One of our favorite family activities is to occasionally go to the mall to catch a quick bite and a movie. While in the food court at the mall, my kids love to casually stroll by “tasters” out front of the different eateries offering pieces of food on a toothpick. You know you do it too! When my kids take that piece of orange chicken or the little smoothie cup they are tasting the food – sampling it – not sitting down and taking in a whole meal.
In Hebrews 6 we see the following teaching:
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (Hebrews 6:4-6 ESV)
These verses were asked about recently in our series on Romans when several questions were raised about the possibility of losing one’s salvation. This is one of the “go to” passages in the Bible for those who believe you can lose your salvation. For me, when studying the theological topic of assurance, the primary issue isn’t really about losing our salvation but asking if we ever had it in the first place. Dealing with the Hebrews 6 passage specifically, we have to determine what the key words, “enlightened,” “tasted,” “shared,” and “fallen away” are referring to.
Some will argue that those who have been enlightened by and tasted of the Holy Spirit, God’s Word, and the Gospel have been saved, so therefore falling away means that they lost their salvation. But similar to my children sampling a piece of chicken on a toothpick, these words refer more accurately to those who became intellectually aware and exposed to the Gospel (enlightened), experienced the Holy Spirit’s work in the body of Christ (tasted) and were even temporarily part of the Christian community and experienced the blessings that come with the interaction of the body of Christ (shared). To connect these key words to salvation, conversion, genuine belief, regeneration, repentance and transformation is an overly-liberal application to their meaning and context.
Enlightened means made aware but does not imply belief. Tasting is a form of experiencing, not repenting. You can receive the Gospel truth and not believe the Gospel truth. You can share in the understanding of information without it moving you to conversion and transformation. You can even profess faith in Christ and not actually posses faith in Chris (Matthew 7:21). And such was the condition of “those” who heard and experienced the Gospel of Christ and the moving of the Holy Spirit among the community of believers. They dated Jesus but didn’t marry Him. They dipped their toe in the water but didn’t jump in. They sampled the chicken on the toothpick but didn’t buy the meal.
John Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that these who fall away laid hold to the “shadow” instead of the “substance.” God warns that once they fall away and abandon what they initially heard, embraced, and experienced, they will not come back to a place of repentance and belief. They have entered a state of continued rejection of Jesus Christ fueled by a hardness of their heart and an indifference to the act of salvation and forgiveness accomplished by Christ on the cross. To them, who Jesus is and what He did is irrelevant and meaningless.
So as mentioned before, they did not lose their salvation but actually never had it. They are those that the Apostle John mentioned: They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us (1 John 2:19 ESV). Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, shares a great example of someone who fits this very profile (p. 794). Judas was enlightened, he tasted and shared of God’s gifts and Spirit under the very leadership of Jesus Himself! Even though he followed Jesus for three years, in the end it became evident that there was no genuine faith in the heart of Judas.
He is the ideal case study of Hebrews 6:4-6. But for those of us who have genuine belief and trust in who Jesus is and what He did through the crucifixion and resurrection to redeem and restore man, we can walk in assurance and in confidence that we are forgiven in Christ, new in Christ, and made right with God in Christ. In fact, if you read a few verses further in Hebrews 6, you see that we are, “to have the full assurance of hope until the end” (Hebrews 6:11) not a partial assurance with insecure hope.