Saturday, August 9, 2014

The repentance from dead works that accompanies salvation in Hebrews 6:1-12

This passage uses the stronger word for repentance, metanoia, twice, once in verse 1 and again in verse 6. Although this passage has a reputation for being difficult, due to its use by some as a "proof text" for the proposition that a Christian may "lose" his or her salvation as a result of sin, it is, in fact, a very simple passage when placed in its proper context. Taken as a whole, it is not a teaching about "loss of salvation," but a simple encouragement to show diligence in the matters that accompany salvation. This is summarized in verses 9 through 12:

9 But, beloved, we are persuaded of better things for you, and things that accompany salvation, even though we speak like this. 10 For God is not unrighteous, so as to forget your work and the labor of love which you showed toward his name, in that you served the saints, and still do serve them. 11 We desire that each one of you may show the same diligence to the fullness of hope even to the end, 12 that you won’t be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and perseverance inherited the promises.
Hebrews 6:9-12 (WEB).

With this goal of the passage in mind, the immediate context of the "repentance" verses actually starts at the end of chapter 5. The writer reproves some of the Hebrew believes to whom he is writing because they have remained immature in their knowledge of Christ. The writer wants to teach them the "meat" of the Word of God, but they are still babies. Hebrews 5:12-13. This has not occurred because they are new converts. Indeed, they have been in Christ long enough that, "by this time" they "ought to be teachers" (5:11), but they have refused to become "experienced" in the Word and to exercise their senses to discern good and evil.(5:11, 13). Instead, they have become dull of hearing (v.11) and need to have someone teach them the basics again--"the rudiments of the first principles of the words of God (archēs tōn logiōn tou theou)."

Therefore, in the the first two verses of the sixth chapter, the writer first urges his readers to move on from the "basics" they should have learned long ago, toward more complete knowledge. He then quite summarily reminds his readers of the doctrines that they should already know, the "beginning"(archē)--actually a singular in the Greek, as these teachings form a single unit--or "first principles" of the word of Christ. Note that the first listed teaching, the foundation of all of the others, is repentance:

1 Therefore leaving the teaching of the first principles of Christ (archēs tou christou logon), let us press on to perfection—not laying again a foundation of repentance (metanoias) from dead works, of faith toward God, 2 of the teaching of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.
Hebrews 1:1-2 (WEB).

The "repentance" here called a foundation of our faith, is not, on the face of it, a mere change of emotions about our sins. It is not merely telling God that we are sorry if we have offended Him, or that we feel badly about doing wrong. It is certainly not feeling bad about the consequences. It is repentance from "dead works," which is a quite literal translation of the Greek (nekrōn ergōn). These are not merely sins--acts which lead to death--as some modern translations say. These "dead works" are relate to the whole human concept that we can earn our own way, that we can "make it" without God. As applied to the writer's audience of Hebrew believers, these "dead works" would have been the "works of the Law," the keeping of all of the Law of Moses, by which no one is ever justified (Romans 3:20). It is the way of life that proclaims that, though there is a God, I can live my own life, independent of Him, and by my own works, make myself good enough to meet His standards. This attitude is also seen in many modern people, some of whom call themselves Christians, who merely modify the standards God prescribes to suit their own (or their religious subculture's) tastes. Thus, many who recognize that there is a God, and have some respect for Jesus, will gladly tell an inquirer that they believe they are "good enough" because they vaguely treat other people well and try to be a "good person." So, for them, being a "good person" substitutes for the laws of the Pentateuch as "enough" to meet God's approval while living their own lives, never seeking Him. And there is an almost infinite variety of religious observances in between keeping the whole Law of Moses and merely trying to be a "good person" in which people in our world put their faith. These are "dead works." The foundation of the first principles of Christ is repentance from these "dead works," from the whole life pattern of trying to earn our own way, in favor of faith in God. Faith in God must be substituted for faith in ourselves.

As this post concerns the concept of "repentance" in this passage, I will not here attempt to interpret the other four teachings that are said to be included in the "first principles of Christ"--that is, teachings about baptisms, laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. Instead, I will merely note in passing that, because historically so much of what passes as Christian teaching (and even as "official" Christian teaching) has denied the first two foundations, the other four often come to us in sadly distorted forms as well. Remember that the first sin--that of Adam and Eve--was precisely "dead works." Ultimately, Eve was successfully tempted with the promise of independence from God. The serpent told her "God knows that in the day you eat it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:5). Eve herself then saw that the forbidden fruit was "to be desired to make one wise." (Genesis 3:6). So she ate it, gave it to Adam, and he ate, too. After they ate, and realized they were naked, our first parents' first act was a "dead work," the beginning of human religion: they promptly made coverings to hide their nakedness, then hid themselves from God. (Genesis 3:7). They obviously thought, if God couldn't see their nakedness, he wouldn't see their sin, either. The futility of that way of thinking, at least in the case of Adam and Eve, is well known--God was aware of their sin, as proved by their consciousness of their own nakedness, and He proceeded to tell them the consequences of it--discord, painful labor for both of them, and, ultimately, death. (Genesis 3:16-19). These are always the consequences of abandoning God, the source of life, to go our own way. Nevertheless, large segments of "Christendom" have for centuries received baptisms and laying on of hands as if they were meritorious works that can make us "good enough" for God, even while going our own way (which was never their intended function). The resurrection of the dead and our fate in eternal judgment is then made to depend on these dead works. This is a perversion of the truth.

This line of thought, then, naturally leads into the next few verses of the Hebrews passage. There are those who have tasted the goodness and power of God, and have even shown a defective form of repentance, but who still cling to the good things of God as "dead works" and ultimately become hardened to the reality of God's grace. Notice first what is said in verse 4 of this passage about these people's experience with God. They were "once enlightened," God showed them Himself and his way, but they didn't follow the light they were given. They "tasted of" the heavenly gift, but did not eat it and make it fully their own. They were "made partakers" of the Holy Spirit, knowing His conviction of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11) and "tasted" the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, but did not make these things the central, controlling part of their lives. They dabbled in Christianity, without ever getting the "point" of it, and then fell away--because they pursued Christianity merely as a means of "fixing" their old lives ("dead works") and failed to show diligence in the matters that accompany salvation, if salvation is real.

So, this passage is a warning that the same kind of hardening of the heart that happens in the world, according to Romans 1:18-31, can also happen among people associated with the Church who claim Christianity but refuse the truth at the center of it--i.e., that God doesn't want to "fix" my life, He wants to give me His life. Recall that in Romans 1, the course of decline into depravity starts with God revealing Himself to all people, but people in general reject God because they want to live their own life without Him, to do their own thing. So they invent gods who will, if appeased with offerings and service, generally let them do their own thing. This darkens the perception of their hearts toward the true God, who, in turn, lets go of them and gives them over to all of the depravity their sinful hearts can invent--literally, all of the evils of the modern world--and their hearts become hardened toward the God they have rejected. Hebrews 6:4-7 is a warning that the same kind of process can occur among people who call themselves Christians.

The Bible, both Old Testament and New, is full of examples of people in which this process has occurred. The next nine posts in this series will discuss some of these examples in detail: Cain, Esau, the Pharaoh who opposed Moses, Balaam, King Saul, King Zedekiah, Judas Iscariot, Ananias and Sapphira, and Simon the Sorcerer in Samaria. What all of these had in common, as will be seen in the more detailed posts to follow, is some knowledge of God, a decision to approach God on their own terms which led to an outward sin, and defective "repentance" that left them in their "dead works" rather than in the "better things" that accompany salvation. For these, who have gone their own way into a defective "repentance" that seeks merely to "fix" their life and be relieved of consequences rather than to accept God's life, the warning of Hebrews 6:4-8 is obviously true:

4 For concerning those who were once enlightened and tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then fell away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance (metanoian); seeing they crucify the Son of God for themselves again, and put him to open shame. 7 For the land which has drunk the rain that comes often on it, and produces a crop suitable for them for whose sake it is also tilled, receives blessing from God; 8 but if it bears thorns and thistles, it is rejected and near being cursed, whose end is to be burned.
Hebrews 6:4-8 (WEB)

There comes a point at which God, after repeatedly offering a person a relationship on his terms--i.e., we must accept His life--will cease to accept defective repentance and allow that person to become hardened. There comes a point at which a decision must be made. If, at that point, one decides to "fall away" from the relationship God offers--the Greek word here, parapiptō, has the sense of abandoning, disavowing or disassociating from a former relationship--God will honor that person's choice. At that point, it becomes impossible to "renew" to repentance someone who has repeatedly refused true repentance and relationship with God on His terms. Therefore, it is vitally important to truly repent from "dead works" and show diligence in the things that accompany salvation.

The examples to be discussed in the next nine posts will clarify this.