Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
— Hebrews 6:1-2
Doesn’t the author of Hebrews tell us to move on from elementary gospel truths (6:1-2)?
This may seem like an odd question, but it is one I get occasionally whenever I stump hard for constantly returning to the centrality of Christ’s finished work for both the lost and the found. I remember several years ago a fairly prominent evangelical scholar citing this passage in his criticism of me on this point. Just yesterday I was reminded again by a critic online of the alleged “graduation” from the gospel encouraged by Hebrews 6.
And yet, the apostle Paul tells us in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 15 that the gospel is of first importance. And I don’t believe he means initial importance but primary (central) importance. This is why he’s “reminding” the Corinthians about it. Over and over again, Paul instructs his readers to only hold true to what they’ve already attained, to lay hold of what has laid hold of them . . . and so forth. So I don’t believe the author of Hebrews is telling us in Hebrews 6 that we graduate from the gospel to other things.
So to what does Hebrews 6:1-2 refer?
It’s a complex passage, but as with every text, the context helps. In Hebrews 5:12, we read, “Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God.” The dilemma is seeing how the recipients of the letter would need to both re-learn the elementary principles of the oracles of God and to leave the elementary teachings about Christ (Heb. 6:1-2). Unless the author is speaking out of both sides of his mouth, these must mean two different things.
I believe the “elementary teachings” in Hebrews 6 refer to the types and shadows of the old covenant, about which Hebrews says quite a bit (e.g., 8:5; 10:1; see also Col. 2:17). So the exhortation here is not about leaving the gospel behind but leaving the shadows behind to walk in the light of Christ. And further, the admonition is to grow up in the gospel beyond initial repentance and individual salvation. It’s about following the signposts into the land of destination. It’s a call to maturity that is gospel-driven, not post-gospel or even gospel-latent.
John Calvin concurs, writing of this passage:
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 proceeds not to the superstruction, wearies himself with foolish and useless labor.
In any event, I don’t believe Hebrews 6 means the gospel is the ABCs and now we need to buckle down and learn the hard stuff. The ABCs of salvation are the rudiments of the “advanced linguistics” of the gospel deeps. You build on top of a foundation that remains, and no matter how high and big you build your house, you never leave the foundation, or you’re experiencing some serious structural weakness.