The term “apostate” applied to Christians is a misnomer to many students and ministers of God’s Word, not to mention several highly respected theologians and Greek professors of Scripture. To many truly committed believers in Christ an “apostate” condition is an impossible attainment for a person who has “truly” (authentically) been “born again” (born from above) through faith alone in Christ alone (John 3:7, 14-18). This view is adequately expressed by William McDonald as follows:
Apostates are people who hear the gospel, make a profession of being Christians, become identified with a Christian church, and then abandon their profession of faith, decisively repudiate Christ, desert the Christian fellowship, and take their place with enemies of the Lord Jesus Christ. Apostasy is a sin which can be committed only by unbelievers, not by those who are deceived but by those who knowingly, willfully, and maliciously turn against the Lord. (Believer’s Bible Commentary, William McDonald, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995)
Such a position is held by many notable men of God past and present. So should any reader of this study come to the conclusion that it would be impossible for a believer to become an apostate, he will find himself in good company.
But this writer requests that before any reader take a firm stand on the issue that this study, which is contrary to the view expressed above, be considered. It will be presented by defining the term “apostate,” as used in the New Testament, by examples of Old and New Testament believers who in fact have “fallen away” from doctrinal truth and into gross sin and unbelief, by explaining various texts used by those who adhere to the view that it is impossible for a believer to become apostate, and by portraying the eventual consequences that await an apostate Christian.
It should also be said in the outset that the Bible in no way teaches that once a person, who has genuinely placed his faith in Christ alone for his personal salvation, can later lose his salvation. The “new birth” is a permanent condition that cannot be invalidated by man or “taken back” by God Himself. There is a repertoire of scriptural passages that confirm this fact, e.g., John 6:38-40; 10:27-30; Romans 8:29-39; 11:29; 2 Corinthians 1:21, 22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:13, 14; 4:30; 1 Peter 1:3-5. The reader should keep this fact in mind while considering the portion of this study that considers the warnings against apostasy (“falling away”) posted in the New Testament to true believers.
Definition of the Term Apostasy
The term “apostasy” comes from the Greek word apostasia, which intrinsically carries the following meanings: “to depart,” “defection,” or “to fall away.” It is a feminine noun derived from the Greek word aphistemi, composed of apo, “from” and histemi, “to stand,” which itself carries the meanings: “to stand apart from, to withdraw, remove oneself, forsake, desert, retire, cease from something.”
The Greek word apostasia is actually used only twice in the New Testament. In Acts 21:21 it is translated “forsake” and is used by the elders of Jerusalem in speaking to the apostle Paul about his alleged teaching that believer under grace were to “forsake” (apostasia) the teachings of Moses. And it is used in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 and translated as “falling away” before the “man of sin is revealed.” In this case, there are grounds, both lexicostatistical and contextually that the word apostasia is actually referring to the Rapture (see the study “Rapture in 2 Thessalonians 2:3” in the topical section of the website www.bibleone.net).
The Greek word aphistemi, which is translated “depart,” is found in 1 Timothy 4:1. It speaks of those in the “latter times” who will “depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons.” Then there is the Greek word parapipto (from para, to the side, and pipto, to fall), which is found only in Hebrews 6:6 and means to “to fall to the side” or “to fall away from.” Both words refer to the state of apostasy.
But many, if not most Bible students and scholars, view the word apostasy as “a defection from the truth to a point of actually denying the deity of Jesus Christ and His vicarious sacrifice on the cross at Calvary.” It no doubt may include the severity of this definition, but since it is a progressive (or degenerative) action, it may also apply to any state or degree from initial sin to the “worst end” (that which the writer refers to “total apostasy” and to which the warnings in Hebrews refer).
In this sense it is not unlike the biblical concept of “living in the flesh” (a type of euphemism indicating living under the control of the “sinful nature”) in one degree or the other. This condition is also referred to in Scripture as “carnal” living. Often the word “backsliding” is used of believers who give in to “fleshly” desires (urges prompted by the “sin nature”) and live in a “carnal” state. Even though the word “backsliding” is not found in the New Testament (just as many other words that indicate biblical truth evangelicals often use, e.g., vicarious, Trinity, etc.), its concept (“flesh” or “carnal” living) is indeed biblical and may be seen in the following passages of Scripture: Romans 7:5, 14, 25; 8:1, 4-8, 12, 13; 13:14; 1 Corinthians 3:1, 3, 4; 2 Corinthians 7:1; 10:2, 3; 11:18; Galatians 5:13, 16, 17, 19, 24; 6:8; 1 Peter 3:21; 2 Peter 2:10, 18; 1 John 2:16.
And if the state of apostasy may be applied to anyone who is living in a “carnal” state, regardless of its degree, it may be ventured that any Christian (true believer) may be referred to as an “apostate Christian.” The Bible really does not definitely indicate that an “apostate” is one that arrives at the position of totally rejecting the deity and sacrifice of Christ; although, many students and teachers of the Word do draw this conclusion. But admittedly, it is only the state of “total apostasy,” which the warnings in Hebrews address.
But since it is a biblical fact that believers retain the sinful nature and do indeed sin (1 John 1:10), requiring restoration through confession (1 John 1:9), and since Paul frequently warns against living in the “fleshly” or “carnal” state (“backsliding”), the question of how far this state of degeneration may progress in a believer’s life then come into question. After all, it is only a matter of degree; yet, there are examples within the Old and New Testaments that indicate that a believer may sin or “fall away” from Christ to such a degree that God will severely bring temporal judgment and/or will take the person from this life prematurely.
Old and New Testament Examples of Apostate Christians
Both testaments contain examples of apostate believers, i.e., those who fall back into unbelief and egregious sin. They follow:
The signature examples from the Old Testament are those children of Israel who were delivered by God’s power from the land of Egypt (the Exodus) but failed to enter into the Promised Land due to their “falling away” into unbelief, idolatry, and egregious sin in the wilderness. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul introduces this example to illustrate his warning to the believers in the church at Corinth, which was that if they should take the same path of unbelief and egregious sin as those in the wilderness, they too would be disqualified. There is no doubt that Paul is addressing true believers (1 Corinthians 1:2-9). The context of the passage utilizing the fallen children of Israel actually commences in the first chapter where Paul addresses the sinful contentions (quarrels) that existed within the church. In fact throughout the epistle he tackles a variety of problems that had invaded the church, such as factions, lawsuits, immorality, abuse of the Lord’s Supper and spiritual gifts, and other questionable practices — all by true believers.
Then in the latter part of chapter nine (vv. 24-27), he expresses how important it is for those in the spiritual race of the Christian life to be disciplined so as to properly finish the race and be able to receive “an imperishable crown.” He then exclaims “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (v. 27). And it is certain that by using the word “disqualified,” Paul was not speaking about losing his eternal salvation. He was speaking about suffering a great loss at the Judgment Seat of Christ, a future event he often warned New Testament Christians about (1 Corinthians 3:12-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10, 11a; Romans 2:6; 14:10; Galatians 6:7; Colossians 3:24, 25). Part of the loss would even be not reigning with Christ during the coming Kingdom Age (Romans 8:17; 2 Timothy 2:12; 1 Peter 4:13).
Then immediately in chapter ten, to bolster his argument, he raises the example of the children of Israel and in fact states twice that God allowed them to have their wilderness experience to serve New Testament Christians as examples “to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted” (v. 6) and that their story was “written for our admonition [instruction] upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (v. 11). He clearly states that these Israelites were saved because “all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ (vv. 3, 4).
The story and plight of the children of Israel that were delivered out of the land of Egypt is an Old Testament type (representation) of the believer in this age. Their deliverance from Egypt, which took place “under the blood” (Exodus 12:1-14) and through the Red Sea (Exodus 14), parallels the salvation of a Christian who places his faith in Christ and His death on Calvary, which allows God’s eternal judgment to pass over and from him for all eternity. Their experience through the wilderness parallels the Christian’s life on earth after salvation, which experience was with the available leadership of God by day with a pillar of cloud and by night with a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21) and God-supplied provisions of heavenly manna (bread) and water (Exodus 16:4; 17:6). Canaan, the land God promised to Israel, reflects the promise of God to Christians of being “joint heirs” with Christ (Romans 8:17) and co-reigning with Him (2 Timothy 2:12) during the coming Kingdom Age.
But both the entering of the Promised Land for Israel and the Millennial Kingdom for believers comes with a price. Both are contingent upon not falling away. Unfortunately for most of the “saved” Israelites, they fell back into unbelief in God, indulgence in idolatry, and other egregious sins (1 Corinthians 10:5-10). Because they fell away (became apostates) in unbelief, even though they had been “saved,” all of the age of twenty years and above were confined to the wilderness for 40 years until they died (Numbers 14:29) and were not permitted to enter Canaan, the only exceptions being Caleb and Joshua who maintained their faith in God.
And so it will be with believers who fail to live spiritual lives of strong faith in God with resulting “divinely inspired good works,” i.e., works performed not by human effort (human good works) but under the influence (control) of the Holy Spirit—an outgrowth of being “filled” with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18; Colossians 2:6; Galatians 2:20). In fact, the possibility of “falling away” and becoming “disqualified” was what the apostle Paul was attempting to convey to the believers at the church in Corinth, who were already in a poor spiritual state. He knew that by continuing on their path, which paralleled the wilderness journey of the children of Israel, they too could suffer grave loss at the Judgment Seat of Christ and fail to gain heirship and the reward of being able to reign with Christ during the Millennial Kingdom. His warning at the end of his use of the example of the children of Israel clearly conveys this message to Christians today:
Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. (1 Corinthians 10: 11, 12)
Note: Again, it is important to observe that those children of Israel who fell away and could not enter into God’s Promised Land did not lose their salvation, a completed fact that was bestowed upon them when they placed their faith in God by placing the blood of an unblemished lamp on the doorposts and lintels of their homes (Exodus 12:7, 13), which was a representation of the future death of the Lamb of God on the cross of Calvary. The Promised Land represents God’s promise that once again His children will possess earth, an objective that He intended from the first chapter in Genesis and which will see its fruition during the Kingdom Age.
Just as there are examples of believers (those who have experienced “spirit” salvation (as opposed to “soul” [life] salvation, and “body” salvation) in the Old Testament who were apostate and failed to obtain God’s blessing but instead received His judgment (not “hell”), there are examples in the New Testament.
One example comes from the church at Corinth. It was a man who had fallen away so much as to willfully engage in egregious sexual sin (“that a man has his father’s wife”). Paul’s instruction to the church was to “deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (1 Corinthians 5:1-5)
Others in the Corinth local church that had fallen away were those who were abusing the Lord’s Supper and “for this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep [died prematurely]” (1 Corinthians 11:29, 30). The lesson is that God’s judgment is executed on those who fall away during this life and in the life or age (Millennial Kingdom) to come.
Other examples of believers who fell away and were immediately punished by the hand of God were Ananias and Sapphira who lied to both the Holy Spirit and the apostles, which resulted in their swift death (Acts 5:1-11).
The Bible is replete with examples of Christians who fell back into unbelief and resorted to a carnal life (such as David, Saul, etc.), the degree of which determines and results in discipline and/or the harsh judgment of God the Father. Jesus was well aware that this was a possibility for all believers, and He knew that some would have “no part” with Him in the coming Kingdom, as seen in the following passage:
After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. Then He came to Simon Peter. And Peter said to Him, “Lord, are You washing my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.” Peter said to Him, “You shall never wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.”(John 13:5-10)
The following comments of Joseph C. Dillow regarding this passage are on-mark:
Jesus refers to Christians who are “bathed” (Greek: “louo”) who are “completely clean,” i.e., regenerate. But a bathed, regenerate person sometimes needs washing (Greek: “nipto”). In fact, if he does not go through this washing (“nipto”) he has no part with Christ. To wash (“nipto”) means to wash in part, but to bathe (“louo”) means “to wash all over.” The former refers to cleansing from daily sin by confession (1 John 1:9), whereas the latter refers to regeneration. Christ teaches here, if a person who has been bathed refuses daily washing, he will have no part with Him. This is what is meant by a carnal Christian. (The Reign of the Servant Kings, Joseph C. Dillow, Schoettle Publishing Co., 1993)
It can only be added that there are believers who fail to submit to daily washings. In time the accrual of such willful neglect can only lead the believer to a state of total apostasy, which then has serious results both in this life (age) and the one to come (at the Judgment Seat of Christ and into the Kingdom Age).
There are ample warning throughout the New Testament against believers who allow themselves to fall away (become apostate); two of which in the book of Hebrews are highly significant. In fact, both are of such harsh tone that Bible students and scholars have been influenced to interpret them as to referring to “professing but not true believers,” a type of individual that is not addressed in the Bible. These warnings must be considered and taken to heart by every believer in Christ, and they follow.
The Context of the Book of Hebrews
A primary rule of hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) that governs proper exegesis (critical analysis) of any particular scriptural passage is “context.” If a person does not understand to whom the passage was originally written and the nature of the message, it is then difficult if not impossible to understand the meaning and application of the passage. This is particular noteworthy when it comes to the book of Hebrews.
Although the identity of the readers of Hebrews is unknown, they were evidently part of a particular community. They had a definite history and the writer referred to their “earlier days” (Hebrews 10:32-34); he knew about their past and present generosity to other Christians (6:10); and he was able to be specific about their current spiritual condition (5:11-14). Moreover, the author had definite links with them and expressed his intention to visit them, perhaps with Timothy (13:19, 23). He also requested their prayers (13:18).
The contents of the book argues that in all probability the readers were chiefly of Jewish background. This is fortified by the author’s heavy stress on Jewish prototypes and his earnest polemic against the permanence of the Levitical system, which is noteworthy since it strongly appears that these readers were inclined to be swayed back to their old faith. The author heavily and extensively appealed to the authority of the Old Testament, which would have been most suitable to readers who had been brought up on them.
There is little doubt that the writer considered his readers as true believers, not mere professors, but possessors of Jesus Christ. He calls them “holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling” (3:1), and again “brethren” (3:12; 13:22), and then considers himself along with his readers to have a great High Priest, Jesus Christ (4:14; 8:1). He also considers them as immature Christians who need to leave the “milk” of the Word and go on to the “meat” of it (5:12-14). He refers to them as “beloved” and is convinced that “things that accompany salvation” apply to them (6:9). He describes the readers as “sanctified through the offering [sacrifice] of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (10:10) and as those who are “perfected forever” (10:14). He states that in the “former days” after they were “enlightened” they “endured a great struggle with sufferings” and had “compassion” on the writer who was then in chains and “joyfully accepted the plundering” of their goods, knowing that they had “a better and an enduring possession” in heaven (10:32-34).
The writer also included himself in their company as those who do not “draw back to perdition [destruction], but of those who believe to the saving of the soul” (10:30). And in the final verses of the last chapter, one can have little doubt that the writer is addressing true believers in Jesus Christ.
(Note: At this point it would do well for the reader of this study to understand the difference between “spirit salvation,” “soul (life) salvation,” and “body salvation.” The study entitled “Rule of Three,” which defines these different aspects of salvation, can be found in the topical section of www.bibleone.net.)
On the whole, the most plausible backdrop for the book of Hebrews would be a Christian local church, largely Jewish in membership, in a city such as Cyrene. Under repeated pressures from their unbelieving fellow Jews they were tempted to give up their Christian faith and to return to their ancestral faith. And the primary theme of the entire epistle centers around the warning not to neglect their “so great a salvation” (2:3), but being diligent to enter that “rest” (4:11) that is illustrated by the writer’s use of the exodus generation, i.e., those children of Israel who failed to enter the Promised Land because of their rebellion and unbelief (3:16-19).
It is in light of this context that the stern warnings of this book to its readers must be interpreted, two of which will be considered in this study, as follows:
If They Shall Fall Away
And this we will do, if God permits.
For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit,
and have tasted the good Word of God and the powers of the age to come,
if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame. (Hebrews 6:3-6)
The line of teaching thus far in the third of the five major warnings in Hebrews — in perfect keeping with the things set forth in the first two warnings — is with constant reference to that coming day when Christ will reign over the earth as King of kings and Lord of lords. The day is coming, during the Great Tribulation, when an angel will sound the last of seven trumpets; and at that time, “great voices in heaven” are going to be heard, announcing, “The kingdom of the world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ: and He shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15, ASV).
The whole of God’s revelation to man, beginning with the opening two chapters of Genesis, progressively moves toward the same goal — that coming day announced in Revelation 11:15. And revelation throughout the book of Hebrews, in perfect keeping with revelation as a whole, views that future day as central in all matters surrounding the past or present.
The Warning Passages
The first of the five major warnings in the book of Hebrews deals with “so great salvation” (2:3), which is the greatest thing God has ever designed for redeemed man. This salvation has to do with Christians being elevated from this earth and placed in the heavens on the throne as co-heirs with the King of kings and Lord of lords; and the time when this will occur is revealed to be in that coming day when Christ fulfills the things that are stated in the seven Messianic passages making up most of chapter one, leading into the first warning.
Also in connection with the first warning there is a revealed angelic ministry. Angels, who at one time ruled in the kingdom of this world (under Satan, in his unfallen state), are presented as presently ministering on behalf of Christians (1:13, 14; 2:5); and this ministry is with a view to Christians wearing the crowns presently worn by these angels when they one day rule in the kingdom under Christ (see the author’s book, So Great Salvation, chapter 2).
The second of the five major warnings in the book of Hebrews (chapters 3, 4) begins by addressing those to whom the warning applies: “Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling . . . .” (3:1). The parallel is then drawn between Israel’s earthly calling and the Christians’ heavenly calling, with the writer drawing extensively from the type (surrounding Israel’s calling) for all his spiritual lessons (concerning the Christians’ calling).
The land of Canaan during Moses and Joshua’s day was occupied by the Nephilim, who had infiltrated and corrupted the Gentile nations in the land (Numbers 13:32, 33 [the word, Nephilim, literally meaning, “fallen ones,” is a name used in Scripture for the offspring resulting from a co-habitation of “the sons of God” with “the daughters of men”; cf. Genesis 6:4]); and the Gentile nations, infiltrated and corrupted by the Nephilim, were there at the pre-planned direction of Satan and his angels (who ruled from the heavens through the Gentile nations on earth [Daniel 10:13, 20; cf. Luke 4:6; Revelation 13:2]) to contest Israel’s right to enter into and take possession of this land.
That heavenly land to which Christians have been called, on the other hand, is presently occupied personally by Satan and his angels (the one-third who went along with Satan in his attempted coup, separate from the two-thirds who refused [who presently minister on behalf of Christians]). And at the heart of all teachings surrounding the second warning is a type-antitype parallel between the Israelites under Moses (and later Joshua) and Christians under Christ.
The Israelites, in the type, were called to leave an earthly land (Egypt) and dwell in another earthly land (Canaan) as “a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” They were to dwell in that land, as God’s “firstborn son,” within a theocracy (cf. Exodus 4:22, 23; 40:34-38; Joel 2:27ff). And in this fashion, with God dwelling in Israel’s midst, the Gentile nations were to be ruled by and blessed through the seed of Abraham, in perfect keeping with Genesis 12:2, 3; 14:18, 19; 22:17, 18.
Christians, on the other hand, in the antitype, have been called to leave this earth and dwell in the heavens, as “kings and priests” and a “holy nation.” And they are to dwell in that heavenly land within a theocracy, seated on the throne with Christ (cf. 1 Peter 2:9, 10; Revelation 2:26, 27; 5:10). And in this fashion, with Christians occupying positions of rulership with Christ, the Gentile nations are to be ruled by and blessed through the seed of Abraham from a heavenly sphere as well (Galatians 3:29), also in perfect keeping with Genesis 12:2, 3; 14:18, 19; 22:17, 18.
And Satan and his angels are present in that land today — as the Gentile nations infiltrated and corrupted by the Nephilim were present in the land of Canaan during Moses and Joshua's day — contesting the Christians’right to one day enter and take possession of the land. This is what the “manifold wisdom of God” being made known “by [through] the Church” to “the principalities and powers in heavenly places” is all about in Ephesians 3:9-11, and this is what the warfare in Ephesians 6:10ff is also all about.
The announcement has gone forth, “through the Church,” to Satan and his angels in the heavens, that they are about to be replaced. Both “Christ,” the Head, and the “Church,” the body, are on hand, waiting for that day. And Satan, through knowledge of this fact, can only know that his time is short and his days are numbered.
Christ has shown Himself fully qualified to take the kingdom (Matthew 4:1-11), He has paid redemption’s price to redeem fallen man so man can be brought back into the position for which he was created in the beginning (cf. Genesis 1:26, 28; 3:15; John 19:30), and the Holy Spirit is in the world today calling out the bride who will ascend the throne with the Son in that coming day.
And Satan and his angels don’t any more like the thought of Christ and Christians one day occupying the heavenly places that they presently occupy than the Gentile nations in the land of Canaan almost 1,500 years ago (under Satan’s direction and control) liked the thought of the Israelites coming in and occupying that land in their stead. Thus, the warfare of Ephesians 6:11 rages.
And, because of this warfare, Christians are called upon to make the necessary preparations. They are called upon to properly array themselves for the ongoing “battle,” a battle that is very real. And there is a “prize” in view, which is also very real — that of one day being accorded the privilege of occupying a position as co-heir with Christ in His kingdom (cf. Philippians 3:10-14); and this prize can be either won (through overcoming in the battle) or lost (through being overcome in the battle).
Then the third major warning in the book of Hebrews (chapters 5, 6) centers around Genesis 14:18, 19 for its spiritual lessons — the only historic account of Melchizedek in the entire Old Testament (Psalm 110:4, the only other reference to Melchizedek in the Old Testament, draws from Genesis 14:18, 19). And though the account is very brief, it is fraught beyond compare with spiritual significance. The whole of that which is taught in the spiritual lessons in Hebrews, chapters five through seven draws primarily from the whole of that which is taught surrounding Melchizedek in this one Old Testament passage.
Melchizedek was a king-priest in Jerusalem (cf. Genesis 14:18; Psalm 76:2), and though Christ is presently “a priest after the order of Melchizedek,” as He is presently “King [He was born ‘King of the Jews’],” He has yet to occupy either office (cf. Matthew 2:2; Hebrews 5:10; 6:20; 7:11). He is presently ministering in the heavenly sanctuary, on the basis of shed blood, after the order of Aaron. It will only be when He leaves His present position in the sanctuary and comes forth as “King” that He will exercise the office of King-Priest, “after the order of Melchizedek” (ref. chapter 1 of this book).
The writer of Hebrews dealt with this subject (5:1-10), then he dealt with spiritual babes “in Christ” who were not mature enough to understand these things (5:11-14), and then he exhorted these immature Christians to leave the foundational truths and go on unto maturity (6:1, 2).
And there is no getting around one central truth in this section of Scripture: Maturity in the faith, as it is set forth in Hebrews 5:1-6:2, has to do with coming into knowledge and understanding of those things that the Word of God reveals concerning that future day when Christ reigns over the earth as the great King-Priest, “after the order of Melchizedek.” That which is stated in Hebrews 6:3 (“And this we will do, if God permits”) and the heart of the warning itself in Hebrews 6:4-6 (“For it is impossible . . . .”) MUST be understood within the framework of that which has proceeded. These verses must, contextually, be understood as having to do with Christians coming into knowledge and understanding of the things surrounding Christ’s coming reign over the earth.
Reading into Hebrews 6:4-6 the thought of salvation by grace through faith (as so many do) is not only completely out of line with the context but it is also completely out of line with any Scriptural teaching concerning salvation by grace through faith, beginning with the opening two chapters of Genesis. The context has to do with Christian maturity (which centers on coming into an understanding of specific future things, for a revealed purpose); and salvation by grace through faith centers around the Christians’ present possession (based on two finished works of the Triune Godhead — (1) the finished work of the Son at Calvary, and (2) the finished work performed in the life of the believer [performed on the basis of and made possible through the Son’s prior finished work]).
Hebrews 6:4-6 has to do strictly with God’s present and future work in the lives of Christians, not with His past work, effecting their present position, “in Christ.” This section of Scripture is written to and has to do solely with those who are already saved, and it has to do specifically with bringing these saved individuals into a mature knowledge and understanding of the things surrounding Christ’s coming reign over the earth, as King-Priest, “after the order of Melchizedek.”
And This Will We Do, If . . . .
Hebrews 6:3 should be taken at face value. That is, “We will go on unto maturity [vv. 1, 2], if God permits us to go on.” And one is then left with the thought that God may not permit some Christians to go on unto maturity.
Leading into Hebrews 6:3, the writer had previously reprimanded a group of Christians for their lack of spiritual maturity. They had been saved for a sufficient length of time that all of them should have been well enough grounded in the Word that they could do two things: (1) be able to understand teachings surrounding the coming Melchizedek priesthood of Christ, and (2) be able to teach others these things as well (5:10-14).
Then, following the reprimand, the writer exhorted these same Christians to leave “the first principles [the rudimentary things of the Christian faith]” and "go on to perfection [maturity in ‘the faith’]” (5:12; 6:1, 2).
Then after this comes the statement that going on unto maturity is conditional. It is conditioned on God allowing the person to go on. But bear in mind that this is not maturity in what might be considered a general sense; rather, the reference is to maturity in a specific sense. This is maturity in that which Scripture calls “the faith” or “the word of the kingdom” (cf. Matthew 13:19; 1 Timothy 6:12; Jude 3) — maturity in things surrounding Christ’s coming reign over the earth “after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:10ff).
Thus, the writer is dealing with a specific realm of biblical teaching that is little understood in Christendom today. And this would provide a basic explanation (in conjunction with the working of the leaven in Matthew 13:33) for the existing situation. Not only is there a present lack of knowledge (much less an understanding) concerning this whole overall message in Christendom but something even beyond this exists. Along with the lack of knowledge (and understanding), an overt aversion — more often than not — is exhibited toward any teaching on the subject.
(Note, by way of passing, that an aversion of this nature invariably emanates from two spheres:  ignorance rather than knowledge, and  immaturity rather than maturity.)
And, projecting the matter out to the end of the dispensation, this is the message Christ will not find being taught to Christians in the churches at the time of His return. Though this is the central message that Christians are supposed to hear once they have been grounded in the rudimentary things of the Word, Christ stated that by the end of the dispensation, at the time of His return, conditions will have become so completely contrary to the way they should exist that He will not find “faith [lit., ‘the faith’] on the earth" (Luke 18:8).
The reason why God will not allow certain Christians to go on into an understanding of these truths is given in the verses that immediately follow (vv. 4-6), which comprise the heart of the warning itself. Verse three forms a connection between that which has preceded and that which follows; and this verse must, accordingly, be understood in the light of the complete context — verses both preceding and following.
Very briefly, note the verses leading into Hebrews 6:3 before going on to the explanation. These verses explain the matter from the standpoint of one type, and then the explanation explains it from the standpoint of another type.
Hebrews, chapter five draws its spiritual lessons from Genesis, chapter fourteen (and Psalm 110, which also draws from Genesis 14). The subject has to do with Abraham meeting Melchizedek following the battle of the kings.
Melchizedek, at this time, brought forth “bread and wine” and blessed Abraham, “of the most high God, Possessor of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14:17-19). This, of course, points to that day in the antitype, following the battle of the kings (Revelation 19:17-21), when Christ comes forth with “bread and wine” — as King-Priest, “after the order of Melchizedek” — to bless Abraham and his descendants, both heavenly and earthly (Matthew 26:29).
Now note something about the type, which must carry over into the antitype. Abraham, after meeting Melchizedek, no longer manifested any interest in the things of this world. The king of Sodom offered him goods, but his response was completely negative. Abraham said to the king of Sodom:
But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, the Possessor of heaven and earth,
that I will take nothing, from a thread to a sandal strap, and that I will not take anything that is yours, lest you should say ‘I have made Abram rich’ –
except only what the young men have eaten . . . .” (Genesis 14:22-24).
Having met Melchizedek, Abraham manifested total disinterest in that which the king of Sodom had to offer. He had found something so far greater than the things this world could offer that he refused to take anything (other than food) from the king of Sodom. Rather, his interest was focused on the things surrounding Melchizedek (cf. Hebrews 12:2, “Looking to Jesus . . . . [lit., ‘Looking from (the surrounding things of the world) to Jesus . . . .’]”).
Abraham, through this experience, could only have gained a whole new perspective on the present in relation to the future, and vice versa. Thus, Abraham, relative to the magnanimous offer of the king of Sodom, in a word, told the king, No! “I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, the Possessor of heaven and earth . . . .”
And that is where Christ comes into the picture in prophecy as the great King-Priest, “after the order of Melchizedek.” The Father — “the Possessor of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14:22) — has given all that He possesses to the Son (cf. Genesis 24:36; 25:5; John 16:13-15); and in that coming day, with the Son occupying both His own throne in the heavens and David’s throne on the earth, blessings will flow out to the Gentile nations through the seed of Abraham (“Possessor of heaven and earth “through inheritance”) from both heavenly and earthly spheres.
And when a Christian sees Christ, within this framework, as King-Priest, “after the order of Melchizedek,” this should drive him to manifest the same attitude toward the things of this world as Abraham manifested toward the things of the world after he met Melchizedek. In the words of the song, “the things of this world” should “grow strangely dim.” The Christian should possess an entirely new perspective on the present in relation to the future, and vice versa.
But, how often is the preceding really the case in the lives of Christians? How many really understand these things? Or, how many really view matters within the framework of “the light of His glory and grace”?
And therein lies the secret to questions surrounding Hebrews 6:3. We are dealing with the very choicest of God’s choice things that He has set aside for Christians, and God has placed certain conditions around allowing Christians to move into knowledge of the Son in this realm (cf. Philippians 3:10-14). God knows what is in man; and He also knows what man coming into knowledge and understanding of these things will, too often, do.
God knows that numerous Christians, after coming into knowledge and understanding of Christ as King-Priest, “after the order of Melchizedek,” would not manifest the same attitude at all toward the world as Abraham manifested after he met Melchizedek. They would, instead, either continue in or one day return to their worldly interest and involvement (cf. 1 John 2:15-17), which is within a world presently ruled by Satan and his angels. And by so doing, such Christians could only bring shame upon Christ’s name (this will be further dealt with later in the chapter within the framework of that which is stated in v. 6).
The matter surrounding God allowing or not allowing a Christian to go on unto maturity though should be viewed more within the framework of man's attitude toward these things than it should within the framework of God's omniscience per se. Scripture clearly states, “If any man will do [is willing to do] His will, he shall know of the doctrine . . . .” (John 7:17).
That is: “Do you really want to know Christ as ‘Author [source] of eternal salvation [salvation for the age (the Messianic Era)]’”? (Hebrews 5:9). Are you serious about the present warfare and one day coming into a realization of the proffered inheritance? If so, there should be no reason why God would not allow you to go on into knowledge and understanding of the various things surrounding His Son’s coming reign over the earth.
But, if on the other hand, an interest in and a seriousness about the matter are not present, there is no biblical reason why God should allow such a person to go on into knowledge and understanding of these things. In fact, within a biblical perspective, the opposite would exist instead. From a biblical perspective, God would not allow such a person to go on, for a revealed reason.
And with this in mind, we're ready to go on into the heart of the warning and see the explanation to verse three from the perspective of another type.
For It Is Impossible . . . .
Hebrews 6:4-6 is looked upon by numerous Christians as probably the most difficult, and sometimes controversial, passage in all Scripture. And the reason why the passage is looked upon after this fashion is because of an erroneous interpretative approach. The passage is invariably approached from the standpoint of teachings surrounding the Christians' presently possessed eternal salvation — salvation “by grace through faith.”
The passage though, as previously stated, doesn’t deal with this subject. And, not dealing with this subject, it is understandable why those who seek to interpret the passage from the standpoint of teachings surrounding salvation by grace through faith find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. And not only is this the case, but they also invariably find themselves being forced into erroneous views concerning salvation.
Then, beyond the preceding, the correct subject matter is not even being dealt with. Rather, through this erroneous interpretative approach, the correct subject matter is, instead, being completely obscured. And such can only foster the present work of the enemy as it is outlined in 2 Corinthians 4:4 — blinding the minds of Christians relative to “the gospel of the glory of Christ” (ASV).
Contextually, Hebrews 6:4-6 must be looked upon as dealing with four basic issues surrounding Christians, from the standpoint of possibility: (a) Christians coming into mature knowledge and understanding of the things surrounding Christ as King-Priest, “after the order of Melchizedek,” (b) the same Christians falling away (apostatizing), (c) that which would befall such Christians, and (d) how such an act on the part of Christians would negatively reflect upon Christ Himself.
These four issues will be dealt with under two subsequent headings. Issues under “a” and “b” will be dealt with under the first; then issues under “c” and “d” will be dealt with under the second.
1. Once Enlightened . . . but Fell Away
Certain descriptive words appearing in verses four and five make it virtually impossible to look upon these verses as describing unsaved people.
There is the word, “enlightened” (v. 4), which is used in Hebrews 10:32, translated “illuminated.” And according to 1 Corinthians 2:14, “the natural man” cannot be enlightened or illuminated in spiritual matters. Then, beyond that, the passage is dealing with things other than the “milk” of the Word; it is dealing with “strong meat” (5:12-14).
Then there is the word, “tasted” (vv. 4, 5). This is the same word used for Christ tasting death “for every man” in Hebrews 2:9. The experiences entered into by those in Hebrews 6:4, 5 must be looked upon as a tasting to the same extent that Christ tasted “death” at Calvary. The latter was full and complete, and the former must be also.
And the last descriptive word is “partakers” (v. 4). This is the same word translated “fellows” in Hebrews 1:9 and “partakers” in Hebrews 3:1, 14. This is the word metochoi, which could be better translated, “companions.” It is used in chapters one and three describing Christ’s co-heirs, His companions, in the coming day of His power.
Being “enlightened,” tasting “of the heavenly gift,” being made “partakers of the Holy Spirit,” tasting “the good Word of God,” and tasting “the powers of the world [age] to come” form a description of Christians progressively coming into a mature knowledge and understanding of the things surrounding Melchizedek from chapter five. It, thus, has to do with Christians coming into a mature knowledge and understanding of Christ's coming reign over the earth, with His companions.
Then, spiritual lessons surrounding the possibility of Christians falling away after coming into this mature state is drawn from the type dealt with prior to the introduction of Melchizedek in chapter five — the account of the Israelites under Moses (chaps. 3, 4).
The Israelites under Moses passed through similar experiences within the framework of their earthly calling, climaxed by their hearing the report of the twelve spies and tasting the actual fruits of the land that they had brought back with them. And that which happened to the Israelites at this point (in the type) is where one must go in order to understand the falling away and accompanying statements (in the antitype) in Hebrews 6:6.
The Israelites at Kadesh-Barnea were in possession of the Word of God (received at Sinai), God dwelled in their midst (in the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle, built and erected at Sinai), they had heard the report of the spies, and they had tasted the actual fruits of the land (brought back by the spies). And occupying this position, they were then ready to enter the land, conquer and possess the land, and subsequently realize their calling in the land as God's firstborn son.
They, at this point, were in possession of what could only be looked upon as a mature knowledge of the whole matter. They understood their calling and that which lay out ahead. And it is at this point that they fell away and, within the framework of that stated in the antitype in Hebrews 6:4-6, found it impossible to be renewed “again to repentance.”
2. Impossible to Renew Again . . . Because . . . .
The report that the spies brought back concerning the land was both positive and negative. It was a good land, flowing with “milk and honey”; but the inhabitants, which included the Nephilim, were strong and lived in walled cities (Numbers 13:26-29, 32, 33).
Caleb and Joshua, exhorting the people, said, “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.” But the remaining spies said, “We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we” (Numbers 13:30, 31).
The people of Israel heard the report and both exhortations, but they believed the evil report of the ten spies rather than the true report of Caleb and Joshua. And their resulting actions said it all. They wept, began to murmur against Moses and Aaron, and then looked back to Egypt, wishing that they had never left. Then, to climax matters, they sought to appoint another leader and return to Egypt (Numbers 14:1-4).
They, in the words of the antitype, fell away. They had turned their back upon God, and God, correspondingly, turned His backs upon them. Because of that which had transpired, the most severe judgment possible was pronounced upon the entire accountable generation. Every single individual comprising that generation, twenty years old and above, save Caleb and Joshua, was to be overthrown in the wilderness.
And once this apostasy had occurred (with its corresponding pronounced judgment), there could be no renewal “again to repentance” (as in the antitype). And the reason, drawing again from the antitype (“crucify to themselves the Son of God”), is because they had brought shame and reproach upon the One (God) dwelling in their midst, who was to have led them victoriously into the land.
(“Repentance” simply means a change of mind. And in both the type and antitype, the change of mind is on the part of God, not on the part of the Israelites [type] or on the part of Christians [antitype].)
The Israelites, the very next day, repented (changed their minds). They “rose up early” and sought to “go up to the place” that the Lord had promised. But the Lord didn’t repent (He didn’t change His mind). He was no longer with them relative to their entering the land and victoriously combating the enemy; and, consequently, the Israelites, trying to enter apart from the Lord’s leadership, were smitten and driven back (Numbers 14:40-45).
And that's what Hebrews 6:4-6 is about. If God allows a Christian to come into a mature knowledge of His Son's coming reign as King-Priest, “after the order of Melchizedek,” and that Christian apostatizes, the same thing will occur as that which occurred with the Israelites under Moses (it would have to, for the antitype must follow the type in exact detail).
The Christian would be cut off insofar as those things surrounding his calling were concerned. He would not be allowed to subsequently enter that heavenly land to which he had been called and victoriously combat the enemy therein. He could never be brought back to the position that he had previously occupied. This is to say, he could not be renewed “again to repentance.”
Though the Christian may later change his mind about the matter (as the Israelites did), God would not change His mind (as in the type). The Christian, like the Israelites, would be overthrown on the right side of the blood but on the wrong side of the goal of his calling.
And the reason for such severe judgment on God’s part results from the fact that, through this act, such a Christian could only bring shame and reproach upon the name of Christ. Note the entire expression, “crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh [‘afresh’ is not in the Greek text, though implied], and put Him to an open shame” (v. 6). The thought has to do with the shame and reproach surrounding Calvary, not with subjecting the Son to a second crucifixion, for such an act is impossible (Hebrews 7:27).
But subjecting the Son to this same type shame and reproach at the hands of the world is very possible today; and such shame and reproach can result from the act of any Christian falling away in the antitype of the Israelites at Kadesh-Barnea.
A Christian though, to fall away after this fashion, would have to do two things: (a) He would first have to come into a mature knowledge and understanding of the things surrounding Christ's coming reign over the earth, and (b) he would then have to apostatize after the same fashion in which the Israelites apostatized (looking away from Moses and the land [an earthly land], back to Egypt; i.e., looking away from Christ and the land [a heavenly land], back to the world).
And doing this, a Christian would be subjecting God’s Son to the same type humiliation and shame which He experienced at Calvary. The expression, “crucify to themselves,” is actually explained by the remainder of the verse — “put [expose] Him to an open shame.” It is subjecting the world's coming Ruler to humiliation and shame through the one “in Christ” turning from that which lies out ahead and focusing his attention back on the present world system under the incumbent ruler, Satan.
And this is something that God will not allow. Thus, the verse, “And this we will do [we will go on to maturity in the things surrounding Christ’s coming reign over the earth], if God permits [if God permits us to go on].”
BUT THERE WILL BE SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES SHOULD THE CHRISTIAN NOT GO ON TO MATURITY . . . .
That Every One May Receive
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men . . . . (2 Corinthians 5:10, 11a).
Decisions and determinations emanating from findings at the judgment seat will fall into two major categories — “Well done, good and faithful servant . . . .” and “You wicked and lazy servant . . . .” (cf. Matthew 25:19-30; Luke 19:15-26). The fact that “a just recompense” — exact payment for services rendered — will be meted out to every individual is set forth in Scripture in a number of different places through a number of different means (types, parables, direct statements), beginning with the writings of Moses in the book of Genesis and terminating with the writings of John in the book of Revelation. The Scriptures are replete with information concerning exactly what the future holds for all Christians, and there is no excuse for any Christian with an open Bible set before him to be other than knowledgeable concerning these things.
Each Christian, individually, will appear before the judgment seat of Christ to “receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” The specific statement is made that Christians will be judged solely on the basis of that which they themselves have done, which will be a judgment solely on the basis of works.
Each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by [in] fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is.
(1 Corinthians 3:13).
The works of Christians that will be tried “by [in] fire” in that coming day will, according to Scripture, fall into two central categories: “gold, silver, precious stones,” and “wood, hay, straw” (1 Corinthians 3:12). And every Christian will receive “a just recompense,” completely commensurate with that revealed by his works.
Reason for Judgment
There are two major events in Scripture, common to all Christians, with which every Christian should be intimately familiar. One event is that past moment when the individual became a Christian through the birth from above, and the other event is that future moment when the same individual will be removed from the earth to appear before the Lord in judgment.
The birth from above in no way prepares an individual for that which will occur at the judgment seat. Becoming a Christian only places the individual in a position where he can appear at this judgment. Otherwise, he would appear at the great white throne judgment, with the unsaved dead from throughout Man’s Day (Revelation 20:11-15).
Issues of the judgment seat of Christ will occur before the millennium, and issues of the great white throne judgment will occur after the millennium. Issues of the judgment seat of Christ must occur before the millennium for the simple reason that these issues will involve the millennium itself. Such will not be the case with judgment to be executed at the great white throne. Issues of this judgment will involve only the eternal ages beyond the millennium. Thus, the judgment seat of Christ finds its place in Scripture preceding the millennium, and the great white throne judgment finds its place in Scripture following the millennium.
The Church was brought into existence to be the recipient of that part of the kingdom which Israel rejected, the kingdom of the heavens; and the Church must appear in judgment, with the kingdom of the heavens in view, preceding the time Christ takes the kingdom.
The primary purpose for the judgment seat of Christ is to reveal, through a testing “by [in] fire,” each Christian’s qualifications for occupying one of the numerous proffered positions as a co-heir with Christ in the kingdom. Emanating out of this revelation through testing will be a just recompense — each individual receiving exactly what he deserves, either receiving rewards commensurate with his service or suffering loss commensurate with his failure to serve.
Christians, at the judgment seat, will be shown to be either qualified or disqualified to occupy positions of power and authority with Christ in the kingdom. And every Christian will either enter into and occupy one of these positions or be denied one of these positions.
Issues surrounding the judgment seat will involve the activities of two dispensations — the present dispensation, and the coming dispensation. The present dispensation is one filled with trials, testing, and preparation; and issues of the judgment seat will be based entirely upon Christian involvement in these activities, with a view to the coming dispensation. Then, in the coming dispensation, the Messianic Era, findings and determinations previously made at the judgment seat will be brought to pass.
In the coming dispensation, every Christian will find himself in one of two positions. He will either occupy a position of honor and glory, or he will occupy a position of shame and disgrace. And there will be no equality among Christians in either position, for there will have previously been a just recompense at the judgment seat. There will be a reaping in accord with the sowing. Every Christian will “receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”
This is the reason why some Christians will occupy higher positions in the kingdom than other Christians. And this is also the reason why, while some Christians will be given territorial authority, other Christians will be denied any authority at all (cf. Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27).
The words, “judgment seat,” are a translation of the Greek word bema. This word refers to an elevated platform upon which the chair of a magistrate rested. This was the recognized place of magisterial authority; and the person occupying this chair issued decrees, judgments, etc. relative to the matter at hand.
Some expositors have sought to understand the word bema in the sense that it was used in connection with the ancient Grecian athletic games in Athens. At these games, the bema was a raised platform upon which the president or the umpire sat; and the victorious participants would appear before the bema, at the conclusion of the contests, to be rewarded. At these games, there was no thought of judicial activity in connection with the bema, only rewards; and this use of the word has led many Christians to view the bema of Christ within the same framework — a rewarding stand, apart from judicial activity.
However, the word bema is used a number of times in the New Testament in quite a different sense, and Scripture must first and foremost be understood in the light of other Scripture. The use of words in contemporary sources outside the Scriptures can, at times, provide added light on definitions, meanings, etc.; and this could extend into the way in which the word bema was used in connection with the athletic games in Athens. But the use of this word in connection with these games shows only one facet of the way in which the word is to be understood. New Testament references show other facets, which are quite different.
In many instances, rewards will emanate from findings at the judgment seat. Every man’s work will be tried “by [in] fire.” The race will have been run (the present “race of the faith”), judgment will follow, and only then will rewards come into the picture. The Grecian athletic games had only the contests and rewards in view, with no thought of judicial activity in connection with loss following the various contests. The use of the word bema in this respect shows only a portion of one side of the judgment seat.
Victorious and non-victorious runners alike will appear before the judgment seat of Christ: “For we must ALL appear . . . .” This was not true at the Grecian athletic games. Only the victorious participants appeared before the bema at these games. But all Christians will appear before Christ’s bema, judgment will be executed, and, as previously seen, a just recompense will result in every Christian receiving “the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad “ (2 Corinthians 5:10b).
Despite the previous differences, in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul likened himself to a contestant in the games of that day, though one with an entirely different purpose and goal in view. A contestant in the games conditioned himself physically, with his ultimate goal being the reception of a corruptible crown; but Paul, as a contestant in the race of the faith, conditioned himself spiritually, with his ultimate goal being the reception of an incorruptible crown.
The thought in both contests is straining every muscle of one’s being as the contestant moves toward the goal.
(The word translated “striveth — ‘competes’ in NKJV — [v. 25]” is from agonizomai in the Greek text. This is the word from which the English word “agonize” is derived. Note Luke 13:24 where the same word is translated “strive”; note also the intensified form of this same word [epagonizomai], translated “earnestly contend,” in Jude 3.)
Paul knew that he would appear before Christ’s bema at the termination of the contest, as a runner either approved for an incorruptible crown or disapproved for this crown (“castaway” [Greek: adokimos (v. 27)] should be translated “disapproved”). At that time, approval will result in the person subsequently being crowned (after Christ receives the kingdom and returns [cf. Daniel 7:13, 14; Revelation 19:11ff]), and disapproval will result in the crown subsequently being denied. Denial of the crown will also involve something additional. The contestant who fails in the race of the faith will also “suffer loss” at this time (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:15).
The word bema is only used twice in the New Testament relative to the judgment seat of Christ (Romans 14:10; 2 Corinthians 5:10). The reference in Romans 14:10, according to some Greek manuscripts, should be translated “judgment seat of God.” This is the rendering preferred by most commentators, but the rendering is open to question. In the final analysis though, the question resolves itself as really being immaterial. "For the Father judges no man, but has committed all judgment to the Son" (John 5:22). And since the judgment seat in Romans 14:10 is the one before which all Christians must stand, this can only be synonymous with the judgment seat of Christ referred to in 2 Corinthians 5:10.
Other uses of the word bema in the New Testament are found in the gospel accounts of Matthew and John and in the book of Acts. In these accounts, the word bema appears in connection with magisterial functions of Pilate, Herod, Gallio, Festus, and Caesar.
Note the different usages of the word bema in these three books:
1) Matthew 27:19; John 19:13: The word bema is used in these two passages referring to the place where Pilate sat when he issued the decrees that Barabbas be released and Jesus be crucified. Pilate sat in judgment upon God’s Son, but the day is coming when these roles will be reversed. God’s Son will one day sit in judgment upon Pilate; and the past judgment rendered by Pilate, among other things, will be accounted for (Revelation 20:12).
2) Acts 12:21: Herod arrayed in “royal apparel,” sat upon “his throne [bema] and made an oration.” The people listening associated his voice with that of “God” rather than “man”; and Herod, not giving God the glory, was executed by the angel of the Lord.
3) Acts 18:12, 16, 17: Gallio, deputy of Achaia, refused to judge Paul when the Jews “brought him to the judgment seat [bema]” (vv. 12-16). Then in verse seventeen, “the Greeks took Sosthenes, the chief ruler of the synagogue, and beat him before the judgment seat [bema].”
4) Acts 25:6, 10, 17: Paul was brought before Festus’ “judgment seat [bema],” which he called “Caesar’s judgment seat [bema]”; and upon Paul’s appeal to Caesar, Festus rendered the decision to send him to Rome.
The use of the word bema in the preceding passages is not at all in accord with the thought of a rewarding stand. In each instance the judicial activities of a magistrate is in view, which is exactly the Scriptural view of the judgment seat of Christ. When the various Scriptures bearing upon the subject are viewed together, it is clearly revealed that this judgment will result not only in praise and rewards but also in rebuke and suffering loss. The latter will be as much of a reality as the former, or vice versa; for, again, every person will “receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”
Justification by Faith, Works
At the judgment seat of Christ there will be an execution of perfect justice and righteousness. If rewards are merited, then rewards will be forthcoming; if, on the other hand, punishment is merited, then punishment will be forthcoming. Every Christian will be judged “according to his works,” and there will be exact payment for services rendered. The former will be exactly commensurate with the latter.
In Scripture there is a justification by faith and there is also a justification by works. And, correspondingly, there is a salvation associated with each. Verses such as Ephesians 2:8, 9 deal with justification by faith, with Ephesians 2:10 leading into the thought of justification by works. Then, a passage of Scripture such as James 2:14-26 deals more in detail with justification by works.
This is where individuals often commit mayhem when studying Scripture. They see only justification by faith throughout Scripture, and they attempt to make passages such as James 2:14-26 fit into the framework of teachings surrounding justification by faith. And, as a result, confusion reigns supreme.
Justification by faith is based entirely upon the finished work of Christ at Calvary and has to do with the salvation that Christians presently possess — the salvation of the spirit (“. . . that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” [John 3:6b]). Works performed by the one being justified by faith cannot enter into this justification in any form or fashion — either preceding or following salvation.
That is, unredeemed man cannot do any works to be saved, and redeemed man cannot do any works to either stay saved or to show that he has been saved. It is a justification “by grace through faith” completely apart from the works of fallen man — whether preceding or following salvation. Works enter into this justification only to the extent that Christ performed the works on man’s behalf, and man can be justified only by receiving that which Christ has already done.
Justification by works, on the other hand, is based entirely upon the actions of those who have already been justified by faith, those who have been justified on the basis of Christ’s finished work. “Faith” itself is not part of justification by works. There is no such thing in Scripture as a justification by faith and works. There is a justification by faith alone, and there is a justification by works alone; but there is no such thing as a justification resulting from a combination of the two.
It is true that works emanate out of faith. And it would be equally true that a different type of works, on the other hand, would emanate out of unfaithfulness (James 2:14-26). All Christians will be judged on the basis of that emanating out of one or the other. They will be judged either on the basis of that which emanated out of their faithfulness or on the basis of that which emanated out of their unfaithfulness. That is, they will be judged on the basis of their prior reaction to faith, which will have to do with either their prior faithfulness or their prior unfaithfulness. And, emanating out of the former or out of the latter will be a revelation of works at the judgment seat comparable to either “gold, silver, precious stones” or “wood, hay, straw.”
In justification by faith, it is the work of another (Person) that makes possible justification on the basis of faith alone; in justification by works, it is faithfulness on the part of those who have already been justified by faith that not only results in works but makes possible justification on the basis of works alone.
In this respect, the type of works resulting in justification by works emanate from one’s faithfulness to his calling; and works of this nature, in turn, bring faith to its proper goal. And the goal of faith, brought to this point as a result of works, is the salvation of one’s soul — the salvation associated with justification by works (cf. James 2:22; 1 Peter 1:9).
Thus, justification by faith is based entirely upon Christ’s righteous, justifying act — His finished work at Calvary (Romans 5:16, 18); and justification by works is based entirely upon the “righteous acts of the saints” — the works of those having previously been justified by faith, through the work of Another (Revelation 19:8, ASV).
The word translated “righteous acts” (“righteousness,” KJV) is plural in the Greek text (dikaiomata) and cannot refer to the imputed righteousness of Christ possessed by every Christian (which is a singular righteousness). Dikaiomata in this verse can only have to do with the works of saved individuals (the same word, appearing in the singular, is translated “justification” and “righteousness” in Romans 5:16, 18 [referring to justification by faith, made possible through Christ’s finished work at Calvary]; and a cognate verb [from dikaioo] is translated “justified” in James 2:24 [referring to both justification by faith and justification by works]).
The “righteous acts of the saints” — justifying acts of the saints — emanate out of faith (faithfulness to one’s calling). And these acts alone will result in justification by works.
The type of works possessed by every Christian will be revealed “by [in] fire” at the judgment seat. Works emanating out of faith will be revealed as works comparable to “gold, silver, precious stones.” And works of this nature will bring about three things:
1) Justification by works (i.e., a justification on the basis of works that will have emanated out of faithfulness [James 2:14-26]).
2) Provide the Christian with a wedding garment (made up of the righteous acts of the saints [Revelation 19:7, 8]).
3) Bring faith to its proper goal (which will result in the salvation of the soul [1 Peter 1:4-9]).
An individual having been justified by works will appear in Christ’s presence properly clothed. He will possess a wedding garment; and, consequently, he will be in a position to participate in the activities attendant the bride. Having denied himself, taken up his cross, and followed Christ, he will realize the salvation of his soul (Matthew 16:24-27). And he will be among those who will occupy positions as joint-heirs with Christ in the kingdom.
An individual having failed to be justified by works will appear in Christ’s presence improperly clothed. He will not possess a wedding garment; and, consequently, he will not only be naked but also ashamed (cf. Revelation 3:15, 17, 18; note “works” [v. 15], “naked” [v. 17], and “shame” [v. 18]).
Lacking a wedding garment, he will be in no position to participate in the activities attendant the bride. Having saved his life (soul) — living for self, rather than having lost his life (soul) for Christ's sake during the present day of trials and testing (Matthew 16:25) — he will not realize the salvation of his life (soul) in that coming day. Faith will not have been brought to its proper goal; and, as a result, he will not be among those who will occupy positions as co-heirs with Christ in the kingdom.
(Saving one’s life, living for self, has to do with allowing the self-life [the soulical man] with all its fleshly desires, appetites, etc. to control oneself [in opposition to Matthew 16:24]; losing one’s life for Christ’s sake, on the other hand, has to do with bringing the self-life [the soulical man] with all its fleshly desires, appetites, etc. under subjection to the spiritual man [cf. Genesis 16:9; Galatians 4:21-31], taking up one’s cross, and following Christ [in accord with Matthew 16:24].)
Terror of the Lord
Faithfulness to one’s calling, the righteous acts of the saints (the wedding garment, the covering associated with works emanating out of faithfulness, providing a justification by works), and the salvation of the soul are all intimately related and have to do with issues surrounding the judgment seat. Scripture deals with this overall subject on a far broader scale than many realize. Romans 14:10; 1 Corinthians 3:11-15; and 2 Corinthians 5:10, 11 are only three of many passages dealing, either directly or indirectly, with the judgment seat in the New Testament. From the parables in the gospel of Matthew (e.g., 22:1-14; 24:40-25:30) to the opening chapters of the book of Revelation, the New Testament is replete with information concerning things related to the judgment seat.
According to 2 Corinthians 5:11, the judgment seat is the place where “the terror of the Lord” will be manifested. The word “terror” in this verse is a translation of the Greek word phobos, referring to “that which causes fear, terror, apprehension.” This is the same word translated “fearful” in Hebrews l0:31 (“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”), another reference to events at the judgment seat.
Actually, Hebrews 10:30, 31 forms a parallel reference to 2 Corinthians 5:10, 11, and the preceding verses (vv. 26-29) provide additional information concerning that facet of the judgment seat associated with “the terror of the Lord.”
Note how this entire section in Hebrews chapter ten begins:
For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge [Greek: epignosis, mature knowledge] of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,
but a certain fearful [Greek: phoberos, a cognate of phobos] expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation that will devour the adversaries. (vv. 26, 27)
That Christians, rather than the unredeemed, are in view is evident. The verses introducing this passage (vv. 19-25) deal with Christians alone (“Having therefore, brethren, boldness . . . .” [v. 19]), and there is no change in the identity of those addressed beginning with verse twenty-six.
The word “we,” appearing twice in this verse, shows that the writer is talking about himself and other Christians, continuing without a break in the overall continuity of thought from the preceding verses. Further, the word “knowledge” in this verse is a translation of the Greek word epignosis, showing that these individuals had acquired a mature knowledge of the truth (“after we have received the knowledge [mature knowledge] of the truth”).
Gnosis is the regular Greek word for “knowledge,” and epignosis is an intensified form of this word (through a preposition being prefixed to the word), referring to “a mature knowledge.” Only redeemed individuals possess saved spirits into which the Word of God can be received; and only redeemed individuals possess the indwelling Holy Spirit who can take the Word of God, after it has been received into their saved human spirits, and lead them into “all truth” (resulting first in gnosis, but leading into epignosis). None of this is possible for the unredeemed, for they possess no means to either receive or rightly divide the Word of God.
The “things of the Spirit of God,” revealed through the Word of God (John 16:13-15), are “foolishness” to the unredeemed; they cannot “know [gnosis]” these things, for these things “are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). The unredeemed man, the soulical man, cannot even come into a rudimentary understanding (gnosis) of the things revealed through the Spirit of God, much less a mature understanding, referred to by the word epignosis (note also the word “illuminated” in v. 32. This is from the same Greek word translated “enlightened” in Hebrews 6:4, which, drawing from the type in chapters 3 and 4, can refer only to the saved).
Thus, there can be no room for controversy concerning exactly who is in view in Hebrews 10:26ff. Drawing from both the text and the context, the passage can be understood only one way — a passage of Scripture dealing with the saved alone.
(Epignosis in v. 26, as it is used throughout the epistles, is often seen having a peculiar relationship to knowledge as it pertains to the Word of the Kingdom. And, contextually [from vv. 23-25], that is the relationship seen in this verse through the use of epignosis. Then, also contextually, it is only those who have come into this mature knowledge of the Word of the Kingdom who are able to commit the particular sin in view.)
Christ provided Himself as the sacrifice for sin, His blood is today on the mercy seat in heaven, and He is presently occupying the office of High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary on behalf of sinning Christians. Christ is presently performing a cleansing from defilement for Christians who sin, and all a Christian needs to do in order to avail himself of this provided cleansing is to confess his sin. When he does this, cleansing will occur (1 John 1:9).
The willful sin of Hebrews 10:26 results in defilement, as does any sin. But, a different situation exists with this sin. This verse states that no sacrifice exists for those who sin after the manner dealt with by the verse, which separates it from Christ’s present ministry.
How does this sin differ from any other sin that Christians can commit? Is it possible that this sin could somehow be brought under Christ’s present ministry and confessed, with forgiveness resulting from the person's confession? If so, “How?” If not, “Why not?”
1) Christ’s Present Ministry
To properly understand the willful sin, for several reasons (one reason being contextual), it should be viewed, first of all, in the light of the present high priestly ministry of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary. Note the context of Hebrews 10:26 (vv. 19-22) and also 1 John 1:6-2:2. The “blood” of Christ is presently on the mercy seat in the “holiest [Holy of Holies]” of the heavenly sanctuary; and a “new and living way” of access has been provided through the One who shed this blood, our “High Priest over the house of God.”
The blood of Christ, presently on the mercy seat of the heavenly sanctuary, “cleanses [keeps on cleansing]” Christians who have become defiled (through sin) as they “walk [keep on walking] in the light” (1 John 1:7; cf. Hebrews 10:22). It is impossible for the ones walking in the light to occupy a position other than being cleansed from sin; but, viewing the other side of the picture, it is entirely possible for Christians to not walk in the light, in which case there will be no cleansing.
To understand exactly what is meant by walking in the light, one must draw from the typology of the tabernacle. The light was provided by a seven-leafed golden candlestick inside the Holy Place where the priests carried on part of their ministry, and the only way that these priests were permitted to enter the Holy Place and walk in this light was through a previous cleansing at the brazen laver in the courtyard.
This laver lay between the brazen altar and the Holy Place and had upper and lower basins for washing the hands and feet. The entire bodies of these priests had been washed upon their entrance into the priesthood (Exodus 29:4; 40:12-15) — an act never to be repeated — but in their subsequent ministry, it was necessary to avail themselves of partial washings at the laver. Their hands and feet became soiled in their ministry, and these parts of the body had to be cleansed prior to entering the Holy Place (Exodus 30:18-21; 40:30-32).
Exactly the same thing holds true for Christians, New Testament priests, in the antitype today. Christians have received a complete washing (received at the point of the birth from above, upon their entrance into the priesthood) — an act never to be repeated.
But, as the Old Testament priests, they must now avail themselves of partial washings in their ministry. And this is seen in the type through the actions of Old Testament priests washing at the laver.
This is what Jesus alluded to in John 13:8, 10: “If I do not wash [Greek: nipto, referring to a part of the body (the Septuagint uses this same word in Exodus 30:19, 21)] you, you have no part with me [note: not ‘in me,’ but ‘with me’]”; and “He who is washed [Greek: louo, (‘bathed’ in the NKJV) referring to the entire body (the Septuagint uses this same word in Exodus 29:4; 40:12)] needs only to wash [Greek: nipto] his feet . . . .” This is also what is alluded to in Hebrews 10:22 and 1 John 1:7.
Old Testament priests whose hands and feet had become soiled through activity in the courtyard could not bypass the laver and proceed on to the Holy Place. Nor can New Testament priests. New Testament priests must first, as the Old Testament priests, avail themselves of cleansing. Defilement in the Christians’ case comes through contact with sin; and cleansing, according to the context of 1 John 1:7, is accomplished through confession of sin:
If we confess our sins, He [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (v. 9)
And this cleansing is accomplished solely on the basis of Christ’s shed blood on the mercy seat in the heavenly sanctuary:
My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate [Greek: parakletos, one called alongside to help in time of need] with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
And He Himself is the propitiation [Greek: hilasmos, (God appeased, through Christ’s work on the basis of His shed blood on the mercy seat)] for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world [contextually, a reference to all of the saved in the world, not the unsaved (a cleansing for Christians alone is in view; the unsaved and eternal salvation are not in view at all in these verses)]. (1 John 2:1, 2)
Thus, the ones walking in the light in 1 John 1:7 are Christians who have availed themselves of the provision in 1 John 1:9. As they continue walking in the light (continue availing themselves of this provision, allowing continued access to the Holy Place), the blood of Christ continues cleansing them from “all sin.”
And a Christian refusing to avail himself of provided cleansing today is seen walking in darkness. He has not come to the laver and, consequently, can only remain in the darkened courtyard outside the light in the Holy Place. He has refused confession of sin; he has refused the cleansing provided by Christ. And for such an individual, in reality, “there remains no more sacrifice for sins.” That is, there is no sacrifice for those refusing the sacrifice that God has provided in the person of His Son.
Thus, contextually (Hebrews 10:19-22), one might think that the willful sin in verse twenty-six (for which there is no sacrifice) would be a Christian’s refusal to avail himself of Christ’s present high priestly ministry. In this respect, there would be no sacrifice for his unconfessed sins (for a Christian refusing to confess his sins would be refusing the provided sacrifice).
2) But . . . .
But Christians harboring sins of the flesh and refusing to confess these sins cannot possibly be that which they are warned against in Hebrews 10:26. This verse continues the thought from the immediately preceding verses (vv. 23-25), and this thought has nothing whatsoever with Christians confessing (or not confessing) their sins.
Nor can the willful sin in this verse be thought of in the broad sense of sins committed by Christians in a willful, or a deliberate, or a knowing manner. If the truth were known, it could probably easily be shown that most sins committed by Christians would fall into a singular category — things which Christians knew were sins before they committed them, knew were sins during the time in which they were committing them, and knew were sins after they had committed them.
The only possible way to properly understand the willful sin in Hebrews 10:26, for which there is no sacrifice, is to view this sin, contextually, within the book of Hebrews where it is found. If this is not done, a person will invariably go wrong at this point in Scripture.
Note first that all of the warnings in Hebrews are closely related, drawing heavily from the Old Testament types. The second warning (chapters 3 & 4) draws from the account of the Israelites under Moses, and the same thought is continued in the third warning (6:4ff), relating the matter to Christians.
In both the type (chapters 3 & 4 [second warning]) and the antitype (chapter 6 [third warning]), the sin referenced in the fourth warning (10:26ff) is present. The Israelites under Moses committed a sin for which there was no sacrifice (second warning), and Christians today can commit exactly the same sin, with the same result following (third warning). Then the fourth warning continues with thoughts pertaining to this sin; and the matter has to do with “so great salvation” (chapter 2 [first warning]), resulting in “blessings” associated with the "birthright" (chapter 12 [fifth warning]).
That is the broad contextual scope of the matter. The Israelites, in the type, through their actions at Kadesh-Barnea — refusing to go in and take the land to which they had been called — committed a sin for which there was no sacrifice. And, with there being no sacrifice for this sin, God didn't, He couldn't, change His mind concerning that which He had decreed pertaining to the matter.
And Christians, in the antitype, can commit exactly the same sin relative to the heavenly land to which they have been called. And, as in the type, no sacrifice exists for such a sin. As in the type, God won’t, He can’t change His mind concerning that which He has decreed pertaining to this sin, if committed by His people today.
This is plain from that which is stated in Hebrews 6:2-4, again drawing from the type in chapters three and four — ‘For it is impossible . . . if they shall fall away, to renew them again to repentance . . . .” (Reference the author’s book, Let Us Go On, chapter 5).
Then note that the reference to this sin is the continuation of a text having to do with a central purpose for Christians assembling together during the present dispensation — whether on Sunday at a regular meeting place, or at any other time or place during the week (vv. 23-25). The particular purpose given in the text is singular: Christians meeting together in order to exhort and encourage one another concerning the hope set before each one of them (“profession of our faith” [v. 23, KJV] should be translated, “confession of our hope”). And this hope set before every Christian is the hope that they might one day realize the very thing to which they have been called — win a crown in the present race of the faith and, as a result, occupy a regal position with Christ in that coming day of His power.
In short, Christians are exhorted to assemble together for a particular purpose, and then they are warned concerning the danger of failing to assemble together on a regular basis for this purpose. They can either find mutual strength in the race of the faith through assembling together, or they can fail to assemble for this mutual strength and find themselves in danger of falling away and becoming involved in that which Scripture refers to as willful sin.
The willful sin, simply put, has to do with apostasy, after one has come into a mature knowledge of the things surrounding the hope set before Christians — something seen in the type in the second warning and in the antitype in the third warning. And committing this sin will result in a Christian failing to come into possession of so great salvation (first warning), synonymous with failing to realize the rights of the firstborn (fifth warning).
Numbers 15:30, 31, immediately following the account of the Israelites refusal to enter into the land at Kadesh-Barnea (chapters 13 & 14), deals with God’s statement concerning a sin for which there was no sacrifice. And an example of such a sin — a man violating the Sabbath — immediately follows God’s instructions concerning the matter.
God’s statement concerning a sin for which there was no sacrifice in this passage had to do with a person acting in open rebellion, followed by his being cut off from the people of Israel (which was exactly what occurred at and following the events at Kadesh-Barnea). And the contextual example not only had to do with the experiences of the Israelites, beginning at Kadesh-Barnea (chapters 13 & 14), but it also had to do with a man violating the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36).
As with the Israelites at Kadesh-Barnea, so with the man violating the Sabbath. There was no sacrifice for the sin committed by either. Rather, in both instances, the Lord commanded that a sentence of death was to be carried out. And, resulting, an entire accountable generation died on the one hand, and a man was taken outside the camp and stoned on the other.
The land set before Christians is associated with a rest, a Sabbath rest, drawing from Genesis 2:1-3 (Hebrews 4:4-9). And a Christian turning his back on this land (after coming into a mature knowledge of the things surrounding the land) would be doing exactly the same thing which the Israelites under Moses did at Kadesh-Barnea (after hearing the report concerning the land by the twelve spies). Then, in another respect, such a Christian would be doing violence to that which God had to say about the Sabbath rest set before the people of God, in a similar respect to the man violating the Sabbath in Numbers 15:32-36 (for the Sabbath was given to Israel as a sign [Exodus 31:13-17]).
The Sabbath was a sign pointing to a day of rest following God’s present six days of work. As God rested on the seventh day after working six days to restore a past ruined creation (the material creation) — establishing an unchangeable, foundational pattern — He is going to rest on a seventh day (a 1,000-year day) after working six days (six 6,000-year days) to restore two present ruined creations (both man and the material creation once again).
Thus, drawing from both Numbers 13-15 and Hebrews 3, 4, 6, it can easily be shown how Christians, in Hebrews 10:26ff, can sin willfully today. They can do so through only one means: coming into a mature knowledge of the truth surrounding their calling, and then apostatizing (turning away from this truth).
Any Christian committing such an act will have done three things: (1) “trodden under foot the Son of God,” (2) considered the blood of Christ “an unholy [a common] thing,” and (3) insulted “the Spirit of grace” (v. 29). God places the willful sin in a category of this nature simply because of the high place in which He holds that which He has stated concerning the coming reign of His Son. And, according to Scripture, any Christian coming into a mature knowledge of that which God has stated in this realm, and then turning away — apostatizing — has only one thing awaiting him: “a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries” (v. 27).
Then note how verses thirty and thirty-one of Hebrews chapter ten parallel 2 Corinthians 5:10, 11:
For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. And again, “The Lord shall judge His people.”
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Events of the judgment seat will be one of the most terrible times many Christians will ever experience, for Christians who have refused to follow the Spirit’s leadership during the present day and time will, at the judgment seat, “fall into the hands of the living God.” Such Christians will find it to be a “fearful,” “terrible” experience, for there the “terror of the Lord” will be manifested, and a completely just recompense will be meted out.