QUESTION: Hebrews chapter 6 seems to suggest that we can lose our salvation, and then never be able to get it back again. What are your thoughts on this passage?
ANSWER: This is one of the more difficult passages in the book of Hebrews. There have been a number of interpretations of it offered over the years.
1) Some say these are born again Christians in danger of losing their salvation. But if we fully understand the radical nature of the work of salvation, the meaning of "eternal" life, and the doctrines of grace, and justification, this is impossible. Born again believers are eternally secure in Christ.
2) Some say the author is only describing a theoretical case, not a real one, in order to emphasize the finality of Christ's work. To my mind, this is a weaker argument, but possible.
3) Some say these are true believers who have backslidden to the degree they are disqualified from eternal rewards. Again, possible, but I don't think it's the correct view. This does not seem to be a passage about rewards.
4) Some say these are Jews who became followers of Christ, but who stopped short of true saving faith. This is fully in keeping with the context, and the time when the book was written. The timing is, I believe, the key to understanding the passage.
The Transition Period
The unique period between Pentecost (in AD 30) and the destruction of the temple in AD 70, involved a forty-year transition from Judaism to Christianity, and between Law and Grace. Think of it, there were genuine believers in the Old Testament sense who had not yet become Christians. This possibility does not exist today, since Judaism is a dead system, it's day has passed.
Some of the people the author addresses were likely old enough to have witnessed the earthly ministry of Christ. And Hebrews 10:11 indicates that, at the time when the book was written, the temple was still standing, and the animal sacrifices were still being offered. Would the readers, who had professed a belief in Christ, turn back to the sacrifices of the Law, or would they "go on to perfection [i.e. the maturity of the Christian faith]," building on what had come before (vs. 1)?
The Author's Concern
There are three descriptions of the people the author is writing about (vs. 1-2, 4-5, and 7-8). Do these refer to an Old Testament experience, or a New Testament experience? The very uncertainty of the answer suggests they belong to the transition in between, or perhaps to the time of Christ's earthly ministry. Verses 7-8 seem somewhat similar to some of the content of Christ's parable of the sower (Lk. 8:4-8, 11-15).
Whether the original readers of Hebrews were truly born again Christians is not the focus of the passage. In fact, the author may be purposely vague about that, since he does not know the heart of each individual reader. Rather, his concern is whether they are willing to "go on" (vs. 1–literally, be carried forward, meaning by the Holy Spirit), or whether they will try to go back to Judaism. To do that would be to "fall away" (vs. 5, the Greek word parapipto, meaning to fall by the wayside, as in Jesus' parable).
"A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it" (Lk. 8:5). "Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved" (vs. 11-12).
To turn back to Judaism, they would "crucify again [i.e. go on crucifying] for themselves the Son of God" (vs. 6). How? By returning to the animal sacrifices, the symbol and foreshadowing of His death. That would belittle the cross. Repentance and a reliance on these dead symbols for cleansing from sin would no longer work. It is "impossible" that way (vs. 4), because the work of salvation is now founded on the finished work of Christ.
The Limitations of Merely "Tasting"
Is there a difference between "tasting" (vs. 4) and actually drinking? It seems so. The Lord Jesus, on the cross, "tasted" the vinegar and gall, but "would not drink" it (Matt. 27:34). Also, it should be noted that there are operations of the Holy Spirit that fall short of regeneration (Jn. 16:7-11; I Cor. 7:14).
Those people described could be some who witnessed the earthly ministry of Christ and responded to it–to a point. There were many Jews who became for awhile enthusiastic followers of Christ, and then deserted Him (Jn. 6:1-2, 15, 66).
They were "enlightened" by Christ's teaching, thus "tasting" the good Word of God (as Judas Iscariot did, without salvation). They also "tasted" the power of the age to come (the Millennium) in the form of seeing the Lord's thrilling miracles (vs. 5). They "tasted" the blessings of heaven, and the path and pattern of discipleship. They were convicted by the Spirit, partaking of His ministry to that extent, but not all were born again.
Wonderful as the things listed in vs. 4-5 were, there are "better things...things that accompany [true] salvation" (vs. 9-10). Surely it's significant that no mention is made, in vs. 4-5 of faith in the shed blood of Christ (cf. Eph. 1:7; I Pet. 1:18-19). But the author is confident that those who are truly saved will go beyond the experience he describes, and demonstrate this in their daily lives.
He names two basic qualities that are an evidence of salvation–though, of course, there are others he could have included. Born again Christians will show both a love for the Lord, and a love for His people, demonstrated by an ongoing ministry to the saints (vs. 10).
As noted earlier, this is not an easy passage to understand. I will not be dogmatic that mine is the only interpretation, but I believe it could well be a valid one. The approach suggested seems to me to harmonize both with the time period and the needs of the people addressed in the book, and harmonize with the rest of Scripture too.