“This We Will Do, if God Permits”

Context: The writer interrupted an exposition about Christ as a priest like Melchisedec to point to the difficulties of this task. He delineated four problems with their readiness for this discussion: First, they were dull of hearing.  They did not have ears to hear this kind of intense Christological doctrine for a readiness must be in the mind and heart through having understood principial ideas of divine revelation. As summarized in 5:14, they did not have their “powers of discernment” trained to distinguish the good from the evil in this doctrinal challenge. Second, they needed, therefore, a teacher in the Basic principles of the oracles of God—that is, knowledge of how the Old Testament revelation was preparatory for an advancement and maturity in revealed truth. Principles had been established upon which a full knowledge of God and relationship with God could be built, but they seemingly had concluded that the elementary lessons were actually final. Their satisfaction with that level of divine favor had stultified their capacity for the reception for more and they could not take solid food. Third, they were unskilled in the word of righteousness. This immaturity and lack of perception about righteousness caused them to give an absolute status to ceremonial commandments that were weak and useless in this matter (7:18), and the fullness of revelation and redemption in Christ hung loosely in their conscience. In this matter, they were like children. Being a child means settling in a state of partial knowledge, not expecting or embracing a mature state of things. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:11 pointed to his own doctrinal arrest prior to conversion as a state of childhood (“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought as a child, I reasoned like a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things.”). He grasped neither the nature of the law that he thought he knew, the character of the sacrificial system which he thought he observed, or the perfection with which Christ fulfilled the messianic prophecies which he thought marked Christ as a blasphemer and Christians as death-deserving heretics. In this passage he relates the Corinthian fascination with tongues and other temporarily-given supernatural gifts as a satisfaction with childhood. They did not discern the temporary nature of this interim gift, and thus could not see the superior character of the abiding spiritual operation of love. IT would be like a child learning to sing the ABC song and concluding that such was the purpose of letters, to learn to recite them through a song. Not progressing through an understanding of their merely symbolic value for forming words, which communicated thought, which had the power of the development of personality, values, and the knowledge of God is a condition of immaturity, childishness and stultification of the powers of discernment. The Corinthians apparently were in danger of living in a state of contentment with partial understanding, not having the complete truth which would come in one way with the completion of the written word of the Scripture, and in another way with the fullness of the knowledge of God when face-to-face knowledge comes and we know even as we are known. The recipients of this letter were possibly in the condition of having absolutized the partial and thus cutting themselves off from the fulfillment in Christ.

I. Hebrews 6:1, 2 – This is a call for a display of genuine faith in Christ and his work.

A. They must first move beyond their Old Covenant grasp of messianic perceptions (“Let us leave the elementary [the beginnings] of the word about Christ [the prophesied Messiah} and go on to maturity [a perfected understanding of those elemental teachings].”)

B. They must move beyond the foundation that has already been laid of issues in the Old Covenant and grasp their fulfillment in the New. (“Not Laying again the foundation.”) The pressure of their environment to conform to the Jewish rituals and the Jewish practices was great from a familial, social, and economic standpoint. The writer is saying that now, those that profess to know that Jesus is Messiah must go beyond those foundational elements to embrace fully and with the whole heart their fulfillment on Christ.

1. Repentance from dead works – The prophets prepared the way for the true meaning of repentance in many places. Look for example at David in Psalm 51:16, 17. See the call of the prophets in Micah 6:6-8; Amos 4:6-11; Joel 2:12, 13; Isaiah 66:2

2. Faith in God – Faith in God as a covenant keeping God highlights the narrative of the Old Testament. Abraham’s belief of God’s covenant (Genesis 15:6) becomes the model of true religion. That it is co-extensive with New Testament faith is seen clearly in the argument in this book in chapter 11 and in Paul’s extended defense of the doctrine of justification by faith in Galatians [see chapter 3 summarized in verse 7] and Romans [see chapter 4 summarized in verse 22-25]. A supposed “faith in God” that does not terminate in faith in the triune God as manifest in the covenant faithfulness of Christ is not a faith in God at all.

3. Instruction about washings – Various washings and immersions [Leviticus 15:5, 10, 13, 16, 21; 16:3, 24; Mark 7:4] all were to symbolize the necessity of the purifying work of the blood of Christ and the operation of the Holy Spirit. David sees the washings as pointing toward spiritual cleansing, again Psalm 51 verses 1, 2. It is applied this way in Titus 3:5 of the work of the Spirit and in Ephesians 5:25, 26 showing that the entire cleansing by the word and the Spirit receives its efficacy through the death of Christ. To maintain, therefore, the mere ceremony and ritual of washing while relinquishing it fulfillment is to be dull of hearing and miss the meaning of the “principles of the oracles of God.

4. The laying on of hands – This does not refer to the apostolic phenomenon in Acts 8:17-19 or of the church’s practice of setting aside a minister of the gospel (1 Timothy 5:22) but of the sacrifices for sin (Leviticus 4:29,33; 8:14, 18; 16:21) This action implied the imputation of the guilt and sin to the sacrificial animal which signifies the imputation of our sin to Christ (Romans 5:19; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24) If the laying on of hands has been fulfilled by the laying of our sins on Christ, why return to the type in preference to the antitype, that is, its fulfillment?

5 Resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment –  Both of these doctrines were taught in the Old Testament (e.g. Job 19:23-29; Psalm 23:6; Daniel 12:1,3; Isaiah 66:15-24) Their meaning and the power and glory of both as they relate to Jesus and his victory over death are greatly expanded by Christ’s covenantal faithfulness. (1 Corinthians 15:50-58; Revelation 20:11-15; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18; 5:23).

II. – Verse 3 – “And this we will do if God permits.”

A. The writer sets forth the goal, in which he has been engaged since the first verse, of strengthening his readers in the faith by leading them to maturity, if they indeed are true Christians. As he indicated in 4:11-13, it is the instruction in the truth of Scripture that clarifies one’s faith, gives assurance and tenacity in the knowledge of Christ as the one in whom all the glory of God is seen and all the blessings of the new covenant are contained.

B. – “If God permits.” This phrase, sometimes passed over too quickly, really holds the key to understanding verse 4-6. Is there really a case in which God will not permit such knowledge to be attained? Under what possible condition would God cut short any success in the earnest instruction of professed believers to increase in their knowledge of Christ.? The next verses give a description of the case.

III. – verses 4-6 As if to emphasize that the success of the teacher of these things fully depends on the purpose and will of God and the condescension of his grace, he explains the situation in which God would not permit this.

A. The writer begins with one word that fully accepts the reality that no success might be the already-consummated purpose of God . “Impossible” followed with the explanatory particle, “for.” “I say, ‘if God permit’ for there is a case in which his permission is impossible.

B. The thing that is impossible is not mentioned until all the conditions for this status are explained. So, in the middle of verse 6 the words “again to be renewed unto repentance” finish the thought. If a person has been brought to a change of mind—an intellectual alteration of viewpoint due to manifestations of power, the observation of changed lives, the personal experience of effective proclamation, based on the evidence before him of Christ’s messiahship and the necessity of it—and then forsakes the distinctive implications of that change of mind, this word says it is impossible to renew him again to such a change of mind as would persevere through all trial in fierce loyalty to Christ and the gospel. He has undeniable evidence presented to him and after serious consideration of it he turns back. Their case is like that of those in 2 Peter 2:21, “For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from holy commandments delivered to them.” To know the way of righteousness mean that the system of truth has been experienced from the standpoint of personal consideration, the mind has been convinced and external union with the believing people has occurred but the affections remained with the world, and the threat of the loss of worldly position has demonstrted the corruption and deceitfulness of an unbelieving heart. As John wrote, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 John 2:19). John goes on to say in the light of his extended argument, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.” (5:16, 17)

C. What are the elements of the experience of those that “cannot be renewed again to repentance?”

1. Have once [for all, with complete clarity of knowledge} been enlightened. Gills remarks about this: “who are so enlightened as to see the evil effects of sin, but not the evil that is in sin; to see the good things which come by Christ, but not the goodness that is in Christ; so as to reform externally, but not to be sanctified internally; to have knowledge of the Gospel doctrinally, but not experimentally; yea, to have such light into it, as to be able to preach it to others, and yet be destitute of the grace of God.”

2. “Have tasted the heavenly gift” – The heavenly gift is Christ. In his lifetime there were many that tasted the goodness of Christ by observing his compassion, his power, and teaching and were attracted to him but could not finally prefer him above all things. The rich young ruler, many that ate the bread and fish, and many who shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Liberal Christianity could see that Christ was central to our knowledge of God and that we should aspire to his example of godliness and trust in the Father, but they did not accept his true deity, his substitutionary atonement, or his bodily resurrection. They tasted the heavenly gift but could embrace the offense of the cross.

3. “Shared in the Holy Spirit.” This does not refer to regeneration or the sanctifying presence of the Spirit, but the manifestation of his gifts of power such as tongues, prophecy, healing, casting out demons. Judas was given the gift of preaching and of casting out demons and truly shared in the Spirit in this way, but did not embrace the gospel in saving faith. The Pharisees and scribes were made partakers of the Holy Spirit in seeing with irrefutable evidence his power in the life of Jesus. [Mark 3:22-30] They went against all the evidence in attributing this power to demons. Jesus warned them against committing this same sin that the writer of Hebrews is addressing here.

4. “And have tasted the goodness of the word of God” – Some people find the Bible endearing for a variety of reasons that come short of a love of it and a taste of its transforming goodness. Herod had the scribes consult it for information concerning the place of Christ’s birth, but not to worship him, as he professed, but to kill him. The Scribes and Pharisees seemed to love the Scripture for its order and its intellectual stimulation and the advantage it gave them for a superior place of authority in regulating the conduct of the fellow Jews. They profess their belief in its inspiration, (“We know that God has spoken to Moses”), while they are blind to the work of Christ as the fulfillment of Moses (“but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from”). John 9:29. Jesus knew that they had a strong religious and intellectual commitment to the Scripture but no heart for its true spirituality “There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John5:45,  46.) They had a natural affection for the Scripture and were pleased with many of the promises made as stony-ground hearers receive the word with much joy, but show soon, or eventually, that they have no root.

5. “The powers of the age to come” – The promises of eternal life, resurrection of the body in a glorified state, freedom from sickness, fellowship with loved ones for ever, having eternal protection from God, and many other wonderful promises that seem to resonate with the deepest desire of the human soul show the biblical view of the eternal state to be a compelling attraction. But an eternity of praising the triune God for his holiness, and living in the splendid beauty of his holiness and his goodness, forever praising Jesus as the Lamb of God and living in eternal recognition of his infinite excellence as manifest in the forgiveness of our sins do not capture the carnal heart with that enduring faith that is willing to “be mistreated with the people of God . . and consider the reproach of Christ” in this life as superior to the “fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25, 26).

6. Having all these advantages and impressions present in one’s experience and yet still fall away shows that they take the view of Christ of those that called for his crucifixion and they hold him up to contempt. Their intimate knowledge and experience of the truth of Christ’s person and work combined with their lingering preference of the old system over its fulfillment shows that they condemn themselves (“to their own harm”), call for Christ’s blood to be on their own head. If a person has come to that state in the light of these advantages, God will leave them to themselves and, in doing so, not permit their recovery.

IV. An Illustration verses 7, 8 –

A. The land in both cases received rain and was cultivated. The external advantages were the same, but in the latter case the land itself, from the presence of indwelling seeds and roots, used the rain and the cultivation of the soil to loose the energy of its corrupt crop, and is fit for nothing but to be burned.

B. The warning should prompt the readers to keep constant vigilance over their mind and heart, realizing that the heart is desperately wicked and deceitful. Perhaps we see more candidly now why the writer earlier said, “Take care, brother, lest there be in any of you and evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. (3:12) Also we should take seriously the reminder from last week’s text, “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (4:11).

C. A final note of encouragement. The writer is convinced that in their case, in light of the evidence so far, God will permit their advancement to maturity, for they have shown a willingness to suffer for the truth of Christ, and his desire is that they attain the full assurance of hope until the end.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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