“For it is impossible to renew to repentance those who were once enlightened, who tasted the heavenly gift, who shared in the Holy Spirit, who tasted God’s good word and the powers of the coming age, and who have fallen away. This is because, to their own harm, they are recrucifying the Son of God and holding him up to contempt. For the ground that drinks the rain that often falls on it and that produces vegetation useful to those for whom it is cultivated receives a blessing from God. But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless and about to be cursed, and at the end will be burned.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
There is a school in my district that is a choice school. What this means is that anyone can go to it in the whole district. It has an application process, and they don’t have to accept everyone who applies, but it technically has an open enrollment to any students whose parents are interested in their experiencing the unique educational approach it offers. This sounds great, but there’s a catch. If you choose to go to the school and then choose to leave the school, you can’t come back. If you have tasted what the school has to offer and choose to go back to your regularly-districted school, that’s it. You won’t be able to come back for a second round. In one of the most uncomfortable passages of Scripture in the entire New Testament, the author of Hebrews says the Christian faith is kind of like that. Let’s talk about it.
We live in a day in which “deconversion stories” are a popular thing among a certain crowd. These often come from folks who have been around the church for some amount of time – more likely longer than shorter. In each instance, the person has been quietly, privately drifting away from the Lord. They may have preceded this drifting from the Lord by drifting from the church or from other Christian friends or family members. It could be a moral failing of some kind has been the trigger. Sometimes a particular political position or issue has a strong claim on being the culprit. Whatever the reason, though, at some point they make a big show on social media of their leaving the faith behind.
With only a few exceptions, the person is instantly celebrated by a deeply sympathetic media that largely considers the Christian faith a museum piece from the past that deserves to have been left there. They are given a much bigger platform than they arguably deserve in order for them to point fingers at all the flaws they see in the church and in Christians generally – flaws that are generally the result of a single church or denomination getting the faith wrong and not anything meaningfully wrong with the faith itself.
A couple of the most high profile of these deconversions lately have been Joshua Harris, the author of the book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and Kevin Max, formerly a member of the iconic Christian music trio, D.C. Talk. Whether the deconversion comes from someone known publicly as a Christian or someone whose claim was a bit more privately held, though, the question that always echoes in my mind when I hear of stories like these is this: Did they really ever believe in the first place?
Now, let me qualify that question by making it clear that trying to answer such a question is nearly impossible. In each of these instances it is clear that the person at the very least felt sufficiently committed to the Christian faith that announcing their departure from it made sense as a thing to do. That their claims are treated as newsworthy in any way suggests a critical mass of people believed them to be honestly committed such that the departure is a surprise of sorts. Of course, the other part of their being treated as newsworthy comes from the fact that, again, a media which is generally increasingly and passionately opposed to the Christian faith is predisposed to highlight people’s leaving it behind whether or not they give any credence to the worldview.
And yet…I would be lying if I said I understood how someone who had truly experienced the presence of God in Christ Jesus, and who received a genuine taste of eternal life could leave it behind for…anything else. I haven’t personally experienced any kind of a crisis of faith to this point in life to give me anything that resembles a reference point for grasping such a total worldview shift. Maybe that day will yet come. I don’t suppose these folks imagined leaving their faith behind before they reached that point themselves. For Harris and Max, their whole personal brands were rooted in their profession of faith in Christ before turning their backs on it.
That being said, I don’t think I’m in lonely company in wondering about such things. The author of Hebrews seems to be struggling with it here too. His thoughts on the matter aren’t easy to hear. He has been talking to his audience about the importance of growing in their faith rather than lazily remaining baby believers long beyond a point by which they could have reasonably been expected to start growing. At the beginning of chapter 6, which we looked at last week, he laid out a series of foundational doctrines whose basic contours they should have all had down pat so they could move on to higher and bigger concepts.
After emphasizing the importance of growth, though, he lands here in his very next breath. If you start off down this path, but turn around and give it up, you won’t be able to walk it a second time. Perhaps to put that another way: the faith is a one-shot deal. Once you have it, if you walk away from it, there’s no going back. That idea should send chills down our spine. This should not necessarily be for ourselves – although we don’t want to totally discount that particular discomfort – but rather for people we know who have flirted with or even taken this path. This verse should terrify parents who raised their children in the church only to watch with horror as they turned their back on everything they’d ever been taught after their first semester in college.
I think there are three ways we need to interact with what the author of Hebrews writes here. First, let’s simply take what he says at face value. If you experience the eternal life available in Christ in some form or fashion but turn your back on it, “it is impossible to [be renewed] to repentance.” We’ll talk interpretations in a second. That’s simply what he wrote. Verse 6 gives the reason. If you have accepted Jesus’ death on the cross to pay the price for your sins, but later decided that death really didn’t pay the price for your sins, that’s a problem. It could be you became convinced you didn’t really have any sins to be paid for in the first place. It could be you decided His death wasn’t sufficient. You may have even accepted one of the crackpot theories that it didn’t happen in the first place. Whatever the reason, if you accept the crucifixion and subsequently reject the crucifixion, to go back and say, “never mind,” isn’t an option. If your initial belief was genuine and your rejection was genuine, it would be like you are crucifying Him again. You are treating Jesus’ death like something common that you can take off and put back on again as a matter of convenience. That’s not going to fly with His Dad.
This brings up an obvious and rather glaring question: Did the author of Hebrews think this falling away was a meaningful danger for his audience? I think the answer to that is no. A couple of verses later he expresses his confidence that they aren’t on this dark path. So, why give the warning? This is that second point of interaction. He gives the warning because he wants them to understand the importance of their growing in their faith. We often treat the idea of discipleship and the pursuit of intentional growth in our relationship with Jesus as a fairly light matter. We can take it or leave it and it won’t make too much of a difference either way. I mean, sure, on the whole, growing is better than not, but if things go south for a bit, it’s not the end of the world. I think the author’s original audience was inclined in the same direction in their thinking about their own growth in the faith. They had started following Jesus, and just like following any of the other gods of this world doesn’t really require anything of us beyond mere intellectual assent to the truth claims they make, they assumed following Jesus basically worked the same way.
The author responds by essentially cranking the urgency dial up to eleven because he wants them to understand that growing in their faith in Christ and their understanding of the Christian worldview is actually of vital importance. Every single decision we make shapes us in one direction or another. Because of the sin loose in our hearts and minds, though, the inertial pull we experience is in the direction of the world. We naturally move away from Jesus by the decisions we make. Even once we have started following Jesus, we still feel that tug away from Him and toward belonging to ourselves and fulfilling our own desires. If we do not actively, intentionally, constantly move ourselves toward Jesus, we will be moving away from Him. There’s no such thing as level ground here. There is no happy balance point. The table tilts one way or the other. Someone who makes a profession of faith in Jesus, but who never takes any meaningful steps toward Jesus is not going to slide naturally toward Jesus. The opposite will occur. What the author is fairly well shouting at them here is this: If you really meant that and you walked away from it, there’s no going back to it.
That, though, just brings us back to that original tension: Is this really true? If you start following Jesus and quit following Jesus, can you really not go back to following Him? Is salvation a permanent state of affairs, or is it something we can take off and put back on again? Calvinists argue firmly for the former, while Arminianists insist on the latter. The truth, I think, is that they are both wrong. The author of Hebrews here seems to hold to the idea that someone could, in theory, walk away from the faith once they have it. Now, while I personally lean more in the direction of the Calvinist response that such a person never really believed in the first place, I also recognize that it’s tough to make that argument in anything but the abstract. To stand face to face with someone like Joshua Harris and argue that he never really believed all the things he said when he was a younger man, passionately committed to a relationship with Jesus, would be a tough position to hold. You can try it, but when he comes back with the rejoinder, “Yes, I did,” the best you can come up with in response is, “I don’t think so,” which doesn’t resolve the matter at all.
On the other hand, for Arminianists who insist you can do something like rededicate your life later on, after falling away from your faith, these verses offer a pretty strong rejection of such an idea. Maybe you can walk away from the faith once you have it, but the author of Hebrews here is pretty firm on the fact that there’s no going back at that point. If you truly reject it after embracing it, you’re done. That, of course, just leaves us trying to argue that someone who claims to have rejected their faith hasn’t really rejected it. In other words, both sides of this debate are left in the position of having to question or otherwise outright deny the personal claims made by other people for whom they have no basis for doing so in order to justify their positions.
I think the truth falls here: What the author of Hebrews is describing here is an extreme situation. I think we should take his warning at face value. If someone genuinely following Jesus were to genuinely reject their faith in Him, there’s no going back for them. Has that kind of thing ever really happened in the history of the church? Perhaps. We don’t know. And that’s part of the point here. We can’t know. We don’t know what’s going on in another person’s heart. That’s not a matter for us to judge. I suspect there are not a few people who “rejected” a faith their parents believed them to have but which they had never really made their own. If they later returned to the church, they weren’t actually returning to a relationship with Jesus, but rather entering into one for the first time. I suspect there are not a few followers of Jesus who, though absolutely sincere in their commitment to Him, ran into a buzz saw of life experiences that sent them on a spiral through sin that made not a few of their friends and family members fearing they’d left their faith behind. Their subsequent return wasn’t a return from a lack of faith, but rather a repentance from a season of wandering. They never really stopped believing, they simply lost sight of Him for a season.
This passage isn’t addressed to either of those situations. It is not something we are invited to use to look into the lives of the people around us and judge what we see there. It is a call for us to examine our own hearts to make sure we are where we need to be in our own journeys with Jesus. So then, where are you on your own journey with Jesus? Are you growing? Are you taking the gifts He has poured into you and producing fruit? Or are you letting them go to waste? If you want for these verses to accomplish what their author intended for them, then use them to evaluate your own relationship with Jesus to make sure it is something more than mere sentiment and warm feelings. Commit now to growing every single day to become more fully who He designed you to be to His glory and your joy. Nothing else will get them right.
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