Can a Christian Who Falls Away Ever Become Saved Again?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Tuesday, December 28, 2010 at 3:49pm
QUESTION: I understand that a true, saved believer can “fall from grace” and become lost; but can such a person ever return and become saved again? Does not Hebrews 6:4-6 suggest that a person who falls away can never again be saved?
ANSWER: The idea that a fallen-away sinner can never again be saved has brought much anguish to many sincere people. It is also a false doctrine, one that is based mainly on a seriously-false translation of the passage named here, Hebrews 6:4-6. I have written about this in my systematic theology, The Faith Once for All (pp. 382-383), which I will now repeat here:
The fact that the NT teaches the possibility (and in some cases the actuality) of falling from grace raises the question: is it possible for one who loses his salvation ever to be restored thereto? Many say this is not possible. If a saved person abandons or loses his salvation, for whatever reason, it is impossible for that person ever to be saved again. This conclusion is usually based on Heb. 6:6, which says of fallen ones that “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.” This seems to be an unequivocal locking of the door to salvation to anyone who voluntarily forsakes Christ.
In my judgment, however, this is a seriously false conclusion, based on a false interpretation and translation of Heb. 6:6 (see v. 4 in the NIV). This verse, rightly understood, does not teach that it is impossible for a fallen person ever to return. The main affirmation in the verse is indeed “it is impossible to renew them.” The key to understanding this, however, is the two modifying participles, “crucifying again” and “putting to open shame.” How a participle is related to the main verb is always a matter of interpretation, since there is no connecting word (such as “since”) in the Greek text. Sometimes a participle states the cause of the action of the main verb. That is how most translators interpret the two participles in Heb. 6:6; hence they add the word “since.” This leaves the impression that it is impossible—period—to renew fallen ones to repentance, and that is because they have crucified Christ to themselves again and put him to an open shame.
This interpretation of the participles must be vigorously rejected, however. Their relation to the main verb is not causal but temporal, i.e., they state a time frame in which the action of the main verb is true. This is true for two reasons. First, they are present participles, not aorist (past) participles. Since present participles generally refer to action that is contemporaneous with (rather than action that precedes) the main verb, it is much better to connect them with the main verb with words such as “while” or “as long as” (as the NASB and NIV footnotes allow). Thus the meaning of the verse is something very different from what appears in most translations. It is saying that the impossibility is conditional, i.e., it is impossible to renew the fallen as long as they continue to crucify Christ to themselves again and put him to an open shame.
The second reason why these participles should be interpreted in this temporal sense (“while, as long as”) is that other Scripture supports the possibility that the fallen may be restored. The clearest such text is the one that addresses the fate of those Jewish branches on the olive tree that were broken off because of their unbelief (Rom. 11:20). It cannot be doubted that at least some of these were Jews who once had a sincere faith in Yahweh as he was known from OT revelation and who were thus in a saved state, but who when confronted with the gospel of Christ chose to reject him and thus became unbelievers and were broken off from the tree. Of these Paul says, “And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (Rom. 11:23). If they will restore their own faith, God will restore them to his grace.
Another text that gives support to the possibility of restoring the fallen is the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). The story of the prodigal is often taken as having at least a secondary application to the work of evangelism. I.e., the prodigal is pictured as a lost sinner who experiences conversion. When interpreted on this level, however, it is much more reasonable to regard it as parallel to a believer who falls away and is then restored. In the parable the son is first pictured as being alive in his father’s house. This represents the believer in the state of grace. Then the son is pictured as being dead in a far country, representing a believer’s free choice to allow his faith to die. Finally the son is shown to be alive again in his father’s arms, indicating that a fallen believer can be restored to grace again. Verse 24 says the son “has come to life again,” showing he was once alive, then dead, then alive again.
In view of these considerations it is tragic that most Bible versions mistranslate Heb. 6:6 and thus close the door of hope to the fallen.
How does the restoration of a fallen believer take place? Romans 11:23 shows that he must not remain in unbelief but must again begin to believe in the saving work of Jesus. Also, Acts 8:9-24 may properly be regarded as an actual instance of a believer, Simon the former sorcerer, who fell from grace and is then instructed by Peter to repent and pray in order to be received into grace again (v. 22).