He staggered out of the room in which we had just previously had lunch together. He was ashen faced and trembling violently! During lunch he had asked me a question from Hebrews 6. I had given him some sort of answer, and then I went back to work in the main part of the laboratory. It was about 2 hours later that he staggered out of the lunch room. I had never seen him or anyone else like this before. He had always been the laid-back supercilious atheist frequently mocking my new-found faith in Jesus Christ. He had been shocked when I told him I was now going to church. But as we shared lunch breaks in the oil analysis room he had begun to ask questions about the Bible. He even asked me if he could borrow a New Testament in modern language. So during our short lunch breaks I would be reading the Bible as a brand-new Christian while he, the well-known atheist sat there reading my little New Testament. Week after week.
But on this particular day something different happened during lunch. It was going to be life changing! For both of us! He asked a couple of questions which were fairly easy to answer. Then he asked me to explain these words from this translation of Hebrews 6:1-6, “So then let us once for all quit the elementary teaching about Christ and continue progressing toward maturity; let us stop relaying a foundation of repentance from works that mean only death, and of faith in God, 2 of teaching about ceremonial washings and the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and final judgment. 3 And we will progress, if God permits. 4 For it is impossible for those who have once for all been enlightened and have experienced the gift from heaven, who have been made sharers of the Holy Spirit 5 and have experienced how good God’s message is and the mighty powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen by the wayside — it is impossible, I say, to keep on restoring them to their first repentance, since they continue to crucify the Son of God to their detriment and hold Him up to contempt.”
A difficult passage to explain at any time! Especially when one was only a few months old in the faith oneself! I remember saying to him something like this, “Henry, [not his real name] I don’t think verse 4 applies to you because as an atheist you haven’t yet experienced being enlightened or the gift from heaven or received the Holy Spirit.” However, after I left the lunch room he kept on reading the passage until suddenly the Spirit of God came on him and he was deeply convicted of sin. That’s when he staggered out saying to me, “It all true isn’t it? It’s all true! What have I got to do?” What a shock it was to me to see him in such a disturbed state and to hear the fear-filled words he was uttering! I told him what I felt he should do. Next day I took him to my minister who led him to the Lord in prayer. It was an amazing change!
The following Sunday, this avowed atheist [who was always being sought after by the newspapers to give an atheistic view on various topics] picked up his little New Testament, and shocked his neighbours by walking a short distance to the local Anglican church. This he continued to do for the remainder of his life whilst becoming a lay reader helping in services, then a lay preacher preaching at services, then a member of the Diocesan Synod representing his parish and later a member of General Synod representing his diocese in the all-Australian Synod. Not a bad sort of change for a once avowed atheist!
On that day, I saw how powerfully the Spirit of God could convict even the most hardened sinner of their sin as they read His word! I saw how quickly the Lord could change someone from being an avowed atheist to being a committed believer! I saw true repentance in action, coupled with a new deep faith in Jesus Christ! I saw the outward evidence of a new birth taking place before my eyes!
Well what does the book of Hebrews have to say about repentance? There are only 3 references but they are all very significant. The first reference is in Heb 6:1 where the writer urges the readers to grow in maturity, “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance [metanoia, μετάνοια] from dead works and of faith toward God.” As we have seen in previous articles, the preaching of the early church centred on those two basic elements, namely the need for people to repent and also the need for people to put their faith in Christ. Those were essential elements but they were not the only elements of the Christian faith. Maturity came from finding out more of the unsearchable riches they possessed in Christ and how they might grow to fullness of life in Him.
The second passage is the one I mentioned above that had such an impact on my friend in the laboratory, Heb 6:4 “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who 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, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” We note in passing that the writer is not saying that it is impossible for such people to be restored “to salvation”. Rather it is “to repentance”. As the passage in the version I gave him put it, “It is impossible, I say, to keep on restoring them to their first repentance.” People who deliberately sin after having been enlightened, become hardened and may never again experience the liberating effect of their initial repentance. The writer is issuing a warning for believers to always walk in the light and not be led astray from the truth in Jesus.
The final verse regarding repentance in Hebrews is Heb 12:17. The writer had been urging his readers to take hold of the grace of God and never to let bitterness come in which might defile the person and affect others as well. They should walk in holiness, getting all their Christian priorities right. There was no place for moral or personal sin. Esau is mentioned as an example of someone in a privileged position who got his priorities wrong by rejecting his birthright for a single meal when he was hungry. The writer then used that illustration to warn his readers, Heb 12:15 “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.” The lesson is drawn that when one rejects one’s privileges, one may never recover them, no matter how sorrowful one may feel, 12:17 “For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, [literally “no place for repentance”, metanoia, μετάνοια] though he sought it with tears.” Esau had despised his birthright [Genesis 25:34, …Thus Esau despised his birthright] and even a change of mind about his birthright and a new desire to recover it, could bring it back in spite of all his tears.
These passages above give some indication as to the necessity of true repentance in the Christian life. As I recall my experience of what had happened to Henry in the laboratory almost 60 years ago I am reminded of what was preached in Acts 11 about repentance. Peter had been telling his fellow Jews what had happened as he shared the gospel with the Gentile Cornelius and his other Gentile friends. The Holy Spirit had come upon them and they repented and believed in Jesus. Peter remarked, Act 11:17 “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” After a silence his fellow Jews responded, Acts 11:18 “When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” Repentance was a gift given by God to Gentiles who were open to learn of Him.
Repentance was a gift given by God to my Gentile friend Henry as he sat there pondering that passage from Hebrews 6. He chose to do something about it by cooperating with the Spirit’s ministry in him by repenting of his sin and by committing his life completely to Jesus. He was glad he did! I too was glad he did, because it showed me as a brand-new Christian the immensity of God’s love and power to transform those whom we may think would never, ever repent and turn to God for forgiveness and life! If Henry could and did, then perhaps we need to bring before the Lord the person or people we have been thinking would never be interested!
Blog No.227. Jim Holbeck. Posted Sunday 30th July 2017