The danger of dead works (Hebrews 6:1-8)

There is a persistent theme that runs subtly through the chapters of the book of Hebrews, and this theme reveals the author’s purpose for writing the letter.

WHAT IS THE THEME?

The theme is that it is possible to have a religion of useless, futile rituals, which appear on the outside to evidence true faith, without having any faith at all. In other words, it is possible to fool yourself and to fool others by your religious activity, while remaining dead in your sins and performing dead religious works.

FORMERLY A PEOPLE OF DEAD WORKS

The recipients of this letter appear to have been predominantly Jewish, based on the letter’s detailed references to the history of Israel and based on in-depth discussions of the priestly duties prescribed by the Law and of the minute details of the tabernacle. Now, if this deduction is correct, then it means that most of the recipients of this letter formerly practiced the Jewish religion and thus performed ritualistic dead works as good members of the Jewish community. Formerly, then, performing useless dead works maintained your good standing in the Jewish community.

But now the gospel has come, and now all people everywhere are called to forsake their useless religious works, repent of their sins, and place their faith in Jesus, the Messiah. If they believe in Jesus, they will be saved (Romans 10:9-10, 13). Then they are to walk in good works (Ephesians 2:10).

SWAPPING OLD DEAD WORKS FOR NEW ONES

Now we refer back to the theme that runs through the letter and see how this would apply here. Since these people are accustomed to performing rituals as part of their (Jewish) religion, and since this new “religion” of following Jesus, the Messiah, is based on the Hebrew Scriptures, it is possible for some of the people to assume that this is just a new religion with new dead works. Now, instead of circumcision and Sabbath and Passover, we do the new works of baptism and resurrection day and the Lord’s Supper. Now we talk about Jesus more than we talk about Moses, and we sing different songs, and the sermons have different subjects for their messages, but basically, we are just swapping out the old set of dead works for a new set of dead works. “What am I missing?”

THE THEME LEADS TO THE PURPOSE OF THE LETTER

If you have followed me so far, then this question should have sent chills up your spine. “What are you missing?” What you are missing is that this new Way is the only way to escape the wrath of God, and the only way that you can enter this salvation is through faith. So, what you are missing is faith! Faith is everything! No, we are not just swapping out a set of Jewish dead works for a set of “Christian dead works!”

These thoughts express the author’s concerns and define the purpose of the letter. The author seems to be a teacher or a pastor in the community to which he is writing, who has been separated from them, and it is possible that he is in prison (Hebrews 13:19, 23). In any case, his purpose in writing is to warn those who are just going through dead works that they are in peril, and to spur them to genuine faith in Jesus. He exalts Christ as our great High Priest and as greater than Moses, and as greater than angels, and he warns that if you do not come to faith in Jesus, you will never enter God’s rest.

THE DANGER OF DEAD WORKS

In light of this purpose and in light of the danger of dead works, I wanted to share some thoughts that occurred to me regarding Hebrews 5:11-14; 6:1-8.

In Hebrews 5:11-12, the author rebukes the people about their ongoing immaturity.

it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.

The warning is that a perpetual immaturity suggests a sobering diagnosis of dead religion. A perpetual immaturity puts you on a trajectory that ends in dead works and apostasy. Some of these professing believers should have been teaching the word, and yet they are still on milk and not solid food. The analogy would say that the child is running in the playground but has yet to be weaned off milk. Spiritual milk is what spiritual babes need (1 Peter 2:2), but if you have been in the fellowship for a decade and you are still on milk, there is reason for serious concern.

Do you know people who have supposedly been in Christ for decades and yet still barely drink milk? They are in great peril. In the Scriptures, there does not appear to be a good excuse for ongoing immaturity. The believer is always supposed to be in the process of spiritual growth. Paul had not attained spiritual maturity (Philippians 3:12-13), but he pressed on toward the goal (3:14). Paul thus gives us two lessons: none of us has yet attained full maturity, and therefore, we are always to be growing toward greater maturity.

There are other dangers of dead works and other thoughts that I have on this subject, but I will save those for another day.

SDG                 rmb                 4/9/2021

Why all the warnings? (Hebrews 3:12-14)

False assurance is a dangerous thing. The person possessing false assurance is confident that they are prepared to face a certain challenge or threat when, in fact, their defenses are inadequate, and their preparation is incomplete. This is like the fair-skinned sunbather on the Florida beach with SPF 5 sunscreen that they are confident is SPF 50. Or this is like the rock climber with the 100-foot rope rappelling down the 130-foot cliff which the climber is confident is only 80 feet tall. Or this is like someone who has been attending a local church for a little while and has joined in the singing and has listened to the sermons and has done whatever they saw the other people in the church doing; this is like that person having the false assurance that, because they behave like a true believer and go through the same motions, they possess the same salvation and are safe from God’s judgment. In these instances of false assurance, the person must be warned about their error before bad consequences result. So, we can see that false assurance is a dangerous thing.

The author of “Hebrews” is acutely aware of the disastrous consequences of a false confidence of salvation. He warns those who may possess a false profession, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (10:31),” and “our God is a consuming fire (12:29).” In fact, one of the dominant themes in this New Testament epistle is the author’s warning to those who are religious and unconverted. “Pay close attention lest you drift away.” “Do not neglect this great salvation.” “Do not fall away from the living God.” “Hold fast!” “Have faith, not unbelief.” “Strive to enter God’s rest.” “If you fall away, it is impossible to restore you.” “Do not be a person who shrinks back.” The author repeatedly urges the pretenders and all the falsely assured to fully embrace Jesus Christ and loudly proclaim Him as Lord to rightly be assured of true salvation.

WARNINGS IN HEBREWS 3:12-14

Consider one of the author’s warnings in Hebrews 3:12-14:

Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.

But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.

The warnings in this passage are strident and the implied consequences dire because it is urgent that the writer gain their attention and alert them to their peril. He does not mince words when he warns them of an “evil, unbelieving heart” and tells them they “will fall away from the living God.” Without encouragement, they are in danger of being “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” You are truly partakers of Christ only “if you hold fast your assurance (your faith) firm until the end.” Implicit and explicit warnings follow one after the other as the writer speaks to this fellowship.

WHY ALL THE WARNINGS?

Why so many warnings? The warnings evidence a heartfelt pastoral concern. The writer-preacher is concerned that some in his congregation are in danger of falling short of salvation, that they have not really embraced Christ in faith, but rather are just going through their old religious motions in a new way. These people must be warned that following Christ is radically different from the old Jewish traditions and practices, and that those who fall short of or drift away from genuine faith in Jesus will eternally perish. Having heard the message about Jesus Christ, you must embrace that message. To go through the new Christian “rituals” without embracing Christ and without being born again is to engage in useless religious works.

THE TASK OF WARNING THE RELIGIOUS

This task of warning people of the peril of religion is never an easy one because most people are quite comfortable with the religion they have been given. Religion gives its adherents a false sense of assurance. Just so, until recently, this Jewish (Hebrew) community was contentedly practicing their religion of external works, moral lifestyle, and traditional practices. All Jews were accepted as full members of the religious community based on their adherence to the external works. (This is the way all religions work.) The community was close-knit because they all maintained the same age-old practices. The old wine was good enough (Luke 5:39). There was no talk of salvation or of repentance or of faith in the Messiah. All was routine and peaceful. And, unfortunately, all were peacefully perishing without a Savior.

But now, the religious landscape has seismically changed. Now the gospel of salvation has been proclaimed. Now Jesus is preached as the Messiah, the Christ. Now the religious community of the Hebrews is being replaced by the faith community of the followers of the Messiah. The traditions of the elders and the fathers are no longer good enough because the works of the Law cannot justify anyone (Romans 3:20). Now we must repent from dead works (Hebrews 6:1) and place our faith in Jesus. Now unity and fellowship in the Jesus community is based on a common faith in Jesus the Messiah.

WHAT ABOUT A THIRD OPTION?

In addition to the old Jewish religion based on external works and traditions, and the new movement of faith in Jesus the Messiah, what we see happening in the book of “Hebrews” is the emergence of a third option. It is this third option that is the reason for all the writer’s warnings. The preacher’s concern is that some in this congregation have exchanged the external works of Judaism for “the external works” of the faith community without embracing Jesus the Messiah by faith. These people emulate the external “religious works” of genuine believers without the new heart (Ezekiel 36:26) of genuine believers. They mistakenly think that this new Jesus movement is just another religion, and, like Judaism, a person can be an accepted and respected member of this new community merely by doing the appropriate works and going through the expected motions. The writer-preacher directs his most urgent exhortations at these people in the hopes that they will forsake this deceptive and disastrous way of thinking and come all the way to full faith in Christ.

APPLICATION FOR OUR OWN TIME

The beauty of the Scriptures is that they are always contemporary, and they apply to our world and our situations. Just so, we must take seriously the warning about this “third option,” which is the circumstance where members of our church fellowship may be falsely assured of their salvation because they are relying on “religious works” or even “Christian works.” In the case of the Hebrews, the people emulated the external “religious works” of genuine believers without the new heart (Ezekiel 36:26) of genuine believers. This is a real concern today, particularly in American churches where religious traditions can replace genuine faith. In churches where conversions are not celebrated (Is that because they do not occur?) and where forms are prominent, the church can gradually become a homogeneous gathering of people united based on shared traditions and externals, rather than being united based on a shared experience of conversion and a fervent faith in the Lord Jesus. I believe that when the writer-preacher of the book of “Hebrews” wrote his warnings, he had specific people in the congregation in mind. He was, thus, compelled to warn them of the peril of religious motions without saving faith. Just so, the concerned pastor today would be well-served to preach these same warnings with vigor to his congregation in the hopes of stirring up faith in those who are comfortably unconverted.

SDG                 rmb                 3/5/2021