“For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, become partakers of the Holy Spirit, tasted the good word of God and the miracles of the coming age, and then have committed apostasy, to renew them again to repentance, since they are crucifying the Son of God for themselves all over again and holding him up to contempt.”
Sometimes, the Bible is a frightening book. While many, many passages assure the reader there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love, that God’s mercy is never ending, and that the salvation offered through Jesus knows no limits, every once in a while we run into a few verses like these ones. We read them, and we begin to doubt.
Have I ever become apostate?
Where is the line of apostasy?
If I’ve ever crossed that line, does it mean my life is hopeless?
Frightening as it may be when read in isolation, this passage is really trying to offer its readers hope.
Ancient Christian commentaries on Hebrews are almost unanimous in their interpretation of these three verses: they are not about the possibility of “losing your salvation.” That is a very modern concept. Rather, these verses are attempting to describe the efficacy of baptism.
The practice of baptism among religious people in the ancient world was a repetitive thing. Baptize means “to wash,” and it referred to the practice of ceremonially washing oneself before worship in one’s temple. As such, it was a recurring process. Every time you went to the temple, you had to wash yourself once again.
For Christians, though, baptism took on a different meaning. The baptism of Jesus was not a repetitive washing of the outward self. It was a once-for-all cleansing of a person’s very essence. A complete – and completely effective – washing of their very soul.
The writer of Hebrews is trying to make a point about just how comprehensive the power of baptism is. Some among his recipients are wondering if they ought to be repeatedly baptized, like they used to be before they followed Jesus, and he is saying “no.” And to show how adamant his “no” is, he describes what was seen as an extreme situation: imagine, if you will, someone who has been baptized, but then walks away from the faith altogether, even coming to oppose Christianity. If that person then turns back around and begins to follow Christ once again, should they be subject to a second baptism? No. They should no more be re-baptized than Jesus should be re-crucified. Christ’s atonement was a once-for-all thing, and so was your baptism. There is no limit to its effect.
This may seem like a very technical explanation, but in 2017, it makes a world of difference. As time has passed, that seemingly extreme notion of a baptized person abandoning the Christian faith has become commonplace. And there are no shortage of religious people using passages like Hebrews 6:4-6 to try and insist that anyone who does such a thing is damned. For the author of Hebrews, though, and for his early audience, nothing could be further from the truth. There is no distance you can stray which will put you outside God’s reach; no way to outrun God’s love; no set of actions which can erase the power of your baptism.
No matter where you find yourself on life’s journey, Jesus is there with you, providing yet another opportunity for you to change your course and follow him.
Will you follow Jesus today?