Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, 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. And this we will do if God permits. 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. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.
Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 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. – Hebrews 6:1-12 ESV
Spiritual maturity is not the result of human effort, any more than our salvation was the result of anything we had done or deserved. When the writer tells us to “leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity,” the Greek word he uses is pherō and it has the idea of being carried along, like passengers in a boat. It is in the passive voice and does not convey effort as much as reliance. We are to allow the Holy Spirit of God to move us by His power into maturity. That does not alleviate us from any responsibility or effort, but it lets us know that the end result is a work of God, not man. The Holy Spirit indwells believers in order to assist them in their quest of becoming increasingly more like Christ. But clearly, there is an expectation that believers in Christ should grow up in their salvation. The recipients of this letter did not need further instructions on faith versus works or repentance from performance-based efforts to achieve a right standing with God. It was time to move on. It was time to grow up. The author refers to washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. These were all teachings or beliefs related to Judaism. They all had their counterpart in Christianity, but there was a need for the Jews to whom this letter was addressed to understand this foundational truths in a new way. Ritualistic washings, as practiced in Judaism, had been replaced by New Testament baptism – a one-time act that was symbolic in nature. The laying on of hands in Judaiasm was part of the sacrificial ritual, but it had new meaning in Christianity. The teachings regarding the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment had been expanded and given new meaning since the death and resurrection of Jesus. All of these doctrines, while elementary for the typical Jew, would have required additional insight and instruction for the believer. There was no room for resting on your laurels or relying on old truths.
The real issue here has to do with spiritual stagnancy, which can result in a drifting away or a regression on the part of believers. Earlier in his letter, the author warned his readers “So we must listen very carefully to the truth we have heard, or we may drift away from it.” (Hebrews 2:1 NLT). He also told them, “Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters. Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12 NLT). He is clearly speaking to believers, those who had placed their faith in Jesus, but who ran the risk of regressing in their faith because they were not pressing on and moving forward spiritually. He knows the very real possibility of believers falling away and describes them as those 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 who then turn away from God” (Hebrews 6:4-6 NLT). He warns that “it is impossible to bring such people back to repentance; by rejecting the Son of God, they themselves are nailing him to the cross once again and holding him up to public shame” (Hebrews 6:6 NLT). It would seem that the writer of Hebrews is dealing with extreme cases of apostasy, when believers turn away from and reject Christ. He is not referring to what many of us call backsliding or periods of spiritual doubt. The seriousness of his warnings convey the idea that he is dealing with cases of an extreme nature. His point seems to be that if you fail to grow, you will leave yourself open to apostasy. You will be vulnerable to false teaching and the possibility of turning away from the truth. This was not uncommon in the New Testament. Paul warned Timothy not to follow the example of two individuals who had wandered from the truth. “Avoid worthless, foolish talk that only leads to more godless behavior. This kind of talk spreads like cancer, as in the case of Hymenaeus and Philetus. They have left the path of truth, claiming that the resurrection of the dead has already occurred; in this way, they have turned some people away from the faith” (2 Timothy 2:16-18 NLT). Paul also warned Timothy, “Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons. These people are hypocrites and liars, and their consciences are dead” (1 Timothy 4:1-2 NLT).
The author of Hebrews is legitimately concerned that his readers grow. Why? Because lack of spiritual growth can have dangerous consequences. He is not saying that believers can lose their salvation. But the longer a believer wanders from the truth, the more difficult it will become for them to repent. And ultimately they will reach a point where they are living and acting as an unbeliever, and their return to Christ will appear as if His saving work was insufficient the first time. It will be like crucifying the living Lord all over again. Apostasy makes a mockery of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. That is why we are to grow. Apostasy is the very real result of complacency. Paul tells us that when the church is equipping its people and they are ministering to one another, we all grow and “we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth” (Ephesians 4:14 NLT). We are to keep on growing in Christ-likeness, allowing the Spirit of God to use the Word of God to change us from the inside out. “Then you will not become spiritually dull and indifferent. Instead, you will follow the example of those who are going to inherit God’s promises because of their faith and endurance” (Hebrews 6:12 NLT).