A Call to Maturity and Perseverance
Our joy should be boundless when we read this most difficult paragraph. I know it is one of the most sober warnings found in the word of God. No believer can hear of the danger of falling away from Christ and not ask with the eleven at the table with Jesus, “Lord is it I?” Even so, there is a tremendous reality in the warning. Christians grow. The new birth always issues forth in the new life – progressively, never perfect or straight line development. Christian growth is painful, often occurs as a result of yielding to God’s will in very trying circumstances, and is never easy or controllable. God is the master gardener, and we are his plantings. We shall never reach a place where we can rest on our laurels or say, “I have arrived,” but God is now with us in Christ. We shall bear much fruit so that he is glorified (John 15:8). Because he is with us and has made a covenant with us, this glorious promise will unfold in us: “But the path of the just is as the shining light, that shines more and more unto the perfect day” (Prov. 4:18).
This places the Christian in a very different position from the rest of the world’s population. He is hopeful. Whatever else may be happening to him, he knows that God is with him and that it is God’s will for him to thrive in the particular soil God has him in at the moment (2 Cor. 12:9-10). Thus, the Christian does not rest upon past experiences of grace or look forward to spiritual retirement. O, what a tragedy to see older believers thinking of getting off the battlefield and heading to the beach when many of life’s most shaping crucibles lie ahead of them. Nor does the Christian of creedal persuasion say, “Well I have my doctrines and my catechisms” – as truly necessary and wonderful as these are – “so I am set for life; there is nothing left to learn.” Praise God that he has had pity upon us and delivered us from being followers of external religiosity and dead gurus and lifeless systems! We do not master our religion, but our religion masters us and changes us more and more into the living image of our great Savior.
Christ in Us Grows
There is a glorious reason for this, a reason for our insistence upon a “growth mentality” in every child of God. We serve a living and reigning Savior. He came to give us abundant life! Whenever men know him in the Scriptures, they are changed. The disciples spent three years with him, but it is almost as if they did not really know him – until after his passion, resurrection, and ascension. The Spirit was poured out, and he connected the dots between prophecy and fulfillment, between redemption accomplishment and redemption applied – all in union with Christ. This radically altered them. Instead of wanting to call down fire from heaven to burn up the Samaritans, they “went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). The Word of God grew in them and multiplied, because Christ grew in them. As they walked with him and remained constant in his word, just as he said, they bore much fruit (John 15:1-8). Even their most determined enemies acknowledged that they had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).
He is the reality, the consuming life that guarantees that all Christians who abide in Christ will bring forth fruit. Our faith has fundamental doctrines, as this very passage teaches, but they are to be used and built upon so that we grow. In one sense, we are to leave them – by allowing them to control us so completely that we stretch like spiritual oaks toward heaven and new vistas of understanding and godliness. But this is Christ in us. We cannot know him and remain unfruitful (2 Pet. 1:8). The call to move on to perfection in him is at least as challenging as the warning against apostasy – perhaps more so. We serve a living Savior, as the old hymn says, and ignorance and low experience of him explains the dormancy and fruitlessness of many within the church. It explains why many that can give an orthodox confession are miserable in their actual experience of the faith they profess. The seriousness of the warning against falling away from Christ carries with it the equally strong invitation to draw closer to Christ, to learn of him, to make him your highest good, so that “for you, to live is Christ.”
Growth in All Seasons
Now, I want to tell you something that has shocked me as I have considered this passage. God encouraged these believers to grow and to be carried forward to maturity in the very worst of circumstances. We tend to think, “Well, when this difficulty gets fixed in my life, then I will give my attention to spiritual things.” God sings a different tune. He says, in effect, that I want you growing all the time. I have given you my Word, my Son, and my Spirit. You have everything you need. And in fact, the worst your circumstances are, the more of my power and grace and sufficiency I will reveal to you. So, what you need to do is to stop making excuses or looking for the magic solution to your problems. That is what these Christians facing persecution were doing. Ah, it is about to get bad again. Let’s place all this Christ and holiness business on hold until we can save our skins. God said, “Do not worry about your skins; stand still and see my salvation. Trust me and commit yourself to me; live by faith in my word. Do you not remember your history – all the heroes of faith grew and overcame and stood for me in horrible circumstances. I led them there to show them and the whole universe that it is not by man’s power but by my Spirit that my people persevere and overcome.” Such an attitude adjustment, dear believer, may be exactly what you need. Your circumstances are not a free pass to take it easy; they are God’s intense vitamin shot urging you to grow, hold fast to Christ, and honor and serve him where he has called you.
Growth in Christ our Only Protection against Falling Away (vv. 1-3)
Understand the Doctrine of Christ
Because we are indwelled by the living Spirit of our living, reigning Lord, growth is the dynamic of our lives. This cannot be said often enough. Stagnation and dull hearing are the opposites of life in Christ. They are dangerous declines against which we must constantly guard. If you feel you are in such a decline, make immediate application to Jesus Christ, tell him your sins and failing and fears, confess and repent of them, and seek life in him and strength unto holiness. Seek to be found in him: “Lord, save me, I am drowning,” and he will! This eagerness for growth in Christ is exactly what we see in this “leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ.” It is not the way we would say it today, but he is telling us that we must leave or move past the ABC’s of our faith. We cannot really forsake them, for someone reading a complex book is still remembering his ABC’s, but we must build upon them and improve them. Imagine a homebuilder who builds one foundation after another – but never builds the house! God has given us these precious truths so that we may grow into maturity in Christ by using them. He would not have us to be like those who were “ever learning but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7).
Some in the church never move past repentance and faith. At one level, we never leave them, for turning from our sins is our daily way of life. This of necessity leads us to God’s promise of mercy in his Son. Yet, through obedience and maturation, we shall sin less and thus learn other truths of our Savior’s fullness – such as the power of his Spirit overcoming our sins, and the delightfulness of obedience and the secret power of holiness, all of which are the fruits of true repentance. He adds the doctrines of baptisms and the laying on of hands as initiatory signs and seals of Christian disciples. “Baptisms” may be plural because of their acquaintance with the baptisms of John and of the Holy Spirit, for they were Jewish believers. The laying on of hands was the sign of receiving the blessings symbolized in baptism, the Holy Spirit and his gifts. To this beginning doctrine the apostle joins the resurrection and eternal judgment. Unless we believe in a resurrected Savior and have fled to him from the wrath to come, we can by no means be considered Christians.
Now, before leaving these ourselves, we should also be humbled by the ignorance of these basics in some parts of the church of our Lord. In other quarters, it is not that the basics have been forgotten as much as they have been replaced, especially by social issues, niche preferences, and family commitments that however biblical, are not the basic doctrines of Christ. The mention of these basics gives us an opportunity to make sure we are really holding fast to the basics and practicing them. Immeasurable is the growth that will come by daily humbling ourselves before God for our sins and seeking and trusting his promise of mercy through Jesus Christ! And then to remember our baptism, that we are called by God’s name and have his Spirit of truth and holiness. We are indwelled by the Spirit of Christ and of God; we are God’s temple – imagine how different our response to evil, courageous our stand against evil, and bright the light that would shine from us if we simply lived in the light of these “basics.” And are we living as those who have been raised with Christ and are expecting to be raised from the dead? To be approved in the day of judgment and to reign with Christ? The Spirit calls these “first principles of Christ,” but they are incredibly glorious and powerful foundations upon which to seek growth in him. We do not need new things; we simply need to believe, obey, and build upon the old!
Carried Forward to Perfection
Never leaving these fundamental doctrines in such a way that we forget and must be taught them over again (5:12), we must leave them in such a way that we are “carried forward to perfection.” The verb is passive, signifying that it is not in our strength to move toward Christian maturity. It is the power of God working through his word and Spirit that upholds and brings growth (1 Cor. 3:7). Even in those early days of the church, with the Spirit of holiness having been recently poured out and the kingdom of God advancing on every side, the divine principle of growth was clear: “But the word of God grew and multiplied” (Acts 6:7; 12:24; 19:24). Hearing this, we should not sit on our hands and wait for lightning to strike; instead, we must stir ourselves up to seek the Lord and the growth he brings. We might approach it like this: “Lord, I have repented of my sins and believe your promise of mercy. I have been baptized and have your Holy Spirit. I believe and seek union and strength in my resurrected Lord and know that I must live as one who shall soon stand before his judgment seat. Will you help these truths to bear fruit in me unto holiness? Will you work in my life and build a beautiful dwelling place for yourself upon the foundation of these wondrous gospel truths?” This is the way we are carried forward to maturity and to perfection – by believing and using the doctrines of Christ and seeking the power of God to cause them to grow in us so that we become more obedient, consecrated to him, and determined to serve him. This determination is vital, for limp-wristed Christianity will take you nowhere good. It will not be able to stand in the day of conflict. It will give in, turn inward, complain, or fall away. God has given us his truth in Christ so that we may build our lives upon it, grow up into it by thinking and praying and using his word to our joy and hope in believing and in godliness.
Commit Yourself into God’s Hand
To the passive verb he adds this thought to depend upon the Lord for growth: “And this we shall do if God permits.” The Lord is never to be blamed for our sluggishness or lack of growth. It is completely our fault. Our dependence upon his will must lead us to seek him and his strength. He invites us to do so; he is full of pity joined with power and constantly willing to help us. It is absolutely true that our maturity depends upon God’s blessing. It is equally true that he has made the condition of his blessing to be our asking. If we do not ask, we shall not receive. If we do not ask, it may be that we do not trust his promise, or that we lack zeal for his honor, or that we need to be punched in the ears so that we wake up. Our dependence upon the Lord and his willingness to help must stir us up when we consider the great difficulties through which we must pass before entering his eternal kingdom. We face an unrelenting foe in the devil. The world’s siren call finds too willing an ear in our flesh. We fear men – against our belief in God’s sovereignty and his commandment not to fear men but to make him our dread. We are so pathetically weak. When soldiers and traitors are marching up the hill of our faith to move us from Christ, let us be found as our Savior was, in holy Gethsemane, calling upon his Father for help. He has shown the way to overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil. We must seek his help. He will never fail us.
We must seek him fervently, not half-asleep or going through the motions. We must stir ourselves up by believing his promises, remembering his help to his people down through the ages, and looking at Jesus (Ps. 119:52). There he sits at the Father’s right hand, standing also in the midst of the throne, his robes dripping with the blood of his enemies, his nail-pierced hands testifying to his dying and living love for us. He will help. We have an anchor there, a pledged intercessor, a rock of ages pleading for us by his very presence. He is the covenant. We shall move forward to maturity and not fall away because we have such a helper. Are you turning to him, believer, in your troubles? Are you pouring out your soul to him? Do so now. He will never turn you away. And if you turn to him, he will fill you with such strength that you are then able to turn and face the foe, even the foe of your own doubts. And what is the answer, the strength, the sword? It is Jesus Christ in his loveliness, his saving power, his availing intercession for us. None who look to him will ever be lost or fall away. When we come to him, he keeps us. This is God’s will – our sanctification in the truth (John 17:17; 1 Thess. 4:3), that he lose none of his but lead each of his sheep until he raises them to glory forever.
It is necessary, then, for each one of us to examine the expectations that govern our hearts? Do we expect for God to honor his word and his truth to grow in us? Do we believe that he wants us to grow in Christ and that Jesus will do mighty works in us? What sins or fears or compromises have stunted our growth or made us unable to call upon the Lord with fervent and believing hearts? God loves us, and he has come to dwell in us and walk with us by his Spirit. Where he is, there is liberty, life, and growth. Expect him to transform you. Call upon the Lord Jesus and seek for his life and grace to grow in you. If you do these things, you will never fail. You will never turn from Christ, but your troubles will turn you to him. What you thought would be the worst day of your life will turn out to be one of your best, because you yielded to the Lord and sought his strength. Turning to him, he gave you grace and strength to overcome every obstacle and obey him as the joy of your life. When you read this warning that follows, understand, then, that God is calling you to grow in Christ so that you never fall away from him but grow in love for your Savior and learn to walk joyfully with him.