The great theologian Dr. R.C. Sproul, whose introduction to Christian Apologetics I read a few years back while at seminary (I highly recommend it), is what many believe to be a bulldog of the Christian faith. Dr. Sproul died some time ago, and we here at The Essential Church extend our condolences to his family in what is a monumental, giant loss for the evangelical world.
Dr. Sproul had over 40 years of ministry under his belt when he died, nothing less than incredible for anyone. And yet, even with 40 years of ministry under his belt, he had his share of interpretive blinders. Truth be told, all theologians have their share of blinders when it comes to God’s Word: we’re not perfect but imperfect, and we’re not divine but human.
What this means is that we often interpret passages in line with what we want to be the case, rather than in accordance with biblical truth. We don’t want some things to be right, and when we think we’ve met a passage or verse that confirms what we don’t want, we change our argumentation or logic to go with what we want to be right. It’s a bait and switch that many theologians do when interpreting Scripture. Some theologians and Christians see their biases, while some do not.
And Dr. R.C Sproul was no exception.
I’ve owned his booklet titled “Can I Lose My Salvation?” For a few years now, and, with some time to spare after the completion of yet another book, decided to sit down to assess more of Sproul’s argument. Sproul is a Calvinist, someone committed to eternal security, and it’s good to see him tackle Hebrews 6. But it’s in his commentary that we see an absurd comment about Paul’s logical argument in the text, reminding us that Calvinism has blinders that its proponents do not see.
Without further ado, let’s get into Hebrews 6 and Sproul’s argument.
Hebrews 6:4-6, NKJV
4 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. (Hebrews 6:4-6, NKJV)
Sproul acknowledges the plain reading of Hebrews 6:4-6 through interpretation
Here’s what Sproul says about the opening verses of Hebrews 6:
“On the surface, it certainly sounds as if the author is describing a Christian, a regenerate person, one who has been spiritually reborn. If that’s the case, then the author is saying that it would be impossible for a truly converted person to be restored again to salvation if he has committed the sin that is in view here” (R.C. Sproul, “Can I Lose My Salvation?”, page 32, bold font mine).
“It must be that the author is referring to true repentance, and he is saying that it is impossible for a truly regenerate person, one who has truly repented, to be restored again to repentance if he falls away, because in his falling away he crucifies again the Son of God and holds Him up to contempt. The author is saying that if you do this, you’re finished. There is no possibility of restoration if you fall away to this degree” (page 36).
These statements are a clear indication that Sproul understands the prima facie (surface) reading of Hebrews 6:4-6. His words here match those of any Arminian in interpreting the passage. Yes, even Calvinists can sound Arminian at times.
But, as you may have guessed, Sproul doesn’t leave the argument here because, if he does, he must surrender the false Doctrine of Eternal Security. We can’t have that doctrine surrendered to the Doctrine of Apostasy, now can we?
Sproul’s reaction to his Arminian interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6
After Sproul provides what is an Arminian interpretation of the passage, he provides commentary to sideline it in favor of a Calvinist interpretation. Just how does he do it? He introduces an argumentative fallacy into the text to sound erudite:
“The argument here is a form of argumentation found throughout the New Testament epistles called the argumentum ad absurdum. This means that you take the premises of your opponent and show how, if they are true, they eventually lead to a conclusion that is absurd. Therefore, the premises are to be rejected. Paul uses this argument in 1 Corinthians 15 when speaking of the resurrection of Christ” (page 36).
“Thus, we see how the author of Hebrews uses the argumentum ad absurdum to demonstrate the folly of his opponents’ position. Since the Judaizers’ argument that the law should still be observed leads to the repudiation of Christ’s work and the loss of salvation, their argument should be rejected. The author is likely using this argument hypothetically, to show what would happen. But this could never actually happen in the case of someone who has truly been converted” (page 38).
I hope you catch that. Sproul basically says that Paul provides a “hypothetical” argument, that “the author is likely using this argument hypothetically.” Wait a minute: the word “likely” is indicative of speculation. There’s no proof that Paul’s intent is to provide a hypothetical argument, let alone show the “argumentum ad absurdum.” These claims in the text are mere speculation pulled out by a renown theologian for the purposes of sidelining the genuine meaning of the text. For those who may not know, argumentum ad absurdum is Latin for “argument to the absurd.”
What about Paul’s statements in Hebrews are designed to provide a hypothetical argument? The Jewish audience to which Paul writes has come to Christ out of Judaism. And yet, now, these Jews are feeling the intense persecution that comes with Christianity and are considering retreating to Judaism, their former faith. Let’s examine some phrases that disagree with the “hypothetical” claim of Sproul.
“Hypothetical” apostasy phrases in the Book of Hebrews
In chapter 1, Paul contrasts Judaism with the prophets and Christianity with Jesus:
“God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things” (Hebrews 1:1).
Why would Paul write Hebrews 1:1 if not to show the Jews that their Christian faith is superior to old Judaism from which they’d come? Why show the superiority of their newfound faith if they weren’t considering retreating to their former faith, Judaism? Does this claim sound hypothetical?
“Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation…?” (Hebrews 2:1-3)
Paul says that we must pay attention to “the things we have heard,” the teaching that is, “lest we drift away.” Does this drifting away sound hypothetical to you? If a teacher tells her class to “Pay attention to what we go over in the next few weeks, so that you don’t fail your final exam,” do you think the teacher is hypothetically scaring the students? I think not.
What about “how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation”? Is this not a warning to not neglect or abandon one’s faith? How then, is this hypothetical if Paul is telling us of grave consequences surrounding the very act of apostasy?
“Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12-13)
If someone says, “Beware of that sinkhole in the middle of the road down the street,” is that person giving a hypothetical warning to you — or is it a real one? It doesn’t sound hypothetical to me. If these Jewish Christians couldn’t depart from the living God, why does Paul mention it? Is this hypothetical, too?
“Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:11).
The example of disobedience Paul mentions here is the disobedience of the Israelites, of which he writes that “those to whom it [the gospel, see Heb. 4:2] was first preached did not enter because of disobedience” (v.11). Paul is saying here that the Jewish Christians should “be diligent to enter that rest,” that is, eternal rest, and not fall away as the Israelites did. Were the disobedient Israelites real? Did they fall away from the Promised Land because of disobedience? Did God promise to take them in, only to let the Wilderness Generation die in the wilderness because of disobedience?
The Israelites were not a hypothetical nation, but a nation God chose to take into the Promised Land. The disobedient Israelites were real: they really rebelled against God, they really provoked God to anger, and God really denied them entrance into the Promised Land, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb (see Numbers 14). God promised to take them in, but, as Paul says in Hebrews 4:2, they didn’t have faith when the gospel was preached to them. The events he’s discussing are real. Why would he discuss them with these Jewish Christians if it was all a hypothetical discussion and the Jewish Christians in question couldn’t apostatize and turn back to Judaism?
Hebrews 1-5 in the context of Hebrews 6:4-6
When we arrive at Hebrews 6:4-6, the writer has built his argument to this point. He rebukes the Jewish Christians for their spiritual immaturity, telling them that “for though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food” (Hebrews 5:12). These Jewish Christians are spiritually immature, still acting as babes instead of maturing into “adult Christians.” They “need” to be taught “again,” Paul says, implying that they’ve gone through the foundational doctrines before.
So in Hebrews 6:1, Paul says that they would “leave the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ” and “go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation” (v.1). See what Paul does there? He says that he would not lay “again” the foundational doctrines. Why wouldn’t he do this? Because the Jewish Christians had already been through the foundational teachings. He told them in Hebrews 5:12 that “you need someone to teach you again.” And yet, he says that he would not lay again the foundational doctrines.
And in Hebrews 6:4-6, our passage in question, Paul says that laying the foundation once isn’t just for the Jewish Christians in his immediate context, but for Christians in general, all Christians. He mentions that Christians who were “once enlightened,” the word “once” indicative that they had been down this same road before. “Partakers of the Holy Spirit” refers to those who have the Holy Spirit. Those who don’t have the Holy Spirit don’t belong to God, Paul says in Romans 8:9.
This tells us that Sproul’s claim that “anyone who’s in the middle of the life of the church in a loose sense partakes of the benefits of the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit”, that “such a person has not necessarily received one specific work of the Holy Spirit — namely, regeneration,” (page 35) is a modern assessment that doesn’t find a place in the context of Hebrews 6. Is Paul talking there to those who lack the Holy Spirit but are “in the middle of the life of the church”? I think not. He’s talking to Jewish Christians who are saved and have the Holy Spirit. In fact, he says as much in Hebrews 6 itself: “For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister” (Hebrews 6:10).
Paul emphasizes the Hebrews’ salvation in the following statements:
“This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus” (vv.19-20). Jesus has entered behind the veil “for us” Paul says, referring to not only himself and those with him but the Jewish Christians as well. In Hebrews 10, Paul tells them to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (Hebrews 10:23), meaning that they have confessed Jesus as Lord and are awaiting the hope of eternal life. Again, these Jewish Christians are saved. When he mentions them sinning willfully, he uses the phrase “after we have received the knowledge of the truth” (Hebrews 10:26). “Knowledge of the truth” refers to salvation, for God would have all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (see 1 Timothy 2:4).
Later in the same chapter of Hebrews 10, Paul goes on at length about the Jewish Christians’ conversion and the persecution they suffered because of it:
“But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings: partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of those who were so treated; for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven” (Hebrews 10:32-34).
The phrase “after you were illuminated” in the NKJV refers to the “once enlightened” of Hebrews 6:4. And then, Paul says “knowing you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven,” referring to their own awareness of their salvation. In verse 36, Paul tells them not to “throw away their confidence” so that they can receive the promise, a reminder that the promise is not for unbelievers but for believers.
In Hebrews 11, Paul exhorts them with the words: “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
Paul uses the word “we” in Hebrews 12:1-2 at least twice, the word “us” at least four times, and the word “our” at least once. Since he’s writing the Jewish Christians, we can assume Paul includes them in his discussion of Jesus because Jesus is their Lord as well as his and his company. Jesus is not the author and finisher of the faith of those who “have no faith.”
The Jewish Christians are saved; how then, can Sproul discuss those who are “in the middle of the life of the church” yet are unsaved? When the context concerns those who are saved, how does a scholar of Sproul’s renown shy away from context and discuss the exact opposite group of which Paul mentions (that is, unsaved persons)? Remember, these Jewish Christians had the foundational doctrines taught to them, despite their immaturity and need to have the foundation laid “again.”
Is Hebrews 6:4-6 a case of argumentum ad absurdum?
To answer the question in one word, “no.” Hebrews 6:4-6 is not presenting an absurd, exaggerated argument for the purposes of hypothetical fear.
The argument is logical and fits the flow of Paul’s thought in Hebrews 6. After all, when Paul mentions “once enlightened” in Hebrews 6:4, he’s paralleling his discussion with the fact that the Jewish Christians to which he writes have been “once enlightened” as well (Hebrews 10:32). So, to start off, Hebrews 6:4-6 is anything but an absurd, exaggerated statement because it concerns persons like the Jewish Christians, who, once saved, then “fall away.” And that is the fear Paul has for these Jewish Christians: that they would fall away from Christian foundational doctrines, what we call “the faith,” and reconvert to Judaism.
Christ Crucified Twice: The Logic of Paul’s Thought
Christ being crucified twice is a thought that rarely occurs in the minds of most Christians, and Paul’s use of it in Hebrews 6:6 is not designed to exaggerate but to provide a logical conclusion to a logical argument.
First, it should be noted that Paul’s use of the phrase “fall away” is important. If, as Sproul says, this text refers to those who are in the church but aren’t saved, then what are they falling away from? He would say “the church,” since he mentions above that there are those who lack the Holy Spirit but are “in the middle of the life of the church,” but the Greek word for church, ekklesia, isn’t even present in Hebrews 6:4-6. If that’s what Paul had in mind, he would’ve used the Greek word, as he uses it elsewhere in letters such as Romans and Ephesians, for example.
He mentions the elementary doctrines in Hebrews 6:1 because it is the Christian faith, the doctrinal content of Hebrews 6:1, that these Jewish Christians could fall away from. Sproul would also not take kindly to this, but Paul does write in 1 Timothy 4:1 that the Spirit says that some would “depart from the faith” by giving heed to “doctrines of demons.” What this tells us is that to pay attention to anything other than the truth can lead to the dire consequence of apostasy. One cannot depart from a faith he or she never embraced to begin with, so the Jewish Christians cannot depart from Christianity and go back to Judaism if they were, as the phrase Sproul’s ilk emphasizes so much, “never saved to begin with.”
Next, if they must be “renew[ed] again to repentance,” have they not repented once before? To be “renewed” means to do something again, at least a second time, does it not? And with repentance in view, we see that these individuals have repented before. As we’ve seen above in context, the Jewish Christians were saved, so they had repented once before, some time ago. Repentance and faith are the foundation of Christian living, and Paul’s mention of the doctrine of “the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God” in Hebrews 6:1 is not by mistake.
Christ being recrucified “afresh”
What does this mean in context? Paul’s mention of Christ being crucified afresh is considered by Sproul to be an argumentum ad absurdum, but I’ll show you just how non-absurd and commonsensical Paul’s argument is.
For apostates to be renewed to repentance, Paul says, “they crucify again for themselves the Son of God” (Hebrews 6:6). Why must the Son of God, Jesus, be crucified again in such a context? Because, once the apostate falls away, he or she has thrown off the atonement. Remember, when they repented before, they came accepting Jesus’ atonement for their sins. To throw off Christianity and faith is to throw off the atonement, in which case, Jesus would have to be crucified again before they could repent a second time and be saved a second time. Is this not a logical argument?
Let me give an example to explain the logic of Paul’s argument. If a friend purchases a ticket for you to your favorite artist’s music concert, what happens in the event that you lose the ticket by washing it in your favorite pair of jeans until it’s beyond recognition? If the ticket is destroyed, you can’t get into the concert unless your friend purchases a second ticket to replace the one you washed. And, even then, the money paid for the first ticket is gone forever; it is irreversibly gone, without refund. There’s no refund for a destroyed ticket due to negligence and forgetfulness.
The same can be said for the “first” atonement: once an apostate throws off their “first” enlightenment, their first salvation or conversion, it is irreversibly gone, no longer effective for him or her. Jesus would have to be crucified a second time for the apostate. And He won’t be crucified a second time because, as Scripture so clearly states it, Jesus died “once for all” (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10). Jesus needed only to die once for sin because His atonement is efficacious. This is why we sing songs such as “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” — to remember that His sacrifice is efficacious, still saving souls, still redemptive, still powerful, still effective, still acceptable to God.
Think also on this: if Jesus died a second time, would the second atonement not nullify the first one? And think on this: if Jesus died a second time for a few apostates, would that not nullify the salvation of Christians who never left Jesus? If the second atonement is superior to the first one, then all Christians who were saved under the first atonement would still be sinners and would need to be saved all over again. And in the end, such a situation would effectively nullify Jesus as the one atoning sacrifice because He’d need to be recrucified to “get it right.” If His first atonement isn’t the only atonement, then He wouldn’t be the Christ — and we’d need to look for another to take His place.
The idea of a second crucifixion is absurd in theory (a person who needs to die twice for sin can’t get it right the first time, which cancels out their power as the atoning sacrifice), and the idea that Jesus would be recrucified for apostates and nullify the salvation of persevering Christians is also an absurd concept, but the argument within Hebrews 6:4-6 is logical because Paul is teaching the Jewish Christians about the irreversibility of apostasy: once they apostatize and leave Christ, they can never come back. The absurd concepts here are used to emphasize a logical and real point about the lost salvation of the apostatizing Jewish Christians should they choose to “fall away.”
There is only one repentance, one confession, one belief for salvation, one conversion, and one opportunity to persevere in that same salvation. Paul, then, argues a concept here that we at The Essential Church call “YOSO” — You’re Only Saved Once. “Once Saved, Only Saved” (OSOS) is different in nature from “Once Saved, Always Saved” (OSAS).
If there’s an absurd argument, it’s not Paul’s, but Sproul’s.