One of the saddest conversations I have ever had is with H. H was a skilled evangelist, a natural conversationalist, highly intelligent with infectious energy, and, most importantly, was on fire for the Lord Jesus. Yet in this conversation, H told me in some detail how they were no longer a Christian. They did not believe that God was good. They could not understand how God was just. They looked at the messed-up nature of the world, the hurt they had felt, the suffering around them, and wondered if there was a point to being Christian. Reading the Bible left them flat and plagued with guilt, and praying was like hurling sand at a brick wall – without impact. And so, they concluded that there was no point in following Jesus. They did not trust him any longer, and they did not want to follow his lead on how to conduct their life.
It was the worst conversation I have ever had with a fellow believer in Christ, and no Christian cliche I could muster up made me feel any better. Maybe they were never a Christian in the first place? But I was convinced of H’s Christianity. I felt that I knew H like I knew myself. And so, when I stumbled onto Hebrews 5:11-6:12, I was struck by the pastoral word that the writer had for those who were sluggish.
The writer of this letter addresses a group of Hebrew Christians who were marginalised and persecuted for following Jesus – so much so that they were tempted to go back to the Judaism which felt familiar and comfortable. But in the midst of his great encouragement and exhortation of these struggling Christians, the writer litters this letter with rebuke! The writer rebukes his audience for their lack of maturity. They were acting like small children, dependent still on milk when by now they ought to be feeding on solid food. They still needed to be taught the elementary things of the faith when they ought to be themselves teachers of the word. They were sluggish. They did not have the infectious zeal that caught them when they first tasted that the Lord was good. They had not built on their foundation. They were not hungry for God’s word. They did not wish to grow and mature and become teachers. They remained infants in the faith. And this was a serious problem.
Their sluggishness left them in a state of vulnerability. They were in danger of falling away, of abandoning their salvation in Jesus – and the consequences of this are eternal. And so the writer exhorts them to strive forward to maturity. He explains the simple reality that we all know to be true: a planted field drenched with water is expected to produce a fruitful crop. Likewise, if you have been sitting under faithful Bible teaching and engaging with the living word of God, then you are expected to live fruitfully and adorn the gospel of Christ. For to be showered with blessing and yet to produce nothing, proves your sluggishness and fruitlessness. And the terribly serious warning attached to this exhortation is that not moving towards maturity means falling away, and if you fall away it is, tragically, impossible to come back. It is like riding uphill on a pushbike with no brakes: if you are moving forward, all is good. But if you stop pedalling, you are actually going backwards, to disaster. There is no ‘neutral’ in the Christian walk.
And let it be noted that this warning is not a hypothetical. It is a real danger that a continuous and wilful rebellion sets a believer on a downward trajectory that they cannot ever recover from. To truly know our Lord Jesus and the assurance we have in him, and then to turn and trample on the cross of Christ – it is too much. And so the writer to the Hebrews, with pastoral fervour and a tenacity of purpose, pleads with his readers to heed the warning and not be sluggish. The cost is just too great.
And yet, the writer ends with an assurance of better things. He encourages them by reminding them of their reward for their diligent service of Christ as a response to the gospel they know. And the same is true for us. Whenever we might feel our tired legs wanting to stop pedalling for a moment, we must turn our minds to Jesus. When it feels like we may be sluggish or hardening our hearts, we are to stop in our tracks and repent and fall into the arms of Jesus. There are few words more solemn than these anywhere in Holy Scripture. And so all the more we ought to heed them, and not ever stop pedalling in the grace of the gospel. For in the end, what is the undeniable evidence of true faith? Perseverance. The call to remember and persevere in the grace of our Lord is the healing balm to even the most painful of life’s struggles.