Hebrews 5:11 – 6:12

David H. Linden,  University Presbyterian Church,  Las Cruces, NM  USA

imputed@gmail.com  revised January, 2011


This lesson covers one of the most controversial statements in the Bible. In this third warning of apostasy (6:4-6), some conclude that people once united to Christ may still be lost if they apostatize. Some avoid this problem by arguing that the warning is only hypothetical. I am certain that all the warnings of Hebrews are real, because they deal with what can and does happen in the church.


The flow of Hebrews has been to present Christ as a Priest in the order of Melchizedek. Suddenly the writer turns to deal with the sluggishness of Christians. Something has happened to them that affects their discernment, their maturity and even makes them vulnerable to apostasy. Since the writer spoke of Christ as our Priest before and after this section, the danger he fears is related to them losing confidence in this truth, and thus confidence in Christ Himself. They had slipped from the zealous good works of former days (10:32-39).  Maybe their claim of not being teachers (5:12) was a way they had to excuse themselves from boldly confessing Christ as their Savior Priest. Such caution may appear prudent when persecution threatens, but it is really a great spiritual danger. Pulling back from confessing Christ indicates that confidence is not really in Christ, and that is a path to apostasy.


Hebrews 6 gives the topics of what those Christians considered foundational. It shows how deeply one may be involved in the church and still be lost.  It also comforts believers and reviews their good works, affirming their love for the Lord in their care of each other. This section opens and closes with a word about sluggishness.[1]  To counter this, the writer of Hebrews calls for diligence and fruitfulness. 


Various subjects are combined: holding doctrine firmly, going on to maturity, care for others in the church, confession of Christ in the world, and hope for the future. All these things are vital; they go together and cannot be separated.  They all are essential in a responsible walk with the Lord.  


5:11-14  What was the problem that provoked such strong exhortation? 


This is difficult to decide.  It appears that the readers of Hebrews were simply immature, not capable of solid food, only able to digest milk, in need of others to teach them, and such teaching would need to be of elementary things. This is a common understanding of the passage. 


Such an interpretation does not fit the rest of Hebrews smoothly; it even has a problem within the paragraph itself. If immaturity is the real problem (rather than a symptom of a different problem), then the writer fails to do certain expected things. Note these external factors:


1)  He never writes this letter as if the readers of it are indeed so immature that they are unable intellectually to grasp what he is saying.  It would be very odd to have one of the most complicated books in the Bible written the way it is, if the readers who received it had no ability to handle solid food. 


2)  The following paragraph, “Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity…” could mean let us grow into a deeper understanding. However, if they literally needed someone to teach them the elementary truths all over again, why then in 6:1-3 did he merely list those elementary things and not teach them at all? It is like saying, “You are only able to handle milk, so here, have some meat!”    


Internal factors:


1)  The words “you are slow …” [2] should be, “you have become …”  In other words, they once were a certain condition, but they deteriorated from that and are still in this lesser condition.  It is doubtful that they really moved from a level of maturity to the knowledge level of little children. This helps to explain why the word to them is so stern. I hope we would be careful how we would scold young Christians who have not developed to maturity quickly. But if a mature person reverts from active service to a passive behavior, that indicates irresponsible change. These readers moved from being teachers to learners! Something was wrong.


2)  Further, being “dull of hearing” is part of a word play on the word to hear. In Greek, obey is the word hear with a prefix added.  When the exhortation is put this way, it is a moral issue. The problem is not the degree of learning so much as resistance to hearing.  That means it is a matter of serious spiritual danger.  (Hearing as a matter of obedience is the same theme earlier in Hebrews in 2:1;  3:7,8,15;  4:2,7.)  One way to backtrack on one’s bold confession is to take the position of being not so sure. He may say, “I have to study this some more.” To feign the position of a student is one way to avoid the responsibility of public confession. 


The real problem may have been that some were quite capable of articulating Who Christ is and what He has done. Then for reasons of community pressure, they may have ceased to affirm these things with the same boldness and vigor as earlier. They wanted to switch roles from confessors to learners. The writer of Hebrews reacts to that.  We must remember how important confession of Christ is in this book.


Hebrews prods the readers to get back to where they were before. (See Revelation 2:5.) They did have ability to communicate the faith and had done so, but then later pretended they were babies. It is like claiming one is not an expert, a statement made to support an excuse for not speaking up and confessing Christ as they once did. The writer rebukes them by calling them babies to jar them into being serious. Any move from confession to a lack of confession is extremely dangerous, because the real alternative to confession is denial! (Matthew 10:32,33). We must “hold firmly to the faith we profess” (4:14), “the apostle and high priest whom we confess” (3:1), and “the hope we profess” (10:23).[3]


I am not certain of this interpretation that they pretended they were uncertain of some truth, but whenever we have one that fits the rest of the letter, it must be considered.  I suggest that this paragraph should be seen as having a similar message as 10:32-39. Sluggish hearing and obedience means the heart is not fully in it. That indicates a hardening of heart, a warning not new to Hebrews. Chapter 6 will warn again of apostasy; again the theme is close to Hebrews 10:39, But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.”


6:1-3  The appeal here is not to forsake elementary teachings, but to move on to more. We never mean that if something is elementary that it is unimportant; we mean it is not all there is. We are allowed here a glimpse of the topics they considered important in the instruction of new believers. The six topics fall into three sets of two. 


1)  Faith & Repentance   They taught not only faith but also repentance, and this repentance was from dead works. (See 9:14). The view of sin is that it leads to death (James 1:14,15).  The sin-death axis is unbreakable in the justice of God (Romans 6:23).  Their instruction had a frank simplicity to it.   Sin is to be feared as deadly, and faith in God is not genuine unless repentance accompanies it.


Justification by repentance?   The Bible never says we are justified before God by repentance; it is always by faith. Repentance turns from sin and thus is the converse of a turning to God for forgiveness. Only faith reaches out to receive the gift of God. A life of unlimited repentance would never save us because it is not the nature of repentance to take or to trust the promise of God in the gospel. Only faith is the means of justification, even though faith is never separated from repentance. Those who seek to have justification by means of a life of repentance are teaching salvation by works. Repentance obviously improves what a man is; it is an internal change. Justifying faith, however, receives what is not found in us. It receives what is external to us, namely the righteousness performed in the obedience of Christ as a man under the law. Repentance, a pre-condition of the exercise of faith, is unto life, while faith receives the righteousness and forgiveness which are the actual source of that new life. Though no one genuinely repents without also believing, Scripture assigns to faith and only faith the means by which we obtain the justifying verdict of God.  If it helps, repentance is like dropping whatever is in the hand, so that the hand may reach out to take (for such is faith) the gift of God. Repentance is to the law of God, and faith responds to the gospel of God.


2)  Washings and Laying on of Hands   The previous set (faith and repentance) are not visible.  They happen in the heart.  Now comes a great contrast.  The Jewish washings were known to them; surely in this context they were instructed about the washing that is distinctively Christian – baptism with water into the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  This is an external washing.  Faith is in the blood of Christ for forgiveness; baptism is a visible washing that points to the blood that cleanses from sin. In Western society, there is little enthusiasm for some rite sanctified by the Word of God. People are more interested in what goes on within them, but it was the Lord Jesus Who instituted baptism, commanding it in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).  


Laying on of hands could refer to the reception of the Holy Spirit as in Acts 8:17, or even the ministry of those men called by God to be ministers of the Word (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6).  Sharing the same baptism would identify Christians as part of the same body of believers.   The world cannot see faith in the heart, but it can see a rite that identifies one as a Christian.  (I did not say, “makes one to be a Christian”.)  Whatever ‘laying on of hands’ is, it is a visible action.  


In these three pairs, two are related to activity in the heart, two to what the eye can see, and the last two look to what has not yet happened.   


3)  The Resurrection and Eternal Judgment   Basic Christian instruction included the Coming of Christ, the physical resurrection of the body, the Judgment, the eternal punishment of all without Christ, and the final suppression of all that is evil. Christian teachers in the days of the New Testament were not interested only in the present. Teaching about the future is an essential element to provide new believers with the big picture.


The Big Picture in 6:4-20:    The writer wants to move on to other themes (6:1) and is ready to do so, if the Lord lets him get to that part in the letter he is writing (6:3)!  Yet before he shows how Christ is in the order of Melchizedek, he must address the irreversible nature of apostasy (6:4-8), and then comfort his readers that he does not think they are apostate (6:9,10), and then urge upon them a diligent life of faith (6:11,12). Here is good preaching. It is a blend of explanation (get the relevant facts, found in most of chapter 5), added to this pointed exhortation (applying the message personally in 5:11 – 6:8). This then was coupled with a hearty dose of kind appraisal of them (6:9-11), plus comfort from Scripture, showing God’s careful assurances to Abraham (6:13-18). Then this all concludes with the perfect priestly ministry of Christ (6:18-20). Here’s how God’s people are humbled and made joyful on the same page of Holy Scripture.


The Third Warning  6:4-8


The core of the warning is 6:4-6 with vv.7 & 8 as an illustration.


Vv.4-6 make a long sentence that should be read this way:  “It is impossible for those who … (and here there is a long description of them) … if they fall away, to be brought back …”   


The chief point is that there can be no restoration to repentance for those who have crossed the line into apostasy. The significance of their desertion of Christ is given in v.6. They crucify Christ – rather strong language to show it is utter rejection of Him, and that it is public! Thus, this sin is not explained as a matter of our weakness; desertion is a public, deliberate repudiation of the Lord Jesus, just as 10:26-29 will show later.  Remember that Hebrews is a sermon; good sermons repeat the main burden of the preacher. The matter of an incipient apostasy is probably what provoked this letter.


Descriptions of those who fell into apostasy     In every case, the descriptions are of an experience that had all the appearance of referring to true believers. In Ephesians 5:1-2, the entire church is spoken of as children of God; this is followed with the realization that among them there must not be (but could be) those who have no inheritance in the kingdom of God. Likewise, the churches of Revelation 2 & 3 had within those who appeared to be true believers. Some sins are apparent, while others come into the open later (1 Timothy 5:24). Judas’ apostasy was revealed only at the very end. The following list of blessings and privilege show the spiritual advantage and exposure to the life and truth of the Lord among those who in time choose to crucify Jesus again. This falling away comes from persons who once claimed to believe in Him, but the Lord never knew them (Matthew 7:21-23).


a)  They had a repentance of some kind, or else it would never say that they cannot be returned to it again. 


b)  They had been enlightened – this was standard language for being converted (10:32); expressed in other words, it was a reception of the truth (10:26).   Conversion from sin is leaving a life of darkness (Colossians 1:12,13).  Anyone who has any evidence of repentance would be described as one who has come into the light.  After NT times, enlightenment would become a synonym for baptism, but that is not the case within the New Testament.


c)  They had tasted the heavenly gift – this means they had exposure to heavenly things. To hear the gospel favorably is to receive the message of the One the Father sent from heaven. Some receive the gospel with joy, as in Matthew 13:20. This can be a shallow response without any fruit (Matthew 13:23). The hearer or taster of this heavenly gift can still “fall away” (Matthew 13:21). It will not fit to say that these persons only tasted but did not eat; taste is not used that way in the Bible (see 2:9). Apostates were in living contact with the real things and at one time they claimed that they too believed.


d)  They shared in the Holy Spirit – this may refer to the Spirit’s very visible activity in signs, wonders, miracles, and gifts mentioned in 2:4. Unbelievers also saw these things in the ministry of Christ, causing them to make statements that they were convinced of Christ and “believed”. Many believed in Jesus according to John 10:42; 12:42, but note that when some “believed”, the Lord “did not entrust Himself to them for He knew what was in all men” (John 2:23,24). It is reported of apostate Simon that he believed (Acts 8:13), yet his heart was not right (Acts 8:20-23). So the activity of the Spirit may make an impression that is not the same as regeneration. Apostates like Judas could be active in ministry, prophesying, driving out demons, and performing miracles, even raising the dead, yet Judas was a devil (Matthew 10:1-10; John 6:70). Judas was so intimately involved we can say he shared in ministry with other apostles (Acts 1:17). Christ was clear that Judas was not lost in the sense that one of God’s elect was lost (John 17:12). In fact his treachery was part of God’s eternal plan (Luke 22:21,22). He was lost, because in his unwashed heart (Titus 3:5) he loved money more than Christ. Amazing as it is, Judas shared in the Spirit in the activity of ministry but not in new life in Christ.


e)  They had tasted the powers of the coming age – this is similar to sharing in the Spirit in light of 2:4.  Apostates in the church saw transformed lives, the beginnings of eternal life appearing before them.   Unbelievers can see a shining light (Matthew 5:14-16). Every raising of a dead person was a harbinger of the resurrection of everyone in the coming age. Jesus’ casting out demons was witness that the coming kingdom, though not fully revealed, was nevertheless evident in His Spirit-filled ministry (Matthew 12:28). The coming age is not here. It waits for the second coming, but the glory of what will be had begun. It was in such a context that apostates experienced the realities around them, yet they spurned Christ. Like those in the cities where Jesus did most of His miracles, apostates will face greater judgment (Matthew 11:20-24).  


Conclusion:    One may have high exposure to Christian life, observing the working of God among His people. They may profess, assert, and affirm these things as their convictions and commitment. Then they may turn from it and abandon it and Christ wholesale. They cannot be brought back.


6:7,8  The Parable of Two Lands    Just as the same word of God was the common seed in the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, here different fields receive the same rain.  Apostates and true believers sat in church under the same Word of God and saw around them the same work of the Spirit. The response in some was a sincere faith and obedience. With the apostates it was a thorns-and-thistles response to the living God, a perverse “crop” not immediately apparent to others. The result is that one kind of ground (or person) is blessed and the other is cursed and burned (John 15:2). In this simple way Hebrews states again the issue and result of apostasy. If the tree bears no good fruit, it will be cut down (Luke 13:6-9). If branches professing to be in Christ bear no fruit, they will be burned. Every true believer will bear good fruit and will show thereby that he is a disciple (John 15:1-8). Apostasy is so godless that in spite of every advantage of a good environment, as in Isaiah 5:1-7, the unregenerate heart will eventually wallow in unbelief, disobedience, and rejection of the Son of God.  


6:9-12  The Appeal for Good Works    Even though the horrid possibility of apostasy meant the writer had to deal with such a threat, it is not his general appraisal of all in the church. He speaks softly calling them dear friends, (probably translated better as “beloved”) revealing that he is not hostile.  It is impossible to be a pastor while hostile to those under one’s care.  It is “feed my sheep” (John 21:17), not beat my sheep. 


He believes better things of them, like the better land producing a useful crop (6:7). We are justified by faith alone, but this receptive faith without works in it (Romans 3:28) shows itself in due course to be a productive faith that works. A faith that has no deeds is not a true saving faith (James 2:14); faith is not what we do to be justified, but if it is real, it is shown by what we do (James 2:18). Salvation has a beginning, and it will have what accompanies it. He then states his evidence for believing their faith was genuine: their love to God was shown to His people. This observation – the writer somehow had some pertinent knowledge of them (10:32-39) – makes him conclude that genuine salvation has occurred. He will still express a great concern concerning each individual in 6:11, just in case! (see 3:12). It should be very plain to us that the writer of Hebrews does not base his comfort concerning their salvation merely upon some claim on their part that they have been converted. His emphasis is on the fruit that demonstrates salvation (Galatians 5:22,23). Their love for the Lord registered with him, and he added that the Lord will reward them for it. God will not remember forgiven sins, but He will not forget love for Him, shown to Him by being shown to the people He loves. 


6:11,12  The Appeal for Diligence    This section began with the sober appraisal that they had become sluggish. Then after his warning came his kind appraisal about their salvation.  As soon as he points to their good works, he calls for more of the same. He wants it to be characteristic of them. The emphasis then turns to the matter of hope. It is not enough to believe truth!  Hebrews encourages believing but also expecting, that feature of faith we call hope. Do they have anything to look forward to?  Do they not have an inheritance? What of the promises of God that relate to the future? Their discouragement, shown in running a sluggish race (12:1-13), had its root in a fading hope.


We are justified by faith alone (Romans 5:1); we stand in this grace (Romans 5:2) and “we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2).  The rest of Hebrews 6 will encourage faith in God’s promises, and that is what hope is.  Before he speaks to that, the writer connects hope with a life that anticipates God’s eternal blessings.  This hope affects the present and causes people to love. A person with little hope is one with little faith. We may not see how diligence (a fruit of faith) can ever cause hope to increase, but that is what this passage teaches! I think the principle is that one virtue adds to another. Peter speaks of God’s promises, which lead to holiness of life and resistance to lust. Peter begins with faith and ends with such a productive life that the believer gains thereby certainty of election (2 Peter 1:3-11). What may appear to be a small obedience (helping God’s people) is a diligence that, if continued to the end, makes their hope sure. Faith looks away from self to Christ for acceptance by God, but such faith leads to transformation in conduct, promoting hope in God’s promises for eternity.


Hebrews is a careful balance of warning re laziness and encouragement to diligence. He has addressed their situation, stated what the issues were, and later added illustrations from the stalwart lives of others (plural), though he would wait till Hebrews 11 to open this subject fully. In chapter 6 he spoke of the hope of Abraham and his inheritance. The theme is quite deliberate. We should ponder what we believe God will do for us in the future. The inheritance is a gift to faith, but faith is alive. In patient hope the heart settles upon whatever God promises. To be without hope is to be without faith, and that would be to be without Christ!








[1] Again the word for sluggish serves as an inclusio.  This word appears twice in all of the NT, only here in 5:11 & 6:12.  In this way we are certain of the author’s literary unit.  

[2] The NIV is “you are slow to learn”  The NKJV & ESV are better; both say, “you have become dull of hearing”.  The NIV loses the play on words related to hearing, and obscures the perfect tense.

[3] Profess and confess are from the same Greek word.