I spent a lot of my Christian life confused about the elementary principles of the faith as taught in Hebrews 6:1-2. Obviously, these “principles of the doctrine of Christ” are supposed to be simple. The writer of Hebrews wants us to leave them behind and go on to maturity.
They were not so simple for me as a young Christian, though. They are:
- Repentance from dead works. Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges wrote books in the 1990’s saying that turning from sin was not necessary to salvation. John MacArthur wrote one disagreeing with them. And what are “dead works”?
- Faith toward God. This wasn’t so bad. Almost everyone in my circles believed in salvation by faith alone. We believe; Jesus saves. Simple.
- The doctrine of baptisms. The Baptists said we were baptized in the Holy Spirit when we were baptized in water. The Pentecostals and charismatics said the baptism in the Holy Spirit was a separate experience. The United Pentecostals, who were (and are) divided from other Pentecostals, said we were not saved unless we had a separate baptism of the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues. I met a guy who said there are three baptisms. Dake’s Study Bible said there are seven!
- Laying on of hands. This was as bad as baptisms. Was this about the Pentecostals laying hands on a person so they are baptized in the Holy Spirit? Was it about ordaining people to ministry? Was it both?
- The resurrection of the dead. This was more simple. Everyone I knew believed Jesus would raise us from the dead some day, the Christians at the rapture, and everyone else at the Great White Throne Judgment of Revelation 20.
- Eternal Judgement. Here the confusion was at a peak. Most people I knew said we would only be judged for our good works, despite the fact that this directly contradicts 2 Corinthians 5:10. Others agreed with the apostle Paul that our bad works would be judged, but our salvation would not be at stake, based on 1 Corinthians 3:15. There seemed to be general agreement that the Judgment of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46) was a judgment of nations that individuals did not have to worry about, which I considered (and consider) bizarre. Almost everyone taught that the judgment seat of Christ, mentioned in 2 Corinthians 5:10, is different than the Great White Throne Judgment of Revelation 20:11-15.
Researching Hebrews 6:1-2
It took me about a year after becoming a Christian to conclude that I would never find one explanation of these supposedly “basic” doctrines from the divided denominations. I knew, too, that if the Bible was complicated enough to produce all these competing interpretations, it would be no easy task to read it openly and honestly enough to find those answers from the Bible.
What ensued was a 7-year long puzzling over the Bible. I am certain I read it cover to cover 10 times, and the New Testament at least 15 times. The result of this careful search was that if I wanted to have any fellowship, I needed to be very slow about revealing what I was finding.
I did have to introduce my theories to one person as quickly as possible: the girl I wanted to marry. Lorie Maynard was a real trooper who, despite her denominational upbringing, judged teachers by their fruit (Matt. 7: 15-20), not by her traditions. She listened, she could see and understand my arguments, and she married me. Nonetheless, only a few weeks into our marriage, she asked me, “How can you be the only one who is right?”
I assured her that it was almost impossible that I was right. People don’t come to the fullness of truth on their own, not anyone, and not me. I also assured her that the pastor and leaders of the church we were attending were definitely wrong, whether I was right or not. They had little regard for the words of Scripture and ferocious, defensive regard for their traditions. I did not have to convince here of that; it was obvious.
Two years later, someone gave me a book called Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up. The author, David Bercot, evaluated the teachings of 9 notable church fathers from the second and third centuries. He then wrote on several doctrines with these guidelines:
- He would only write about doctrines that at least five of them wrote about.
- He would only write about doctrines that they were 100% agree on.
I was stunned by the book. My breath was taken away. Except for their teaching on non-violence, a doctrine I had been unable to draw a conclusion on, the book agreed with me on every doctrine it covered.
Lorie and I were running a Christian bookstore at the time, and I finished the book one day at work. When I got home, my wife was reading in bed. I threw the book on the bed by her feet, and I said, “I’m not wrong. I was just born in the wrong century.”
Solving the Riddle of Hebrews 6:1-2
I am not gong to argue for the following interpretations of the basics of the faith as found in Hebrews 6:1-2. I am just going to list what the second and third century churches, and I, say those elementary principles mean. I have plenty of posts defending these interpretations.
- Repentance from dead works. Repentance is a necessary pre-requisite to baptism (e.g., Acts 2:38). Repentance is indeed just changing our minds, but it is changing our minds about Christ. “Christ” means “anointed one.” The Christ is a King, and a person is saved by confessing Jesus as Christ and Lord (Jn. 20:31; Rom. 10:9-10). Thus, repentance is a complete change from doing our will to doing the King’s will. (As for “dead works,” since the letter to the Hebrews is written to Jews, the “dead works” are the works of the law by which the Jews were trying to be saved.)
- Faith towards God. Belief in God leads to obeying God. No obedience, no belief. This is as obvious in our modern American experience as it was in second-century Christianity. If I were to tell you I believed in Dave Ramsey, then went to the bank for a loan on anything other than a house (with at least 20% down), you could and would conclude I did not really believe in Dave Ramsey. The same is true of faith towards God. If you don’t make strong effort to do his will, you don’t believe in him (cf. Acts 26:20; 1 Jn. 2:3-4).
- The Doctrine of Baptisms. The second- and third-century Christians baptized those who believed in water for the purpose of the forgiveness of sins and regeneration. In fact, in early Christianity, “baptism” and “born again” were synonymous terms. This did not mean baptism magically regenerated people. It was the way faith was expressed, and it was the entrance into the church and the kingdom of God. Today we have replaced baptism with the sinner’s prayer. The early churches baptized by immersion three times. Before the first immersion, the convert was asked if he believed in the Father, before the second if he believed in Jesus Christ the Son, and before the third if he believed in the Holy Spirit. After baptism, he or she was anointed with oil by the elders, and they prayed for the newly baptized person to receive the Holy Spirit. They did not expect the gift of tongues or any other gift, though Irenaeus says, around A.D. 185, that there were still some who spoke in tongues.
- Resurrection of the dead. I admit to still being confused on this because the early Christians seemed to believe in only one resurrection in which the righteous and the unrighteous are judged (cf. Matt. 25:31-46; Jn. 5:28-30). Personally, though, the “rapture” in 1 Thessalonians 4, especially combined with the “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” in 1 Corithians 15, indicates to me that there is a first resurrection of the righteous, and then a resurrection of all with a judgment in Revelation 20.
- Eternal Judgment. There will be judgment according to works at which those who do evil, whether they think they are Christians or not, are condemned to fire, and the righteous are given eternal life (Matt. 7:21-23; 25:31-46; Jn. 5:28-30; cf. Rev. 3:4). The common modern appeal to 1 Corinthians 3:15 is a reference to the good or poor teaching of apostles and teachers, not to the good works of the righteous.
I generally allow all comments except from those who keep commenting long after real discussion has ended and except for trolls. Today, though, I am going to limit comments to discussion and questions and delete tradition-based protests.