owen explains the phrase of bringing them again into a state of profession by a second renovation, and a second baptism, as a pledge thereof. The renewing he understands here “externally” of a solemn confession of faith and repentance, followed by baptism. This, says he, was their ἀνακαινισμος anakainismos, their renovation. It would seem then that there is nothing in the phrase to prevent its interpretation on the same principle that above has been applied to the passage generally.)
For the earth – The design of the apostle by this comparison is apparent. It is to show the consequences of not making a proper use of all the privileges which Christians have, and the effect which would follow should those privileges fail to be improved. He says, it is like the earth. If that absorbs the rain, and produces an abundant harvest, it receives the divine blessing. If not, it is cursed, or is worthless. The design is to show that “if” Christians should become like the barren earth they would be cast away and lost.
Which drinketh in the rain – A comparison of the earth as if it were “thirsty” – a comparison that is common in all languages.
That cometh oft upon it – The frequent showers that fall. The object is to describe fertile land which is often watered with the rains of heaven. The comparison of “drinking in” the rain is designed to distinguish a mellow soil which receives the rain, from hard or rocky land where it runs off.
And bringeth forth herbs – The word “herbs” we now limit in common discourse to the small vegetables which die every year, and which are used as articles of food, or to such in general as have not ligneous or hard woody stems. The word here means anything which is cultivated in the earth as an article of food, and includes all kinds of grains.
Meet for them – Useful or appropriate to them.
By whom it is dressed – Margin, “for whom.” The meaning is, on account of whom it is cultivated. The word “dressed” here means “cultivated:” compare Gen_2:15.
Receiveth blessing from God – Receives the divine approbation. It is in accordance with his wishes and plans, and he smiles upon it and blesses it. He does not curse it as he does the desolate and barren soil. The language is figurative, and must be used to denote what is an object of the divine favor. God delights in the harvests which the earth brings forth; in the effects of dews and rains and suns in causing beauty and abundance; and on such fields of beauty and plenty he looks down with pleasure. This does not mean, as I suppose, that he renders it more fertile and abundant, for:
(1) It cannot be shown that it is true that God thus rewards the earth for its fertility; and,
(2) Such an interpretation would not accord well with the scope of the passage.
The design is to show that a Christian who makes proper use of the means of growing in grace which God bestows upon him, and who does not apostatize, meets with the divine favor and approbation. His course accords with the divine intention and wishes, and he is a man on whom God will smile – as he seems to do on the fertile earth.
For land which hath drunk in the oft-coming rain upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them for whom (not, as in A.V., “by whom”) it is also tilled, receiveth blessing from God; but if it beareth thorns and thistles (not, as in A.V., “that which beareth”), it is rejected, and nigh unto cursing, whose end is to be burned (literally, for burning; cf. Isa_44:15, ἵνα ᾗ ἀνθρ ώποις εἰς καῦσιν). The illustration is apt and close. Observe that the “land which hath drunk,” etc., is the subject in Heb_6:8, as well as of Heb_6:7, as is shown by the absence of an article before ἐκφε ́ρουσα. Hence the unproductive as well as the fruitful soil is supposed to have received, and not only received but imbibed also, abundant supplies of rain. Its failure is its own fault, and it is regarded as responsible for it, and deserving of its final fate. This exactly illustrates the case of those who “fall away” after not only receiving abundantly, but also taking in so as to be filled with the “gracious rain” of the Holy Spirit. The only difference is that in their case, free-will being a constituent of their productive power, the responsibility figuratively attributed to the land is real (cf. ἐκουσιως ἁμαρτανόντων, Heb_10:26). For similar illustrations drawn from unproductiveness in nature in spite of culture, cf. Isa_5:4 and Luke 28:23. The” blessing from God” refers to the view, pervading the Old Testament, of fruitfulness being the result and sign of the Divine blessing on the land (cf. Gen_27:27, “The smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the Lend hath blessed”). And it is further implied that incipient fruitfulness is rewarded by more abundant blessing, according to our Lord’s words, Mat_13:12, “Whosoever hath, to him shall be given,” and Joh_15:2, “Every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.” The “thorns and thistles,” connected with a curse on the ground, seem suggested by Gen_3:17, Gen_3:18, Ἐπικατα ́ρατος ἡ γῆ ἐν τοῖς ἕργοις σου ἀκα ́νθας καὶ τριβόλους ἀνατελεῖ σοι. LXX. (cf. “Cursed shall be the fruit of thy land,” Deu_28:18). It is to be observed, further, that the land, though bearing thorns instead of fruit, is not spoken of as yet under the final curse, but only nigh unto it, so as to avoid even a remote suggestion that the Hebrew Christians had actually reached the hopeless state. But, unless fruitfulness should ensue, they are warned of the inevitable end by the fate of thorns and thistles, which is, not to be garnered, but to be burnt (cf. 2Sa_23:1-39. 6, “The sons of Belial shall be all of them as thorns thrust away … and they shall be utterly burned with fire in the same place;” cf. also Deu_29:23, “The whole land thereof is brimstone, and salt, and burning, that it is not sown, nor beareth, nor any grass groweth thereon”—a state of final hopeless barrenness).
But that which beareth thorns and briars is rejected – That is, by the farmer or owner. It is abandoned as worthless. The force of the comparison here is, that God would thus deal with those who professed to be renewed if they should be like such a worthless field.
And is nigh unto cursing – Is given over to execration, or is abandoned as useless. The word “cursing” means devoting to destruction. The sense is not that the owner would curse it “in words,” or imprecate a curse on it, as a man does who uses profane language, but the language is taken here from the more common use of the word “curse” – as meaning to devote to destruction. So the land would be regarded by the farmer. It would be valueless, and would be given up to be overrun with fire.
Whose end is to be burned – Referring to the land. The allusion here is to the common practice among the Oriental and Roman agriculturists of burning bad and barren lands. An illustration of this is afforded by Pliny. “There are some who burn the stubble on the field, chiefly upon the authority of Virgil; the principal reason for which is, that they may burn the seeds of weeds;” Nat. Hist. xviii. 30. The authority of Virgil, to which Pliny refers, may be found in Georg. i. 84:
“Saepe etiam steriles incendere profuit agros,
Atque levem stipulam ciepitantibus urere flammis.”
“It is often useful to set fire to barren lands, and burn the light stubble in crackling flames.” The purpose of burning land in this way was to render it available for useful purposes; or to destroy noxious weeds, and thorns, and underbrush. But the object of the apostle requires him to refer merely to the “fact” of the burning, and to make use of it as an illustration of an act of punishment. So, Paul says, it would be in the dealings of God with his people. If after all attempts to secure holy living, and to keep them in the paths of salvation, they should evince none of the spirit of piety, all that could be done would be to abandon them to destruction as such a field is overrun with fire. It is not supposed that a true Christian will fall away and be lost, but we may remark.
(1) That there are many professed Christians who seem to be in danger of such ruin. They resist all attempts to produce in them the fruits of good living as really as some pieces of ground do to secure a harvest. Corrupt desires, pride, envy, uncharitableness, covetousness, and vanity are as certainly seen in their lives as thorns and briars are on a bad soil. Such briars and thorns you may cut down again and again; you may strike the plow deep and seem to tear away all their roots; you may sow the ground with the choicest grain, but soon the briars and the thorns will again appear, and be as troublesome as ever. No pains will subdue them, or secure a harvest. So with many a professed Christian. He may be taught, admonished, rebuked, and afflicted, but all will not do. There is essential and unsubdued perverseness in his soul, and despite all the attempts to make him a holy man, the same bad passions are continually breaking out anew.
(2) Such professing Christians are “nigh unto cursing.” They are about to be abandoned forever. Unsanctified and wicked in their hearts, there is nothing else which can be done for them, and they must be lost. What a thought! A professing Christian “nigh unto cursing!” A man, the efforts for, whose salvation are about to cease forever, and who is to he given over as incorrigible and hopeless! For such a man – in the church or out of it – we should have compassion. We have some compassion for an ox which is so stubborn that he will not work – and which is to be put to death; for a horse which is so fractious that he cannot be broken, and which is to be killed; for cattle which are so unruly that they cannot be restrained, and which are only to be fattened for the slaughter; and even for a field which is desolate and barren, and which is given up to be overrun with briars and thorns; but how much more should we pity a man all the efforts for whose salvation fail, and who is soon to be abandoned to everlasting destruction!