God does not want you to remain stagnant in your Christian life. Rather, we are to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). We are by “speaking the truth in love” to “grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ” (Eph. 4:15). There ought to be progress in the spiritual life of the believer, and when there is not, it ought to cause us to examine ourselves. In fact, the apostle Peter says that we are to be constantly adding to ourselves the Christian virtues of faith and virtue and knowledge and temperance and patience and godliness and brotherly kindness and love, “For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure, for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall” (2 Pet. 1:8-10).
Note what he says. If we aren’t adding and growing and abounding, we will be blind, lacking spiritual discernment. Does that sound familiar? It’s exactly how we are warned in Heb. 5:12-14. Moreover, Peter goes on to say that by doing these things “ye shall never fall;” that is, will not stumble and fall into sin. It is not by maintaining our ground but by gaining ground that we are most likely to be preserved from falling into sin. I don’t know how many battles have been lost because an army did not press forward early on to gain the high ground, leaving it to the enemy. Spiritual growth is a sign of spiritual health; those who are not growing are more vulnerable to the assaults of the devil. It was when King David stayed home from the battle that he sinned his great sin. My friends, let us not stay where we are but go forward into battle, armed with the whole armor of God. Let us grow, let us go onto spiritual maturity.
The point is that this is necessary for our spiritual health and safety. Spiritual immaturity is not okay; it is dangerous. Those who are not spiritually mature will be unskillful in the word of righteousness (5:13) and will therefore be unable to “discern both good and evil” (14). They will make unwise and sinful choices. They will be like “children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Eph. 4:14). On the contrary, we need to “come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
This is why the author of Hebrews is pressing this to his readers: “Therefore, leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection” (Heb. 6:1). Why? The “therefore” at the beginning of the sentence points us back to 5:11-14, where he is confronting them over their dullness of hearing and their apparent immaturity in the faith, a result, as we saw, of not applying God’s word diligently to their lives. If they don’t go on to perfection (here, “perfection” is a reference, not to sinless perfection, but to spiritual maturity), they will remain immature and exposed to the danger of falling away from the faith.
Immaturity, in other words, is not just the failure to be a better Christian. It is not just a spiritual state that lacks the discipline and courage and joy and holiness of the more mature believer. It is, rather, a state in which we are vulnerable and exposed to sin and Satan, and as a result in danger of falling away from the faith. We know this is the danger in consideration here because this is exactly what the author will go on in the next verses (6:4-8) to warn them about.
There is such a thing as a “simple faith” that is good. For example, we sing the hymn, “O how sweet to trust in Jesus:”
I like that hymn, and I love the sentiment expressed there. “Simple faith” there is good because it is a reference to the fact that we are trusting solely in Jesus, not in anything else. It means that the eye of faith is simple in the sense that it is entirely aimed at the person and work of Christ.
But there is a kind of simple faith that is not good. If our faith is simple in the sense that we have never gone forward from “the principles of the doctrine of Christ,” then we are living in disobedience to God’s intention for us as his people. If our understanding and experience of the faith and of the God of the Bible is the same as it was 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, then something is wrong. This is not good; it is exactly what we are being warned against in this text.
What are we being exhorted to advance from? Well, we see it in verses 1 and 2: “not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.” This is what is meant by “the principles of the doctrine of Christ,” or, as another translation puts it, “the elementary doctrine of Christ” (ESV). In other words, we are not to stay in elementary school, we are to go on to more advanced learning and experience. But what is he referring to exactly?
Well, when he says, “repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,” we are reminded of their conversion to Christ. When Paul preached the gospel, and urged men and women to be converted to Christ, he tells us that he testified “both to the Jews and to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Now it is true that faith here is not explicitly said to be in Christ, but you cannot trust in God apart from Christ. And, after all, these are the elementary principles of the doctrine of Christ, so faith in such a context implies trust in Jesus Christ.
Second, when he says, “the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands,” we are reminded of their public initiation into the faith through the symbolic acts of baptism and the laying on of hands. Now this term “baptisms” has provoked much consternation in the commentaries because the term here is not the normal word used in the NT for baptism, and also because it is used in the plural. However, remember that this is a letter written to Jews, who were used to many different kinds of ritual cleansing rites (see Heb. 9:10, where the same word is translated “washings” referring to cleansing rites in the law of Moses), so when they were taught about Christian baptism, they would have had to be taught about the difference between Christian baptism and these other types of ritual cleansings (which explains both the plural and the more general term used). You actually see this happening in Acts 19, when the apostle Paul has to teach some Jewish disciples the difference between John’s baptism and baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 19:1-7). Incidentally, you also see Paul laying hands upon these disciples (Acts 19:6) after baptizing them in the name of the Lord Jesus.
The third element to the elementary principles of the doctrine of Christ is the “resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.” In this we are reminded of their fundamental change, not only of life but of perspective and purpose. Paul says that apart from the resurrection from the dead, our faith is vain (1 Cor. 15:12-20), so certainly instruction in this would be part of any elementary teaching. We not only turn from a godless past, but we also turn to live in hope of a certain future. The description of the conversion of the Thessalonian Christians is a perfect illustration of the first and third couplets in our text: “ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:9-10).
But the point here is that every one of these things refers to beliefs and actions that we take at the very beginning of the Christian life. But we are not meant to stay where we began! Now of course, “leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ” does not mean to leave them behind. These are foundational truths (ver. 1), and you don’t leave the foundation behind but build upon it the superstructure of the Christian life. It simply means that we don’t stay baby Christians, but that we grow and mature in the faith.
Very well, that is the purpose of this text. But it leaves us with the following question: how do we grow in maturity? How do we grow in the faith? That is what we want to consider next.
There is something for you to do.
We know there is something for us to do because the text is a call for us to go forward, to leave behind a state of spiritual immaturity. And in verse 3, which we will consider in more detail in a moment, we read, “And this we will do.” There is something for us to do.
What? For one thing, we need to know what we are aiming for. What does it mean to be spiritually mature? Primarily, it means that we are becoming Christlike in our character. This is the goal of God’s saving purpose, according to Romans 8:29: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” Certainly, any definition of spiritual maturity has to take this as its main goal, since it is God’s goal in our salvation. Also, we have already looked at Paul’s words in Ephesians 4, where he says that the aim of the ministry is to build up believers “unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” Christ, not culture, is the standard by which we are to grow. This is the reason why the apostle Peter says that we are to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18), for it only as we come to know Christ more fully that we will become more like him. And how do we come to know Christ more fully? By his word, for it is in his word, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, that he both speaks to us and reveals himself to us.
Second, maturity means pursuing all, not some, of the virtues that make us Christlike. Thus we are told to put on the “whole armor of God,” not just one or two pieces (Eph. 6:11, 13). It means manifesting all the fruits of the Spirit in our lives: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal. 5:22-23). And this means that we hold the virtues in harmony and balance (the word “perfection” carries the idea of perfect harmony), so that we hold them in the right proportions. It is great to be courageous, but if it is not tempered with longsuffering and gentleness, you are probably going to be more of a curse than a blessing to the church. Another way to put this is that our holiness should be attractive, as Paul puts it to the servants in Titus 2: “that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things” (10). In Psalm 96:9 we are told to worship the Lord in the “beauty of holiness.” Holiness is beautiful and attractive; so should we be in our character.
Third, it means more of what we already have. We are not to be content with where we are at, but to aim at more consistency in the practice of the virtues, practicing them more often and more fully. As the apostle Paul put it to the Thessalonians, “But as touching brotherly love, ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another. And indeed ye do it toward all the brethren which are in Macedonia: but we beseech you, brethren, that ye increase more and more” (1 Thess. 4:9-10).
Further, it means that the practice of the Christian virtues becomes more and more natural to us, so that we are not “unskillful” (5:13) in applying the word of righteousness to our lives. Not that we need to put in less effort, but that the practice of piety becomes more and more the first thing we do rather than something that we only become aware of later. Let me give you an example. Suppose you encounter a difficult person; it is an easy thing to become angry. Of course, as a Christian, we are to put that away. But the reality is that it is not natural to respond with gentleness and kindness – and yet what we are saying is that as we grow in grace, it should become more and more natural for us to respond that way, especially since our nature has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit. In other words, what is natural for us should be determined by a changed nature, a nature that is being renewed after the image of God (Eph. 4:24).
Now we achieve this by the means of the word of God, as we pointed out last time. These Hebrew Christians were not mature because they were not applying God’s word to their lives. Hence the emphasis in this letter on the word of God. It is that by which the “man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:17). But we have to be intentional about it.
We depend ultimately upon God for success.
However, what we do is not the whole story. I don’t think it’s a mistake that the Beatitudes, another great catalog of Christian virtues, begins with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3). Why do you think that is? The ancient philosophers put courage as the greatest of all virtues, but our Lord puts poverty in spirit! How countercultural! He is saying that the first and primary virtue is that we recognize our inability to make ourselves good. This seems to be not only countercultural but counterproductive. Why tell people who are being called to be different from the world that they can do nothing in themselves?
The reason is because ultimately it is not us but God who is the reason for any good that is in us. Grace is at the heart of sanctification. Christian character is very different for that reason from what the world calls us to do. The world begins with man and what he can do. But the Scriptures begin with God and what he can do, because we are sinners and therefore incapable in ourselves to do anything good.
There are two things standing in our way. One thing that stands in our way is the fact that we are not just sinners because we sin, but that we sin because we are sinners. In other words, as the apostle Paul put it to the Ephesians, we are dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1). We are incapable in ourselves to take one step toward God because we are so in love with our own self-sovereignty. We are in our hearts rebels towards God. Or as Paul put it to the Romans, “the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7-8). Being “in the flesh” is not something you have to become – it is what we are all by nature. By nature we are children of wrath (Eph. 2:3). We cannot please God and we cannot keep God’s law – not that we can’t ever do anything good before we are born again; what the apostle is saying is that at the bedrock of our nature is a heart of rebellion against God and all that we do, even the so- called good things, are done from a heart of self-will and self-pleasing. And that is not acceptable to God. Even the sacrifices of the wicked are an abomination to the Lord (Prov. 15:8; 21:27).
The other thing that stands in our way is the guilt of our sin. Because God is holy, he will not always pass over our sin. He must punish it. And since we are all sinners, we are all therefore exposed to the just and holy wrath of God. No amount of good works can undo this; our sin must be punished. The problem is even worse than this might seem to suggest, however; for not only are we all exposed to God’s judgment, but the reality is that none of us can pay the penalty our sins deserve. There is just no such thing as doing more good works than you are supposed to do. In fact, our Lord put it this way to his disciples: “when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded of you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do” (Lk. 17:10).
What then can we do? Well, it is what the author of Hebrews is pointing us to. He is pointing us to Jesus Christ as God’s high priest, the one who mediates before God for us, and the only one who can bring a sacrifice that will purge our sins. He is therefore the only way to God. He alone is the author of eternal salvation (Heb. 5:9). He is the way and the truth and the life; we only come to the Father through faith in him, not trusting in our merits but in the merits of the Son of God, Jesus Christ (Jn. 14:6).
The life of virtue, according to the Scriptures, does not therefore begin with human will-power or human effort. It begins with realizing our own sinfulness, our poverty of spirit, and coming to God relying on his grace and mercy bestowed, not on those who are worthy, but on those who are united by faith to Christ and his worthiness. Our ability to please God does not come from within ourselves, but comes to us as a gift of grace to those who are justified by the righteousness of God in Christ.
And this is all according to God’s sovereign grace. I know that this is very unpalatable for self-centered man, but it is what the Bible tells us. This is why the author of Hebrews, after calling on them to go on to maturity, says, “And this will we do, if God permits” (Heb. 6:3). We will pursue holiness and virtue if God permits; we will go on to perfection if God permits. In other words, it is God who is ultimately and decisively the reason why anyone can go onto perfection. By the way, it’s interesting that actually the literal rendering of verse 1 is “let us be carried onto perfection,” for the verb there is passive, not active. Even our own effort is in dependence upon God. It’s not as if we do some and God does some, but that our success in any spiritual endeavor depends upon God’s grace in and through all our actions and efforts. God is working and we are working in one and the same event.
Now it’s very important that we don’t take this to mean that God keeps people from pursuing holiness! This is not what is meant, “if God permits.” It’s not as if we are to imagine someone trying to do what is right and God keeping them from it. The reality rather is that we all by nature are pursuing what pleases us, not what pleases God. We are all idolators by nature; our hearts are idol- factories, as Calvin put it. And God did not and does not have to save anyone. We are all justly condemned. As the hymn puts it, “If my soul were sent to hell, thy righteous law approves it well.” What the phrase, “if God permits” means, then, is that it is owing fundamentally to the sovereign initiative of God, an initiative grounded solely in free grace and mercy, that is the reason why anyone can be converted and then go on to spiritual maturity.
How we put these two things together.
And that means that as we go forward, as we seek to advance in the holiness, we do so trusting in the mercy and grace of God. We do so like Paul, who wrote, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the live I now live in the flesh I live by faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). My friends, this is the best of news, for if you are honest with yourself, you will realize just how truly poor in spirit you are. But if what we are saying is true – and the Bible says that it is – then that means that we are not at the mercy of our own resources. Instead, we have the resources of God’s infinite grace that strengthens us to grow to spiritual maturity. It’s why the apostle wanted believers to know “what is the exceeding greatness of his power to usward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:19-20). Why is it important to know that? So that we never think we will ever be put in a situation where we cannot go forward in obedience to God. “There hath no temptation taken you, but such as is common to man, but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way of escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
My friend, where are you this day? Have you yet to repent of your sins and turn to God through faith in Christ? Turn to him this day, for there is no way forward except by beginning right here. “For other foundation can no man lay that that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). On the other hand, has this foundation been laid in your life? Well, then, what are you building upon it? How advanced are you? Have you been a Christian these many years and yet there is little more than a bare slab as evidence for it? If that is true, then according to this text, you are vulnerable. You need to go on to maturity. Don’t stay where you are, but grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is one of the reasons for the church. It’s why the ministry exists, but it’s also why each of you have been given spiritual gifts – not just for your benefit but for the benefit of others. So let’s not be satisfied with “mere Christianity” but go onto perfection, trusting in God’s help and grace as we do so. May God make it so.