Why Speak about Apostasy to Christians? Part 1 (Hebrews 6:9-10)

We’ve been talking in the book of Hebrews about the ominous theme of apostasy, of falling away from Jesus Christ.  This is not a favorite topic.  It is a fearful and perplexing theme.  None of us like to think that anyone we know can willfully and consciously and definitively renounce forgiveness through Jesus Christ.

But five warnings occur throughout the book of Hebrews to remind the congregation of the dangers of turning away from Christ back to the Old Testament law.  Each warning progresses in intensity.

But what is so wonderful about this preacher—the writer of Hebrews—is that he interweaves encouragements amidst his warnings.  In this passage, starting in verse 9, our author is trying to instill confidence in those who were true believers.

It shows that the ultimate purpose of the author is not to drive true believers into doubting their salvation.  His purpose is more redemptive than judgmental.  He takes up the subject of apostasy to arouse slumbering people out of their lethargy.

He wants them to see where complacency can lead them.  So He sets forth the beauty and sufficiency and supremacy of Jesus Christ in his role as compassionate high priest to show that He is ready to give us everything we need to successfully complete the Christian life.

But we have to know that falling away is possible.  The writer of Hebrews knew that some in the Christian community he was writing to were in danger of turning away from Jesus Christ and going back to the comfort and safety and familiarity of Judaism.

I believe these were people who were not yet believers, or not true believers, as we’ve been explaining over the last few weeks, but they were nevertheless in very real danger.  It is important to realize that apostates do walk among the people of God in all ages, even today.

Our author has been promoting the superior high priestly ministry of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 2:17-18; 3:1; 4:14-16) and did not want them to be “sluggish” (5:11; 6:12) about embracing Jesus as high priest.

As the writer draws this section to a close, we can discern two vital reasons that establish the value of speaking about apostasy.  The first is very encouraging; the second singularly motivating.

First, speaking about apostasy exposes the authenticity of true Christianity.

It’s like setting a beautiful diamond against the background of black velvet.  The stark contrast of black magnifies the distinctive beauties and radiance in the diamond.  When we talk about apostasy biblically and properly, a similar phenomenon occurs—we become more able to distinguish the nature of true conversion.  The disparity that exists between a genuine Christian and a spurious, professing Christian, becomes all the more evident.

And it should, because 1 John says that “the children of God and the children of the evil one are obvious.”

That’s the value of studying this theme.  All of this talk about apostasy isn’t about the apostates.  He says, in verse 9, that their lives speak to the contrary in a very definite way.  Hebrews 6:9 says…

9 Though we speak in this way [about the possibility and danger of apostasy], yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.

We’ve noticed all along that this verse shows that the congregation consisted of two kinds of people—“those” people in vv. 4-6 who were almost saved, but were in danger of falling away, and “you,” who are definitely saved.

What “better things” is our author referring to?  Well, going back to the agricultural picture in vv. 7-8, where he contrasts the destiny of the true Christian with the apostate, he says, “if it [the land] bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.”  That is the eternal destiny of apostates.

In contrast to them, “though we speak in this way,” in such stark, strong terms about the destiny of the apostates, “we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.”  The “things that belong to salvation” are the blessings mentioned back in verse 7.

Just as you can tell the true nature of a tree by the fruit it bears (Matt. 7:17-18), so you can tell the true nature of land by the crop it bears.  Authentic Christianity will make itself obvious; apostates will eventually become obvious as well.

Notice also that our writer addresses this group of people as “beloved,” the same word the Father used of Jesus at his baptism and a word that is used throughout the New Testament of believers in Jesus, and only believers.

So there was definitely a different group of people than our author was describing in vv. 4-6.  “Those” people were in danger of apostasizing; “you” will experience the better things, the blessings, of salvation.

So our author is shifting gears and encouraging the true believers.  He had been addressing the potential apostates in vv. 4-6 and warning them that although they were close to salvation, unless they persevered to embrace Jesus Christ as their one and only Savior, they were in danger of falling away and would be unable to return to this place in their spiritual lives (impossible to renew them to repentance).

Now he is addressing the believers.  But how do we know for sure?  Because our author goes on to describe the good fruit that they bear, in verse 10.  Going back to verse 9…

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.

You will experience God’s blessing because of these evidences of salvation.

Now, God doesn’t give any of us the authority to become self-proclaimed fruit-inspectors.  We have to be careful about trying to determine the legitimacy of other peoples’ salvation by setting up some standard to which all professing Christians must comply.  Because Christians grow in different ways and at different rates, we have to be careful to allow for the individual and unique sanctifying graces and timetables of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

But, on the other hand, when a person has been genuinely converted, the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit and the very indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit will be effectual and will work itself out in the life of the new Christian.  It cannot be stopped.

Ephesians 2:8-10 reminds us that we are saved by grace, but we are saved for good works.

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Paul is not contradicting himself.  He is not saying in verses 8 and 9 that you are saved by faith (believing in Christ) and then in verse 10 telling you that you are saved by works (working for Christ).  Both Luther and Calvin said something similar: We are saved by faith alone but the faith that saves is never alone.

We are not saved by good works, but we are saved for good works.  We are “God’s workmanship,” crafted uniquely and individually by him, “created in Christ Jesus for good works.”  And those good works are our destiny.  God prepared them even before we were born.  He knows exactly the good works that would fit our personality, our physical makeup and our spirituality.

Philippians 2:12-13 express a similar idea.  In the latter part of verse 12 Paul says…

work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

You work out what God works in you.  We do work, but we work because God is at work in us.  We work and God works, but we work because God works.  This is the dance of sanctification.

So our author is convinced of salvation on the part of these readers because they have become notorious for the expression of their ministry and their love towards one another.  They had a track record of ministering to one another out of a heart of love.  Love, of course, is a key characteristic of genuine Christianity.  Paul mentions its presence in most of the churches he wrote to (Philippians 1:9; Colossians 1:4; 1 Thessalonians 1:5; 2 Thessalonians 1:3), and highlighted it in 1 Corinthians 13.  The apostle John indicates that it is one of the signs of genuine spiritual life in 1 John 4:7-8.

If you read the history of the early church, you find out that early Roman officials consistently commented about the love that Christians showed not only to one another, but to people outside the church as well.  They deeply and sacrificially loved one another.

This love came to an apex at a particular moment in time.  In A. D. 49 Claudius expelled from Rome a large group of Jewish believers in Jesus.  They had been evangelizing others.  A riot broke out and the emperor banished from Rome all the synagogue rulers and church leaders.  You read about Aquila and Pricilla being banished from Rome in Acts 18:1-2.

The Christians who remained in Rome were hounded, persecuted, insulted, and attacked.  Some had property taken away.  Now look in Hebrews 10, where the author mentions an experience very much like this.

32 But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33 sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners [the NIV has “stood side by side”] with those so treated. 34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

There we are told that they stood tall in the face of suffering public insult, persecution, and confiscation of their property.  But even more heroic is how they unselfishly committed themselves to helping their suffering brothers and sisters, for it says they were “sometimes . . . publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes . . . partners with those so treated [i.e., insulted and persecuted].  For you had compassion on those in prison” (10:33, 34). 

This not only took great compassion, but daring courage as well.  It was that loyalty that he has in view here in Hebrews 6 when he says, “God has never forgotten that.”

They were notorious lovers, not only in that defining moment, but in an ongoing way.  Notice the words at the end of v. 10, “as you still do.”  What a wonderful tribute, to be known for the way they have loved others both in the past and in the present!

Here are at least three observations to make on these verses:

First, serving the brethren is an evidence of authentic salvation.  That’s how he knows they are not apostate.  They were living in light of the new commandment (John 13:34), doing for others what Christ had done for them.  The distinguishing feature of His disciples is that they love like He loved—sacrificially.  “[W]hoever loves has been born of God and knows God,” says 1 John 4:7.  Who has been regenerated?  The one who acts like God and loves the brethren.

Secondly, serving the brethren is a manifestation of love for Jesus Christ.  He will not forget your work and “the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints.”  You’ve displayed love for “the name” of Jesus.  What does this mean?  It means that when they came to the aid of their brothers and sisters in Christ in a public way, it showed that they were willing to associate themselves with the stigma attached to the name of Jesus Christ. (Notice the contrast with “those” of fall away, in verse 6, who were “crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”)

Do you realize that when you serve one another in a sacrificial way that God regards this an act of love towards Him?  Talk about lending dignity to ministry!  Jesus sees any service towards a brother or sister in Christ as ministry and love towards Him!  And God won’t forget that!  They will be rewarded because in helping God’s people they were honoring the name of Jesus Christ.

In Matthew 25 Jesus says, referring to the end times judgment:

34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Our ministry towards God’s people is a ministry towards Him.  Jesus stands in solidarity with His people.  That is why he asked Saul, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).  When Saul asked who was speaking to him, the answer was, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5).  But Jesus wasn’t physically present.  He was talking about “disciples of the Lord” that Saul was “breathing threats and murder against” (Acts 9:1).

Thirdly, serving the brethren will result in the blessing of God (Hebrews 6:7).  Remember that verse 7 promised the blessing of God for forgiveness.  In verse 9 we’re promised “better things.”  When do these blessings and better things occur?  Our text doesn’t say.  If not until the next life, it will just be better than we could ever imagine.  But it could also be in this life.  That they are definitely coming to us is rooted in the character of God, “he is not unjust, he will not forget.”

“Not unjust” is understatement; God is, of course, eminently and perfectly just. This is what is called a litotes, a figure of speech that sets forth a positive idea by stating its negative opposite (cf. Acts 12:18; 15:2; 17:4, 12; 19:24; 27:20; et al.).  When we are discouraged we sometimes think God forgets us and all we have done for Him and for His people.  But God would deny His own nature if He forgot such things (He would be unjust).  God sees and remembers.  Other people may forget our labor of love, but God never will.  Don’t depend upon the applause and appreciation of other people; look for the heavenly reward.

Now, there are some things that the Bible says God will forget.  But He will not forget your labors of love; He will not forget your service that honors His name.

In the promise of the New Covenant God says, “I will remember their sins no more.”  Now, that’s a wonderful thought, isn’t it?

In Isaiah 43:25, God says…

“I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”

Now, how can an omniscient God, who knows all there is to know, both actual and potential, past, present and future, at the very same moment in time…how can a God like that forget our sin?

Listen to what Hebrews 10:11-12 and verse 17 says

11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, [and what’s the result?] Verse 17, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”

Because of the satisfactory death of Jesus Christ, God will never allow the memory of those sins to play any part in how he deals with us.  Bask in that!  If you have trusted in Jesus Christ for your salvation, allow yourself to be expunged from all those feelings of guilt and shame for your past sins, because God will never, ever use them against you.  It is in that sense that He has forgotten them, because He chooses not to ever bring them to mind again.

On the contrary, there is something God never forgets.  He will not “overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints.”  He will bless you with great rewards for every expression of sacrificial ministry you exercise in behalf of its people—no matter how small, no matter how hidden, no matter how unappreciated by people here and now.

So keep up that ministry to other believers.  It will be rewarded—far out of proportion to our service.  God will reward you.  It is guaranteed.  You can bank on that.

Falling Away–Conditions and Consequences, part 3 (Hebrews 6:7-8)

Scripture.  It is a warning passage in the book of Hebrews which, on the surface, may seem to communicate that one can be saved, turn away from Christ, and lose that salvation.  That passage is Hebrews 6:4-6.

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.

If this passage is saying that a saved person can lose that salvation, then it is also saying that it would be impossible to get it back.

But I don’t believe this passage is communicating that one can lose their salvation.  Instead, I believe this passage is telling us that it is quite possible to sit under gospel teaching, experience some spiritual experiences, including possibly healing or exorcism, but never to come to a personal faith in Jesus Christ, and then fall away (in this context to return to the Mosaic law, to trust in the sacrifices of animals to pay for one’s sins).

As I’ve pointed out, the good experiences that these people experienced in vv. 4-5 do not clearly say that they are saved.  There is no mention of faith in Christ (although faith in God was mentioned in verse 1), no mention of forgiveness of sins, or justification, reconciliation, redemption, adoption, not even salvation.  All of these experiences were pre-salvation experiences which would help them come to faith, but these people were turning back to the law.

Secondly, this group who experience these things and “have fallen away” are clearly contrasted with “you” in verse 9 (a different group) of which our author says, “yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.”  So “they” may experience these pre-salvation experiences and fall away, but you have not.

Thirdly, we have this illustration in vv. 7-8, which show that two groups of people can experience the same blessings and have different responses.  It illustrates that in this congregation they all had experienced these great blessings (of vv. 4-5) and yet they didn’t all have the same response.

Let’s look at vv. 7-8.  It is an illustration that demonstrates the contrasting results of gospel preaching.

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.

These verses serve as a reason why we can view “those” people of vv. 4-6 as unsaved.  The illustration pictures two plots of ground, very possibly side by side.  The “rain that often falls” on the two plots of ground is not different rain.  It is the same rain, which in the context is clearly the revelation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is the very truths that the writer has described in vv. 4-5 that was dispelling the darkness concerning Jesus Christ, salvation and eternity.

John Stephenson shows the comparison in this chart:

IllustrationTruth that is Illustrated
Rain falls from heaven.Truth has been given from heaven.
The rain lands on everything.The gospel has been given to all men.
When the rain brings forth vegetation, it results in a blessing.When the gospel is believed and brings salvation, it results in a blessing.
When rain brings forth thorns and thistles, it is worthless and ends up being burned.When the gospel is not believed, the result is a curse.


Both plots, both groups of people, are on the receiving end of God’s blessings, experiencing things that could lead them to salvation.  Both have heard the truth of the gospel.  But while one plot of ground received the truth in faith, the other was what we might call a “gospel sampler.”

One plot of ground “produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it was cultivated” while the other, having received the same rain, produces “thorns and thistles” (reminiscent of the curse Adam received in Eden).  Both groups received the same benefits, but only one produced good fruit.

Jesus, of course, spoke of the same truth in the gospels in the parable of the soils.  In that case there were four different types of soil.  Here there are only two.  In the end, there are only two groups of people-saved and unsaved.

Both groups of people, the “they” of vv. 4-6 and the “you” of vv. 9-11, received the same benefits, but only some produced good fruit.  One responded in faith while the other rejected the gospel.  And the evidence is that ultimately it “bears thorns and thistles.”

The result of the ground that “produces a crop useful” is that they “receive a blessing from God.”  Having been blessed with the gospel and Spirit-produced benefits of vv. 4-5, they bring forth fruit and thus receive even greater blessing.

Another thing to note is that this ground, the believers, “produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it was cultivated.”  Ultimately, being saved is not only about ourselves.  Yes, we receive wonderful blessings.  But salvation is ultimately about God and His glory.

That is why Jesus taught us in John 15:8…

By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.

When the gospel and the Spirit produces fruit in our lives it not only proves who we belong to—to Jesus Christ as His disciples—but it brings glory to the Father.  That is the ultimate purpose of our lives, as the Westminister Shorter Catechism states:

What is the chief end of man?  And the answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

The writer to the Hebrews applies the point: “You’ve been blessed.  But where is the fruit?”  God looks for what grows in us after He blesses us, especially looking for what grows in terms of maturity.

But the same benefits can be experienced by others who do not produce a useful crop, but instead produce “thorns and thistles.”  When that happens, no one blames the farmer for burning it.  God brings judgment instead of blessing on this kind of ground, this kind of response.

“Worthless” literally means disapproved (Gr. adokimos).  It may not mean totally rejected but rather failing to gain God’s approval.  The word translated “worthless” (adokimos) occurs in 1 Cor 9:27 in the sense of disqualified and in 2 Cor 13:5 of failure to meet the test.  It is no arbitrary rejection, but only as a result of due examination.  In this case the land is proved to be worthless by the absence of effective fruit.  (Donald Guthrie, Tyndale NT Commentaries: Hebrews, 146)

They are further defined as “close to being cursed,” which seems to indicate that there is still some time for these people to repent.  Some of them might have been straddling the line between depending upon Christ and depending upon Moses, not having made up their minds yet.  But they were in great danger.

Ultimately, unless they fully embrace Jesus Christ and stick to Him, they will be burned.  That is the normal response of a gardener to remove unwanted vegetation from the garden.  He is not talking about destroying the field, but removing the useless, unwanted “thorns and thistles.”

A refusal to progress in the Christian life and stay true to Jesus Christ leads logically to a retrogression, of which the ultimate end is judgment.

This fits with the story of Israel in the wilderness and the point of his warning in 6:4-6.  God poured out His blessings on the nation in the exodus and during their wilderness experience.  Their lives should have brought forth the fruit of faith and obedience.  Instead, they were faithless and disobedient, threatening on several occasions to return to Egypt.

Some in the Hebrew church were in danger of precisely the same sin.  They had participated in a corporate sense in God’s abundant blessings of salvation, but now they were tempted to return to Judaism.  But to do that would be to fall away from Christ, and even worse, to join those who had crucified Him!  In so doing, they would be crucifying Christ all over again, and putting Him to open shame by agreeing with the unbelieving Jews that He is not their Savior and Messiah.  To do that would put them close to being cursed, and if they died in this state of renouncing their faith, they would face the fires of eternal judgment.

Let me just point out some applications to wrap up this section of Hebrews 6.

First, there is great danger in trafficking in Christian community, teaching and experiences and but never coming to a genuine faith in Jesus Christ.  Our author piles up a list of experiences that sound pretty close to salvation in vv. 4-5, but there is no clear evidence they were ever converted.  They were “so close,” but never crossed the line of faith.

What about you?

Jonathan Edwards wrote two books about the First Great Awakening.  One defending it and another explaining how many false evidences of salvation abounded.  That book is called A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, which has been modernized by Gerald McDermott, in his book Seeing God, with a subtitle, Twelve Reliable Signs of True Spirituality.  Both books first focus on the false signs of salvation and then the true signs of salvation.

Obviously, in our illustration in vv. 7-8, one plot produced fruit and the other thorns and thistles.  One of the evidences of true conversion is the kind of life that is produced.  Even Paul said that there were people who “profess to know God, but they deny him by their works” (Titus 1:16) and in the last days there would be those who had “the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5)

So Paul very clearly and urgently pleaded with the Corinthian church, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5a).

Secondly, it is dangerous to profess faith in Christ but to have no evidence in your life.

God is raining His blessings all around, but each of us needs to ask, “Am I bringing God fruit, or thorns and thistles?”  Is my life characterized by the “deeds of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19-21) or the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23)?  We see fruit in the life of those clearly the saved group in v. 10, where our author identifies “your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints.”

Just as a field provides its worth by producing fruit, so we show our spiritual worth by producing fruit for God’s glory (cf. John 15:8).

Not every believer bears the same amount of fruit (“some a hundred, some sixty, some thirty,” Matt. 13:23); but every believer bears the same kind of fruit as proof that she/he is a child of God (Matt. 7:15–20).  This is the fruit of Christian character and conduct (Gal. 5:22–26) produced by the Spirit as we mature in Christ.

Likewise, we won’t produce a lot of fruit right away, but over the course of a lifetime we should be able to look back and see how Christ’s character has been displayed in our lives and the impact that this has had on others.

The energy, hidden and inward, of the Holy Spirit is the true dynamic of spiritual growth:  where evidence of Christian development and progress to maturity is lacking it must be doubted whether there has been a genuine experience of the Holy Spirit’s activity.  Hence the extremely solemn character of the warning which is about to be offered (vv. 4-8).  (Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 194).

Thirdly, it is dangerous not to practice frequent repentance.

Repentance s not a one-time decision that you do to be saved and then move on.  Every day we need to be changing our minds, changing our affections, changing our behavior to keep in sync with the gospel.

Repentance is needed for conversion.  The likelihood is that there are still vestiges of self-effort in most peoples’ thinking.  I can’t tell you how many times I heard as a hospice chaplain people pinning the hopes of their salvation on being a good person.

The problem with going to church and still believing you will go to heaven because you are a good person is like having a vaccination.  John MacArthur explains, “A vaccination immunizes by giving a very mild case of the disease.  A person who is exposed to the gospel can get just enough of it to immunize him against the real thing.  The longer he continues to resist it, whether graciously or violently, the more he becomes immune to it.  His spiritual system becomes more and more unresponsive and insensitive.  His only hope is to reject what he is holding onto and receive Christ without delay–lest he become so hard, often without knowing it, that his opportunity is forever gone.  (John MacArthur Jr., The MacArthur NT Commentary: Hebrews, 147)

This involvement in the Christian community and hearing the gospel often might even make it harder to repent, as this passage reminds us.  So Louis Evans says, “If one has experienced all that has described the believer in the above phrases and then turns his back on such a Savior, how under any circumstances can he crawl back?  Is this a psychological impossibility or a spiritual impossibility?  (Louis H. Evans, Jr., The Communicator’s Commentary: Hebrews, 135)

Last, it is dangerous not to take this warning seriously.

Our author is likely speaking to people who had been a part of the community, had heard the gospel, had experienced spiritual blessings, possibly some miracles and some moral improvements in their lives.

However, they had not embraced Jesus Christ by faith and therefore were in danger of falling away.  Sooner or later the familiarity of the law and the discomfort of persecution would lean them away from Jesus Christ and towards the law.

Later in this epistle the author will encourage them to persevere.  Believing the best about them, the author says, “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls” (Hebrews 10:39).

Don’t take your chances with eternity.  Settle that today.

Are you pressing on to maturity or are you in danger of falling away from the gospel and any opportunity to ever know Christ as your Redeemer?

Now, the strategy of what our author is trying to do is to show us the worst possible scenario precisely so that we will not go there.  As Spurgeon points out…

There is a deep precipice; what is the best way to keep anyone from going down there?  Why, to tell him that if he did he would inevitably be dashed to pieces.  In some old castle there is a deep cellar where there is a vast amount of fixed air and gas that would kill anybody who went down.  What does the guide say?  “If you go down you will never come up alive.”  Who thinks of going down?  The very fact of the guide telling us what the consequences would be keeps us from it.  Our friend puts away from us a cup of arsenic.  He does not want us to drink it, but he says, “if you drink it, it will kill you.”  Does he suppose for a moment that we should drink it?  No; he tells us the consequence, and he is sure we will not do it.

So God says, “My child, if you fall over this precipice you will be dashed to pieces.”  What does the child do?  he says, “Father, keep me.  Hold me up, and I shall be safe.”  It leads the believer to greater dependence on God, to a holy fear and caution, because he knows that if he were to fall away he could not be renewed.  He stands far away from that great gulf, because he knows that if he were to fall into it there would be no salvation for him.  It is calculated to excite fear, and this holy fear keeps the Christian from falling.  (Charles Spurgeon, Spurgeon Commentary: Hebrews, 149-50)

Falling Away–Conditions and Consequences, part 2 (Hebrews 6:5-6)

We are continuing today in our study of one of the most difficult passages of Scripture to interpret.  It is found in Hebrews 6:4-6.

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.

To many, this certainly sounds like a passage which describes a Christian who has fallen away and lost their salvation.  I think that is not the case, but let me just say that if the passage is teaching that a person can lose their salvation, at least in this case it “is impossible” (v. 4)…”to restore them again to repentance” (v. 6a).  In other words, they have lost it for good.

I believe there are several reasons why this passage is not teaching that a genuine Christian can lose their salvation.  First, notice that this passage is addressing “those” people, in contrast to the “you” in verse 9 of which our writer says, “yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.”  Also, the illustration that is used in vv. 7-8 of rain falling upon ground shows that people can experience the same blessings (those of verses 4-5) and yet experience different results, just like some ground brings forth useful crops and other ground yields thorns and thistles.  Finally, the blessings that these people had experienced, as listed in vv. 4-5, are not necessarily indications of salvation.  None of the typical language is used, such as converted, redeemed, reconciled or justified.  Nor are words such as saved, faith or even repentance, though both had been mentioned back up in v.1 (but those phrases could just as easily have described someone under the old covenant.

So we have been looking at each individual description of “those” who might have fallen away and seen that “once been enlightened” and “tasted the heavenly gift” and “shared in the Holy Spirit” are not definitely indications that a person is saved, merely that they have experienced some preliminary work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Our author goes on to list, in verse 5, “have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.”  These, too, may describe someone who has been under the preaching of the gospel and experienced some of the workings of the Spirit, yet not have crossed the line of fully believing in Jesus Christ as their Messiah yet.

“Tasted the goodness of the word” probably refers to the hearing of the proclamation of the gospel.  “Tasted” may be saying that they heard the gospel, but stopped short of “eating” the words, like prophet Jeremiah says in Jeremiah 15:16, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts.”

Kent Hughes notes that King Herod, in Mark 6:20, enjoyed listening to John the Baptist preach.  He was perplexed and fascinated at his preaching.  However, it never changed his life and he eventually had John beheaded at the request of his unlawfully wedded wife’s daughter, Herodias.  His “taste” of God’s Word would only bring him greater guilt.  In Acts 24 Felix heard Paul preach about faith in Jesus Christ, but he was never converted.

“Tasting is the first step to eating,” says John MacArthur.  “It is not wrong to taste God’s Word.  In fact, David encourages the very thing.  ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good’ (Psalm 34:8).  To some degree, everyone must taste the gospel before he accepts it.  The problem is stopping with tasting it” (John MacArthur, Hebrews, p. 145).

These Jews had tasted the gospel, but the appeal was now gone and they didn’t want Christ anymore.

They had also “tasted the powers of the coming age,” which likely means that they had experienced “signs, wonders and various miracles” (cf. Heb. 2:4) like their ancestors had in the wilderness, but like their ancestors, it did not necessarily engender faith in them.  And they saw even greater miracles in the resurrections of Lazarus and Christ and the mute given voice and the blind receiving sight—yet their unbelieving hearts were never regenerated, and they fell away.

Perhaps some of them had been healed of terrible or impossible diseases.  Maybe some of them had been freed from demons.  Maybe some of them, like those in Matthew 7:21-23, had performed miracles of healing or cast out demons.  But like those in Matthew 7, these people very likely were not saved.

How is it possible for one to experience all of this and not be regenerated? we ask.  Judas provides the answer.  Very likely all the characteristics in our passage were part of his experience, yet there is no way we can imagine him as regenerate, especially since the Lord called him “a devil” (John 6:70), “the son of perdition” (John 17:12 NASB), and one for whom “it would have been better . . . if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21).  Jesus knew Judas’ condition from the beginning, though Judas fooled the disciples to the last!

Demas is another example.  Paul warmly greeted other Christians on his behalf (Col. 4:14).  In Philemon 24 he is called a “fellow worker” with Paul.  Yet Paul says about Demas in 2 Timothy 4:10 that he was, “in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.”

The problem, of course, had nothing to do with these blessings and experiences.  They were the very things that led some of them to put their faith in Jesus Christ as their Messiah.  But they don’t automatically engender belief.

The message of Hebrews 6:4-6 is that there were some individuals who were associating with Christians.  They had experienced life with Christians.  They had been attending church, heard the Word of God taught, witnessed the baptism of true Christians, observed the joy, peace and thrill experienced by Christians but they, themselves, had never believed in Christ and given their lives to Him (Romans 10:9-10).  They had experienced everything externally, but nothing had ever happened internally.  They were observers only.  

That same thing can happen today.  I’m afraid there are many people who have gone to church, maybe for years, and some parts of their lives have changed.  Morally they are better people.  They may even be involved in ministry.  But their hearts are not changed.  They have never experienced the conversion that the Holy Spirit brings.  They had never fully put their faith in Jesus Christ.

Wayne Grudem provides this helpful summation:

“What has happened to these people?  They are at least people who have been affiliated closely with the fellowship of the church.  They have had some sorrow for sin and a decision to forsake their sin (repentance).  They have clearly understood the gospel and given some assent to it (they have been enlightened).  They have come to appreciate the attractiveness of the Christian life and the change that comes about in people’s lives because of becoming a Christian, and they have probably had answers to prayers in their own lives and felt the power of the Holy Spirit at work, perhaps even using some spiritual gifts (they have become ‘associated with’ the work of the Holy Spirit or have become partakers of the Holy Spirit and have tasted the heavenly gift and the powers of the age to come). 

They have been exposed to the true preaching of the Word and have appreciated much of its teachings (they have tasted the goodness of the Word of God).  These factors are all positive, and people who have experienced these things may be genuine Christians.  But these factors alone are not enough to give conclusive evidence of any of the decisive beginning stages of the Christian life (regeneration, saving faith and repentance unto life, justification, adoption, initial sanctification).  In fact, these experiences are all preliminary to those decisive beginning stages of the Christian life. The actual spiritual status of those who have experienced these things is still unclear” (153).

Then there is this final description of “those” people, in verse 6, “and have fallen away.”  All of these experiences and blessings had been true of these people, but eventually they “have fallen away.”

Earlier this author had warned them about “drifting away” (Heb. 2:1-4) and now he is saying that some of them “have fallen away.”  The word is parapesontas, an aorist active participle of parapipto, to “fall alongside.”  It matches all the other aorist participles in vv. 4-5, but this one is active.  It was no one else’s fault that they had fallen away.  It was their choice.

In the LXX, the term parapiptein has reference to the expression of a total attitude reflecting deliberate and calculated renunciation of God (Ezek. 20:27; 22:4; Wis. 6:9; 12:2; cf. Michaelis, TDNT 6:171 …).  A. M. Stibbs characterizes this as “nothing less than a conscious, deliberate and persistent abandonment of the Christian way of salvation, an abandonment which involves nothing less than apostasy from the living God.”  It is sin committed against the light.  It is not a sin of ignorance, but in the face of both the knowledge of and experience of the truth.

I don’t think our writer is addressing those who have a period of doubting.  This is an open, defiant, decisive turning away from Jesus Christ, a callous rejection of the gospel.  Nor was it a period of sinning, disobeying God’s law.  It is a clear case of turning their backs on God, more particularly, denying the efficacy of Jesus Christ as Savior.

We are not here dealing with the sincere believer who is depressed about his spiritual failure, or the backslider who has temporarily lost interest in the things of God.  We are here confronted with fierce opposition to Christ and his gospel, public rebellion against Christian things and a determination to bring Christ’s work to an end.  The force of their Christ-rejection is vividly expressed in the tenses which are used here to describe their activity.  Such people “keep on crucifying” (present tense) for themselves the Son of God, and “keep on putting Him to open shame” (present tense again).  If such people are resolutely determined to respond in this way to the message of Christ’s love and forgiveness, then certainly it is “impossible to keep on repeatedly leading them (present tense) afresh into repentance.”  (Raymond Brown, The Bible Speaks Today:  Hebrews, 114)

Some link this passage to Hebrews 10:25-31 and see this as a warning against a specific kind of apostasy—forsaking Jesus as the perfect sacrifice for sins and returning to animal sacrifices as a means of atoning for sins.  Those who repudiate the salvation procured by Christ will find none anywhere else.

It is further described in these words: “they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”

First, notice the change in the tenses of the participles.  The aorist participle parepesontas indicates a decision to turn away from Jesus Christ, but now present participles are used to show the continuing disbelief of those who have lapsed into apostasy:  “they keep on crucifying the Son of God and holding him up to contempt.”

It is said that they crucify the Son of God, and the compound verb used (anastaurountas) shows that the writer is thinking of a repetition of the crucifixion.  He could not have expressed the seriousness of the apostasy in stronger or more tragic terms.  As he thinks of what the enemies of Jesus Christ did to him, he actually sees those who turn away from him as equally responsible.  (Donald Guthrie, Tyndale NT Commentaries: Hebrews, 143-4)

In other words, they are freshly and publicly rejecting Jesus Christ as their atoning sacrifice, trusting instead in the Old Covenant sacrifices of bulls and goats.  Alford quotes the German commentator F. Bleek, who puts it in these striking words:

“They tear him out of the recesses of their hearts where He had fixed his abode, and exhibit Him to the open scoffs and reproach of the world, as something powerless and common.”

Here is the reason this kind of falling away is re-crucifying Christ.  When a person chooses against Christ and turns back to the way of the world and the sovereignty of his own will and the fleeting pleasures of earth, he says in effect that these are more worth than Christ is worth to him or her.  They are worth more than the love of Christ and the wisdom of Christ and the power of Christ and all that God promises to be for us in Christ.  And when a person says that, it is the same as saying: I agree with the crucifiers of Jesus.  Because what could shame Christ more today than to have someone taste his goodness and wisdom and power and then say: No, there is something better and more desired.  That puts him to open shame.

John Piper says: “It is one thing for a stranger to the faith to resist Christ.  But it is another for a person who has been in the church and has been enlightened and tasted of the heavenly gift and become a partaker of the Holy Spirit and tasted of the good word of God and the powers of the age to come-=-it’s another thing for that person to say after all those blessings and all those experiences: I think what the world offers is better than this.  That is a re-crucifying of Jesus, a putting him to public shame worse than any outsider could, who never tasted the truth” (Piper,

Having tasted the sweet salvation of God and the witness of the Holy Spirit, they now rail on Christ and nail Him to the cross again, with their own hands.  They show the same ridicule and despising hatred of that first hostile crowd who shouted, “Crucify Him!”  They mock and jeer at the One who had given them forgiveness; they brutally lash at Him with whips and cruelly offer Him vinegar when His throat is parched with the thirst of dying.  Could such a one be reinstated to repentance?  Impossible!  (Louis H. Evans, Jr., The Communicator’s Commentary: Hebrews, 135-6)

This is why (the participle is causal) it is impossible to renew them to repentance.  F. F. Bruce says, “God has pledged himself to pardon all who truly repent, but Scripture and experience alike suggest that it is possible for human beings to arrive at a state of heart and life where they can no longer repent” (The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 149).

Anyone who has had full knowledge and fully observed the joy of Christians and then rejects Christ, what more can be done?  The answer is nothing!  They had knowledge their sin but never accepted Jesus.  What more can be done to bring them to Christ, if they finally reject everything?  The answer is it is impossible to bring them back.

Since repentance is an act involving the self-humbling of the sinner before a holy God, it is evident why a man with a contemptuous attitude towards Christ has no possibility of repentance.  The hardening process provides an impenetrable casing which removes all sensitivity to the pleadings of the Spirit.  There comes a point of no return, when restoration is impossible.  (Donald Guthrie, Tyndale NT Commentaries: Hebrews, 145)

Repentance in 6:4-6 is “impossible” because there is nowhere else to go for repentance once one has rejected Christ.  The apostate in effect has turned his or her back on the only means available for forgiveness before God.  (George H. Guthrie, The NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews, 220)

It is “impossible” to return from this state of apostasy.  It is not “improbable” or “difficult,” but “impossible.”  There is no return.

Some compare this to the “unpardonable sin” of Matthew 12.  There, the Pharisees had seen the miraculous work of Jesus Christ (and not for the first or last time), but instead of acknowledging that His miracles were empowered by God, they attributed His miraculous power to Satan.  This even represents, in the synoptic Gospel, the turning point of each book, where Jesus’ ministry changes from ministering to the masses to ministering primarily to His disciples.  It represents the point at which the nation turns their back on Jesus Christ, and thus He turns His back on them.

Please remember this: once you finally and forever turn your back on Jesus Christ and so harden your heart as to exclude him altogether, you cut yourself off from the only hope for forgiveness. There is no other way. There is no other atonement for sin. There is no other pathway into the presence of God. There is no other road to redemption. There is no other person or philosophy or religion or ritual that can reconcile you to God and obtain for you eternal salvation. 

The only way for a person to be saved is through Jesus Christ, through His self-sacrifice for our sins.  God has provided the way, the only way, and these people, and many people today, are rejecting that way because they either don’t feel like they need it or they believe they have a better way.

The “better way” for the Jews of this historical moment was to turn back to Moses and the law.  It would relieve them of being persecuted and it was familiar to them.  It involved working for their salvation through obedience and sacrifice, something most people believe themselves capable of doing.

But actually the “only way” to get to the Father is through Jesus Christ (John 14:6).  Unless you have the Son, you don’t have the Father, according to 1 John 5:12, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

Once again, let me just emphasize that the author of Hebrews is not saying that genuine Christians could fall away, but that those who have been exposed to Christianity can fall away.  “In these verses he is not questioning the perseverance of the saints; we might say that rather he is insisting that those who persevere are the true saints” (F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 144).

Falling Away–Conditions and Consequences, part 1 (Hebrews 6:4)

Today we are going to deal with one of the most disputed passages in the Bible.  This passage is taken by many to teach that one a person can be saved and then lose or forfeit that salvation.  That passage is Hebrews 6:4-8.

As always, we must interpret it within its context.

We believe that this book was written to a congregation of Jewish people–having noted how much it quotes from and deals with the Old Testament priesthood and sacrificial system and some of these people were moving along a path towards Christianity.  Others had become genuine followers of Jesus Christ.

As we look at Hebrews 6:4-8, we see that it has been preceded by language that shows that the author is attempting to get people to move forward towards Jesus Christ, although they had been taught some basic concepts that should have prepared them to do so (Hebrews 5:11-6:3).  Also, we will observe that after this passage our author speaks of another group of people who had reached salvation (Hebrews 6:9-12).

And, in between an illustration is used of rain falling on the ground, producing either a crop or thorns and thistles (vv. 7-8).  The blessing is the same (“the rain”) but one kind of ground produces good fruit and the other produces thorns and thistles.  Likewise, people who hear the gospel and respond with saving faith bring forth life. Others, however, who sit in church and hear the truth and are blessed by the ministry of the Holy Spirit but eventually turn their back on it all are like a field that never yields vegetation and thus comes into judgment.

We also need to remember that Hebrews 6:4-6 is one long sentence. 

The central proposition is “It is impossible (v. 4)…to be brought back to repentance.”

Most people who believe that a Christian can lose their salvation also believe that they can get it back.  Not according to this passage.  This passage, if it is speaking to that issue, is saying that repentance, or going back, is not just unlikely, but impossible.  It cannot happen.

In the midst of this proposition is the description of the people our author was trying to get to move forward and embrace Jesus Christ.  He uses five participles to describe them: “having been enlightened…having tasted the heavenly gift…having shared in the Holy Spirit…having tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age” but also “having fallen away.”  They had experienced a number of blessings while having the gospel preached to them, but they had fallen away, which he goes on to describe in verse 6 as “they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”

So the content of their apostasy had to do with the way they treated the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ, basically denying its sufficiency in favor of the repeated sacrifices of the Jewish system.

So let’s read our passage:

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.

Like Matthew 7:21-23, this is a very sober, serious passage, one that we should take very seriously.

John Piper adds, “It seems to me that the book of Hebrews has a special way of making us serious.  It is a very sobering book.  It is not a sad book.  But it is a serious book.  If you hear what it says, it blows away glib, trivial attitudes about life.  It does this not to make us sad, but to make us unshakably happy in God (see 10:34; 12:2; 13:17). (www.soundofgrace.come/piper96/10-13-96.htm)

Now, Bible students over the years have come up with several approaches to this serious passage.

One view is that the writer is warning us against the sin of apostasy, of willfully turning one’s back on Jesus Christ and returning to one’s old life.  According to them, such a person would be lost forever.  However, the word used in this passage is not the word for “apostasy,” but it parapipto, which literally means “to fall alongside.”  Also, there are many passage in Scripture which argue that a true believer cannot be lost forever, that they have great security in Jesus Christ (cf. Heb. 6:13-20; see also John 5:24; 6:37, 40; 10:26-30; Romans 8:28-39).

Many who teach that one can lose their salvation also believe that they can be restored.  However, as we’ve already seen, this passage says just the opposite.  It says that one who falls away cannot possibly return.

Some interpret this passage as entirely hypothetical—“if someone did this, they could not return.”  However, the participles are not conditional.  And if the sin cannot really be committed, it seems absurd to warn people about the dangers of falling into it.  In order words, it does seem to be a real condition people could experience.

Other believe the issue is not salvation, but rewards, and that these people are in danger of losing their rewards.  The problem with this view is that the author definitely contrasts these people in vv. 4-6 with those in v. 9 who are clearly “saved,” “yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.”

Although not without its difficulties, my position is that this passage is talking about Jewish people who appear to be Christians, but are not so.  They have been exposed to the Gospel, have experienced some spiritual experiences, but have not truly or fully embraced Jesus Christ as their Savior.

The problem with this view is that vv. 4-5 seem to indicate experiences that are normative to salvation.  But in favor of this view is the clear distinction the author makes between the “those” people in vv. 4-6 and the “you” in verse 9, who are clearly “saved.”

If you remember Jesus’ teaching on the soils, we know that there are several types of soil which receive the word and respond to it in some way, but are not saved.  Also, there are examples in Scripture of people who had many opportunities to experience spiritual things (Judas and Demas, for example) but were not converted.

Also, looking through the experiences of these people in vv. 4-6 parallels the privileges of the Israelites who fell away during the wilderness wanderings and died in disbelief.

“As part of the covenant community, the fallen Israelites had placed blood on the doorposts, eaten the Passover lamb, miraculously crossed the Red Sea, observed the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, tasted the miraculous waters at Marah, daily ate manna, and heard the voice of God at Sinai.  But their hearts were hardened in unbelief, and they fell away from the living God.  True, some of those who perished in the wilderness were regenerate and some were unregenerate, but both were visible members of the covenant community and thus shared a profound mutuality of spiritual experience” (Kent Hughes, Hebrews: Volume 1, p. 157).

Similarly, these catechized ersatz Christians of Hebrews 6 were accepted into the covenant community and likewise experienced something of the spiritual realities, but fell away.

Look once again at the way our author describes the experience of these people.  They “have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away…” (Heb. 6:4-6a).

Did you notice that there are no specific “Christian” terms in that description?  There was no mention of faith in Jesus Christ.  They have not been “regenerated, born again, justified or adopted” (admittedly, none of these terms are used at all in the book of Hebrews) and even the word “saved” or “salvation” or “forgiven” is not used.

Here is a listing of what is said in Hebrews of the true believer, all of which are absent from the description of those who apostatize in 6:4-6.

(1) God has forgiven their sins (10:17; 8:12)

(2) God has cleansed their consciences (9:14; 10:22)

(3) God has written his laws on their hearts (8:10; 10:16)

(4) God is producing holiness of life in them (2:11; 10:14; 13:21)

(5) God has given them an unshakable kingdom (12:28)

(6) God is pleased with them (chp. 11; 13:16,21)

(7) They have faith (4:3; 6:12; 10:22,38,39; 12:2; 13:7; etc.)

(8) They have hope (6:11,18; 7:19; 10:23)

(9) They have love (6:10; 10:33-34; 13:1)

(10) They worship and pray (12:28; 13:15; 4:16; 10:22)

(11) They obey God (5:9; 10:36; 12:10,11,14)

(12) They persevere (3:6,14; 6:11; 10:23)

(13) They enter God’s rest (4:3,11)

(14) They know God (8:11)

(15) They are God’s house, his children, his people (3:6; 2:10,13; 8:10)

(16) They share in Christ (3:14)

(17) They will receive future salvation (1:14; 7:25; 5:9; 9:28).

As we saw in vv. 1-3 with the “elementary doctrine of Christ” it is quite possible that all these things were common experiences of Jewish people before coming to faith in Jesus Christ.  In other words, these were the “preparatory” experiences that would normally lead someone to embrace Jesus Christ as their Messiah.

Maybe this is why the author describes them this way.  In the beginning, it is very hard to distinguish between genuine and false believers.  It could be describing pre-faith experiences that commonly occurred in their lives in that age, but from which someone could still turn back.

In other words, these five incidents would be experienced by both genuine Christians and non-Christians, leading up to the point of salvation.  Some crossed that line; some did not.

Some let’s take a look at each of them.

First, those who “have once been enlightened.”  What does it mean to “be enlightened”?  And what is the significance of the word “once”?

Enlightenment refers to “intellectual perception of spiritual, biblical truth…to be mentally aware of something…to be informed.  It carries no connotation of response—of acceptance or rejection, belief or disbelief (John MacArthur, p. 142).

Certainly there is an enlightenment that must happen before anyone can become a Christian.  Paul acknowledges that Satan blinds the eyes of unbelievers so that they cannot see until God miraculously opens spiritual eyes to see the beauty and sufficiency and supremacy of Jesus Christ.

3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness, “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:3-6)

So, if these people were enlightened, were they not saved?  Obviously, Jesus came as the “light of the world” (John 8:12) but not everyone accepted Him.  Likely, in this context, to be enlightened meant to hear the Gospel message peached clearly and made plain to them.  But merely knowing the facts is not enough.  One must put their faith in what they know to be true about Jesus Christ.

Here is my point:  All true Christians have been enlightened, but not every enlightened person is a true Christian.  Salvation involves more.

The significance of the word “once” seems to be that it is an unrepeatable action, that it could only happen once.  “The light of the gospel had broken in on these people’s darkness, and life can never be the same again, to give up the gospel would be a sin against the light, the one sin which by its very nature is incurable (Bruce, p. 146).  They had “begun to see themselves [and Christ], but now volitionally returned to the dark.”

Because of their unbelief, the light that had been given them to lead them to salvation now becomes the cause of judgment against them.

Certainly coming into the light is something that must happen for salvation to occur.  But one must move on to embrace that light, to embrace Jesus Christ by faith.

Secondly, this group is described as people who have “tasted the heavenly gift.”  Again, we ask two questions: (1) What is the “heavenly gift”? and (2) What does it mean to “taste” something in a spiritual sense?

Although the Holy Spirit is often spoken of in the New Testament as a gift to believers, this is more likely a reference to Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 9:15) and the salvation found in him.  Many scholars believe it refers primarily to “the gospel and the benefits it covers” (Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 209).  Later in church history it was considered to be the Eucharist.

Now, the word “taste” is important because it occurs in three out of the five benefits listed in vv. 4-6.  Can it refer to something less than fully taking something in, as when we taste something and then spit it out?

Certainly that wouldn’t be the case in the use of this same word in Hebrews 2:9, where Christ “tasted death”; He experienced it fully.  Likewise, 1 Peter 2:3 and Psalm 34:8 seem to use “taste” to express the fullness of ingesting for one’s benefit.

Other still hold out that in this context the word means tasting but not ingesting.  So John MacArthur says, “One of the presalvation ministries of the Holy Spirit is that of giving the unsaved a taste of the blessings of salvation.  This is part of the ministry of drawing men to Christ.  But tasting is not eating.  The Holy Spirit will give us a taste, but He will not make us eat” (MacArthur, p. 44)

Whatever level of experience they had, it didn’t seem to save them, as we see from the context.

The third description is “who have shared in the Holy Spirit.”  On the surface, this seems like it must be referring to true Christians, right?

Believers have received the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit now indwells believers (Romans 8:9b).  The word used here is metachoi, partakers–it has to do with receiving and having fellowship with the Holy Spirit.

Again, these descriptions sound so much like believers.  It is possible here that what our author is focusing on is sharing in the gifts of the Spirit, like the false ministers in Matthew 7:21-23…

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Those are scary verses!

Here are people who were ministering in Christ’s name, ostensibly for His glory.  They were prophesying and casting out demons and doing mighty works, just like the apostles would do.  These seemed to be spirit-filled people.  Yet Christ never knew them—they were not saved, they would spend eternity separated from Jesus Christ.

F. F. Bruce points to the example of Simon Magus, who even “believed and was baptized” (Acts 8:13), yet Peter saw in his desire for the “magic powers” of the Spirit that he was still “in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity” (Acts 8:22).

So far, we’ve seen that these experiences are not definite signs that someone is saved, but they were significant spiritual experiences that should have led them to salvation.

Make sure you are saved.

Move on to Maturity, part 2 (Hebrews 6:2-3)

We are in Hebrews chapter 6 today, so let me read vv. 1-3.

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.

This is part of a larger section starting back in chapter 5, verse 11 and going on through 6:20, in which the author is warning the people of this faith community about moving back into Judaism, into dependence upon their own good works, instead of believing in Jesus Christ for their salvation.

In these three verses the author is saying: “We’re not going to go back over the basics, “the elementary doctrine of Christ” but rather we are going to go on to maturity, which in this context means complete trust in Jesus Christ.

There were six facets of their catechism that he mentions in verses 1 and 2, teachings that were familiar to early Jewish Christians because they were in common with what they had been taught from the Old Testament.

Both “repentance from dead works and of faith toward God” are Old Testament requirements for a relationship with God.  They also formed the basic response to the gospel—repenting and believing in Christ.  However, here the author says their faith is “toward God,” meaning that they had rudimentary faith in God, but not necessarily faith in Jesus Christ.

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 inclusion in a community of faith.

It is “instruction” about these last four items that needs to be left behind.  That foundation has been laid.

Now, the Greek word here in verse 2 is baptismoi, baptisms, plural.  It is unlikely, therefore, that this is speaking about Christian baptism, but rather the multiple ritual washings that Jews went through for purification.

Of course, even baptism itself, the initiation rite into discipleship, was a Jewish concept, or at least it was very common in Jewish culture of the first century.

F. F. Bruce makes this comment:

“’Instructions about ablutions’ (RSV) or ‘instruction about cleansing rites’ (NEB) expresses the sense more adequately than ‘the teaching of baptisms’ (ERV/ARV).  There is no lack of instruction about ablutions in the Old Testament, and this provided a further foundation on which the Christian truths could be erected.  Later in the epistle (9:13) the ritual of the red heifer in Num. 19, one of the most important of the ceremonial purifications prescribed in the Old Testament, is treated as a counterpart in the temporal order to the cleansing efficacy of the sacrifice of Christ in the spiritual order.  The prophet Ezekiel in earlier days had used the terminology of the old ceremonial ablutions to describe God’s inward cleansing of his people in the age of restoration: ‘I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you’ (Ezek. 36:25).,  In language like this the Baptist groups which flourished in Judaism at the beginning of the Christian era found scriptural authority for their ceremonial washings…” (Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 141).

Hebrews 9:10 uses this same word and shows that it had to do with ritual cleansing—”but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.”

The ”laying on of hands” was part of the Jewish sacrificial practice, a way of placing one’s sins upon the sacrificial victim.  In early Christian practice it symbolized the sharing of some blessing (Luke 24:50; Acts 19:6) or the setting apart of a person for ministry.

It is likely that this refers to the Levitical system.  Leviticus 1:4 says, “He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.”  Although this was an important aspect of the Mosaic system, we now have a New Covenant.  Christ is our one, final sacrifice, and the writer exhorts the Jews to leave the Old Covenant behind, and believe in the New Covenant.

The final two items have to do with the future—the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.  Jesus, of course, gave special importance to the doctrine of resurrection for the church, but the doctrine was no new innovation in the New Testament times.  It was held, as we know, by the Pharisees (Acts 23:8), who found in it the guarantee that Israel’s ancestral hope would be realized in perpetuity; it was taught expressly in the Old Testament (cf. Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2 and possibly Psalm 16:9-10), and, as Jesus pointed out, it was taught implicitly at an even earlier stage, when God, who is the God of the living, not of the dead, proclaimed himself to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 3:6; Mark 12:26f).

Martha also held out this hope when she said, regarding the deceased Lazarus, “”I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  She had an expectation of a resurrection.

Finally, our author speaks of eternal judgment.  The Jewish belief in the resurrection of the body was closely associated with the expectation of judgment to come.  That the God of Israel is Judge of all the earth in general and of his own people in particular is an essential part of Old Testament revelation (Genesis 18:25; Isaiah 33:22); his recurring judgments in history will be summed up in the eschatological judgment of Daniel 7:9-14.

In Christian belief the “one like the son of man” through whom the eschatological judgment is carried out is identified with Jesus (Matt. 25:31ff; John 5:22, 27; Acts 17:31).

“This judgment, eternal in its effects, means the complete elimination of evil and its consequences from God’s creation and the establishment of the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13)—the glorious fulfillment, in other words of all God’s purposes in creation and the absolute vindication of His gracious and sovereign lordship” (Philip Hughes A Commentary on the Epistles to the Hebrews, p. 205)

All these are common Old Testament beliefs or current practices among the Jews.  When these readers were evangelized and converted, these things, it seems, had been made foundational as a way of helping them understand the work of Christ.  Christ is the goal and fulfillment of all these things.  So when verse 1 says they should leave the “elementary teachings about Christ (or literally: “the word of the beginning of Christ”), what I think it means is that they should not occupy themselves so much with the pre-Christian foundational preparations for Christ that they neglect the glory of the gospel and how to use it to grow into maturity and holiness. (John Piper)

The problem is that some were not moving beyond the basics and therefore were in danger of slipping back into Judaism and self-salvation.

The Hebrew Christian milieu made that especially easy, because whereas a pagan convert’s apostasy was so obvious, a Jew who was sliding back to his old faith was less apparent. It was possible for Hebrew converts to yield gradually to hostile pressures from the old life and give up more and more of the distinctives of their new faith without much notice—and some were doing just that.

“If a convert to paganism gave up Christianity and reverted to paganism, there was a clean break between the faith which he renounced and the paganism to which he returned.  But it was possible for the recipients of this letter, yielding gradually to pressures from various quarters, to give up more and more of those features of faith and practice which were distinctive of Christianity, and yet to feel that they had not abandoned the basis principles of repentance and faith, the realities denoted by religious ablutions and the laying on of hands, the expectation of resurrection and judgment of the age to come.  For the writer to go on insisting on these things, therefore, would not really help them; it would be better to press on to those teachings which belonged to spiritual maturity, in the hope that maturity would come with the teachings” (F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, pp. 143-144).

Like all sincere teachers of the Scriptures, this author is hoping that by going on to more meaty teaching on Melchizedek, that it will produce the desired result—of going on to maturity.  But he knows that this is in God’s hands.

It is no pious nod to God to say they will need God’s help to do this, for without God it will be impossible.

The verb translated let us press on (pherometha) is in the passive voice. We could render it: Let us be carried on (i.e., by God’s Spirit).  Spiritual maturity does not come merely by striving with our own self-effort but by cooperating with God as we do His will while depending on His help.  It comes as we follow the Holy Spirit who leads and empowers us (Rom. 8:14; Gal. 5:16).

This is a warning and call for all of us to make progress in our faith.  The undeniable spiritual axiom is, where there is life there is growth!  If we are not more knowledgeable in the faith now than a year ago, if we are not growing in holiness and commitment, we had better check what is going on inside.  Even more, if we are sliding, losing our grasp on things that were once clear, caring less about God and holiness and the world, we had better drop everything and tend to our souls.

“And this,” he says, “we will do,” and then, there is that terribly grim prediction, “if,” if he says.  “If God permits.”  “If God permits!”  How could there be any question about that?  Surely, God would permit us to go on, everyone to go on to maturity.  Isn’t that true?

Well, there is one condition, our author feels, in which it might be necessary for God to close the door on an individual, and that is apostasy.

Going on to maturity happens at God’s good pleasure.

“We may take the affirmation, ‘this we will do,’ then, as an expression of confidence on the part of the author in the reality of his readers’ experience of grace and therefore in their capacity for instruction and spiritual progress.  At the same time, however, as the ensuing verses plainly show, they, or at least some among them, are in serious danger of falling right away if they do not stir themselves and give proof that they are what they profess to be” (Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 206).

I’m going to close with some insights about spiritual progress and maturity that come from John Piper, specifically addressing the statement “if God permits.”  I think these five implications are very instructive.

Here are five implications of these words. And this is what it means for God to be God and that we are not God.

1. God governs the progress of sanctification (or maturity).

In other words, he has final say in whether we overcome our bent to sinning and make progress toward maturity.  We will press on to maturity if God permits it.  That is, we will make progress in our sanctification and holiness if God permits it. He decides ultimately if and how fast we advance in holiness.

For example, look at Hebrews 13:20–21,

Now may the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Either God works in us what is pleasing in his sight or he doesn’t.  That is, either he permits our progress toward maturity or it doesn’t happen.  He governs the progress of sanctification.

Another example is from Hebrews 12:16–17 where the writer tells about Esau who squandered his birthright and his blessing and then tried to repent and couldn’t.

[Let] there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it [repentance] with tears.

Esau was rejected. He had so profaned the grace of God that he was no longer able to repent even though he wept and looked like he was sincere.  God had forsaken him utterly and there was no more patience.  This is the precious and terrible warning behind the words, “We will press on to maturity, if God permits.”  Beware of being like Esau, he says. God governs the progress of sanctification, and he is not obliged to grant repentance to anyone.  Which leads to the second implication of the words ” . . . if God permits.”

2. Permitting us to advance to maturity is all grace, and not permitting it is righteous judgment.

We are by nature rebellious against God and guilty for it. God does not owe any of us the grace to conquer our rebellion.  If God leaves us in our rebellion, he is righteous and just to do so.  He owes us nothing.  We are rebels by nature, and deserve only punishment, not rescue.  If you are saved this morning, it is all of grace.  And if you persevere and make progress toward maturity, it is all of grace.  “This we will do, if God permits.”  And if he chooses not to permit it, he is not hindering our good will, he is leaving us in our bad will.  If we have a good will toward God, this is the work of grace and we will make progress.  And we should tremble with gratitude.

3. God sometimes wills that something come to pass which he forbids us to bring to pass.

That is, he sometimes decrees what he forbids.  In this case, for example, he may not permit someone to press on to maturity.  Nevertheless he commands us to press on to maturity.  So he is decreeing immaturity while commanding maturity.

The clearest illustration of this in biblical history is God’s plan for the death of Jesus. God forbids murder: “Thou shalt not murder” (Exodus 20:13). And he decrees that his Son be murdered. Acts 4:27–28:

Truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur.

What Herod and Pilate and the Roman soldiers and the crowds shouting, “Crucify him,” did was all predestined to occur by God, and it was all sin.  Thus God sometimes forbids what he decrees: he forbids murder, and he decrees the murder of his Son for the salvation of his people.

This does not mean that God is a sinner, because there is a difference between sinning and choosing for wise and holy purposes that sin be.  The cross of Christ is the clearest place for seeing this mystery.  There are infinitely wise and holy reasons for willing that his Son be sinfully killed.  And in the same way there are wise and holy reasons for why he might not permit someone to press on to maturity.

4. Nevertheless it is our duty and our delight to press on to maturity.

This whole book is written as incentive and help to press on to the holiness without which we will not see the Lord. God’s sovereignty in sanctification does not remove our obligation.  It enables it.  “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.  For it is God who is at work in you to will and to do his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13).  God’s sovereign work in us is our only hope that we will press on to maturity.

5. Finally, God’s absolute sovereignty is a sweet place to rest.

This writer is bending every effort to help these people persevere in faith (6:12) and hold fast to their confession (4:14) and fight the evil heart of unbelief (3:12) and pursue the holiness without which they will not see the Lord (12:14).  He warns and argues and pleads. And he is hopeful that God is at work in them, as he says down in verse 9. But that is not finally where he rests.

His final place of rest is the sovereignty of God.  And I commend this resting place to you. He is doing all that he can do. And he is calling them to vigilant action.  But in the end he looks up and says, “Thy will be done concerning their perseverance and maturity.”  He rests in God’s sovereignty: “This we will do, if God permits.”

He is like Joab going into battle with his brother Abishai. He makes every preparation and plan and then says to Abishai,

Be strong, and let us show ourselves courageous for the sake of our people and for the cities of our God; and may the LORD do what is good in His sight. (2 Samuel 10:12)

We have done all that we can do in preparation.  We will fight with all our might.  But in the end not we, but the Lord, will advance the victory or not.  So there is where we rest: “May the Lord do what is good in his sight.”

That is where God calls you to rest this morning.  Life is complex and full of uncertainties. We work hard.  We make preparations.  We plan.  We preach.  We persuade.  We write. We try every way that we know to do all the good we can do for a perishing, God-profaning world.  And when all is said and done, we say, “This will bear fruit, if the Lord permits.”  “May the Lord do what seems good to him.”

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.

The Danger of Dullness, part 3 (Hebrews 5:14)

The author of Hebrews was writing to a community, likely a mixture of Christians and non-Christians, mostly Jewish by race, some of whom had not progressed beyond basic teachings and were in danger of moving back into Judaism.

Let’s read again Hebrews 5:11-14

11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 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.

Our focus today will be on verse 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.”

Notice the two things that are involved here.  First, there is “solid food,” what Fuller calls “the strong meat” of God’s Word.  It is those who are developing spiritual maturity that can enjoy such food.  Babies tend to play in solid food while maturing children and youth enjoy eating it.

What is “solid food”?  It is those doctrines that we find throughout the Scripture.  Here, the writer is speaking of the importance of the high priestly ministry of Jesus Christ—grasping it mentally and valuing it with one’s heart.  In Galatians the “solid food” was the wondrous doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  In Ephesians it might be getting a handle on the doctrine of election.  These things are solid food.

But we make a mistake if we think that solid food is just a matter of knowledge—of knowing things others do not, of knowing things at a deeper level.  Yes, we must have knowledge.  Our faith is built on facts.  But right knowledge must lead to right practice—orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy. 

We must first distinguish truth from error, then good from evil.  Tim Challies, in his book The Heart of Discernment, says:

Discernment has both a theological and a moral dimension… The first category where we need to exercise discernment is that of truth and error in relation to what we believe about God.  The second category is that of right and wrong in relation to how we act.  The first category relates to truth and discernment and the second to God’s will and discernment.  These are two broad categories in which we need to exercise spiritual discernment.

To go from being babies to being mature Christians, we need “practice.”  This growth is produced and promoted by using our spiritual “senses” or “faculties.”  Infants have these senses, but they do not know how to use them to full advantage.  The proper use of our spiritual faculties enables us to distinguish between “good and evil.”  It is precisely here that the Hebrews had failed so lamentably.

“A child is easily imposed upon as to its food [though some mothers may object to that!].  Its nurse may easily induce it to swallow even palatable poison.  But a man, ‘by reason of use,’ has learned so to employ his senses as to distinguish between what is deleterious and what is nourishing” (Dr. J. Brown).

The immature are more easily deceived, tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine, every fad; they are “naïve” according to Proverbs.  This is why people warn small children not to talk to strangers, because they know they can easily be lead astray.  They cannot distinguish between a person who is a safe and legitimate source of truth and one who has bad intentions.

The word “practice” refers to the development of regular habits.  F. B. Meyer notes that we sharpen our senses by using them.  He says, “When I was in the tea-trade, my sense of touch and taste and smell became acute to discern quite minute differences. We need a similar acuteness in discerning good and evil.”

David Guzik identifies these spiritual senses:

i. We have a spiritual sense of taste: If indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious (1 Peter 2:3).  Taste and see that the LORD is good! (Psalm 34:8)

ii. We have a spiritual sense of hearing: Hear and your soul shall live (Isaiah 55:3).  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Revelation 2:7).

iii. We have a spiritual sense of sight: Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law (Psalm 119:18).  The eyes of your understanding (heart) being enlightened (Ephesians 1:18).

iv. We have a spiritual sense of smell: He shall be of quick scent in the fear of the LORD (Isaiah 11:3, RV margin).  I am full, having received from… you, a sweet-smelling aroma (Philippians 4:18).

v. We have a spiritual sense of touch or feeling: Because your heart was tender, and you humbled yourself before the LORD (2 Kings 22:19).  The hardening of their heart; who being past feeling, have given themselves over to licentiousness (Ephesians 4:18-19).

One’s “senses” are “trained” by the exercise of the truths of God’s Word—putting them into practice in our daily choices.  Understanding and obeying God’s Word develops the believer’s capacity to “discern good and evil” (which could stand also for “truth and error”).

By the way, only a Christian worldview allows for the categories of “good and evil” or “truth and error.”  Postmodernism has ushered in the “post-truth” age where everything is a matter of person opinion, where truth exists along a continuum.  Truth is subjective; it is relative.”

Tim Challies speaks to our motivation for discerning truth from error and good from evil.  He says:

God’s holiness lies at the very heart of the need for discernment.  Our passion for God’s holiness, our desire to keep ourselves pure from sin, will motivate our practice of discernment.  The greater our understanding of God’s holiness, the greater will be our understanding of the importance of discerning truth from error.  We will desire to cast off all that is wrong so that we can be unsullied, unspoiled by sin.

We are told in v. 14 that what is needed is “training” that comes from “constant practice” in learning how to discern between good and evil and between truth and falsehood.  And the only way that will ever happen is when you actively pursue God’s revealed truth and in doing so have your spiritual senses sharpened.  You must engage regularly with God’s revealed truth so that your moral mind will gradually undergo refinement and you will begin to understand and discern and evaluate what is good and true.

Unless we train our spiritual senses, our discernment, by regular interaction with God’s truth, we will unconsciously and unwittingly have our minds “conformed to the world” around us.

In other words, the kind of living that redounds to the glory of God is that which is honed by the study and practice of God’s truth.  “The pathway to maturity and to solid biblical food is not first by becoming an intelligent person, but becoming an obedient person” (John Piper).

Practice at anything is difficult.  Athletes know this; artists know this.  We all know that developing skill in anything takes many, many hours of practice.

Jascha Heifitz, a world renowned violinist, once said, “If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.”

Practicing anything is hard work.  Perhaps this is what causes us so much resistance to the biblical command to become students of the Scripture.  “Do your best [give it your very best effort, no half-heartedness here] to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).  The only way we can possibly rightly handle the word of truth and be unashamed in our teaching of it is to do our best at understanding it. 

Paul also told Timothy, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17).  To become teachers, as Hebrews 5:12 says we ought, we must first be diligent in study, which means hard work and consistent practice.

Thomas Hewitt comments on Hebrews 5:14 and how one gains the discernment that comes with maturity.  He says, “It is gained by the regular exercise of the spiritual faculties in the Word of God and in the doctrines of the Christian faith, for there is no easy way to spiritual maturity.  From this position those of full age can discern between both good and evil; they have an exact, or right, judgment in all things.  When different viewpoints are placed before them they can at once distinguish the good from the evil, the right from the wrong.”

In the case of these Hebrews, it means that they needed to discern the preferability of pursuing the superior Jesus Christ and His new covenant rather than returning to Moses and the Old Covenant.

In his book How to Stay Christian in College, J. Budziszewski, says this about discernment:

[Discernment is] a mental sense of smell that helps you notice when “something smells fishy”…How can you sharpen this mental sense of smell?  How can you develop discernment?  First, you need to have a spirit of obedience to Jesus Christ.  If your spirit is in rebellion, your nose will be in rebellion too.  Second, you need to study the Word of God and other Christian literature.  We’re talking about a mental, not physical, sense of smell.  In order to develop it you have to use your mind.  Third, you need to practice smelling. Smell everything. Your power of discernment is like a muscle.  Use it or lose it.  Fourth, you need to be accountable to other believers in a healthy Christian fellowship.  If you try to learn to smell by yourself, your mental sense of smell will be eccentric.  You’ll be like someone who takes a deep whiff of dung and says, “Ah, roses!”

Getting ready to feast on all of God’s Word, even the more difficult parts, isn’t really an intellectual change first.  Rather, it is really a moral challenge first.  If you want to eat the solid food of the Word you must want to submit to it and learn from it.

The startling truth is that, if you stumble over Melchizedek, it may be cause you watch questionable television shows.  If you stumble over the doctrine of election, it may be because you still use some shady business practices.  If you stumble over the God-centered work of Christ in the cross, it may be because you love money and spend too much and give too little.  The pathway to maturity and to solid biblical food is not first by becoming an intelligent person, but becoming an obedient person.  What you do with alcohol and sex and money and leisure and food and computer have more to do with your capacity for solid food than with where you go to school or what books you read.

Because of their laziness, they were unable to distinguish between “good and evil.”  They couldn’t distinguish the voice of God from the voice of Satan.  They were like babes are in the natural world, unable to discriminate between what is wholesome and what is hurtful; therefore they were unable to see the difference between what was right under the Judaic economy, and what was now suited to Christianity and the gospel.

The mature are those who have come to trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  Again, this has similar wording, but is a different context than 1 Corinthians 3.  The context here is of Jews who want to go back to the law, like in Galatians 3 and 4.

Genuine believers are able to discern the truth of the Word of God.  1 Corinthians 2:6-7 says, “Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away.But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.”

This is the food that the writer is referring to in Hebrews 5:14.  An unbeliever does not accept the things of God because they are foolishness to him (1 Cor. 2:14), but to those who are believers (mature), they are given the ability to understand and believe in the Word of God (1 Cor. 2:10-13).

The point in Hebrews 5:14 and 1 Corinthians 2:14 is exactly the same: the immature unbeliever is unable to discern, to appraise, spiritual things, but the mature believer, because of the work of the Holy Spirit, is given spiritual perception, understanding and discernment.

The Holy Spirit is warning the Hebrews not to stop short of salvation.  We need that same warning today.  Do not fool yourself into thinking that you are saved just because you go to church, or have had some “experience” or have experienced a moral reformation of your life.  All of those things are things that Christians do, but you can do those things and have no genuine spiritual life.

Examine yourself to see if you are “sluggish” in your faith.  You have likely heard the gospel so many times you could be a teacher, but do you still need to hear the ABCs?  Has it not sunk in yet?  If not, give yourself no rest, but fly to the cross and embrace Jesus Christ as your Savior.

God wants you to believe unflinchingly in Jesus Christ.  God wants you to go deeper in your understanding of Jesus Christ and what He has done for you.

Because the writer does go on in Hebrews 7 to talk about Melchizedek, it seems that he expects them to mature spiritually and to move on to believing in Jesus Christ for their righteousness.

But that hasn’t happened with some of them yet.  His heart is heavy and he speaks quite forcefully in chapter 6, begging and exhorting them to move on to maturity.

The warning of Hebrews 5:11-14 is clear.  The need for maturity and discernment is evident.  The Holy Spirit inspired this passage and has preserved it for us (as with all the rest of Scripture) for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16b, 17).  The idea that study, Biblical education and doctrine are superfluous to our Christians lives, or even harmful, is creating a generation of perpetual infants.

The author of Hebrews entreats, “let us press on to maturity” (Hebrews 6:1).  Pressing on to maturity is God’s answer to the problem of perpetual infancy.  Hebrews 6 contains a vivid and frightening warning against apostasy.  A failure to press on to maturity creates a severe danger to those who do not heed this biblical call.

God will give grace to help us obey the Spirit’s call to grow up.  If we respond to it in obedient faith, we will be equipped for the work of the ministry and can be sure that God will use us in these perilous times.

So what can be done to overcome this spiritual lethargy and to grow out of spiritual infancy? A couple of things are worth noting.

First, be sure that you have actually understood the “basic principles of the oracles of God” (v. 12).  There’s nothing wrong with them.  You have to start somewhere.  You must learn the alphabet before you can read.  Start at the ground level and slowly work your way to maturity. 

For these Hebrews, the “basic principles of the oracles of God” referred to the Old Testament.  They did need that foundation.  But they needed to move beyond it.  They must move beyond it.

For us, we do need the gospel.  That is the foundation of our spiritual lives.  And it’s not so much that we have to move beyond it.  We really need to move deeper into it.  But in moving deeper it does involve a greater theological understanding of Jesus Christ—who He is and all He’s done for us.

Second, don’t despise the “milk” of God’s revealed truth.  It is, after all, still God’s revealed truth!  Let the milk of God’s word have its way in your heart and mind.  But don’t settle for it!  You weren’t built or redeemed to live on such a minimal diet. 

Third, begin to dig deeply into the meat or “solid food” of God’s word.  Read good theological books.  Find a mentor who can direct your steps.  Ask for recommendations from those who have already walked down this path.  Hang out with others who share your passion for the “solid food” and will encourage you in your pursuit of it.  Memorize the word.  Pray the word.  Sing the word.  Preach the word back to your own soul.

Fourth, be consistent and faithful in exposing yourself to the teaching and preaching of God’s Word and to corporate worship and to prayer, both with others and alone.  Don’t distance yourself from the Lord’s Table.  Refuse to let anything take precedence over it.  Immerse yourself in community.  Make yourself accountable to other Christians and be honest when they ask you how you are getting along in life and in your marriage and in your relationship with God.

Fifth and finally, examine your hearing! Ask yourself: “Am I listening well?  Am I studying and exploring what I hear?  Am I increasingly fascinated by God and the revelation he has made of himself in Jesus?  As we make our way through the book of Hebrews, am I finding that Jesus really is better?  Is he increasingly beautiful and more satisfying to my soul?  Or do I find myself losing interest?  Is my spiritual hearing growing dull?” (These five application points are adapted from Sam Storms.)

The Danger of Dullness, part 2 (Hebrews 5:12-14)

The author of Hebrews was writing to a community, likely a mixture of Christians and non-Christians, mostly Jewish by race, some of whom had not progressed beyond basic teachings and were in danger of moving back into Judaism.

So we read in Hebrews 5:11-14

11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 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.

They had “become dull of hearing,” which is further explained by the fact that they needed “again” to be taught “the basic principles of the oracles of God.”  These people had had enough time under Christian teaching so that they “ought to be teachers” by now.  But instead of progressing in their faith, they were still needed to be taught, still needing “milk, not solid food.”

What about you?  Maybe you’ve been a Christian for years now.  Can you teach someone else?  Can you sit down with another person and disciple him, or her, in the basics of faith?  Can you explain deeper truths to them?

People give all kinds of excuses for not being a student of the Scriptures.  And believe me, you must become a diligent student before you can become a teacher!  Paul told Timothy, a young minister, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

This passage allows no excuses.  Edwards illustrates, “It becomes one who is called to be a soldier, to excel in the art of war.  It becomes a mariner, to excel in the art of navigation.”  And then of Christians he write, “So it becomes all such as profess to be Christians, to devote themselves to the practice of Christianity, to endeavour to excel in the knowledge of divinity.”  Are you so devoted to the practice of Christianity that you seek to “excel in the knowledge” of God’s Word?

This is not just for paid preachers and academic theologians, but for every member of the family of God!

It reminds me of a story of a lady who had been a teacher for 25 years.  When she heard of a job opening that would mean a promotion, she applied.  However, someone who had been teaching for only one year was hired instead.

She went to the principal to ask why.  The principal said, “I’m sorry, but you haven’t had 25 years of experience as you claim; you’ve hand only one year’s experience 25 times.”

I hope that isn’t true of you.

But the shocking reality is that not only were they incapable of being teachers, they had the need to be taught all over again!  Because they had never truly accepted it and applied it, they had not gone forward, but backward.  “…You need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God” (Hebrews 5:12b)

This language is akin to Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians when he told them that they were acting like babies.  There he was definitely speaking of Christians who were exhibiting definite signs of immaturity.  Here the writer is dealing with those whose understanding of Christ and the gospel was so weak, so dulled by neglect and apathy, that he perceived their need to start all over again!

Their spiritual comprehension corresponds to that of children in kindergarten who, unable to read or write, have to start at the very beginning learning their ABCs.  Instead of becoming teachers, and contributing to the spiritual growth of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13), they “need someone to teach you again…”

The word “elementary principles” here at the end of verse 12 is the Greek word stoichea, referring to the very first lessons taught a child, literally his ABCs.  I believe these elementary principles likely refer to the list of doctrines he mentions in 6:1-2, which he there calls “elementary doctrines,”–“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.”

Paul illustrates the elementary principles in Galatians 4:3-5 when he says: “In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

Which are defined in Galatians 4:10 as “special days and months and seasons and years.”

Thus, the “elementary principles” seems to refer to those principles and rituals of Judaism that were designed to point forward to Jesus and lead us to faith in Him.  They had been exposed to Christ, but had not yet crossed the line of believing in Christ.

It is as if they needed to be re-taught the fundamentals of the faith, and the fundamentals he is talking about are not even the Romans Road or the 4 Spiritual Laws; the fundamentals here are Old Testament concepts.  As Jews who had been taught the Gospel, they should have been completely prepared to embrace the all-encompassing supremacy of their Messiah over and above the old covenant, having their sins fully dealt with and thereby becoming the people that God had ultimately desired for them to be.  But since they were showing such laziness in committing to His supremacy, the author wonders if they even really understand the point of the old covenant (8:5; 9:11-28; Colossians 2:17) in the first place!

Had they not truly grasped these “elementary principles,” or were they merely unwilling to go beyond them?  Were they missing the point of these elementary principles, not seeing them as pointing forward to Christ, but seeing them as ending in themselves—that they were what was important to believe in, not the Messiah they pointed to?

The “oracles” to which the author of Hebrews refers is definitely not the gospel.  Those being addressed here are Jews, and to them the oracles of God refers to the Old Testament.  The word may refer to brief, easily remembered and understood sayings such as the ten commandments.  As A. T. Robertson states, “Logion is a diminutive of logos, divine oracles being usually brief…”  Hewitt says that oracle (logion) “…originally meant a ‘brief, condensed, divine saying.’” 

Our author’s point:  Babies never progress beyond simple, briefly stated basics of the faith.

The Old Testament laws, types and rituals pointed to Christ, but the Old Testament did not give them enough information to embrace Christ in His fullness.  They needed to go on in learning deeper truths about Jesus Christ in order to value Him as He ought to be valued.

Do you see the problem here?  It wasn’t the content of the teaching or the inability of the teacher to explain it, but rather they attitude of the students, who wouldn’t listen diligently and with faith.

It’s not that these baby Christians never go to meeting where teaching is present.  It is that they seek out teachings, teachers and churches that do not require them to think about theology.  Many consider “theology” to be a scornful term.  They claim that their own paster teaches more “practical matters.”  These often include inspiring stories, humor, pop psychology, motivational sayings, personal testimonies of spiritual experiences, “how to” seminars, or “touchy-feely” meetings of group encounter—anything but hermeneutically sound, theologically solid, biblical teaching that requires the hearers to think critically and labor in learning.

It is this more detailed, diligent study of the Scriptures that this present passage (5:11-14) urges as necessary for maturity and discernment.

Let me emphasize.  Our author is not denigrating the foundation was laid.  Everyone needs a solid foundation.  But…they should have built upon it by now.  They should be able to handle deeper truths and even pass what they have learned on to others.

Our author laments, “You need milk, not solid food.”  The sad reality is, if you don’t progress, you regress.  If you don’t move forward in your understanding and faith, you move backward.

We are either moving forward or falling back.  We are either climbing or falling.  We are either winning or losing.  Static, status quo Christianity is a delusion!  And going forward doesn’t happen automatically.  We have to be intentional about growing deeper into the basics and how to apply them to our lives.

He says, “You’re acting like babies.”  Our author assaults his friends with a grotesque image—adult infants who are still nursing.  Think of the tragic absurdity of full-grown men and women in diapers who are neither capable of, nor desire solid food and who sit around sucking their thumbs. Such full-grown infants amount to a huge disgrace and drain on the Church.  Obviously, the writer’s grotesque images are meant to shock and to motivate some of his hearers to pull their thumbs out of their mouths and say, “I’m no baby.” (R. Kent Hughes, Preaching the Word: Hebrews, pp. 148-149)

“Milk” here likely refers to the same thing as the “first principles of the oracles of God,” whereas “meat” likely refers to the teaching on the offices of Christ, in particular His priesthood, as suited to our needs and affections.

If you are a new believer, then it is expected that you are to be nurturing yourself on the milk of God’s word.  Peter recommends, “like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.”  That is normal.  Milk is appropriate food for newborns.  But don’t stop there.  Like a little baby, develop an attitude for solid food.  As Peter goes on to say, “taste and see that the Lord is good!”

If you’ve been a believer for a few years, then it is normal to make progress in your understanding of the things of God.  With that progress comes greater assurance, strength for spiritual battles, resistance to temptation, insights for godly living, and the ability to discern the right choices and ways.  But if you are subsisting only on milk, then the writer’s assessment is that you are an “infant” when you ought to be “mature.”

Verse 13 gives us the reason why they could not benefit from the “solid food,” or “meat” of God’s Word: “for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.”  You are a child, proven by your lack of appetite for solid food.

Being a baby eating milk is fine, for a while.  But growth is expected.  There is nothing more delightful than a true babe, but nothing more depressing and sad than to see a child who should be growing to maturity still exhibiting signs of infancy.

While remaining an infant, one is “unskilled in the word of righteousness,” which more literally means “not experienced in the word of righteousness.”  It was less a matter of ability than attitude.

The phrase “word of righteousness” seems to be contrasted in this text to the oracles and basic principles mentioned earlier (v. 12).  It has typically been understood in two ways, the first of which is decidedly new covenant.  That is, “word of righteousness” is teaching about justification by faith.  This is the doctrinal aspect of the “word of righteousness.”  It was about the “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” (Romans 3:22).  This is our positional righteousness, credited to us due to our union with Christ.  Not only does justification mean that our sins are forgiven, our debt is wiped out, but also that the incredible reservoir of Christ’s righteousness is dumped into my moral bank account.

This is positional righteousness—the vast reservoir of righteousness credited from Christ’s active obedience to my account.

Philippians 3:9 speaks of Paul’s desire to be “found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”

Most new believers do not understand the full range of implications concerning our justification.  It is as one grows in the knowledge of our Lord and what He has done for us that we come to fully appreciate and glory in the richness of this truth.

Practical righteousness is the other aspect of the “word of righteousness.”  Jews would, of course, be interested in what could make them morally better.  They focused on their performance and whether God would be impressed with how they lived.

However, unless positional righteousness forms the foundation and background of any practical righteousness, that practical righteousness will be doomed to failure, no matter how sincere.  Practical righteousness divorced from positional righteousness is legalism.

In practical righteousness we face moral and ethical demands every day.  We experience a range of choices, decisions and options related to everything from what our eyes will see, what our ears will hear, where our feet will carry us, who we will be involved with, what our minds will dwell upon, what kinds of careers to pursue, and how to spend our resources.

When we become dulled in hearing the Word of God, then our ability to exercise discernment in these areas is dulled.

Some boundaries of God are obvious.  We are not to murder or steal or lie.  But to be able to practice righteousness in all of the other areas, the grey areas that are not clearly spelled out in Scripture requires having our senses, “trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”

The universal fact is, a nursing baby has little or no capacity to distinguish good from evil.  And while a growing child will have an increased capacity, it will necessarily be flawed.  Only the mature—those who understand the teaching about righteousness and who practice it—will be able to make discerning judgment on the continual moral issues that arise in life.

These “immature” are not, I don’t believe, immature believers, but rather Jewish members of the congregation who, having the Old Testament witness to Christ through the prophets, were not playing close enough attention to the New Covenant teachings of the apostles.

The word for “babe” in verse 13 is the same word that is used in Romans 2:17-21 to describe an unbeliever.  Paul says, speaking to Jews who know the Law, but have not believed the gospel, “But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth–  you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself?  While you preach against stealing, do you steal?”  So the immature are those who have not yet believed this revelation from God about Christ and therefore they have not believed the gospel.

Before the revelation of Christ came, they had been imprisoned by the law (Galatians 3:23).  But the Law itself was a good tool that pointed to Jesus Christ as the answer.  “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:24-26).

The mature are those who have believed in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, while those who are immature reject the gospel and are still under the law.

The aim of the author is to move these people on to maturity, a word used in Hebrews 10:1 and 10:14, but obviously in relationship to coming to genuine faith in Jesus Christ.  In other words, believing in Jesus Christ marks the maturity our author longs to see.

Hebrews 10:1 shows we can never become “perfect” or mature by means of the law.

“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 Jesus, we can be made perfect.  Hebrews 10:14 say “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”

This aim, of bringing them to the maturity of embracing Jesus Christ as their high priest and Savior, will be developed more fully in Hebrews 6:1-3.

The writer’s illustration is a picture of persons who have been content to know and practice only the most elementary lessons of their faith.  They are too lazy to do what is necessary to grow.

The Danger of Dullness, part 1 (Hebrews 5:11-12)

We sometimes idealize the early church as if going back there we could become perfect churches with no problems.  However, when you read the New Testament, you see that church after church had its own set of problems.  This letter of Hebrews was written to a church going through their own problems.

The writer of Hebrews hasn’t come right out and said what their problem was until now. But he has implied it.  There is definitely something wrong with the Christians he is writing to.

Some evidently were elevating angels above Jesus, the Son of God.  The author warned them in Hebrews 2:1 not to “drift” away from the gospel and to be careful lest they “neglect” this great salvation provided by Christ.  They had to be exhorted to “consider” Jesus (3:1) and not to abandon their original confession of faith in him (3:6, 14).  They were warned lest there be found in some of them an “unbelieving heart” that might lead them to fall away from the living God (3:12).  In Hebrews 4:1 our author appears concerned that some in this church might fail to enter God’s rest.  And in Hebrews 4:11 he urged them to strive to enter God’s rest lest some “fall by the same sort of disobedience” as those did in the Old Testament.

In all of these urgent admonitions you begin to get the impression: this writer is really concerned about some situation in the churches of his day.  But until now he has only given the cure, not the diagnosis. Now he tells us what’s wrong.

At the end of our last text in Hebrews 5, we learned that Christ was perfected through suffering and experientially learned what it meant to be obedient when that path was difficult.  These believers needed to follow Jesus’ example.  Jesus is the high priest they have been hoping for, yet you can almost hear our author sigh when he says “Concerning him [or concerning this—what I’ve just been talking about briefly] we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.”

And there is our first explicit diagnosis.  Here’s the disease he is working on in this letter: dullness of hearing.

This is what’s behind all those exhortations: Pay close attention!  Consider!  Don’t harden your heart!  Fear!  Be diligent!  Hold fast!  These are all doctor’s prescriptions for the disease of dullness of hearing.

And we need to ask ourselves:  Do I have this same disease?  Am I dull of hearing?

While this may not seem to be a serious problem, our author shows that it is quite critical and potentially dangerous.

11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 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.

The words “dull of hearing (5:11) and “sluggish” (6:12) both come from the Greek nothroi and form an inclusion, marking 5:11-6:12 off as a distinct unit.  This Greek word occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. The first two warnings in Hebrews were against drifting (2:1-4) and disbelief (3:7-19).  Now this one speaks to the issue of “dullness” of hearing.  All of the warning passages in Hebrews involve negative actions in relation to the Word of God.

This word nothroi was used in extrabiblical literature to refer to a slave with ears “stopped up” by laziness, who was thus not instantaneously obedient to the call of his master.  It was a culpable negligence.

It here describes those who develop a “couldn’t care less” attitude to the study of holy Scripture, and have failed to give themselves to a regular, methodical, and painstaking study of its teaching and its relevance in everyday life.  (Raymond Brown, The Bible Speaks Today:  Hebrews, 104)

The central statement in this paragraph is that explaining Christ’s priesthood is difficult (“hard to explain”), but that the real issue is that they had “become dull of hearing.”  This passage shows that this is a serious and dangerous issue.  It will become even more serious as we move into chapter 6.

Our author presents it here as an issue of immaturity—a stage from which one must move on and grow to maturity.

Arrested mental or physical growth is a tragedy.  We all want our children to grow into maturity mentally, physically, socially…and this author wanted his readers to grow spiritually, realizing that the lack of spiritual growth is an even more crucial tragedy.

What is at issue here?  Is our author addressing Christians who needed to move further in their discipleship?  Or is our author addressing pre-Christians who needed to fully embrace Jesus Christ as their High Priest (or Savior)?

The Hebrews addressed in our text were in a strange position.  The author had just begun expounding on the truth of Jesus Christ’s high priesthood being superior to that of the Aaronic priesthood because it was “according to the order of Melchizedek” (5:1-10).  With abruptness, he stops in his tracks.

While he desired to feed them on the riches of this divine truth because he knew that they would gain needed assurance and courage in their faith, he knew he couldn’t go on without challenging their attitude towards learning.

There was much to say and it would prove difficult, but the reason he couldn’t go on is because “you have become dull of hearing.”

Apparently they had not always been “dull of hearing,” but at some point their eyes had glazed over and their hearts had become unreceptive.  This is not an auditory problem.  It was not that they couldn’t hear the words, but their heart was not receptive.

They were no longer eagerly receiving our writer’s teaching, like the Bereans, who “received the word with all eagerness” (Acts 17:11) or the Thessalonians, who “received the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13).

When we read this word again in Hebrews 6:12, we can see what the opposite of this dullness is:

We desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, that you may not be sluggish [there’s the word for “dull” in our text], but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

And John Piper reminds us:

The opposite of dullness is diligence or earnestness to turn the message of hope into the assurance of hope; it’s the imitation of people who hear the promises of God and then respond with faith and patience.  So dull hearing doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with your physical ears. It means there is something wrong with your heart.   The heart is not eager and diligent to embrace the promises and turn them into faith and patience.  Instead, the Word comes into the ears and goes down to the heart and hits something hard or tough—or starting to get hard.  That’s dullness of hearing.  The promises come to the ear, but there is no passion for them, no lover’s embrace, no cherishing or treasuring; and so no faith and no patience and—if things don’t change—no inheritance of eternal life.  Which is why he wrote this book… It is an incredibly dangerous disease, this dullness of hearing (https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/by-this-time-you-ought-to-be-teachers).

Hopefully you and I will show the same interest.  When listening to sermons, do you take notes?  Do you talk about what was taught with others?  Do you identify some way to apply the sermon to your life? 

There is a general malaise when it comes to God’s Word today—little diligent pursuit of God’s Word.

There is little “reaching forth unto those things which are before” (Phil. 3:13) and, consequently, little growth in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord.  By the very law of nature, if we do not move forward, we invariably slip backward.

There are few who seem to realize that truth has to be “bought” (Proverbs 23:23), purchased at the cost of subordinating temporal interests to spiritual ones.  If the Christian is to “increase in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:10), he has to give himself whole-heartedly to the things of God.

There is no such thing as standing still in Christianity.  Whether a believer marches forward or merely marks time depends much on his connection with God’s word.  God’s deep truths are not revealed to the casual, careless reader, but to the careful, constant one.  (Richard E. Lauersdorf, The People’s Bible: Hebrews, 53-4)

One of the characteristics of genuine Christian faith is an eagerness to listen to and learn from the Word of God.

F. R. Webber, in his massive three-volume A History of Preaching in Britain and America, tells us that one of the curious by-products of the Awakening was a sudden interest in shorthand. According to Webber:

Men and women studied shorthand in order that they might take down the sermons that were stirring the English-speaking countries.  This had happened once before in Scotland, and it made its appearance once more in all countries where the influence of the Awakening was felt.  It was not at all unusual to see men with a portable inkwell strapped about them, and a quill pen thrust over an ear, hastening to join the throng assembling on the village green (F. R. Webber, A History of Preaching in Britain and America , vol. 1 (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1952), p. 329).

But apparently this newness, this eagerness to hear good apostolic teaching, had worn thin.  Now, they were unable to hear.

“Dullness of hearing” is hearing without faith and without the moral fruit of faith.  It’s hearing the Bible or the preaching of the Bible the way you hear the noise of the train going by at night, or the way you hear Muzak in the dentist’s office or the way you hear recorded warnings at the airport that this is a smoke-free facility.  You do but you don’t.  You’ve have grown dull to the sound.  It does not awaken or produce anything.

A word of Jesus from Luke 8:18 is very important here.  When he had finished telling the parable of the four soils where the seed is the Word he says, “Therefore take care how you hear; for whoever has, to him shall more be given; and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him.”  In other words, if you have the grace to hear (with faith and fruit), you will get more grace; but if you do not, even what you think you have will be taken away—namely, the Word.

You don’t want to be a “dull listener” to God’s Word.  If you are, it will condemn you, not save you!

The difficulty in communicating important biblical truth lies not so much in the complexity of the information or even in the writer’s inability to present it, but in the reader’s inability to process it.

The problem is that something in their hearts had changed.  They were now longer the eager-to-learn believers that he knew so well.  They had become “dull of hearing.”  The use of the perfect tense reveals that they had not always been dull of hearing, but that they had now become dull of hearing that it has continuing effects right up to the present time.  It had become a settled (and very dangerous) condition and must change.

If our author is addressing unbelievers who had been associating with this congregation and who possibly even had made professions of faith, their dullness would have come after having received some ministries of the Holy Spirit through the Word, having profited from the Word in some ways, but now they are growing numb to the truth, tired of it, weary of it.

These Hebrews being addressed in 5:11 seems to be like the seed in Matthew 13 that is sown in shallow ground.  It comes up quickly, it is excited in the beginning, but it has no roots.  When the sun comes out and persecution begins, they wilt and declare, “I’m going back to my old ways of worship.”

While I believe this passage is speaking to unbelievers, people who had been exposed to Christian teaching but were no longer progressing in it, we can still find application here for those of us who are Christians.

We should never become “dull of hearing.”  But it does happen at times.  When we neglect public worship and the preaching of God’s Word, we can become dull of hearing.  Second, we may become dulled when we start to take the Word of God for granted.  They say that “familiarity breeds contempt.”  Usually, it just breeds distraction and disinterest.  Finally, if we don’t obey God’s Word will become dull in our hearing of it.  James tells us how important it is to obey what we read (James 1:22).  Why should God teach me anything new if I refuse to obey what I already know.  If I’m not faithful in the little, I won’t be given more.

Here is possibly what was happening in this Hebrew congregation.  Some had joined the community of faith and had seemingly embraced the gospel but were now abandoning it, very likely due to persecution.  Those who remained, therefore, in an effort to win back those who were falling away, went back to teaching “elementary teaching.”  But this wasn’t satisfying anyone, and without moving on to solid food, more advanced teachings, others started losing interest in the deeper things of Christ.

The problem is that they were still spiritual babies.  Now, there is nothing wrong for babies to want milk or to grow from it.  That is quite normal.  What is abnormal, what showed they had a significant spiritual problem, is that by this time they should have grown beyond milk.  They were still stuck at the infant stage of their faith.

This writer had a reasonable expectation, voiced in verse 12: “by this time you ought to be teachers.”  It is unlikely that he means this in a literal sense, but is saying that everyone has had the opportunity to become more mature, to come to the place where they could have taught others.

In some countries, this is taken very literally.  If you are the first of your village or tribe to be saved, you were expected to then be the teacher and discipler of others.  You “got it first” so now it’s your obligation to teach others!

The reality is, if you have been a Christian for years, then you should be able to sit down with someone and teach them some basics of the Christian faith.

The problem is when people have been believers for 30, 40, even 60 years, and they are still the same people they were when they accepted Christ.  There is no real development after the first flush of salvation.  People like this, according to C. S. Lovett, are “touchy, lose their tempers just as easily, spend little time in the Word, they don’t witness for Christ and they are critical of others (C. S. Lovett, Lovett’s Lights on Hebrews, 121).

In reality, someone who makes no progress in their Christian understanding and obedience don’t really stay stuck; they regress.  They actually go backwards.  Our writer says they needed someone else to teach them, “again the basic principles of the oracles of God.”

They had to go back to basics.  They needed a remedial lesson.  They hadn’t gotten it the first time, so they had to repeat a grade.  It’s as if he says, “I almost feel it necessary to start all over again with you people and teach you the ABC’s of the Christian faith!”

Because they were taking a lazy, passive approach to the Word of God, they were stuck in spiritual infancy.  At first the Hebrew believers had listened attentively to the main things and had learned them, at least as well as things are learned initially.  And it was real learning.  But they hadn’t retained it, or hadn’t used it…so they lost it.

Jesus said regarding truth:

For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. . . . Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them. (Matthew 13:12, 14, 15)

What about you?  Are you eager hearing God’s Word, examining the Scriptures to see if what you were taught is true?  Are you applying it to your life?  Are you believing its promises?  Are you obeying its commands?  How you interact with the Word of God is the most important thing about you.

Overview of the Warning Passages, part 2

Coming to one of the most difficult passages in Scripture, one which has spawned off numerous different interpretations, we set out to answer four questions last week.  We are talking about Hebrews 5:11-6:20, in particular chapter 6, verses 4-6.

Why does God inspire difficult texts?  And we noticed that God puts them there to make us desperate for understanding, to encourage us to cry out to God for understanding, and then to wrestle hard and long with the Scriptures so that we can understand them.  Then we are better able to teach the Scriptures and our process for exegesis to others.

Then we looked at some general principles of interpretation, the most important of which is to seek the author’s intended meaning by examining the passage within its literary and historical/cultural context.

Then we started looking at the context, noting that it was written to a mixed group of believing and unbelieving Jewish Christians, that it is one of five warning passages in Hebrews—indeed, the central one, and then we saw it as part of a larger teaching on Jesus’ superiority as high priest because He came from Melchizedek, and finally, that this section alternates between pessimism and optimism and seems to be addressing two different groups.

As you move through this passage of Hebrews, there are many terms we will have to define.  Some of them, which at first glance seem to refer to “Christians” or believers in Jesus Christ, may equally apply to those who have taken some first steps into the Christian community and have had exposure to the Gospel message, have experienced some ministries of the Spirit and have adapted themselves to the Christian lifestyle, yet have not yet come into the fullness of a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Why do I say that?

Well, the fact that there are two groups of people being addressed here is evident.  Although Hebrews 5:11-14 is addressed to “you” throughout the passage, the author does distinguish between some who are “still infants” and those who are “mature.”

11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 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.

So, Hebrews 5:11-14 speaks of those who have “become dull of hearing” and remain immature, as contrasted to those who have moved on to eat meat and can discern good and evil because of training,  There are obviously two different groups of people here.

Although the language expressing the continuum of immaturity to maturity, of eating milk versus eating meat, can obviously refer to the progress of a Christian from infancy to adulthood (cf. 1 Cor. 3:1-3 and 1 John 2:12-14).  Some of the language of the text could incline us to see the “immature” as pre-Christians who have been exposed to elementary teachings, yet have not moved forward and thus are in real danger of moving backwards, away from Christ and back into Judaism.

Then look at Hebrews 6:1-3

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.

Here the author shifts to including himself in the picture, by saying in verse 1 “let us leave” and then in verse 3, “we will do so,” a feature which many commentators appeal to as a decisive indication that all who are being addressed are believers.  In fact, that could be true in these three verses.  Also, it was common in New Testament texts for the writer to include himself in with a group of people in order to identify with them and encourage them, while not necessarily showing that they were all at the same spiritual level.

Notice again that his concern is to “go on to maturity” (6:1), but specifically in this context that has to do with leaving “the elementary doctrine (or teachings) of Christ” and “not laying again a foundation” in some basic issues.  The list of six things in verses 1 and 2, although on the surface they could be addressing items of Christian instruction, could also possibly speak of items held in common with Judaism.  They needed to move beyond these basic teachings of Judaism and their rudimentary knowledge of Jesus Christ and grasp more about Jesus if they were to go on to maturity.  Also, it may be significant that in verse 1 the author speaks of “faith in God” and not “faith in Jesus Christ.”  These people had faith in God.

It is then at Hebrews 6:4-12 that we encounter the most difficult passage, and yet even in these verses we can clearly see a demarcation between two groups of people.

Notice that in vv. 4-6 the author is addressing a group of people in the third person, whom he calls “those” and “they.”

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.

Then, after a supportive illustration from nature with two types of ground in vv. 7-8, notice how the author addresses a different group of people by using the second person pronoun “you” in vv. 9-12 and says specifically concerning them that he is “sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.”  This group he identifies as clearly saved.

Going back to vv. 4-5 you will notice a list of five benefits “those” people had experienced (six if you include repentance).

The structure of the passage is like this… (from George Guthrie, NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews, p. 217).

The key statement is that “It is impossible to renew to repentance again” those who have experienced these things and then had “fallen away.”  Why?  Because they are “crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”

Those five benefits in vv. 4-5 certainly sound like they would apply to Christians.  And it is true that anyone who was a Christian would have or could have experienced these things.  However, I hope you will notice that none of the typical language for salvation or conversion is present here.  They do not “believe in Jesus Christ.”  They do not “repent” of their sins.  None of the typical language like “justification,” redemption,” “reconciliation,” “born again,” “regeneration” or “converted” is used here.

While one could argue that the author nowhere uses this kind of vocabulary except for the word “saved” anywhere else in this book, therefore one shouldn’t expect it to be used here.  But it is still strange that none of that language is used to indication that these people are clearly saved, is being used here in this passage.

What we will do is to examine each of these beneficial experiences in vv. 4-5 as to whether they clearly identify them as Christians, or whether they identify benefits that anyone even associating with a Christian congregation and possibly being exposed to apostolic teaching could have experienced and their ministries, while yet coming short of actually being saved.

In other words, it is quite possible that these five benefits describe a pre-Christian experience, particularly those coming out of Judaism and being now exposed to Christian teaching.  Certainly true believers would have experienced these things, but possibly also all those who had yet to decide for Christ in that congregation.  So, in one sense both those who were genuine believers and those who had yet to make that decision for Christ could have experienced all these benefits, but only those who were not yet genuine believers in Jesus Christ were in danger of falling away.

Notice that in the structure of our passage, “having fallen away” is parallel in structure to all these benefits, showing that they not only had experienced the benefits, but these same people have experienced falling away, moving back to Judaism.

If that happens, it is “impossible” (v. 4), “to restore them again to repentance” (v. 6).  IF this is referring to the loss or forfeiture of one’s salvation, then this passage is saying that being saved again is impossible.  We’ll discuss that further when we get to these verses in chapter 6.  For now, I just want you to realize that IF this passage is saying that we can lose our salvation by falling away, then it is also saying that we cannot be “restored again to repentance.”

After giving a short illustration from nature which clearly distinguishes between two types of land (vv. 7-8), thus maintaining our understanding that two different groups of people are in view here, the author addresses the congregation again and says that we are “sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.” 

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.

Notice once again the change in pronouns from the third person “they” in vv. 4-6 to the second person “you” in vv. 9-12.  The author is concerned about some of “them” falling away, but is “sure” in “your case” that they have exhibited things “that belong to salvation.”  Here the author does mention salvation.  These people are clearly saved.

In other words, “you” I’m confident of your salvation.  But “them” I’m not so sure of and I’m warning them about the very real danger of falling away.

The idea of a mixed congregation in which there were true believers and professing believers existing side-by-side, experiencing many of the same blessings and expressing commitment to some of the same truths, is evident in several passages of Scripture.

Hebrews 3:16-19 already showed us that in ancient Israel, although they had all experienced God’s power and miracles, and having worshipped in a much more tangible way through the tabernacle and sacrificial system, yet most of them failed to enter the promised land because of disobedience and unbelief, or unbelieving disobedience.

1 John 2:19 clearly showed that some within the congregation had not truly been Christ followers.  “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.  But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”

And in Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus tells us that even those who ministered in marvelous ways may yet be unbelievers.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Doesn’t it shock you that people who performed miracles and cast out demons “in Jesus’ name” are themselves cast out because Jesus “never knew [them].”  Notice Jesus did not say, “I no longer know you” because they had done something sinful, but “I never knew you” because they never truly believed in Him.

It is shocking not because they had lost a relationship they formerly had, but because they had deceived themselves into thinking that they had a relationship with Jesus that they never had.

That is scary, not because it shows we might possibly lose or forfeit our salvation, but because we can do all kinds of religious, even supernatural things, and still be outside the kingdom.

It is only by embracing the righteousness offered through Jesus Christ that we are brought into a relationship in which we know God (and more importantly, He knows us).

Demas and Judas are examples of two men who had been involved in ministry, spent time under excellent biblical teaching (especially Judas), and acted (at least from a human perspective) as if they were Christians, but their apostasy in the end proved they were not.

One group in Hebrews 6 is definitely saved and the author is confident of that and wants them to persevere for the sake of their confidence.  Look at verse 11, “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness…”  Why?  Because they might fall away and no longer be saved?  No, but in order to “have the full assurance of hope until the end.”  Persevering gives us assurance.

They were secure in Christ and nothing could change that.  Our author will talk more about that in vv. 13-20, based on God’s faithfulness.  Notice how this hope is “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (6:19).

They were secure, but our authors wants them to be sure.

Eternal security is that objective reality that once united to Christ by faith, we have everything in Him.  Nothing can sever us from that union.

If you have genuinely embraced Jesus Christ as your Savior, turning away from your sin and transferring your trust so that you totally rely on Jesus Christ alone for your salvation, then you are secure in Christ.  You are dressed in His righteousness.  You are already glorified, according to Romans 8:30.  You can never be separated from His love (Romans 8:38-39) or come under condemnation (Romans 8:1).  Why?  Because you are “in Christ.”

That is your security.

Your assurance is the subjective feeling you have about that security.  Sometimes you feel more assured and sometimes less assured.  That’s normal.

Our assurance usually rises and falls based on the strength of our trust or our obedience.  Our security is based upon neither of those things, but rather the faithfulness of God.

Ideally, our assurance is built first upon the promises of God that He is faithful to His promises and powerful to keep us saved (1 Peter 1:5).  Also, it is built upon the testimony of God’s Spirit, allowing us to confidently address God as Father (Romans 8:17).

But what usually trips us up (and this is the third basis, not the first or second, of assurance) is our behavior.  There are times we know we are not acting like God’s children.  We know we have sinned.  And when we experience sin and doubts, we will not have full assurance as God desires.  But all we have to do is confess our sins, and Christ promises to forgive us (1 John 1:9).