4 04 2011


            Dispensational teaching, made popular by the likes of John Darby, C.I. Scofield and Lewis Sperry Chafer, has been the center of controversy among scholars for about the past 100 years. Over the years many charges have been leveled against the system of Dispensationalism and those who adhere to it. One of the loftiest and most serious charges against the system is that it denies the true gospel of Jesus Christ and purports many other ways to salvation. John Gerstner writes,

“What is indisputably, absolutely, and uncompromisingly essential to the Christian religion is its doctrine of salvation… If Dispensationalism has actually departed from the only way of salvation which the Christian religion teaches, then we must say it has departed from Christianity. No matter how many other important truths it proclaims, it cannot be called Christian if it empties Christianity of its essential message. We define a cult as a religion which claims to be Christian while emptying Christianity of that which is essential to it. If Dispensationalism does this, then Dispensationalism is a cult and not a branch of the Christian church. It is as serious as that. It is impossible to exaggerate the gravity of the situation.”[1]

Of course, Gerstner is right in that if Dispensationalism denies the true and only gospel of Jesus Christ it should be abandoned by its adherents. As we will see this is quite possibly the most serious charge leveled against the system. In light of this charge, and many others, an examination of the Biblical evidence for Dispensationalism is necessary. The scope of this paper will be to define the system known as Dispensationalism, to set forth and defend the distinctives of the system, and then finally to examine the Biblical evidence that pertains to the key elements of the system.

Part 1: Dispensationalism Defined

Defining Dispensationalism

            It would be helpful in defining the system of Dispensationalism to first define the word ‘dispensation.’ Webster’s New World Dictionary defines ‘dispensation’ as “the ordering of events under divine authority.”[2] Charles Ryrie defines the word as “a stewardship or administration or economy.”[3] Thus, we see that a ‘dispensation’ is a period of time ordained by God, in which He holds mankind responsible as stewards of that which He has entrusted to them.

Many scholars have attempted to define Dispensationalism. Ryrie states,

“…in its Biblical usage, a dispensation is a divinely established stewardship of a particular revelation of God’s mind and will which brings added responsibility to the whole race of men or that portion of the race to whom the revelation is particularly given by God.”[4]

Shawn Abigail defines it as “…a framework for understanding the Bible. It is a system of Bible interpretation. In essence, dispensationalism is a period of stewardship during which man is tested during God’s dealings with him.”[5] Paul Enns plays off of Ryries view that a dispensation is a household run by God when he further states,

In this divine household God gives man certain responsibilities as administrator. If man obeys God within that economy (dispensation), God promises blessing; if man disobeys God, He promises judgment. Thus there are three aspects normally seen in a dispensation: (1) testing; (2) failure; (3) judgment. In each dispensation, God has put man under a test, man fails, and there is judgment.[6]

One more definition is in order, this one from Barackman:

“A dispensationalist is one who recognizes the biblical divine dispensations and the people to whom they are given. Also, dispensationalism is the interpretation and application of the Scriptures that recognizes the various dispensations and their features, the people to whom each dispensation is given, and the portion of the Bible that relates to the dispensation and its recipients.”[7]

Thus, dispensationalists recognize various economies throughout human history in which God has revealed Himself and/or His will in some specific way, and as such, man becomes a steward of that particular revelation and is tested and judged as to how they respond to the revelation of God.

The Word ‘Dispensation’ in the Bible

            In view of the lengthy history of Christianity, Dispensationalism can be considered a relatively new system of thought, although many scholars of the Christian faith have set forth dispensational principles over the course of Church history. However, there are several occurrences in the New Testament of the various words for dispensations. For the sake of time we will limit our discussion to three key passages:

“That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him…” (Eph. 1:10)[8]

“If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel…” (Eph. 3:2-6)[9]

Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints…” (Col. 1:25-26)[10]

It is clear from the Apostle Paul’s writings, under inspiration, that this current dispensation was previously a mystery that had not been revealed in the Old Testament. In the aforementioned verse of Ephesians one, Paul speaks of a yet future dispensation (“the dispensation of the fullness of times”) where God will gather together all things in Christ. So we clearly see that the Holy Spirit, through the Apostle Paul, revealed that there are various dispensations in God’s dealings with mankind. Thus, it proves at the very least that some form of Dispensational teaching is indeed Biblical.

            It is also beneficial to note other passages of Scripture that clearly teach the various workings of God at different times with different peoples. John wrote in his Gospel, “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.[11] This verse does not lead to a theology that excludes the grace of God from the Old Testament, but simply teaches that with the coming of Jesus Christ the fullness of God’s grace and truth was now made known unto man. Under the dispensation of the law, as it is referred to, the Law as it was given to Moses by God was the emphasis or test. However, the Old Testament Scriptures clearly indicate that God was many times very gracious in His dealings with His covenant people, Israel (Lev. 26:4-8; Deut. 7:14-16; Jer. 31:20, 32; Hos. 2:19). With the first advent of Jesus Christ the fullness of God’s grace is now made known unto mankind.

Paul declares in Romans, “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.”[12] (Emphases mine) Clearly a new emphasis upon the fullness of the grace of God is found in the New Testament. Galatians 3:19-25 is another passage of Scripture that sets forth the difference between the dispensation of law and the dispensation of grace.

“Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.”[13]

Notice that this passage clearly sets forth the purpose of the Mosaic Law, it was “our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ.” The revelation of God in the various dispensations does not make null and void previous revelation, nor do they contradict previous revelation. God’s character is consistent throughout and if God seems to contradict Himself it is not because He has, but because man has misunderstood His revelation. This is an important point due to the charges from many that dispensationalists contradict themselves and teach more than one way of salvation.

            It has been adequately proven that the Scriptures teach some system of Dispensationalism and as such, the opponents of Dispensationalism must come to terms with the clear teaching of the Bible.

Part 2: Dispensational Distinctives

            Ryrie, among others, sets forth three distinct teachings of Dispensationalism. The first distinctive is that “a dispensationalist keeps Israel and the Church distinct.” The second distinctive is that Dispensationalism “…is born out of a system of hermeneutics which is usually called literal interpretation.” Finally, the third distinctive is one that sees the underlying purpose of God in the world as His pursuit of His own glory.[14] These three distinctions are the foundation for Dispensational theology and will be explored one by one, although not in the order that Ryrie lays them out.

The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism

            The fact of the matter is that not every person approaches the Bible with the same method of interpretation. Hence the reason why there is and will always be disagreements about what the Bible says to man and how we are to respond to the revelation of God. Dispensationalists approach the Bible through a literal or normal or plain hermeneutic. While it doesn’t sound exciting it is the most thorough and consistent approach to the interpretation and application of God’s holy word. Enns describes literal interpretation as follows:

Literal, when describing hermeneutical approach, refers to interpretive method, not to the kind of language used in the interpreted literature. Literal interpretation recognizes both literal and figurative language. Dispensationalists insist on literal interpretation for prophetic Scriptures even though they abound with figurative language. One reason for this, besides consistency, is the demonstrable literalness of prophecies already fulfilled in Christ’s first coming.”[15]

One of the keys to the dispensational approach to interpretation is that the literal approach is applied to all Scripture including matters of prophecy. Many non-dispensationalists may apply a literal hermeneutic to the majority of Scripture, but then allegorize or spiritualize the prophetic portions. This is a major point of difference as Allis, an opponent of Dispensationalism, points out:

“One of the most marked features of pre-millennialism in all its forms is the emphasis which it places on the literal interpretation of Scripture. It is the insistent claims of its advocates that only when interpreted literally is the Bible interpreted truly; and they denounce as ‘spiritualizers’ or ‘allegorizers’ those who do not interpret the Bible with the same degree of literalness as they do. None have made this charge more pointedly than the dispensationalists.”[16]

The fact that the dispensationalist uses a consistent grammatical-historical interpretive approach to the Bible is a great strength of the system.

The Distinction between Israel and the Church

            One of the most well known principles of Dispensationalism is their insistence upon keeping Israel and the Church separate in the eternal plan of God. Again this principle flows from a literal interpretation of the Scriptures. The opposing view, or that of the Covenant Theologian, is stated as follows, “In contrast, Christian theology has always maintained the essential continuity of Israel and the church. The elect of all the ages are seen as one people, with one Savior, one destiny.”[17] Barackman more thoroughly states that,

“Non-dispensationalists…usually believe that Israel, by their rejection of Christ, forfeited their future place in God’s program and that all prophecies about the future of this nation are to be interpreted allegorically as pertaining to the church. On the other hand, dispensationalists hold that Israel has a definite place in God’s future program, as the biblical prophecies indicate, and that the elect of this nation must experience the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to them as a function of His essential faithfulness.”[18]

So we see a great divide between the two approaches to the Scriptures and the end result of each interpretative method leaves a lasting gulf fixed between the two positions. However, Barackman is correct when he states that it is the faithfulness of God that is at stake. The apostle Paul left very little doubt in Romans 11 that God was not yet done with His chosen people, Israel:

“I say then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew. Wot ye not what the scripture saith of Elias? how he maketh intercession to God against Israel, saying, Lord, they have killed thy prophets, and digged down thine altars; and I am left alone, and they seek my life. But what saith the answer of God unto him? I have reserved to myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal. Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.”[19]

The logical question that came to Paul as he wrote in Romans 10 was, “Has God cast away His people, Israel? The emphatic answer in chapter eleven was, No! Rather God is preserving a remnant for Himself just as He did in the days of Elijah. Paul continues in verse eleven by anticipating another question, “I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy.”[20] God is clearly not done with Israel as a nation for He has brought salvation to the Gentiles in order to provoke Israel to jealousy. Thus, we see that when an opponent of Dispensationalism attempts to take the promises of God to Israel and apply them to the Church they are making a grave error, because God is clearly not done with Israel. Paul goes on further in Romans eleven to expound on the mystery that he speaks of,

“For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins. As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes.”[21] (Emphases mine)

Rest assured, God’s faithfulness to His people Israel has not and will not be broken. It is clear that Paul distinguished between Israel and the Church. In closing, Enns sums up the dispensational position with further clarification from the New Testament,

“Dispensationalists teach that God has a distinct program for Israel and a distinct program for the church. The commands given to one are not the commands to the other; the promises to the one are not the promises to the other. God calls on Israel to keep the Sabbath (Exod. 20:8–11), but the church keeps the Lord’s Day (1 Cor. 16:2). Israel is the wife of Yahweh (Hos. 3:1), but the church is the Body of Christ (Col. 1:27). First Corinthians 10:32 is important in noting that a distinction is maintained between Israel and the church after the birth of the church (Acts 3:12; 4:8, 10; 5:21, 31; Rom. 10:1; 11:1–29).”[22]

God’s Central Theme Throughout Time

            The final distinct teaching of Dispensationalism deals with the central theme of God throughout the history of mankind. Again we see a division take place between the Covenant theologian and the dispensationalist. One of the charges leveled against Dispensationalism by Covenant theologians is that Dispensationalism destroys the unity of the Bible. At the root of this accusation is what Covenant theologians consider to be the central theme of God throughout history: the redemption of man. Roderick Campbell, a Covenant theologian, writes, “Everything in history and life is subservient to spiritual redemption.”[23] Fuller considers this theme when he writes,

“There are those, on the one hand, who see the Bible as the outworking of God’s one purpose of redemption, whose focal point is in the cross of Christ. This is the traditional view voiced by the conservative elements within the major denominational groups.”[24]

Thus the charge is that Dispensationalism destroys the unity of the covenant of grace that the Covenant theologian insists runs the course of human history.

            The Dispensational view, while not seeking to diminish God’s redemptive purposes throughout history, sees the central theme of God throughout human history as God’s passionate pursuit of His own glory. Ryrie sums this up well when he writes, “The unifying principle of dispensationalism is doxological, or the glory of God, and the dispensations reveal the glory of God as He manifests His character in the differing stewardships given to man.”[25] How can we be sure that God’s glory is the central theme throughout redemptive history? The answer is found in the Scriptures. Certainly we see in the Bible that God receives glory from the salvation of the lost (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14). However, God also receives glory through His judgment of the lost (Rom. 9:17; Heb. 12:29), through the works of His Son, Jesus (Jn. 13:31, 14:13, 17:4; 1 Pet. 4:11), and through the sanctification of the saints (2 Cor. 3:18). God also receives glory through His angels, and yet they are outside of His redemptive plan. If the central theme of God’s history is redemption then what are we to do with the judgment of God? Is God indifferent to His judgment of the rebellious? Certainly not! God receives glory not only by His redemption of all those who by faith trust in Christ, but also by His wrath that will be poured out on the devil and his angels and all those who reject God’s love through the Lord Jesus Christ. This may seem too harsh for some, but there is to be a distinction made between God receiving glory through His judgment verses God receiving pleasure through His judgment.

            Thus, we see that the Covenant theologian’s emphases on the redemption of man as God’s central theme throughout history, ultimately leads to a man-centered theology, while the dispensational emphases on the glory of God throughout history, ultimately leads to a God-centered theology.

Part 3: Dispensationalism Defended

What are the Dispensations?

            While it is not within the scope of this paper to defend any number of dispensations, it is necessary to at least give some background on the number of dispensations as well as those traits which characterize any particular dispensation. There are various views on the number of dispensations. This is another charge leveled against Dispensational theology. Albeit, Ryrie states, “Some opponents of dispensationalism recognize that these matters of number and name are relatively minor.”[26] We’ve already seen that the Bible clearly indicates at least three different dispensations. Ryrie writes,

“Most dispensationalists see seven dispensations in God’s plan (though throughout the history of dispensationalism they have not always been the same seven). Occasionally a dispensationalist may hold as few as four, and some hold as many as eight.”[27]

Most dispensationalists would hold to the following seven dispensations: freedom, conscience, government, promise, law, grace, and Kingdom.

            While the number of dispensations may vary it is well established as to what characterizes a dispensation. Barackman identifies the following characteristics: the recipients of the dispensation, the duties of the dispensation, the recipients response to the dispensation, God’s reaction to people’s response, the duration of the dispensation, and finally God’s use of the dispensation.[28] Each of the seven dispensations listed above is characterized by these six principles.

Does Dispensationalism Teach Multiple Ways of Salvation?

            As was mentioned in the introduction, one of the most serious charges leveled against Dispensationalists is that they teach multiple ways of salvation. Again, this argument stems mainly from the Covenant theologians insistence on the central theme of God’s redemption throughout history and the unity of the covenant of grace throughout the Bible. A lesser reason for the charge is due to the naming of the dispensations, particularly the dispensation of grace. Because the dispensationalist adheres to a dispensation of grace their opponents wrongly reason that they must believe that God’s grace was not active in the Old Testament and therefore must conclude that people were saved by something other than grace, namely the law. Perhaps Bass sums up the charge best when he writes,

“…the presupposition of the difference between law and grace, between Israel and the Church, between the different relations of God to men in the different dispensations, when carried to its logical conclusion, will inevitably result in a multiple form of salvation – that men are not saved the same way in all ages.”[29]

In light of this serious charge, the dispensationalist must respond Biblically.

            Ryrie states the answer to the problem succinctly when he writes,

“The dispensationalists’ answer to the problem is this: The basis of salvation in every age is the death of Christ; the requirement for salvation in every age is faith; the object of faith in every age is God; the content of faith changes in the various dispensations.”[30]

The required response in every dispensation from man is faith in God. We clearly see that salvation was by grace through faith in the Old Testament. Genesis 15:6 declares of Abraham, “And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.”[31] Abraham was counted righteous by God not because of some work that he accomplished, but simply because he believed God, and God graciously accounted it as righteousness. One of the major problems the opponents of Dispensationalism have is found in Ryrie’s statement that “the content of faith changes in the various dispensations.” Ryrie writes,

“On Mars Hill Paul summarized the Old Testament understanding of salvation and called the period ‘the times of this ignorance’ at which God ‘winked’ (Acts 17:30). This does not reflect very clear comprehension of the Christiological content of their faith! Paul again summarized the situation concerning salvation in the Old Testament as ‘remission of sins that are past through the forbearance of God’ (Rom. 3:25). The understanding of the average Israelite concerning Messiah at the time Jesus walked the earth was very feeble (Jn. 1:21; 7:40), and even the prophets lacked comprehension (1 Pet. 1:10-11).”[32]

Therefore, although the basis of salvation was, always has been, and always will be the death of Christ, the content of the faith of the Old Testament believer was different than the content of the faith of believers today. In no way does the dispensationalist teach more than one way of salvation through the different dispensations. This is a baseless charge against the system.

Dispensational Eschatology

            Possibly the greatest effect of dispensational theology has been in the area of eschatology. A consistent literal interpretation of the Bible has led the dispensationalist to interpret prophecies concerning the nation of Israel literally. As was stated earlier, the opponents of Dispensationalism fail in this area and spiritualize these prophecies by applying them to the Church. The literal hermeneutic along with maintaining the distinction between Israel and the Church has led the dispensationalist to what is called a pre-millennial, pre-tribulational view of the end times. In other words, the dispensationalist believes the Scriptures teach that the Church is not in view during the seven-year tribulation period and will be raptured from the earth prior to this period (Rom. 5:9; 1 Thes. 5:9; Rev. 3:10). The tribulation period is a time when God will judge the unbelieving nations of the world and will discipline His people Israel and bring them to faith in Jesus Christ (Jer. 30:7; Ezek. 20:37-38; Dan. 9:24).

            Of course, there is a charge leveled against dispensationalism in regards to its eschatological teaching. The charge is concerning whether or not Christ made a genuine offer of the Davidic Kingdom to Israel during His first advent. The Covenant theologian argues that this could not be a genuine offer in the dispensational system because had Israel accepted Christ would have never gone to the cross, but rather He would have immediately set up His kingdom on earth. Like others, this charge is baseless. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ there would have been no kingdom to offer because men would be lost in their sins. Ryrie argues,

“The postponement of the kingdom is related primarily to the question of God’s program in this age through the Church and not to the necessity of the crucifixion. The crucifixion would have been necessary as foundational to the establishment of the kingdom even if the Church age had never been conceived in the purposes of God. The question is not whether the crucifixion would have been avoided but whether the Davidic kingdom was postponed.”[33]

Therefore, the cross of Christ is not minimized by dispensational eschatology. The cross was necessary not only for the Church age, but also for the Kingdom age as well.


            At the beginning of this paper we set out to define the system known as Dispensationalism, to set forth and defend the distinctives of the system, and then to examine the Biblical evidence that pertains to the key elements of the system. As we have seen, despite the charges leveled against it, Dispensationalism has a firm foundation, rooted in a consistent literal hermeneutic of the Bible, and is substantially based upon the Scriptures. While there is much more evidence from the Scriptures to support dispensational teaching, in this brief analysis it has been shown to stand the test as we have weighed it against that which is our final authority: the Word of God.


Gerstner, John H. “Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism.” Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991.

Webster’s New World Dictionary” Cleveland, OH: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1990.

Ryrie, Charles C. “Dispensationalism Today” Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 1973.

Abigail, Shawn. “An Introduction to Dispensationalism” Dispensationalism Central: http://www.brethrenonline.org/articles/dispen.htm.

Enns, Paul P.: “The Moody Handbook of Theology.” Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1997, c1989, S. 519.

Barackman, Floyd H. “Practical Christian Theology: Examining the Great Doctrines of the Faith, 3rd ed.” Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1998.

Allis, Oswald, T. “Prophecy and the Church” Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1945.

Dispensationalism: A Return to Biblical Theology or Pseudo Christian Culthttp://users.frii.com/gosplow/disp2.html.

Campbell, Roderick. “Israel and the New Covenant” Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1936.

Fuller, Daniel P. “The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism” Doctor’s Dissertation, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Chicago, 1957.

Bass, Clarence B. “Backgrounds to Dispensationalism” Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960.

Ryrie, Charles C. “Biblical Theology of the New Testament” Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1959.

The Thompson Chain-Reference Bible, Fifth Improved Edition: King James Version. Indianapolis, IN,  B.B Kirkbride Bible Co., Inc., 1988.

Analysis of Hebrews 6

4 04 2011


             Hebrews chapter 6 has historically caused a great deal of confusion throughout Church history. The difficulty in coming to a proper understanding of this text cannot be underestimated. J. Vernon McGee states, “This chapter, by all odds, contains the most difficult passage in the Bible for an interpreter to handle, regardless of his theological position.”[1] Particularly verses 4-6 have been exposed to many different interpretations from Bible scholars. To a great extent the difficulty in interpreting the passage has much to do with identifying who the author is writing to, what the overall purpose of the epistle entails, and the meaning of the words “falling away” in verse six. There have been at least five main views concerning the interpretation of this passage of Scripture. Wiersbe states four of the most popular views:

(1) it describes the sin of apostasy, which means Christians can lose their salvation; (2) it deals with people who were “almost saved” but then backed away from trusting Christ; (3) it describes a sin possible only to Jews living while the Jewish temple was still standing; (4) it presents a “hypothetical case” or illustration that could not really happen.[2]

 Wiersbe rejects each of these four views in favor of yet a fifth different interpretation of the passage. The writer’s of The Bible Knowledge Commentary present what amounts to the fifth view: “that a warning is given of the danger of a Christian moving from a position of true faith and life to the extent of becoming disqualified for further service (1 Cor. 9:27) and for inheriting millennial glory.”[3]

            Obviously each of these views must be weighed against not only the immediate context and overall theme of the book of Hebrews, but also must be measured against the clear interpretations of other related passages of Scripture. It is within the scope of this paper to examine Hebrews 6:1-9 in light of its historical background and context, to further exegete the passage verse by verse, and then to state the theological implications of each interpretation while presenting what we believe to be the only true and theologically consistent interpretation of the passage, followed by the relevant application for the Church today.

The Historical and Contextual Background of Hebrews 6:1-9

            Before considering the meat of the text itself we must examine the overall theme and context of the book of Hebrews. If we correctly identify these issues and keep them in the forefront of our minds as we examine the text it will greatly aid in arriving at the correct interpretation of the text.

Intended Audience

First, we must ask the question, who is the author of Hebrews writing to? Due to the name of the epistle and the heavy emphasis on the Old Testament practices it has been widely agreed upon that the main people group in focus are the Jewish people. M.R. Dehaan states two major views concerning the intended audience of the epistle:

First, there are those who teach that Hebrews was written to born-again believers, saved people, warning them of the danger of again falling from grace and finally losing their salvation, which they now possessed. This is the view held by the Arminian school of theologians. It is mainly based on chapters six and ten, the two chapters on which most of the difference of opinion and interpretation exists. A second school of interpretation teaches that the people addressed in the letter were not truly born-again believers, but merely professing Christians, who had come only part way to Christ and were in danger of drawing back before they were finally and actually saved. This is the generally accepted view of the Calvinistic school of interpretation.[4]

Aside from presenting popular views on the subject, John MacArthur believes that the author is writing to three different classifications of Jews at various times throughout the epistle. He writes,

A proper interpretation of this epistle requires the recognition that it addresses 3 distinct groups of Jews: 1) believers; 2) unbelievers who were intellectually convinced of the gospel; and 3) unbelievers who were attracted by the gospel and the person of Christ but who had reached no final conviction about Him. Failure to acknowledge these groups leads to interpretations inconsistent with the rest of Scripture.[5]

It would seem that MacArthur’s view is farfetched in that he divides certain Scripture passages to fit his own theological interpretations of the text. For instance he applies chapter 2:1-3; 6:4-6; and 12:15-17 to unbelievers who were intellectually convinced of the gospel. He also pulls individual verses apart in chapter 9 and applies them to the third group, the unbelievers who were attracted by the gospel and the person of Christ but who had reached no final conviction about Him (vv. 11, 14, 15, 27, & 28).[6] This type of interpretation of the text leaves room for too much subjectivity by the interpreter. Indeed it would seem that MacArthur readily applies verses 4-6 of our passage to unbelievers while applying the verses around this section to believers. It is admitted that had the author of the epistle given any indication that his audience was changing between verses 3 and 4 such an interpretation would be correct, however there is no indication of such a change given in the text. Because of this MacArthur’s view of 3 different audiences must be rejected.

            The two major schools of thought concerning the Arminian and Calvinistic claims must also be rejected in light of Scripture. The Arminian view is clearly based on their teaching that a believer is not secure in Christ and can therefore lose their salvation. As we will see later, this clearly contradicts many other Scripture passages. The Calvinistic view that the author is addressing unbelievers who were merely professing to be Christians is in contradiction to many of the passages in Hebrews. It seems that throughout the epistle the author is consistently addressing Jewish believers, plain and simple. Consider the following Scriptures:

Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus;[7] (emphasis mine)

Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession.[8]

Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; And having an high priest over the house of God; Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.[9]

These and other passages in the epistle give clear indication that the author has in view born-again Jews, whose object of faith is Jesus Christ.

Theme of Hebrews

            Secondly, we must ask the question, what is the overall theme of the book of Hebrews? Identifying the theme will help the interpreter zero in on the main issues at hand throughout the epistle. There is consistent emphasis throughout this epistle in three key areas. First of all, from the following verses it can be clearly seen that the author is presenting Jesus Christ as better than all that the Old Testament had to offer them.

Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.[10]

For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God.[11]

By so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament. [12]

But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.[13]

It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.[14]

For ye had compassion of me in my bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance.[15]

But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.[16]

Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection:[17]

And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.[18]

This is significant to these readers in light of their Jewish background. Christ is presented as better than the angels, better than Moses, a better rest, a better covenant based on better promises, a better sacrifice, providing better treasures, in a better country, through a better resurrection. These Jewish believers needed to know that Jesus Christ was better than anything that the old covenant offered them and because of that they needed to condition their faith to endure to the end.

            Another key emphasis in this epistle is the many warnings that the author gives to his audience.

Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip.[19]

Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.[20]

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.[21]

For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins,[22]

Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled; Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears. [23]

These warnings coincide nicely with the author’s repeated emphasis on Christ as being better than the old covenant. These believers were obviously in some danger of turning back from the principles of Christianity and returning to the foundational elements of Judaism. This leads us to the author’s third emphasis as far as theme.

            Quite possibly we have the theme verses of this epistle found in Hebrews 5:12-14, which directly precedes our passage under consideration in chapter 6.

For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.[24]

The writer’s admonition is for these Jewish believers to press forward in their faith in Jesus Christ and to move beyond the simple basics of the milk of the Word of God.

            When all three of these major themes are seen in light of one another the epistle of Hebrews begins to make clear sense. These were Jewish believers who were in danger of turning back to the principles of Judaism, and thus forsaking Christ, and as a result the writer is seeking to spur them on to spiritual maturity by warning them of the dangers of turning back and by presenting Jesus Christ as better than every aspect of the old covenant. The danger they faced was not a danger of losing their salvation, but rather they were faced with the danger of suffering the discipline of the Lord (Heb. 12). The Judgment seat of Christ will indeed be a time of serious judgment upon believers. If these believing Jews failed to condition their faith for endurance to the end and grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord then they too would face a loss of rewards on the Day of Judgment for believers. Knowing these foundational themes behind the book of Hebrews we now press on to tackling the difficulties of the passage we find in Hebrews 6:1-9.

Exegetical Study of Hebrews 6:1-6

            As we approach this passage of Scripture we must first state again the main theme. Many err in their interpretation of this text because they assume the author is writing about salvation. Again the salvation of these Jews was not in question by the author. He has just emphasized their need to move beyond foundational principles and to begin to digest the meat of the Word of God as it pertains to Christ (Heb. 5:12-14). On the heals of this exhortation to spiritual maturity we see the word ‘therefore’ at the beginning of verse one. This clearly points us back to what the author was saying and he was saying it to believers. Furthermore, verse 9 states, “But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak.”[25](emphases mine) The writer of Hebrews is not speaking of things concerning salvation, but rather things that accompany salvation. Because of this we know that salvation is not in view. What is in view is repentance. We will see this more and more as we proceed with our interpretation.

Hebrews 6:1-3

Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this will we do, if God permit.[26]

            One of the keys to a proper interpretation of this passage is to understand the meanings of the words translated “leaving” and “let us go on”. Wuest defines ‘leaving’ in the following way:

The word translated “leaving” is a verb meaning “to put or place,” with a preposition prefixed which means “off” or “away” (aphiemi (ἀφιεμι)). The preposition implies separation and is used with a case in Greek which implies separation.[27]

The implication is that these believers were exhorted “to put away the principles of the doctrine of Christ.” The most logical question that follows is, what are “the principles of the doctrine of Christ”? Wuest again makes an important observation about the difference between the word ‘principle’ as it’s translated in Hebrews 5:12 verses Hebrews 6:1. He states,

…the English reader should know that the expressions, “the first principles of the oracles of God” (5:12), and “the principles of the doctrine of Christ” (6:1), are quite different in the Greek. The word “principles” in these verses comes from two different Greek words. The expression in 5:12 refers to the elementary teachings in New Testament truth, and the one in 6:1, to the teaching of the First Testament where Messiah was first spoken of.[28]

As a result, the exhortation “to put away the principles of the doctrine of Christ” is in reality an exhortation for these Jewish believers to discontinue their reliance upon the doctrines of the old covenant. It seems they were taking their faith in Jesus Christ and attempting to mix it with the rituals from the old covenant and as a result were attempting to lay a new foundation. Jesus Christ was the foundation of their faith and yet they were in danger of returning to the Old Testament oracles and therefore in need of someone to teach them again the first principles of New Testament truth. The foundational truths of the Old Testament are laid out by the author and stated as being “repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.” These are all Old Testament doctrinal truths that are made complete in the New Testament. If these believing Jews went back to the ritualistic ways (i.e. dead works) of the old covenant they would be returning to the most foundational teachings that paved the way for faith in Christ. After all Galatians tells us, “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” [29] Jesus tells us further, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”[30] The teachings of the Old Testament were merely shadows of that which was to come. When Christ came He came to fulfill those teachings and to give a clearer understanding of God’s revelation to mankind. Wuest further states,  

The word is an aorist participle…The aorist tense speaks of a once for all action. We could translate, “Therefore, having abandoned once for all the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on to perfection.” The act of abandoning is the pre-requisite to that of going on. One cannot go on without first separating one’s self from that to which one is attached.[31]

Not only does the writer of Hebrews exhort these believers to put away these elementary doctrines and to rely upon their foundational faith in Christ, but he exhorts them to go on to perfection. The reading literally means, “let us be borne on to completeness.” Wuest states,

The word is in the passive voice, which means that the subject is passive or inactive itself and is being acted upon by some outside agent. Thus we could translate, “abandoning once for all … let us be carried along.”[32]

This explains verse three, which states, “And this will we do, if God permit.” What the writer was exhorting his readers to do was not possible in and of themselves, but was a work that God had to do through them as they exercised faithful dependence upon Him to carry out the work. Wiersbe confirms this interpretation when he writes,

…the writer is not talking about self-effort; he is appealing to the readers to yield themselves to the power of God, the same power that upholds the whole universe. How can we fall when God is holding us?[33]

The dependence of these believers needed to be reestablished in the finished work of Christ and borne along to maturity by faith through the power of the Holy Spirit working in them.

Hebrews 6:4-6

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame. [34]

            Herein lies the center of controversy and the source of the many interpretations of this portion of Scripture. It has already been stated that there are at least five main interpretations of this text. One of the interpretations is that this portion describes the sin of apostasy in which a true believer comes to deny his faith in Christ. If this is the proper interpretation then the end result would be that such a person could never be saved again. There are indeed many denominations that teach that a believer is not secure in Christ and can lose their salvation. Many, if not all, of them would use this portion of Scripture to defend their erroneous doctrine. However, if they are correct, then based on the teaching of this passage such a person could never be saved again or renewed unto repentance. For the sake of time, we will appeal to only one passage in defending the believer’s security in Christ:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand. I and my Father are one. [35]

Thus, this interpretation does not agree with the whole of Scripture and must be rejected.

            A second interpretation is that these were unbelievers who were merely professing to know Christ and had not exercised genuine faith in Him. Some have attempted to make the description of these people found in verses 4 and 5 to be something just short of salvation. Even if this were the case, the question must then be asked, why would such a person who had never truly trusted Christ be eliminated from the possibility of being brought to genuine repentance? Surely there are many documented cases of people who once professed Christ and then later realized they had never genuinely been saved and then proceeded to exercise genuine repentance and faith in Christ. These questions are not easily solved by its proponents.

The description of these people in verses 4 and 5 seems quite clearly to be referring to believers. If unbelievers are in view, in what terms would one go about describing a true believer? These persons are described as having been “enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come…” Upon examining these words, “enlightened”, “tasted”, and “partakers” throughout the New Testament we believe there is no other possible interpretation but to conclude that the writer is describing people who have truly been born-again. Just a couple of comparisons will suffice. The same Greek word for enlightened is used in Hebrews 10:32 where it is written, “But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions;” [36] The very same people being addressed in Hebrews six as being once enlightened are referred to again in 10:32 and clearly their genuine faith is not in question. They had been saved and then endured persecutions because of their faith.

Dehaan sheds further light on the usage of the word ‘tasted’ when he writes,

The word, ‘taste,’ in our Scripture is genomai in the Greek and means to experience and to eat. This is its meaning wherever else it is used. It occurs once earlier in Hebrews 2:9 and says that Jesus, ‘…by the grace of God should taste death for every man.’[37]

Surely Hebrews 2:9 would never be interpreted that Jesus some how did not experience the full force of death. Yet, how can one apply a different meaning to the same exact word in Hebrews 6?

            Quite possibly the most difficult word to reconcile for those who hold that this is not a description of a saved person is ‘partaker.’ Again, Dehaan delivers a crushing blow to this interpretation of the word when he writes,

The word “partakers” is metochos in the original. It is translated “partakers” in five passages (Heb. 3:1; 3:14; 6:4; 12:8; and 12:10). It is translated “fellows” once (Heb. 1:9). We need do little more than quote the passages where it occurs to see the real meaning of the word.[38]

Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus;[39]

For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end; [40]

But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. [41]

For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. [42]


Are those who come close to salvation partakers of the heavenly calling? Can it be said of an unbeliever that they have partaken of God’s holiness? Clearly this description, when taken in its literal context with the literal meanings of the words used, cannot refer to anyone but a genuine believer in Christ.

            Another key to properly unlocking this text is to understand what the author means by “falling away” in verse six. The word in the Greek is parapipto and is used only here in the New Testament. The word pipto means “to descend from a higher place to a lower” or “to fall down beside”. It is used in Matthew 26:39 when Jesus fell on his face and prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. The root word para is translated ‘away’ in our verse and is variously translated throughout the New Testament. Together the word parapipto means “to fall away” or “to fall beside”. It is interesting and significant that it is not the normal Greek word used when describing apostasy. Many have translated parapipto to mean apostasy or denying ones faith. J. Vernon McGee disagrees when he writes,

“It would be impossible to give it the meaning of ‘apostatize’…There are many examples in Scripture of men who ‘fell away.’ The apostle Peter fell, but he was not lost. The Lord Jesus said to him, ‘I have prayed that your faith might not fail’ (see Luke 22:32). Peter suffered loss, but he was not lost.”[44]

It is true that historically most scholars have interpreted the word to mean a complete apostasy from the faith thus leading to the interpretation that the writer is presenting a hypothetical situation that could not happen to a true believer. However, we have shown that the word does not have to mean apostasy, only a falling away from the faith.

            It is also interesting that Wiersbe interprets the phrase “seeing they crucify” as better translated “while they are crucifying.” There is merit to this interpretation in light of Hebrews 10:29 which states,

Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? [45]

This is a clear reference to the same type of situation that is being described in Hebrews 6:4-6. Genuine believers who would turn back to the Old Testament sacrificial system would be making a public statement that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ was not sufficient and therefore, would trample upon the blood of Christ (Heb. 10:29), and put Him to an open shame (Heb. 6:6). Such a believer will face the judgment of God at the Judgment Seat of Christ and will suffer the loss of eternal rewards. The question then is, why would a person who goes back to the Old Testament sacrificial system be unable to be brought back to repentance? We believe that if the phrase “seeing they crucify” is best translated “while they are crucifying” then the interpretation of the text is clear. Such a person cannot be brought back to repentance “while they are crucifying” Christ over and over again through Old Testament sacrifices. So long as they are trampling upon the blood of Christ such a one is unable to be brought to repentance. They must first change their mind about the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement and then a change in action will follow.

Theological Analysis and Practical Application

            It has been proven that there is but one interpretation of the text that will stand up against the scrutiny of other Scripture. The fact that the writer of Hebrews is writing to saved Jews who had experienced persecution for their faith and were in danger of going back to the Old Testament system of worship seems clear based on the overall theme and the immediate context of our passage. These were not believers in danger of losing their salvation, but rather were stagnant, and even moving backwards in their faith and were as a result in danger of losing their rewards in eternity. Hebrews 6:7-8 bear this fact out further as we read,

For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God: But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned. [46]


Our writer here gives further evidence through this illustration that salvation is not in view. When the earth receives the rain that comes down from heavens and as a result brings forth fruit, it receives the blessings of God. But that ground which brings forth the thorns and briers is near cursing and the fruit of its soil will be burned. The writers of The Bible Knowledge Commentary conclude,

The point is that when a plot of ground that has been rained on is productive, God blesses it. But if it only produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless (adokimos, “disapproved”; cf. 1 Cor. 9:27) and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned. The metaphor recalls God’s original curse on the ground (Gen. 3:17-19) and suggests that an unproductive Christian life ultimately (“in the end”) falls under the severe condemnation of God and is subject to His blazing wrath and judgment (cf. Heb. 10:27).[48]

The apostle Paul sets forth the same principle in 1 Corinthians 3 where he writes,

Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire. [49]

The application of Hebrews 6:1-9 must be seen in light of the Judgment Seat of Christ and the believers loss or gain of eternal rewards. When taken in this light this text serves as an undeniable and serious exhortation for believers to walk in the Holy Spirit and to hold fast their profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Taking the grace of God for granted and trampling upon the blood of Christ through a lifestyle of sinful living will bring shame to the name of Christ in this life and will result in the Divine chastening of the Lord and ultimately the loss of eternal rewards. This is a serious charge for believers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”[50]




            At the outset of this paper we promised to examine Hebrews 6:1-9 in light of its historical background and context, to further exegete the passage verse by verse, and then to state the theological implications of each interpretation while presenting what we believe to be the only true and theologically consistent interpretation of the passage, followed by the relevant application for the Church today. Upon our examination of the text we have found that indeed there is only one interpretation of the text that stands in the light of the clear teachings of the Bible. This text was written to Jewish believers who were in danger of returning to the ritualistic worship of the old covenant. As a result, they were presented with a convincing case that Christ is better than the old covenant in every way, and that to turn back would bring reproach to the name of Christ and cause them to suffer eternal loss at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Therefore, this is a solemn warning to all believers to hold fast to their profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

Works Cited

McGee, J. Vernon: The Epistles: Hebrews Chapters 1-7. Nashville, TN.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.

Wiersbe, Warren W.: Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines on the New Testament. Wheaton, Ill. : Victor Books, 1997, c1992.

Walvoord, John F. ; Zuck, Roy B. ; Dallas Theological Seminary: The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton, IL : Victor Books, 1983-c1985.

Dehaan, M.R., Studies in Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI.: Kregel Publications, 1996.

MacArthur, John, MacArthur Study Bible. Nashville, TN.: Word Publishing, 1997.

The Holy Bible : King James Version. electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version. Bellingham WA : Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995.

Wuest, Kenneth S.: Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament : For the English Reader. Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 1997, c1984.

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