Something had been bothering me for a while, but exactly what was unclear until it leaped out at me in my studies the other day. Read this familiar passage, Hebrews 5:11 through 6:2:
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
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 (Heb. 5:11–6:2).
Does anything about this passage bother you? Read 6:1–2 again. Now?
What’s been eating at me for some time and I did not see it is that we have a large segment of Christians who are highly advanced in nothing but the fundamentals, and their leaders have never moved them on. Through an abundance of study and reading theology books, podcasts, conferences, etc., we have created an illusion of maturity without the substance of it. Let me explain.
We are all familiar with the author of Hebrews chiding his audience for their spiritual immaturity—their reliance on “milk” and their inability to digest “meat.” I remember from very early in my theological journey, as a young Reformed reader, devouring R.C. Sproul’s books. One small pamphlet he wrote addressed this issue, and I remembered something special from it. I still have it. In that little pamphlet, I found the line that had stuck out to me so many years ago: “There is a vast difference, however, between a childlike faith and a childish faith, though the two are often confused.”1
The rest of the booklet is taken up largely with analyzing reasons why people do not study theology more, and giving reasons why they should. This is good, for true beginners, but it needs to go much further. For good reason, Sproul himself recently got righteously angered with a conference audience for not even absorbing the basic ideas he’s been teaching for decades now. His frustration showed as he bellowed, “What’s wrong with you people?! I’m serious! This is what’s wrong with the Christian church today.”
I can feel his pain. Christians too often don’t even read up on the foundational elements. But worse, those that do often stay there reading books on the same foundational topics for the rest of their lives. Full-orbed worldview application seems too radical, too controversial, too much of a sacrifice, sometimes too antisocial.
The real conviction for us today, therefore, lies in exactly what this passage in Hebrews considers to be “milk.” Read it. It is virtually everything we today consider to be the meat of theology: the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of repentance, the doctrine of faith alone, the doctrine of baptism, the doctrine of laying-on-of-hands, the doctrine of resurrection, and the doctrine of final judgment. Kindergarten, all.
These are the doctrines the author says are mere fundamentals and from which we need to “leave” and “go on to maturity.” In other words, we don’t really need another book on Christology, or hell, or “the gospel.” We need Christians to move on from these foundations.
What is maturity?
An important question to ask, then, at this point, is, “What exactly is this “maturity” to which we are supposed to move on?” If most of the things we normally think of as “theology” are actually just the fundamental milk of it, what then is the meat?
It is instructive to see that the book of Hebrews itself makes “maturity” (also translated “perfection”) a theme. The word used in 6:1 appears in other forms throughout the book as an attribute of what our High Priest, Christ, has already achieved for us, and for which the Aaronic priesthood and “the law” could not (2:10; 5:9; 7:11, 19; 7:28; 9:9, 11; 10:1; 10:14). It is also an attribute in which believers are said to share (11:40; 12:23). In other words, the perfection Christ has achieved is the type of maturity into which we should grow also. This is His work for us and in us. Fittingly, the word used in 6:1 is in the passive voice. It should literally read, “let us be moved on. . . .”
A brief study of this concept in Paul’s epistles reveals the same idea: growth unto maturity. What it reveals about that maturity/perfection is helpful for us:
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature [“perfect”—same word] manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Eph. 4:11–16).
A mature Christian, by this standard, will be one with full and sound doctrine, for sure. But there is more to it. Let’s read a bit more before we say what.
The word also appears in Colossians: “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14). What is the rule of perfection here? It is love. Same as in Ephesians 4 above. But how is this love expressed? Both passages (read the whole of Col. 3:1–4:6) make it clear that it is expressed through the work of ministry, self-control, self-improvement, conformity to God’s law, good works, good relationships within family, business, with employees, and a good witness to unbelievers. Indeed, a close reading of Colossians 3 will reveal that Paul is merely applying several of the Ten Commandments to all of life.
With all of this in mind, return to the book of Hebrews. You can actually see the exact same application being made, only it is spread out over the long, detailed argumentation that takes place in the book.
The author broaches it almost immediately already in chapter 6: “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” (Heb. 6:9–10). The standard is works of love and service. He immediately digresses into more detailed comparisons of Old and New Testaments. He first digressed into the maturity discussion in 5:11, when he left off about Melchizedek. He picks up on Melchizedek again in 7:1, and discusses the priesthood until the end of the chapter. He summarizes himself up to that point in 8:1–2, then speaks about the New Covenant. In 9–10, he discusses the “shadows” of the Old Covenant more, including the sacrifices and priesthood. In 10:14, he arrives at the point again: “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
This leads to a discussion of “how we should then live”—in the light of Jesus’ perfection for us and of us. It says this, in part:
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:23–24).
Again, “good works.” Then follows the famous chapter 11: a long list of good works and exploits accomplished “by faith.” This includes everything from subduing kingdoms to suffering the worst of persecutions.
We could say more about chapters 12 and 13 as well, but the point is clear: moving on to perfection/maturity means moving on from the learning of basic, foundational Christian doctrines to application by faith of those doctrines in every area of life.
While I don’t think intellectual assent to these ideas will involve much controversy at all, I believe a truly honest assessment of ourselves in light of them will be much more difficult. The vast majority of even serious Christians today are considered serious because they read lots of books and go to conferences. But the vast majority of Christian books and conferences I see are far closer to the topics of milk than meat. And yet, we feel as if the milk books we read are in reality meat.
Worse yet, the vast majority of Christian ministries out there keep their followers unweaned with an endless supply of materials on the basic gospel level, or even apologetics that deal mainly with foundational truths. I see endless debates over milk, and Christians addicted to the nipple. When presented with meat, they don’t even think it’s Christian. They don’t know what to do with it. They scoff and turn up their nose. As a result, followers can spend years or even decades stuck I the infancy described in Hebrews 6 while thinking they are being highly trained.
What is sorely needed is for Christians to move on from their studies of tulips and empty tombs, systematics and solas, and begin to consider how they can apply biblical truth to all of life—that is, consider how we can provoke one another to love and good works. The end of the Christian faith is a maturity defined by good works and service. It’s great that others have labored to build good foundations; but we are called to build upon those and go further. Let’s embrace a view of ministry that advances Christian worldview in every area of life.