25 Feb 2010

Hebrews 6.4-6: The Impossibility of Repentance

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Exegesis, Grace, Hebrews, Hermeneutics, Ministry, Preaching

Greetings from the land of Saguaros and Scorpions. Recently Hebrews 6 has become a text used to claim that a Christian that is “erring” has simply become a “non-Christian.” This person would have to be baptized anew. There are many disturbing things about this horrendous abuse of God’s word but the basic rejection of the text from its setting is mind blowing. This text makes no such claim. Just a couple of observations on the nature of repentance that I think should be made:

The “Old Testament” Sub-Text/MATRIX for the Preacher’s Church

First, Hebrews 6.4ff and 10.26 have a specific historical, situational, and literary context. These are either rejected or minimized to our own peril. In both contexts the “sin” under consideration is outright REJECTION of the Messiah. The sin that is “willfully” (10.26) persisted in in the context of Hebrews is the rejection of Jesus’ mission, his ministry, and his cross. There is no salvation here because the very basis of the removal of sin (the Cross) is being rejected.

Second, the term “adunatos” (translated as “impossible” in most English txts) needs some reflection and study. A couple of things need to be recognized.

The author (really the PREACHER, that is Hebrews is an ORAL composition, cf. 13.22) engages in rhetorical flare (hyperbole) for the sake of emphasis. Just as Paul would say the Gospel had been preached to the whole world there are very few that would suppose that is a literal statement. This is not only an effective communication device in oral presentation it is also figures in many narrative passages in the Scriptures.

What is meant by adunotos? and for whom? F. F. Bruce cites the great commentary by Spicq (unfortunately never translated into English) as “when understood of man in relation to the moral plane, should be translated as ‘incapable’; the impossibility in question is subjective and relative, due reservation being made with regard to divine intervention, and it is in this sense that Hebrews conceives the impossibility, not of the apostate’s pardon, but of his turning” (Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 118).

It is not impossible for God to forgive. He is eager to forgive and relent. The Preacher ‘to the Hebrews’ was not ignorant of these wonderful texts in his Septuagint:

Who is a God like you, canceling iniquities, and passing over the sins of the remnant of his inheritance … for he delights in mercy” (Micah 7.18, LXX)

Texts like the one above could be multiplied but the one that matters most is the Golden Text of the entire Bible … found in the Torah itself. It is God’s self-revelation

the LORD passed by before his face, and proclaimed, The LORD God, pitiful and merciful, longsuffering and very compassionate and true … mercy for thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Ex 34.6-7, LXX)

The God of Israel delights in mercy.

The issue, however, is not God. It is the arrogant rejection of the Messiah by those who had once claimed allegiance to him.

Third, and I consider this to be both a neglected though crucial point. The Preacher “to the Hebrews” is in constant dialogue with the Hebrew Bible he knows in the Greek translation, the Septuagint. There are five “warning” passages in Hebrews other than 6.4ff (begins at 5.11). Each one has a specific example from the LXX in mind. They are

1) 2.1-4 disobedience to the Torah
2) 3.7-4.13 failure at Kadesh-barnea
3) 10.19-39 disobedience to Torah
4) 12.14-29 failure of Esau/listen to God’s voice at Sinai (25-26)

The background for 6.4-6 remains the episode at Kadesh-barnea. This sad episode was paradigmatic of unbelief and rebellion (see for example Deut 1.19-35; Ps 106.21-27; Damascus Document 3.6-9; 2 Esdras 7.106 and Paul in 1 Cor 10.5-10 in addition to the ones cited in this post). It is related narratively in Num 13-14 and is interpreted in Psalm 95 (quoted explicitly in 3.7-11). It figures in the Levitical prayer in Nehemiah 9 as well. The story is the “subtext” or the “matrix” from which the Preacher exhorts his audience. Linguistically and semantically the parallels for a Jewish audience steeped in the “Old Testament” ring loud and clear. And a “word picture” usually conveys MORE than simply the word but the associations with it. (For more on this kind of “Cultural Literacy” that communicators of all kinds assume see my previous post “Cultural Literacy: Improving Our Bible Reading“) Here are a few examples:

Enlightened

Neh 9.12 “by day you led them with a pillar of cloud, and by night a pillar of fire TO GIVE THEM LIGHT” (the linguistic parallel in the Greek of Nehemiah 9 and Heb 6 is not accidental)

Neh 9.19 “...to shine on the way they were to take …”

Having tasted the heavenly gift

Neh 9. 15 “you gave them bread from heaven” (see Ps 105.40 & 78.24)

Having become partakers of the Holy Spirit

Neh 9.20 “You gave your good Spirit to instruct them” (cf. Isa. 63.11) etc, etc.

The Preacher assumes a typological relationship between his audience and the people of Israel in the wilderness. The Preacher’s congregation is on a journey or pilgrimage toward the promised land just like their ancestral fathers. The Exodus event is the “lens” through which our preacher views his own sojourn … in other words he has situated and found his own Gathered fellowship in the Story and he assumes the biblical narrative directly address his congregation’s needs (talk about the authority of the “Old Testament!!). I believe this is even why he uses the Tabernacle imagery rather than the temple because the Exodus narrative is the matrix for speaking to his own pilgrim people. The wilderness generation experienced all these things (God’s good word, provisions & miraculous powers, the presence of God’s Spirit among them) and they responded not in joyous gratitude but in unbelief and rebellion. His hearers have also experienced these things. Here is the sin they are in danger of:

The deliberate and calculated rejection of the Messiah

The danger is not simply a “return to Judaism” as some Gentiles have imagined (or some mistaken doctrinal understanding). Jewish believers were never asked to “leave” Judaism in the first place. Gentiles believers are grafted into the Israel. The danger is nothing less than the rejection of the once accepted Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, the Son of God.

What a dreadful place to find oneself – and by choice! This is not a mere mistake on their part. This is not a failure to understand certain teachings … it is rejection and shaming the Jewish Messiah again.

Impossible? Oral Rhetoric?

Now if, as I believe is true, the Preacher is preaching from, and out of, the LXX and applying that to his audience (as all good preachers must do) then the rest of that LXX informs us on the hyperbolic nature of the “impossibility” of repentance. It was not Impossible (literally) for Israel to repent and thus receive the gift of grace. Israel, as the Hebrew Preacher knows all to well, existed by and through God’s grace. Perhaps the greatest example of God’s grace for incredibly obtuse people is seen in the story of Hosea and Gomer and then in the king named Manasseh. The Hebrews’ Preacher would even have known (without a doubt) that prayer that was in the LXX known as the Prayer of Manasseh where God is described as “the God of those who repent” (v. 13e). Manesseh is the wickedest king in history according to Kings. Yet he becomes the grand example of the mercy of God in Chronicles. Part of that magnificent prayer of repentance reads …

O Lord, according to your great goodness
you have promised repentance and forgiveness
to those who have sinned against you,
and in the multitude of your mercies
you have appointed repentance for sinners,
so that they may be saved …

And now I bend the knee of my heart,
imploring you for your kindness.
I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned,
and I acknowledge my transgressions.
I earnestly implore you,
forgive me, O Lord, forgive me! …

For you, O Lord, are the God of those who repent …

[F]or unworthy as I am, you will
save me according to your great mercy.

So our Preacher is not saying that it is literally impossible for a person to renew their repentance but he is saying … and warning seriously … that like the children of Israel in the wilderness that rejection of God and his covenant (or Jesus in the case of his audience) is to place ourselves in a dangerous. Those who choose to reject become like Pharaoh … God waits in eager expectation to be loving and gracious. Grace is not beyond God. He even forgave those with the blood of Jesus on their hands at his crucifixion … and for those who reject will find him to be equally merciful IF they are able to turn to him again.

Two Valuable Resources:

Dave Mathewson, “Reading Heb 6:4-6 in Light of the Old Testament,” Westminster Theological Journal 61 (1999): 209-225

Scot McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews: A Formal Analysis and Theological Conclusions,” Trinity Journal 13 (1992): 21-59

10 Responses to “Hebrews 6.4-6: The Impossibility of Repentance”

  1. Jeremy Says:

    Great post Bobby! I have never heard the argument that “Hebrews 6 has become a text used to claim that a Christian that is “erring” has simply become a “non-Christian.” This person would have to be baptized anew.” I would be interested to hear how they come up with that idea from this section of the scripture.

    Anyway, I hope things are going well for you!

  2. cwinwc Says:

    Its good to “read you” again. Thanks for sharing.

  3. janney Says:

    thank you for clearing that up!

  4. Randall Says:

    Thanks for the insight Bobby. Great post.
    Peace,
    Randall

  5. laymond Says:

    Bobby there is no doubt in my mind who the book of Hebrews was written for and by whom it was written, who it was trying to convince.The vision Paul had on the way to Damascus completely convinced him, and he made it his life work to convince others.

    Judaism’s view of Jesus is a very peripheral one. Jews have traditionally seen Jesus as one of a number of false messiahs who have appeared throughout history. Jesus is viewed as having been the most influential, and consequently the most damaging of all false messiahs. However, since the messiah does not take center stage in Judaism, the total rejection of Jesus as either messiah or deity in Judaism has never been a central issue for Judaism.

    Judaism has never accepted any of the claimed fulfillment of prophecy that Christianity attributes to Jesus. Judaism also forbids the worship of a person as a form of idolatry, since the central belief of Judaism is the absolute unity and singularity of God.

    Jewish eschatology holds that the coming of the Messiah will be associated with a specific series of events that have not yet occurred, including the return of Jews to their homeland and the rebuilding of The Temple, an era of peace, and understanding during which “the knowledge of God” fills the earth, and since Judaism holds that none of these events occurred during the lifetime of Jesus, he is not a candidate for messiah.

  6. Tim Archer Says:

    Bobby,

    I’d love to see you interact with some of what Jay Guin has been writing lately.

    Here’s his first post on this passage:
    http://oneinjesus.info/2010/02/22/perseverance-hebrews-6/

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  7. Randall Says:

    Bobby,
    Speaking of the meaning of adunotos you said:
    “…when understood of man in relation to the moral plane, should be translated as ‘incapable’; the impossibility in question is subjective and relative, due reservation being made with regard to divine intervention, and it is in this sense that Hebrews conceives the impossibility, not of the apostate’s pardon, but of his turning”
    Your mention of “divine intervention” has had some special meaning since Tarantino made so much of it his film some years ago. (I don’t read the scripture in light of Tarantino’s films, but it was an unusual and intriguing bit to come from Hollywood.) I suspect the film’s use of the phrase might be recognized by those that are culturally literate regarding Hollywood films as contemporary literature – more so than it is in conservative church circles. Perhaps it is too obscure to expect it to be part of our broader cultural literacy. None the less, the point is made that two people can have an essentially identical experience and for one it truly was divine intervention and for the other it was nothing special. I tend to think of it as the norm when it comes to a moment of clarity resulting in repentance while others see it as the exception from the “normal” Christian experience. I wonder what your take might be regarding divine intervention?

    Separately, you said:
    “The danger is not simply a “return to Judaism” as some Gentiles have imagined (or some mistaken doctrinal understanding). Jewish believers were never asked to “leave” Judaism in the first place. Gentiles believers are grafted into the Israel.”
    The allusion to Romans 11 is clear enough, but my question is: Does a Gentile that comes to faith in Christ become an Israelite or simply come to share in the promises and blessings God made to Israel? I am ignorant even regarding a Gentile proselyte before Christ. Was he/she regarded as a Jew or as one who shared in the covenant community and promises? I realize I am being remarkably picky, but would appreciate your indulgence.
    Peace,
    Randall

  8. Anonymous Says:

    Hello. And Bye.

  9. Gardner Hall Says:

    A lot of good points about the context, which is usually the key in a difficult text. Thanks!

  10. laymond Says:

    Bobby said “First, Hebrews 6.4ff and 10.26 have a specific historical, situational, and literary context. These are either rejected or minimized to our own peril. In both contexts the “sin” under consideration is outright REJECTION of the Messiah.”
    Bobby what in your opinion does it take to “outright reject” Jesus as the “Messiah” ? Does one need to reject every thing he taught, or just some, or maybe just one, in order to deny him, so he will deny us.?

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