Is Hebrews 6:4-6 describing a believer or an unbeliever? The passage sounds like it's speaking of a believer, but then it also seems to say a person can lose their salvation, which I thought wasn't possible. Help me understand this passage properly.
The passage you quoted is taken from a longer discussion beginning in Hebrews 5, so we must consider the full context in order to interpret the writer's comments properly.
To begin, we find the writer speaking to believers at various points in his discourse, including in Hebrews 6:1, when the writer calls upon his audience to press on to maturity in their faith:
Heb. 6:1 Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God.
Clearly, only believers "press on" to maturity. Unbelievers cannot mature in a faith they have never accepted in the first place.
Earlier in chapter 5 the writer chastised his audience for not working hard enough to progress beyond simplistic notions and toward mature understandings of God's word:
Heb. 5:12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.
Obviously, the writer would never expect unbelievers to become teachers of the word! Therefore, his statements must be directed toward believers. So as we move into the passage in chapter 6, we must keep in mind that the author is speaking to believers with a warning for believers.
Moving to the passage under consideration, the writer now explains the consequences of a Christian not pressing on to spiritual maturity:
Heb. 6:4 For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit,
Heb. 6:5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come,
Heb. 6:6 and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.
Heb. 6:7 For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God;
Heb. 6:8 but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.
The writer is describing the consequences of a Christian not "pressing on to maturity" as he commanded in v.1. He defines a Christian in vs.4-5 using a list of experiences. Notice these experiences are common to every Christian but would be unfamiliar to unbelievers. The list mentions becoming enlightened (i.e., coming to know the truth of the Gospel), becoming a partaker of the Holy Spirit and tasting (i.e., experiencing) the word of God and the powers of the Spirit.
These are characteristics of every believer's life, yet they have no place in an unbeliever's experience. Some Bible teachers overemphasize certain words in this description to force a conclusion that the writer is describing an unbeliever, but the experiences in the list (as well as the overall context of the passage) precludes such an interpretation. The writer provides this list to emphasize the certainty of the believer's faith, which makes his warning all the more sobering.
Because of the certainty of his faith, a believer who falls away cannot be renewed "again" to repentance. Simply put, there is no second salvation moment for a believer. Our salvation experience of repenting from a life of sin and turning to the Gospel is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Our salvation is secure for eternity, so there is simply no way for God to repeat this process. Therefore, no believer should test the Lord's patience by indulging in a life of sin with the expectation that the Lord will offer a second chance to repent and escape such a lifestyle.
What is the consequence for a believer who falls away? Once again, some interpreters has misunderstood the meaning of "falling away" to imply a loss of salvation, but the Bible uses the term falling away to describe believers failing to achieve spiritual maturity through the study and application of God's word and instead falling away (i.e., returning) to the sinful life they lived prior to faith. This is a falling away of behavior and thought, but it is not a loss of salvation.
In fact, the whole counsel of God's word emphasizes that a believer's eternal security is assured by the Spirit and cannot be "lost" through our sinful behaviors (see Romans 8). (For a longer discussion of this issue, please read the article Can I Lose My Salvation?) We can see this clearly in the writer's conclusion.
The writer uses a parable to illustrate the consequences for falling away. The writer compares a believer who falls away to farm land (ground) that receives rain falling from the sky. Falling rain is commonly used in the Bible as a picture of God's grace extended to men (see Isaiah 44:3; James 5:7). God extends His common grace to both believers and unbelievers (see Matt 5:45), but this parable is clearly describing the unique grace extended only to believers through their faith in Christ.
The writer says that God's rain (i.e., saving grace) falls on (i.e., is granted to) believers, for the purpose of producing useful vegetation (i.e., glorifying works) for the One Who tills the ground (i.e., the Lord). Simply put, the Lord saves Christians with the expectation that we will produce a harvest of good works for His glory (see Matt 5:16). Some believers live to fulfill this purpose while other believers waste God's grace by producing useless works (i.e., thorns and thistles).
These two outcomes are metaphors for the two types of lives believers may choose to live in response to their salvation: either obeying or disobeying their Lord. Some believers devote their lives to serving the Lord and producing spiritual fruit while others become caught up in the cares and pleasures of life, leading them to fall away.
The writer is describing a situation similar to the one illustrated in Jesus' parable of the sower and seed:
Luke 8:14 “The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity.
Luke 8:15 “But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.
Luke 8:16 “Now no one after lighting a lamp covers it over with a container, or puts it under a bed; but he puts it on a lampstand, so that those who come in may see the light.
Luke 8:17 “ For nothing is hidden that will not become evident, nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light.
Luke 8:18 “So take care how you listen; for whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him.”
Some interpreters have explained the falling away and the resulting penalty in Hebrews 6 as the consequences for an unbeliever who has been exposed to the Gospel but never accepted it truly. In this interpretative understanding, "falling away" describes a rejection of the truth of the Gospel, while the inability to be renewed to repentance describes a loss of any future opportunity to know the Lord. This conclusion does not fit the words or context of the passage, nor does it fit with the overall teaching of scripture.
First, the Bible never uses the term "fall away" (or apostasy) to describe the actions of an unbeliever. It is always used to describe a believer moving away from God. Simply put, an unbeliever cannot fall away from a faith they never possessed in the first place.
Secondly, we would never say that an unbeliever cannot be be renewed to repentance "again," since an unbeliever by definition has never been renewed to repentance even once. Furthermore, the Bible never teaches that rejecting the Gospel on one occasion eliminates future opportunities to believe and be saved. In fact, scripture teaches that the Lord appoints our day of salvation (e.g., Acts 22:14), so past disobedience is never cause for future disqualification.
Finally, this person's apostasy is said to put the Lord to "open shame." Putting Christ to open shame refers to publicly humiliating Christ among those who respect and honor Him. The Lord cannot be shamed by the actions of someone who does not possess a relationship with Him. The unbelieving world does not esteem Christ, and unbelievers do not possess a relationship with Christ. Therefore, they have no potential to bring open shame to Christ. If it were possible for unbelievers to cast shame upon Christ, then He would be subject to continual shame! Only a believer's actions can shame the Lord within the Church.
Therefore, all evidence supports the conclusion that this passage is warning believers of the importance to press on to maturity in the walk of faith and not to fall back to a life of immature or ungodly living.
In v.8, the writer concludes with a description of the judgment that comes upon the unfruitful Christian: he is "close to being cursed." The believer will never be cursed (i.e., damned), because their sin was forgiven on the cross of Christ. Nevertheless, a life of disobedience leaves them "close" to being cursed in the sense that their lack of good works results in a testimony only marginally better than that of an unbeliever's life.
The writer's conclusion confirms that the person in view is a believer, not an unbeliever, because the writer's statement "close to being cursed" cannot be said of unbelievers. All unbelievers live continually under a sentence of condemnation unless and until they confess Christ. Unbelievers are not "close to being cursed;" they are cursed every day they live in disobedience to the Gospel (see John 3:18).
So what has the disobedient believer placed at risk by falling away? The Bible teaches that disobedient believers forfeit eternal reward for failing to produce good works, as Paul describes in 1Cor 3:
1Cor. 3:10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it.
1Cor. 3:11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
1Cor. 3:12 Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw,
1Cor. 3:13 each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work.
1Cor. 3:14 If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward.
1Cor. 3:15 If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
Paul emphasizes that a Christian's failure to serve Christ will results in a judgment of fire that consumes the person's record of useless works. Though his useless works are burned up, Paul emphasizes that the believer himself is still saved in the end by his faith. Here we find Paul agreeing with the writer of Hebrews in teaching that a believer may experience a severe judgment for falling away, though his salvation remains secure.
In summary, the writer of Hebrews is warning that any Christian who does not press on to maturity is in danger of falling away (i.e., returning) to a life of disobedience and unfruitful results. A believer who rebels in this way cannot assume the Lord will grant them another opportunity to turn back from sin and receive a second chance to glorify the Lord.
Instead, the Lord may choose to leave the believer in his rebellion, so that at the judgment moment the Lord can demonstrate His perfect justice by denying the believer eternal reward. Our best course of action is to serve the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength so as to please Him.
For more information on the judgment seat of Christ, we recommend you listen to Lesson 3B in our 1Corinthians study.