When Repentance is No Longer Possible
A concerned follower of ReKnew recently asked me to explain a puzzling passage, and since I am asked this question with some regularity, I thought I’d share with all of you. Here is the passage in question:
Hebrews 6:4-6. For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
What are we to make of this passage? Is this passage actually teaching that a person who loses their faith in Christ can never be restored?
For starters, if that is the right interpretation of this passage, how could we account for people like me who lost their faith at some point (for me, it was my first year in college) but later repented and came back to faith? I suspect that Peter’s famous denial would fall into this category.
Also, what are we to make of the many passages in Scripture that say things like God’s mercy endures forever? And Jesus taught us to forgive “seven times seventy” (viz. without limit). Are we to imagine God forgiving less than us?
And then there’s the famous prodigal son. Thank God his father didn’t say, “Sorry son, one strike and you’re out!”
Finally, and in my mind, most decisively, Paul tells us that because of the cross, God isn’t holding anyone’s trespasses against them (2 Cor 5:19). This must include the trespass of abandoning the faith.
In this light, I think that whatever Hebews 6:4-6 means, it can’t mean that a person who temporarily loses their faith can’t be forgiven.
The meaning of verses 4-6 becomes clearer when we read the two verses that follow it.
Heb 4:7-8 For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.
Notice that the issue is about the character of a parcel of land. Land that has a productive character is blessed, while land that has a character that produces only thorns and thistles is only fit for burning.
This suggests that the author of Hebrews is teaching that if a person has “fallen away” from God to the point that their character is no longer capable of bringing forth good fruit, they cannot be restored. This isn’t because God will no longer forgive the person, because as 2 Corinthians 5:19 indicates, from God’s perspective, it’s already forgiven. If a person can’t be restored, it’s because the person’s “thorn and thistle” character could never bring forth the good fruit of asking for it.
With every decision we make we are in the process of solidifying our character. If a person continually resists the Spirit, they may eventually get to the point where their character is irrevocably hardened to him. At this point, they can’t help but view Christ “with contempt,” as the author of Hebrews said. Such a person has committed what Jesus referred to as the “sin against the Holy Spirit” or what John refers to as “the sin that leads to death.”
One take-away from this passage is that, if a person who has abandoned faith in Christ has any inclination to come back to the faith, it’s important they act on it! As the Psalmist said, “Today is the day of salvation.” For it may be the case that tomorrow this person will have lost the capacity to feel that inclination.