I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Reading Hebrews 6:4—6 As It Was Written: An Exegesis of the Text in Its Canonical Context

            The warning passages in the book of Hebrews have a history, one nearly as long as the book is old, of being the loci of doctrinal debate.  Of these five passages,[1] Heb 6:4—6 has attracted most of the scholarly attention and remains one of the most puzzling and enigmatic for interpreters.[2]
            The middle of the third century saw the rise of a brilliant anti-Pope priest, theologian and writer, Novatian (fl. 249—51).[3]  Novatian was “orthodox in doctrine, but schismatic in discipline.”[4]  The Decian persecutions caused many to fall away from the faith.  “Novatian opposed any readmission of these people into the church.  Because his severe denial of reconciliation was opposed to Catholic practice, Novatian was excommunicated by a Roman synod.”[5] A favorite—perhaps the favorite—text of Novatian and his followers was Heb 6:4—6.[6]
            By the late forth century, Ambrose’s (d. 397) interpretation, which argued that Heb 6:4—6 forbade only the rebaptism of repenters, pacified the key trouble that the Western Church had, vis-à-vis Novatian’s schismatic followers through the medieval period.[7] 
            Since the Reformation, with its emphasis on crux questions of soteriological nature, the interpretive inquiries brought to the warning passages, particularly 6:4—6, have been nuanced accordingly.  The primary questions for exegetes throughout the modern period have been ones dealing with the assurance of the individual believer’s salvation, especially in light of the searing warnings found in Hebrews.  Can a genuine believer fall finally and fatally from faith in Christ?  Are true Christians susceptible to apostasy?  Most agree that the problem is remarkably difficult and defies facile answers.[8]  Schreiner aptly summarizes the modern dilemma.
Some have argued that apostasy is possible for genuine believers (Marshall; McKnight).  Others maintain that those whom God has truly saved will persevere to the end (Grudem; Schreiner and Caneday). We should observe that both sets of interpreters believe that good works are evidence of genuine saving faith...argue that good works as a fruit of faith are necessary for eschatological salvation...that obedience is one indication that a person genuinely belongs to God...In both instances assurance is not an abstraction that is realized apart from the work of the Spirit in the lives of God’s people.[9] 

            The following will therefore attempt to speak into the modern doctrinal dilemma.  Premised largely on the recent scholarship in Hebrews studies, the argument will be that, while those mentioned in 6:4—8 had a genuine experience of God’s mighty workings in the new covenant community, they, like those who lapsed under the old covenant, did not fall from a real, genuine, and saving faith; and thus conclude that this warning passage does not impugn the historic doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, as maturely summarized in the Reformed confessions.[10]  

Which are the ‘Warning Passages’?
            In a helpful article,[11] Gatiss summarizes the work of recent Hebrews scholars and offers a comparative chart, presenting each scholar’s accounting of which texts are the warning passages and what their limits are.  Gatiss’ conclusions are represented here.
Figure 1









3:12—4:2, 11—13


12:13b—17, 25—29













12:14, 29

Gatiss notes that “There is a consensus on the broad outline of where such ‘warnings’ may be found...but the exact limits of the passages are disputed.”[13] A few relevant observations can be drawn from these data. 
            First, Bruce’s omission of 6:4—6 is odd and inconsonant with later interpreters.  It is odd, in part, because he summarizes this passage with the dreadful phrase, “apostasy is irredeemable” and elsewhere calls it a “warning passage.”[14] So for all practical purposes, 6:4—6 is seen as a warning passage by all of the above scholars, Bruce included.  Second, there is unanimous agreement regarding both the inclusion and limits of 2:1—4.  Third, the close proximity of the second warning, ending with 4:13 (Mugridge, Grudem, McKnight, and Mathewson), to the third warning, beginning for most with 5:11 (Bruce, Lane, McKnight, and Mathewson), is worth noting.  This indicates that certain OT influences and allusions recognizable in the former warning could influence our interpretation of the latter passage, supplying what may be called background “bleed over.”[15] Finally, given the co-inherent order of the book of Hebrews, and the transparent genius of its author, there must therefore be a rationale and structure behind the designated passages in the figure above; there must be an interpretive grid that brings continuity to all the warning passages. 
McKnight’s Synthetic Reading and “Four Elements”
            McKnight believes that he has discovered just such a grid.[16] McKnight argues that each warning passage must be read in synthesis with the others.  “I...propose that a synthesis of each component as revealed in each warning passage provides clarity on the meaning of a given component in a single passage.”[17]  This is simply an application of the hermeneutical circle, but McKnight’s application is nuanced by the four elements or components that he mentions.    McKnight observes: “In each warning passage, we find (1) the subjects or audience in danger of committing the sin, (2) the sin that leads to (3) the exhortation, which if not followed, leads to (4) the consequences of that sin.”[18]  These four elements are abstract concepts, each of which finds ample content from every warning passage.  Thus, despite the variations between each warning, there is unity, and this unity in turn informs our reading of the particularities of each of the other passages. 
            In conjunction with the direction gained through reading the warnings synthetically, these four elements or categories are helpful for identifying common threads between the passages, leading to greater insight into the meaning of each particular text, as well as how the warnings operate in the thought structure of the book as a whole.  Though helpful, this is not necessarily an infallible means of objective analysis.  Applying this synthetic reading through the four elements, McKnight concludes from the warnings the following content. (1) The subjects appear to be believers.  (2) The sin is apostasy, understood as deliberate and public refusal to submit to God and his will for persons in Jesus Christ.  (3) The exhortation is to repent and to follow faithfully and obediently.  And (4) the consequences for the apostasy is eternal punishment.[19]
            As Schreiner’s remark in the introduction indicated, and as McKnight’s concluding analysis above shows, McKnight deduces that these warning passages assume that a genuine believer can fall finally and fatally into irredeemable apostasy.  Such an inference leads McKnight to the opaque statement that, “If the ‘elect’ repudiate God’s sovereign claim on life, that election is shown to be compatible with apostasy.”[20]  There are at least three flaws with McKnight’s theological conclusion.        
            First, if the warning of 6:4—6 (any of the five for that matter) is teaching that genuine believers can commit apostasy, then this warning stands perfectly contrary to other clearer passages that teach that such a catastrophe is impossible.[21] Second, McKnight’s first element intends to identify the subjects or audience.  McKnight’s glib designation is not compatible with the complexity of 6:4—6 and its context.[22]  In the first layer of the passage (5:11—6:3), the author uses first and second person plural pronouns.  The same terms of address are used in the exhortation following the warning (6:9—12).  The author shifts, however, in the warning proper (6:4—6) to the third person plural.  Therefore, 6:4—6 defies fitting into McKnight’s generalizing category of “subjects or audience,” since the first and third layers of the passage are directed to the audience, while the middle layer, the warning proper, is referring to another group entirely, namely the subjects.[23] Therefore, the utility of McKnight’s four elements is promising but limited.  The first element must be breeched in order to fully account for the data of the third warning passage, and violated to concluded, as McKnight does, that 6:4—6 refers to genuine believers.  The third flaw with McKnight’s four elements is the glaring omission of a fifth element. 
Mathewson’s “Fifth Element” and the Glaring Omission in Hebrews Scholarship
            It is commonplace for scholars to recognize the OT examples, by way of direct citation, in the first, second, fourth, and fifth warning passages.[24] Mathewson’s article steps forward from McKnight’s and proposes “reading Heb 6:4—6 in light of OT background.  In fact, [he] would contend that much misunderstanding of this section of Hebrews stems from a failure to appreciate its OT matrix.”[25] Therefore, Mathewson would add to McKnight’s four elements “a fifth component: OT example.”[26] 
            To sum up: Heb 6:4—8 has had a long history of use and abuse.  The modern dilemma respecting this text asks questions that are soteriological in nature, whereas earlier ones were more ecclesiological.  There are five clear warning passages in Hebrews recognized by scholars.  McKnight’s observations help to bring unity to these passages, through the generalizing grid of the four elements of subjects, sin, exhortation, and consequence.  McKnight must ignore certain data, however, and violate the first component in order to draw the theological conclusion that 6:4—6 teaches that genuine believers can apostatize.  Mathewson offers the fifth element of OT background, which has never received due attention in Hebrews studies, although OT background is recognized by all in the other four warnings.  Understanding the third warning in terms of its OT matrix, promises Mathewson, will illuminate our understanding of the warning. 
            Although there is consensus as to the inclusion of 6:4—6 as a warning proper, the limits of the warning’s context is disputed.[27]  Lane, McKnight, and Mathewson are all in agreement that the concentration of this warning runs uninterrupted from 5:11 through 6:12.  Literarily speaking, this is for good reason.  If so, then this context must inform our reading of the warning proper.
The Text’s Framework: The nōthros Inclusio
            The ancients used a number of literary devises, of which the inclusio was a dominate one.  “An inclusio is a pattern in which a paragraph or longer portion ends in much the same way in which it began.”[28] An author may be employing phraseology, conceptual parallels, OT citations, and terminology to mark the boundaries of the text.  Heb 5:11—6:12 uses the latter.[29]
            The term of the author’s choice is nōthros, a loaded term, “full of meaning.”[30]  Barclay maintains that lexically the term means slow-moving in mind, torpid in understanding, dull of hearing, witlessly forgetful.[31] Noting the forcefulness of the term, he bluntly states, “It can be used of a person who has the imperceptive nature of a stone.”[32]  Nōthros appears only twice in the NT,[33] in Heb 5:11 and 6:12.  This hook word, therefore, marks off this section of the author’s argument for a purpose.  What, though, is that purpose?
            The purpose of this inclusio is to mark off a digression from the author’s positive argument for ‘Jesus’ priesthood after the order of Melchizedek,’ which was proleptically mentioned in 2:17 and more fully fleshed out in 4:14—7:28.  Using the language of apostasy, the author expresses his palpable concern over his readers’ susceptibility to “drift away” (pararrhueō, 2:1), to “fall away” (aphistēmi, 3:12), and to “fall” (piptō, 4:11), as did those before them, under the older covenant.[34]  According to the third warning, the contributing cause of their risk of apostasy is their nōthros (5:11) and their need to avoid it (6:12)!  Their nōthros is that which is preventing them from penetrating into the meaning of Jesus heavenly session and his Melchizedekian-like High Priesthood on behalf of the church in the heavenly Temple.  Therefore, one’s understanding of the warning’s immediate context, cloistered by the nōthros inclusio, will in part determine his or her interpretation of the warning in 6:4—6.
The “Elementary Doctrines of Christ” as Initiation into the New Covenant Community
            The doctrines, “Christ’s doctrines,”[35] that are mentioned in 6:1—2 are not isolated concepts.  Rather, these fall naturally into three pairs.[36] For Bruce, though, it is remarkable how little in the list is distinctively Christian, for practically every item could have its place in a fairly orthodox Jewish community...the impression we get is that existing Jewish beliefs and practices were used as a foundation on which to build Christian truth.[37]
            Gatiss, citing Peterson and Brown, agrees with Bruce, stating that our author was “urging [his readers] to leave behind elementary doctrines which were not distinctively Christian.”[38]  Bruce’s primary objection to the ‘elementary doctrines of Christ’ as distinctively Christian teaching rests on the plural “ablutions” or better “baptisms” (baptismōn).  Of the plural Bruce complains, “how unnatural are the attempts to explain this plural as referring to Christian Baptism.”[39]  What may be said to Bruce’s objection?
            First, Bruce must side-step the issue of the genitive, Christou, in 6:1.  If Christou is understood to be a subjective genitive (i.e., “Christ’s doctrines,” see fn. 35 above), then the doctrines are de facto distinctly Christian, as they are then Christ’s doctrines, not Judaism’s doctrines. 
            Second, Bruce sets up the objection to his own view’s advantage, and operates on an assumed and loaded question: How could baptisms, which is plural, be referring to Christian baptism, which is singular and once for all?  Intertextual study will not let us off so easy.  1stly, in Acts 18:24, Luke introduces readers to Apollos, an Alexandrian, who was eloquent, well versed in the scriptures, “instructed in the way of the Lord,” and a mighty defender of that Way (vv 24—26).  Nevertheless, “he knew only the baptism of John” (v 25).  2ndly, and directly, Apollos is in Corinth (19:1), and Luke begins the next pericope with Paul in Ephesus, where he meets twelve “disciples” (vv 1, 7).  Like Apollos, and no doubt many others, this small band of transitional disciples also experienced confusion, regarding the crucial issue of baptism(s).  Having enjoyed John’s baptism of repentance, they were then re-baptized by Paul into the name of Jesus (v 5).[40]  3rdly, immediately following their new baptism, “Paul had laid his hands upon them” (v 6, epithentos autois tou Paulou cheiras.  Compare with Heb 6:1, “the laying on of hands,” epitheseōs cheirōn).  From these observations, then, we find the primitive Church in need of a doctrine concerning “baptisms,” one which dogmatized and catechized each into its proper sphere of redemptive history.  Further, in this same context of Acts, we find the controversy of two baptisms couched with “repentance” in connection with John’s baptism (19:4), as well as the “laying on of hands” (v 6).  4thly, and finally, Bruce’s objection rests on the faulty and overly simplistic supposition that, because two things are similar, it follows that they are the same.[41] This narrative is, therefore, a living picture of the apostolic application (even formulation) of the “elementary doctrines of Christ” spoken of in Heb 6:1—2.  Bruce’s objection to the “doctrine of baptisms” (KJV) as being a distinctly Christian doctrine cannot stand.  Although multiple baptisms is not distinctly Christian—in fact, not Christian at all—the doctrine about them mentioned in Heb 6:1—2 most certainly is.  
            Many scholars have identified the foundational doctrines of 6:1—2 as components of an early Christian catechesis, which set apart the fledgling Messianic community from other Judaic sects, and similar to or perhaps incorporating parts of the Epistle of Barnabas and the Didachē.[42]  Wright’s summary is well stated:
[T]eaching about baptisms and laying on of hands.  This double action was, from the earliest times, was associated with admission into the Christian community.  Jesus’ movement began with John’s baptism, and from the earliest days of the church new converts received baptism, followed by the laying on of hands, as a sign and means of their sharing in the new common life of the Christian family.[43]

            Therefore, from the foregoing, we can conclude that the interpretation that claims the “elementary doctrines of Christ” were some form of proto-Christian foundation of Judaism cannot be maintained by the objection from the author’s use of “baptisms.”  Rather, as Calvin correctly remarked, “He [the author] here refers to a catechism commonly used.”[44] Of course, multiple baptisms is not a Christian distinctive; on the contrary, the early Church had a doctrinal distinctive that laid the “foundation” for a “doctrine of baptisms” (6:1—2).  Hence, these doctrines made up the initiatory understanding of basic Christianity taught to new converts.  Therefore, if the author was to move his “sluggish” congregation forward into the meaty Melchizedekian priesthood motif, they would have to be weaned from the milk bowl of the basics (Heb 5:12—14).
Following Bruce’s Lead
            Since its publishing, no reputable scholar on Hebrews can write or speak on the Epistle  without being conversant with Bruce’s NICNT commentary.  In an obscure footnote, he harkens the reader back to his comments concerning the OT background of the second warning passage of Heb 3:7ff.  Bruce then cites Lang’s insights, regarding 6:4—6, saying, “It may be that the wilderness narrative is still in our author’s mind.  The Israelites who failed to enter Canaan failed in spite of the fact that they had been baptized in the Red Sea and had their camp illuminated by heavenly light, in spite of the provision of bread from heaven and water from the rock, and God’s ‘good Spirit to instruct them’ (cf. Neh. 9:20), in spite of their hearing the oracles of God and seeing His mighty works in their midst.”[45]
            Lang’s words aptly summarize the warning passage of Heb 6:4—6, but in reality they speak instead of the old covenant community; and because this confusion may be made, Mathewson is convinced that in the seeds of truth in this footnote are the key to rightly reading the third warning.[46] 
Mathewson’s Contributions
            Mathewson takes serious Bruce’s notion that the OT background of the second warning (3:7—4:13) is still in the mind of the author in 6:4—6.  Accordingly, he unpacks the text of 3:7—4:13, finding that back of the citation of Ps 95 is Num 13 – 14, the incident of Kadesh-barnea.  Throughout this warning, the author repeatedly recalls this event (3:15; 4:3, 5, 7) as his grounds for the hortatory portions that follow, stressing that his audience avoid becoming “hardened.”  Most relevant to the present thesis is Mathewson’s conclusion from the second warning, describing the OT background “bleed over” mentioned above.[47]  That the wilderness generation plays a crucial role beyond 3:7—4:13 can be deduced from the fact that the tabernacle, rather than the temple, provides the predominant model for the author of Hebrews (8:5; 9:1—10), and exodus typology is confirmed more broadly with the emphasis on the incident at Sinai (12:18—21, 25, 29) and the comparison between Moses and Christ (3:1—6).[48]
            What is important to draw from these observations is the pattern of correspondence[49] between the readers of Hebrews and the OT people of a particular epoch of old covenant history.  The author of Hebrews keeps this time in Israel’s history before the reader in every other warning by explicit citation.[50]  Therefore, one should expect the same in the third warning.  “[T]he author’s language in 6:4—6 is colored by OT references by means of allusion and echo,” though, “apart from direct citation.”[51]  The description in 6:4—6, then, is not just of an isolated Christian experience, rather, it is to be understood against the background of Israel’s wilderness experience as members of the covenant community.[52]  Mathewson concludes: “In light of this, it is possible that the descriptions in vv 4—5 are not to be pinned down to precise references as most commentators attempt to do, but all refer more generally to the experience of the people hearing the Gospel and experiencing the blessings of the new covenant within the context of the new covenant community.”[53]

            Therefore, dragging forward Israel’s wilderness experience, and thus creating a semantic and conceptual grid for understanding the present historical experience of the readers, the prepositional phrases of 6:4—6 describe “people who are not yet Christians but who have simply heard the gospel and had experienced several of the blessings of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Christian community.”[54]   The falling away (v 6) is not falling from salvation, but a failure to exercise saving faith in light of the blessings to which the readers have been exposed through close association with the Christian community.[55]
The Failure of Faithlessness
            The inferences that may be drawn from the preceding section are: (1) the second warning (3:7—4:13) and its explicit OT background ‘bleeds over’ into the third warning, which (2) has been demonstrated by Mathewson to be founded on OT allusions and echoes apart from explicit citation; (3) the author of Hebrews is drawing a one-to-one typological correspondence between the old and new covenant communities in his warnings and exhortations. 
           From these conclusions, we may draw one more observation of significant proportion.  In the second warning, after a series of rhetorical questions and answers (3:16—19), our author concludes with the exhortation to enter the eschatological rest promised in the gospel they have heard (4:1).  The ground[56] for these comes in v 2:  “For we have been evangelized, just as they had; but no benefit to them was the word of their hearing, not having been efficaciously conjoined with faith in the hearers.”[57]   
            Over and again, our author evokes the wilderness generation as the quintessential example of apostasy and warns his reader not to “fall” by “following the same example of disobedience” (4:11 NAS; note, “same example” is emphatic in the Greek text).  This correspondence between the old and new covenantal communities is so strong that, some have called it an “exact” and/or “one-to-one correspondence.”[58]  Hence, just as those “whose bodies fell in the wilderness” (4:17), so also those who committed the apostasy of 6:6 did through a like faithlessness. 
            We know that “without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (11:6), how much more so, then, is it impossible to experience genuine salvation without faith?  Therefore, just as the wilderness generation was evangelized with the gospel (4:2, 6) and apostatized for want of apprehending the benefits thereof through faith, so also the group envisioned in 6:4—6—they too enjoyed the hearing of the Word and the overflow of Christ’s presence with his people by the operations of the Holy Spirit, yet they fell, not having faith.  We may safely conclude, therefore, with Wright, “the people described in verses 4 and 5 are people who have become church members, and have felt the power of the gospel and the life that results from it through sharing the common life of Christian fellowship, but have never really made it their own, down deep inside.”[59] 

            We can see, therefore, that the modern doctrinal debate over Heb 6:4—6 depends on a deeper theological presupposition.  Those who argue that 6:4—6 envisions the apostates as once genuinely “saved” persons assume that members of the invisible church are in mind.  If the foregoing is correct, however, the apostates of both the old and the new covenant communities were members of the visible church only. 
            All five warning passages are interdependent, having such a continuity of form and function that a synthetic analysis alone can produce accurate inference.  Not only are these passages continuous with one another, but they also depend heavily on OT background for their linguistic and conceptual meaning, not least 6:4—6, as Mathewson so persuasively argued. 
           Beyond this canonical context, the author made his digression into this warning clear by means of an inclusio, marked by the original readers’ retarding perceptual sloth (nōthros).  This captured the immediate context of his argument.  From this context, we discovered that the “elementary doctrines of Christ” are just that, Christ’s doctrines and thus Christian doctrine.  As “unnatural” as Bruce felt this conclusion was, it is true nonetheless.  The doctrine concerning “baptisms” was both needed and distinctly Christian, as were the other five mentioned.  Heb 6:1—2 is an early example of Christian basics, a foundational teaching of Christian doctrinal distinctives, a catechesis.   The author’s antidote to the risk of apostasy was to at once move his readers from the milk bowl of catechesis to the meat of the typological teaching of Jesus’ Melchizedekian priesthood. 
            Because the OT background of the second warning bleeds over into the third, and the third is rife with OT allusion and echo in its own right, there is therefore great correspondence between the old covenant community and the new, with respect to warning and falling.  This correspondence is one-to-one concerning the transgenerational apostates themselves, be they of the Kadesh-barnea event or those who are mentioned in 6:4—6.  Both groups were participants in the overflowing blessing and benefit of God amidst his people; they were members of the visible, not the invisible, church.  This we know because the requisite faith of salvation was not a grace that the apostates enjoyed; and without it, membership in the invisible church is as impossible as the apostate’s renewal to repentance. 
            Therefore, it is not genuine believers that our text speaks of, as argued by Marshall, McKnight, and many others today.  The historic confessions of the Reformation exemplify the correct reading of Heb 6:4—6, stating, “Others not elect, although they may be called by the ministry of the word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come to Christ, and therefore cannot be saved.”[60]  The correct biblical-theological conclusion from the warning of Heb 6:4—6, therefore, affirms the doctrine of the Reformation, not the Remonstrance. 


Barclay, William, The Letter to the Hebrews, The Daily Study Bible Series, Revised ed.     (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.  1976)

Bruce, F. F., “Problem Texts (10): Irretrievable Apostasy,” Harvester 46.10 (October,       
            1987).  20. (As found at http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/harvester/1987-            10_20_bruce.pdf10_20_bruce.pdf  Retrieved on July 1, 2010

Bruce, F. F., The Epistle To The Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.  1964)

Calvin, John, Calvin’s Commentaries (XXIII Vols. Trans. by Rev. John Owen; Grand Rapids: Baker Books.  Public Domain)

Ferguson, Sinclair B., David F. Wright eds., New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press.  1988)

Gatiss, Lee, “The Function of the Warning Passages in the Structure and Argument of      Hebrews” (As found at http://www.theologian.org.uk/bible/hebrews-            warnings.html             Retrieved on July 2, 2010)

MacLeod David J., “The Literary Structure of the Book of Hebrews,” pp. 185—97 in       Bibliotheca Sacra 146 (April 1989: Dallas Theological Seminary)

Mathewson, Dave, “Reading Heb 6:4-6 in Light of the Old Testament,” pp. 209—25 in    Westminster Theological Journal 61 (1999)

Martin, Ralph P., Peter H. Davids eds., Dictionary of the Latter New Testament and Its      Developments (Downer Groves, Il: InterVarsity Press.  1997)

McKnight, Scot, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews: A Formal Analysis and Theological Conclusions,” pp. 21—59 in Trinity Journal 13 (1992).

Robertson, A. T., Word Pictures in the New Testament (E-Sword Bible Software)

Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church (VIII Vols.; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson             Publishers.  2006)

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. general ed., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.  2005)

Wright, N. T., Hebrews for Everyone (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.  2004)

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture citations are taken from the Revised Standard            Version (Oxford University Press.  1973)

                [1] See below, “Which are the warning passages?”

                [2] Gatiss, Lee, “The Function of the Warning Passages in the Structure and Argument of
Hebrews” (As found at http://www.theologian.org.uk/bible/hebrews-warnings.html).  Op. cit.

                [3] Kelly, D. F., “Novatian,” p. 472 in New Dictionary of Theology, Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright eds., (Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press.  1988).  472.

                [4] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (VIII Vols. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers.  2006). Vol. II: 850.

                [5] Kelly, “Novatian.” 472. 

                [6] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries (XXIII Vols. Trans. by Rev. John Owen; Grand Rapids: Baker Books.  Public Domain) XXII: 135.

                [7] Jon C. Laansma, “Hebrews, Book of,” pp. 274—281 in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, Kevin J. Vanhoozer general ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.  2005).  275.

                [8] Thomas Schreiner, “Assurance,” pp. 71—72 in DTIB.  71. Op. cit.

                [9] Ibid. 71, 72.  Emphasis original.

                [10] E.g., Belgic Confession, XVI; Canons of Dort, Fifth Head of Doctrine; Westminster Confession of Faith, XVII.  Of special note is the WCF, X: IV, which well summarizes the correct understanding of the text under consideration in simple dogmatic formula. 
                [11]  Lee Gatiss, “The Function of the Warning Passages in the Structure and Argument of Hebrews” (As found at http://www.theologian.org.uk/bible/hebrews-warnings.html)

                [12] Because of the influence his article has had on recent discussions of Hebrews, and because of its use in this present paper, Dave Mathewson’s identified warning passages are included in this chart by the present writer.  See “Reading Heb 6:4-6 in Light of the Old Testament,” pp. 209—25 in Westminster Theological Journal 61 (1999).  209.

                [13] Gatiss, “The Function of the Warning Passages.”

                [14] Bruce, F. F., The Epistle To The Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the   New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.  1964).  118, 123 respectively. Also see Bruce’s “Problem Texts (10): Irretrievable Apostasy,” Harvester 46.10 (October, 1987).  20. (As found at http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/harvester/198710_20_bruce.pdf10_20_bruce.pdf). 

                [15] Mathewson, “Reading.”  214.

                [16] For Scot McKnight’s fullest exposition of the warning passages see “The Warning Passages of Hebrews: A Formal Analysis and Theological Conclusions,” pp. 21—59 in Trinity Journal 13 (1992).

                [17] Ibid. 26.

                [18] Scot McKnight, “Apostasy.” Pp. 58—60 in DTIB.  59. Emphasis original.

                [19] Ibid. Emphasis mine. Op. cit.

                [20] Ibid. Emphasis original.

                [21] E.g., Jn 6:37—40; 10:27—29; 17; Rom 8, etc.  See also Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co.  1932). 182—204.

                [22] The broader context will be analyzed below; and, these comments are in small measure dependant on the validity of those later observations. 

                [23] To this objection could be added the fact that all four the descriptive phrases of the 6:4—6 are aorist participles. 

                [24] I.e., 2:2, disobedience to the Mosaic law; 3:16—19, the failure at Kadesh-barnea; 10:28, disobedience to the Mosaic law; 12:16—17, the failure of Esau, 25—26, failure to listen to God’s voice at Sinai. 
[25] Mathewson, “Reading.  210.
[26] Ibid. 211.  Emphasis original.

[27] See Figure 1 above.  Also, fn. 13. 

                [28] Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Colorado Springs: Cook Communication Ministries.  1991).  140.

                [29] Gatiss, “The Function of the Warning Passages.”

                [30] William Barclay, The Letter to the Hebrews, The Daily Study Bible Series, Revised ed. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.  1976).  49.

                [31] Ibid. Op. cit.

                [32] Ibid.

                [33] For earlier uses of the term see: Prov 22:29 LXX, “...he will not stand before obscure men [but kings]”; Sir 4:29, “Do not be reckless in your speech, or sluggish and remiss in your deeds.”; 11:12, “There is another who is slow and needs help...”  See also, Plato, Theaetetus, 144. b., “...whereas [unlike young Theaetitus] the steadier sort are somewhat dull when they come to face study, and they forget everything.”

                [34] For the OT background of the second warning passage, 3:7—4:13, see Num 13 – 14, with Ps 95, the Kadesh-barnea incident, as argued by Mathewson, “Reading.  212—13.  See below also.
                [35] Lit. “The beginning of the word of Christ.”  The genitive, Christou, is ambiguous.  A. T. Robertson  takes it as objective, and so meaning, “...the word about Christ” (see WPNT, ad loc.).  However, of the four other genitives in Hebrews, three are in the subjective (9:14; 10:10; 11:26) and only one is in the objective (3:14).  Moreover, 6:1 likely parallels 5:12, “the first principles of God’s word,” which is subjective.  Therefore, Christou here in 6:1 is best understood as a subjective genitive. 
                [36]  F. F. Bruce, The Epistle To The Hebrews.  112.  The present writer thinks that these three pairs comport well with modern categories of the systematicians: e.g., soteriology – “repentance” and “faith in God” (v 1); ecclesiology – “ablutions” and “the laying on of hands” (v 2a); and, eschatology – “resurrection of the dead” and “...age to come.” 

                [37] Ibid. Op. cit.

                [38] Lee Gatiss, “The Function of the Warning Passages.”
[39] Bruce, The Epistle To The Hebrews.  113. 

[40] Concerning that Apollos was also baptized again, but why Luke excludes the fact, see I. Howard Marshall, Acts (Tyndale New Testament Commentary.  Leon Morris general ed.  Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press.  1980).  302f.
[41] Consider an analogous argument.  This rock is round, hard, and smooth; my head is round, hard, and smooth (almost), therefore, there is nothing distinctively organic (or human, or what have you) about my head; therefore, my head and the rock are the same kind of thing.  While it may be true that this writer is hard-headed, this argument for that fact is fallacious, as is Bruce’s for the Judaic nature of “Christ’s doctrines.”
                [42] E.g., Calvin, vol. XXII.  131f; William Barclay, The Letter to the Hebrews, The Daily Study Bible Series, Revised ed. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.  1976).  53—4, 56.  Strangely, even Bruce acknowledges the probability, see The Epistle To The Hebrews. 113.   

                [43] N. T. Wright, Hebrews for Everyone (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.  2004).  58.  Emphasis mine.
                [44] Calvin, vol. XXII.  131.

                [45] Bruce, The Epistle To The Hebrews.  120, fn. 38. 
                [46] Mathewson, “Reading.”  211.
[47] See fn. 15.
                [48] Ibid.  213. Op. cit.
                [49] In fact, “an exact correspondence between the successive generations of the people of God...Israel and Christians exhibit a certain symmetrical relationship, as it were, designed by God.”  Ceslas Spicq, L’Epitre aux Hebreux (Paris: Gabalda.  1953).  71—72, as cited in Mathewson, “Reading.”  212. 
                [50] See fn. 24 above. 
                [51] Mathewson, “Reading.”  214.
                [52] Ibid.  223.

                [53] Ibid.  224

                [54] Grudem, as cited by Mathewson, “Reading.”  224—25.  
                [55] Ibid.  225.  Op. cit.
                [56] The conjunction “For” here is gar, providing the reason for the preceding conclusion. 

                [57] This author’s translation.  The first clause follows Bruce, The Epistle To The Hebrews, 72, fn. 16; the awkwardly early occurrence of the negations in the third and fourth clauses (i.e., “but no benefit...not having...”) reflects their hyperbatonic place in the Greek syntax; and “efficaciously” is interpretively supplied based on the NT’s only other occurrence  of “conjoined” (sugkerannumi) in 1 Cor 12:24, where the action of the verb is transparently divine (and from a Reformed, monergistic perspective on soteriology). 

                [58] Spicq, see fn. 49.
                [59] Wright, Hebrews.  59—60.
                [60] WCF.  X: IV.


  1. Hi Kevin,

    Interesting post. Do feel that this passage serves as a waring and if so to whom?

    Bless you,


    1. Thanks for the comment, Russ. Granting that I use the term 'warning' 77 times, I almost feel that your question is rhetorical. :) Yes; it is a warning passage, from my perspective. To whom? Those who, under the pressure of persecution, were considering leaving the fledgling community of the Messiah and returning to Judaism. This help?

      Blessings to you,


  2. Thanks Kevin. Agreed the historical context is just what you said; essentially newly converted Jews to Christianity under heavy persecution. So the warnings are for them not false conversions, correct?

    Bless you,


    1. Well, Russ, I think that despite the categorical difference between the recently converted Jews and false conversations, in the contexture of Hebrews, we are often talking of the same person. I guess my point is that the question we modern Westerners bring to the text of Hebrews are primarily soteriological (having to do with personal salvation), whereas I believe that in the author's mind and context the questions were more importantly ecclesiastical: separating oneself from the church (i.e., reverting back to Judaism) would leave one without any hope of salvation.

      Thanks for checking back. I hope that gave you the clarity you were looking for.



    2. That's a nice dodge. But what is painfully obvious is that the Calvinist cannot rescue his error no matter how he spins the passages and passages all over the New Testament that refute Once Saved Always Saved. Much more than just not going to church anymore is described here! These people not only got saved, they got baptized in the Spirit and experienced the Pentecostal power of God! And then we see the temptation is to openly denounce Christ and return to Judaism. This is final apostasy, and granted, it is different from backsliding. Both are serious, but one is fatal and irrevocable. The people spoken of in Hebrews 6 were saved and Spirit-baptized believers who fell away and repudiated Christ. They are DAMNED.

    3. Providential1611,

      First, I appreciate your alias; it alludes to one of my favorite doctrines and favorite translations. I only wished your theology were worthy of either.

      Second, I’m about to utterly annihilate your objection with a defeater of only two words: Uh uh! If you don’t think this suffices, please remember I learned this game from you. Look, there may be some holes in my thesis; however, you were miles from even skirting those holes with your pithy reply, which constituted nothing more than an ad hominem and a strawman. That you even deceive yourself into believing that your meager 124 words—a long, drawn-out “No, sir!”—begins to provide a meaningful refutation to a nearly 5,000 word thesis (with 60 footnotes, many of which are epexegetical) reveals the depth of your theological thought.

      Third, strawman alert: I do not, especially in this paper, argue for the so-called Once Saved Always Saved perspective. That you confuse this with my thesis reveals that you lack the study necessary to meaningfully engage in these discussions.

      Fourth, what biblical-borne criteria have you discovered and decided to use to demarcate between so-called backsliding and final-fatal apostasy, one which clearly distinguishes between the two statuses? And, how might one apply it to members today in the context of church discipline, for example? Please, do tell.

      Fifth, where in the text of this difficult passage do you find the warrant for your conclusion that, “These people not only got saved, they got baptized in the Spirit”?

      Sixth, you claim that these folk, and by implication all subsequent folk who duplicate their behavior, are finally and fatally “DAMNED.” Here’s the obvious follow-up question to that declaration: “Could these people ever be restored to salvation?” This question puts you on the horns of a real theological dilemma.

      If you chose to answer yes, then you contradict this passage’s only lucidly clear point. “For it is impossible...if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance” (Heb. 6:4, 6a).

      However, if you answer no, then you contradict several many other clear passages, not least Jesus’ own word on the matter. The scriptures present only one unforgivable sin, namely blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:32).

      More importantly, though, is that your primary point is perfectly contrary to the words of Jesus, and is thereby absurd. That is to say, your doctrine of the believer’s insecurity contradicts Jesus’ and St. Paul’s plain statements on this topic.

      While you will likely make yourself guilty of the genetic fallacy and throw all reason to the wind, I’d like to share the most basic and long-lived hermeneutical principle of the church. Be forewarned, though, it comes from that Calvinistic document, the Westminster Confession of Faith. I would strongly recommend its observance to you; it will save you from the slough of folly that you’ve plunged yourself into.

      “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly” (I:9).

      Now, stop being a blog troll, and go read your Bible more.

  3. Hi Kevin I just read your article and I was wondering if god has taken me back, See I got saved when I was 18 really followed the Lord but then fell away and worshiped another being, I committed spiritual adultery just like Israel, I came back to God ask him to forgive me for worshiping another but hebrews 6:4-6 is very condemning I've read in other versions of the bible like the Amplified and ISV that the reason they could not have their mind changed to be renewed to repentance was because of their on going action of crucifying Christ based on the present tense. Is this correct? Am i beyond hope? I just dont understand i really pray I'm not.

  4. Dear, Chase, as long as you are breathing, you are far from beyond hope! The power of Christ’s gospel is infinitely bigger than any offence you are capable of. I appreciate your sensitivity to and careful study of the text, but, thankfully, I think your readings from the Amp. and ISV have been misleading. Granted, this is a tough text, but I am even surer today of the conclusions in this analysis than I was several years ago when I wrote it. The present tense verbs that you are wisely picking up on, it must be remembered, were present tense at the time of writing. The author is referring to those, who through the pressures of persecution, were reverting back to Judaism, which is why he goes to great lengths to demonstrate the High Priestly work of Christ as the once for all sacrifice that consummated and sealed on the bloody rites of the old covenant system. Thus, for those who were turning back to Judaism, there was no sacrifice left, despite the continued, but short-lived, sacrifices in Jerusalem at the time. So, the text is speaking more of ecclesiology than soteriology, community membership than individual salvation (although the latter is closely related to the former).

    I also appreciate your honest confession of your former idolatry. Idolatry is at once the greatest and most common sin of all. Your connecting your own experience with that of Israel’s is interesting; and, on that note, give the prophet Hosea a careful read to see just what lengths our sinner-pursuing God will go to call idolaters like Israel, you, and me back into a restored covenant relationship. And, of course, it is through Jesus Christ’s righteousness, all-satisfying work that such is possible for anyone. That you are praying that you are not beyond hope is a glorious sign of life, eternal life. Forsake and repent of your idolatry and throw yourself on the mercy seat of God’s finished work, Christ’s cross. If you are willing to do that, you can know with the certainty and authority of God’s holy Word, that he will receive you once for all. As Jesus himself said, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the Father's will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day” (Jn. 6:37—39).

    “True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which woundeth the conscience and grieveth the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God's withdrawing the light of his countenance, and suffering even such as fear him to walk in darkness and to have no light: yet are they never utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the meantime, they are supported from utter despair” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 18:4).

    I am not sure what exactly your personal idol was, but you might find Tim Keller’s recent book Counterfeit Gods to be a helpful read. It is a good, fast read, and touches the point as with a needle.

    I am humbled in heart, brother, if God has been please to use this meager essay as a means of restoring your relationship to him and his body the Church. Let me know if I can be a part of this in any other way!

    Blessings to you!


    1. Kevin thank you for your response I really appreciate it can you please explain what exactley you mean by ecclesiology? and are these people that fell away lost forever or can they repent because I'm not understanding the impossibility aspect exactley. And yes i have read Hosea thats something that kinda throws me off about all these commentators who say apostasy is unforgivable yet in Hosea and in Jeremiah God calls Israel back saying he will forgive their sin and heal their apostasy. But hebrews seems to paint a completely different picture, and your saying even though I departed from the living God to serve another spiritual being I'm not without hope! What Hebrews 12:17 am I reading this scripture right see I'm afraid that i sold my birthright just as Esau, I know some people say this verse is saying we can lose are blessing if we live a carnal life, but Esau according to the story sold his from one sin, actually theres several examples of people in the bible that sinned once and lost their blessing Adam and Eve, Moses when he struck the rock, Ananias and Sapphira. So my question is what is the author saying in Hebrews 12:17 is this about salvation loss. And you mentioned the ISV and Amp. are misleading could you also explain that as well, sorry about all the questions lol.


    2. Chase,

      By ecclesiology is do not mean some strictly technical definition, but simply participation and membership in the context of the local church(es) of the fledgling new covenant community into which the author was writing. Put another way, the text is concerned more about one’s relation to and experience in the messianic community than individualistic questions about personal assurance.

      The ‘impossibility’ question is a good one, and I don’t want to minimize it. In short, I believe that the impossibility comes by the fact that once those in these churches had experienced the attending blessings listed in vss. 4 and 5, and thereby failed to lay hold of “things that accompany salvation” (v. 9), there is nothing more left for them. If the blessings of vss. 4 and 5, which flow from Christ’s cross-work, were insufficient to begin with, then what? It would be impossible to renew them.

      Of course, Hebrews is painting a different than the prophets, but not completely. The prophets were calling apostate Israel back to the covenant, and therein God promised he would bring an elect remnant out of the nation, who would come back to him. Something similar is being portrayed in Heb. 6:9—12, as I understand it.

      I am not sure exactly how Esau’s blessing lost is related to your experience. I do know one thing, however; none of these texts can be teaching that a genuinely regenerate believer can fall finally and fatally from the faith, though seasons may give a dire outlook. The warning passages should prompt us, though, to diligence to confirm our calling and election.

      Finally, as for the Amplified and ISV, my remark was not directed toward the translations per se, but “your readings” of their language, if they were leading you to conclusions of hopelessness.

      Might I ask what “spiritual being” you are talking about?

      Thanks and blessings,


  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Chase, none of us deserve to know or name the name of Christ. Apart from the saving mercy of God in Christ, we would all serve self and Satan—whether wittingly or not—and be justly condemned for our cosmic treason against the King of glory. One of my closest friends and brothers in the Lord has a story remarkably similar to yours. His was so serious as to cause him fear that he blasphemed the Holy Ghost, which is the only unforgivable sin mentioned in Scripture (e.g., Matt. 12:31). However, by putting the text in its literary and historical context, he come to understand that he had not committed that sin, which was confirmed over and again by the Holy Ghost with promptings and love for Christ, not unlike what you are have and continue to experience. Likewise, when the Hebrews warning passages, such as 6:4—6, are put in its proper interpretive context, then I don’t believe you can be guilty of the apostasy described therein. Your question is insightful. That God is continuing to draw you is the answer to your anxiety and suffering. Lay hold of those fresh floods of grace and plead Christ’s blood as your own. I pray you receive the assurance, brother. Kevin

  7. Well what exactly did he find out about what blasphemey of the Holy Spirit is because I intentionally and willfully sinned against God knowing that if i did serve satan that i would end up in hell, even tho I repented right away I guess i already commited such a disgusting sin in my heart and I know God looks at the heart and mine is terribly wicked, and the reason I mentioned Esau is because he was called godless for despising spiritual things and thats exactley what I did. I dont deserve God's forgivness. I dont know if I'm without hope or not.

    1. Chase, I suggest that you meditate on the beautifully expressed truths of this venerable, old hymn. Blessings, Kevin
      “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
      Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
      What more can He say than to you He hath said,
      You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?
      “The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
      I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
      That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
      I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”
      “How Firm a Foundation,” stanzas one and seven.

    2. Kevin I just wanted to say I've really been seeking after God and I have some comfort on the whole issue, in hebrews it talks about Christ sacrificing Himself than sitting down on the throne once and for all the reason why is if there was not a sin that his blood couldn't cover He'd have to offer himself again but his sacrifice was and is perfect cancelling all of our debt! Hebrews doesn't say it's impossible for them to repent or better yet it doesn't say they cant be forgiven and to connect Hebrews with some unpardonable sin is sorta illogical. Jesus didn't say whoever blasphemer the Holy Spirit cannot be renewed to repentance or they can never repent, he said they never have forgiveness. I'm not entirley sure if the people in Hebrews are belivers or not but I'd ask are you really a true beliver if your still trusting in the blood of bulls in goats? But I just wanted to let you know how things are going since I've started to understand these things I've now been pursing more intimacy with God and seeking stronger assurance I read 1st John and can see those truth's in my life but I'm still seeking. Thanks for your advice

      In Christ

    3. That is good news, Chase White Harrington. Thanks for sharing! Blessings

  8. I have just discovered this site through Monergism.com and want to thank you for it.
    I wish to share an observation and some links.
    I am zealous for the Reformed to Scripture faith and try to deal with others who, because of battling the "easy-believism" of giving overly hasty assured eternal security to professing converts,deny the perseverance of the believer.
    But I have learned to be careful lest I likewise stumble from "situational hermeneutics" just like the above anti-security people I aluded to in my own experience fail from a reactionary or "situational theology".
    Recently I realized that I wanted to present "Scripture teaching in Scripture dress" and to do this, I would have to teach Hebrews in context, even if it did not say what I wanted.
    Through study, I gave up the defensive, typical reformed position of "professors not possessors" for an "impossibility" position on the text.
    You see, a number of exegetes and linguists, including AMG's Spiros Zodhiates teach that this passage of Hebrews 6:4-6 is speaking of true converts, but denoting an impossibility that if they were actually able to fall away, they would have to repent in a new and different way, and Christ would have to be crucified in a new and different way, and they would be shaming Christ because His sacrifice would have been insufficient.

    Here are some links:
    http://www.gcaarchive.com/hebrews.shtml (see message 11)

    Let us endeavor to teach the right doctrines, yet with correct exegesis so we may reform according to the Word of God and define our theology according to Scripture. In this way, we preserve the arguments of the writer and do not miss any points or nuances and never have to defend an interpretational gloss. Soli Deo!

    - Let me know what you think of the "impossibility" arguments grammatical & contextual strength relative to the other arguments.

    God Bless,


    We often do not see reality because we don't know what to look for.

    1. Aaron,

      Thank you for your observations and the links. And I completely agree with and appreciate your tenacity to correctly handle Scripture. Grammatically speaking, I believe the “impossibility” argument to be sound, as far as it goes. In fact, a close pastor friend of mine, whose Greek prowess is infinitely greater than mine, holds to roughly the same position you expounded above. In writing the present essay, I interacted with Zodhiates’ comments on the passage. Like many hard sayings, I hold my conclusions with a loose hand, remaining open to further evidence for or against them. However, that the “impossibility” conclusion can be reached without any reference to either the historical situation of the audience or the transparent Old Testament background makes me cautious. Moreover, the parable of vss. 6—8 and the remarks about “better things...that accompany salvation” in vs. 9, seem to mitigate the notion that vss. 4—8 are referencing “true converts” or regenerate believers. This would seem to make the warning passages merely hypothetical; the judicial threats of the warnings themselves would be impossible, if this position were correct.

      I hope that you did not understand my argument to be reducible to the “defensive, typical reformed position” of “professors not possessors.” First, I believe that description better suits the Amyraldian or Cal-minian position than the truly “reformed position.” I don’t believe that that description typifies either the Westminster or the Belgic Confession on the matter. Second, I would like to think that the arguments I make in this essay rise above the sloganeering like ‘professors not possessors.’ I certainly like the conclusion of the impossibility position, I just worry that it doesn’t take into account all the evidence.

      Thanks for the challenging and thoughtful comments, Aaron!

      Blessings to you, brother.


  9. Kevin,

    I am doing research and was wondering if you had a copy of this article in pdf form for easier viewing?