Hebrews 6:4–6 states, “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 and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance.” This is one of the Bible’s most difficult passages to interpret, but one thing is clear—it does not teach that we can lose our salvation. There are two valid ways of looking at these verses:
One interpretation holds that this passage is written not about Christians but about unbelievers who are convinced of the basic truths of the gospel but who have not placed their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. They are intellectually persuaded but spiritually uncommitted.
According to this interpretation, the phrase once enlightened (Hebrews 6:4) refers to some level of instruction in biblical truth. However, understanding the words of Scripture is not the same as being regenerated by the Holy Spirit. For example, John 1:9 describes Jesus, the “true Light,” giving light “to every man”; but this cannot mean the light of salvation, because not every man is saved. Through God’s sovereign power, every man has enough light to be held responsible. This light either leads to the complete acceptance of Jesus Christ or produces condemnation in those who reject such light. The people described in Hebrews 6:4–6 are of the latter group—unbelievers who have been exposed to God’s redemptive truth and perhaps have made a profession of faith, but who have not exercised genuine saving faith.
This interpretation also sees the phrase tasted the heavenly gift (Hebrews 6:4) as referring to a momentary experience, akin to Jesus’ “tasting” death (Hebrews 2:9). This brief experience with the heavenly gift is not seen as equivalent to salvation; rather, it is likened to the second and third soils in Jesus’ parable (Matthew 13:3–23), which describes people who receive the truth of the gospel but are not truly saved.
Finally, this interpretation sees the “falling away” (Hebrews 6:6) as a reference to those who have tasted the truth but, not having come all the way to faith, fall away from even the revelation they have been given. The tasting of truth is not enough to keep them from falling away from it. They must come all the way to Christ in complete repentance and faith; otherwise, they in effect re-crucify Christ and treat Him contemptuously. Those who sin against Christ in such a way have no hope of restoration or forgiveness because they reject Him with full knowledge and conscious experience. They have concluded that Jesus should have been crucified, and they stand with His enemies. It is impossible to renew such to repentance.
The other interpretation holds that this passage is written about Christians, and that the phrases partakers of the Holy Ghost, enlightened, and tasted of the heavenly gift are all descriptions of true believers.
This second interpretation is based on an alternate translation, found in the KJV and a few others, in which Hebrews 6:6 begins with the phrase if they fall away, with the key word being if. According to this view, the writer of Hebrews is setting up a hypothetical statement: “IF a Christian were to fall away.” The point being made is that it would be impossible (IF a Christian falls away) to renew salvation. That’s because Christ died once for sin (Hebrews 9:28), and if His sacrifice is insufficient, then there’s no hope at all.
In this view, the passage presents an argument based on a false premise (that a true Christian can fall away) and follows it to its senseless conclusion (that Jesus would have to be sacrificed again and again). The absurdity of the conclusion points up the impossibility of the original assumption. This reasoning is called reductio ad absurdum, in which a premise is disproved by showing that it logically leads to an absurdity. The weakness of this view is that the Greek text does not contain a word equivalent to the English if.
Both of these interpretations support the security of the believer in Christ. The first interpretation, which has a stronger textual basis, presents unbelievers rejecting Christ and thereby losing their chance of salvation; the second, weaker interpretation presents the very idea of believers losing salvation as impossible. Many passages make it abundantly clear that salvation is everlasting (John 10:27–29; Romans 8:35, 38–39; Philippians 1:6; 1 Peter 1:4–5), and Hebrews 6:4–6 confirms that doctrine.