The recent re-publication of Richard Watson’s Institutes (kudos to Lexham Press) brings to light important systematic reflections on Wesleyan theology, not the least on the very real problem of Christians committing apostasy. Watson has some very choice things to say on this problem, and the following is some excerpts from Vol. II of his work pp. 366-78. In the first place, Watson stresses that if one affirms particular atonement (i.e. the notion that Christ only died for the elect, who were predetermined by God) then in fact Christ did not die for the people referred to in Hebrews 6, for on the showing of Calvinism, these people were never really Christians in the first place. Watson points out that what the author of Hebrews says in Heb. 6.4-8 must be compared to what is said in Heb. 10.26-31. Watson first points out that the Letter to the Hebrews is clearly written to those the author believes are currently followers of Christ, but are in some danger of committing apostasy. Hebrews is written to warn against this outcome. “But…if Calvinism be the doctrine of the New Testament, that they never could so fall away, and so perish, this was no warning at all to them. To suppose he held out that as a terror, which he (the author) knew to be impossible, and had taught them also to be impossible, is the first absurdity… It will not be denied that he speaks of these wretched apostates as deterring examples to the true believers among the Hebrews; but as such apostates never were believers and were not even rendered capable by the grace of God, of becoming such, they could not be admonitory examples.” (p. 366). The point is on the showing of Calvinism those who could never be Christians could hardly be warnings to those who could never be otherwise, since they couldn’t commit apostasy.
A second telling point Watson makes is that the author of Hebrews speaks of these apostates as being in a condition such they could not be ‘renewed again unto repentance. Watson rightly stresses the word ‘again’, which clearly alludes to the fact that they had once repented, had once tasted of the heavenly gift, had once had the Holy Spirit and so on…. but not any more. ‘Again’ alludes to a previous condition that could not be repeated. A third point of Watson is that the author of Hebrews says that these formerly repentant ones had then a ‘sacrifice for their sins’ namely Christ’s death. But this then means that Christ had indeed died for them, not just for those currently believers when the author wrote. “Theirs was once a hopeful case, because they had repented and because there was then a sacrifice for [their] sins” (p. 367).
Watson then goes on to demonstrate how the language of being enlightened, of having tasted of the heavenly gift (just as Christ tasted of death using the same language elsewhere in Hebrews— which hardly means he had a passing or slight experience of it) clearly refers to a Christian condition. Indeed, it would be hard to find a better description of the Christian condition than that found in Heb.6 which the author says could be rebelled against, abandoned, rejected by those once saved.
Watson also makes clear that apostasy is a conscious willful act. The author is not arguing that someone could accidentally lose one’s salvation like one might lose one’s car keys. No… apostasy is about making shipwreck of a faith one once had (to use Paul’s language), it is about a deliberate wrenching oneself free from the embrace of Christ, a crucifying of Christ afresh in effect. It is about quenching the work of the Spirit, grieving the Spirit in one’s life. Much more can be said along these lines, but I will let you read Watson for yourself. And happily, you can find his two volume work on Amazon as a Kindle item for less than $10. Hallelujah.