The following article is an excerpt from "A Book of Bible Study"
by Joseph F. Harwood.
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In Part 1 of our study, we examined several Scripture references regarding the eternal security of the believer. Despite these teachings, which clearly reveal that our salvation in Christ is eternally secure and certain, there are some who say there is evidence from the Scriptures that a believer can lose their salvation. Those who hold this view will often refer to Hebrews 6:4-9, Hebrews 10:26-29, and 2 Peter 2:20-22 to support their doctrine. We will now look carefully at each of these Scripture passages to see if there is any validity to the assertion that these Scriptures teach that a believer can lose their salvation.
In order to accurately interpret Scripture, we must consider the context of the passage from which the Scripture is taken. We must also consider whom the author is addressing in the passage. And we must interpret the passage under consideration in the light of all the rest of the Scriptures as a whole, which is to say that we must let Scripture interpret Scripture. If we derive an interpretation of a Scripture passage that is contradicted by other passages in the Scriptures, then we can be sure that we have derived an erroneous interpretation.
We have already examined several passages containing very clear and unambiguous language, which state that a believer cannot lose their salvation. These passages reveal that every believer is kept safe by the power of God, who Himself carries our salvation through to completion, from beginning to end.
Now, in the interest of a complete consideration of what the Bible teaches about the eternal certainty and security of our salvation in Christ, let us consider several of the passages which are most often cited by some as evidence that a believer can lose their salvation. And let us carefully examine these Scriptures in order to arrive at a correct and biblically sound interpretation, so that any confusion we may have on this issue may be resolved.
The Meaning of Hebrews 6:4-8
We should begin our study of this passage by understanding that the letter to the Hebrews is addressed to Jews who had become professing Christians. As we will see when we consider Hebrews 10:26-29, some of these professing Hebrew believers were not continuing in the faith, but they were leaving the congregations of believers to return to the way of Judaism.
The main purpose of the letter to the Hebrews was to emphasize to everyone in these congregations the preeminence of Christ, and to admonish them that there is no other way to God the Father than through Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews warned that for those who ultimately reject Christ, there is nothing left for them “but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.” (Hebrews 10:27). They would not be saved simply because they were descended from Jacob.
Also as we begin our study of Hebrews 6:4-8, let us consider as well that this passage is prefaced by Hebrews 5:11- 6:3. In these verses, the writer of Hebrews comments on the fact that though the congregation had heard the fundamental truths of the word of God preached, some did not seem to be growing in the faith. And in fact, these needed someone to teach them the elementary truths of God’s word all over again (Hebrews 5:12).
This failure to grow in the faith and bear fruit could indicate that some in the congregation had never come to faith in Christ, though they had heard the words of the Gospel message. With this preface in mind, we will now consider Hebrews 6:4-8.
Looking at the first part of the passage, we read:
For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame. (Hebrews 6:4-6)
And then immediately following in verses 7-8, we see reference to “ground” receiving “rain” that often comes upon it. If the ground “brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled” then it receives blessing from God. But if it bears “thorns and thistles” it is worthless, and in the end it will be burned. In these verses, the author employed a method of communicating his message that was similar to a method that Jesus often used in His teaching, which was to teach a spiritual principle by means of an analogy or comparison to something in the natural world.
In Hebrews 6:7-8, the “ground” is symbolic of people. The “rain”, which often falls upon the ground, is symbolic of the word of God, the Gospel message which is preached in the hearing of men. The “vegetation” or harvest that is useful to those for whom the ground is farmed is symbolic of the good fruit born by those who hear the word of God and do indeed come to faith in Christ. As a result of their genuine faith, they will indeed bear fruit in their lives, showing that they are in truth Jesus’ disciples (John 15:8).
In contrast to the ground that bears a useful harvest of good fruit, other ground receives the same “rain” of the word of God, but it bears only thorns and thistles. This ground is symbolic of those people who hear the same Gospel message, but they do not come to faith in Christ. And therefore they cannot produce a useful harvest of good fruit.
There are three teachings of Jesus that are in complete agreement with the analogy and teaching of Hebrews 6:4-8. The first is the Parable of the Sower given in Matthew 13:1-23. The second is Jesus’ teaching on false prophets given in Matthew 7:15-23. And the third is Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and the Tares recorded in Matthew 13:24-30 and 13:36-43. By considering Hebrews 6:4-8 in the light of all three of these passages, we will let “Scripture interpret Scripture”, and in doing so we will gain an understanding of this teaching given to us by the author of Hebrews.
First, let us begin by comparing the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13 to Hebrews 6:4-8. In this parable, the “seed” sown by the farmer is symbolic of the word of God. The seed falls upon different types of “ground” or “soil”, and again, just as in Hebrews 6:7-8, the soil symbolizes men, who receive the word of God in their hearing. Jesus taught that the only place where the seed of the word of God will bear a useful harvest is where it falls upon “good soil”. The good soil symbolizes God’s elect, who hear the word of God, and who do indeed come to faith in Christ. Only those who come to faith will be able to bear a useful harvest of good fruit.
Second, let us compare Jesus’ teaching about false prophets in Matthew 7 to Hebrews 6:4-8. In His teaching here, Jesus warned us to watch out for false prophets who come to us “in sheep’s clothing”, or claiming to be Christians, but in reality they are not. He symbolized these individuals as bad trees, which cannot produce good fruit (Matthew 7:18b). And He said that these “bad trees” will be cut down and thrown onto the fire (Matthew 7:19. Compare with Hebrews 6:8.). By contrast, Jesus symbolized those whose faith is genuine as “good trees”, which produce good fruit and cannot produce bad fruit (Matthew 7:18a. Compare with Hebrews 6:7).
And third, let us compare Jesus’ teaching in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares in Matthew 13 to Hebrews 6:4-8. In this parable Jesus spoke of tares or weeds, which bear no good fruit, being mixed in among the wheat, which does indeed bear a useful harvest of good fruit. The tares, which are often hard to distinguish from the wheat, symbolize the unregenerate among true believers, and they bear no good fruit. In contrast to the tares, the wheat symbolizes genuine believers, and these do indeed bear good fruit, bearing a harvest “useful to those for whom it is tilled”, as the writer of Hebrews said (Hebrews 6:7).
The one consistent theme in each of these three teachings of Jesus, and also in Hebrews 6:4-8, is that professing believers will demonstrate or give evidence that their faith is genuine by the fact they do indeed bear good fruit. Only genuine believers are able to bear good fruit; the unregenerate are not able to do so.
The individuals in Hebrews 6:4-8 who receive the “rain” of the word of God, but they bear no useful harvest of good fruit, are the same individuals that we see in the Parable of the Sower who receive the “seed” of the word of God, but they never come to faith in Christ. And therefore, they can bear no good fruit.
Again, the individuals in Hebrews 6:4-8 who receive the “rain” of the word of God, but they bear no useful harvest of good fruit, are the false prophets about whom Jesus spoke in Matthew 7. Their profession of faith is false. Though they may claim to be Christians, and they may claim to have repented, they are not true believers, and Jesus characterized them as bad trees which can produce only bad fruit.
And again, these individuals in Hebrews 6:4-8 who receive the “rain” of the word of God, but they bear no useful harvest of good fruit, are the tares in Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. The tares symbolize the unregenerate, who are mixed in among genuine believers. Unlike genuine believers who are symbolized as wheat, which does produce a useful harvest of good fruit, the tares cannot bear good fruit.
To summarize, when we compare the teaching in Hebrews 6:4-8 with Jesus’ teaching in the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13, His teaching about false prophets in Matthew 7, and His teaching in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares in Matthew 13, we find that in all four of these passages the individuals who bear no good fruit are those who receive the word of God in their hearing, but they never come to faith in Christ as God’s elect do. As a result, they can bear no good fruit.
The individuals referred to in Hebrews 6:4-8 who receive the “rain” of the word of God, but they bear no useful harvest of good fruit, are individuals who will be present in most every congregation of professing Christians, who are in fact unregenerate. They will claim to have repented, and they will claim to be believers, when in fact they have never come to faith in Christ.
When the writer of Hebrews said that they “have once been enlightened”, “have tasted the heavenly gift”, “have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit”, and “have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come”, he was saying that these unregenerate individuals, who claimed to be believers but were not, were present in the congregation and shared in the hearing of the preaching and teaching of the word of God with others who were in fact true believers. These unregenerate individuals are symbolized as ground that “drinks the rain which often falls on it” (Hebrews 6:7), and again this rain is symbolic of the word of God, but they produce only “thorns and thistles” (Hebrews 6:8), or bad fruit as Jesus taught in Matthew 7:15-23.
In John 6 we see that Jesus spoke to a crowd saying: “...the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” … “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” (John 6:63-65, emphasis added). For any man to read or to hear the word of God is for him to partake in spirit and life, but not all of those who partake in God’s word believe. Many hear the word of God, but it has not been granted to them by the Father to believe in Christ, or to come to Him, even though they hear the spoken Gospel message.
To hear the word of God preached is to be “enlightened” (Hebrews 6:4) as to God’s only plan of salvation for man. It is also to “have tasted the heavenly gift” (Hebrews 6:4), and to “have been made partakers in the Holy Spirit” (Hebrews 6:4), because once again, Jesus said that His words “are spirit and are life” (John 6:63). It is also to “have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5).
These unregenerate individuals were present in the congregations of professing Jewish believers, and they heard the word of God preached. But as the writer of Hebrews also said, “the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard.” (Hebrews 4:2).
The word they heard did not profit them because, unlike the true believers in the congregation who heard the word of God and came to faith in Christ, these professing but unregenerate individuals heard the same Gospel message but did not come to faith. And as we have seen from the Scriptures before, a genuine faith in Christ is itself the gift of God, and a gift that He does not give to everyone, but only to those whom He has chosen to show mercy in calling them to faith in His Son (Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 9:15-18, 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5).
The individuals to whom the writer of Hebrews referred in this passage of Hebrews 6:4-8 are not believers who have lost their salvation, or who are in danger of losing their salvation. Rather, they are those individuals among professing Christians who have never in fact come to faith in Christ in the first place.
The individuals spoken of in Hebrews 6:4-8 are not those whom Jesus once knew; rather they are those whom Jesus never knew (Matthew 7:23). They are those who heard the word of God, but they never came to faith in Christ because it had not been granted to them by the Father (John 6:65, 8:43, 8:47). As a result, they did not continue in the faith that they claimed to have but were ultimately numbered among those “who have fallen away” (Hebrews 6:6. Consider also Matthew 13:20-21 and 1 John 2:19).
These individuals are not trees that were once “good trees”, but because they produced bad fruit they lost their salvation and became “bad trees”, because Jesus taught that “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit…” (Matthew 7:18, emphasis added). Rather, they were “bad trees” all along, and because of this they produced no good fruit (Compare Matthew 7:16-19 and Hebrews 6:7-8).
When we interpret Hebrews 6:4-8 in the light of other similar teachings in the Bible, we gain an understanding of what the author intended to communicate. However, if we were to isolate this passage from the rest of the Scriptures, we might arrive at an altogether different and erroneous understanding.
To interpret this passage as saying that a believer can lose their salvation would be in stark contradiction to numerous passages we have already studied, which state clearly that a believer cannot lose their salvation. According to the word of God, our salvation does not depend upon our own power and ability to obey God, but we are kept safe by His power (1 Peter 1:4-5). Our salvation is both initiated and carried through to completion by God Himself (Philippians 1:6).
The Meaning of Hebrews 10:26-29
Another Scripture passage that some will say teaches that a believer can lose their salvation is found in Hebrews 10. This passage reads:
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:26-29)
Some would say this passage teaches that if a believer were to deliberately continue to engage in sinful practices after “receiving the knowledge of the truth” and having been saved, then they would lose their salvation. First, we need to look no further than the context of this passage to know that such an interpretation is invalid. In verses 28 and 29, we see that the writer of Hebrews was referring to the sin of apostasy, or the sin of ultimately rejecting Christ and the sacrifice He made of Himself for the sins of mankind, which is the only provision that God has made for the sins of mankind (John 14:6, Acts 4:12).
The “we” in verse 26 refers to professing Hebrew or Jewish believers, who are the individuals to whom the letter to the Hebrews is addressed. As with most any group or congregation of professing believers, some are genuine believers, and some are not.
The writer of Hebrews was communicating that if professing Jewish believers received “the knowledge of the truth”, which is to say that they received the proclamation of the Gospel message in their hearing, and they “go on sinning willfully” in that they ultimately rejected the message, then there remained for them no sacrifice for their sins, but only a fearful expectation of the judgment of God which will come upon all unbelievers. They would not be saved simply because they were descended from the twelve tribes of Israel, as Paul also taught in Romans 9:1-8 and 11:1-8.
The entire passage from which Hebrews 10:26-29 is taken is Hebrews 10:19-39, which is a call for professing Jewish believers to persevere in their faith, and not to return to the way of Judaism. It is apparent from this passage that there were some who were not continuing in the faith but had apparently parted company with true believers (verse 25). In verse 39 of this passage, we see that the writer of Hebrews is contrasting those who “shrink back to destruction”, or those who do not continue in the faith, with those who “have faith to the preserving of the soul.”
Those who did ultimately depart from the faith showed themselves to be those who had never been saved in the first place. The Apostle John described these same individuals when he wrote: “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.” (1 John 2:19).
Though they had professed a faith in Christ, and they were associated for a time with others who were genuine believers, they had never been saved. As a result, they did not continue in the faith with those who were true believers.
By their departing they showed themselves to be the false prophets that Jesus warned us about in Matthew 7:15-23, who claimed to be Christians, but were not. They were “bad trees” that could not produce good fruit.
They are also the same individuals whom Jesus characterized as “rocky places” without much soil that had received the seed of the word of God, as we read in the Parable of the Sower. These rocky places received the seed of the Gospel message, and the seeds immediately sprang up, symbolizing an apparent conversion. But ultimately the heat of the sun withered the plants because they had “no firm root” in themselves, as Jesus described them, and therefore they bore no fruit (Matthew 13:5-6, 20-21).
The sin referred to in this passage of Hebrews 10:26-29 is the sin of unbelief, or ultimately rejecting Christ after having heard the Gospel message, after “receiving the knowledge of the truth”. This sin of unbelief or apostasy will be committed by all of those who are not called to faith as Jesus taught in John 6:44 and 6:65.
The individuals in Hebrews 10:26-29 are not true believers who “go on sinning willfully” in that they continued to participate in sinful behavior after they were saved and therefore lost their salvation. Rather, these individuals were in fact unregenerate. Though they had heard the outward proclamation of the Gospel message, they had never been inwardly called by God to faith in Christ. Therefore, they were still dead in their sins.
These individuals, if they are never called to faith in Christ, will persist in their unbelief and rejection of Him. They will ultimately be shown to be among those who do not receive God’s mercy (Romans 9:18), but who are “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (Romans 9:22).
The writer of Hebrews himself attested to the fact that salvation through Jesus Christ is only for those who are called by God when he wrote: “For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.” (Hebrews 9:15, emphasis added).
Peter also taught that salvation is only for those who are called by God to faith in Christ. Peter spoke to a crowd in Jerusalem, saying: “For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” (Acts 2:39, emphasis added).
We know from Romans 8:30 that all of those whom God calls, He also justifies and ultimately glorifies. None of those who are called to faith in Christ are lost (John 6:37-40). To interpret Hebrews 10:26-29 or any other passage of Scripture as saying that a believer could lose their salvation would be clearly contradicted by several passages of Scripture that we have already studied.
Hebrews 10:26-29 and Hebrews 6:4-8 both speak of the same group of people. These passages speak of those individuals among professing Christians who, though they have heard the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and they claim to be believers, and they claim to have repented, they have never in fact come to faith in Him. Though they appeared for a time to be genuine believers because of their association with others who were, they were in fact not. As a result, the time came when they no longer continued in the faith but fell away (See Hebrews 6:6).
Those who have heard the word of God and claim to be believers, but ultimately they fall away and do not continue in the faith, are those who have “trampled under foot the Son of God”, and “regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant” by which they at one time claimed to have been sanctified. And in doing so they have “insulted the Spirit of grace.” (See Hebrews 10:29). They are not among “those who have faith to the preserving of the soul”, rather they are among “those who shrink back to destruction” (See Hebrews 10:39).
They heard the word of God, words that “are spirit and are life” as Jesus said, but they did not believe because it had not been granted to them by the Father to come to faith in Christ (John 6:63-65). They did not in reality ever come to faith in Christ, though they will claim to be Christians (Matthew 7:22-23).
Jesus again spoke of these unregenerate individuals and their inability to come to Him when He told His disciples the reason that He spoke to the crowds in parables. Jesus said: “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted.” (Matthew 13:11).
Even though many “receive the knowledge of the truth” in that they hear the spoken proclamation of the Gospel message, which is the outward call to men to put their faith in Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, only God’s elect will be called to faith through the word of God with the inward, effectual calling of God that Jesus taught about in John 6:44. The rest are unable to come to Christ. Unless and until God intervenes in an individual’s life and effectually calls them to faith in His Son as we have discussed previously, they will “go on sinning willfully” (Hebrews 10:26) by persisting in their unbelief, because they can do nothing else. (Consider also 1 Peter 2:7-8).
The Meaning of 2 Peter 2:20-22
Another passage that some refer to as teaching that a genuine believer can lose their salvation is found in 2 Peter. This passage reads:
For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them. It has happened to them according to the true proverb, “A dog returns to its own vomit,” and, “A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire.” (2 Peter 2:20-22)
To begin with, this passage is taken from a larger passage which consists of 2 Peter 2 in its entirety. The subject of the passage is false teachers and their impending doom and judgment by God (2 Peter 2:17). So immediately we see that those under consideration in the context of this passage are not true believers, but false teachers.
In verse 20, Peter said that these individuals “have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”. These again are those individuals who heard the proclamation of the Gospel message. They had received “knowledge” of Jesus Christ and had “escaped the defilements of the world”, in that they were present in the congregations of the early churches and partakers with genuine believers in hearing the preaching and teaching of the word of God (Compare Hebrews 6:4-8). But they were not changed by the Gospel message; they never came to faith in Christ. They were in fact unregenerate and bore only bad fruit, as is abundantly clear from the context of 2 Peter 2.
When Peter spoke of these individuals as being “again entangled” and “overcome” by the defilements of the world, we know that he is not speaking of believers, because as John taught: “for whatever is born of God overcomes the world…” (1 John 5:4, emphasis added). No genuine believer is overcome by the pollutions of the world. Rather, everyone who has been born of God will overcome the world and all of the defilements in the world by the power of the One living within them, Jesus Christ Himself.
The unregenerate condition of the individuals to whom Peter referred in 2 Peter 2:20-22 becomes even clearer when we look at verse 22, where he wrote: “It has happened to them according to the true proverb, ‘A dog returns to its own vomit,’ and, ‘A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire.’” A dog and a pig were both considered unclean animals, according to the Old Testament dietary laws.
The point to be made when looking at verse 22 is that though these individuals may have professed a faith in Christ, they were in fact unregenerate, or unclean. They did not persevere in the faith, but they went back to the unclean ways they had known before because there had never been any change in their lives; they had never come to faith in Christ. Just as the unclean dog and pig both go back to the uncleanness to which they have always been accustomed, so also these professing but unregenerate individuals went back to the defilements of the world.
Hebrews 6:4-9, Hebrews 10:26-29 and 2 Peter 2:20-22 have been used by some to say the Scriptures teach that one can lose their salvation after they have been saved as result of returning to a life of sinful practices. Though a believer will sin at times after he is saved (Romans 7:7-25), no genuine believer will ever return to a life that is characterized by sin, as is clearly taught in 1 John where we read: “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” (1 John 3:9).
The only way that any of these three passages could be made to say that a believer can lose their salvation would be to ignore the context of the broader passages from which they are taken, and to isolate them from the rest of the Scriptures a whole. In each of these three passages, the individuals under consideration are not those who are genuine believers and are in danger of losing their salvation. Rather, they are in fact the unregenerate who, though they had heard the Gospel message, and had shared with true believers in the preaching and teaching of the word of God, they had never been saved. Consequently, they could bear no good fruit.
These unregenerate individuals are the false prophets about whom Jesus warned us in Matthew 7:15-23, who come to us “in sheep’s clothing”, claiming to be Christians. They will acknowledge Jesus as Lord, and even claim to have prophesied, worked miracles and cast out demons in His name, but they will one day here from Him the words: “…I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:23, emphasis added).