“and then have fallen away [it is impossible] to renew them again to repentance.” This verse reflects the permanence of salvation that is spoken of in so many other places in the Epistles [see Appendix 1: “The Permanence of Christian Salvation”]. This verse is not about losing salvation and not being able to regain it, although that is what many people think. If this verse were about losing one’s salvation, then we need to be clear about what it is saying, because it would be saying that if a saved person “falls away” somehow and loses their salvation as a result, that person cannot be forgiven and be saved again because that is “impossible.”
Could this one verse in Hebrews contradict all of the other verses in the Epistles that indicate the New Birth is permanent? A principle of interpretation is that the many clear verses on a subject outweigh what a contradictory verse seems to be saying. Also, can it really be true that the Bible says if a saved person sins and falls away from the faith it is “impossible” for him to get forgiveness and be saved again? Even in the Old Testament God implored the people of Israel to forsake evil and return to Him. Could it be that in the Old Testament a person could turn away from God but be accepted back with open arms if he would just ask God for forgiveness, but in the Christian Church if a person sins and falls away it is “impossible” for him to come back? That makes no sense.
A study of the Scripture shows us that people who sinned were welcomed back into the Christian community. For example, in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 the Apostle Paul asked the Church to welcome back a person who had sinned. In Galatians 6:1 people who sin are to be “restored.” The Church Epistles are filled with exhortations for Christians to stop sinning and obey God. The invitation of God always is for people to stop sinning and come back to Him. That fact in itself tells us there is a different way to understand Hebrews 6:6 than believing it is saying a saved person cannot repent after sinning.
We also see God’s forgiveness and restoration daily in our churches. Our churches have many people who were strong in the faith at one time, then leave the faith for a while, then repent of their sin and return to church and the Christian lifestyle. Is there anyone who will say that all those people, who are now valuable members of the church, are actually not saved because it was “impossible” to renew them to the faith once they left the faith? We hope not.
If this verse does not mean that it is “impossible” for someone who left the faith to be forgiven and return to God, then what does it mean? It means that it is “impossible” to renew a sinner to repentance because once a Christian repents and gets saved that salvation is permanent. It is “impossible” for the Christian to lose his salvation, so it is “impossible” for him to repent and get saved again. Every Christian can and does sin, but the sin, even egregious sin, does not cause a person to lose his salvation. Since the person’s salvation was never lost, the person cannot “renew” himself to “repentance.” Everyone can only repent and be saved one time. After that, when we sin, we can repent of our sin and be forgiven, but we do not get saved again because we never lost our salvation in the first place. Salvation is by the New Birth, and it is permanent.
What happens when a Christian sins and asks for forgiveness is clear from 1 John 1:8-9: “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” These verses in 1 John assume that Christians will sin. In fact, 1 John 1:8 says that if we think we do not sin, we are deceiving ourselves. However, neither 1 John nor any other book of the New Testament has a warning such as, “Be careful! We all sin, but if you sin so horribly you fall away, you will not be able to be saved again.” No! Instead are the comforting words that if we confess our sin, God will cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Scholars who have studied this section of Scripture do not know why God addressed the permanence of our salvation by telling us it was impossible to be renewed to repentance. However, there are a couple possibilities we should consider. One is that there are many other places God plainly indicates that it is impossible to lose salvation. He calls it “birth,” and birth is permanent. He says our salvation is “guaranteed” (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:14). Furthermore, He says we are already in heaven (Eph. 2:6). Saying it is impossible to renew our repentance would be just one more way that God would tell us that our salvation is permanent.
It is also possible that given the prevailing Jewish mindset of salvation by works, the idea of a permanent salvation was very upsetting to those determined to cling to their Jewish heritage. Thus Hebrews, rather than saying anything about someone losing his salvation, states the message in the opposite terms of it being impossible to repent again. If it were possible to renew oneself to repentance, then that would be saying that the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ was not sufficient to cover a person’s sins once and for all, which is not the case. The one time sacrifice of Christ, and his substitution for the sinner, made that sinner righteous for all time, not just until he sinned the next time.
There is another good reason to believe that Hebrews 6:6 is about the permanence of salvation and not about a person falling away and then it being “impossible” for him to get saved again. There is no instruction in the New Testament about exactly what a Christian would have to do to fall away so completely that it would then be impossible for him to be saved again. Everyone sins, and the Word of the Lord is that to be forgiven we just confess our sin to God. If there was a sin that was so horrible that it made regaining salvation “impossible,” it surely seems that our loving Father would let us know what that was. Our earthly fathers sternly warn us about dangers, and so it certainly seems that if there was a sin from which we could not repent, our Heavenly Father would certainly warn us of it. But there is no such warning. Nowhere in the Church Epistles is a warning saying, “Do not do such and such, because if you do it will be impossible for you to regain your salvation.” That fact alone is very good evidence that this verse is not about a person losing his salvation and not being able to regain it. There is the verse about not being forgiven for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, but this verse in Hebrews does not seem to be about that specific sin. Furthermore, Hebrews is written to people in the Grace Administration, when salvation is permanent, whereas Jesus was talking to people who lived before the Grace Administration started (see commentary on Ephesians 3:2).
Having given good evidence that this verse is about the permanence of salvation, there is one more thing that we have to consider as to why God has worded this verse the way He did, which seems very harsh, and that has to do with the overall context of this section. The whole section is written in a harsh way, with serious warnings for people to be faithful. For example, Heb. 6:7-8 speak of land that is blessed if it bears good fruit, but cursed if it does not. Orthodox Christian doctrine about heaven and hell has done a great disservice to Christians in that it has not given clear reasons to excel as a Christian. Many preachers teach about heaven as if “just getting in” is what matters. While it is true that there is no greater blessing anyone can have than having everlasting life, there is a lot more to consider. For one thing, we will not spend eternity in “heaven,” but on earth, and we will be subjects in the Kingdom of Christ on earth [see Appendix 3: “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth”]. Our “jobs” in the Kingdom will be assigned in relation to how we have lived our life on earth. If we have not been faithful, we will be there, but as Corinthians says, with nothing, just as someone who has survived a fire (cp. 1 Cor. 3:15; see commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:10). It is quite possible that a person living in the Kingdom with nothing, as if he had barely escaped a fire, is much worse than Christians generally imagine.