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“Go on to Maturity”

Hebrews 5:11-6:12
Bob DeGray
December 30, 2001

Key Sentence

We gain confidence in our salvation as we show evidence of maturity.


I. Food for Growing Maturity (5:11 - 6:3)
II. Evidence of Spiritual Life (6:4-8)
III. Things that Accompany Salvation (6:9-12)


        I recently watched two of my daughters having the same experience in science class that I had as a boy. Hannah and Ruth were given green bean seeds, which they planted in egg cartons and put in the sun to water and watch grow. Two things happened. First of all, some of the green beans just didn’t come up. They never germinated. They had the same soil, the same sun, the same water as all the others, but they never showed life, and certainly never grew to maturity. Second, the beans that did sprout grew tall and thin, but never strong, and soon they grew weak and died because they were planted in a little egg space that didn’t have room for food or roots. Like the plants in Jesus’ parable, they sprang up, then withered. Even under the best of conditions in our vegetable garden when I was growing up, some of the seeds we planted would not germinate, and others would be wimpy or withered. They never came to fruitful maturity.

        This week, as we return to Hebrews, we are studying a challenging passage that has to do with maturity. It’s challenging because it’s difficult to understand, but also because it calls each of us to look seriously at our growth as believers. Have we ever germinated? Are we growing to maturity? What is the evidence? These questions are addressed in Hebrews 5:11 to 6:12. And the outcome of these questions, I hope, will be that we gain confidence in our salvation as we show evidence of maturity.

I. Food for Growing Maturity (5:11 - 6:3)

        Let’s begin by looking at different kinds of food for spiritual growth. Hebrews 5:11 to 6:3 We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. 12In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. 6:1Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, 2instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3And God permitting, we will do so.

        When we last left our story, the writer of Hebrews had introduced the theme of Jesus as high priest, who intercedes before God for us, a high priest of the same kind as that mysterious Bible character Melchizedek. The author wants to tell us more about these things, and draw out the analogies, but instead he pauses to exhort his readers to maturity and spiritual growth. He knows, apparently firsthand, that some of them are weak bean plants. Some of them may never have germinated. Some of them are not growing as they ought to.

        The author of Hebrews wants his readers to have confidence in their faith, and diligence, so that they will grow to maturity. So he pulls no punches. “It’s hard to explain this stuff to you because you’re slow to learn. Like little babies, you can only drink milk. You can’t handle the solid food of mature teaching. You need to learn the elementary truths of God’s word over and over again.”

        A fairly obvious indicator that you’re not growing spiritually is if you are always revisiting the most elementary aspects of the Christian faith, and never digging deep into the word of God and it’s truths. I’m not saying we shouldn’t remember the elementary truths of the Christian faith. We do that when we celebrate Christmas every year, and Easter. We do it when we have communion every month. But if we never get beyond these things into the hard truths of Christian living, we never reach maturity. The hard truths and the mature teachings of the Christian life are not so much concerned with the intellectual difficulties of the Bible, though those can be hard. But the solid food that leads to maturity is the truth about how we should live and relate to one another, often easy to understand but very difficult to apply.

        Notice this in verse 13: “Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.” Most doctrinal issues, in this author’s view, are elementary issues you’re supposed to master as the foundation of the Christian life. It’s the moral issues, the righteousness issues that he sees as the challenges of growing maturity. Verse 14: “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” Mature discernment involves knowing right from wrong and doing right, and is achieved only by training. Actually, the Greek word is closer to our word ‘habit.’ The author wants his readers to get in the habit of doing what is right - to have it become a reflex. As Donald Guthrie says in his commentary: “Spiritual maturity comes neither from isolated events nor from a great spiritual burst. It comes from a steady application of spiritual discipline, training the mind in understanding and judgment.”

        So we need to examine ourselves, and see whether we are taking in food for spiritual maturity. Such food is found throughout the Scripture, and can be recognized because it helps us in right living. It helps us to live out in practice the commands of Jesus that we love God with all our heart and love our neighbors as ourselves.

        In 6:1 to 6:3 the author gives a brief list of the elementary doctrines we are supposed to build on but not stop at: “Let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ, the first things of the Christian faith and instead go on to maturity.” It’s interesting that the New American Standard has ‘press on to maturity’ because the Greek text has no emphasis on personal striving. It’s passive, and could be translated ‘let us be carried on to maturity.’ This suggests a strong element of yieldedness to God’s spirit, a recognition that the maturing process is not a matter of our own ingenuity.

        Nonetheless, this author also recognizes our responsibility. We cannot be ‘carried on to maturity’ if we cut ourselves off from all maturing influences, if our Christian life gets stuck in a cycle of the same few ideas and truths. We’re not to spend our whole Christian life laying a foundation, then taking it up and laying it again and again.

        The first two foundational truths listed by the author are ‘repentance from dead works’ and ‘faith in God.’ Dead works may mean sins of all kinds that lead to death, or it may mean works intended to earn favor with God, for example, external obedience to the law. These dead things are to be repented of, turned from, as a foundational part of our response to the Gospel. We are to recognize our need for the Savior and most foundationally of all, we are to put our faith in God. We are to trust in him and receive his free gift of righteousness. Repentance and faith are foundational.

        The next two are more difficult: “instruction about baptisms and the laying on of hands.” Some commentators have said that these things were initial activities of the Christian faith, and therefore part of these elementary teachings. But in that case it’s very unusual for baptisms to be plural. The early church didn’t practice repeated baptisms. Now I have known some people who got stuck in a cycle of ‘apparent repentance, profession of faith, baptism, sin, apparent repentance, profession of faith, and baptism again’ over and over. That might be the kind of thing the author is talking about. Certainly that kind of cycle does not lead to maturity.

        It’s also possible the reference is to leaving behind rituals of the Jewish faith. These were Hebrew believers, and some parts of Judaism at the time of Christ did have major rituals of cleansing and laying on hands which may have been attractive to immature believers. These things were to be left behind in favor of spiritual maturity.

        Even an endless focus on the foundational truths of resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment, the author says, can be a trap that keeps us from going on to maturity. I’m sure he wasn’t referring to the modern debates about the timing of the rapture or the nature of the tribulation - but it was probably something similar. I’ve known people who could debate you for hours about their chart of the end times, but were no more mature than babes when it came to Christian living. Many similar things can consume the intellectual energy of Christians to the point where they never mature. Do you want me to name a few? I will, if you trust me when I say that I think these things are good things. But they should not be the entire focus of a Christian life. For example: creationism. For example: politics. For example: home schooling. For example: family. These things do touch on foundational matters, but what’s supposed to be built on the foundation is a life of righteousness.
        We gain confidence in our salvation as we show evidence of maturity. Part of the evidence we look for is a desire for solid Biblical food that challenges us to righteousness rather than elementary milk endlessly repeated that leads to no growth at all.

II. Evidence of Spiritual Life (6:4-8)

        But on a much more fundamental level, we have to ask ourselves if anything within us is able to grow, or have we hardened ourselves against growth in righteousness? Hebrews 6:4-8 4It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, 6if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. 7Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. 8But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.

        These are the most difficult verses in this text. First, they’re unequivocal. ‘It’s impossible, if someone falls away, for them to come to repentance.’ Whether you believe in eternal security or not, whether you are a Calvinist or an Arminian, that word ‘impossible’ is a problem. If you believe someone can be a real believer and fall away from the faith, do you also believe that there is no hope of repentance for that person? It’s impossible for them to repent? Then why do you pray for them? But if someone can’t lose their salvation, is there some other sin they’re not allowed to repent of? Not really. The answer to this first problem, I believe, for Calvinists and Arminians both, is to recognize that the falling away spoken of here is equivalent to the hardening of hearts the author has mentioned frequently. The author is saying that it’s impossible, if you fully harden your heart for you to repent. That makes sense. Someone whose heart is fully hardened against the truth and against dealing with their sins won’t want to repent, which is the thing that makes it impossible.

        The second issue with these verses concerns who is being described. Let me distill down what I’ve read to three alternatives. First, these people are real believers and lost their salvation by hardening themselves toward what they believed, thus ‘to their shame crucifying the Son of God all over again.’ The second possibility is that these were people who had toyed with Christianity, had even been part of the church, but had never really come to personal faith. They had tasted, in the church, the goodness of the word of the God and even the power of the Spirit, but then they had totally and permanently rejected Christ. The third possibility is that these were real believers who kept their salvation, but were so hardened in sin that they could no longer come to repentance, never grew to maturity and lost all usefulness to Christ.

        All of these positions have merit, and sincere believers have held to each of them. For me the position that you can lose your salvation is hard because so many other passages seem to say that salvation is once and for all. Paul, for example, writes “I am confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus,” as well as “Those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified,” making even the future parts of the process past tense, because they are so certain.

        In the same way Peter writes “He has given us new birth . . . into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade--kept in heaven for you, 5who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation ready to be revealed.” And Jesus says “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. This is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life.”

        So understanding Hebrews 6 to mean that people can be redeemed, have new birth, be new creations, and then give it all back and become what they were, doesn’t strike me as in accord with Scripture or common sense. But the second interpretation also has problems. It seems odd for the writer to say that these non believers had “been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, and tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age.” That’s a lot to say about someone simply observing the church. It’s not impossible, but it is odd.

        The third interpretation - that these were believers who essentially refused to grow - is one you may not have heard before. M. R. DeHaan of Radio Bible Class defends this position. He points out that those who become Christians and then despise their faith are very much guilty of putting Jesus to public disgrace. They make a mockery of his name. Further, he points that it is repentance that becomes impossible for these hard-hearted people, not salvation. They are already saved but they’ve hardened themselves against the hard work of repenting from sin and growing in faith, and thus their salvation will be like someone escaping through the flames.

        So what do I think? I’m unwilling to chose between option two and option three. Sorry - I need to think about this some more before I can convince myself. But I’m not uncomfortable with that because I think this teaching is helpful no matter how we resolve the question. The call to examine ourselves and see if we are believers is urgent and so is the call to examine ourselves and see if we’re growing as believers. What I’d like is to encourage you to do the self-examination. Are you a seed that’s never germinated? Are you a seedling that’s never matured? You need to know.

        This agricultural metaphor is most clear in verses 7 and 8: “Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. 8But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.” The key difference between these two pieces of land is their fruit. Is it a good crop, useful to the farmer, or is it useless thorns and thistles? That’s the question we need to ask ourselves. Do I have fruit in my life? Am I producing results that are useful to the one who owns me? Or am I producing thorns and thistles with no useful purpose?

III. Things that Accompany Salvation (6:9-12)
        These questions have spiritual significance and immense practical value. You see we gain confidence in our salvation as we show evidence of maturity. Despite all that he has said, the writer of Hebrews has confidence in the salvation of his readers, because they show evidence of maturity. Verses 9 to 12: Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case--things that accompany salvation. 10God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. 11We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. 12We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.

        The writer has sternly warned his readers against turning away from Christ, because it is evidence either of no germination in the faith - no salvation, or at best of stunted growth that can lead to hardening. Now, however, he begins to encourage them, to tell of the confidence he himself has in them, a confidence he obviously wants these readers, whom he calls ‘beloved’, to share. The words ‘in your case’ imply that he expects all or at least most of his readers to have this confidence rather than the uncertainty that immaturity brings. Indeed, such confidence should be the norm, whether for those readers or for us. None of them was perfect, none of us is perfect, perfection is not the measure we are using. Our confidence should be based on a long term analysis of our relationship with Jesus and an objective evaluation of whether the things that accompany salvation are to be found in our lives.

        What are these things? The writer doesn’t make a complete list, but mentions several. Verse 10: “For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints.” Notice the components: first, God is just, and would not impose any kind of hardening on someone who did not evidence a desire for it. Someone who works and loves and ministers is not earning salvation, but these things do accompany salvation and the presence of these things are signs of God’s justice and grace.

        Notice also that work and love are tied together. If your life is filled with works but with no love for God and his people, that’s not very good evidence of salvation. In the same way if you say you love God and his people but that never expresses itself in serving them, that’s not good evidence either. It’s when you show love in action that you can be confident, because such love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit and cannot be easily faked. Notice too that such love-in-action is love shown to God, literally ‘toward His name.’ In loving others we love God and honor his name.

        Finally, notice in verse 10 that this love is both past and present. It’s not enough to be able to point to past times when you have ministered to or helped God’s people. You need to continue to be involved in the lives of others.

        I’m not saying that you have to teach Awana to be saved. I’m saying that through a variety of different ministries, in different stages of your life, and different circumstances God gives you, and using different gifts that His Holy Spirit provides, you should continually be in ministry. Every believer is a minister - the word means servant. Every believer is to be a servant of others. As we prepare to move to Friendswood I’m confident God wants to build us into an even stronger ministry team where every one of us is serving in a way that will allow us to be effective as a church .

        Verses 11 and 12 tie up this relationship between mature Christian living and confidence. “We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end in order to make your hope sure.” My paraphrase of the Greek would be “We desire for each one of you to show the same diligence so that you can be completely sure to the very end that you have what you’ve hoped for.” Mature behavior now - diligence in ministry - gives you the assurance of the salvation you’ve received.

        Two other things also give assurance of salvation - the promises of the word of God and the inner witness of the Holy Spirit - but this third one is critically important. We gain confidence in our salvation as we show evidence of maturity, diligence in right living. Verse 12: “We do not want you to become lazy.” The word lazy is ‘sluggish’ and it was used at the beginning of our text about their slowness to learn beyond elementary school. They were literally sluggish to hear. But he doesn’t want them to be sluggish - either in hearing or in living out the Word of God.

        I don’t want to be sluggish. I don’t want us as a church to be sluggish. I admit there is a balance between work and rest, but our culture would drive us toward indifference about the things of God and we need to counter that with diligence toward those things. We need to be, as the author says “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.” I can hardly wait to preach Hebrews 11 which is chock full of people who through this very same faith and this very same patience lived their lives looking forward to an inheritance fully expected but not presently realized. I’m sure those examples are in the author’s mind as he writes this sentence. But he also expects his readers to look around and imitate the people around them who are living with faith and patience - and we ought to do the same.

        There are people around you in this church about whom you have no question of their salvation. Why? Because you’ve seen it lived out in their lives. You’ve seen their faith in times of difficulty. You’ve seen their patience in suffering. You’ve seen their diligence to do the work of the Lord. You’ve seen their love of God expressed by love-in-action toward others. You are confident of their salvation - maybe more confident than they are - because they are usually humble too. But you know who they are. Those are the people you are to imitate.

                Boy I’d like to close with an example or six from our own congregation. But that would embarrass a bunch of people who don’t want to be held up as examples. So I’ll close by reminding you of a couple of people who aren’t embarrassed anymore - because they’re with the Lord. David Casselberry, for example. At his memorial service, and in the conversations surrounding it, we heard testimony after testimony of his faith, his patience, his diligence in spiritual things, his care for the church and his outreach. It was a testimony of spiritual maturity - and we have no doubt of his salvation. Anyone’s salvation is made sure by such evidence.

        Paul Christiansen, for another example. I’m confident that he has inherited what was promised, he’s with the Lord in glory. Why? Because I saw the evidence in his life. He wanted to know Scripture not as some intellectual hobby horse, but so that his life would reflect the truths he was learning. I have an outline of a sermon he began but never finished after his heart by-pass, and that is exactly what he was saying. Further, I saw constant evidence for many years of love-in-action: love for God expressed in action toward others. These are the things that accompany salvation. And as we imitate the Paul Christiansens and David Casselberrys in their faith, their patience, their love and their diligence, we too will show the evidence of maturity that allows even our own souls to gain confidence in our salvation.