Calvinism: My History 2

One of the courses I taught at Trinity, NT 612, included a survey of the book of Hebrews. In addition to teaching Hebrews there, once or twice I taught Advanced Exegesis and we marched through the entirety of the Greek text of Hebrews. The courses energized me deeply, and the students were alert to the significance of the topics we were discussing. (Not that any of us stayed alert when we talked about Melchizedek.)

One of the focal points of my lectures was the Warning Passages, texts that are one of high Calvinism’s (or at least monergism’s) biggest challenges. If it can be established that genuine believers can fall away and lose their salvation then any sense of effectual grace or perseverance (as God’s preservation) are undone. There are five of warning passages. I’d like to copy them all into this post but it would take up too much space. Here are the passages:

1. Hebrews 2:1-4
2. Hebrews 3:7–4:13
3. Hebrews 5:11–6:12
4. Hebrews 10:19-39
5. Hebrews 12:1-29

Of these, #3 gets all the attention, and especially 6:4-6, which follows:

4 For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.

These verses deserve all the attention they get, but the others deserve more than they are getting.

What happens to Calvinism if those who lose their salvation in Hebrews are genuine believers?

It is standard for most Bible readers to find in Hebrews 6:6 (“and then have fallen away”) a bewildering sense that this text seems to suggest they can lose their faith, fall away, and never be restored to repentance, and that means bad things. Most respond by dissecting this text carefully, isolating each expression, wondering if maybe it is not as bothersome as it really sounds, and end up (in many cases) walking away convinced this text doesn’t actually teach that a believer can “lose his or her salvation.”

I offer to you two proposals, and I want to work these out with you to see what you think of my suggestions.

But, back to my class: what I thought I would do is present as clearly as possible an alternative (to typical evangelicalism’s belief in eternal security) understanding of the Warning Passages in Hebrews. To do this, I spent hours and hours working on these passages in their contexts and then finding my way through them.

So, in that class I suggested that we look together at two proposals: first, that we consider looking at all five Warning Passages as a whole. That is, read each one in context but also compare them together as doing largely the same things. This would allow us to synthesize these passages into a meaningful whole. Second, I discovered when we do this that we find four features in each Warning Passage.

Each passage has:

1. The audience or the subjects: who is being addressed? What does the author call them?

2. The sin the author warns this audience about: what is it that he think they may be doing?

3. The exhortation the author gives each time: what are they to do instead of the sin?

4. The consequences the author spells out if they don’t respond to his exhortation: what will happen if they don’t respond properly?

Here’s what happened in those classes: by and large students agreed with the conclusions we drew for each part of the Warning Passages. Now, as you know, my conclusions were that the author warned the audience of apostasy and warned them that they would forfeit their salvation. What surprised me is the number of students who agreed with me. After all, these were true-blue conservative evangelical types who by and large believed in eternal security and assurance of salvation and these sorts of ideas.

I’ll do what I can to get to the specifics Friday. I will begin with #4 and work my way up that list.

For now, may I challenge you to read those texts and think about those four categories for each Warning Passage.

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  • Mick Porter

    I’ve benefited from a lot of Calvinist thinkers but certainly don’t buy right into the whole system of thought. Your synthesis approach to these passages is fascinating – looking forward to following along.

  • Paul W

    “If it can be established that GENUINE BELIEVERS can fall away . . .”

    The terminology of “genuine” or “true” believers appears to be considerably more important in the Evangelical lexicon than with many other groupings of Christians. I’ve got to say that I don’t quite get what Evangelicals are getting at when they use such modifiers. Any help in understanding how this type of language functions within Evangelicalism would be appreciated.

    I’ve used the terms in ways that seem similiar to how I’ve heard Evangelicals speak of non-evangelical Christians(e.g., Oh, well I’m sure that there are some ‘true’ believers who go to Baptist churches). It typically gets meet with a blank stare. It sounds like elitism but in the key of generosity. But like I said, “I don’t get it.”

    So does being a genuine believer add something over and above being just an ordinary believer? Or are we to understand that there is a substantial group of ‘insincere’ or ‘fake’ believers that need to be taken into account in some fashion for this discussion?

  • Scot McKnight

    Paul W,

    This issue of “genuine” believes is not just a modern day evangelical category. For the Calvinist, God’s grace is effectual not only in awakening a person to faith but also in sustaining a person in faith all the way to the end. That grace, so it is argued, is irresistible or effectual. If the writer of Hebrews can be shown to teach that such a person of faith can actually throw it away or lose it (or whatever term is used), then that grace is not “effectual” or “irresistible.”

    To be sure, the evangelical will quickly think of having been born again or having a born again experience and then walking away, but in classic theology we are talking about folks who “in Christ” and who jump out of the circle or those who show marks of redemptive Spirit-shaped work in life (and not just smidgeons or slight superficial traces) and who then walk away.

  • A true ‘believer’ believes. I see Scripture presenting faith from different standpoints. Sometimes it is from God’s standpoint in sovereignty and here, where it is all God’s doing, salvation is secure and certain. He gives his sheep eternal life and they shall never perish. Sometimes s the standpoint is from man’s in responsibility. Here the perspective is from that of human experience and so continuance and falling away are possible.

    In the first faith is supplied and in the second it is a demanded. Perspective is all.

  • I still remember NT 612 and the warning passages! Hope you’ll be unpacking the full meaning of the “salvation” that’s in question? That would be very helpful.

  • Josh T.

    My question, Scot (especially regarding your second paragraph in comment #3) is what kinds of real life experiences do we see where believers who have walked away after years of apparent faithfulness have then again, years later, come back into the fold? Do you think that such examples would complicate the interpretation of that passage, which seems to indicate pretty clearly that restoration and repentance are impossible.

  • Scot McKnight

    Josh T,

    That question is an interesting one, for sure. I’m not quite sure how to deal with it since the writer of Hebrews says a certain kind of sin, namely apostasy, is the sort that is irreversible. Not unlike the unforgivable sin.

  • JohnM

    Paul W – My understanding of the “genuine believer” in evangelical thinking would be as opposed to “churchgoer but not believer in their heart”, rather than opposed to “ordinary believer”. A nominal christian who has not had a personal conversion experience. Someone who, while they may have some kind of belief, has not really comprehended and/or responded positivley to the – soterian according to Scot 🙂 – gospel, even if they do go to church. I don’t know if that helps or confuses further.

    But as for what happens to Calvinism, I’ve been led to understand the soteriology unravels entirely if it frays at one end. True? Is it possible to be in any sense a Calvinist without believing in final perseverance?

    I do know that while I’ve never been a Calvinist I was raised on a somewhat more watery version of OSAS but Hebrews is part of what changed my mind.

  • John W Frye

    Scot calls us to a choice: we will let all five warning passages in Hebrews address us freshly, informing or modifying our views OR we will come to the warning passages already assured of our belief and thus shoehorn the texts to fit what we already believe. The texts will address our theological system or our system will determine the texts’ meaning. A choice, indeed.

  • Alan K

    @6 Josh T,

    The story of the English writer A.N. Wilson comes to mind. Makes one consider that maybe the prayers of Jesus Christ are capable of seeing us through unbelief. The story of Peter comes to mind as well.

  • Jeremy

    In the same vein as Mr. Thompson’s thoughts, I’ve often wondered how relevant 1 John 2:19 is in the discussion…

    “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”

    I know this is one of the Calvinist proof-texts (though not on the scale of some others), but does it warrant any legitimate consideration in this discussion?

  • Scot McKnight


    Sure does warrant to be part of any explanation of “apostasy.” Does it explain all of it? No.

    But for some it does: self-deception, which for some is part of this Johannine text, is a major theme for explaining apostasy by Calvinists.

  • I’m wondering. We read the book in terms of “eternal salvation,” but does the author have in mind something temporal instead, like the destruction that would be coming on Jerusalem (assuming Hebrews was written before AD 70)? In once place, he uses the example of Esau, for there was no place left for repentance — does that mean we should not expect to find Esau among the redeemed? Or was the author referring only to Esau’s temporal judgment?

    Also, remembering the discussions that followed here concerning Rob Bell’s Love Wins, I wonder how this discussion might interact with those.

  • Josh T.

    Alan (#10), I was just thinking A.N. Wilson, as well. But I was also thinking about a friend from college (we shared a ton of classes at the local university) who told me a few weeks after he graduated that he had “lost his faith.” That was over ten years ago. I don’t get to talk to him much, but I believe he identifies as some sort of pagan, now. I still hope and pray for his return to Jesus.

  • EricW

    Looking forward to this, esp. re: 6:6 and how you translate/define παραπεσοντας and what effect, if any, on the passage’s meaning the use of the present (versus aorist) infinitive ανακαινιζειν might have.

    (FWIW, I would say that the second warning passage should begin with 3:6b and not with 3:7.)

    P.S. That was a nice letter Rachel Held Evans wrote about/to you:

  • Kutab

    Should be a great discussion. I can’t compete with EricW’s learned admonitions about the Greek aorist, but I will say I hope we can be conscientious about avoiding the “No True Scotsman” fallacy that presents such a tempting trap when thinking about these issues.

    Basically, this fallacy involves a form of ‘begging the question’ in which every possible counter-example to a generalization about a class is dismissed on the grounds that, since it’s a counterexample, it can’t possibly be a ‘true’ example of the class. The generalization therefore becomes unfalsifiable.

    Wikipedia has a good summary; this site ( even applies the idea to the exact issue under discussion here.

  • Cory

    A quick thought popped into my mind regarding the apostasy here: could it be that the unforgivable apostasy is some sort of denial of Jesus in order to avoid martyrdom/persecution?

    For instance, the “great cloud of witnesses” in ch. 11 links the warning passage in ch. 10 (#4) with the one in ch. 12 (#5) — the author exhorts the congregation to have faith (and thus be saved) rather than shrinking back and being destroyed (10:37-39), then lists several exemplars of faith, culminating with the martyrs of the Maccabean period (ch. 11) and then Jesus, who “endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:1-3). He then moves into talking about the congregation shedding their blood to resist sin and “enduring” the hardship as blessing.

    Just a thought. I look forward to reading the post Friday!

  • #8 JM

    ‘I’ve been led to understand the soteriology unravels entirely if it frays at one end. True? ‘

    I would argue that all theology when pushed begins to fray. Truth is holding many truths in tension. Human logic when allowed to have its head eventually pushes truth into untruth. We allow Scripture to speak fully and live with areas of mystery. Where Scripture speaks we affirm; where Scripture is silent we respect this silence.

  • Well, Dr. McKnight, you stack the deck here pretty clearly. The first question someone who is walking through these passages with you has to ask is, “Does the writer of Hebrews frame the category ‘genuine believer’?”

    Heb 2 doesn’t frame a category of “genuine believers”.

    Heb 3 doesn’t frame a category of “genuine believers” — it in fact frames a category of unbelievers who had no reason to not believe (they saw all of the miracle God did with and through Moses).

    Heb 5 frames a contrast between the mature and the immature — not those who believe and do not believe.

    Heb 12 does not establish the category of “genuine believer”.

    The only place you may remotely have a case for the situation where the writer is setting up the category “genuine believer” who goes apostate and is lost is the Heb 10 passage. However, there is nothing about the “genuine”-ness of faith here. Indeed, Calvin makes the point that what is “genuine” (your term) is the rejection of Christ those described here demonstrate. If their -rejection- is genuine, there is nothing to save them — even if they have already “received” the truth of the Gospel (Calvin says: from the church).

    To your questions, I think Wright (and Doug Wilson) are actually very helpful here to point out that the church is the church and not merely the number of the elect — there are wheat and tares among the church, the elect and the non-elect. So when the writer of Hebrews addresses “the church,” it’s a false assumption that he means “only genuine believers”.


  • Craig Querfeld

    I still remember that course, the warning passages, and the one page paper that we had to right. Not an easy assignment. Look forward to reading/thinking through these passages again.

  • Hi Dr. McKnight,

    I have to confess that I haven’t spent extensive time in all of the warning passages in Hebrew but I have spent some significant time wresting with Hebrew 6:1-8 and I can’t help but wonder if there’s an alternative, redemptive-historical way to understand the warning passages in Hebrews.

    In much the same way that under the Mosaic Covenant, the covenant community was composed of those who were both faithful to Yahweh (i.e. circumcised hearts) and unfaithful to Yahweh (i.e. uncircumcised hearts) it seems like the New Covenant community is similarly composed of those who are both regenerate and unregenerate.

    To be sure, from passages like Jeremiah 31 we have to understand that the New Covenant community will ultimately be composed only of those who have the law written on their hearts. However, since the New Covenant has been inaugurated but not yet fully consummated, it would make sense that there are still aspects are a holdover from the old covenant.

    This connection with the old covenant is strengthened, I believe, by Hebrews 6:7-8 which appears to be at least an intertextual echo of Deuteronomy 11, a passage where Moses is warning the congregation of Israel against covenant faithlessness after having just explained in 10:12-22 that the nation will need circumcised hearts if they are to be faithful to Yahweh.

    Obviously, this is a brief sketch of Hebrews 6 but I suspect if I were to dig into the other warning passages there would be similar echoes from the OT. The upshot of this is that if the covenant community right now (read: Church) is composed of those who are both regenerate and unregenerate then it would make perfect sense for the warning passages to apply especially there.

    Unregenerate members of the church can walk away from the community and the faith after having experienced some of God’s benefits. This would seem to support the idea of eternal security or perseverance since those who fall away were never regenerate in the first place even though they were genuinely members of the covenant.

  • Charlie Clauss

    The forthright answer to Paul W’s question (#2) is that for many (most?) Evangelicals, genuine believer are those who have had a conversion (experienced or not). Those who have not converted are NOT Christians.

    The question of “genuine believer” is a very important one, and I’d like to see you learned ones wrestle with it some more. I’d especially like to hear more about how a concept like genuine believer is linked to a single-tensed view of salvation. That is, I _was_ saved with no thought to the salvation that is to come.

    At the same time, can the need for a “conversion” be completely written off? It has very strong Biblical warrant. Is there a third way that might keep conversion in view but not collapse salvation in to conversion? If there is such a way, how would the question of eternal security be re-framed?

  • Jeremy

    I think I’m looking forward to hear about Scott’s take on Heb 6:7-8 more than just about anything else. A lot would seem to hinge on those two verses when it comes to this topic…

  • EricW

    At ETS in San Antonio a few years ago a person presented a paper in which he posited that παραπεσοντας (παραπιπτω) should be considered related to παραπτωμα and hence παραπεσοντας could (and perhaps should) be translated as “sinned” instead of as “fallen away.”


    (IIRC, the Orthodox Church regards this passage as being against rebaptism, since terms that came to be related to, or to signify, baptism are used here. Since there could only be one baptism for the remission of sins (cf. the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed), if this referred to post-baptismal sin – i.e., if παραπεσοντας means sinning, rather than falling away/apostasy – then it would possibly lend support to this view.)

  • Ben Wheaton


    Would you mind putting the Greek into Roman letters? It would make it easier for the more unlearned among us to follow the discussion.

  • EricW

    @Ben Wheaton 25.:

    παραπεσοντας = parapesontas
    ανακαινιζειν = anakainizein
    παραπιπτω = parapiptô
    παραπτωμα = paraptôma


  • PaulE

    Your question was definitely on my mind as I read through these verses. It’s a tricky one to answer without getting too far ahead in the conversation. This doesn’t directly answer your question, but I anticipate that I will agree with your answers to each of your four questions and yet I will disagree with your conclusions about Calvinism and the assurance of salvation. The warnings are real; but the assurance is too.

  • Just jumping in here to add support to Turk’s good point that what ought to be generally assumed when talking about those who are in covenant with God is that not all will remain in covenant with God (wheat/tares). Since the beginning of this whole redemptive story in fact, not all those who are visibly in covenant with God are those who necessarily remain a part of that covenant. God will have his remnant, however.

    Put another way, the biblical story clearly depicts those who, while circumcised, born of the 12 tribes, and given Torah, did not remain faithful to the covenant, i.e., apostasized. That historical reality holds true even in this new covenant, like or not, in this time between the times.

  • The tenor of this discussion so far underscores Scot’s contention that all the warnings be examined as a whole. Our tendency to want to jump into the most controversial of them (even after being advised to see them as a whole) is representative of our proof-texting approach to doctrine. I agree completely Scot both that all the warnings form a unity of argument and that they build on each other. I also agree that they all follow a form similar to what you suggest in this article.

    I am actually more curious about the first warning concerning the “drift” that all of us face. It may have a lot more to say to Calvinists than the 3rd one. Drifting away (or the possibility of it) does a lot of damage to the original ideas of perseverance. A “true” follower of Christ will persevere…or at least that was the Reformation concept.

    I will withhold all comments on Hebrews 6 until you unpack it Scot.

  • Craig Wright

    I was raised in a Christian home and accepted Jesus Christ as my savior at the age of five. I was a sincere Christian all the way through high school. At the end of my 3rd year at Biola College (a Christian college), I left the faith for about four years, saying I was not a Christian, even getting through Viet Nam without praying. (I ended up with a purple heart and a bronze star.) I came back to the Lord and have been an active Christian ever since. I am now 65 years old.

  • Josh T.

    Craig (#30), it’s testimonies like yours that lead me to believe that some of the Hebrews passages, while seeming straightforward, may not be so clear.

    Now to bring up an idea that I don’t think anyone has mentioned… Hebrews is addressed to Jewish Christians, yes? I recall a preacher many years ago (like mid-90’s) suggesting that the audience was tempted to engage in temple practices, such as animal sacrifices, undermining the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus. Now, I never quite bought into that interpretation (I’ve not heard the same interpretation since), but it does make me wonder if there is a more specific context that we tend to miss in our potentially anachronistic readings of the passages. Is it possible that there is a kind of specific sin situation among Jewish believers that the writer was addressing–something that would perhaps differentiate it from the type of “falling away” experienced by Craig in comment 30?

  • DRT

    Scot, how about podcasting some of your classes?

  • scotmcknight

    Chris, but this precisely begs the question: in the New Covenant it is not visible, physical connection but faith.

  • Scot McKnight

    Frank Turk, stick with it as you are pushing “genuine” … I use that term because many want to say they are not “genuine” … we’ll get to it.

  • Scot McKnight


    There’s not a shred of evidence in the NT for “church” being a reference to a mixed body … this is later thinking and fits our world where we use church for those in a church….

    … and folks the wheat and tares parable is not about a mixed church but the co-existence of kingdom people and non kingdom people in this world.

    The issue here is how the writer of Hebrews describes those whom he is warning.

  • LexCro

    What I’ve found is that folks usually get REAL creative with the question #1 (the audience/subjects). I’ve seen a lot of otherwise respectable exegetes who entire flame out when it comes to this question because they don’t want to face the hard truth about apostasy. Looking forward to the rest of this series. Also, I agree that Hebrews 6:4-6 receives the bulk of the attention (and it’s usually detached from its original setting of 5:11-6:12). However, I also think that many act as if Hebrews has the only problematic passages (problematic for those who hold to OSAS/perseverance of the saints). Any chance of you dealing with some other passages that speak to this (i.e., Jn. 15:1-11, 2 Pet. 2:20-22, et al)?

  • Scot, most do not miss the fact that when the NT speaks of the ekklesia it assumes its purity, that it’s not a mixed bag. And yet the apostles were all too familiar with non-kingdom folks living and breathing—breaking bread—among them.

    I’m one of those guys that doesn’t see a whole lot of new stuff going on (yet) in this here new covenant. No doubt it’s faith—not visible connection—that’s of ultimate value. But of course the material world matters? The visible connection is essential to the equation.

    For example, in my opinion baptism and faith are inseparable. So Ridderbos: “That which the believer appropriates to himself on the proclamation of the gospel God promises and bestows on him in baptism. It is salvation by the washing of regeneration for everyone who with his mouth confesses Jesus as Lord and in his heart believes that God has raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9; Tit. 3:5)” (Paul, p. 412).

    Re: the parable of the wheat & tares. Be that as it may, kingdom people and non-kingdom people in this world find themselves gathering together in the name of Christ. I’m Episcopal, and as such I (unfortunately) get to see this all the time.

  • Stephen a

    I too remember nt612 and the final exam, a two page paper defining your understanding of the authors view of eternal security. Scot said,”if u mention a new testament scripture passage outside of Hebrews you will immediately fail.” He also said, “You won’t be graded on the position you take, only your ability to argue it.” anyone have a 5.25 floppy drive so I can print what I wrote?

    I think one can only look at the warning passages together and a progression of the same point. Try reading Hebrews aloud as a sermon and you will see the warnings as points of contact with the audience to apply what has been shared thus far. I think it is a similar point to Paul’s admonition to the Gentile believers in Romans 11 not to be arrogant lest they be broken off for unbelief. Hebrews is making the point that after Christ there is no other better option similar to Peter’s confession that there is no place to go since Jesus has the words of eternal life.

    One of the things Hebrews has taught me is that the preacher must always be passionately calling people to faithfulness and belief, and never get so theological as to allow apostasy as a viable alternative for the Christian. Whatever our security in Christ, we’d better reflect that in our minds and actions. I look forward to the discussion too.

  • Paul W

    Just as a preface: I don’t identify as being a High Calvinist.

    However, it has been my understanding that Calvinist do NOT understand that every display of faith will be effectually sustained all the way to the end of a person’s life. Calvinist authors have written about ‘temporary faith’have they not? In a similiar way not every single display of God’s graciousness is understood as effectual for eternal salvation.

    Its only ‘saving’ grace that creates a ‘persevering’ faith in their scheme. That, at least, is how I understand them. Perhaps Frank Turk or some of the self-identified Calvinist could clarify better.

    And so accordingly, many Calvinist can avoid the force of much criticism through definition. They simply need to recognize that the faith which might be lost according to the writer of Hebrews is not ultimately a ‘saving’ and ‘persevering’ faith. Who would argue otherwise (i.e., a saving faith that doesn’t save or a persevering faith that doesn’t lasts?!?). Much of the difficulties, I believe, reside with the slippery way that various groups use terms. That’s why, in part, I asked about ‘genuine’ believers.

  • Paul Schultz

    For one who received the affectionate nickname of “The Heretic” at a certain institute in Chicago for having “Arminian tendencies”…I am definitely interested in this discussion. However, since I am married to a former Baptist I am also interested in reconciling these things 😉

    I hope that some of the discussion will be able to interact with DeSilva’s understanding of patronage and how it relates to passages that place the onus on God or on people respectively (see his commentary on Hebrews “Perseverance in Gratitude”).

  • Gearoid

    Do most Arminian theologians believe that ALL those who fall away in Hebrews are “genuine” Christians who forfeit their salvation? Is there a place for “temporary faith” or a “professing believer” in Arminian theology, i.e., someone who claims faith, but from God’s vantage point doesn’t possess it (Matt. 7:23; Jas. 2:26; Heb. 3:17-19)? Is apostasy always a matter of “losing” the relationship one once had? Can apostasy refer to a relationship which is claimed but does not actually exist?

    Is it true that Arminius himself was not completely sure on whether or not saints were eternally secure?

  • Russ

    Most theologians do believe this passage is talking about Apostasy
    Short Definition: I fall away
    Definition: I fall away, fall back (into the unbelieving and godless ways of the old time).

    The Problem is that Calvinist redefines the word apostasy to mean a false conversion, as they redefine MANY words to fit their theology.
    The following link is meant to be funny and truthful but certainly not exhaustive regarding the Calvinist redefining of words.