We have models of theology, or maps. But as the map is not the territory, neither is our model of God complete. As the map is carefully checked and revised to ensure that it is true and accurate (you do not want to go into the NZ forests without a topographic map and a compass — that fancy GPS does not work through dense bush, nor does it like being dunked in cold fast,. water), so out theology must be checked against what we know is true. And that is scripture.
Not tradition, for we can easily have errors in our traditions, and our traditions, like our theologies, are things that we made, and we are quite prone to error.
Which brings us to this passage. In it, the apostates are told that they cannot return to salvation if they reject it. I would speculate that this is the sin against the Holy Spirit that cannot be forgiven. But it makes those who say that our salvation is foreordained reason to pause.
1Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, 2instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3And we will do this, if God permits. 4For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,6and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt. 7Ground that drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly, and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. 8But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless and on the verge of being cursed; its end is to be burned over. 9Even though we speak in this way, beloved, we are confident of better things in your case, things that belong to salvation. 10For God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. 11And we want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, 12so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
Interestingly, Calvin did not shrink from this passage, and commented on it
4. For it is impossible, etc. This passage has given occasion to many to repudiate this Epistle, especially as the Novatians armed themselves with it to deny pardon to the fallen. Hence those of the Western Church, in particular, refused the authority of this Epistle, because the sect of Novatus annoyed them; and they were not sufficiently conversant in the truth so as to be equal to refute it by argument. But when the design of the Apostle is understood, it then appears evident that there is nothing here which countenances so delirious an error. Some who hold sacred the authority of the Epistle, while they attempt to dissipate this absurdity, yet do nothing but evade it. For some take “impossible” in the sense of rare or difficult, which is wholly different from its meaning. Many confine it to that repentance by which the catechumens in the ancient Church were wont to be prepared for baptism, as though indeed the Apostles prescribed fasting, or such things to the baptized. And then what great thing would the Apostle have said, by denying that repentance, the appendage of baptism, could be repeated? He threatens with the severest vengeance of God all those who would cast away the grace which had been once received; what weight would the sentence have had to shake the secure and the wavering with terror, if he only reminded them that there was no longer room for their first repentance? For this would extend to every kind of offense. What then is to be said? Since the Lord gives the hope of mercy to all without exception, it is wholly unreasonable that any one for any cause whatever should be precluded.
The knot of the question is in the word, fall away. Whosoever then understands its meaning, can easily extricate himself from every difficulty. But it must be noticed, that there is a twofold falling away, one particular, and the other general. He who has in anything, or in any ways offended, has fallen away from his state as a Christian; therefore all sins are so many fallings. But the Apostle speaks not here of theft, or perjury, or murder, or drunkenness, or adultery; but he refers to a total defection or falling away from the Gospel, when a sinner offends not God in some one thing, but entirely renounces his grace.
And that this may be better understood, let us suppose a contrast between the gifts of God, which he has mentioned, and this falling away. For he falls away who forsakes the word of God, who extinguishes its light, who deprives himself of the taste of the heavens or gift, who relinquishes the participation of the Spirit. Now this is wholly to renounce God. We now see whom he excluded from the hope of pardon, even the apostates who alienated themselves from the Gospel of Christ, which they had previously embraced, and from the grace of God; and this happens to no one but to him who sins against the Holy Spirit. For he who violates the second table of the Law, or transgresses the first through ignorance, is not guilty of this defection; nor does God surely deprive any of his grace in such a way as to leave them none remaining except the reprobate.
I know that those who consider that we all have free will, and we all have moral agency have difficulties with the idea of predestination. For scripture says that we were chosen for salvation before the world began. Scripture also says that those who believe and come to Christ will be saved. But this is where ultra-Calvinism can descend into lawlessness, because one could say that since I am saved it does not matter what I do.
But it does. I checked with that French Reformer because God has given us moral agency to reject him. Despite the power of his spirit, despite his love, despite the great works of salvation we can reject him. And there is not a way back from that spurning.
Now, some then say that this could include sins: how can you say this because you yourself are not perfect? Calvin’s gloss on the text helps here — for he mentions quite serious and grievous crimes and says that they can be forgiven. He’s not being hyperbolic here.
Our job is to remain in Christ and to do his will. We trust for our salvation on Christ alone, and we trust that we will be kept for him on Christ alone. Not on us: for we will fail. Daily.
But the apostate has spurned that trust, separated himself from Christ — completely. This is not a time of wildness or despair with the Church (which is the error that Calvin mentions: when people were damned for committing any sin or not being at service).
It is deliberately choosing your own damnation. Let those who deny the gospel for does not fit their ideology, yet remain within the church, be warned.