Thursday, July 8

Doesn't Hebrews 6 Negate The Doctrine of Monergistic Regeneration?

Part 2 of who-knows-how-many posts in response to the comments on Monergistic Regeneration.

In a comment on the post from last week on monergistic regeneration, William Meisheid suggests that Hebrews 6 argues against the doctrine. Unfortunately, the limit on comment length doesn't allow William to really elaborate on his thoughts, so there is a real possibility that when I try to present his argument here I will get it wrong. Here is a bit of William's comment:
....all of our natures are sinful and while regeneration changes those natures, without the ability of some to reject that initial rebirthing, Hebrews 6 becomes nonsensical.
And here is the portion of Hebrews 6 that I believe he is referring to:
For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, become partakers of the Holy Spirit, tasted the good word of God and the miracles of the coming age, and then have committed apostasy, to renew them again to repentance, since they are crucifying the Son of God for themselves all over again and holding him up to contempt. For the ground that has soaked up the rain that frequently falls on it and yields useful vegetation for those who tend it receives a blessing from God. But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is useless and about to be cursed; its fate is to be burned. (Verses 4-8, NET)
What I believe William is arguing is that being once enlightened, tasting of the heavenly gift and becoming partakers of the Holy Spirit, etc., means that one has been born again. The warning then, as William sees it, is to those who have already been born again too keep them from later rejecting Christ, and that the warning is made suggests that it is possible for a born again person to later fall way through their own choice. Given that it is possible for a born again person to make a choice to reject Christ, then regeneration (or at least remaining regenerated) must be synergistic--a cooperative work of the Holy Spirit and the person being saved. I hope I am presenting the argument accurately and fairly. If you read this, William, feel free to correct anything I've got wrong.

Probably the best way for me to respond to this is for me to explain the meaning of the passage as I understand it. To do that, I need to first of all put the book of Hebrews into its historical context, because I think that's important to understanding the exact meaning of this particular passage. Hebrews was apparently written to a group of Jewish people who had identified themselves as Christian. They had most likely been Jews faithful to the law, and when they had heard about Christ, they had gone on to embrace Him as the fulfillment of the promises to the nation of Israel. They were a group made up of mostly faithful old covenanters who had made the transition, or were in the process of transitioning, to the new covenant system that had been instituted with Christ's death and resurrection.

As various persecutions arose because of their new identity as Christians, some were at least toying with the idea of turning back to the old ways as a means of avoiding these difficulties. It was a reasonable idea, in a way, because up until the time of Christ, embracing the old covenant had been a fully adequate response from them. If the old way would still work for them, and it avoided the nasty persecution they were facing, it would be a sensible choice to just to chuck all of this new stuff and go back to the way things were. If the two covenants were equal, and one avoided persecution and the other invited it, why go with the choice that was asking for trouble? One of the messages of Hebrews, then, is "The new covenant is a better covenant; the old covenant is obsolete. You must move forward; you can't go back."

In that context I see enlightenment, tasting the heavenly gift, and becoming partakers of the Spirit as something less than the inscription of the law on the inner being (see chapter 8:10) that comes with being born again. They refer rather to the enlightenment, gifting, and spiritual partaking that came to them from their participation in the old covenant community--the enlightenment that comes from being exposed to God's law and His workings with His people throughout history. These people were in a special circumstance, a position of more enlightenment to the truth of God than the rest of the world, more exposure to God's gifts, and more knowledge of the work of the Spirit. It was an especially egregious offense for someone to have that knowledge, that extra bit of understanding, to recognize when exposed to the truth of Christ that He was the Messiah that they had been looking toward, to understand that he had instituted a new covenant for them with his blood, and then turn back away from the claims that come from that recognition of that truth in order to make things easier for themselves.

I don't think we can say that any who might actually turn back from Christ were genuinely born again. If someone turned back--and the writer suggest to us that based on the evidence of their previous faithfulness through difficulty that he doesn't believe that they will--then they are not being faithful, and faithfulness is one of the results of being born again. From chapter 8 of Hebrews:
"Look, the days are coming," says the Lord, "when I will complete a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their fathers, on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not continue in my covenant and I had no regard for them, says the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will establish with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and I will inscribe them on their hearts. And I will be their God and they will be my people. And there will be no need at all for each one to teach his countryman or each one to teach his brother saying, 'Know the Lord,' since they will all know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their evil deeds, and their sins I will remember no longer." (Verses 17-24)
The problem of a covenant people who don't continue in the covenant (or aren't faithful) is rectified under the new covenant by God placing his laws in their minds and writing them on their hearts. Everyone with this inner inscription, which I would attribute to the regenerating work of the Spirit, is one of God's new people, who are a different sort of people--a faithful people, a people who know Him.

Remember the remark at the end of John 2, where it says that there were enthusiastic followers of Jesus to whom Jesus did not commit himself, because he knew what was in their inner being? Jesus did not trust himself to certain of his followers because he knew they were "fly by night" followers, and he knew that about them because he could see into people's hearts, and he knew the inner beings of these particular followers were in some way different than those of the followers who would stay faithful. Then, over at the end of John 6, we have that comment that Jesus makes, telling us that there were some of his followers who were not true believers, and that their coming to Him was only a temporary thing, because it hadn't been given them by the Father to come. Without that extra inner work of the Spirit at the direction of the Father, belief can only be a superficial and temporary thing, something that fades when times (or teachings) get hard.

But the faithful are different, different on the inside. Their hearts are inscribed, and this keeps them faithful, even when circumstances and teachings are bitter pills to swallow. The difference between the temporary followers of Christ and those who remain forever faithful is this inner working of the Spirit at the bidding of the Father. This inner work--and I believe this is synonymous with the rebirthing experience--is the key to it all. Our faithfulness depends on it, for it ensures that we remain true.

The obvious question, then, is why the warning against falling away, if all those who are born again won't fall away? I believe it is because God works in our lives through two means--the message of truth, which this warning is, and the inner work of the Spirit, which ensures that our response to that message of truth is the right one. It is the same with the gospel message. We are justified when we respond positively to the gospel, and that proper response to the claims of the gospel is a result of the work of the Spirit calling us. The call of the Spirit is what turns what we would otherwise perceive as a foolish or offensive message into one we percieve as valuable truth, or wisdom from God. (1 Corinthians 1). And it is the inner work of the Spirit that makes the heart of the faithful receptive to this warning against going back to the old ways. The Spirit uses this warning to keep God's new covenant people faithful (Hebrews 8).

Anyone who decided to go ahead and turn away from Christ and go back to the old way, in spite of the list of dire consequences in this warning, would prove that just like those who turned away from following the earthly Christ, they had not been given by the Father to believe, that what was in them was not the "right stuff", but the old stuff--the stuff of the sinful nature we are all born with that tugs at us and keeps us captive to wrong desires, like the desire to avoid difficulty at all cost.

So after all that long and roundabout explanation, I guess in response to William's comment I would have to say that I don't think Hebrews 6 is speaking of rebirthing at all, and so I don't see it as arguing for our ability (or possible desire would be better) to reject this rebirthing. The message isn't nonsensical--or merely hypothetical, either--despite the author of Hebrews being confident that all of the intended audience will remain faithful, because this warning is one of the means used to keep the faithful in the faith, and those who had only embraced Christ superficially--not out of the true saving faith that comes as a result of the Spirit's inner work-- would indeed suffer the dire consequences of being one of God's people chosen for all the special privileges in relation to God and His things that the old covenant afforded, and then rejecting the fulfillment of the old covenant that comes through Christ.

(The two sources I used in preparing this, besides the NET Bible, were the The Argument of Hebrews by Hampton Keathley IV, especially the Introductory Matters; and the Introductory Matters from Hebrews Bible Study Commentary by Leon Morris.)

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