If I’m looking at the schedule right, this episode launches on the evening of Thanksgiving, so Happy Thanksgiving evening! I hope your day was full of great fellowship and good food. Now we can push through the tryptophan haze together, and we can do it while talking about the solid meat of sound doctrine. It’s a question that comes to us from Derek. “Hello, Pastor John, thank you for the podcast and for answering very hard Bible questions. Here’s mine. Is there an ideal mark of doctrinal maturity to reach in the Christian life, that once a person has gotten settled on the basics of Christ’s life and work, his death and resurrection, and the future of his return, then moves on from these foundational doctrines — leaving them behind, so to speak — and not returning to them and rethinking them over and over through the years? In other words, how do you interpret Hebrews 6:1–3?”
Well, it is certainly right that we should not be constantly going back to the basics of our faith as if to dig up the roots to see if they’re still alive. That’s a good way to kill a plant. You don’t constantly disassemble the foundation of your house to see if it’s firm. That is a good way to bring the whole house down on your head. That’s the first thing to say.
The second thing to say is no. There is no ideal mark of doctrinal maturity in the Christian life. The Bible does not speak in terms of an ideal level of doctrinal or moral or spiritual maturity having been reached. It speaks of minimal standards needing to be attained and then a lifelong constant pursuit of growth.
The Bare Minimum
Ephesians 4 describes a kind of minimum knowledge and maturity (a growing up) so that the saints aren’t blown around like leaves or like children being knocked off balance by every wind of doctrine that comes along. Second Peter 3:18 says, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” The Bible doesn’t talk in terms of an ideal level to be attained. It constantly presses us onward and upward into more and more discoveries of God’s unsearchable riches.
“The Bible constantly presses us onward and upward into more and more discoveries of God’s unsearchable riches.”
But I want to suggest to Derek a significantly different way of understanding Hebrews 6:1–3 than I sense he has. He’s assuming that what the author tells us to leave behind is gospel basics. I don’t think that’s what the writer is referring to in verse 2. Let me read it and then try to show Derek and everybody else what I mean.
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, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. (Hebrews 6:1–3)
Something is being left behind. That’s clear. Literally, verse 1 says that we should leave behind the beginning of the doctrine of the word of Christ. He explains what he means in the words “not laying again a foundation.” But what does it mean not to lay again a foundation?
Conflict in Hebrews
Here’s what I saw that shapes the way I understand this. A couple of verses earlier, in chapter 5:12, he says, “Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God.” As so often happens just before discovery, I’m scratching my head saying, “Well, Mr. Hebrews writer, which is it?”
Chapter 6:1 says, “Not to lay again a foundation, we are to leave the elementary (or beginning things) of the doctrine of Christ,” and then chapter 5:12 says, “We need to be taught again the elementary things.” Which is it? Should we leave them behind, or should we be taught them again? Whenever I run into situations like that in the Bible — which I do regularly — I give the inspired author the benefit of the doubt. The issue is Piper’s brain here, not the author.
I’m assuming he’s not contradicting himself but knows exactly what he’s saying. He means what he’s saying, and therefore, he knows what needs to be left behind (Hebrews 6:1), and what needs to be rebuilt and taught again (Hebrews 5:12). They are two different things. So what are they? What’s the difference?
Here’s my take on Hebrews 6:1–2 that I think brings resolution to this apparent conflict — the conflict of what needs to be rebuilt and what needs to be moved beyond. I think the three pairs of doctrines in these two verses are foundational Old Testament Jewish truths and practices that these Jewish Christians stood on as they embraced Christ.
These were basic — not to the essence of the gospel, but they were preliminary Old Testament truths. Here they are. Listen to them. Pair number one: repentance from dead works and faith toward God. Number two: instruction about washings and laying on of hands. Number three: resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. All of these are common Old Testament beliefs or practices among the Jews.
“There is no ideal mark of doctrinal maturity in the Christian life. The Bible does not speak in those terms.”
When these readers were evangelized and converted, these things (it seems to me) had been foundational as a way of helping them understand the work of Christ. But these are not the essence of Christ or of the gospel. They are kind of a beginning, a place they started. Christ is the goal and fulfillment of these things. They’re not the essence of the gospel.
So when I read verse 1 that they should leave the word of the beginning of Christ, what I think it refers to is that they should stop circling back and occupying themselves so much with these pre-Christian foundational preparations of Christ that they neglect the glory of the gospel and how to use it to grow into maturity and holiness, which is what Hebrews 5:12–14 is all about.
Chapter 5:12 is calling, saying, “You need to learn to take the basics of the gospel,” not those preliminary Jewish teachings. He’s saying, “Take the basics of the gospel and grow by them in moral and spiritual discernment.” To quote it exactly, “You need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food.” Here’s the gist. The gist of the passage is stop reworking the basic, preliminary, Old Testament foundational realities of Hebrews 6:1–2, but stand on them and press on into the realities of the gospel in such a way that you become mature, discerning Christians who can grow in the solid food of the whole counsel of God.
As Hebrews 5:14 says, “Solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” That’s what they need to be about. They need to start using the basic gospel truths in that practical way to grow in discernment and become mature and be able to eat meat.