The Permanence of Saving Repentance

We live in a world with innumerable choices. People of financial independence can try out different hobbies, travel destinations, even different houses, cars, and vacation homes. Others of us enjoy trying new foods and recipes, walking trails, phones, restaurants—the list goes on and on. And every once in a while, we will taste or experience something that we know we want to make a permanent part of our lives because it will improve them. When my brother taught me how to make Spaghetti Carbonara forty years ago, I knew it would be my favorite pasta (according to the authentic Italian recipe).  On the other hand, the first time I tried cross-country skiing or golf, I knew I would repeat neither since they turned out to be more work than fun for me. I tested religions the way I tried out new foods and sports, looking for the right “fit” (i.e., self-fulfillment)—Reform Judaism, Mystical Judaism, Zen Buddhism, Bahai, Wicca, and Christian Science—all only temporarily interesting. But Christ captured my heart, God did the work of my redemption, as he always does. I knew right away that my search was vain, and the matter settled for him—not for self-fulfillment, but eternal satisfaction in Christ. However, as I told a friend last night, my first year as a Christian was one of intense guilt, remorse, and repentance. The Bible warns us against any temporary faith and repentance in the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-30). As people fill local churches, hear Scripture, make confessions, recite creeds, sing hymns, and pray, they receive the foundational doctrines for salvation. But only those who have Christ’s faith and repentance are preserved by God. Christians build on the foundation of our salvation and pray for others to repent of satisfying themselves with only a temporary taste of God’s goodness.

The Spiritual Maturity of the Hebrew Christians

The writer of Hebrews did not shy away from tackling some thorny theological problems facing the greater Christian community who were in danger of falling away. One particularly tricky warning is in Hebrews Chapter 6, where the author voices his frustration with his brothers’ lack of spiritual maturity. “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” (Hebrews 6:1-6). “Even unregenerate and unconverted persons may be in the covenant. Ishmael and Esau were originally in the covenant, the wicked sons of Eli were covenant children, and the great majority of the Jews in the days of Jesus and the apostles belonged to the covenant people and shared in the covenant promises, though they did not follow the faith of their father Abraham…they are in the covenant as far as their responsibility is concerned. Because they stand in the legal covenant relationship to God, they are duty bound to repent and believe…The special relationship in which they are placed to God, therefore means added responsibility…They are in the covenant also as far as the common covenant blessings are concerned. Though they do not experience the regenerating influence of the Holy Spirit, yet they are subject to certain special operations and influences of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit stives with them in a special manner, convicts them of sin, enlightens them in a measure, and enriches them with the blessings of common grace.” (1) 

Building On Our Spiritual Foundation

In his Bible commentary John Calvin writes, “…in building a house we must never leave [out] the foundation; and yet to be always engaged in laying it would be ridiculous…In short, as the builder must begin with the foundation, so must he go on with his work that the house may be built. Similar is the case as to Christianity; we have the first principles as the foundation, but the higher doctrine ought immediately to follow which is to complete the building. They then act most unreasonably who remain in the first elements…as though a builder spent all his labor on the foundation, and neglected to build up the house.” (2)Further clarification about these basic, foundational doctrines is helpful before we proceed. “The writer’s summary of elementary teachings from which Christians are to move on in the sense of building upon a foundation, falls into three groups of two each. The first is repentance and faith and has to do with the Christian’s ‘personal character’. This repentance is a radical reorientation of outlook which results in a turning away from acts that lead to death, that is, from all activity done in rebellion against God. Faith, on the other hand, is both a trust set upon and an obedience rendered to God. The second group involves the ‘outward ordinances’ of the Christian society…The last group is eschatological and has to do with the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.” (3)

A Warning Against Temporary Repentance

Having established that his audience has indeed received these important doctrines for salvation the author or Hebrews goes on to warn them about backsliding, hypothetically. Only those who sincerely repent and come to faith in Christ are preserved by God, and he will express his assurance or their perseverance in Hebrews 6:9 “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.” We can receive this warning by embracing and building on the foundational doctrines of Christ. And we pray for others to repent of satisfying themselves with only a temporary taste of God’ goodness. “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” (Hebrews 6:4-6) There is general consensus among commentators that this passage is very difficult to interpret. Does it refer to believers or unbelievers, given the description in verses 1-3? “The question of whether the Apostle speaks of converted or unconverted men is entirely beside the purpose, and may safely be relegated to the limbo of misapplied interpretations…It is more to the purpose to remind ourselves that all these excellences are regarded by the Apostle as gifts of God, like the oft-descending rain, not as moral qualities in men. It may be compared to the opening of blind eyes or the startled waking of the soul by a great idea. To taste the heavenly gift is to make trial of the new truth…All these things have an intellectual quality. Faith in Christ and love to God are purposely excluded. The Apostle brings together various phases of our spiritual intelligence, the gift of illumination, which we sometimes call genius, sometimes culture, sometimes insight, the faculty that ought to apprehend Christ and welcome the revelation in the Son….God has bestowed His gift of enlightenment, but [if] there is no response of heart and will the soul does not lay hold, but drifts away.” (4) 

Eternal Repentance and Sanctification

“These who fall away demonstrate that their faith was never genuine to begin with. Calling the warning hypothetical, however, might have the unintended consequence of implying that we need not take the warning seriously. But since we work our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12-13), it is by taking such warnings seriously that we remain in the faith, by the power of the Spirit.” (5) When God works his redemption in us, we want nothing more than to mature in our faith, unlike those who give up and give in to discouragement. “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way…” (Philippians 3:12-15)

Related Scripture: Psalm 34:8; Matthew 19:24-26; John 4:10; Acts 19:4-5; Ephesians 2:8-10; Philippians 2:12-16; 3:12-16; Hebrews 5:12-14; 1 John 2:19.

  1. Berkoff, L., Systematic Theology,” pp. 288-9, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, Reprinted 1993. 
  2. Calvin, John, “John Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible,” Hebrews 6:1-6, Bible Learning Society
  3. “Zondervan Bible Commentary,” F. F. Bruce General Editor, Hebrews 6, One-Volume Illustrated Digital Edition.
  4. “The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Hebrews to Revelation” Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland, Editors, Zondervan, 2005.
  5. “The Reformation Study Bible,” Hebrews 6:4-12, Reformation Trust Publishing (Ligonier Ministries), Sanford, Fl., 2015. 

February 12, 2021    

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