Archive for July, 2011

The Principle of Repentance from Dead Works

Good works can be dead works

In this section we are not dealing with repentance from sin, nor are we speaking about evil works, but rather good works that are dead works. If good works are done for the wrong reason or wrong motivation, they are considered by God to be dead works. This is what the Principle of repentance from dead works is addressing.

It is a fairly simple matter to identify what dead works are, when we look at all the many works of the Law in the Old Covenant, required to attain to God’s righteous standard; in comparison with salvation in the New Testament, which is given to us by grace and not by works that we have to do.

“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.”[1] This dramatic change from having to keep 613 laws in the Old Testament in order to attain to a standard of righteousness acceptable to God; compared to the free gift of perfect righteousness by faith in Jesus; was a particularly hard concept for the Jews to understand.

One of the biggest controversies in the early church arose over the question of circumcision. It appears from Paul’s letter to the Galatians that after Paul and Barnabas had established various churches in that region, believing Jews had visited these new assemblies, comprising mainly Gentile believers (non-Jewish) and insisted that apart from believing in Jesus, they also needed to be circumcised and keep Moses’ Law.[2]

Paul’s whole letter to the Galatians deals with this subject very clearly and thoroughly. The controversy continued however, until it was necessary for the apostles and elders to meet in Jerusalem to get a consensus and clarity from the Lord as to how they should treat all the new Gentile believers.

In this meeting Peter declared, “Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.”[3]

The point being made in Galatians and in the Jerusalem conference in Acts chapter fifteen, is that if we base our salvation on any works, other than the work of Jesus on the cross, these works are in fact ‘dead works’ because they cannot produce life. Jesus fulfilled all the requirements of the Law and then bore our punishment for breaking God’s Laws, by dying on the cross in our place. It is therefore an insult to Jesus, to assume that something that we have done has also contributed to our salvation.

Application of this Principle today

As non-Jewish Christians living 2000 years after the Jerusalem Conference, we might feel that circumcision as a religious practice, is no longer an issue and therefore this question of repenting, or turning from dead works, is not particularly relevant to us anymore. However this is where we need to understand the ‘Principle of Repentance from Dead Works’ rather than the details and technicalities of this doctrine, as this principle is still vitally important to us in our relationship with Jesus Christ today.

The passage that we are examining in these articles is Hebrews chapter six and verse one. “Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works…”[4] The Greek word used in this verse for ‘principle’ is ‘arche’ which means, “beginning, corner, (at the, the) first (estate), magistrate, power, principality, principle, rule.”[5] Therefore we are examining the first rule (principle) which governs our understanding and application of the doctrine. Many situations and many different works can be governed by this one principle.

For example, if I believe that I must acknowledge Jesus and His work on the cross, but I also must be circumcised to please God, circumcision is a dead work in this case, because I am adding a ‘work’ to the Gospel of grace. By the same principle, however, I could subconsciously believe that if I fast every Monday, God will be more pleased with me and find me more acceptable to Him. In this case my fasting on every Monday is a dead work. The reason for this is that God finds us pleasing and acceptable to Him only because of the work of Jesus on the cross. We cannot enhance our standing with God by any works that we do. That does not mean that fasting on every Monday is a bad thing, but our reason for fasting is the all important aspect because God sees our hearts. We may fast to seek God’s face and thereby focus upon the Lord and draw near to Him, which is a very good work. But, if our fasting subtly forms part of the basis for God’s acceptance of us, then when we forget to fast, we will feel that we are less pleasing or less acceptable to God, which is not true. If this is the case, then we have shown that our fasting is in fact a dead work and we need to repent of that attitude.

Let us consider another example of how a good work can become a ‘dead work’. If I have some desperate need and I go to the Lord in prayer, I may well be tempted to make promises to God that I will do a number of good works, if He would answer my prayer, in the hope that my good works will make God more inclined to hear me. The opposite situation could also be true; I may feel that I have failed the Lord in so many ways; therefore He is less likely to hear and answer my prayer. In both of these examples we are demonstrating a lack of understanding and appreciation for this first and vital principle of repentance from dead works. The truth is, God receives me and inclines His ear to my prayer, not because of the good things I have done, or haven’t done. He receives me because I am acceptable to Him on the basis of what Jesus did on the cross and for no other reason. [6]

The Power and Liberating effect of this Principle

This Principle is very powerfully presented in Hebrews chapter nine and ten. It is good to read both of these chapters, to gain an insight into what the writer is saying about this subject. He starts in chapter nine to sketch a picture of the Tabernacle in the wilderness that Moses was instructed to build. He presents us with the various items of furniture in the Tabernacle and talks about the different sacrifices that had to be made for sin. God gave Moses many detailed instructions in Mount Sinai regarding the service of the Tabernacle. The building of the Tabernacle and all the ceremonies involved a lot of religious works, but concerning all of this the Lord makes this astounding statement: “It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience.”[7]

This verse brings us to the crux of the whole matter; we are introduced to the important part that our conscience plays in our motivation. The Lord teaches us in this chapter nine, from verse one through nine that even though these works, sacrifices and buildings were ordained of God, they had no power to cleanse our conscience.

Applying this to ourselves, even though we have come to understand that our sins have been forgiven by the death of Jesus on the cross, it is possible that this truth may not have clearly registered in our conscience. Guilt in our conscience is therefore the strongest motivator, for us to want to try to justify ourselves by good works. But the very fact that we do good deeds to justify ourselves before God is an indication that we have not grasped nor applied the ‘Principle of repentance from dead works’.

“But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”[8]

In these verses, eleven through fourteen, we are given the most liberating and wonderful truth. That Jesus has cleansed or purged our consciences from dead works to serve the living God. This truth provides the basis or foundation for a wonderfully secure relationship with Jesus Christ that is not dependent upon our performance as Christians, but is solely dependent upon what Jesus accomplished for us on the cross.

The Motivation of Guilt nullified by this Principle

Some soul-searching is required to check our motive for doing good works and if we are doing anything that is motivated by the need to make ourselves more acceptable to God, then we need to repent of these dead works. We are required to do good works, but these works should be motivated purely by our love for the Lord and our devotion to Him, rather than the need to gain His acceptance of us.

In Paul’s day some saw this principle as an excuse to continue in sin as seen in Romans: “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?  Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” [9]“ And why not say, “Let us do evil that good may come”?—as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say.”[10]

This principle may also be seen by us today as an excuse to sin or to become negligent in our walk before the Lord because “He accepts me anyway on the basis of what Jesus has done and not on the basis of my works”. However our motivation to not sin should be as a result of the change in our heart that has caused us to hate sin and love righteousness, rather than the need to find favour with God by not sinning, as this is a dead work.

The Principle of repentance from dead works, when fully understood and applied by faith, frees our conscience from the need to justify ourselves. We have been justified freely by His grace.[11]

This is the first building block of the Foundation forming our eternal relationship with Jesus Christ, which offers us the glorious security that we are eternally acceptable to God, not by our performance, but by His ‘once and for all’ sacrifice.[12]

The Principle of Repentance from Dead Works = Total reliance on Jesus’ finished work on the cross for my acceptability before God.

[1] Eph 2:8-9

[2] Gal 1:6-7

[3] Acts 15 10-11

[4] Heb 6:1 KJV

[5] Strong’s Greek dictionary, 746

[6] Eph 1:6

[7] Heb 9:9

[8] Heb 9:11-14

[9] Rom 6:1-2

[10] Rom 3:8

[11] Rom 3:24

[12] Heb 10:10


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The Milk of the Word

The subject of the milk of the Word is given such importance in Scripture that we dare not guess or speculate as to what Paul and Peter were referring to. The Writer of Hebrews gives us very clear and important details about this subject, which we need to explore with all diligence.

The importance of the Son

Hebrews starts in chapter one and verse one to focus our attention upon the Son of God and the place of great prominence and power that is given to Him by the Father, because by inheritance He had obtained this great honour, not in His capacity as the second Person of the Godhead, but as a representative of mankind. We could say, all men have failed, but this one man has succeeded and has risen to a place of power and honour above even the angels. God spoke to the Old Testament fathers by the Prophets, but has now chosen in these days to speak to us by His Son.

What does this mean? If we are able to comprehend Jesus in His new exalted position at God’s right hand and if we do have a spiritual relationship with Him, we are able to hear from God because He is speaking to us by His Son. God has sent the Holy Spirit to us, so that we can understand the depths of Jesus Christ in His exalted position as the Head of the church. This understanding is not available to the natural mind, but is spiritually understood or discerned.

The importance of Hearing

One of the Scribes asked, “Which is the first (or greatest) commandment of all?” Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment.”[1] Notice that Jesus starts with, “Hear, O Israel” which emphasises the importance of hearing what the Lord is saying. Hearing does not only mean hearing the sound of the words, but comprehending, assimilating and acting upon what God is saying.

The Lord also emphasises the importance of hearing in Hebrews chapter three, “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says:  “Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of trial in the wilderness… “[2] Israel refused to hear what God said to them and as a consequence, God swore in His wrath that they would not enter into the Promised Land. The writer of Hebrews uses this as a very stern warning to us in the New Testament to ‘hear what the Son is saying to us by the Holy Spirit’ because God is speaking to us in these days by His Son. We are also warned in chapter two of Hebrews, “Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away.”[3]

We are told in Hebrews chapter three and verse eight that we should be careful not to harden our hearts and we are also told that it is the deceitfulness of sin that hardens our hearts and then in verse twelve we are warned to, “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God”[4] both the deceitfulness of sin and a heart of unbelief, will dull our hearing and render us incapable of hearing from the Lord, even though we still have the head-knowledge of Biblical facts.

This issue of hearing is so important that in the messages to the churches in the Revelation, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”[5]is repeated seven times and it is directed each time to the churches (plural).

It is this inability to hear or comprehend God’s message to us in and through His Son that the Writer of Hebrews addresses in great detail in chapter five.

Here we are introduced to the ministry of Jesus as our Great High Priest and we are told how He qualified to represent us as our High Priest. The Lord then tells us in Hebrews five verse eleven that the things concerning this Heavenly ministry of Jesus are hard for us to understand because we are dull of hearing. This dullness of hearing is obvious to the writer of Hebrews because he says that we all (all believers in the Body of Christ) should have the ability to teach others or communicate our experience in the Lord to enable others to find a deeper relationship with Jesus our High Priest. But these believers needed someone to teach them “again the first principles of the oracles of God” and as the Scripture continues,” and you have come to need milk and not solid food.”[6] It is vitally important for us to note that the believers being addressed in this chapter had been Christians for some time, but they had not matured spiritually. This is one of the greatest challenges in the church today; many believers have sat in hundreds of meetings and Bible Studies, but remain spiritually immature.

This being the case; all the problems of carnality spoken about by both Peter and Paul would be present in the church and no amount of counselling, revival meetings and preaching will cause them to grow, unless they are taught to understand and fully comprehend in their hearts, the ‘Milk of the Word.

A further limitation that the Writer of Hebrews highlights, for those who have not grown spiritually, is that they remain “unskilful in the Word of righteousness”[7] This means that they cannot spiritually digest what they are reading in the Scriptures. Or to put it another way, they are not hearing what God is saying to them through His Word.

We know that the Holy Spirit is our Teacher and that we have no need for any man to teach us.[8] Many Pentecostal believers and even Preachers use this verse as an excuse not to be taught by any man or even to study the Scriptures themselves but rather rely on instant inspiration from the Holy Spirit. To put this verse into context and correct balance, we must note that Paul encourages Timothy to “Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”[9] Paul himself as a Pharisee was very well versed in the Scriptures. So what does John mean by “we have no need for any man to teach us”? John was specifically addressing the aspect of error and was speaking about the anointing that abides within us, will witness whether what we are hearing is the truth or not. This same principle applies when we listen to, or read an article where someone is teaching us. The Holy Spirit will give us insight and understanding of how, what we are hearing or reading, relates to Jesus Christ and how we can be brought into a deeper relationship with Him. No one can know the Lordship of Jesus, except the Holy Spirit reveals it to him.[10]

No matter how intelligent or knowledgeable we are, we are unable to appreciate the greatness and fullness of Jesus Christ, throughout the whole Bible, except the Holy Spirit reveals him to us. In this sense then, the Writer of Hebrews is saying that the believers have become dull of hearing and need to be taught again the fundamental principles of the Oracles of God.

Oracles of God

“Oracle” is a reference to the infallible words of God as recorded in Scripture. “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.”[11] These “First Principles” of God’s Oracles are identified as the ‘Milk of the Word’. We can therefore say with absolute confidence that a revelation and application of these “First Principles of the Oracles of God” constitute the Milk of the Word and it is these principles that we need to grasp in order to grow to maturity and to enhance our skilfulness in understanding the Scriptures.[12]

Principles of the Doctrines of Christ

This subject continues in chapter six, but note that the Writer subtly changes from “The Principles of the Oracles of God” to “The Principles of Christ” or as the King James version puts it; “The Principles of the Doctrines of Christ”. This change, although subtle, presents us with a vital fundamental corner-stone of understanding and interpreting Scripture, God’s focus and message to us is Jesus His Son. Or in the words of the Lord Jesus Himself, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.”[13] God’s oracles are therefore all about Jesus Christ in one way or another.

What is the Principle of a Doctrine?

To open our minds and hearts to hear what the Lord is saying regarding the Principles of Christ, it is important to understand the distinction between a ‘principle’ and a ‘doctrine’. A principle is the over-riding and governing idea into which several doctrines could fit. For example the principle of salvation is the general over-riding idea of rescuing someone from something. The teaching of Noah’s Ark fits into this principle and so does the account of God delivering Israel from Egypt, as well as Jesus saving us from sin, by His grace. Therefore a number of doctrines fit into a single principle. On the other hand, a doctrine is a specific Biblical teaching on a specific subject, for example, the ‘Doctrine of Salvation” (the theological term used for this doctrine is ‘soteriology’). This is the specific teaching that describes the detail of how and by what means a sinner can become a Christian and is based on the many passages of Scripture that teach this particular doctrine. Noah’s Ark and the Exodus from Egypt are not part of the Doctrine of Salvation, although they are part of the same principle and can be used as illustrations of soteriology.

Another example to illustrate the difference between a Principle and a Doctrine, is the ‘principle of gravity’; very simply, this is the principle that “whatever goes up must come down.” The detail of where and how a tennis ball, a parachutist or a jumbo jet and in fact all objects, go up and then come down, is different in each case, but all are governed by the principle of gravity. The detail of how each item goes up, how long it stays up and how it comes down constitutes the different ‘doctrines ‘relating to each item used in our example.

The Principles of the Doctrines of Christ

“Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment and this will we do, if God permit.”[14]

The above passage spells out the elements of the Milk of the Word that both Peter and Paul spoke about, which is also the foundation forming the basis for our relationship with Jesus Christ. It is by comprehending and living by these principles that we are able to mature in our relationship with Jesus and have our spiritual senses exercised, so that we can discern between good and evil and become skilful in understanding God’s Word. [15]

We therefore need to explore each of these and above all, seek to grasp the over-riding principle in each case:

  1. The principle of repentance from dead works.
  2. The principle of faith towards God.
  3. The principle governing the doctrine of various baptisms. (Please note: some translations use the word ‘washings’ rather than ‘baptisms’ but the Greek word in this passage is “baptismoswhich is correctly translated as baptisms)
  4. The principle behind the practice of laying on of hands.
  5. The principle governing the resurrection of the dead.
  6. The principle of eternal judgement.
  7. The principle of going on to maturity (this is the whole driving force behind this passage and the motivation to “desire the sincere milk of the Word, so that we may grow thereby.”)

There is a wonderful passage of Scripture in the Old Testament that speaks of the seven pillars that form the foundation of the building.

“Wisdom has built her house, She has hewn out her seven pillars; She has slaughtered her meat,
She has mixed her wine, She has also furnished her table. She has sent out her maidens, She cries out from the highest places of the city, “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” As for him who lacks understanding, she says to him, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Forsake foolishness and live, and go in the way of understanding.”[16]

Each believer who constitutes the spiritual building of the church of Jesus Christ, needs to be firmly based on the seven pillars that form the only Foundation that we have, the Rock that the builders rejected [17]; the Lord  Jesus Christ.

This Foundation of Jesus Christ in our hearts, comprehended in the principles of the doctrine of Christ, by the revelation of the Holy Spirit forms the basis of our relationship with the Almighty God throughout all eternity!

[1] Mark 12:29 & 30

[2] Heb 3:7&8

[3] Heb 2:1

[4] Heb 3:12

[5] Rev 2 & 3

[6] Heb 5:12

[7] Heb 5:13

[8] 1 John 2:27

[9] 2 Tim 2:15

[10] 1 Cor. 12:3

[11] Heb 5:12

[12] Heb 5:13 & 14

[13] John 5:39

[14] Heb 6:1-3 KJV

[15] Heb 5:13&14

[16]  Prov. 9:1-6

[17] 1 Pet 2:7

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