Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 of instruction about washings, and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we shall do, if God permits.
Oak Tree or Cattail Christians
Two weeks ago I asked you if you wanted to be oak tree Christians or cattail Christians. Last week we saw (in 5:13) that there are baby Christians and mature Christians. What's plain from the book of Hebrews is that this writer wants us to press on to be oak tree Christians, mature Christians—not cattail baby Christians. Hebrews 6:1 says, "Let us press on to maturity." He even puts himself in the number: "Let us press on . . . " Not just, "You press on . . . " but, "You and me—let us press on to maturity." This is his life goal and this is his goal for them. He is writing and working for this goal.
And so it comes like a bucket of ice water in our faces when we read in verse 3, "This we shall do, if God permits." What?! If God permits! What is this if? Does it mean God possibly may not permit our pressing on to maturity? "Let us press on to maturity . . . And this we will do, if God permits." Last week we saw that they were dull in their hearing. So maybe this bombshell will wake them up. "I call you to grow and press on to maturity. And you will—if God permits."
I hope they woke up at these words—and trembled. I hope that these words grab you as well. I want us to get inside these words this morning. There is a vision of God here—a great, sovereign, all-governing God whom we need very much to see and believe and rest in.
First let's clarify what it is that he may permit or may not permit. Take the word "This" in verse 3: "This we shall do, if God permits." What is he referring to? He just said three things in verse 1.
- Leave the elementary teaching about the
- Press on to maturity.
- Don't lay foundations again.
Teaching the Basics and Laying a Foundation
Now there's a question we have to ask here. Something doesn't seem to fit. Look back at Hebrews 5:12, "Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God." The question is: how does this fit together with Hebrews 6:1 where it says, "Leave the elementary teachings and don't lay a foundation again." One seems to say you need to be taught the basics again (5:12), and the other seems to say you should not lay that foundation again (6:1). Well, does he or doesn't he want them to lay a foundation of basics again?
I think the answer is something like this: 5:12 says they need teaching about the basics; 6:1 says they should not lay the foundation of the basics again. So evidently there is a difference between the teaching that they need in 5:12 and the laying again of a foundation in 6:1. One they need and one they don't. What's the difference?
I think the teaching they need about the basics (5:12) is how to use these basics for Christ's sake to press on to maturity. But laying a foundation again, I think, implies that they are losing sight of the basics about Christ and are beginning to occupy themselves with Old Testament and Jewish truths that were used as the foundation for presenting and understanding Christ. And the writer doesn't want them to go that far back.
Let me explain. In this writer's mind, laying a foundation for the understanding of Christ is different from teaching about how to live in Christ on the basis of that foundation. The foundation he has in mind is described in 6:1d–2. The striking thing about this list is that it is not distinctively Christian. It is made up of foundational Old Testament and Jewish truths and practices that the readers probably built on when they were converted. The list has three pairs:
- pair one: "repentance from
dead works and of faith toward God" (v. 1d);
- pair two: "instruction
about washings, and laying on of hands";
- pair three: "the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment" (v. 2).
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.
That's what they should not do. But what, then, does 5:12 mean when it says that they do need "someone to teach [them] the elementary principles of the oracles of God"? How is that different from laying this foundation again—which they should not do? I think the answer is that the teaching they do need in 5:12 is how to use the basics about Christ to press on to maturity.
In other words, it's what we saw last week from 5:14—they need to learn how to take the milk—the basic truths of the gospel—and practice how to grow with them. The need is not to rebuild foundational facts, but to stand on them and live by them. They need to learn how you take basic gospel truth about Christ and use it to become discerning people about good and evil, so that they attain the holiness without which they will not see the Lord (12:14).
Their problem is not lack of foundational knowledge, but lack of fruitfulness in life. Look at 6:7–8. Here is a description of the problem in a word picture:
For ground [that refers to the readers] that drinks the rain which often falls upon it [that refers to the truth they have been hearing] and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; 8 but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.
Here's the issue: has the rain (that is, the milk of the Word) produced thorns and thistles, or has it produced useful vegetation? In other words have the readers learned how to use the Word of Christ (the milk) to become discerning between good and evil, or have they been preoccupied with verbal foundation repair and missed the practical point that Christianity is about the moral and spiritual transformation of life?
The writer is hopeful. Verse 9: "Beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you." They've been dull of hearing and careless in part. But it's not too late. There's hope. But he is not cavalier or absolutely sure what the outcome will be for them. He wants them to be diligent to have the full assurance of hope (6:11) and the faith and patience and holiness that inherits the promises (6:12; 12:14). But he does not say it's automatic. He urges them on.
Verse 1: "Let us press on to maturity!" And he adds the great qualifier in verse 3: "This we will do, if God permits."
If God Permits
Now let's focus on the implications of those few powerful words: "This we will do, if God permits." We will press on to maturity if God permits.
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."
Come to him this morning and put your faith his sovereign goodness and wisdom and power. It is the sweetest, safest resting place in the universe.