Back to Kindergarten
Generally, when a child is off to kindergarten, it is an exciting time in his life. A new pencil and tablet, learning the first steps in reading—all of these experiences are memorable indeed. It is hardly the case, however, that we long to return to that environment—as adults! The envisioned humiliation of such a circumstance reminds one of a text in the book of Hebrews.
There are many issues relating to this document that tantalize scholars, and upon which there is little agreement. Who wrote the book? Was the epistle addressed to pure Hebrews, or were the recipients Gentiles who had converted to Judaism? Was the destination Jerusalem or Rome? These are questions upon which reasonable men disagree.
It is seems fairly clear to me that Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were in danger of apostatizing from the primitive faith. These immature saints were being enticed to abandon their allegiance to Christ, and so again attach themselves to the Mosaic system, while awaiting the arrival of the “real” Messiah. It was a tragic situation that ought not to have existed.
It was to this situation that a stinging rebuke was addressed.
“Of whom we have many things to say, and hard of interpretation, seeing you have become dull of hearing. For when by reason of the time you ought to be teachers, you have need again that someone teach you the rudiments of the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of solid food” (Hebrews 5:11-12).
More advanced levels of teaching were required by these Christians, but the sacred writer was restrained from providing such because they had become “dull of hearing.” “Dull” (nothros) is rendered “sluggish” in 6:12 (ASV). The term carries the idea of laziness (Danker, 683). They weren’t the last lazy church members!
Though considerable time had passed since these Hebrews had converted to Christ (possibly thirty years or so), they were not yet qualified to be “teachers.” Perhaps they labored under the impression, as some today do, that “chronology” is the equivalent of “competency.” It is possible that “thirty years” is not three decades of growth, but only one year of experience repeated thirty times!
At any rate, they were in need of having someone start all over with them, instructing them in the “rudiments of the first principles of the oracles of God.” “Rudiments of the first principles” renders a Greek phrase that is “slightly derogatory,” signifying the very beginning of the elements, or, as we might express it, the first letters of the alphabet, the ABCs! (Delling, VII:679).
In a word, they needed to return to kindergarten. One can only smile at the image of a thirty-five year old man or woman, hunkered down in one of those tiny chairs, in a room full of kindergarten children. Then, heightening the imagery, the writer suggested that these saints required to return to the “bottle,” for they could not tolerate “solid food.”
The writer then sought to encourage these vulnerable Christians to advance beyond the “first principles,” and migrate toward “full growth” (6:1a; cf. footnote ASV), or maturity. In this connection it is of considerable interest that the sacred writer lists some of the “first principles” that should have been mastered long ago, but had not been.
“Wherefore leaving the doctrine of the first principles of Christ, let us press on unto perfection [maturity]; not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the teaching of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment” (6:1-2).
This listing is fascinating—especially since these ABCs appear to be alien to a growing number of church members—even today. There are numerous Christians who are no longer familiar with the elementary alphabet of New Testament doctrine.
Repentance From Dead Works
The initial item of this fundamental list is that of “repentance from dead works.” First, we must define “dead works.”
To those who have fallen victim, to one degree or another, to Luther’s dogma of “salvation by faith alone,” the term “works” has taken on a severely negative connotation— a view that finds no support in Scripture. It is true that there are “dead works”; it is also a fact, however, that there are living works—i.e., those commanded and approved by God that are requisite to salvation.
The works of Moses’ law were dead in the sense that they could not provide justification from sin (Romans 3:28; Galatians 3:10-11). Works of “merit” are merely “good deeds” or “noble actions” that are components of humanly engineered plans (cf. Ephesians 2:9; Titus 3:5a; see Thayer, 248, 526). Such works have no redemptive quality inasmuch as they issue from sinful men. Works of the flesh lead only to condemnation (Galatians 5:19-22; Ephesians 5:11). From these kinds of works one must turn away, in genuine repentance.
On the other hand, there are godly works imposed upon humanity as solemn obligations. Faith is a work (John 6:27-29), and so is repentance (Matthew 12:41; Jonah 3:10), and those who refuse to “work righteousness” will not be accepted by God (Acts 10:35; cf. Philippians 2:12).
Denominationalists commonly allege that baptism cannot be a part of God’s plan of salvation, because it is a “work,” thus supposedly is excluded as a condition of forgiveness. Even within the brotherhood of Christ some are forging similar arguments—under the guise of a “grace-centered” theology. However, Paul clearly has shown that baptism (the “washing of regeneration”) is not of that class of “works” which are alien to God’s plan (see Titus 3:5, and note the contrasting conjunction, “but,” that separates baptism from dead works). Is it not incredible that many of our kinsmen in Christ must now relearn the ABCs of essential “works”?
And what of “repentance”—could there be a more elementary doctrine than this? Biblical repentance involves the intellect, the emotions, and the will. Through the teaching process the candidate for conversion learns the difference between right and wrong. Having ascertained that distinction, he examines his life and feels guilt or sorrow for the transgressions he has committed. Based upon what he now knows and feels, he wills to turn away from the wrong, and do the right. This is the significance of the expression in Hebrews 6:1, “repentance from dead works.” That repentance demands a change of conduct is demonstrated by both Acts 2:38 and 2 Corinthians 7:10. In each of these passages the “repentance” has been preceded by a feeling of sorrow. In these instances, therefore, the “repentance” must manifest itself in the subsequent appropriate action, i.e., a change of conduct.
The divorce/remarriage controversy provides a dramatic example of how many have lost the true sense of what repentance signifies. Multiple divorces/remarriages, completely out of harmony with scriptural teaching (Matthew 5:32; 19:9), may be engaged with abandon, and yet numerous Christians will sanction the continuation of such illicit unions with but a wave of the hand: “Simply ask God’s forgiveness, and remain as you are.” It’s “back to kindergarten” when it comes to repentance!
Faith Toward God
It is as amazing as it is distressing that a significant number of church leaders no longer entertain even a rudimentary understanding of what “faith” involves. Faith in Christ, for instance, is not a mere mental disposition that acknowledges the existence of Jesus. Most skeptics concede that much, along with the Lord’s superior qualities (cf. Allen, 229). Nor is faith a simple willingness to “trust in Jesus” as one’s “personal Savior,” as sectarian people freely contend. There is no New Testament evidence sustaining this view.
Rather, “believe” is an action verb. Christ stated: “He who believes on the Son has eternal life; but he who obeys not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36 – ASV, ESV). It was only after he had exhibited repentance, and was immersed into Christ, that the jailor in Philippi was said to have “believed in God” (Acts 16:33-34). There is no finer example of the nature of faith than that exemplified in Hebrews 11. The sincere Bible student would be well-rewarded if he traced the “by faith” expressions throughout the text, and observed the companion action that either is stated explicitly, or is implied. In his discussion of the term pisteuo (believe), Thayer suggested that the word embraces the ideas of a conviction concerning Jesus as Messiah, a disposition to trust him as Lord, and a willingness to obey him as the author of salvation (511).
Why is it now the case that something so fundamental as the nature of biblical faith has to be reintroduced to those who are “reputed to be somewhat” in the Lord? They attempt to build again (the doctrine of grace/faith alone salvation) that which they once opposed, and so demonstrate themselves to be transgressors (cf. Galatians 2:18).
The Teaching Of Baptisms
It is interesting that the term “baptisms” here is in the plural number. There is much diversity of opinion regarding why the plural is employed. Whatever application is assigned to the word in this context, it must have some relevance to Christianity to be a fundamental element of that system.
Some interpret the term as referring to the “washings” of the Jewish system, especially when the contrast between those typical ordinances, and New Testament water baptism, is explained (Thayer, 95). John’s baptism, and its temporary significance, preliminary to the Christian age, may have been embodied (Mark 1:4). The term could have included an explanation for Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3). It is not impossible that the overwhelming sufferings associated with the Christian life might have been a part of the instruction (cf. Mark 10:38). The allusion also may have embraced an understanding of “Holy Spirit” baptism, as a prelude to the admission of both Jews and Gentiles into the kingdom of Christ (Acts 2; 10).
Doubtless the teaching contained an explanation of the proper candidate, element, mode, and purpose of the ordinance—as bound upon those seeking to follow Christ (Mark 16:16; Romans 6:3-4; Acts 2:38). Finally, the term could have included a warning of the final fate of the wicked—a “plunging” into hell (Matthew 3:11).
Why is it that there is a revolution in the church of today over the issue of baptism? Some claim they have been baptized in the Holy Spirit—in spite of the fact that by the time Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was written, there was but “one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). Further, this is the baptism administered by men that continues till the end of the Christian age (Matthew 28:19-20). Spirit baptism was administered by Jesus himself (Matthew 3:11).
A few have contended that one cannot be dogmatic as to whether baptism is immersion, sprinkling, or pouring (Hook, 39). Prof. Carroll Osburn of Abilene Christian University has argued that it is irrelevant whether one is immersed “for” the remission of sins, or “because of” the remission of sins (91), in spite of the explicit testimony of Acts 2:38.
Others—like Edward Fudge, LaGard Smith, Stephen Clark Goad, Dyrell Collins, and the late Homer Hailey—have been vocal advocates for the notion that there is no “baptism of fire” that finds its fulfillment in the eternal suffering of the wicked—in spite of the Savior’s declarations to the contrary (Matthew 3:11; 5:22; 13:40-42; 25:41; 46; cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9; Revelation 14:9-11).
What would the author of Hebrews say to those listed above? “Gentlemen, you have become ‘dull of hearing’; it’s back to kindergarten for you.”
The Laying On Of Hands
The practice of “laying on of hands” finds several expressions in the New Testament. During Jesus’ ministry, some parents brought their children to the Lord that he might lay his hands upon them (Matthew 19:13). This involved no magical ritual; rather, it was a symbolic act designed to invoke Jehovah’s blessings upon these little ones.
Laying on of hands was employed in association with some of Christ’s healing miracles (Mark 6:5; Luke 4:40; 13:13). Miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit were conveyed upon some Christians by the laying on of the apostles’ hands (Acts 8:18; Acts 19:6; 2 Timothy 1:6). Finally, the laying on of hands was employed as an outward sign of approval to set certain men apart for special works in which they were to engage on behalf of Christ (Acts 13:3; 1 Timothy 4:14; 5:22).
Those today who contend that they possess “spiritual gifts,” as a result of the laying on of hands, or who believe they can heal others by the same process, have no understanding of the purpose of supernatural gifts, or the manner by which they were conveyed in the first century (Mark 16:20; Hebrews 2:3-4). Such folks, sincere though they may be, are lacking in doctrinal maturity.
Resurrection Of The Dead
The resurrection of the dead is a doctrine that adorns both Testaments. The Bible clearly teaches that at the time of Christ’s return, all the dead will be raised from their interment. In the Patriarchal age, Job seems to allude to the hope of the resurrection (Job 19:25-26). Abraham believed that God was able to raise Isaac from the dead (Hebrews 11:19). Moses, speaking on behalf of God, declared: “I kill, and I make alive” (Deuteronomy 32:39). Daniel prophesied that the dead of the earth would awake, some to life everlasting, others to eternal shame and contempt (12:2).
During his ministry, Jesus promised there would be a future resurrection of both good and evil people (John 5:28-29). When the Sadducees, who disbelieved in the resurrection (Matthew 22:23), attempted to dispute with Christ about this matter, the Savior informed them that their dogma reflected an ignorance—both of the Scriptures and of the power of God (Matthew 22:29).
The apostles of Christ vigorously argued for the doctrine of the bodily resurrection (see Acts 24:15). The entire fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians deals with this theme. Therein Paul contends for the following. Christ was raised from the dead (1-11). The Lord’s resurrection is the guarantee of the resurrection to come (12-24). The dead will come forth from the grave—not in a physical form, but in spiritual bodies (35-49). The bodily resurrection is a token of the ultimate victory of Christ’s cause (50-58).
In the final book of the New Testament, Jesus contends that he has the “keys” of death and Hades (Revelation 1:18), which implies the resurrection of the body from the state of death, and the deliverance of the soul from its post-death abode. The doctrine of the bodily resurrection was denied by the pagan Greeks (Acts 17:32), and by certain segments of the Jewish community (e.g., the Sadducees, Matthew 22:23; Acts 23:8). There was even a faction in the Corinthian church that repudiated the doctrine of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:12), and Paul rebuked that error with an extended discourse in that portion of his letter (15:1ff).
Unfortunately there are those today who openly deny the biblical teaching on the resurrection of the body. No more prominent example can be found than those of the “realized eschatology” persuasion, better known as the “A.D. 70” group, or the disciples of Max King.
These folks have taken the promises of a literal, general bodily resurrection, and spiritualized them. They assert that the hope of the resurrection was but a figurative expression referring to the deliverance the early church would experience when the Jewish nation fell to the Romans (A.D. 70). And so, in a symbolic sense only, the church was “resurrected” from “the world of Judaism.” Max R. King has attempted to argue that “the saints,” until A.D. 70, were “in the graves or world of Judaism, waiting for deliverance or resurrection….” Again, “until the Jewish world passed away, they were considered dead men. … They were resurrected after they overcame the world or when Judaism fell” (348-349). This is a seriously misguided dogma.
The expression “eternal judgment” stands in contrast to the idea of a “temporal” judgment, such as God has exercised upon both nations and individual people at various points in history (cf. Ezekiel 18:30; Acts 13:11).
There is a greater judgment that is to come—the “eternal” one. It is a day that God has appointed when all human beings will receive life’s final rewards. Its reality is pledged by the resurrection of Christ (Acts 17:31). It is called an “eternal” judgment because of the “unchangeable determination of all men’s estate and condition” whether of eternal “blessedness or misery” (Owen, 5.47).
It is a tragic reality that there are those within today’s church who have not yet grasped the fundamental doctrine of “eternal judgment.” Max King (and those under his influence) allege that the Judgment Day occurred in A.D. 70 when the Romans overthrew Judaism, at which point the Christians were separated from “disbelieving Jews” (161). King’s theory hardly comports with Jesus’ affirmation that the Day of Judgment is the “last day” of human history (John 12:48).
Others, who once knew the truth relative to “eternal judgment,” also have regressed to spiritual infancy, namely those who now contend that the “eternal judgment” for the wicked is annihilation, i.e., utter extinction. In his book, After Life, F. LaGard Smith contends that following the Judgment, all suffering of the wicked ultimately will end and God’s enemies will exist no more (165-197). Such a view stands in direct opposition to the declaration of the Judge himself (Matthew 25:46).
The various cases cited in this article reveal that a crisis state exists in the 21st century church. There is not only digression—there is considerable regression!
- Allen, Steve. Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, & Morality. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus. 1990.
- Danker, F.W., et al. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago: University of Chicago. 2000.
- Delling, Gerhard. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Gerhard Friedrich & G.W. Bromiley, Eds. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1971.
- Hook, Cecil. Free In Christ. New Braunfels, TX: Hook. 1984.
- King, Max R. The Spirit of Prophecy. Warren, OH: King. 1971.
- Osburn, Carroll. The Peaceable Kingdom. Abilene, TX: Restoration Perspectives. 1993.
- Owen, John. An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Baker. Reprint 1980. 7 Vols.
- Smith, F. LaGard. After Life. Nashville, TN: Cotswold. 2003.
- Thayer, J.H. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark. 1958.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.