The Apostasy of the Enlightened, and the Impossibility of Their Repentance

Taken and adapted from, “Studies in the Scriptures”
Written by, Arthur W. Pink (1886-1952)

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“For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.”—Hebrews 6:4-6

This passage is one of the most solemn in the Hebrews’ Epistle, yea, to be met with anywhere in the New Testament.

Probably few regenerate souls have read it thoughtfully without being moved to fear and trembling. Careless professors have frequently been rendered uneasy in conscience as they have heard its awe-inspiring language. It speaks of a class of persons who had been highly privileged, who had been singularly favored, but who, so far from having improved their opportunities, had wretchedly perverted them; who had brought shame and reproach on the cause of Christ; and who were in such a hopeless condition that it was “impossible to renew them again unto repentance.” Well does it become each one of us to lift up his heart to God earnestly, beseeching Him to prevent us making such a shipwreck of the faith…

The chief difficulty connected with our passage is to make sure of the class of persons who are there in view. Is the Holy Spirit here describing regenerated or unregenerated souls? The next thing is to ascertain what is meant by, “If they shall fall away.” The last, what is denoted by “It is impossible to renew them again unto repentance.” Anticipating our exposition, we are fully assured that the “falling away” that is here spoken of signifies a deliberate, complete, and final repudiation of Christ—a sin for which there is no forgiveness…

…To prepare the way for our exposition of these verses, the contents of which have so sorely puzzled many, let us recall once more the condition of soul into which these Hebrew Christians had fallen. They had “become dull of hearing” (5:11), “unskillful in the word of righteousness” (5:13), unable to feed upon “strong meat” (5:14). This state was fraught with the most dangerous consequences. “The Hebrews had become lukewarm, negligent, and sluggish. The Gospel, once clearly seen and dearly loved by them, had become to them dull and vague; the persecutions and contempt of their countrymen a grievous burden, under which they groaned and under which they did not enjoy fellowship with the Lord Jesus. Darkness, doubt, gloom, indecision, and consequently a walk in which the power of Christ’s love was not manifest, characterized them. Now, if they continued in this state, what else could be the result but apostasy? Forgetfulness, if continued, must end in rejection, apathy in antipathy, unfaithfulness in infidelity.

“Such was their danger. And if they yielded to it, their state was hopeless. No other Gospel remains to be preached, no other power to rescue and raise them. They had heard and known the voice which saith, ‘Come unto me…and I will give you rest’ (Mat 11:28). They had professed to believe in the Lord Who died for sinners and to have chosen Him as their Savior and Master. And now they were forgetting and forsaking the Rock of their Salvation. If they deliberately and willfully continued in this state, they were in danger of final impenitence and hardness of heart.” — Adolf Saphir

“A clear and growing faith in heavenly things was needed to preserve Jewish Christians from relapse. To return to Judaism was to give up Christ, Who had left their house ‘desolate’ (Mat 23:38). It was to fall from grace and place themselves not only under the general curse of the Law, but that particular curse that had brought the guilt of Jesus’ blood on the reprobate and blinded nation of His murderers.” — Arthur Pridham

It should be pointed out, however, that it is just as easy and the attraction is just as real for a Gentile Christian to return to that world out of which the Lord has called him, as it was for a Jewish Christian to go back again to Judaism. And just in proportion as the Christian fails to walk with God daily, so does the world obtain power over his heart, mind, and life; and a continuance in worldliness is fraught with the most direful and fatal consequences…

Three things claim our careful attention in coming closer to our passage: The persons here spoken of, the sin they commit, the doom pronounced upon them. In considering the persons spoken of, it is of first importance to note that the Apostle does not say, “us who were once enlightened,” nor even “you”; instead, he says “those.” In sharp contrast from them, he says to the Hebrews, “Beloved, we are persuaded better things of you”…It is scarcely accurate to designate as “mere professors” those described in verses 4-5. They were a class who had enjoyed great privileges, beyond any such as now accompany the preaching of the Gospel. Those here portrayed are said to have had five advantages, which is in contrast [to] the six things enumerated in verses 1-2, which things belong to man in the flesh under Judaism…Yet were they not true Christians. This is evident from what is not said. Observe: they were not spoken of as God’s elect, as those for whom Christ died, as those who were born of the Spirit. They are not said to be justified, forgiven, and accepted in the Beloved. Nor is anything said of their faith, love, or obedience. Yet these are the very things that distinguish a real child of God.

First, they had been “enlightened.” The Sun of righteousness had shone with healing in His wings, and as Matthew 4:16 says, “The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up.” Unlike the heathen, whom Christ in the days of His flesh visited not, those who came under the sound of His voice were wondrously and gloriously illumined.

The Greek word for “enlightened” here signifies “to give light or knowledge by teaching.” It is so rendered by the Septuagint in Judges 13:8; 2 Kings 12:2; 17:27. The Apostle Paul uses it for “to make manifest” or “bring to light” in 1 Corinthians 4:5; 2 Timothy 1:10. Satan blinds the minds of those who believe not, lest “the light of the gospel should shine unto them” (2 Corinthians 4:4), that is, give the knowledge of it. Thus, “enlightened” here means to be instructed in the doctrine of the Gospel, so as to have a clear apprehension of it. In the parallel passage in 10:26, the same people are said to have “received the knowledge of the truth” (cf. also 2 Peter 2:20-21). It is, however, only a natural knowledge of spiritual things, such as is acquired by outward hearing or reading, just as one may be enlightened by taking up the special study of one of the sciences. It falls far short of that spiritual enlightenment which transforms (2 Corinthians 3:18). An illustration of an unregenerate person being “enlightened,” as here, is found in the case of Balaam (Numbers 24:4).

Second, they had “tasted of the heavenly gift.” To “taste” is to have a personal experience of, in contrast from mere report. “Tasting does not include eating, much less digesting and turning into nourishment what is so tasted; for its nature being only thereby discerned, it may be refused, yea, though we like its relish and savor on some other consideration. The persons here described then are those who have to a certain degree understood and relished the revelation of mercy. Like the stony-ground hearers, they have received the Word with a short-lasting joy.” The “tasting” is in contrast from the “eating” of John 6:50–56.

Opinion is divided as to whether the “heavenly gift” refers to the Lord Jesus or the person of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it is not possible for us to be dogmatic on the point. Really, the difference is without a distinction; for the Spirit is here to glorify Christ, as He came from the Father by Christ as His ascension “Gift” to His people. If the reference be to the Lord Jesus, John 3:16, 4:10, etc., would be pertinent references; if to the Holy Spirit, Acts 2:38, 8:20, 10:45, 11:17. Personally, we rather incline to the latter. This Divine Gift is here said to be “heavenly” because it is from Heaven and leading to Heaven in contrast [with] Judaism (cf. Act 2:2; 1 Peter 1:12). Of this “Gift,” these apostates had “tasted” or had an experience of. Compare Matthew 27:34 where “tasting” is opposed to actual drinking. Those here in view had an acquaintance with the Gospel, as to gain such a measure of its blessedness as to greatly aggravate their sin and doom. An illustration of this is found in Matthew 13:20-21.

Third, they were “made partakers of the Holy Spirit.” First, it should be pointed out that the Greek word for “partakers” here is a different one from that used in Colossians 1:12 and 2 Peter 1:4, where real Christians are in view. The word here simply means “companions,” referring to what is external rather than internal. It is to be observed that this item is placed in the center of the five, and this because it describes the animating principle of the other four, which are all effects. These apostates had never been “born of the Spirit” (John 3:6), still less were their bodies His “temples” (1 Corinthaians 6:19). Nor do we believe this verse teaches that the Holy Spirit had at any time wrought within them, otherwise Philippians 1:6 would be contradicted. It means that they had shared in the benefit of His supernatural operations and manifestations: “The place was shaken” (Acts 4:31) illustrates. We quote below from Dr. J. Brown:

“It is highly probable that the inspired writer refers primarily to the miraculous gifts and operations of the Holy Spirit by which the primitive dispensation of Christianity was administered. These gifts were by no means confined to those who were ‘transformed by the renewing of their minds.’ The words of our Lord in Matthew 7:22-23 and of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:1-2 seem to intimate that the possession of these unrenewed men was not very uncommon in that age. At any rate, they plainly show that their possession and an unregenerate state were by no means incompatible.”

Fourth, “And have tasted the good word of God.” “I understand by this expression the promise of God respecting the Messiah, the sum and substance of all. It deserves notice that this promise is by way of distinguished superiority, termed by Jeremiah ‘that good word’ (33:14). To ‘taste,’ then, this ‘good word of God,’ is to experience that God has been faithful to His promise—to enjoy, so far as an unconverted man can enjoy, the blessings and advantages that flow from that promise being fulfilled. To ‘taste the good word of God,’ seems just to enjoy the advantages of the new dispensation.” –John Brown. Further confirmation that the Apostle is here referring to that which these apostates had witnessed of the fulfillment of God’s promise is obtained by comparing Jeremiah 29:10: “After seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place.”

Observe how studiously the Apostle still keeps to the word taste, the better to enable us to identify them. They could not say with Jeremiah, “Thy words were found, and I did eat them” (15:16). “It is as though he said, I speak not of those who have received nourishment; but of such as have so far tasted it, as that they ought to have desired it as ‘sincere milk’ and grown thereby.”  A solemn example of one who merely “tasted” the good Word of God is found in Mark 6:20: “For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.”

Fifth, “And the powers of the world to come” or “age to come.” The reference here is to the new dispensation that was to be ushered in by Israel’s Messiah according to O. T. predictions. It corresponds with “these last days” of Hebrews 1:2 and is in contrast [with] the “time past” or Mosaic economy. Their Messiah was none other than the “mighty God” (Isa 9:6), and wondrous and glorious, stupendous and unique were His miraculous works. These “powers” of the new Age are mentioned in Hebrews 2:4…Of these mighty “powers” these apostates had “tasted” or had an experience of. They had been personal witnesses of the miracles of Christ and of the wonders that followed His ascension, when such glorious manifestations of the Spirit were given. Thus, they were “without excuse.” Convincing and conclusive evidence had been set before them, but there had been no answering faith in their hearts. A solemn example of this is found in John 11:47-48.

“If they shall fall away.” The Greek word here is very strong and emphatic, even stronger than the one used in Matthew 7:27, where it is said of the house built on the sand, “and great was the fall thereof.” It is a complete falling away, a total abandonment of Christianity that is here in view. It is a willful turning of the back on God’s revealed truth, an utter repudiation of the Gospel. It is making “shipwreck of the faith” (1 Timothy 1:19). This terrible sin is not committed by a mere nominal professor, for he has nothing really to fall away from, save an empty name. The class here described are such as having had their minds enlightened, their consciences stirred, their affections moved to a considerable degree, and yet who were never brought from death unto life. Nor is it backsliding Christians who are in view. It is not simply “fall into sin,” this or that sin. The greatest “sin” that a regenerated man can possibly commit is the personal denial of Christ: Peter was guilty of this, yet was he “renewed again unto repentance.” It is the total renunciation of all the distinguishing truths and principles of Christianity, and this not secretly, but openly, which constitutes apostasy.

“If they shall fall away.” “This is scarcely a fair translation. It has been said that the Apostle did not here assert that such persons did or do ‘fall away’; but that if they did—a supposition which, however, could never be realized—then the consequence would be they could not be ‘renewed again unto repentance.’ The words literally rendered are ‘and have fallen away’ or ‘yet have fallen.’ The Apostle obviously intimates that such persons might and that such persons did ‘fall away.’ By ‘falling away,’ we are plainly to understand what is commonly called apostasy. This does not consist in an occasional falling into actual sin, however gross and aggravated; nor in the renunciation of some of the principles of Christianity, even though those should be of considerable importance; but in an open, total, determined renunciation of all the constituent principles of Christianity and a return to a false religion, such as that of unbelieving Jews or heathens, or to open infidelity and open godlessness.”

“It is impossible…if they fall away, to renew them again unto repentance.” Four questions here call for answer. What is meant by “renewed unto repentance”? What is signified by “renewed again unto repentance”? Why is such an experience “impossible”? To whom is this “impossible”? Repentance signifies a change of mind: Matthew 21:29 and Romans 11:29 establish this. It is more than a mental act, the conscience also being active, leading to contrition and self-condemnation (Job 42:6). In the unregenerate, it is simply the workings of nature; in the children of God, it is wrought by the Holy Spirit. The latter is evangelical, being one of the things that “accompany salvation.” The former is not so, being the “sorrow of the world,” which “worketh death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). This kind of “repentance” or remorse receives most solemn exemplification in the case of Judas (Matthew 27:3, 5). Such was the repentance of these apostates…

But what is meant by “renewing unto repentance”? “To be ‘renewed’ is a figurative expression for denoting a change, a great change, and a change for the better. To be ‘renewed’ so as to change a person’s mind is expressive of an important and advantageous alteration of opinion, character, and service. And such an alteration the persons referred to had undergone at a former period. They were once in a state of ignorance respecting the doctrines and evidences of Christianity, and they had been ‘enlightened.’ They had once known not of the excellency and beauty of Christian truth, and they had been made to ‘taste of the heavenly gift.’ They once misunderstood the prophecies respecting the Messiah and were unaware of their fulfillment, and of course were strangers to that energetic influence that the N. T. revelation puts forth. They had been made to see that ‘good word’ was fulfilled and had been made partakers of the external privileges and been subjected to the peculiar energies of the new order of things. Their view, feelings, and circumstances were materially changed. How great the difference between an ignorant, bigoted Jew, and the person described in the preceding passage! He had become, as it were, a different man. He had not indeed become, in the sense of the Apostle, a ‘new creature.’ His mind had not been so changed as to believe in sincerity ‘the truth as it is in Jesus’; but still, a great and, so far as it went, a thorough change had taken place.”—John Brown

Now it is impossible to “renew again unto repentance” those who have totally abandoned the Christian revelation. Some things are “impossible” with respect unto the nature of God, as that He cannot lie or pardon sin without satisfaction to His justice. Other things that are possible to God’s nature are rendered “impossible” by His decrees or purpose (see 1 Samuel 15:28-29). Still other things are “possible” or “impossible” with respect to the rule or order of all things God has appointed. For example, there cannot be faith apart from hearing the Word (Romans 10:13–17). “When in things of duty God hath neither expressed command thereon, nor appointed means for the performance of them, they are to be looked upon then as impossible [as, for instance, there is no salvation apart from repentance, Luke 13:3 (A.W.Pink)] and then, with respect unto us, they are so absolutely and so to be esteemed. And this is the ‘impossibility’ here principally intended. It is a thing that God hath neither commanded us to endeavor, nor appointed means to attain it, nor promise to assist us in it. It is therefore that which we have no reason to look after, attempt, or expect, as being not possible by any law, rule, or constitution of God…

“Seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh.” This is brought in to show the aggravation of their awful crime and the impossibility of their being renewed again unto repentance. By renouncing their Christian profession, they declared Christ to be an Imposter. Thus, they were irreclaimable. To attempt any further reasoning with them would only be casting pearls before swine. With this verse should be carefully compared the parallel passage in 10:26-29. These apostates had “received the knowledge of the truth,” though not a saving knowledge of it. Afterward they sinned “willfully”: there was a deliberate and open disavowal of the truth. The nature of their particular sin is termed a “treading underfoot the Son of God (something which no real Christian ever does) and counting (esteeming) the blood of the covenant an unholy thing,” that is, looking upon the One Who hung on the Cross as a common criminal. For such, there “remaineth no more sacrifice for sins.” Their case is hopeless as far as man is concerned; and the writer believes, such are abandoned by God also.

“Seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.” “They thus identify themselves with His crucifiers—they entertained and avowed sentiments that, were He on earth and in their power, would induce them to crucify Him. They exposed Him to infamy, made a public example of Him. They did more to dishonor Jesus Christ than His murderers did. They never professed to acknowledge His divine mission; but these apostates had made such a profession—they had made a kind of trial of Christianity and, after trial, had rejected it.”

Such a warning was needed and well-calculated to stir up the slothful Hebrews. Under the O. T. economy, by means of types and prophecies, they had obtained glimmerings of truth as to Christ, called “the word of the beginning of Christ.” Under those shadows and glimmerings they had been reared, not knowing their full import until they had been blessed with the full light of the Gospel, here called “perfection.” The danger to which they were exposed was that of receding from the ground where Christianity placed them and relaxing to Judaism. To do so meant to re-enter that House that Christ had left “desolate” (Matthew 23:38) and would be to join forces with His murderers, and thus “crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh,” and by their apostasy “put him to an open (public) shame”…

Taking the passage as a whole, it needs to be remembered that all who had professed to receive the Gospel were not born of God: the Parable of the Sower shows that. Intelligence might be informed, conscience searched, natural affections stirred, and yet there be “no root” in them. All is not gold that glitters.