Thursday, September 16, 2010

"The Powers of the Coming Age": Hebrews 6 and the Apostle John's View of Salvation

“Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and THE POWERS OF THE AGE TO COME, 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 6:1-6, NKJV).

“When we turn to John’s Gospel, we discover not only a familiarity with an acceptance if this traditional understanding of ‘life’ in the ‘age to come’ but also a crucial modification to it. There Jesus says, in language that almost reproduces Daniel 12:2: ‘...all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out— those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned’ (John 5:28-29)...the crucial difference between the use of this concept in John’s Gospel and its use in traditional Jewish and Christian texts lies in the emphatic way JOHN ASSERTS THAT ‘ETERNAL LIFE’ IS REALIZED IN THE PRESENT, prior to either physical death or ‘the last day.’ In 4:36, using harvest imagery that tradition connects with eschatological restoration or judgment (Isa. 27:12; Amos 9:13; Joel 3:13; Matt. 13:30, 39-42; Rev. 14:15-16), Jesus says that ‘EVEN NOW the reaper draws his wages, EVEN NOW he harvests the crop for eternal life’. Similarly, in John 6:40, Jesus tells the Galilean crowds that everyone who sees and believes in the Son ‘shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.’ Here, the traditional order of events---- resurrection at the last day and subsequent eternal life---has been reversed. FOR JOHN, ETERNAL LIFE IS AVAILABLE IN THE PRESENT TO THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN GOD’S SON, and their resurrection from the dead will follow ‘on the last day’” (Frank Thielman, “Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach.” Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005, page 172).

In John’s Gospel, as Thielman states in the above quote, John treats eternal life as future. In 5:28-29, he uses the language of “will rise,” which is a Future Active Indicative verb (something that is “future” is something that “will” occur). However, in John 4:36, we see that Jesus is “now” harvesting the crop for eternal life. The word “now” signifies the present, this moment in time. We can add John 5:24 to this, which says: “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me HAS eternal life and WILL NOT be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (quoted by Thielman, page 173). No doubt, there is a present aspect of salvation in John’s Gospel as well.

So what do we do with these two seemingly weird statements in John regarding eternal life as both “present” and “future”? in our interpretations of Scripture, we must handle both readings of eternal life. Therefore, we can state that John then, deals with aspects (or stages) of eternal life: while there is some experience of eternal life already, there is also an experience of eternal life that is “not yet.” Neither of these stages or aspects of salvation are to be compromised for the other.

Since I consider myself to be one who attempts to organize systematically what the Bible teaches (yes, all believers should practice systematic theology), reading Frank Thielman’s quotes above (as well as his entire chapter on John) got me to thinking about how John’s theology impacts the theology of the Book of Hebrews. In John’s Gospel, the beloved disciple seeks to demonstrate that salvation is both present and future; but what do we do with Hebrews 6, which seems to imply that one can experience some blessings of salvation and reject the future blessings of salvation? Let’s read Hebrews 6 once more:

“For it is impossible for those who were ONCE ENLIGHTENED, and HAVE TASTED the heavenly gift, and HAVE BECOME partakers of the Holy Spirit, and HAVE TASTED the good word of God and the powers of the AGE TO COME, 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).

Do you see the verbs in caps? The verb “enlightened” (Grk. Photisthentas) is an aorist passive participle. The “aorist” tense refers to that which is past (an action completed in the past); the “passive” voice refers to the subject (which, in this case, is “those who...fall away,” Heb. 6:4, 6). The writer of Hebrews will use this word again in Hebrews chapter 10, when he tells the Hebrews to “recall the former days in which, after you were ILLUMINATED, you endured a great struggle with sufferings” (Heb. 10:32, NKJV). Paul uses this in his prayer for the Ephesians as well (Eph. 1:18), so “those who were once enlightened” refers to those who have come to the knowledge of the truth, who have gained understanding.

The next verb, “geusamenous” (have tasted), has an aorist tense (by virtue of the ending “samenous”), referring to an action completed in the past. The word can be translated as “having tasted.” The word “tasted” is the same word used when Peter speaks to the scattered Jewish believers of the Diaspersion (1 Peter 2:3).

The next verb is “have become,” (“have become partakers of the Holy Spirit,” verse 4c), the Greek word “genethentas.” The verb itself is an “aorist,” once again referring to an action completed in the past. To become “partakers of the Holy Spirit” is to possess the Spirit. One cannot be a “partaker” of something if they do not participate or share in it.

In verse 5, we come to a repeat verb used twice (“have tasted”). This time, though, the person has “tasted the good word of God and the POWERS OF THE AGE TO COME” (v.5). The “powers” mentioned here are from “the coming age.” In other words, the powers experienced by the believers in Hebrews 6:5 refer to the kingdom to come, but believers experience some of the power in the present. This is where we see John’s view of salvation most clearly: John’s Gospel presents us with aspects of the kingdom (and salvation) that are in the present, with other aspects to be fulfilled in the future. Hebrews 6:5 confronts us with this same idea, that these believers experienced some of the world to come (the new heaven and new earth of Revelation 21:1), but have yet to experience the powers in all their fullness. They have experienced a “down payment” of their salvation (Eph. 1:14). As Frank Thielman writes:

“Christianity has traditionally affirmed that with the coming of Jesus the biblical promises about the restoration of creation and of God’s people have largely been fulfilled but that elements of fulfillment await the future” (Frank Thielman, “Theology of the New Testament,” page 176).

God’s promises have a certain “now” aspect and a certain “not yet” aspect to them. In the same way, the world to come is in one sense “now” but “not yet”; the reign of Christ has both “now” and “not yet” aspects to them. Even our reigning with Christ has both “now” and “not yet” aspects to it (Eph. 1:3; Rev. 3-5).

In verse 6, though, the verb used is “parapesontas,” in aorist tense (referring to a completed action). All of the verbs in Hebrews 6:4-6 refer to actions completed in the past. Contrary to Calvinist theologians such as John MacArthur and others in their Hebrews commentaries, these actions do not refer to “pre-conversion.” Rather, such persons “have become partakers of the Holy Spirit,” meaning that they have experienced genuine salvation.

To conclude this post, I would like to leave you, the readership, with two things. First, the translators of the New King James Version provide a reference for Hebrews 6:4. One of the first verses they reference to Heb. 6:4 is John 4:10, where Jesus in His dialogue with the Samaritan woman, refers to “the living water” as “the gift of God.” This clearly, then, is an ummistakeable reference to salvation. The next verse referenced in Ephesians 2:8, which refers to salvation as “the gift of God.” The question that we should ask ourselves is, “Why are these verses referenced in Hebrews 6, a chapter that seems to argue that a person can fall away? If the translators were being true to their presuppositions, they would have simply not quoted these verses. However, the descriptions of such persons given clearly refer to persons who have experienced genuine salvation. Paul Ellingworth writes the following in his New International Greek Testament Commentary:

“Once the grace of God in Christ has been received, continued sin is a fatal reversal of faith which puts a person on the side of those responsible for Christ’s humiliation and death” (Paul Ellingworth, “The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Epistle to the Hebrews.” Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1993, page 322).

In regards to the implications of apostasy, Ellingworth writes that “the author presupposes, but does not directly affirm, that apostasy can occur” (NIGTC: The Book of Hebrews, page 323).

Last but not least, modern discussions of Hebrews 6 indicate that the text itself refers to loss of salvation. As I heard a professor say once, “If all we had was Hebrews 6:4-6, then we could all agree that you can lose your salvation. However, we have the rest of the Bible.”
Although this professor seems to think that the rest of the Bible argues against Hebrews 6:4-6 (which would make the Scriptures contradictory), he does acknowledge that Hebrews 6:4-6 does make a case for the Doctrine of Apostasy.

John’s Gospel shows us the present and future aspects of salvation, and Hebrews 6 shows us how believers experience in the here and now a portion of the “powers of the coming age,” which is the present aspect of salvation. I think John’s Gospel (and General Epistles) helps us understand what the writer of Hebrews meant by his descriptions of believers who fall away. The translators of the New King James Version affirm it; and so does Paul Ellingworth, one who writes an entire Greek Testament Commentary on the work. It seems everywhere that modern scholarship is affirming the Doctrine of Apostasy...despite Calvinist claims to the contrary.

2 comments:

Shelton said...

Thanks Deidre! I'm off to christianbooks to get Ellingworth's
commentary on Hebrews. Convincing article there Bro. And ya know, the reason it's so convincing is that if a believer will just sit down, wipe their theological 'slate' clean of all 'label' strong mindsets, then they'll clearly see the text for what it says by itself, without reading something into it - which one has to do in order to come up with 'schools of thought' (i.e. 'once saved always saved'). It's not about taking up for one's own doctrinal position people, it's about the seriousness of death via sin and our staying clear of it. Sorry for such a long comment. Baruk!

Deidre Richardson, B.A., M.Div. said...

Shelton, thanks for commenting at the Center for Theological Studies. I am happy that you have been blessed by the post and pray that you continue to be blessed by what you read here.

I feel that the Lord has called me to use the Greek and bible knowledge I've gained at seminary to bless so many others who do not have the time nor the resources that I have had. I am currently a doctoral student in seminary, so I do not get as much time as I used to with the blog. Still, I am always honored to respond to comments such as these -- comments that encourage me that the work being done here produces fruit for the kingdom of God.

Thanks so much for reading, and continue to pray that God will further illuminate my understanding into the truth of His Word. God bless.