Repentance from Dead Works

This is the first of six topics described in Hebrews 6 as ‘the elementary teachings of Christ’ and the ‘foundation’ of the Christian faith. 

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We may do many things that seem to be good, but are we doing what God really wants from us? Unless we do what God requires we will not enjoy His blessing and favour, and will not receive His promises, no matter how good we consider ourselves to be.

‘Dead works’ are the many ‘good’ things we do apart from God. These works may have tangible benefits but they cannot make us right with God. The Bible speaks of  ‘a way that seems right to man, but in the end it leads only to death’ (Proverbs 14:12).

We repent from dead works when we give up our own ‘good’ in order to seek and do the righteousness of God.


How did man develop his own ideas of ‘good’ apart from God?

When God created the world, He declared everything good (Genesis 1:31). He made Adam in His own likeness and put him at the head of creation with authority over all things (Genesis 1:27-28). Adam was at one with God in thought and action as he cultivated the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15). Later, God told Adam: of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you must not eat, for on the day that you eat of it you will surely die (Genesis 2:17, KJV). This created the opportunity for Adam to act contrary to God’s word.

The Serpent tempted Eve, casting doubt on God’s command – ‘did God really say you must not eat from any tree in the Garden?’  And also on the consequence of disobedience – if you eat of it, ‘you shall not surely die!’ Eve was deceived and ate, wanting to become ‘like God’. Adam disobeyed for Eve’s sake, and took the fruit and ate with her (Genesis 3:1-6).

Adam’s opportunity to disobey was a necessary consequence of God’s love. ‘God is love’(1 John 4:8), and it is by our own capacity to love that we are ‘like Him’ (1 John 4:17). We love God by obeying His word (John 14:15, etc.), and so it is the freedom to disobey that makes of our obedience an act of love that has value to Him.


After they ate of the fruit, Adam and Eve where ashamed and afraid of God, so they hid away and sowed fig leaves together to cover their nakedness (Genesis 3:7). This was a dead work – their own idea which could not make right with God. Later, ‘ the LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them’ (Genesis 3:21).

God’s covering of animal skins demonstrates the consequence of sin through the death of a substitute. Since, by God’s word, the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), the one good thing that Adam could still do after he sinned was to acknowledge this consequence. At the same time, he could wait for God to perhaps speak again – a word that Adam could obey to regain his unity with God.

In the next generation, Adam’s sons offered sacrifices to God. ‘Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour’ (Genesis 4:3-5). Abel acknowledged the consequence of sin according to God’s word. God accepted his blood sacrifice, but not the vegetable sacrifice brought by Cain.

After the flood, Noah built an altar and offered sacrifices to God (Genesis 8:20). Abraham built an altar every time the LORD appeared to him, and offered sacrifices (Genesis 12-22). Later, God gave the Law to Abraham’s descendants at Mount Sinai. This Law contains many commandments and again states the consequence for disobedience, that those who turn from God will ‘surely perish’ (Deut. 8:19-20). Some of the commandments required death by stoning for those who transgressed (see examples in Exodus 21:12-17; 22:19 and Leviticus 20:9-16, etc.).

Any attempt to obey the Law of Moses, without accepting its penalty for sin, is once again a dead work. As before, sin was acknowledged through a blood sacrifice: ‘for life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement [a covering] for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes a covering for one’s life’ (Leviticus 17:11).

Religious leaders after Moses started adding their own rules to the commandments of God. Many prophets were sent to warn against this – for example Isaiah, through whom God said:  ‘These people come near to Me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is made up only of rules taught by men’ (Isaiah 29:13). The church continues in this error and often follows human principles and traditions more than the word of God. Religious practices based on human precepts cannot achieve the righteousness of God. This is another example of dead works.

Outside the church, many people are involved in acts of charity and philanthropy based on their own preferences of good. These are vain attempts to become righteous while persisting in their rebellion against God. From God’s perspective ‘all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like menstrual cloths’ (Isaiah 64:6). God does not permit us to cover our nakedness by our own efforts – we must accept what He provides.


King David wrote of the blessedness of those who receive the LORD’s forgiveness – who confess their sin and do not try to make their own covering. ‘Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit.  When I kept silent, my bones wasted away …  Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD’ – and you forgave the guilt of my sin’  (Psalm 32:1-5).

Once we accept God’s covering for sin, we are clothed – as was Adam symbolically – in God’s righteousness (Romans 13:14).


God told Adam: ‘on the day that you eat of  [the fruit] you will surely die.’ Yet it is written thatall the days of Adam’s life were 930 years (Genesis 5:5, KJV). Adam did not die on the day that he ate of the fruit, as we usually understand death. But is the end of mortal life the ‘death’ that God warned of?

The Bible understands death differently. Jesus told a man who wanted to attend a funeral instead of following him: ‘ Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead’(Matthew 8:22). Long after the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God declared to Moses: ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ (Exodus 3:6). Yet God‘is the God of the living and not of the dead’ (Matthew 22:32). The apostle Paul reminded the believers: ‘As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world’ (Ephesians 2:1).

Everything exists and is held together by God’s word. God is the Source of Life and sin separates us from God (Hebrews 1:3; Isaiah 59:2). Mortality is God’s limit on man’s separate (independent) existence. Unless we find the remedy for sin and the way of reconciliation during our moral lives, our separation from God (spiritual death) will be final and forever.


After his sin Adam was banned from the Garden of Eden. ‘The LORD God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat, and live forever’ (Genesis 3:22).

God does not want man to enter immortality in a state of separation, but reconciled to Him. Reconciliation is achieved through the cross of Jesus. ‘For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross’ (Colossians 1:20).

Jesus is both the resurrection and the life. When Jesus said, I am the bread of life … if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever (John 6:48-51), he proclaimed himself to be the Tree. ‘He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die’ (John 11:25-26).

How can this be?

Since Adam’s sin, the natural condition of man is to live by his own judgements, outside of God’s divine order. We are born selfish and willful with an inclination to evil. King David testifies of himself: Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me (Psalm 51:5).

While the word that prohibited Adam from eating of the tree brings death to all men through disobedience (1 Corinthians 15:22), God spoke again – this time for our life and restoration. Messiah is ‘the Word of Life’ which ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ (1 John 1:1, John 1:14). A voice from heaven said of him,’This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’ (Mark 9:7).

Jesus said: ‘I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live’ (John 5:24-25).

Just as those who eat of the tree will surely die, those who believe in Jesus will surely live.

Since God’s word sustains everything in His perfect order, disobeying His word results in chaos and disorder. Man’s sin is the cause of all pain and suffering – not only of his own, but also of all the creatures that God placed under his care and authority – and of the ‘groanings’ of the world itself (Romans 8:22). Adam’s disobedience frustrated the whole universe.
Jesus is described as ‘the second Adam’, the new head over creation (1 Corinthians 15:45, Ephesians 1:22), with authority to restore all things into God’s perfect order (1 Corinthians 15:25-28). Unlike the first Adam, Jesus never departed from God’s word. By his own testimony: the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does (John 5:19).

Jesus showed his dominion by commanding fish to swim into a net (Luke 5), by walking on water (Matthew 14:26) and ordering the wind and storm to be still (Mark 4:41). His healing miracles were described as ‘signs’ for revealing him as the means to forgiveness and the antidote to Adam’s sin.

Each of us is restored into God’s order as we repent of our wilfulness and submit to Him. In this way we become a new creation. As it says, ‘if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ’  (2 Corinthians 5:17-18).

The Bible reveals to us God’s nature and purposes. It is described as the sword of the Spirit  because it opens the way for the Holy Spirit to prompt us through our knowledge of God (Ephesians 6:17).

‘By constant use’ – in other words, by our continued application of God’s word – we train ourselves ‘to distinguish good from evil’ (Hebrews 5:14), according to God’s criteria. In other words, to judge and live once again according to God’s determination of right and wrong and no longer our own. As we surrender our will to God we are ‘transformed by the renewing of our minds’: and then able ‘to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will’ (Romans 12:2).


When asked, ‘what must we do to do the works that God requires?’ Jesus answered, the work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent (John 6:28-29). By contrast with every dead work, this is the work that leads to life – the work that God requires, without which all other works are futile.



1. Why did God make it possible for Adam to sin? Why did he put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden if He did not want Adam to eat of it? Why did God allow the serpent to tempt Eve? 

William Barclay, a writer on ethics, suggests that no human act has any moral significance unless the person has the freedom to do otherwise. A man who is locked away in solitary confinement, and is deprived in this way of any opportunity to do harm, is not the best example of moral virtue. 

The earth was made to spin around its own axis at a certain speed. It does not wake up every morning and decide whether or not to spin, or how fast. Man is unique in creation because he has the freedom to choose. Our love for God is significant only because He made it possible for us to reject Him. 

2. Was it God’s will that Adam should sin? If so, how can God blame us? 

God pronounced everything He created to be good (Genesis 1:4-31). Only the darkness was not specifically said to be good. Yet darkness is the contrast against which light is seen, just as injustice displays justice; profanity, holiness; hatred, love; and lies, the truth. God would still be perfectly just without any injustice, perfectly holy without profanity and He would always be Truth even in the absence of any lie. However, these qualities of God become all the more evident in the face of their opposites. For example, injustice makes it possible for God to exercise and display His justice. Darkness thus shows up the light of God. 

Man is unique in his knowledge of God since he is able to see God far more clearly in a universe in which light and darkness coexist. We could not know God as fully in the absence of darkness, in an environment in which nothing is opposed to His nature. 

It is not known from scripture, but indeed possible, that God ordained that we might see Him in this full and perfect way.

Eventually those who love Him for who He is will be taken out of the present environment and brought into a universe without darkness, to enjoy those very attributes of God for eternity.

3. If this is God’s will for man, does it then mean that He is to blame for the present evil?

It is certainly the freedom God gives man that makes evil possible. But the one who made the knife is not guilty of murder! The same knife could be used to slice cucumbers. 

God foreknew that Adam would fail, but provided Jesus as the antidote, so that all may receive reconciliation and life through him. It is often those who do not want to be reconciled to God and restored into His order, who cry out, “how could God allow this or that evil to happen!” 

While we suffer the consequences of sin in this life, faithful men and woman have glorious assurances of God’s love and an inexpressible hope in what He has prepared in eternity for those who love Him. The thought of an omnipotent God granting us freedom and such a glorious revelation of Himself, and then desiring for us to relate to Him on a basis of love, is a mystery too awesome for us to fully appreciate. 

We know that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us (Romans 8:18). The whole world was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the One who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Romans 8:20-21). 

We are further assured that, in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).  

Anything that opposes God in a world in which light and darkness are both present ultimately works out to His glory – as it serves as the contrast which makes His true and perfect nature all the more visible. So, then, let God be true, and every man a liar, so that God may be proved right when He speaks, and prevail when He judges (Psalm 51:4). 

4. What about all the good people who do not believe in Jesus? Is it God’s will that they should go to hell? 

God is not willing for anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9). Those who perish, perish because they refuse to love the truth and so be saved (2 Thessalonians 2:10). 

People who resist or even despise God like to question God’s right “to condemn atheists … who are such good people”. They typically rank themselves first within the category of good people and pose these objections to justify their own unbelief and rebellion. Should God be required to reward a “good person” who hates and despises Him with eternal life in His presence?  

The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so (Romans 8:6-7). 

Even though people do many things that appear to be good, as long as they do them for selfish reasons or by their own judgment, they are still outside of God’s will. In order to submit to God’s will, a person must first accept God’s verdict that all have sinned and fall short of His glory, that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except by him (Romans 3:23, John 14:6). 

While we continue to live outside of God’s word we remain in the spiritual condition of death and no alternative effort can compensate for that or avoid condemnation. Anyone who refuses to accept God’s way remains outside of His will. 

5. Why should someone who believes in Jesus receive life even if he does evil, while someone who does not believe be condemned even if he does good?

Those who believe in Jesus receive forgiveness for their sins and receive the Holy Spirit to lead them in a life of faithfulness to God. It is then their responsibility to keep in step with the Spirit and no longer to satisfy the lusts of the flesh. Scripture tells us: We have an obligation – but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (Romans 8:12-14). 

To believe that Jesus is the way requires that we follow him as the way. To believe that he is the truth means that we accept his verdict over sin. To believe that he is the life, calls us to live a new life that is empowered by the same Spirit that was in him. 

Many who profess the Christian faith live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things (Philippians 3:18-19). 

Those who claim to believe in Jesus, but persist in wilful disobedience have not received life (1 John 1:6). Faith requires an appropriate response – as we will see in subsequent chapters. 

6. How does God judge a baby or person that has died before becoming conscious of the choice we must make for God? 

Before Jacob and Esau were born, God revealed to Rachel their mother that the older will serve the younger (Genesis 25:23). This demonstrates God’s foreknowledge: He knows the lives and choices of people before they are born. David said of a son who died in infancy: I will go to him, but he will not return to me (2 Samuel 12:23).

God reveals Himself as merciful, compassionate and just. Paul explains that even though he was a persecutor of the church, God showed him mercy because he acted in ignorance (1 Timothy 1:13). We can safely assume that the same mercy applies for those who die without knowing all they need to know about God.