“Backsliders” and Hebrews 6:4-6

Is it possible for a "backslider" to return to faith? Hebrews 6:4-6 seems to say no. I'm a returned "backslider" myself, so this passage of Scripture has always been painful and confusing for me. How can I be sure I am restored? Doesn't the message of these verses cancel out everything the New Testament has to say about grace and forgiveness? Can you help me sort this out?

You’ve raised a thorny problem. It involves controversial subjects like “eternal security,” the doctrine of election or predestination, the pros and cons of Calvinism and Arminianism, and the mysterious relationship between God’s sovereignty and human free will. Christians from different faith traditions don’t always agree about the best way to resolve these difficulties. For this reason we tend to steer clear of them here at Focus on the Family. Nevertheless, we can see that you’re really struggling in this area, and we’d like to help if we possibly can. Rather than leave you dangling, we’ll take a stab at addressing your concerns.

Does Hebrews 6:4-6 really say that it is impossible for “a believer who sins and backslides” to be restored? That’s debatable. The actual language of the text is nowhere near so conclusive. The writer does not speak of a “believer” but rather of someone who has been “enlightened” and who has “tasted” the goodness of God’s Word and heavenly gift. It’s true that this person is also described as a “partaker” of the Holy Spirit (Greek metochos; “one who shares in; partner, companion, comrade”). This is probably the most problematic feature of the passage. But on the whole, the individual described here sounds more like a shallow “dabbler” in the faith than a solid, committed Christian.

To “taste” is not to drink deeply. To see the light is not necessarily to walk in the light. It’s possible, then, that the writer of Hebrews is not talking about “backsliding believers” at all. He could be saying that people who simply hang around the periphery of Christianity without making a firm commitment can eventually become immune to the power of its message. When this happens, and when they do turn away, they have no motivation to return.

This interpretation is supported by the context of the passage, which is primarily concerned with people who get stuck in the “elementary principles” of the faith (Hebrews 6:1) and never move on to “perfection” and fruitful maturity (verse 7). The basic idea is a bit like what Jesus had to say about the seed that falls on rocky soil: it sprouts immediately in the shallow earth, but withers away as soon as the sun gets hot (Matthew 13:5, 6).

The real question, of course, is whether you fall into this category. That’s what you’re anxious to know. And as far as we can tell, the answer is no. A tree is known by its fruit. The proof is in the pudding. You have come back, and you do believe. From our perspective, this suggests that you never actually strayed in the first place.

If you’d like to discuss this subject at greater length, call us. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone.


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