Is falling away an irreparable matter?
n Heb. 6, we find a passage that has been worrisome for more than a few Christians, especially those who at some point wavered in their walk of faith.
“For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, (5) and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, (6) if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.”
The assumption made by some is that falling away is an irreparable matter. Yet we see fallen-away Christians restored to faithfulness all the time. So how might it be “impossible” for these to be “renewed to repentance”?
The problem is that we read something into this passage that isn’t there. The human tendency is to think of ourselves first and foremost. We picture ourselves as the ones fallen away (whether it could happen or not), and we picture ourselves being unable to regain our former blessed state.
But the passage is not saying anything about “us” at all. That is, the passage is not commenting on what things will be like for you or me if we fall away. Let us look at it more carefully. An impossibility is being discussed. But the impossibility is not laid upon the fallen individual. It is laid upon those around him. His fellow Christians. There is something that is impossible for them to do. They cannot “renew them [fallen Christians] to faithfulness.”
Can the individual himself return to faithfulness?
Yes. It happens all the time. Given that fact, why would it be impossible for faithful Christians to renew a fallen individual to faithfulness? Well, some reflection will tell us that there is nothing we can say to a fallen individual that he has not heard already.
Prior to his conversion, there was plenty we could share with him. Life-changing truths. Exciting truths. But he has heard all these things. We are not going to be able to share the gospel with him, or bring him an awareness of sin that he has not already felt.
“For it is impossible… to renew them again to repentance.” If he is to be renewed, he will have to do so relying on the same truths he already knows. Conversion is a matter of hearing and believing the truth. (Romans 10:17: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”)
Moreover, this fallen individual has been “enlightened,” has “tasted the heavenly gift,” and has “partaken of the Holy Spirit.” This is not some novitiate to the faith. No, this is someone who imbibed deeply of what Christ has to offer—and felt that blessedness. There are no persuasions to be made that he has not already considered.
The Pilgrim’s Progress
In The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s allegory of the Christian journey through life, we encounter a fallen individual in these same circumstances.
He is “the man in an iron cage.” The book’s protagonist, a character named (appropriately) Christian, is brought face to face with this man by his (Christian’s) guide, a figure named The Interpreter.
This caged man, we are told, “sat in despair” and “sighed as if he would break his heart.”
Christian asked The Interpreter, “But is there no hope for such a man as this?”
“Ask him,” said The Interpreter.
[JM: Notice that The Interpreter did not answer “Yes” or “No.” He said, “Ask him.”]
The question is put to the man: “Is there no hope, but you must be kept in the iron cage of despair?”
Man: “No, none at all.”
Interpreter: “Why, the Son of the Blessed is very pitiful.”
Man: “I have crucified him to myself afresh [Heb. 6:6]… ”
Interpreter: “But canst thou not now repent and turn?”
Man: “God hath denied me repentance. His Word gives me no encouragement to believe…”
[This latter point is not true. The Bible gives no denials of repentance. It gives every encouragement to believing. But this man, in despairing, has shut himself up in an iron cage.]
Christian and The Interpreter pass on from the presence of the man, but The Interpreter cautions Christian to “Let this man’s misery be remembered by thee, and be an everlasting caution to thee.”
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