Hebrews 6:4-6, warns against falling away from the faith and those who do, cannot not be brought back to repentance because they are “crucifying the Son of God all over again.” I must admit this passage has always concerned me, as there have been many short periods in my Christian walk that I have not always lived an exemplary life and have willfully sinned against God. I equate these times in my life as living in a “backsliden state” (a popular term in my Protestant circle). Hence, I figure that I have fallen away from the faith for a time. I must say that during these times I never denied the Lord and always had a yearning in my heart to return to the fold. The Protestant tradition that I come from teaches once saved always saved. This gave me some degree of comfort, for when I approached God for forgiveness I looked to such passages as 1 John 1: 9. I have spent many sleepless nights wondering about this forgiveness issue. I want to live a Christian life but it’s a tough road. Since I have been reading about Orthodoxy many of the core beliefs that I have held so dear for so many years are being challenged, however I am becoming more and more convinced that this is the Church that Christ founded. Having said all that, my questions are this: Is the passage in Hebrews 6:4-6 referring to Christians who have backslided? And, can a “professing Protestant Christian” like myself who has gone through periods willful sinfulness and periods of worldliness still become an Orthodox Christian? I hope I haven’t “blown it.” I know these questions are probably pretty heavy for an email and you know absolutely nothing about me. However, if you could provide some guidance it would be appreciated
Thank you for your interesting enquiry.
Before getting into the passage from Hebrews, there are a few things that need to be stated. First, Orthodoxy, unlike some Protestant bodies, does not hold to the notion that we are “already saved.” For Orthodox Christians, salvation is a process, not a once-and-done event. It is because of the understanding of some Protestant bodies which hold that one is saved at a precise moment—when one makes a commitment to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, or at some other moment in time—that much confusion arises. Orthodox Christianity understands that we are “being saved,” not “already saved.”
Salvation, for Orthodox Christians, is seen as deliverance from the curse of sin and death, which makes it possible for us to enter into union with God through Christ the Savior. Salvation includes a process of growth of the whole person whereby the sinner is transformed into the image and likeness of God. One is saved by faith through grace, although saving faith involves more than belief. Faith must be active and living, manifested by works of righteousness, whereby we cooperate with God to do His will. Hence, if one is “being saved,” one is on the way to one’s ultimate goal: eternal union with God and participation in the divine nature, as Saint Paul writes.
As a side note, the notion that one is already saved—and that one can know this absolutely and positively without taking into consideration where one’s life may lead one in the future—has always struck Orthodox Christianity as a bit odd. If one is already saved, then what need does one still have for a Savior? Is this not like saying that one who has been completely cured of cancer is still in need of chemo-therapy? Or is this not like saying that one who has been cured of cancer will never find the disease surfacing again, perhaps years hence? In the Gospels Christ says, “I come not to save the righteous, but the sinner,” and He goes on to make this very comparison with the individual who is physically ill as the one who needs a physician, rather than the one who is in perfect physical health. The essential question is, “If I have already been saved, then what more can the Savior do for me?” Another question that comes out of these considerations is, “If ‘once saved, always saved’ is the maxim, would this imply that if I go on to lead an extremely evil life it ultimately does not matter since I have already been saved?” When one acknowledges, as the Orthodox Faith teaches, that we are “being saved,” such considerations do not arise.
Now, let us turn to Hebrews 6:4-6. Of course, Saint Paul is writing to the Hebrews, and herein he refers to those who have apostasized—that is, to those who rejected Christ and His saving power after their Baptism. By virtue of the fact that you state that you have “never denied the Lord and always had a yearning in [your] heart to return to the fold,” you are not describing apostasy; rather, you are describing what can be variously termed “inactivity,” “lack of living your Faith,” etc., but what you describe as having experienced is not a total denial or rejection of Christ and/or His saving power. Hence, while non-Orthodox may term what you have experienced as “apostasy,” Orthodoxy would say that this is the situation in which you have placed yourself.
Concerning verse 4, we find reference to the Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism [“once enlightened”], Chrismation [“partakers of the Holy Spirit”], and the Eucharist [“tasted the heavenly gift”]. Verse 5 tells us that in adition to the grace, or presence of God, we receive through the Sacraments, belief and life experience are essential. “Tasted the good word of God” refers to the message of the Gospel and the true doctrine of God’s People, the Church. In verse 6 we find Saint Paul stating that those to whom he is writing—remember, they are Jews—who revert to Judaism [not uncommon in apostolic times] crucify Christ once again, becoming like those who, in crucifying Christ on the Cross denied His divinity and His saving power. Such baptized individuals put themselves in a position of needing to be baptized again, although this is not possible as “once enlightened” refers to the fact that Baptism is experienced once and only once. [This is reflected in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed: “I believe in one Baptism for the remission of sins.”
We might digress here for a moment to say that in the Orthodox understanding, Baptism is our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ; as Saint Paul writes, in Baptism we are buried with Him, we rise with Him, and we “put Him on,” clothing ourselves in His righteousness and glory. Baptism, which is commanded by Christ and essential for our salvation, is not an end in itself, nor is it the “goal” of Christian life; rather, just as one is physically born from his or her mother’s womb, so too one is “born again” of water and the Spirit in the Sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation. These sacraments mark the beginning of one’s spiritual life, one’s life as a Christian, just as physical birth marks the beginning of our physical life and growth and development. Of course, most Protestant bodies understand Baptism somewhat differently, as does Roman Catholicism.
To conclude, it is impossible to clearly understand the meaning of this passage from Hebrews apart from understanding the precise audience to which Saint Paul was directing his words: those Jews [but surely not all Jews] who had begun their spiritual journies through Baptism, yet who then rejected Christ and His power. If one has not done this—and this is not what you describe about your own situation—then these verses would not directly apply. Now, Orthodox Christianity does hold that, after one has been “born again” through Baptism, Christmation and the Eucharist, one can surely fall away or “miss the mark” of his or her calling to live as Christ lived. One can surely “de-activate,” so to speak, the grace imparted in these Sacraments; at the same time, God remains present in such persons, even if they do not recognize or acknowledge it. [It’s not as if God says, “Okay, that’s it!! You keep sinning, and you don’t seem to care about it, so I’m leaving and I’ll make sure I never return.”] God is everywhere, filling all things—including the lives of those who have failed to live in accordance with His precepts and even in those who are blatantly evil. As Christ Himself says, God allows the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the good and evil alike, and all are God’s children, His creation, worthy of being saved, even if they have yet to “work out [their] own salvation.”
In the Orthodox Church, we understand that regardless of how sinful we become, even after being born again through water and the Spirit, we always have the possibility to repent, to change our direction and our vision and our hearts. Those “who have eyes, but refuse to see” and those “who have ears, but refuse to listen,” we must remember, have not had their eyes plucked out or their ears cut off; they can indeed see and hear, yet they choose not to. They can, however, repent and open their eyes and their ears, should they choose to respond to God’s lovingkindness, mercy and forgiveness. In the Gospel of the Prodigal Son, we see the extent of our heavenly Father’s forgiveness. The son “came to his senses” and returned to his father. His father accepted him back, no strings attached, rejoicing that his son, who had been lost and dead, was now found and was now alive. His father forgave him unconditionally, in response to his unconditional repentance. In the same way, in this parable Christ teaches us that God forgives us unconditionally, assuming that we too “come to [our] senses,” repent, return, ask humbly for forgiveness, and receive His forgiveness with the same humility with which we sought it. In the case of one who has apostasized, however, this is not possible. First of all, the apostate—the one who denies that Christ has any power in our lives or who denies His divinity or His love for His People—has yet to “come to his senses.” While God continues to reach out, the apostate not only refuses to reach out, but would agree that reaching out to a Christ Who is powerless or useless or even non-existent is nothing more than an exercise in futility. If one denies that Christ has any saving power whatsoever, one would not even entertain the thought of renewing his or her life in Christ. What good would it do? What affect would it have? If one is convinced that Christ is powerless, or worse, that He does not even exist, then one would surely not be inclined to reach out to Him.
Nevertheless, the Church, since ancient times, has acknowledged that those who have apostasized may indeed repent and be brought back into the Church after a period of repentance, as evidenced in several Canons of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea, the Canons of the Council of Ancyra in 314 AD, and other early Christian writings. Returning to God’s forgiveness, Orthodox Christians believe that in our daily prayer we should continually ask God to forgive us and to have mercy on us, trusting that indeed “God does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his sin and live,” as we read in Psalms. This, of course, presumes that the sinner still acknowledges that Christ indeed has saving power, that He indeed loves us, and that He indeed accepts those who, having come to their senses and having acknowledged that they have “missed the mark,” cry out in repentance. Orthodox Christians also believe that, in addition to asking God for forgiveness in our private prayers, we should confess our sins sacramentally, thereby being reunited to Christ and to the faith community which whom we have broken communion through sin. Since most Protestants reject the Sacrament of Confession, they provide no real options or opportunities for reconciliation after they have “backslided” or, as we would say, after they have cut themselves off from the common union which they had shared with Father, Son and Holy Spirit and with the People of God. While some Protestants would say that once a person is saved, he or she is always saved, and other Protestants would say that once a person is saved, he or she can lose his or her salvation, Orthodoxy, by virtue of its understanding of salvation as an ongoing process of spiritual growth, would say that one can indeed jeopardize one’s salvation, but that it is not realistic to say that one has “lost” something that one has yet to experience or possess in its fullness. We continually endure spiritual warfare, struggling against temptation and sin and evil and the delightful thought of doing our own will, even if it conflicts with the will of our Creator. That is why it is of great comfort to know that, if Our Lord commands us to “forgive seventy times seven,” it is only because He is willing to forgive us at least that many times, provided that we, like the prodigal son, come to our senses, return to our Father, ask Him to accept us back into loving communion with Him, and humbly open ourselves to begin our journey to the salvation which finds its fulfillment in His Kingdom once again. Hence, while we travel the “superhighway” of salvation, we indeed can encounter a multitude of roadblocks and detours. We surely can get lost, either by getting off a wrong exit or by thinking that we can find our way without a map or directions. But if we are to reach our destination—in this case, the Kingdom of God—we need to circumvent the roadblocks, endure the detrous, and ultimately ask directions, that we might get back on the right road or path. At the end of our earthly lives, as we complete our journey to salvation, we will indeed “rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is [our] reward in heaven.”
While I am not sure if this answers your specific questions, since as you yourself acknowledge this is difficult given the fact that I do not know you personally, I hope it at least provides a new way to look at the “same old things,” and perhaps even a new way to look at some things that may indeed seem new.