Big Idea: Spiritual sluggishness destroys faith, so keep growing to the end.
It doesn’t take much work to come up with examples of people who have fallen away from following Jesus. In fact, it’s become a bit of a thing.
Go on social media and use the hashtag #deconstructing, and you will come up with hundreds of posts. You can find books on how to deconstruct. Someone even tried to offer a course on how to deconstruct. And it’s a sensitive issue too. I read a post by a Facebook friend that lashes out at people who criticize those who are deconstructing. No wonder, I guess, because it touches on a very important and sensitive area of our lives.
But it goes beyond social media. It’s more personal than that. Some of us have people close to us who used to believe in Jesus but who have abandoned that faith. Children, friends — even pastors. One of the saddest examples in Toronto is a man named Charles Templeton, who was pastor of Avenue Road Church, which later became Bayview Glen Church.
Templeton was a close friend and preaching associate of Billy Graham. He effectively preached the gospel to large crowds in major arenas. However, intellectual doubts began to nag at him. He questioned the truth of Scripture and other core Christian beliefs. He finally abandoned his faith and made an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Billy Graham to do the same. Templeton resigned from the ministry and became a novelist and news commentator. He wrote a book against the Christian faith.
Near the end of his life, suffering from Alzheimers, he said this:
He was the greatest human being who has ever lived. He was a moral genius. His ethical sense was unique. He was the intrinsically wisest person that I've ever encountered in my life or in my readings. He's the most important thing in my life. I know it may sound strange, but I have to say I adore him! Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus. He is the most important human being who has ever existed. And if I may put it this way, I miss Him.
Templeton's eyes filled with tears and he wept freely. He refused to say more.
How do you get there? How do you end up walking away from Jesus? This is not a new problem. One of the reasons that the letter to the Hebrews was written is because some were tempted to drift away from Jesus — not to atheism or agnosticism, but to Judaism. But they were tempted to drift nonetheless. Over and over in Hebrews, the writer warns the readers: don’t do it. Don’t walk away from Jesus.
In today’s passage, he outlines three things we need to know: the problem that leads to deconstruction, the solution, and what’s at stake.
The Problem (5:11-14)
First, here’s the problem.
The writer uses an unusual word in 5:11 and 6:12, the verse that open and close this section. Here’s the word:
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. (5:11)
And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. (6:11-12)
He’s going to get to how this problem plays out in a minute, but here’s the problem behind the problem: spiritual laziness or sluggishness. it’s a word that, when used in athletics, means that someone is out of shape and lazy. The problem is that the recipients had become slow and sluggish in their apprehension of the teaching of New Testament truth, and it caused some serious problems.
How did the problem manifest itself?
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. (5:12-13)
They’d learned the elementary things of the faith, but they’d never moved on. The writer compares them to children who’d never moved on to adult food. It’s cute when kids act like kids. It’s not so cute when adults act like children. The same thing applies spiritually: it is a serious matter when someone who follows Jesus never moves on and grows. Sluggishness sets in, and as we’re going to see, this leads to some very serious problems.
Here’s the problem that Hebrews describes, as summarized by John Piper:
- They are drifting instead of rowing against the current of sin, and that means drifting backward toward destruction.
- They are neglecting the great salvation they claim to have.
- Their grip on joyful, zealous hope is slipping.
- Their hearts are hardening to the truth of God’s Word.
- Their conversation is losing its spiritual urgency.
- Their ears are getting dull.
- They are losing their desire to press on to maturity.
- They are becoming weak and sluggish.
- And the result of all this is that they are in danger of shrinking back from the beginning they had made, becoming hardened to spiritual things, falling away from the living God, and losing their souls.
All of this simply happens through lazy neglect. It’s what happens on default mode. It’s where we will naturally end up without effort.
Here’s the problem. You can’t stay at spiritual infancy and survive. Tom Schreiner observes:
The author does not believe there is a permanent state of spiritual infancy that believers can occupy. The entire purpose of the book is to warn believers about the danger of falling away … What worries the writer about the spiritual infancy of the readers is the danger of slipping into apostasy. He doesn’t contemplate the possibility of drinking spiritual milk for years and years and still obtaining eternal life. It is urgent, rather, to leave spiritual infancy behind, for one is either drawing nearer to God or falling away from him.
Or, perhaps even more starkly, Mark Dever says, “The idea that something can be alive even though it has stopped growing is a curious idea, and I am not sure the New Testament is familiar with it.”
If you are stuck at spiritual infancy, you’re in grave danger. If you’re not growing, your soul is at risk. Unless you take action, you’re on your way to falling away from the faith altogether. It’s a serious problem that must be corrected for our spiritual survival.
That’s the problem. So what’s the solution?
The Solution (5:14-6:3)
The writer has been clear about the problem. He’s equally clear about the solution:
But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity… (5:14-6:1)
Here’s the solution: move on from baby food to solid food for adults. It’s to grow in our knowledge of God through Scripture.
What’s surprising are the things that the writer lists that we need to move beyond:
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. (6:1-2)
The list he offers is not something we consider to be simple at all, and yet the writer says we need to move beyond it. According to the author, every growing Christian needs to understand things like:
- repentance and faith — that our only hope is to turn away from our sins and dead works, and then to put our complete trust in the work of Jesus Christ who took our sins and gives us his righteousness
- instructions about washings and laying on of hands — probably that the ritual cleansing by water in the Old Testament had been replaced by baptism since Jesus, and that the laying on of hands in the Old Testament was also practiced in early Christianity as Christians to do with the gift of the Holy Spirit and setting people apart for ministry
- the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment — that death is not the end; that our bodies will be raised incorruptible; that all will stand before the judgment seat of Christ
These are the basics. We’re meant to move beyond them and grow in our knowledge of God through his word. We’re not meant to stay at the beginning. We’re going to get into some of the meat next week. Learn to hunger for that meat. Don’t settle for an elementary understanding of Jesus.
We’re meant to keep growing. What does that mean for us? Don’t settle for what you knew about God last year. Keep growing. Dig into his word. As Augustine said, the Bible is shallow enough for a child not to drown, yet deep enough for an elephant to swim. Don’t settle for a wading in the shallow end. Learn to go into the depths. You could spend the rest of your live studying Scripture and you’d only be scratching the surface.
Here’s the problem: spiritual sluggishness. Here’s the solution: growing in knowledge. There’s one more thing we have to notice.
What’s at Stake (6:4-8)
Listen to what the writer says is at stake:
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (6:4-6)
This passage raises so many questions. Is it possible to be a genuine Christian and then to fall away, or does God preserve us to the end? This text is not teaching that you can be a genuine Christian and fall away. There are so many passages that teach that it is God who preserves those who trust him to the end. Take one example, for instance:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:27-29)
How reassuring! He will hold us. We rely not on our own ability to persevere but in God’s ability to keep us to the end.
So what’s he saying here? I think what he is saying is exactly what Jesus said: “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). There will be some who appeared to believe, but the fact that they didn’t keep growing revealed that they never really believed in the first place. As D.A. Carson puts it:
…it seems in all of these cases the New Testament writers, including the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews, insists that genuine saving grace, by definition, perseveres. But that means, then, that where you get a case like this one that does not persevere, you do not, by definition, have persevering grace.
You can hear and receive the seed like the parable of the sower, and grow quickly, but then die just as quickly. You can be one of Jesus’ twelve disciples like Judas, preaching and performing miracles, and still end up lost. There’s a whole category of people who “receive something of the blessings of the kingdom, who do taste something of the powers of the age to come” (Carson) and who still end up lost. Don’t let it happen to you.
But the writer ends on a hopeful note. “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things — things that belong to salvation” (6:9).
He knows them well enough to believe that they’ve genuinely believed. He’s seen evidences of grace. He’s hopeful and yet he’s concerned.
And that’s where we end today as well: both confident in Christ, and yet concerned because we all can become spiritually flabby. Never take your faith in Christ casually, because if you do, it’s spiritually dangerous. Rest in the fact that God will keep those who are is, but also, as verses 11 and 12 say, “show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
Spiritual sluggishness destroys faith, so keep growing to the end.
Father, we see the danger of falling away. We’ve known people who’ve fallen away. May we never settle for stagnancy in our walk with you.
Thank you for this clear warning in your word. Help us this year to keep pressing to know you more. Help us to never settle for where we are now but to develop a hunger for a greater knowledge of you and your glory.
As we rest in Jesus’ grip on us, help us not to fall into sluggishness. Help us to show the earnestness to have the full assurance of hope to the end. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.