Often ignored in this modern era of Christianity is the covenantal aspect to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find academic resources which describe the Biblical narratives in covenantal form at this time in redemptive history. Yet, this neglect of modern scholarship does not dismiss the covenantal truth’s which are found in the pages of holy writ. Truths which very often, help to shed light on many passages which can be difficult, or in some cases, impossible to understand without the covenantal paradigm.
The goal of this current study will be to flush out the often unspoken covenantal nuances of the Hebrews 6 text. In doing so, this study will attempt to demonstrate the covenant implications of the text, by both a direct exegesis of Hebrews 6.1-8, and, by the broader teaching of covenant inclusion within the pages of Scripture. Ultimately, this essay will conclude that the individuals spoken about in the current text as “falling away,” were in fact true, non-converted members of the Covenant of Grace who had indeed, “tasted of the Heavenly gifts.”
OVERVIEW OF TOPIC
Prior to proceeding to an exegesis of the Hebrews 6.1-8 text, multiple topics must first be considered in effort to shed light on the main thrust and message of the text itself. These items will include, (1) the worldview of the original recipient, (2) the presuppositional grid of the original reader, (3) OT continuity with the NT, (4) covenantal inclusion and (5) apostasy, as a means of understanding the make-up/identity of those identified in the text.
THE WORLDVIEW OF HEBREWS
One thing which becomes obvious by even a cursory reading of the Epistle to the Hebrews, is that the original audience was well acquainted with the practices and teachings of the OT Scriptures. This is noted by Kostenberger when he states that “The author presupposed that his readers were thoroughly familiar with OT teaching, including the Levitical ritual, the priesthood, and the pattern of the tabernacle.” Thomas and Black concur with Kostenberger when they proclaim of the epistle, “Considerable evidence supports the idea that Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians. The frequent appeals to the Old Testament, the presumption that the readers knew Jewish ritual (see Heb. 9), the warning against returning to Judaism (see Heb. 6:1–2), and the early tradition for the title point to the Jews as the intended recipients.” In short, the original audience of Hebrews was thoroughly acquainted with and immersed in the Judaic worldview.
The Presuppositional Grid and Old Testament Continuity
With this in mind, it is also helpful to note that the original recipients of this epistle would not have viewed the text of Hebrews through a strictly western lens, as is often the case today by both scholar and layman alike. Rather, the information relayed in this epistle would have been written in the form of and interpreted via the lens of the OT Scriptures. Hence, the original audience would have filtered what follows in the epistle through their Jewish, yet Hellenized, presuppositional grid. A grid which would have seen efficacy, yet incompleteness in the OT system of redemption and covenant. In addition, this was also a grid which looked forward to the same “covenant head,” Jesus Christ, in the old era of redemptive history; a teaching which became a reality in the days of the original audience of Hebrews, or shortly after.
This presuppositional grid would have likewise included seeing a great deal of continuity and discontinuity between the old and new eras of redemptive history. For example, the author consistently speaks to the similarity of the OT sacrificial system in relation to the new in the form of types and shadows, thus, communicating both of the afore mentioned elements to his original readers. This continuity would have likewise been noticed and understood via the Jewish concept of covenant and covenant inclusion. A view which saw a true and legitimate corporate reality to the inclusion of family members as the people of God.
As noted above, the original audience of the Hebrews Epistle would have viewed much of the Christian faith through the OT paradigm, and in this sense, they would have assumed many nuances about a particular text, teaching or event, that may be lost to a mostly gentile audience. One of these issues which looms large in reference to the current study, is in regards to how the Jewish Christian would have viewed the members of their household. In short, like the Jews of old, the audience of Hebrews would have viewed their family member’s/covenant children as members of the Covenant of Grace (Gen 3.15), whereby God has promised in days of old to be not only a God to the individual believer, but also, to their children as well (Gen 17.7).
With this in mind, per the OT Scriptures, it can be seen that there is both an objective manner in viewing the covenant people of God (the people of Israel in general, those circumcised, regardless of faith), and a subjective way of viewing/identifying the people of God (those who have faith in YHWH, the elect and/or remnant reserved by YHWH). In the former case, Abraham was father to both Ishmael and Isaac, both covenant members in the general sense. However, it was only Isaac, the child of promise, who, as the OT narrative continues, both professes and demonstrates faith in YHWH. Likewise, both Jacob and Esau were children of the covenant in an objective, general sense. Yet, as Paul demonstrates in his teaching on the doctrine of election in Romans 9, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Rom 9.13, ESV). Hence, by these two examples, and many others, it is noted that there was both an objective and subjective manner in viewing covenant members via the Jewish Scriptures and worldview; with both circumcised believer and unbeliever (wither personally or corporately) and the members of the particular household being viewed as the “people of God” (Isa 1.2, Jer 2.20).
This point is brought out by Lusk when he proclaims of David in Ps 22, “Before a child of the promise can do any good work or make any kind of profession, God is already his God . . . The covenant child is included in a faith based covenant relationship with God.” Likewise, Calvin, in his commentary on Gen 17.7 proclaims the following regarding the identification of the objective covenant people of God when he states;
There is no doubt that the Lord distinguishes the race of Abraham from the rest of the world. We must now see what people he intends. Now they are deceived who think that his elect alone are here pointed out; and that all the faithful are indiscriminately comprehended, from whatever people, according to the flesh, they are descended. For, on the contrary, the Scripture declares that the race of Abraham, by lineal descent, had been peculiarly accepted by God.
Finally, on this issue and in relation to this new age of redemptive history, the Westminster Assembly addressed this issue in its Directory of Public Worship when it wrote that the baptized Christian, whether “of age” or infancy, is entitled to “the outward privileges of the church, under the gospel, no less than the children of Abraham in the time of the Old Testament; the covenant of grace, for substance, being the same . . . That children, by baptism, are solemnly received into the bosom of the visible church, distinguished from the world, and them that are without, and united with believers . . . That they are Christians, and federally holy before baptism, and therefore are they baptized.”
While it can be demonstrated that the OT Scriptures utilize the term covenant in both a broad and narrow fashion, it is likewise true that within the old era of redemption, there were those who were in covenant with God, yet, possessed a hardened heart towards Him in reflection to their inward disposition. One reading of the Book of Judges or Hosea brings this concept to the forefront, and nearly the entirety of the Major Prophets speaks to the issue of covenant Israel’s rebellion as the bride of YHWH. However, this is not simply a OT concept. Instead, the NT Scriptures are replete with this very teaching, whereby one could be in objective covenant with God, yet, unregenerate or not “born again.” For example, in His conversation with the Jewish opponents of His day, the Lord Jesus proclaimed “I know that you are offspring of Abraham” (Jn 8.37), whereby He followed these words with “If you were Abraham’s children” (v 39), with the culmination of His thoughts on this topic being “You are of your father the devil” in verse 44. Hence, Jesus’ Jewish opponents were both “in covenant” with God, yet, they were adulterators of that same covenant relationship.
Moving on, this concept of “in/out of covenant” is not limited to the Gospel accounts, but rather, the apostle Paul proclaims in Rom 2 the following, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical” (Rom 2.28). And again in Rom 9, he states, “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom 9.6), thus indicating that you could be a child of Abraham in one sense, yet rebellious of heart and God hating in another sense. Moreover, if one considers the issues in both the Epistle’s to the Corinthians and Galatians, and notes how the apostle addresses these churches’ corporately, despite the rank sin and false teaching which existed within these local assemblies, they may be hard pressed to deny that there is an objective/corporate aspect to being in covenant with God.
What all of these verses and/or situations have in common is a failure of the subjective or personal aspect of covenant relationship (faith within covenant) to matchup with that which is objective, namely, the outward inclusion in the Covenant of Grace. Hence, when one comes across passages such as these, which speak similar to individuals “being truly in the vine of Christ,” who are later “cut away and burned” (Jn 15.1-17), the reader’s thoughts should look backwards into the nature of covenant via the OT Scriptures to discern what the author is speaking to. In short, the OT people of God realized that one could be in covenant, yet fall away, possibly never to be restored because of hard-heartedness, and thus, become apostate. These were individuals who, although that were outwardly members of the Covenant of Grace, were never changed on the inside via the Spirt of God working effectually in their hearts.
And this would have been the paradigm which governed the worldview of the readers/original audience of Hebrews, whereby they realized that there was both an objective and subjective aspect of covenant inclusion/binding, as Schenck notes when, in quoting Calvin, he proclaims, “The covenant of all the fathers is so far from differing from substance from ours, that it is one and the same; the administration of it, however, does vary.”
EXEGESIS OF HEBREWS 6.1-8
As one approaches the text of Heb chapter 6, they would in grave error if they neglected to survey the prior context of this section of Scripture, namely, chapter 5, verses 11-14. In these verses, the author sets up his chapter 6 discussion by eluding to the genuine and very real possibility of apostasy, as noted in verse 11 where the author proclaims that his readers, at least in part, had become “dull of hearing.” The remainder of chapter 5 speaks to the issue of maturity in the faith, whereby the original readers were lacking development in things spiritual, as indicated in the final clause of verse 12 which proclaims, “You need milk, not solid food” (Heb 5.12, ESV). It is this context that the author uses to address this topic further, in effort to exhort his readers into Christian maturity. And it is the text of chapter 6 which will now be addressed.
(Verse 1) “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.” The goal of verse 1 can be seen as an exhortation to mature in the faith, whereby the author proclaims that his readers should “leave the elementary (ἀρχή > arche)” doctrines in effort to advance to Christian maturity. This word, ἀρχή, according to BDAG, carries with it the meaning of “the commencement of something as an action, process, or state of being, beginning,” In this sense, the author is instructing his readers to advance past the basic teachings of the faith, so they can move past or not repeat the repentance from “dead works.” These terms mean, “repentance from useless works. It refers to Jewish works of the law [Alf, TNTC, Wst], which lost their provisional vitality when Christ’s work was fulfilled [Wst]” according to Greenlee. Hence, per the flow of Hebrews thus far, Christ’s effectual work is being highlighted, even in this verse, as supreme, all efficacious and sufficient to save sinners. Interestingly, the use of these terms likewise assumes covenant binding between the original reader and God, a point which is vital the context of apostasy is considered from the previous chapter.
(Verse 2) “and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.” Verse 2 is a continuation from verse 1, where the author explains what these “dead works” look like by his use of types. The various Jewish ceremonial washings of the old era system of redemption never brought final purification. Hence, these forms of βάπτισμα (baptisma > baptism) were simply temporal in nature. Moreover, the “instruction” or διδαχῆς (didaches > teaching/doctrine) regarding the “laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgement” were simply basic or fundamental doctrines in relation to verse 1. Doctrines which were to be considered basic when compared to the overarching teaching of Christ’s atonement, His high priestly role, and the once for all sacrifice whereby He earned eternal redemption for all who believe in Him by faith.
(Verse 3) “And this we will do if God permits.” Verse 3 highlights the sovereignty of God and how it is operative in the life and experience of the believer and/or covenant member. In short, YHWH is the primary mover in all of human experience, and sanctification and the maturity of the Christian are products of God’s in-working within the life of the covenant member. Moreover, it relates to the flow of verses 1-2 in that man cannot advance forward via the older system of redemption. Meaning, the foundation of “dead works” which was established in the OT ceremonial redemptive system did not either improve or ultimately mature or purify the covenant member; this was instead done by faith. In addition, maturity and sanctification is the supernatural work of God which takes place in the heart of the believer; a work of God which culminated in the finished work of Christ when applied to the believer.
(Verse 4) “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.” Many theories have been postulated in reference to the following three verses, all of which, in one form or another, have weaknesses when evaluated by the whole of Scripture. Is this verse speaking to one losing their justification because of apostasy? Or, is a warning passage such as this simply a hypothetical, whereby the author uses it to speak to a group of individuals who preside within the church as a “means” of bringing about God’s “end,” whereby he stops any intended apostasy prior to it taking place? It is the position of this paper, via the information previously elaborated upon, that verse 4 begins a discourse not on a hypothetical means to an end, or on one losing their justified status before God, but rather, in reference to those who preside within the covenant, yet, have not embraced the covenant promises by faith.
First, this verse proclaims that it is “impossible” (ἀδύνατος > adunatos) to “restore” (v 6) the individual in question to repentance. With this in mind, if the warning passage is speaking about the loss of justification, it gives no hope for future restoration of the individual who was once objectively regarded as an adopted son/daughter of God; an untenable position. However, if this verse is speaking to those who are unsaved within the covenant (members of the visible church), it follows that these individuals have “been enlightened” to some degree via their covenant status. For example, a child who is raised in a covenant household is considered “holy” or set apart to God via 1 Cor 7.14. These same children, by virtue of their covenant parent(s), would have been enlightened to the gospel of Jesus Christ via the teachings of their family, their church, and in this respect, would have shared to some in the covenant blessings which God had bestowed on the family/church corporately. Hence, in this sense, these same individuals, who lacked faith, have indeed “tasted” of the blessings of God and therefore, the heavenly gift and in this same respect, they would have shared in the blessings and gifts of the Holy Spirit via His pouring out of grace upon the household. This view fits the covenantal worldview of the original audience, and it likewise fits within the paradigm of the OT covenantal system, where both believer and unbeliever existed within the one Covenant of Grace.
(Verse 5) “and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.” Verse 5 is a continuation of verse 4, whereby the author proclaims that the individual in question “tasted the goodness” of God’s word. This likewise fits the present paradigm, where within the covenant household, the word of God would be proclaimed regularly and religiously; especially in a Jewish household. Moreover, these same individuals would have tasted the goodness of the “powers of the age to come,” by their participation in both family and covenant, and in this sense, they would have been exposed to the “new creation which God will one day accomplish has already begun in Jesus.” Thus, the individual in question has been an actual partaker (γεύομαι > geuomai) in the gifts of God, yet, has not embraced those gifts by faith and as a result, turns away in hardheartedness, never to return.
(Verse 6) “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.” As verses 4-5 indicate, the individual in question has been an actual partaker in enlightenment, the heavenly gift, the Holy Spirit, the word of God and the power of the coming age. Yet, when verses 4 and 6 are viewed together, the text indicates that it is impossible to restore such an individual that falls away from such experiences. Rather, these individuals “fall away,” never to be restored to the faith. These were individuals who at some point, demonstrated enlightenment to some degree, had demonstrated repentance in some form, yet, will forever be lost due to their apostasy.
Moreover, these are individuals with knowledge of the truth, yet deliberately deny it, and in this sense, they likewise deny and hold in contempt the very crucifixion of Christ which would have brought them peace with God (Rom 5.1). On this verse and the condition of those who fall away, Calvin notes, “But I cannot admit that all this is any reason why he should not grant the reprobate also some taste of his grace, why he should not irradiate their minds with some sparks of his light, why he should not give them some perception of his goodness, and in some sort engrave his word on their hearts. Otherwise, where would be the temporal faith mentioned by Mark 4:17?” Hence, Calvin sees no reason why God would not grant some semblance of blessing/enlightenment to the unbeliever, while not imparting to them the genuine article of faith itself and the gift of regeneration.
With these complicating factors in mind, Bahnsen brings clarity on this verse and on the identity of those in view when he proclaims the following;
The tasting here of the heavenly gift refers to having the blessing of the experience of the covenantal community. God from heaven has given gifts to His church, He has blessed the church and the people being described here are within the sphere of the benefits of that church . . . In a sense, the experience of Old Testament Israel is a very clear explanation of what the author of Hebrews is talking about. Here are people who enjoyed the heavenly gift. They were partakers of the Holy Spirit. They were enlightened from heaven. They had all of these blessings in their midst. They had no excuse for turning against God, but yet they did.
Thus, when verses 4-6 are viewed in light of the suggested presuppositional grid of the original audience of this epistle, it fits fully into what and how a Jew of old, or even a first century Jewish Christian, would have viewed these verses.
(Verses 7-8) “For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.” Verses 7-8 help to bring a great deal of clarity to the text which preceded, and it likewise helps to validate the present study, generally speaking. First, it is noted that there are two “types” of “lands” or individuals who “drink” of the blessings of God, (1) those who will believe and respond by faith, and, (2) those who will bear “thorns and thistles.” On this point, it is vital to note that both of these parties in some manner partake in the “rain,” with very different responses. The first produces good fruit, crops and receives the blessings from God associated with those who possess faith. In contrast, those who have “drunk the rain” and rejected the message, are marked by unbelief, identified by “bad fruit” and in this sense, are “worthless,” “cursed” and fit for judgment.
This agricultural analogy is a common literary tool in Scripture, whereby the individual speaker and author compares believer and unbeliever in light of the fruit that may produce. It is likewise commonly utilized in the context of covenant, whereby the author is addressing either faithful and unfaithful covenant members. For example, John the Baptist proclaimed to the religious (and covenantally bound) leaders of his day, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt 3.10, ESV). Likewise, in Lk 3, the Lord Jesus, in addressing His Jewish opponents, proclaims in reference to fruit bearing and covenant binding, the following, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Lk 3.8, ESV).
These uses of exhortation to bear fruit within the covenant community are consistent with the Heb 6 text as a whole. And, like the individual’s in verse 1-8 of the current study, the examples of Matt 3 and Lk 3 present to the reader proof positive examples of individuals who were in covenant with God, yet unconverted, later to fall away. Point-in-fact, these isolated examples of hostility towards YHWH and His covenant, culminated in the crucifixion of the “Lord of Glory” (1 Cor 2.8), whereby these same, objective covenant members later cried in unison, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him! . . . We have no king but Caesar” (Jn 19.15, ESV). This same reality is taking place in the Book of Hebrews in the post-cross era, where, like those covenanted with God before them, both believer and unbeliever subsist within the one Covenant of Grace, where some will be raised up to honor, and some to dishonor (Rom 9.21). Thus, Wilson concludes’
No one truly regenerated by the Spirit of God can ever fall away from Christ. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. At the same time, the Bible is equally clear that professing Christians can and do fall away. When they do, they are not falling from a position of rank unbelief, they are falling into a covenantal unfaithfulness—just as so many of the Jews had fallen. Notice how some of these individuals are described in the book of Hebrews. When a professing Christian falls away, it is a covenantal insult to the Lord he claimed to serve.
Throughout the course of this essay, the author has argued that there is a more consistent manner in interpreting the warning passages of Hebrews. This approach takes into account the covenantal binding that the first century Jewish Christians would have presupposed as they approached the message of Hebrews. Included in this presuppositional grid would have been a tremendous amount of continuity between both the old and new eras of redemptive history, to include the nature of covenant and the members which reside therein.
With this in mind, when the author speaks to individuals being actual and legitimate partakers in Christ and His benefits, who later “fall away,” it is both consistent and proper to assume what the first century audience would have assumed, namely, that within the one Covenant of Grace, to which the New Covenant is an administration, there exists both believer and unbeliever. Hence, this section of Scripture, while speaking to the issue of maturity and apostasy, is likewise speaking to the issue of covenant faithfulness; an issue which permeates the OT Scriptures. Thus, this study concludes that the individuals in question in the Heb 6 text are apostate Christians, who, by virtue of their proximity within the covenant community, never embrace the promises of God by faith, and later fall away, never being restored, despite their having previously witnessed and participated in some graceful operations of the Spirit.
 It is noted that some branches of orthodox theology deny such a teaching, and instead, either (1) see covenantal membership reserved strictly for those who profess the Lord Jesus by faith, or, (2) claim that the Abrahamic Covenant did not in substance, consist of both the regenerate and unregenerate, but rather, the latter covenant was purely nationalistic in nature. On this point, Hodge answers, “The Baptists, especially those of the time of the Reformation, do not hold the common doctrine on this subject. The Anabaptists not only spoke in very disparaging terms of the old economy and of the state of the Jews under that dispensation, but it was necessary to their peculiar system, that they should deny that the covenant made with Abraham included the covenant of grace. Baptists hold that infants cannot be church members, and that the sign of such membership cannot properly be administered to any who have not knowledge and faith. But it cannot be denied that infants.” Charles Hodge, The Covenant of Grace, (Kindle Edition, n.d), 202-206 Kindle.
 As Calvin notes on this verse, both Jacob and Esau were members of the Covenant of Grace, yet, only one of them received the effectual favor of God within this covenant, “He confirms, by a still stronger testimony, how much the heavenly answer, given to Rebecca, availed to his present purpose, that is, that the spiritual condition of both was intimated by the dominion of Jacob and servitude of Esau, and also that Jacob obtained this favor through the kindness of God, and not through his own merit.” John Calvin, Commentary on Romans, (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), Rom 9.13.
 It is argued by this essay that justification by faith alone, in Christ alone, is the clear message of Scripture and the “good news” of the Gospel. An individual is justified due to Christ’s imputed righteousness (Rom 4.1-7), whereby His active and passive obedience is credited (λογίζομαι) to all of those who embrace Christ by faith. Hence, Jesus functions as a perfect Savior, never losing those who the Father gives to Him for salvation (Jn 6.37-44). Moreover, Christ’s sacrifice functions as a propitiation for the sins of the elect, thereby satisfying the wrath of God (Isa 53). Hence, an individual is viewed in Christ’s righteousness, and not their own, making the loss of justification impossible due to the perfection of the Son and His finished work, thus, bringing “peace” between God and man (Rom 5.1).
 It is vital to note that throughout this section, the author in no way proclaims that these individuals who “fall away” have ever tasted of the heavenly gifts or partaken in the Holy Spirit by faith. It is the position of this essay that unbelievers, by virtue of the proximity to the covenant people of God, or, unbelievers within the church, can and do receive some benefits by virtue of their being associated with the church. For example, as Christ pours our blessings corporately upon His bride, both unbeliever and believer with in the local assembly will be blessed. Using an OT concept of this principle, both Jacob and Esau were covenant members and enjoyed the benefits of their redeemed household. Yet, it was Jacob alone that embraced the covenant promises by faith, with Esau falling away from the grace bestowed on him by virtue of his household position. Hence, the lynchpin which divides those who are in the objective covenant from those “elect” who also preside in the subjective covenant, is faith.