From John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, trans. Rev. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 125-134, emphasis added..
The Lord speaks to us so clearly and without any obscurity, that His word is rightly called our light; but its brightness becomes dim through our darkness. This happens partly through our dullness and partly through our sloth; for though we are very dull to understand the truth of God, yet there is to be added to this vice the depravity of our affections, for we apply our minds to vanity rather than to God’s truth. We are also continually impeded either by our perverseness, or by the cares of the world, or by the lusts of our flesh.
God calls His followers to progress to maturity.
12. For though by this time you ought, etc. This reproof contains in it very sharp goads to rouse the Jews from their sloth. He says that it was unreasonable and disgraceful that they should still continue in the elements, in the first rudiments of knowledge, while they ought to have been teachers. “You ought,” he says, “to have been the instructors of others, but you are not even disciples capable of comprehending an ordinary truth; for you do not as yet understand the first rudiments of Christianity.” That he might, however, make them the more ashamed of themselves, he mentions the “first principles,” or the elements of the beginning of God’s words, as though he had said, You do not know the alphabet. We must, indeed, learn through life; for he alone is truly wise who owns that he is very far from perfect knowledge; but we ought still to profit so much by learning as not to continue always in the first principles. Nor are we to act in such a way, that what is said by Isaiah should be verified in us, “There shall be to you a precept on precept, a precept on precept,” etc. (Isaiah 28:10) [i.e., teaching adults as though they are like elementary school children]; but we ought, on the contrary, so to exert ourselves, that our progress may correspond to the time allowed us.
Doubtless, not only years, but days also, must be accounted for; so that every one ought to strive to make progress; but few there are who summon themselves to an account as to past time, or who show any concern for the future. We are, therefore, justly punished for our sloth, for most of us remain in elements fitted for children. We are further reminded, that it is the duty of every one to impart the knowledge he has to his brethren; so that no one is to retain what he knows to himself, but to communicate it to the edification of others.
Such as have need of milk. Paul uses the same metaphor in 1 Corinthians 3:1; and he reproaches the Corinthians with the same fault as what is mentioned here, at least with one that is very similar; for he says, that they were carnal and could not bear solid food. Milk then means an elementary doctrine suitable to the ignorant. Peter takes the word in another sense, when he bids us to desire the milk that is without deceit (1 Peter 2:2); for there is a twofold childhood, that is, as to wickedness, and as to understanding; and so Paul tells us, “Be not children in understanding, but in wickedness” (1 Corinthians 4:20). They then who are so tender that they cannot receive the higher doctrine are by way of reproach called children. For the right application of doctrines is to join us together, so that we may grow to a perfect manhood, to the measure of full age, and that we should not be like children, tossed here and there, and carried about by every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14). We must indeed show some indulgence to those who have not yet known much of Christ, if they are not capable as yet of receiving solid food, but he who has had time to grow, if he still continues a child, is not entitled to any excuse. We indeed see that Isaiah brands the reprobate with this mark, that they were like children newly weaned from the breasts (Isaiah 28:9). The doctrine of Christ does indeed minister milk to babes as well as strong meat to adults; but as the babe is nourished by the milk of its nurse, not that it may ever depend on the breast, but that it may by degrees grow and take stronger food; so also at first we must suck milk from Scripture, so that we may afterwards feed on its bread. The Apostle yet so distinguishes between milk and strong food, that he still understands sound doctrine by both, but the ignorant begin with the one, and they who are well-taught are strengthened by the other.
13. For every one who uses milk, or, who partakes of milk, etc. He means those who from tenderness or weakness as yet refuse solid doctrine; for otherwise he who is grown up is not averse to milk. But he reproves here an infancy in understanding, such as constrains God even to prattle with us. He then says, that babes are not fit to receive the word of righteousness, understanding by righteousness the perfection of which he will presently speak. For the Apostle does not here, as I think, refer to the question, how we are justified before God, but takes the word (i.e., righteousness) in a simpler sense, as denoting that completeness of knowledge which leads to perfection, which office Paul ascribes to the Gospel in his epistle to the Colossians 1:28; as though he had said, that those who indulge themselves in their ignorance preclude themselves from a real knowledge of Christ, and that the doctrine of the Gospel is unfruitful in them, because they never reach the goal, nor come even near it.
14. Of full age, or perfect, etc. He calls those perfect who are adults; he mentions them in opposition to babes, as it is done in 1 Corinthians 2:6; 14:20; Ephesians 4:13. For the middle and manly age is the full age of human life; but he calls those by a figure men in Christ who are spiritual. And such he would have all Christians to be, such as have attained by continual practice a habit to discern between good and evil. For we cannot have been otherwise taught aright in the truth unless we are fortified by His protection against all the falsehoods and delusions of Satan; for on this account it is called the sword of the Spirit. And Paul points out this benefit conferred by sound doctrine when he says, “That we may not be carried about by every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14). And truly what sort of faith is that which doubts, being suspended between truth and falsehood? Is it not in danger of coming to nothing every moment?
But not satisfied to mention in one word the mind, he mentions all the senses, in order to show that we are ever to strive until we be in every way furnished by God’s word, and be so armed for battle, that Satan may by no means steal upon us with his fallacies. It hence appears what sort of Christianity there is under the Papacy, where not only the grossest ignorance is commended under the name of simplicity, but where the people are also most rigidly prevented from seeking real knowledge; nay, it is easy to judge by what spirit they are influenced, who hardly allow that to be touched which the Apostle commands us to handle continually, who imagine that a laudable neglect which the Apostle here so severely reproves, who take away the word of God, the only rule of discerning rightly, which discerning he declares to be necessary for all Christians! But among those who are freed from this diabolical prohibition and enjoy the liberty of learning, there is yet often no less indifference both as to hearing and reading. When thus we exercise not our powers, we are stupidly ignorant and void of all discernment.
1. Therefore, leaving, etc. To his reproof he joins this exhortation—that leaving first principles they were to proceed forward to the goal. For by the elementary principles he understands the first rudiments, taught to the ignorant when received into the Church. Now, he bids them to leave these rudiments, not that the faithful are ever to forget them, but that they are not to remain in them; and this idea appears more clear from what follows, the comparison of a foundation; for in building a house we must never leave the foundation; and yet to be always engaged in laying it would be ridiculous. For as the foundation is laid for the sake of what is built on it, he who is occupied in laying it and does not proceed to the superstructure [i.e., the construction of the building], wearies himself with foolish and useless labor. In short, as the builder must begin with the foundation, so must he go on with his work that the house may be built. Similar is the case as to Christianity; we have the first principles as the foundation, but the higher doctrine ought immediately to follow which is to complete the building. They then act most unreasonably who remain in the first elements, for they propose to themselves no end, as though a builder spent all his labor on the foundation and neglected to build up the house. So then he would have our faith to be at first so founded as afterwards to rise upwards, until by daily progress it be at length completed.
Of repentance from dead works, etc. He here refers to a catechism commonly used. It is hence a probable conjecture that this Epistle was written, not immediately after the promulgation of the Gospel, but when they had some kind of polity [i.e., church government] established in the Churches; such as this, that the catechumen [convert who is being considered for membership] made a confession of his faith before he was admitted to baptism. And there were certain primary points on which the pastor questioned the catechumen, as it appears from the various testimonies of the fathers [of the ancient church]; there was an examination that was made especially on the creed called the Apostles’ Creed. This was the first entrance, as it were, into the church to those who were adults and enlisted under Christ, as they were before alienated from faith in Him. This custom the Apostle mentions, because there was a short time fixed for catechumens, during which they were taught the doctrine of religion, as a master instructs his children in the alphabet, in order that he may afterwards advance them to higher things.
But let us examine what he says. He mentions repentance and faith, which include the fullness of the Gospel; for what else does Christ command His Apostles to preach, but repentance and faith? When, therefore, Paul wished to show that he had faithfully performed his duty, he alleged his care and assiduity in teaching these two things. It seems then (as it may be said) unreasonable that the Apostle should bid repentance and faith to be omitted, when we ought to make progress in both through the whole course of our life. But when he adds, from dead works, he intimates that he speaks of first repentance; for though every sin is a dead work, either as it leads to death, or as it proceeds from the spiritual death of the soul; yet the faithful, already born again of the Spirit of God, cannot be said properly to repent from dead works. Regeneration is not indeed made perfect in them; but because of the seed of new life which is in them, however small it may be, this at least may be said of them that they cannot be deemed dead before God. The Apostle then does not include in general the whole of repentance, the practice of which ought to continue to the end; but he refers only to the beginning of repentance, when they who were lately and for the first time consecrated to the faith, commenced a new life. So also the word, faith, means that brief summary of godly doctrine, commonly called the Articles of Faith.
To these are added, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. These are some of the highest mysteries of celestial wisdom; nay, the very end of all religion, which we ought to bear in mind through the whole course of our life. But as the very same truth is taught in one way to the ignorant, and in another way to those who have made some proficiency, the Apostle seems here to refer to the common mode of questioning, “Do you believe the resurrection of the dead? Do you believe eternal life?” These things were suitable to children, and that only once; therefore to turn back to them again was nothing else but to retrograde.
2. Of the doctrine of baptisms, etc. Some read them separately, “of baptisms and of doctrine;” but I prefer to connect them, though I explain them differently from others; for I regard the words as being in apposition, as grammarians say, according to this form, “Not laying again the foundation of repentance, of faith in God, of the resurrection of the dead, which is the doctrine of baptisms and of the laying on of hands.” If therefore these two clauses, the doctrine of baptisms and of the laying on of hands, be included in a parenthesis, the passage would run better; for except you read them as in apposition, there would be the absurdity of a repetition. For what is the doctrine of baptism but what he mentions here, faith in God, repentance, judgment, and the like?
Chrysostom thinks that he uses “baptisms” in the plural number, because they who returned to first principles, in a measure abrogated their first baptism: but I cannot agree with him, for the doctrine had no reference to many baptisms, but by baptisms are meant the solemn rites, or the stated days of baptizing. With baptism he connects the laying on of hands; for as there were two sorts of catechumens [i.e., adult converts to Christianity and those who had been raised from birth as Christians], so there were two rites. There were heathens who came not to baptism until they made a profession of their faith. Then as to these, the catechizing was accustomed to precede baptism. But the children of the faithful, as they were adopted from the womb, and belonged to the body of the Church by right of the promise, were baptized in infancy; but after the time of infancy, they having been instructed in the faith, presented themselves as catechumens, which as to them took place after baptism; but another symbol was then added, the laying on of hands.
This one passage abundantly testifies that this rite had its beginning from the Apostles, which afterwards, however, was turned into superstition, as the world almost always degenerates into corruptions, even with regard to the best institutions. They have indeed contrived the fiction, that it is a sacrament by which the spirit of regeneration is conferred, a dogma by which they have mutilated baptism for what was peculiar to it, they transferred to the imposition of hands. Let us then know, that it was instituted by its first founders that it might be an appointed rite for prayer, as Augustine calls it. The profession of faith which youth made, after having passed the time of childhood, they indeed intended to confine by this symbol, but they thought of nothing less than to destroy the efficacy of baptism. Therefore, the pure institution at this day ought to be retained, but the superstition ought to be removed. And this passage tends to confirm paedobaptism [infant baptism]; for why should the same doctrine be called as to some baptism, but as to others the imposition of hands, except that the latter after having received baptism were taught in the faith, so that nothing remained for them but the laying on of hands?
Thus, those who are the child of at least one believing parent are to receive water baptism as an infant. Christian children should be catechized, taught, and trained in the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, which include repentance from dead works, faith toward God, the resurrection of the dead, and the eternal judgment. Water baptism is a symbol of faith and repentance and thus representative of these foundational doctrines of the Christian faith.
After completing the elementary-level training in the school of Christ, a Christian child should be able to demonstrate his understanding of and belief in the foundational teachings of the word of God. After having confessed their belief and professed their faith publicly, these children or young adults should receive the laying on of hands by the elders of the church and become full communicant members of the church. They now may partake of the Lord’s Supper, along with the rest of the body of Christ.
Moreover, Hebrew 5:11-6:2 has much to teach Christian churches in our day. God calls His bride, the Church, to mature, to be progressively sanctified, to become more and more Christlike each day, to live and walk increasingly as Jesus did. The Church is not for unbelievers; it is for Christ’s sheep. The preaching, teaching, and worship of the Church on the Lord’s Day serve to edify or build up the body of Christ; its primary purpose is not to cater to the desires of the unchurched or unbelieving.
There is a time for evangelism and reaching out to the unsaved. There is a need to catechize, disciple, and teach new converts to Christianity by giving them baby milk and grounding them in the elementary principles of Christ. New converts must be catechized and receive a good foundation for their faith; they should learn the foundational teachings of Christianity, which include repentance from dead works, faith toward God, the resurrection of the dead, and the eternal judgment. Such doctrines are symbolized by the sacrament of water baptism received by covenant children as infants and by new converts as adults. Those baptized as infants should also receive the laying on of hands by the elders of the church once they have reached Christian maturity.
All too many churches in our day fail to minister to Christians as God intends. Instead of seeking and providing solid food, they need milk and partake only of milk. They are unskilled in the word of righteousness and fail to meditate on all of Scripture; they fail to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matt. 3:3; Luke 3:3). God calls His elect children to reach full Christian maturity, to exercise themselves for godliness, to train themselves to become more mature Christians, to exercise their senses to discern both good and evil. If Christians and the church at large were to obey these commands of Christ, then the Church would look very different in our day, and worship, teaching, and preaching would once again be geared toward Christian maturity instead of toward the worldly and the unchurched who are at best babies in the things of God and ignorant of the whole counsel of God, as taught throughout the entirety of God’s Word. May God help us to obey His Word alone and to forsake the foolish false wisdom of man!
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