Friday, April 16, 2010

The Other Side, Part V-A: Calvin's Commentary on Hebrews 6:4-6

I am back at this point to discuss Hebrews 6:4-6 and give Calvin’s commentary on the passage. Someone might ask, “Why even bother with going through these passages?” My answer to this would be, that passages like Hebrews 6:4-6, the passages of 2 Peter and Hebrews, as well as others in the New Testament (and the Old Testament) matter when it comes to the issue of apostasy. Calvin certainly had to face these passages, as does every Calvinist theologian. Fortunately, unlike most Calvinist theologians today, John Calvin was able to see many of these passages with some clarity and acknowledge the content within. That is my desire for all of us, no matter what theological system we hold to--- that we all would be able to see Scripture and acknowledge its truth.

Hebrews 6:4-6 reads thus:

“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” (Heb. 6:4-6, NKJV).

Calvin writes a response for the reprobate:

“The apostle, also intending to exclude apostates from the hope of salvation, states, as the reason, that it is impossible to renew them to repentance (Heb. 6:6); that is, God by renewing THOSE WHOM HE WILLS NOT TO PERISH, GIVES THEM A SIGN OF PATERNAL FAVOR, and in a manner attracts them to himself, by the beams of a calm and reconciled countenance; on the other hand, BY HARDENING THE REPROBATE, WHOSE IMPIETY IS NOT TO BE FORGIVEN, HE THUNDERS AGAINST THEM” (John Calvin, “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” 3.3.21).

Notice that God “hardens the reprobate, whose impiety is not to be forgiven...” Calvin clearly had a doctrine of reprobation and believed that there are those that God “wills not to perish” and those that He does. So those God desires to bring back to the faith, those God desires to be elect, He receives again...but the reprobate are rejected and God doesn’t attempt to receive them again.

Calvin, however, has more to say:

“This kind of vengeance the apostle denounces against VOLUNTARY APOSTATES (Heb. 10:29), who, in falling away from the faith of the Gospel, mock God, insultingly reject his favor, profane and trample under foot the blood of Christ, no, as far as in them lies, crucify him afresh. Still, he does not, as some austere persons preposterously insist, leave no hope of pardon to voluntary sins, but shows that apostasy being altogether without excuse, it is not strange that God is inexorably rigorous in punishing sacrilegious contempt thus shown to himself” (3.3.21).

Notice that this group of “voluntary apostates” seem to be from within the ranks of the Christian faith itself: “falling away from the faith of the Gospel...insultingly reject his favor...sacrilegious contempt...”

Of the small phrases above, one stands out the most...and that is that the apostates fall away “from the FAITH of the Gospel.” Evidently, Calvin had read Luke 8, where the rocky soil “believed for a time” and then fell away due to temptation.

In his quote above, Calvin also makes the point that apostasy is not like the other list of “voluntary sins” that the Lord forgives. Apostasy is “altogether without excuse,” meaning that there is no reason sufficient to explain why a person would walk away from Christ and abandon their hope in Him for the world. Because of this “sacrilegious contempt shown to himself,” God does not receive that person again. By “sacrilegious contempt,” Calvin means that the apostate has shown utter hatred and disrespect for his or her master, the Lord Jesus Christ, and has, as Hebrews 6 said, “trampled underfoot the blood of the Son of God.” The apostate has taken the Lord’s precious blood, worth so much, and “treated it as a common thing,” as something to spit upon without a second thought.

In section 23 of the same book, Calvin explains the type of person the writer of Hebrews had in mind when he wrote Hebrews 6:4-6---

“The directing his discourse against those who imagined that they could return to the Christian religion though they had once revolted from it. To divest them of this false and pernicious opinion, he says, as is most true, that those who had once KNOWINGLY AND WILLINGLY CAST OFF FELLOWSHIP WITH CHRIST, had no means of returning to it. It is not, however, so cast off by those who merely, by the dissoluteness of their lives, transgress the word of the Lord, but by those who avowedly reject his whole doctrine...when he speaks of those falling away...we must understand him as referring to those who, WITH DELIBERATE IMPIETY, HAVE QUENCHED THE LIGHT OF THE SPIRIT, TASTED OF THE HEAVENLY WORD AND SPURNED IT, ALIENATED THEMSELVES FROM THE SANCTIFICATION OF THE SPIRIT, AND TRAMPLED UNDER FOOT THE WORD OF GOD AND THE POWERS OF A WORLD TO COME. THE BETTER TO SHOW THAT THIS WAS THE SPECIES OF IMPIETY INTENDED, he afterward expressly adds the term ‘willfully’” (“Institutes,” 3.3.23).

Calvin makes it clear that the persons of Hebrews 6:4-6 are those who “knowingly and willingly cast off fellowship.” Such persons are not ignorant of what they are doing. Rather, as Romans 1 says, they are “haters of God” and “knowing the righteous judgment of God...those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them” (Romans 1:30, 32).

And then, Calvin becomes more detailed about the apostates: they “have quenched the light of the Spirit.” This is in direct violation of 1 Thessalonians 5:19. Next, they “tasted of the heavenly word and spurned it.” What does it mean to “taste of the heavenly word”? We can get a glimpse of this from 1 Peter 2:2-3---“as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, IF INDEED YOU HAVE TASTED THAT THE LORD IS GRACIOUS” (NKJV). Peter told the scattered Jews in the Dispersion (Diaspora) that they should desire to grow in the Lord, since their prior experience of God in the faith revealed to them the goodness of the Lord. They had memories with the Lord in the faith that should move them to keep going forward in Christ. The voluntary apostates of Heb. 6:4-6, however, have tasted the word of God (called “good”), and have rejected it, like the baby who rejects eating carrots.
Next, such apostates have “alienated themselves from the sanctification of the Spirit.” This is one of the most interesting statements made by Calvin regarding the type of person that fulfills Hebrews 6:4-6. What does it mean to say that the apostates have “alienated themselves”?

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary provides the following definition:

1 : to make unfriendly, hostile, or indifferent especially where attachment formerly existed

See the words “especially where attachment formerly existed”? such words demonstrate a connection between two people or things, or a combination thereof. But in order for a person to become hostile or unfriendly TO someone or something, that person must have had an attachment to that person or thing that they are now (currently) disconnecting themselves from.

When Calvin says, then, that the voluntary apostates have “alienated themselves from the sanctification of the Spirit,” he is saying that, whereas there was a time when the apostates “walked in the Spirit,” that time is past; whereas the apostates were once sensitive to the Spirit and His leading, they no longer listen to Him at all.
Instead, they grieve the Spirit (Eph. 4:30) and spend more time fulfilling the lusts of the flesh (which is the exact opposite of what they should be doing).

Let me ask a question at this point: How can a person “alienate themselves from the sanctification of the Spirit” if “they were never saved to begin with”? I ask this question because so many Calvinists and ordinary believers give this answer as the reason why individuals walk away from Christ. However, if the person is never saved, then 1) the Spirit doesn’t reside in them, and 2)they cannot be sanctified because they first need to be saved. In this case, the apostates would just be unbelievers. Apostates, however, according to the Bible, are a different group of unbelievers than just those who continue in their unbelief. Apostates are those who abandon the faith (1 Tim. 4:1), not those who never came to it.

Many respond to Hebrews 6:4-6 with sadness of heart, thinking the worst of God for not allowing apostates to return to the faith. Calvin responds to this feeling:

“To some it seems harsh, and at variance with the divine mercy, utterly to deny forgiveness to any who retake themselves to it. This is easily disposed of. It is not said that pardon will be refused if they turn to the Lord, but IT IS ALTOGETHER DENIED THAT THEY CAN TURN TO REPENTANCE, inasmuch as for their ingratitude THEY ARE STRUCK BY THE JUST JUDGMENT OF GOD WITH ETERNAL BLINDNESS” (“Institutes,” 3.3.24).

The issue then, is not about them turning to the Lord---it’s about them NOT WANTING TO TURN TO THE LORD! Because they have been ungrateful and shown contempt to the grace of God, “they are struck by the just judgment of God with eternal blindness.” God gives them over to their desires, just like those of Romans 1:

“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened...they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles...therefore GOD GAVE THEM UP in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves...for this reason GOD GAVE THEM UP to dishonorable passions...and since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, GOD GAVE THEM UP to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done...” (Rom. 1:21, 23, 23, 26,28 ESV)

Three times in the text it says that “God gave them up” (1:24, 26, 28) to their own evil desires, because they chose not to worship and serve Him. Since humanity made it clear that they did not care to worship God despite knowing the truth, God decided to assent to their decision and let them be as debased and depraved as they desired to be. What a sad state of affairs to think about!

For whatever reason, eternal securitists today seem to think that God will not give a professed believer over to their sin should they persist in it...but if God did it in Romans 1, why does the modern-day child of God become an exception if he will not receive the Lord’s chastening (Hebrews 12:7-10)?


The Seeking Disciple said...

Good stuff. Where did you get the quotes from Calvin on Hebrews 6:4-6? Is this from his commentary on Hebrews? Just wondering.

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

Seeking Disciple,

Thanks for the question.

The quotes from Calvin I got from his very own "Institutes." I placed the book #, chap. #, and section # beside the quotes on the site ("3.3.24" corresponds to Book 3, chap. 3, section 24, for example), to help interested readers find them. Let me know if you have problems doing that, by the way...

I plan to incorporate material from his commentaries as well...but, since i only have his institutes, i tried to find material within that to get started. I plan to post more material today...the new material, however, will come from his commentaries, not his institutes.

Thanks again. Keep reading, and pray for the blog. By the way, my brother Billy Birch and I did lunch and talked for a minute about you today :-)