Question: "What is repentance from dead works in Hebrews 6:1?"
Answer: In the book of Hebrews, the author sounds several warnings about false faith and addresses the problem of immaturity among believers who had formerly followed Jewish customs. Although these believers should have been at a higher level of maturity, to the point that they should have been teachers themselves, they were still infants in the faith and were slow to learn (Hebrews 5:11–14). The author of Hebrews urges these believers, “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, ESV). Instead of being focused on the “elementary teachings” of the faith, these believers needed to move on to spiritual maturity.
The “dead works” to be repented of are works performed by those who are “separated from the life of God” (Ephesians 4:18). These works may be religious in nature, but they are “dead” in that they cannot bring spiritual life. Such works may appear virtuous and even sincerely pious, but they are not rooted in faith in Christ or love of God and so are useless in terms of salvation and eternal life. Repenting of one’s own works is foundational to trusting Christ and is thus called an “elementary doctrine” of Christ (Hebrews 6:1).
In the context of the book of Hebrews, the specific dead works to which the author refers are the Levitical rituals that the professing Jewish Christians had trusted in before salvation in Christ. Offering sacrifices and performing rituals never saved anyone, but rather served to make a person ceremonially clean: “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:13–14, ESV). Note the reference to “dead works” in this passage as well—this time clearly linked to the works of the law.
The law pointed to the need for Christ (Galatians 3:24) and served a vital purpose of revealing the presence of sin in people’s lives (Romans 7:7; 1 Timothy 1:8–11). The first-century Jewish followers of Jesus had already turned from their trust in Levitical works to trust in Christ’s death and resurrection. In their pursuit of spiritual maturity, they did not need to keep returning to that basic teaching of the faith. It was time to move on.
The Mosaic Law laid the foundation for the Christian faith, and those who had formerly kept the law needed to move on to embrace the truth of God’s revelation in Christ. If these professing Jewish Christians parked themselves on the “foundation of repentance from dead works,” then they would cease maturing in their faith. The “elementary truths of God’s Word” they were to move beyond also included “faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:1–2). All these teachings were learned under the Old Covenant; it was now incumbent upon the Jewish Christians to move on to the fuller teaching of Christ under the New Covenant. The writer of Hebrews was encouraging these believers to press on in faith in Jesus Christ—the fulfillment of the law—not to return to the law, which he warns against in Hebrews 6:4–6. The Jewish believers needed to see the law as the foundation it was, to recognize it as a shadow and symbol that pointed to the reality in Christ. Jesus had fulfilled the law and given them something better (Hebrews 8—10). As they grew in the faith, they could partake of the “solid food” available to them (Hebrews 5:12–14).
Just like the Christians in the book of Hebrews, we can become stagnated in the faith and fail to grow. Instead of focusing solely on the basic tenets of the faith, all Christians should seek to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). The first step of faith is to stop trying to please God with dead works, rituals, and hollow forms of religion. Trying to keep the law cannot save anyone (Romans 3:10, 20; Ephesians 2:8–9). Like the first recipients of the book of Hebrews, we should move on to maturity in Christ: “And so, God willing, we will move forward to further understanding” (Hebrews 6:3, NLT).