Move on to Maturity, part 1 (Hebrews 6:1)

Most of us are familiar with the acronym RINO, R-I-N-O.  It is a term used in the last few years for Republicans who don’t support the values of the Republican party, so they are Republicans In Name Only.

Well, the same phenomena is true in the church throughout history.  There have been CINOs, Christians in name only, or what other generations have called Nominal Christians.  They are people who claim to be Christians, but give no evidence.  Today, in our culture, people want to claim to be Christians while living life according to their own wishes and desires, which are very often contrary to God’s will.

In the Jewish culture, the culture of the book of Hebrews, the problem was not that these people were immoral.  Their former Jewish religion taught them to be holy and clean from sin.  Their problem is that they depended upon their morality and obedience—they were self-sufficient.

We are in a difficult passage of Scripture in the book of Hebrews.  I’m going to read Hebrews 5:11-6:12

12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. 1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits. 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.7 For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. 9 Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

Does this passage say that a person can lose or forfeit their salvation?  On what basis?  If they do, is it possible to regain it?  Or does this passage teach that some can advance right up to the line of salvation and not cross it?

As we get into Hebrews 5, we come to a text that is a bellwether text for Arminians who believe that one can lose or forfeit their salvation.  Someone has quipped: “A Methodist knows he’s got religion, but he’s afraid he might lose it.  A Presbyterian knows he can’t lose it, but he’s afraid he hasn’t got it.”

A story that comes to us from the life of the great evangelist D. L. Moody contains wisdom every experienced pastor has come to well regard.  As the account goes, Moody was once approached by a stumbling drunk on the street who slurred, “Mr. Moody, I’m one of your converts.”  To which Moody replied, “You must be, because you’re certainly not one of the Lord’s!”

Back in the 1950s a man with the name Mickey Cohen was the most flamboyant criminal of the day.  Perhaps some of us even remember Cohen’s becoming a “Christian.”

At the height of his career Cohen was persuaded to attend an evangelistic service at which he showed an interest in Christianity.  Hearing of this, and realizing what a great influence a converted Mickey Cohen could have for Christ, many prominent Christian leaders began visiting him in an effort to convince him to accept Christ.  Late one night, after repeatedly being encouraged to open the door of his life on the basis of Revelation 3:20 (“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in . . . ,” NASB), Cohen did so.

Hopes ran high among his believing acquaintances.  But with the passing of time, no one could detect any change in Cohen’s life.  Finally, they confronted him with the fact that being a Christian meant he would have to give up his friends and his profession. The logic of his response was this: there are “Christian football players, Christian cowboys, Christian politicians; why not a Christian gangster?”

Of course, we know today that many people are attempting to put some adjective in front of Christian to prove that they too, no matter how out of line with the Word of God they are living, should be considered a Christian too.

Here in Hebrews 6, we find a group of people who had at least heard the gospel; they have been involved in the Christian community, experienced some powerful spiritual experiences, maybe even have made a profession of faith.  But have they ever really made a commitment to Jesus Christ?

Having assessed the spiritual condition of his listeners in Hebrews 5:11-14, the author moves on to challenge them to correct their present course and move on to maturity.  He expresses the challenge both positively (6:1a) and negatively (6:1b-2), concluding with a statement of resolve.

1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits.

“The conjunction therefore indicates that there is a close link in thought and logic with the preceding passage: the author has rebuked his readers for their arrested growth as Christians, of which their spiritual immaturity and dullness of comprehension and discernment are symptomatic; now he exhorts them to do something about it, to shake themselves out of their stupor and to grow up into intelligent, energetic adulthood.”

F. F. Bruce says, “The opening words of this section are surprising.  Our author has just told his readers that they are not really able to assimilate the solid food which he would like to give them—the teaching about the priestly order of Melchizedek—because they are immature.  We might have expected him to say, as Paul says to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 3:2) in a similar situation: ‘Therefore, I must continue to feed you with milk.’  But he does not say this: he says, ‘let us press on’.  He judged that no good purpose would be served by going over the first principles again.  That being so we might have expected him to say: ‘You are not ready for solid food yet, you still need milk; nevertheless, I am going to press on with the provision of solid food.’  But he does not say ‘nevertheless,’ he says ‘therefore.’  ‘Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrines of Christ and press forward to maturity.’  Why ‘Therefore’?  Probably because their particular condition of immaturity is such that only the appreciation of what is involved in Christ’s high priesthood will cure it.  Their minds need to be stretched, and this will stretch them as nothing else can.  They have remained immature too long; therefore, he will give them something calculated to take them out of their immaturity” (The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 138).

So our author says, “Let’s stop laying down the rudimentary principles all over again.”  Before he goes on, however, he lists some of the rudiments, perhaps quoting from a catechesis familiar to him and his readers.  These six items fall into three pairs: repentance and faith; washings and laying on of hands; and resurrection and judgment.

Every one of these items would have its place in an orthodox Jewish community.  In other words, they were all common to those with a Jewish background.  So Bruce goes on to say, “Each of them, indeed, acquires a new significance in a Christian context; but the impression we get is that existing Jewish beliefs and practices were used as the foundation on which to build the Christian faith.”

New Testament scholarship is in general agreement that the six facets of “the elementary doctrine of Christ” (v. 1) listed in verses 1–2 outline the primitive catechism used in Jewish churches to induct converts.  Thus, we get an intimate glimpse of the basics, the foundation you would have been taught before being baptized and accepted into a Jewish church two thousand years ago.

“Leaving” and “pressing on to maturity” are the key ideas in this paragraph.  They needed to “leave once and for all their ties with the Old Covenant, with Judaism, and accept Jesus Christ as their Savior” (John MacArthur).  These are concepts from the Old Testament and Judaism that point to the gospel but are not the gospel itself.

The command to “leave” is a call to the whole community and is in the aorist tense, indicating a decisive break from the elementary principles.  The Hebrews were trying to mix the Levitical system with Jesus Christ, and that really is not an option.

The word “leave” is aphiemi, which means “to forsake,” “to put away,” and speaks of total detachment from, complete separation.

When Jesus exhorted his disciples to follow him, “they immediately left their nets, and followed him.”  This is the call of discipleship—leave your old life and join Christ.

Because Christianity did grow out of Judaism, it was a more subtle temptation for a Jewish professing Christian to slip back into Judaism again than it was for a former pagan who had become a Christian to slip back into paganism.

Some were in danger of moving back into this comfortable “common ground” between Judaism and Christianity to escape persecution.  Living in this common ground they wouldn’t stick out so much.

Both Jews and Christians could say, “Let’s repent, let’s have faith, let’s get involved in ceremonial washings and learn about the end times.”

Those things they were to leave behind, the “elementary doctrine of Christ,” is reference to teachings found in Judaism, which pointed forward to Jesus Christ.  He is not talking about leaving the gospel behind.  We don’t leave the gospel behind, but rather grow deeper into it.  It is the provision, principles and pictures of the Old Covenant that needed to be left behind.

These Jewish teachings would not lead them to maturity, to perfection, as our author in Hebrews 7:11 will challenge: “Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron?”

The Levitical priesthood and sacrifices could never bring perfection or maturity, so Christ came for that purpose.

The writer expresses the same idea in Hebrews 10:1, “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near” but through Christ, “…by a single offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”

What is perfection, or maturity, in this context?  It is the full possession of the Messianic salvation in Jesus Christ.

To paraphrase it, the writer is saying, “Leave the pictures of the Messiah behind and go on to the Messiah himself.  Embrace Him only and completely.”

These six elementary teachings common to both Judaism and Christianity, are:

First of all, repentance from dead works.  Repentance, of course, is a common theme of both the Old and New Testament.  Repentance basically means to “change one’s mind” which would lead to changes in behavior as well.  The prodigal “came to himself” (Luke 15:17), he started thinking rightly and turned from his former course to return back to the father.

Repentance is always the initial step in making a commitment to God or to Jesus Christ.  One must turn from in order to turn to.  Paul describes the Thessalonians faith in these words, “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9).  The negative (repentance) must be followed by the positive (faith).

In this context it is “dead works” that need to be repented of.  He is not talking about the ineffectiveness of the works of the law to save, but the deeds of evil that they have done.

Every sin is a “dead work,” as Calvin says, “Either because it worked death or because it arises from the spiritual death of the soul.”

In John the Baptist’s early ministry he preached repentance, but not faith in Jesus Christ.  Ultimately, however, both repentance and faith in Christ were part of the essential gospel message (Acts 20:21). 

Accordingly, we find Jesus commencing his ministry in Galilee with the declaration:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel” (Mk 1:15); and the sum of Paul’s proclamation, wherever he went, to both Jew and Gentile, was “that they should repent and turn to God and perform deeds worthy of their repentance” (Acts 26:20; cf. 20:21).  Indeed, faith in itself always presupposes repentance.  Thus, not to have faith in Christ means to die in one’s sins (Jn 8:24), since absence of faith also argues an absence of repentance.  (Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 198)

To repent of sins and turn to God apart from Jesus Christ will not work. We come to the Father through the Son (John 14:6b).

The apostle John says quite plainly, “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11-12).  It is not enough simply to believe in God; one must specifically believe in Jesus Christ.

For the religious Jew, however, it is the merely external and self-righteous compliance with the requirements of the law which gave rise to so many dead works (cf. Matthew 5:21ff; 23:1ff).  His sin is, if anything, worse than that of the idolater for, though outwardly religious in men’s eyes, inwardly he is full of hypocrisy and iniquity (Matthew 23:28).

So they would need to change their minds about all their attempts at self-salvation through acts of righteousness, because they, too, were doomed to death.

In many NT contexts the call is to repent by turning from personal sin, but here, doubtless because of its Jewish background, the call is to repent from dead works, from man’s futile attempt at self-salvation. (Raymond Brown, The Bible Speaks Today:  Hebrews, 106)

Repentance should always be joined with faith to be genuine and effective.  When we repent of our sins, we need to believe that we are forgiven (1 John 1:9).  When we repent of our reliance upon ourselves for salvation, we need to believe that we have a Savior, Jesus Christ.

Faith in God was always necessary, even in the Old Testament (cf. Genesis 15:6; Habakkuk 2:4).  And notice here that our author stops at believing in God.  “Faith in God” is a rudimentary principle common to both Judaism and Christianity. Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6) and throughout Hebrews 11 faith is acknowledged as the operative principle for obtaining God’s promises.  All these people lived by faith in God for “without faith it is impossible to please [God].” (Hebrews 11:6)

But these people were in danger of stopping there, of believing only in God but not in Christ.

As to why the author says, “faith toward God,” rather than “Christ,” Philip Hughes answers, “the purpose of Christ’s coming was to bring mankind back to that attitude of spontaneous trustfulness toward God, departure from which led to our condition of fallenness and alienation. It is through the mediation of the Son that we return to the Father…” (p. 198).

These first two elementary teachings—repentance and faith—have to do with one’s relationship with God.  The next two—baptisms and laying on of hands—have to do with one’s community of faith.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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