Martin Luther called Hebrews 6:4-6 a “hard knot” in the Bible, because it seems to deny repentance to those who sin grievously after joining the church. In the third century, a schism formed because an elder in Rome, Novatus, denied restoration to lapsed Christians on the basis of these verses. Many Christians who read this passage are struck with fear, wondering, “Does this apply to me, since I have backslidden in my walk with the Lord?” The text reads:
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, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 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.
Note that the reason given for being unable to repent is specified in the second half of verse 6: they crucify again the Son of God and hold him up to contempt. What could this possibly refer to? Many years ago, St. John Chrysostom (a powerful preacher in Constantinople who died in the fifth century) suggested that it referred to being baptized a second time. Other students of the Scripture have followed Chrysostom, and although his view seems less common today, I believe it carries significant weight. Here are three reasons—contextual, exegetical, and theological—that “crucifying once again the Son of God” is a reference to attempting to be “baptized” again after committing apostasy.
Hebrews was written to a church that had members who were considering leaving the faith behind. They had taken the “new members’” class, been baptized, participated in the life of the church, but the pressures of persecution were making some in their number reconsider the Christian faith. Throughout the book of Hebrews, the author encourages these believers not to let go of their confession (3:1; 4:14; 10:23). The word “confession” used here indicates a public act of allegiance (cf. 1 Tim. 6:12); and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting reference than baptism. Throughout this letter, the Hebrews are encouraged to cling to their baptismal hope which centers on Christ. Furthermore, there very well may be a reference to baptism in 6:4 where the author speaks of being “once enlightened.” At least from the 2ndcentury onward, “enlightened” was used as a technical term for being baptized. If we couple that idea together with an allusion to the Lord’s Supper immediately following (tasting of the heavenly gift), it isn’t difficult to see that baptism is in the foreground of this book, and especially chapter 6.
In verse 6, crucifying the Son of God again is parallel to holding him up to contempt. The word used by the pastor here is rare in the New Testament, in fact, this is its only occurrence! It means to disgrace someone in a public manner. The people described in Hebrews 6:4-6 experienced in a powerful way the ministry of God’s word and Spirit (they were baptized church goers who had an intimate knowledge of the Bible). If they were to abandon it all, and then sign up again for the new members’ class and seek to be baptized a second time, that would be a public disgracing of Christ, as if his initial promise in baptism was insufficient. A person is either born again or they aren’t, but you cannot be born again again. Continually hardening yourself to the gospel after years and years and then ultimately rejecting it (as some in the Hebrew church were dangerously close to doing) leaves one in a graceless situation (cf. Gal. 5:4). Indeed, later this pastor will say that if we reject Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice, there’s no other sacrifice left for us that can atone for sins (Heb. 10:26).
When we understand what baptism is, theologically speaking, it becomes obvious that Hebrews 6:6 alludes to attempting to be baptized twice. In Romans 6:3-6, Paul taught this about baptism:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (emphasis mine)
In baptism, we enter into Christ’s death and resurrection by faith. We are crucified with him. We can only be once enlightened because Jesus died once for the sins of the world (Heb. 7:27; 10:10). Perhaps now this pastor’s warning is a bit clearer; he’s saying to the Hebrew church: Let’s not start over from scratch again (Heb. 6:1-3); we’ve already been once enlightened; we’ve tasted the heavenly gift, the good word of God, the powers of heaven! If you throw it all away and trust in something else besides Jesus to save you, you can’t come back and get baptized again. Christ can’t be crucified twice!
Of course, at this point you might be thinking, “Yikes, I’ve been baptized several times!” The truth is, there’s only one baptism, and the act of baptism, without faith, cannot save you. The pastor in Hebrews is calling his audience to lay hold of the grace of God given to them in baptism, and you must do the same. The good news is, he trusts that his hearers will (note the encouragement in 6:9-12). Hebrews 6:4-6 doesn’t teach that if we deny Jesus, or commit a heinous sin, we can never repent again (remember King David the murderous adulterer, or Peter the denier). As long as there’s breath in your lungs, today is the day of salvation. Don’t harden your heart to God’s grace though, and don’t think that going and getting baptized for the seventh time will grant it to you. By faith, lay hold of the promise that has already been set before you, and hold fast to it each and every day. And here’s the promise: if you trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, you have eternal life. Let’s have a full assurance of hope in that promise until the end of our days (Heb. 6:11).