Are Those Who Fall Away Really Christians? Hebrews 6:4-6 (2024)

Are Those Who Fall Away Really Christians? Hebrews 6:4-6May 27, 2024B. J. Oropeza

Hebrews 6:4-6 speaks about falling away. It reads, “For it is impossible regarding those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted of the good word of God and powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to renew them again to repentance, since they are crucifying for themselves again the son of God, making a public mockery of him.”

If such people rejected Christ after apparently repenting, were they really Christians in the first place?

Hebrews 6:4-6 More Closely

The author of Hebrews turns from directly addressing his audience to speak primarily in aorist participles about others in these verses. The string of participles describe them as once being “enlightened,” having “tasted” of the heavenly gift, having “become” partakers of the Holy Spirit, and “tasted” of the good word of God and powers of the age to come. They experienced all these things prior to their falling away. They ended up rejecting Christ, committing apostasy.*

Such descriptions seem to imply that they had experienced conversion and understood the elementary teachings of the early Christian faith as described in Hebrews 6:1–2. Let us look at some of the various phrases in Hebrews 6:4-6 more closely.

“Once enlightened”

With the immediate context of Hebrews 6:1–3 fresh in the author’s mind, the thought of those who “were once enlightened” (ἅπαξ φωτισθέντας: Heb 6:4a) most likely refers to conversion or “saving illumination.” This is similar to Hebrews 10:32 where the same word φωτίζω refers to the audiences’ actual conversion in the past. This goes beyond mere Christian instruction.

In Hebrews 6:4 the word assumes conversion as a one-time event with the adverb “once” (cf. 9:7, 26–29; 10:2; 12:26f). This conversion, it seems, takes place through repentance, faith, water and Spirit baptism, and perhaps a confession made during the initiation process (Heb 6:1–2).

Other passages in early Christian traditions likewise portray conversion as coming out of darkness into “light” in which the neophyte belongs to God’s people and kingdom (Col 1:13; Eph 5:8; 2 Cor 4:4–6; Acts 26:18; 1 Pet 2:9–12).

“Tasted of the heavenly gift”

Among the options for this phrase, one possibility is that it is an echo from the wilderness generation’s eating of manna (Heb 6:4b; cf. Exod 16:4, 15; Ps 77:24; 104:40; Neh 9:15; John 6:31–58). If so, the allusion might foreshadow partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

Another interpretation suggests the heavenly gift refers to the Spirit, which is seen as God’s agent of grace (Heb 6:2; 10:29; cf. Acts 2:38; 8:20; 10:45; Luke 11:13; John 4:10, 23; Barnabas 1). The idea of tasting in 6:4 might correspond to the notion of drinking in the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 12:13; John 7:37–39). But if the next line in Hebrews 6:4c refers to the Spirit, then the gift in 6:4b probably refers to something else.

Other alternatives include grace or salvation as the heavenly gift (e.g., Rom 5:15; Eph 3:7; 1 Pet 2:2-3). Harold Attridge
understands the meaning of this gift to be more eclectic. It is “the gracious bestowal of salvation, with all that entails—the spirit, forgiveness, and sanctification” (Attridge, Hebrews, 171).

Important for our purposes is that the “tasting” of this gift does not mean a mere “sip” or “sampling” but the reality of
experiencing something related to personal salvation. The author uses the term earlier in this letter to refer to Christ “tasting” death (Heb 2:9; cf. Matt 16:28). Whatever else the author means in Hebrews 6:4, he is communicating that those who fell away were at one time converted and experienced the grace of God.

“Partakers of the Holy Spirit”

These apostates also shared in the Holy Spirit (Heb 6:4c), a thought that comes close to the mystical union of sharing in a relationship with Christ (cf. Heb 3:1, 14). Here the focus may be on the Spirit’s relationship, communion, and solidarity with the believers (cp. 1 Cor 12:13; 2 Cor 13:13f). Such was an early Christian hallmark for determining conversion-initiation, new life, and sanctification (Acts 11:15–18; Rom 8:9–14; 2 Thess 2:13; Titus 3:5; Eph 1:13–14; John 3:3–7). There is in fact no passage in the New Testament that affirms unbelievers or fake Christians having a share in the Holy Spirit (I. Howard Marshall, Kept by the Power of God, 143, likewise makes this point).

Even Matthew 7:21–23 does not affirm that the miracles done by false prophets in Jesus’ name were performed by the power of the Spirit. On the other hand, as we notice in Galatians 3:1-5 (cf. Gal 5:4) and 1 Corinthians 10:1-12 , authentic Christians who have the Spirit can potentially fall away (see further, B. J. Oropeza, Jews, Gentiles, and the Opponents of Paul; Apostasy in the New Testament Communities, vol. 1; and further on 1 Cor 10, Oropeza, Paul and Apostasy).

The same appears to hold true for our author in Hebrews, who recalls earlier days of the Spirit’s activity in the congregation (Heb 2:3–4). But he now warns them that outraging the Spirit of grace is tantamount to apostasy (Heb 10:29).

“Tasted of the good word of God and powers of the age to come”

This phrase from Hebrews 6:5 refers back to the theme of God speaking through his Son in the final days (Heb 1:3). The apostates were taught the spoken word, the gospel message of salvation and life (Heb 2:3; 4:1; 5:9; 6:12).

The powers of the coming age likely points back to the signs and wonders experienced by early Christian communities (Heb 2:2–4; cf. 1 Cor 12:4–11). By way of comparison we recall persons such as Ananias and Sapphira from Acts 5:1-11. They probably experienced miraculous events, fellowship with the Spirit, and the gift of salvation. Perhaps they were even among the 3,000 that received baptism on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2; cf. 4:31). Yet they sinned greatly by lying to the Spirit and were struck dead (Acts 5:1–11).

They “have fallen away”

The upshot in Hebrews 6:4–6 is that despite all these salvific blessings these individuals experienced, they then fell away (καί παραπεσόντας). In 6:6 the conjunction kai (καί) may connote temporal succession and be translated as “and then,” highlighting something unexpected.

The severity of language and repeated warnings throughout this letter attest to apostasy. The Greek word, parapipto (to “fall away”) appears nowhere else in the New Testament. But in the LXX, the Greek Old Testament, it normally conveys some form apostasy from God, righteousness, or wisdom (Ezekiel 14:13; 15:8; 18:24; 20:27; Wisdom 6:9; 12:2).The meaning in Hebrews 6:6 is quite similar to pipto (to “fall [away]”) in Hebrews 4:11. Both words refer to committing apostasy.

There is no conditional “if ” in the Greek text here, and none should be imported as certain Bible versions such as NKJV and KJV mistakenly do. In other words, the warning does not express what hypothetically happens to apostates even though Christians cannot really become apostates. The danger of apostasy is a real threat here!

Warnings and Persecution

The author of Hebrews uses this passage as a springboard to directly warn the recipients not to behave in a like manner. He implies through the larger context that the recipients’ reluctant hearing might become the cause of their own falling away (e.g., Hebrews 2:1-4; 5:11-14).

Are Those Who Fall Away Really Christians? Hebrews 6:4-6 (1)

Unlike the wilderness generation (mentioned in Hebrews 3–4) or Esau (Hebrews 12:16–17), the defectors in this case are believers in Christ. Our author might even have in mind an actual event in the audience’s past in which certain members of their community actually did fall away.

Another possibility, however, is that the author, who may be from Italy (Heb 13:24), is recalling Emperor Nero’s persecutions of Christians in Rome (c. 64 CE). Certain believers probably denied Christ at that time due to the severity of this persecution. Eusebius, a patristic writer in the 4th century, wrote about this and other persecutions. He likewise admits that a number of Christians fell away due to persecution (see his Church History). Pliny the Younger also mentions Christian apostates in his report to Emperor Trajan in his Letters (10.96). Moreover, Mark’s Gospel may have originated in the community of Rome, as many scholars suggest. It emphasizes suffering along with Jesus’s famous saying that the one who saves his life will lose it, and the one who loses his life will save it (Mark 8:34-38).

In any case, the author of Hebrews refers to Christians who were once converted, sharers in God’s Spirit, and experienced gracious salvation, God’s word, and the miracles of the coming age. Despite all this, they fell away. The audience of this letter would doubtless think that these apostates were also once true believers in Christ.


We might assume that both the author and audience would have known people who had left their congregations but were never truly committed. Or, they doubted their beliefs, or perhaps were compromised with immoral conduct. But there does not appear to be a good reason for the author of Hebrews to bother compiling an entire list of salvific blessings described in 6:1–4 unless he was intending to communicate to his audience that these people were genuine believers. Perhaps the author of Hebrews wanted to affirm that he was not referring to the type of half-hearted churchgoer, but to those who had been unmistakably converted.

We have to remember that nearly 2,000 ago, the Christ-followers in this community were not indoctrinated with a “once saved, always saved” belief. Nor did they know about the post-Reformation doctrine of the “perseverance of the saints.” As was common with other groups in or originating from Second Temple Judaism, the potential to commit apostasy remained a grim reality (see my article, “Apostasy” in T. and T. Clark Encyclopedia of Second Temple Judaism,ed. Loren T. Stuckenbruck and Daniel M. Gurtner). The danger of apostasy is a real threat to real Christians.

Our author presents this passage as part of his effort to shake the audience free from their spiritual dullness. His rhetorical strategy for them comes through loud and clear: “if these other believers fell away who had experienced conversion and spiritual blessings just like you experience, watch out or else the same thing might happen to you!”


* For a more thorough study on Hebrews and apostasy, see B. J. Oropeza, Churches Under Siege of Persecution and Assimilation: The General Epistles and Revelation. Apostasy in the New Testament Communities, Vol. 3 (Eugene: Cascade, 2012), pp. 3-70 (from which portions of this post are derived)

Are Those Who Fall Away Really Christians? Hebrews 6:4-6 (2024)


What does "fallen away" mean in Hebrews 6? ›

It means “no power” to do something, “inability”. For those who by their false beliefs and teachings show their true nature, it is impossible to restore them to a state of “repentance”. God does not let those he truly redeems utterly fall away, but in these, repentance was never sincere to begin with.

What is the meaning of falling away? ›

1. a. : to withdraw friendship or support. b. : to renounce one's faith.

What is the meaning of heb 6 4? ›

Taken in context, this passage is a warning to Christians about the potential consequences of shallow, immature faith. Those who fall into doubt and disobedience cannot be ''restored,'' except by the fire of God's judgment.

What does the Bible say about falling away? ›

3 Let no man deceive you by any means; for there shall come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; 7 For the mystery of iniquity doth already work, and he it is who now worketh, and Christ suffereth him to work, until the time is fulfilled that he shall be taken out of the way.

How to come back to God after falling away? ›

Here are some ways to help you find your way back to Him:
  1. Talk to Him. Just as with any other person in your life, communication is essential to strengthening your relationship with God. ...
  2. Study the scriptures. ...
  3. Listen for Him. ...
  4. Show gratitude. ...
  5. Be mindful.
Jul 2, 2016

What is the short meaning of fall away? ›

fall away. ​to become gradually fewer or smaller; to disappear. His supporters fell away as his popularity declined. The market for their products fell away to almost nothing. All our doubts fell away.

What is it called when you fall away from God? ›

"Apostasy is also pictured as the heart turning away from God (Jeremiah 17:5–6) and righteousness (Ezekiel 3:20).

What is meant by the great falling away in the Bible? ›

The doctrine highlights statements from the Scriptures that various Old Testament and New Testament scriptures, like 2 Thessalonians 2:3, that Jesus Christ prophesied this "falling away" or "apostasy." The Christian believers who survived the persecutions took it upon themselves to speak for God, interpret, amend or ...

What is the meaning of Hebrews 4:6? ›

Here, the author points out that the rest promised by God is still offered, through Christ. The razor-sharp truth of the Word of God will separate what is truly spiritual from what is faithless. We should make every effort to obtain our inheritance in Christ, which is something separate from our eternal salvation.

What is the message of Hebrews 6 4 8? ›

4-8Once people have seen the light, gotten a taste of heaven and been part of the work of the Holy Spirit, once they've personally experienced the sheer goodness of God's Word and the powers breaking in on us—if then they turn their backs on it, washing their hands of the whole thing, well, they can't start over as if ...

What is Hebrew 6 verse 4 6? ›

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of ...

What is backsliding in the Bible? ›

Backsliding, also known as falling away or described as "committing apostasy", is a term used within Christianity to describe a process by which an individual who has converted to Christianity reverts to pre-conversion habits and/or lapses or falls into sin, when a person turns from God to pursue their own desire.

Does apostasy mean departure? ›

The noun is apostasia, transliterated “apostasy” in English and means, “a. departure, apostasy.” It is the feminine of apostasion, which means, “a departure, divorce or.

How does Jesus keep us from falling? ›

The Holy Spirit bolsters our faith and empowers us to do His will. Thus, we are kept from falling as long as we continue to trust Him. Jude continues by saying that Jesus is able to present us faultless before the Father with exceeding joy!

What is the main point of Hebrews chapter 6? ›

Then, in chapter 6, the point is made that those who have learned the basic truths of the gospel, yet "fall away," find themselves in a precarious position. Like a field that only bears thorns, there is only one way to restore them: fire.

When you deny God three times? ›

Following the arrest of Jesus, Peter denied knowing him three times, but after the third denial, he heard the rooster crow and recalled the prediction as Jesus turned to look at him. Peter then began to cry bitterly. This final incident is known as the Repentance of Peter.

What is the meaning of Hebrews 6 v1? ›

Hebrews 6:1 teaches us the importance of progressing in our faith. Don't settle for year one over and over again, even if you're a new follower of Christ. Don't settle for month one over and over again, or year one and on and on. God has called us to so much more.

What does abomination of desolation mean in Mark? ›

"Abomination of desolation" is a phrase from the Book of Daniel describing the pagan sacrifices with which the 2nd century BC Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes replaced the twice-daily offering in the Jewish temple, or alternatively the altar on which such offerings were made.


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