Church Growth (Hebrews 5:11—6:8)

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The concept of church growth is at the forefront of much theological discussion. It is often focused on numerical growth, which is not necessarily wrong—depending on motive. We are experiencing numerical growth at BBC, and it is healthy growth.

But there is another, far more important, aspect of church growth: spiritual growth. Spiritual growth was the burden of the apostles for the churches to which they ministered. Consider, as an example, Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus:

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.

(Ephesians 4:11-16)

Numerical growth is not unimportant, but spiritual growth is the issue. Numerical growth can, after all be unhealthy. A mushroom may sprout quickly after heavy rain, but it dies just as quickly. The growth of an oak tree, on the other hand, is steady and lasting. It is oak-like growth that we desire in our churches.

The question to be asked is simply this: Is the growth caused by God? Are the converts the converts of Christ? D. L. Moody was once walking down a street when he was accosted by a drunk man. The man greeted him enthusiastically and declared, “Mr. Moody, I am one of your converts!” Moody wisely replied, “I suspect you are one of my converts, for you are definitely not Christ’s convert.” He understood that conversion is attended by fruit.

The writer of this epistle was concerned for the spiritual growth of these Hebrew Christians. This is particularly revealed in the passage before us. He wanted them to grow up. He desired their spiritual maturity. He knew that if they did not grow up then they would go backwards. In fact, he was concerned about the danger of apostasy—the danger of those who had professed faith in Christ completely turning away from Christ. Where there is life there is growth. And this was his concern, for it appeared that some were not growing.

It would be good for us to pause here to consider what spiritual maturity, spiritual growth really looks like.

Very simply, it looks like the character of Jesus Christ reproduced in our life. Jesus is the Vine and believers are the branches. Branches produce what is in the vine. Therefore, Christian growth looks like the second man from heaven; it looks like the perfect man.

This reproduction of Christlike fruit comes from relationship with Christ. It is the result of devotion to Christ, manifested by the development of Christlikeness. It is caused by devotion to Christ manifested by discernment of Christ from the Scriptures. It comes about through devotion to Christ manifested by declaration of Christ (5:12). If this devotion is missing, then departure from Christ may be the result (6:4-8).

So, what is necessary for church growth? Or, how can we guard against apostasy? The text points to several truths. As we consider these truths together, let us recognise that the text makes use of plural pronouns. While individual Christians are to grow, church growth is a corporate affair.

We Must Listen Up

The first principle we must heed in order to guard against apostasy can be found in 5:11-14:

of whom we have much to say, and 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 first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.

(Revelation 5:11-14)

We must listen up. This is the bedrock issue. If we are not able to appreciate the revelation of Christ then we are not growing up.

These saints had grown “dull” or “sluggish” (6:12) in hearing. They were no longer able to see beyond the shadow to the Saviour. They were relying on a system rather than on the Saviour. Ritual had replaced relationship. Routine had replaced reverence. They still talked a lot about “God,” but they were not hearing the gospel. They were not dull of hearing because the material with which the author was dealing was difficult to understand. They were dull of hearing because they had allowed themselves to become confused about the basic doctrines of Christianity rather than boldly declaring those truths to others.

They needed to get rid of the deafening wax if they would hear and savour the Saviour. Apart from this they could not function faithfully or fruitfully.

They were no longer listening up because they were no longer standing up. But what had produced this? What had led to this? The answer is simple: fear from unbelief. They had abandoned their first love and so their knowledge became theoretical. It is always like this.

The principle is simply this: Those who take up their cross and follow Christ find themselves increasingly in need of Christ, and therefore they listen for and to Him in His Word. Jesus said that His sheep hear His voice and follow Him. Indeed, His sheep deliberately listen for His voice so that they can follow Him.

The question before us is, if we have become dull of hearing, what ought we to do?

Simply, we must recognise that we have a problem and then go to the Physician. We were privileged some time ago to have Mark Dever in our pulpit. Shortly before the service started, he asked me if I had an ear bud. He had something in his ear that was causing a problem. I told him that I had no ear bud, but that there is an ear-nose-throat specialist in our church. I introduced him to Duane, who quickly rushed to his office to get the equipment he needed to take care of the problem. With Duane’s help, the problem was resolved and Dever stood in our pulpit. He told me afterwards that, had Duane not helped him, he likely would not have been able to preach. His hearing problem would have prevented him from speaking. In similar fashion, the spiritual auditory sluggishness of the Hebrews was preventing them from speaking as they ought to have done.

Listen, then, for the voice of the Shepherd, and don’t rest satisfied until you hear Him! Listen up, and then stand up, which will motivate us to listen up some more.

We Must Move On

The second major principle, found in 6:1-3, is that we must move on. There are some things we must give up if we will move forward and experience church growth.

Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgement. And this we will do if God permits.

(Revelation 6:1-3)

If we will grow up then we must listen up, which means we must move forward. In a sense, we must “give up.” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). The author is saying very much the same to the Hebrews in 6:1-3.

The chapter begins with the word “therefore,” which connects it to what has been written before. They ought to have been far more mature than they were (5:11-14). “Therefore,” they needed to listen up so that they could stand up.

In order to grow up, they needed to be willing to “leaving” some things behind. The word “leaving” means “to abandon.” It is used in the Gospels of the disciples “leaving” their nets in order to follow Christ. It is used of the Ephesian church in Revelation 2:1-7, which had “left” its first love.

Here, the believers were to be “leaving the discussions of the elementary principles of Christ.” They were not to abandon the truths themselves, but to abandon a constant, unnecessary rehashing of those truths. They needed to be stretched.

Abandoning a constant rehashing of the “elementary principles,” they needed to “go on to perfection.” Perfection here speaks of maturity, rather than sinless perfection. Again, the author speaks of “us” attaining that maturity. Spiritual maturity—church growth—is a group effort.

The “elementary principles” were simple truths. To rehash those truths all the time was to be lazy. These believers needed to think hard if they would grow healthy. They needed to exercise. They needed to be stretched. Preaching and teaching should stretch us—if we are willing to engage.

To be unhealthily focused on the “elementary principles” was to be “laying again the foundation.” It seems that the author is speaking here of being catechised. Evidently, at least some segments of the early church had catechised (discipled) new converts in some of these essentials. Perhaps this was a part of preparation for baptism and church membership. There are three broad areas of catechism noted here—soteriology, pneumatology and eschatology—that fell under the category of “elementary principles.” The writer mentions six specific areas, but there are really three couplets.

Soteriology

First, the author writes of “repentance from dead works and faith toward God.” This is where the Christian life begins. It is not that the author wanted his readers to abandon this crucial doctrine, but he wanted them to quit debating the obvious. In all their debating, they were failing to declare this crucial truth to those in need of forgiveness. It may cost them dearly to stop debating this truth among themselves and to instead preach it to the lost, but so be it. They needed to move on. They needed to give up whatever was necessary in order to follow Christ.

Pneumatology

Second, the writer speaks of “the doctrine of baptisms and laying on of hands.” Here, he is referencing pneumatology—the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. These were initiating rites into the Christian faith.

The word translated “baptism” here is not the usual word, which we relate to immersion in water. It is a word, instead, that speaks of “washing,” and refers here to that spiritual baptism by which believers are washed by the Spirit at conversion. But, of course, this is closely tied throughout the New Testament to water baptism.

Baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit will make one radically set apart from the crowd. So be it! Move on! Do what you must to identify with Christ.

Eschatology

Third, the writer addresses the area of eschatology: “of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgement.” He does not address the intricacies of eschatology as we think of them today—the rapture, the Millennium, the mark of the beast, etc.—but he speaks of eschatological issues affirmed universally by orthodox Christianity: the general resurrection and the final judgement (which follow the second coming). These are issues that require no debate.

The implication here is to the lordship of Christ. Christianity filled out the Old Testament doctrine of resurrection and judgement and personalised it in Christ. This got Paul in deep trouble (see Acts 23:6-7; 24:14-16, 21), and it would no doubt stir up opposition for these believers. So be it! Stand up, stand up for Jesus!

The summary is simply this: Stop rehashing with a view to reinventing the message. Embrace it and move on. Give up the childish things of being approved of men (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:4; 2 Timothy 2:15; James 1:12). The Pharisees “loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:42-43) and did “not seek the honour that comes from the only God” (John 5:39-44), and this is hardly something to be emulated.

These ancient truths remain today. Don’t be ashamed of the gospel. Rather, grow up!

Again, these were foundational issues. The expectation was that they would progress deeper into the gospel and into Christ-centred and gospel-centred commitment. However, it appears that some were not progressing. It is not that these areas were not areas of deep truth, but these believers were not growing as church members; they were not growing as Christians—and lack of growth may indicate lack of grace, lack of life. They had been through initial discipleship but had not grown beyond that. And this was evidenced by flirting with Christless religion.

A. T. Robertson notes, “The foundation is important, but one cannot be laying the foundation always if he is to build the house.”1 Church growth means moving beyond discussion to devotion. Church growth requires moving from words to worship. Church growth requires moving from facts to faith. Church growth requires moving from principles to practice. Church growth requires moving from lingo to love. Church growth requires moving from awareness to affection. We must move forward and build on the foundation. If we do not, then the foundation itself will be of little value.

The writer knew that church growth is dependent upon God. He writes in v. 3, “And this we will do if God permits.” “This” is not a reference to “laying again the foundation” but to “go[ing] on to perfection.” He wanted them to go on to maturity, but they would only move on and mature “if God permits.” This is an essential statement.

The verses that follow show us that we need more than information and experience. We need new birth. The point is simply this: Church growth comes not merely by the “will of man” but by the will of God (John 1:12-13; 1 Corinthians 3:5-7ff; Ephesians 4:15-16).

A church’s devotion to Christ cannot be orchestrated or manufactured. Yes, we are responsible, but only God can move hearts. Just as a farmer cannot staple apples onto a dead apple tree, we cannot manufacture fruit where there is no real root. Church growth must be God-centred. We cannot expect luscious fruit from dead branches. Only God can effectively move us on to give up.

We Must Sober Up

In vv. 4-8, we learn that we need to wake up to the reality of apostasy and the impossibility of us (ultimately) changing minds and hearts. We need to seriously consider the danger of apostasy.

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame. For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned.

(Hebrews 6:4-8)

“For” connects to the statement of v. 3. That is, “We will grow up, if God permits, for otherwise those who are dull of hearing will remain so. Apart from God’s intervention, there is no hope.”

This passage has been mishandled by many throughout church history, but given the overall context, it is actually not that difficult to interpret.

First, we must note unequivocally that it is not teaching that a genuine believer in Christ can ever lose his salvation. The eternal security of the believer is clear in the New Testament, as a few sample texts will show:

  • John 6:37-44—“All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” The Jews then complained about Him, because He said, “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” And they said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He says, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus therefore answered and said to them, “Do not murmur among yourselves. No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
  • John 10:27-30—“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. I and My Father are one.”
  • Romans 8:28-30—And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
  • Philippians 1:6—Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.
  • Ephesians 2:8-10—For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
  • Jude 24-25—Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to God our Saviour, who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen.

Second, it is not speaking of a merely hypothetical case. Some argue that the writer is simply saying that if—hypothetically speaking—a believer were to deny Christ, it would be impossible to renew him. But if it is hypothetical, what is the value of the warning? He would be warning them against nothing!

In reality, this text teaches that some are dull of hearing because they have not been born again and that, humanly speaking, it is impossible to restore them (v. 8). If they will not embrace the foundation, then no house can be built. If they will not believe the gospel, there is nothing else to offer them. God wills (v. 3) that His people persevere. He does not necessarily will that all who have claimed to be His people will persevere (see 1 John 5:14-17). The passage, then, is motivation to persevere.

There is a (human) impossibility of restoring those who depart. And those who depart are not those with a merely formal connection with the church, but rather those who seemingly had a fellowship connection with the church. Let me explain.

Consider, according to the writer, what these individuals had experienced.

First, they were “once enlightened.” This indicates that they had had exposure to the light of the gospel. The word “enlightened” means “to shine” or “to illumine” (see Hebrews 10:32). They had had more than a passing acquaintance with the gospel message. They had in some way been enlightened as to its truth. There is, in fact, historical evidence that the word was used by the post-apostolic church to speak of those who had made a profession and been baptised.

Second, they had “tasted the heavenly gift.” The same word is used in 2:9 to describe Jesus’ experience (“taste”) of death. It speaks of a deep experience, and here describes some form of very real, spiritual experience. Perhaps there is reference here to the Lord’s Supper, so that these had not only been baptised, but had also partaken of Communion.

Third, they had “become partakers of the Holy Spirit.” This does not necessarily indicate that these people had been truly regenerated by the Spirit, but that they had experienced the convicting ministry of the Spirit. In church life, they had experienced the communion of the saints (2 Corinthians 13:14). They had experienced the blessings of church life.

Fourth, they had “tasted the good Word of God.” They had experienced—and even enjoyed—the blessings that come from biblical exposition and even biblical practice. I was recently having a discussion with a man who had worked alongside John MacArthur for some ten years, and he told me of a Mormon university that had once approached MacArthur, expressing appreciation for the way he expounds Scripture, and asked whether he would be willing to teach at the university a class on exposition. MacArthur declined—though he offered to teach the gospel—but it was a stark illustration of the fact that even unbelievers can appreciate biblical exposition.

Fifth, they had been exposed to “powers of the age to come.” “Powers” speaks of miracle or force. They had experienced the miracle of the new age and the hope that came with it. Like the Pharisees who witnessed a miracle but attributed it to the power of Satan (Matthew 12:22-28), these people had been fully exposed to the light of the gospel but had fully rejected it.

Verse 6 offers the terrible conclusion: It is impossible “if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.” If someone has experienced all of this, and yet they depart and deliberately fall away, they are in the same condition as the evil and adulterous generation that crucified Jesus. They may have said to Him, “Lord, Lord,” but He does not know them (Matthew 7:22-23).

The Israelite exodus generation experienced the power of God in the Passover, and yet they fell in the wilderness. Judas experienced everything that his fellow disciples experienced—and even had them all fooled—but he fell away as a son of destruction. Simon the sorcerer “believed” the preaching of Philip, and was baptised with the others who professed faith, but he showed his true colours when he tried to buy the power of the Spirit, and Peter declared forthrightly, “You are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity” (Acts 8:9-25).

Morris concludes, “The writer is saying that when people have entered into the Christian experience far enough to know what it is all about and have then turned away, then, as far as they themselves are concerned, they are crucifying Christ. In that state they cannot repent.”2

The text is emphasising that, humanly, it is impossible to renew such an apostate; it is saying nothing about what God may or may not “permit.” There is only so much that we can do in calling people to follow Christ. Don’t be surprised or dismayed when not everyone embraces church growth.

The author then moves on to a very apt illustration in vv. 7-8: “For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned.” This illustration would be familiar to those who were acquainted with Jesus’ parable of the sower in Matthew 13.

This agricultural illustration was designed to drive home the seriousness of this condition. The point is that when gospel blessings are rained upon you, the response is never neutral. Rather, the result is either blessing or cursing.

The same piece of ground, sowed with the same seed, experienced the same frequency of rain. Yet for some there was a fruitful field, blessed by God. God was pleased that it fulfilled its purpose. For others, an unfruitful field was rejected and cursed by God for not fulfilling its God-intended purpose. The warning is this: Though salvation is of the Lord, God holds us responsible for how we respond to gospel blessings. Our response invites either covenantal blessings or covenantal curses. “The fact is, the life-giving rain of God’s grace falls on all of us in the worshipping community, and if we allow it to bring forth fruit we will be blessed. If not, there is only a curse.”3

Beware of lying in the water! If you do not receive it with a willing heart, it may in fact kill you spiritually.

We are responsible for, though not the cause of, church growth. We must heed God’s Word ourselves and grow in grace, and we must boldly call others to do the same.

Perseverance is aided by such warnings. Again, the author is not speaking hypothetically. There is a very real danger of being exposed to church life and all its privileges—baptism, Communion, preaching, vibrant church life, etc.—and yet apostatising. Let us consistently examine ourselves and persevere in the faith.

If we will see real church growth, we must take God’s Word seriously and believe it perseveringly. If each church member does so, we will experience biblical church growth. We will grow up, which means that, in the end, we will stand up and speak up as we continue to listen up.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960), 5:373.
  2. Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:56.
  3. R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul, 2 vols. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 1:161.