Hebrews 6:4-8 It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.”
If you would like to hit the summary points, visit the short version of this article. This article will delve deeper into the evidence for my translation of the above passage. As a quick summary however I will render this passage in a language I can understand and then explain how I got to that translation.
Jon Paul’s version: It is impossible for those who have heard and been invited into God’s promised rest, if they ignore His gift to be brought back to repentance from their useless rituals so long as they suppose that Jesus’s death was ineffective or must be offered over and over like their other animal sacrifices both subjecting him to shame and doing themselves detriment. Works that come from love spurred by faith are useful to God and obtain a blessing. But, the useless deeds and rituals of the old covenant are worthless to God. In the end they will be burned.
Explaining this passage requires us to understand the heart of the book of Hebrews since it is a main point the author is making. So what was the point of Hebrews?
Imagine you had grown up your whole life as a jew under the law, obeying every rule and being careful to follow God’s word. And imagine that when you had done wrong you were required to offer a sacrifice and cleansing in order to be right with God or God would punish you for your sins. Every time you offered those sacrifices they would intimately remind you of how often you had failed God. Even though it would provide temporary forgiveness, it would do so always reminding you of sin and leave your conscience full of guilt. Your whole life you had been required to perform these deeds and suddenly a man named Jesus had come in and offered a once and for all sacrifice for sins that was supposed to forgive all your sins for all time and void the need for offering sacrifices. Now let’s suppose you began to believe in this Jesus but your friends and family didn’t. They rejected you, threw you in prison, or persecuted you for your faith. They said things like, “If you don’t offer your sacrifice God will not forgive you. Do you want to withstand God’s punishment?”
This was the situation some of these Hebrews found themselves in. They were not sure that they could trust in what this one man Jesus had done and figured they needed to continue to perform the law and do rituals to make themselves right with God.
The intent of the letter of Hebrews is to declare the supremacy of Christ and his once and for all sacrifice, the need to no longer perform those rituals, and to encourage these jews to continue strong in their faith.
The author does this by taking them back to a time in their history when they faced a similar situation.
Entering God’s rest
Remember the story of Moses and how he lead the Israelites out of Egypt? It has many similarities to our faith in Christ. The land of Egypt may represent how we were held in bondage under the control of sin. Passing through the red sea represents how we were baptized into Christ’s death. And entering the promise land represents how we are to enter God’s rest. The author of Hebrews uses this story to illustrate what our new covenant is like.
Hebrews 3:16-19 Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies perished in the wilderness? And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.
Do you recall the story? The Israelites were promised a wonderful land that God would give them. A land full of blessings they did not earn (Deuteronomy 6:10-11). But when it came time to actually enter the land, the Israelites saw the giants and didn’t believe God could overcome them and so instead of entering the promise land they doubted and never entered God’s promise.
Likewise the jews in the time of Jesus were seeing the persecution that awaited them for their faith and they were afraid of entering into God’s rest. They were seeing their giants.
So what does the promise land represent to us?
Hebrews 4:8-11 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.
The promise land represents the rest of God. What do we mean by rest? Look at the verse again, “for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works.” What kind of works is he talking about? Are we saying we are supposed to follow the sabbath and don’t do any manual labor on Saturday?
Not at all, this is not the literal Sabbath but rather what the Sabbath stood for and we aren’t resting from our manual labor in our career once a week but rather from our efforts to make ourselves right with God through the law.
Throughout Hebrews you will come across the phrase “dead works” or “works that lead to death.” Some translations such as the NIV include the footnote “or from useless rituals.” Upon first hearing the word you might assume it’s a fancy word for immoral sins such as lust or greed or murder. However the context of the book of Hebrews shows that it represents something less familiar to us. The old covenant rituals required by the law.
Hebrews 10:11-14 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
Hebrews 6:1 “Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God”
Here it means we are to take our faith out of our dead works and instead put faith in God or more specifically in Jesus’s death. Note: this verse immediately proceeds our passage of study leading us to infer that the same repentance he speaks of here is the same repentance he means in the passage. We can understand the author’s meaning of the phrase dead works because he continues throughout Hebrews to talk about perfection coming through Jesus’s sacrifice and not the law.
Hebrews 10:1-2 “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins.
Hebrews 9:8-9,14 The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper… How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
Notice the antecedent: the gifts and sacrifices are not able to cleanse our consciences of debt to God and so they had to keep being offered. But Christ’s blood does such a good job of making us right with God that it even clears our consciences of the need to continue performing these rituals.
Why do we need to repent of dead works?
Imagine you went on a business trip and brought a picture of your wife with you to remember her by. And before you went to bed you would kiss the photograph. Now let’s say you arrived home and your wife was with you. But instead of kissing her you continued to kiss the photograph. That would be insulting wouldn’t it? It used to have life in it but now it is dead because the actual person is there.
In the same way God has sent his beloved son to suffer and die for your sins. God had to endure his son being brutally mistreated so that by the kindness of his will you could be accepted. Now you turn around and say, “I can do a better job. I can pay for my sins by offering this sacrifice or ritual or by trying harder. Your son didn’t suffer enough for my sins.” It’s calling what he did useless and ineffective. It’s insulting the Spirit of Grace (Hebrews 10:29).
Galatians 5:4 “Christ is become of no effect to you, whoever of you are justified by the law; you are fallen from grace.”
That is the danger of dead works. Not only are they completely useless to you and God, but they actually insult Him. God has no intention of rewarding those works but in the end they will be burned and wasted away (Hebrews 6:8). This is the warning of our passage in Hebrews 6. However, the author assures us that God will not forget our labor of love of the things which are useful to God.
Hebrews 6:10 “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.”
Showing people kindness and generosity and helping people in need or things which you are not doing to make yourself right with God but you are doing out of the gratefulness of God’s love are things which are useful to God and receive a reward.
Impossible to repent
So why would the author say it’s impossible to bring us to repentance of those dead works?
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened… if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.
This has more to do with a translation error. A more correct translation in the greek would render the phrase “as long as,” something we find in the International Standard Version.
and who have fallen away, as long as they continue to crucify the Son of God to their own detriment by exposing him to public ridicule (International Standard Version).
Other translations render it as
it is impossible to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.
Several greek scholars have noted that the first statement is dependent on the second continuing to occur.
“and—a point of extreme importance which is constantly overlooked—so long as it lasts a vital renewal is impossible” (The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges).
Robert Dean Luginbill, Ph.D. – The phrase that follows in Hebrews 6:6, “crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace” (NIV), has to mean something. Furthermore, in the Greek it is actually part of the same sentence as “who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance” (NIV) – which means the two ideas are inseparably related in the actual Word of God. For that reason, to consider the first part in isolation from the first part is impossible – at least for anyone doing anything like honest exegesis. Since the two parts are interconnected, it must be the case that it is precisely because these individuals are “crucifying Christ afresh” that they cannot be restored. So what does “crucifying Christ afresh” mean? It means to continue sacrificing under the Mosaic Law and saying by one’s actions in so doing that Christ has not yet come or that His work on the cross was not effective…
In that context, taking the participle “crucifying” as temporal not only makes good sense but the best sense and the only good sense. Whether one defines the relationship as temporal or causal or conditional, however, the relative time of the participle is established by the basic rules of Greek grammar: it is a present participle, so that it must be taking place at the same time as the main verb (perfect participles have antecedent action as do aorist participles, generally speaking; present participles never do). For this reason, the essential meaning of the first half of the verse is beyond dispute. It means that the action contained in the participle “crucifying” is the problem which prevents restoration. (http://ichthys.com/mail-Hebrews-6-and-10.htm)
So then what is the author of Hebrews saying? That as long as they don’t understand the effectiveness of Jesus’ sacrifice, they will not repent of those dead works. Unless they are convinced that Jesus has fully forgiven them, that his sacrifice was once and for all and legitimate, they will not give up on their rituals. Their conscience cannot be cleansed from those dead works. This is why the author of Hebrews then continues to teach on the supremacy of Christ’s sacrifice. He believes that when these jews realize how superior Christ is to their sacrifices that they will repent of them and serve God in a way that is useful.
Hebrews 10 drills this point home.
Hebrews 10:18 “And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.”