This passage in Hebrews 6:1-8, which is in the section of the book dealing with the superiority of Christ's priesthood, is one of the most difficult and challenging portions of this book, and verses 4-6 in particular are arguably some of the most controversial in the entire New Testament. It deals with the unpleasant possibility of 'falling away' from the Lord, and all that any serious contemplation of that prospect entails. The three key interpretive issues in this passage are: (1) Who is this passage addressed to (vv.4-5)? (2) What does it mean to "fall away," especially if the warning is directed to believers (v.6; cf. 2 Peter 3:17)? and (3) What is it that makes renewed repentance "impossible" (v.6)? A beginning of an answer to these disturbing questions is found in the illustration of the field in verses 7-8, and the significant contrast between the words "useful" in v.7 (cf. James 2:14,20), and "worthless" in v.8 (cf. Galatians 4:9) . The key words in this passage are not actually the important theological words defining the recipients of this warning in verses 4 and 5, but the interpretive marker terms "close" in v.8 and "accompany" in v.9 (in the passage to be covered next Sunday dealing with God's desired alternative to 'falling away'). The key theological question which ultimately determines the understanding and application of this passage, then, is what does the author mean by "better things" -- the "things that accompany salvation?"
The answer to the question of what the author/Author is referring to as the "better things" (v.9) provides the basis for evaluating the various major interpretations of Hebrews 6:1-8. The Arminian position seems implausible simply in view of the use of the phrase "close to being cursed," as opposed to actually cursed, which would be expected if salvation had actually been lost. The second alternative, that this passage is only hypothetical, simply because this view sees the consequence of 'falling away' as the loss of salvation which is unacceptable on the basis of broader theological convictions rather than actual exegetical evidence, is rejected due to the fact that it renders the passage all but meaningless in terms of application. Likewise, the third alternative position, that the passage refers to mere professing believers, seems untenable in the clear light of the terms used to describe the recipients in verses 4-5. The Reform perspective is actually a subtle, and therefore more disturbing, variation of the view that this warning is directed to those who only profess to be true believers, but whose faith has not been authenticated by good works. Reform theologians seem to understand the "better things" that "accompany salvation" as the "work(s)" (v.10) which they view as a necessary validation of genuine salvation (cf. John MacArthur's perspective of "a working faith," and John Piper's treatment of Hebrews 6:1-8). The problem with this perspective is the reference to the 'justice' of God in v.10. Of course God is 'just' in declaring the believer 'justified' simply by faith on the basis of the finished work of Christ on the cross, but this passage connects the 'justice' of God not with faith, but with man's works in verse 10. This is the key problem with the Reform perspective of the perseverance of the saints as continuing in good works. If good works are necessary in order to validate a person's faith (i.e. determine the difference between genuine faith and a mere profession of faith), and human beings are held responsible and accountable for doing them (even though it goes without saying that they could not do anything good apart from the guidance and enabling assistance of the Holy Spirit), then from the Reform perspective on this passage, it would seem to imply that God would be "unjust" by withholding salvation from those who had actually done good works.
It seems better--all things considered--to view the recipients of this dire warning as true (Hebrew) believers who are in danger of 'falling away' from their faith, possibly due to persecution, which would in turn make them vulnerable to the loss of the "blessing" from God for a faithful and obedient life which is manifested through good works motivated by love, rather than the fear of losing their salvation, or the loss of the assurance that they were saved in the first place (cf. "full assurance of hope" that requires our "diligence" in v.11). This would fit better with the dichotomy in the illustration in verses 7-8, as well as the argument concerning the "things that accompany salvation" in v.9, since it connects the 'justice' of God with the "blessing" which God promises to those who remain faithful to Him in verse 7. This perspective of Hebrews 6:1-11 is completely consistent with the teaching concerning "rewards" (= blessings?) in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. The blessing of this "reward" (v.14) is distinct from salvation which is clearly retained, even in the absence of ANY good work (v.15)! Salvation is simply "by grace through faith" without any human responsibility whatsoever. If it were not so, there would be no theological security of salvation based simply on believing the promise of the Gospel (cf. John 5:24), or personal blessing of the assurance of salvation, or the verification (vs. validation) of salvation, that is appropriated based on the degree of obedience in the believers life (the "full assurance" in v.11; cf. 1 John 5:13).