A critical discussion of a much misunderstood and misapplied Biblical text, viewed in the light of its general context. A reminder of the fact that most errors of interpretation of Holy Writ spring from a failure to take into consideration the connection in which a text is used.

Going On to Perfection

“Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on to perfection; 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. And this we will do, if God permit.” —Hebrews 6:1-3

THIS ADMONITION OF the apostle to go on to perfection, like many other passages in the Bible, has been greatly misunderstood and oftentimes misused. Such misinterpretation is due largely to the very same thing that leads many sincere students of the Word to misconstrue other passages—namely, a failure to take into consideration the context. The great doctrinal and practical truths of the Bible usually are set forth in a narrative of logical order or sequence, rather than appearing as a collection of unrelated verses.

If we fail to take this fact into consideration we are almost certain to form wrong conclusions as to the meaning of isolated texts, not read in connection with the divine revelation. This is particularly true with respect to the passage now under consideration.

It would seem that the sponsors of nearly every false or speculative theory that has ever been set forth as ‘deep spiritual truth’, has used this passage as their excuse for setting aside the plain Gospel of Christ as something relatively unimportant compared to their ‘deep’ philosophies; thus arrogantly implying that this is what the apostle meant by “going on to perfection.” And the strange part of it is, that the many philosophic roads which it is claimed lead to ‘perfection’, all lead in different directions

When we really discern what it is the apostle is talking about in this passage, we will find that he is emphasizing the importance of being established in the faith, rather than encouraging us to restlessly seek after new theories or new experiences; and that the ‘perfection’ to which he refers is that desirable quality of Christian character which enables one to resist the baneful influences of the devil, the world, and even his own flesh—which unsettle his mind and put him in an attitude in which he is easily “blown about by every wind of doctrine.”

In fact, much of the epistle to the Hebrews—which is addressed either to a certain congregation in the Early Church composed of Hebrew converts, or else was intended for all those Early Christians who were Hebrews according to the flesh—is devoted to a discussion of the importance of their being anchored securely to the hope set before us in the Gospel—that is, holding fast to the foundation truths of God’s plan.

“Hold the Beginning of Our Confidence”

Apparently these Christian Hebrews, for some reason, were showing a tendency to be unstable, to vacillate between being faithful to God and to his truth on the one hand, and yielding to the influences of the world, the flesh, and the devil on the other. Early in the epistle the apostle urges, “Therefore, we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest at any time we let them slip.” (Heb. 2:1) Surely Paul would not thus urge us to give heed to the glorious doctrines of Christ, and a little later in the same epistle advise—as some seem to think he did—that we stop talking about the doctrines, and “go on to perfection” by some other route.

In Hebrews 3:13,14, the Apostle Paul continues: “Exhort one another daily, while it is called Today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence, steadfast unto the end.” Surely Paul would not here urge the importance of that first confidence or enthusiasm which we had for the truth originally, setting it forth as the actual basis upon which we may hope to be made partakers of Christ, and then, two chapters further on imply that we should leave or abandon that condition and go on to some unknown, visionary, or mystical state of heart and mind, miscalled ‘perfection’.

Chapter 4:1 reads: “Let us therefore fear, lest a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it.” Here is another admonition to lay hold upon the promises, and thereby to be established, to be at rest, because of having settled in our minds what constitutes the truth, and being contented to continue sacrificing our time and means in its service. There is nothing in this rest that furnishes a Christian an excuse to have ‘itching ears’ and to launch out into a feverish search for ‘new light’.

Then, in chapter 10:23,24 we read: “Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised.)” Here again we have the admonition to be steadfast, not to waver, not to be discontent and dissatisfied because we are not continually having new and thrilling experiencež and finding ‘new light’. It is the very opposite to the theories that are so often erroneously based on the apostle’s words in the 6th chapter, relative to going on to perfection.

“Call to Remembrance the Former Days”

In Hebrews 10:32, Paul holds up an ideal example of Christian experience to these unsettled Hebrew Christians, saying, “Call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions.” Compare this text with the 10th and 11th verses of chapter 6, which read: “God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love, which ye have showed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that every one of you do show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end.” There is no mistaking the meaning of these words.

It is evident that these Hebrews had been enthusiastic in the beginning of their Christian experience, but for some reason they had become slack. If they could get back to that ‘first love’, and continue steadfastly in it, that would be the ideal thing—it would be the ‘perfection’, or acme, of Christian experience, which the apostle was advocating. For this reason he urges them, in the 10th chapter, to “call to remembrance the former days.” This was a very practical way of impressing upon them the importance of the ‘first love’ in their Christian life.

They could recall the joys and blessings which had been theirs in the former days—the peace of heart and mind which they had experienced when they first realized that the great God who in times past had spoken to their fathers through the prophets, had now spoken to them through his Son. (Heb. 1:1,2) And Paul would have them know that a continuance of such peace and joy is not dependent upon exploring uncharted seas of human philosophy, but upon taking more earnest heed to the things which they had heard, lest at any time they should let them slip. (Heb. 2:1) For this reason he said, “We desire that every one of you do show the same diligence, to the full assurance of hope unto the end.”

The entire 11th chapter of this remarkable epistle to the Hebrews is devoted to a discussion of faith—the kind of faith that enables its possessor to hold steadfastly and unwaveringly to the promises of God, the Messianic promises; and to be enthusiastic about the glorious Gospel of Christ to the very end of his life. The prophets of old are held up by the apostle as wonderful examples of faith in God’s promises. Then in the beginning of the 12th chapter, Jesus, the crowning example of faith, is lifted up before us, not to encourage us to pursue an illusive bubble of speculative human philosophy—a chase which leads nowhere, and which usually leaves one in a labyrinth of confusion and doubt—but to help us to see the importance of taking the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, and to encourage us to greater faithfulness in laying down our lives in the divine service, even as did our beloved Redeemer.

Plight of those Who “Fall Away”

Having thus traced, briefly, the main theme of this wonderful epistle, which is that of steadfastness in Christian faith, hope, and service, let us now note how clearly this thought is set forth in the very chapter from which our text is taken. (Hebrews 6) After urging us to go on to perfection, the apostle continues, “It is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good Word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance.” Compare the latter part of this passage with the expression in verse 1: “not laying again the foundation of repentance.”

There can be no misunderstanding the meaning of the apostle’s general argument here set forth, which is that of the importance of being established in the faith and in the service of God. So strongly does he present his argument, that he indicates that if we are not thus established it would imply that we never have actually ‘tasted’, at least in all their fullness, of the precious things which pertain to the divine plan and our part therein.

After encouraging the Hebrews by reminding them of their previous faithfulness and enthusiasm for God and for his truth, Paul then proceeds to remind them of the sure foundation for faith and hope which the Heavenly Father has provided; and of the fact that this glorious hope is centered in that all-comprehensive promise made to Abraham—the promise which was bound by God’s oath. We quote: “Wherein God, willing more abundantly to show unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath, that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us; which hope we have as an anchor to the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil.”—Heb. 6:18,19

How evident it is that what Paul is setting forth as the ideal state for the Christian is that of being anchored to the sure promises of God—even those promises that have to do with his oath-bound covenant to bless all the families of the earth through the seed of Abraham. And this fact becomes even more apparent when we trace the apostle’s argument in connection with his use of the word ‘perfection’, as used in the text, ‘Let us go on to perfection’. To fully appreciate this, however, it is necessary to remember that this epistle was written to and for the special benefit of Hebrew converts to Christianity. Not that Jews and Gentiles, as Christians, have any different standing before God, nor that they constitute different companies or classes as New Creatures. But the apostle shows how the Gospel message can be applied to meet the peculiar problems of Jews, as well as all other groups who come under its sacred influence.

Shadow vs. Substance

While Gentile Christians can and should apply all the helpful admonitions of this epistle to themselves also, and be spiritually strengthened thereby, yet we can see that the wise apostle addressed these Hebrew Christians in their own language, and applied the promises of the Gospel to their own peculiar problems. This is a practical illustration of how this great apostle was ‘all things to all men’. These Jews had been accustomed to serving God upon the basis of the Law Covenant. But Paul would have them realize that those arrangements of the Law were merely typical—‘a shadow’ of something better to come later. He says:

“The Law, having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, could never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the corners thereunto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshipers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again of sin every year.”—Heb. 10:1-3

It would seem that this particular group of Hebrew Christians had not yet fully grasped the fact that the Law Covenant was now of no effect, and that it was no longer necessary for them to continue ‘laying the foundation of repentance from dead works’ over and over again, as they had done in the past. Nor had they fully grasped, or had forgotten, or else lacked faith to believe, that while “every priest [of the Law Covenant arrangement] standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins,” yet now Christ, by his one offering, “hath perfected forever them that are sanctified.”—Heb. 10:11,14

As a further confirmation of this same fact, Paul adds, “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit, offered Himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works, to serve the living God!” (Heb. 9:14) The doctrinal difficulties of these Hebrew Christians are apparent. While evidently they had laid hold upon the Gospel of Christ with enthusiasm at the beginning, yet through lack of an abiding faith, or perhaps of a full understanding of the real efficacy of the shed blood of Christ, they had begun to slip back into their old habits of Hebrew thought and formalism, relying again on yearly ceremonies. They were trying to mingle the typical ceremonies of the Mosaic Law with their faith and service toward God through Christ—not realizing that Jesus, as the antitype, had put an end to the type, nailing it to his cross.—Col. 2:14

Only One Foundation of Repentance

For this reason Paul argues the matter out for them in detail, pointing out the fact that all the wonderful lessons taught typically by the Law and by the services of the Tabernacle—going back even to the time of Melchisedec—are fulfilled in and through Christ, and in those who are invited to be partakers with him in the heavenly calling. (Heb. 3:1) Even the New Covenant arrangements of the next age, Paul shows, are dependent upon the one sacrifice of this antitypical High Priest. Now if these Hebrews could but exercise full faith in Christ and in his shed blood, and could lay hold properly upon the promises of joint-heirship with him in the kingdom, they would not be continuing to lay again the foundation of repentance from dead works as had been their custom under the Mosaic Law.

Paul does not say that it is not necessary to lay a proper foundation of repentance in the first place, nor that it is necessary to remain on that foundation. Rather, that inasmuch as the true foundation of repentance on the part of the Christian, whether he be Jew or Gentile, is based upon the abiding efficacy of the blood of Christ, it remains secure and dependable as the only proper basis upon which we can draw nigh unto God and serve him acceptably.

Every Christian, of course, as the Hebrews claimed to be, should realize that this foundation also includes other necessary elements of truth which vitally affect our standing with God. The text shows some of these to be: baptisms, laying on of hands [applicable to the Early Church], resurrection, and judgment. (Heb. 6:2) Does Paul mean that we should ignore these, in order to go on to perfection? Surely not! The very opposite of this is the real import of his argument. He teaches that we are not to lose faith in these things, nor to think it needful to ‘lay’ this great foundation structure of faith over and over again because of having neglected it. Instead we are to stay with it constantly, continually—to be anchored to it. We are to realize that our standing of perfection in Christ is dependent upon a full and continual grasp of the great foundation promises of the Gospel. These are the promises which constitute the basis of our glorious hope, which ‘maketh not ashamed’.

Hebrews 7:19 declares: “The Law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did.” What could be plainer than this? These Hebrew Christians, forgetting their first love for Christ and the Gospel, and letting slip the great teachings of the truth and of the finished work of Christ, were not again seeking perfection, striving to draw nigh unto God by means of the old Law Covenant, which as Paul shows actually made nothing perfect. It is the ‘better hope’ in Christ that brings perfection—the hope that is centered in the original promise made to Abraham, the hope that serves as an anchor to our souls, that keeps us from slipping, and that holds us firmly on the sure foundation upon which all true Christian character must be built.

As Christians, are we going on to perfection within the true meaning of the apostle’s words? Are we becoming more and more rooted and grounded in the faith, in the great truths of the divine plan, the Gospel of Christ? Are we becoming more deeply conscious of the fact that the blood of Christ actually cleanses us from all sin, and that because of this we can, at all times, come boldly to the throne of heavenly grace, there to obtain mercy, and find grace to help in every time of need?

Is present truth, every precious feature of it, becoming daily a greater reality to us? Is our faith firmly fastened to the anchor which is our heavenly hope? And will that faith continue to hold, enabling us ever to remain enthusiastic about God and his promises? Is it just as enthusiastic, yes, just as zealous, and even more so, as when we were first enlightened? If so, then we can rejoice that this admonition of the apostle is being realized more and more in our daily Christian lives—that we are actually going on to perfection in God’s appointed way.

“Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ: to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”—Hebrews 13:20,21



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