Backsliding Christians

Question
Hebrews 6:4-6 seems to teach that people who have strayed from their faith cannot be saved. Also, in C.H Spurgeon's book When Christ Returns, Spurgeon assigns the following interpretation to Matthew 16:28: "This verse may well have been aimed directly at those followers who would defect from the faith, grasp at the world, endeavour to save their lives but really lose them, and barter their souls."

Can someone truly be a Christian, lose his/her faith over a period of years, and then become a Christian again? Can you get back on right terms with God, or do you just have to hope that God will, in his own time, have mercy on you and take you back into his family?
Answer
The Bible teaches that once you are saved you cannot lose your salvation. There are many, many arguments and proofs for this doctrine, including:
  1. Christians are predestined not just to initial salvation but to eternal salvation (Acts 13:47-48; Rom. 8:28-30; 9:18-24; Eph. 1:3-14; 1 Thess. 5:9-10).
  2. Christ's death secured salvation for those for whom he died (Heb. 9:11-15).
  3. Justification (being declared righteous and forgiven by God) cannot be lost or revoked (Rom. 5:8-10,15-19; 8:1-4,9-11,29-30; Heb. 9:11-12).
  4. The saved/elect are given to Christ as a permanent possession (John 6:35-40; 10:25-29).
  5. The saved/elect are kept secure in Christ by God (John 6:35-40; 10:25-29; Rom. 8:28-39; 1 Cor. 1:4-9; 2 Cor. 4:13-14; Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30; Phil. 1:6; 3:20-21; Col. 3:3-4; 1 Thess. 5:23-24; 1 Pet. 1:3-5; 1 John 2:19; 5:4; Jude 1,24-25).
  6. Eternal life begins at conversion, and by definition may never end (John 3:14-16,36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:35-40,44-58; 10:25-29; 17:1-3; 20:31; Rom. 6:22-23; 1 Tim. 6:12; Heb. 9:15; 1 John 5:11-13,20).
  7. God is sovereign in salvation, his will must be accomplished, and he wills the perseverance of the saints (Job 42:1-2; Isa. 14:24,27; 46:8-11; Matt. 18:12-14; John 6:35-40).
The passages you mention, as well as others, sometimes cause people to think that salvation can be lost, or they cause people to think that they may never have been saved in the first place. While it is impossible to lose salvation, this second problem is not impossible. Some people we think are saved really are not saved.

Matthew 16:28, contrary to Spurgeon, does not refer to anybody perishing eternally. Rather, it is a simple statement by Jesus that the things of which he spoke would transpire within the lifetimes of some of those who were listening to him at the time.

Hebrews 6:4-6 is much more troublesome. To many, this passage appears to be teaching that a person can lose his salvation, and then can never regain it. In fact, even though this passage talks about partaking of the Holy Spirit and tasting of the heavenly gift, it isn't talking about people who are saved. As Hebrews 6:9 says, "But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way." That is, even though the author speaks in this threateing way, he means his words to apply to those in the church who are not saved and who then despise Christ, not to those who are saved. Of those who are saved, he expects "better things ... things that accompany salvation."

The things which this passage mentions that sound like salvation (e.g. tasting the heavenly gift and the good word, partaking of the Holy Spirit, etc.) may not only legitimately describe believers, but also unbelievers within the church. Unbelievers in the church hear the Word of God preached, see it in action in the lives of believers, and even benefit from the spiritual gifts of the believers in the church as these believers minister to them. They experience firsthand the good things of God manifested in the church, but nevertheless are not saved. As John writes in 1 John 2:19: "They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us."

This still leaves the us with the question: "What happens to an unbeliever who is part of the church, experiences these good things, and then rejects Christianity? Can such a person be saved?" I believe the answer is yes.

First of all, the Bible teaches that there is only one unforgiveable sin, namely blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:31-32). All other sins will be represented and forgiven among those who are saved -- including blasphemy against Christ. Since sin against Christ is in view in Hebrews 6:4-6 (e.g. they crucify to themselves the Son of God and put him to shame), and not blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, this sin must be forgiveable. Therefore, those who commit this sin can repent and be forgiven.

Why then does the passage say it is impossible to renew these people to repentance? There are a couple possible solutions to this dilemma. First, it is entirely legitimate to translate the latter part of Hebrews 6:6 as the NRSV does: "since ... they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt." This translation (which is actually closer to the original Greek) states that these people cannot be renewed to repentance because of what they are doing, not because of what they have done. That is, they cannot repent while they are still in the midst of this sin. Further, the sin in question does not seem to be a passive state of remaining away from the faith, but rather an active state of continually and publically despising Christ. The text says nothing of these sinners' ability to repent once they cease from such sinful activity.

Second, looking back to Hebrews 6:1-3, we find that verses 4-6 appear as an explanation of why the author is not going to "lay again a foundation of repentance." The author was not going to write about the need for repentance and conversion because it would not have persuaded those particular unsaved individuals in the church(es) to which this letter was written. It would not have persuaded them because they already knew the message and actively disdained it. This refusal to teach about repentance "again" is very similar to Jesus' instruction to his disciples that they give up and move on when they encountered people who would not receive the gospel (Matt. 10:14; Mark 6:11; Luke 9:5; 10:11). Paul and Barnabas also set such an example (Acts 13:51). Thus, the purpose of the passage is not to show that these unbelievers cannot repent, but rather that preaching to them will not bring them to repentance. However, this does not mean that these unbelieves will never reach a point in their lives when they will be open to the gospel and repent upon hearing it.

Related Topics:

Repenting Apostates: Interpreting Hebrews 6?

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.