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This passage is a bit confusing. Could someone please shed some light on how we are to interpret what Paul is saying here?

Hebrews 6:4-6 (NIV)
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

What exactly does this mean? Is this saying that people who have once been saved can lose their salvation or is this saying something else?

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As a side thought, How much doctrine should we allow? is still a pretty open question. –  Richard Nov 29 '11 at 21:12
    
Do you mean, this passage is mostly a problem because it conflicts with particular doctrines? Maybe a way to avoid doctrinal-induced questions is to show two passages that seem to be in conflict and ask how the conflict might be resolved. (But this passage is complex enough that I don't think you need to bring any particular doctrine into it for there to be a question.) –  Jon Ericson Nov 29 '11 at 22:20
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Your question assumes Pauline authorship, which is strongly disputed among most scholars. –  GalacticCowboy Nov 30 '11 at 19:38
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@GalacticCowboy The question doesn't stand or fall based on the authorship of the verse. Change "Paul" to "the author" and the question is completely unaffected. But, yes, it does presume an authorship. (Also, given that it's disputed means that there are some who believe it was Paul! ;) –  Richard Nov 30 '11 at 19:53

2 Answers 2

Passages like this illustrate that hermeneutics as it is practiced is not a science, since the results are not reproducible. Determining the meaning of this (nor any) passage cannot be done in isolation of what the rest of scripture says.

If one has concluded from the rest of scripture that salvation cannot be lost, then this passage is made to support it by making the "if" of falling away a hypothetical "if".

If one has concluded that salvation can be lost from the rest of scripture, then this passage is made to support that position by interjecting an intermediate stage of "backsliding" where one is in jeopardy but not fully reprobate, in order to provide that those who have backslidden can regain their salvation.

The stated meaning of the text reflects more upon the interpreter's presuppositions than upon the "science" of hermeneutics.

If one lets scripture speak, then this is a parallel passage to these:

As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly. —Proverbs 26:11

But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire. —2 Peter 2:22

As such, the nature of the one "falling away" is revealed by the falling away. He is metaphorically a dog or a sow.

This still does not resolve the issue for those who hold presuppositions. It merely pushes the question to another layer.

"Can a dog or a sow become a sheep?" The answer has to be emphatically "Yes!" Since even a "camel can go through the eye of a needle" with God. In the metaphor of sensus plenior, we are each both sheep and goats. Our goat nature will be separated from our sheep nature when Christ takes us away. He separates the sheep from the goats.

Are we also dogs and sows? The dog is one who returns to his old sin. Paul tells us:

For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. —Romans 7.15

And the law tells us that we are "unclean until the evening".

The sow is one who does not discern what she is eating as a metaphor for the junk that we bring into our lives. If we still sin in some of the old ways, and we still put junk in our lives, the we too are dogs and sows, even while being sheep.

In the context of the metaphoric meanings, this passage says that the current nature of a person is revealed in their falling away, and that the fallen flesh nature of man cannot be redeemed.

Not mentioned in the passage is that Christ can still make you a new creature.

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. —2 Corinthians 5:17

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. —Galatians 6:15

God does not redeem a prostitute. He makes her a virgin.

Adam is an example of one who fell away. He could not be "fixed" which is why we must all be made new. Was he saved? His sin was covered with a promise of Christ in the type of the slain animals for clothing.

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Bob, frankly I am always conflicted about whether to upvote or downvote your posts. Overall I find them too allegorical (I am more of a grammatical-historical guy) but you having some fascinating insights and I deeply appreciate your Christological and pastoral emphasis. Here this sentence especially won me over: "God does not redeem a prostitute. He makes her a virgin." +1 –  Kazark May 26 '12 at 3:41
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@Kazark, Isn't the whole point of BH to collect examples of different hermeneutics? If you trash them simply because they are not the same as the literal it kinda defeats the purpose. Might as well call it the Literal-Historical BH. Also, if you are careful to note, they are not free-for all allegory. They are derived by a set of rules and methods. I would hope that questions and votes would be according to the rules they purportedly follow. –  Bob Jones May 26 '12 at 5:27
    
I believe I am reproducing an early hermeneutic but haven't found a way here to present it systematically, though I am willing to have others review it closely. –  Bob Jones May 26 '12 at 5:32
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I have read your questions where you discussed the carefulness of your method as opposed to free-for-all allegory, and appreciate that (upvoted). I also have noticed similarities in your hermeneutics to Augustine's, and I have high respect for him. You do make a good point also that diversity of interpretations is helpful here. –  Kazark May 26 '12 at 16:15
    
@Kazark Clement appears to have a memory of the method, but more intriguing is finding that by using it, the problem scriptures of the NT authors go away as we are able to reproduce their "strange handling" of the OT. Thanks for your generosity in reconsidering. –  Bob Jones May 26 '12 at 17:03

Meaning of this passage

The purpose of this passage is a call, a warning, to avoid apostasy. This passage is very clearly saying that people who have received God's blessings should not turn away from God and that if they do, they will never be able to again receive God's blessings.

"Fallen Away"

This passage is a call to avoid apostasy.

The one who falls away isn't one who sins, but one who turns completely from God and his beliefs: the apostate. The warning here is against someone who completely rejects God and his Son.

No doubt, any sin whatsoever turns us away from God; any sin is a falling away from Christianity. But the warning here isn't against sinning, but from turning away from the grace of Christianity—renouncing God, his Son, and the grace offered.

For he falls away who forsakes the word of God, who extinguishes its light, who deprives himself of the taste of the heavens or gift, who relinquishes the participation of the Spirit. Now this is wholly to renounce God. —John Calvin, Commentary on Hebrews

Brought Back to Repentance

This passage speaks a very dire warning to avoid turning away from God—to avoid not only sin, but apostasy. That if we do such a horrible deed, it will be impossible to be "brought back to repentance".

In a commentary by Charlene McCaa,

The warning of this passage is to be not like Esau, who held the things of God lightly. That one sold his birthright as the first born son for temporal gain or satisfaction, then sought repentance with bitter tears, but to no avail. What was his, then given up, was lost forever. —Charlene McCaa, Hebrews Commentary Project

We see that when someone turns away from God and his grace, lays aside his salvation. This person cannot take it up again. Attempting to return to God would be like crucifying Christ again:

Crucify Christ Again

But the reason why he says, that Christ would thus be crucified again, is, because we die with him for the very purpose of living afterwards a new life; when therefore any return as it were unto death, they have need of another sacrifice —John Calvin, Commentary on Hebrews

Loss of Salvation?

This is a battleground topic.

Some believe that loss of salvation is possible. To those people, this is one of the passages that clearly illustrates the point.

To those who believe that loss of salvation is not possible (Perseverance of the Saints), this is viewed as passage that is speaking to the unbelievers—to the non-Christians:

But I cannot admit that all this is any reason why he should not grant the reprobate also some taste of his grace, why he should not irradiate their minds with some sparks of his light, why he should not give them some perception of his goodness, and in some sort engrave his word on their hearts... There is therefore some knowledge even in the reprobate, which afterwards vanishes away. —John Calvin, Commentary on Hebrews

From Calvin's commentary, we can see that this is a warning for those who are non-believers, yet have tasted God's grace. From this perspective, this passage is not about loss of salvation (since the reprobate had no salvation to lose), but rather about the gifts that come with knowing God's grace.

Summary

This passage can be clearly understood to mean that if we have accepted God's grace, we should not turn from it. If we do turn from that grace and reject God, we will never be able again to enter into that grace.

Whether this leads to loss of salvation, however, is a doctrinal issue. This passage does not necessarily provide concrete proof for loss of salvation. It entirely depends on the doctrinal stance from which you approach the passage.

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This i dont understand. You mean if i was saved before and fell and went back and sinned and came back to Jesus to ask for forgiveness and have changed my life this last time to live for him, that God would not forgive me, or keep me from going to heaven? –  user596 May 23 '12 at 20:12

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