“Repentance from dead works” is listed as a fundamental doctrine in the New Testament. What are “dead works”? Must we repent of those works today?
Hebrews 6:1-2 lists six basic teachings of the New Testament. The first doctrine is “repentance from dead works.” The author is instructing his audience of Jewish converts to use these fundamental teachings as a springboard to “go on to perfection.”
In order to understand this first doctrine, we must consider the context of the book of Hebrews. We must understand why the book was written.
Who was Hebrews written to?
Hebrews was most likely written in the mid-60s before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70. The author describes the rituals associated with the sacrifices in the present tense—thus before the destruction of the temple (Hebrews 10:2; 13:9-16).
Most scholars believe that Hebrews was written to Christians who had a good knowledge of the Old Testament, especially the sacrificial system.
The theme of the book of Hebrews is the superiority of Christ. The author endeavors to explain and convince his Jewish audience why the New Covenant is far superior to the Old Covenant. The Jews believed that keeping God’s laws was the only means of remaining upright with God. They relied on the sacrificial system and strict law keeping to somehow pay for past sins and justify themselves to God.
This wrong concept was difficult to overcome even among converted Jews. They had to be reminded that the concept of justification by law keeping was not possible. The author reinforces the truth that faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is the only way to have our sins forgiven. Keeping God’s laws is essential, but law keeping can never forgive sin or save anyone. Christians can never be justified by any form of works, even good works.
Later in the book of Hebrews the Jewish Christians were reminded that temple rituals had had their purposes, but that “the blood of Christ” was the only way to “cleanse your conscience from dead works” (Hebrews 9:14). Animal sacrifices could never forgive sin or cleanse the conscience.
Written for us as well
The instruction in the book of Hebrews is not limited to a Jewish audience at the time of the original writing. Everyone has “dead works” that need forgiveness. Dead works precede our conversion and can plague us after conversion.
Repentance from dead works applies to everyone. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
We must understand repentance in order to grasp this first fundamental doctrine.
What is repentance?
Repentance is a change of attitude, mind and actions. Repentance is toward God, sincerely asking Him to forgive our sins and then determining, with God’s help, to change the direction of our life. Those who repent come to a place in life where they recognize their personal sins and understand that Christ died so that those sins can be forgiven. They ask God to forgive those sins and are baptized in water.
Repentance is a change of attitude, mind and actions. Repentance is toward God, sincerely asking Him to forgive our sins and then determining, with God’s help, to change the direction of our life.A more complete understanding of repentance can be gained by reading two other articles in this section titled “What Is Repentance?” and “How to Repent.”
This brings us to the topic of works. Works are addressed throughout the New Testament. The Bible speaks of two types of works. One type is godly and acceptable to God; the other type is sinful and unacceptable to God.
The words work or works are translated from the Greek word ergon. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words defines ergon in the context of believers as “a deed, act” (pp. 683-684). Godly works are deeds or actions that God accepts. Such works are the result of faith and putting the 10 Commandments into action in our lives.
The book of James defines godly works, the deeds or actions God accepts, as obedience to His law as defined in the Scripture (James 1:21-27; 2:8-26). James specifically defines “works” as actions or deeds—and tells us to be a “doer of the work” (James 1:25). He clearly refers to godly works as living by the 10 Commandments and other godly principles as they are amplified throughout the Bible.
Jesus taught His disciples to set a good example by letting their lights shine before all men (Matthew 5:16). Their examples were defined as “good works,” that is, obedience to God’s law. (Learn more in our article “What Are Good Works?”)
Paul expounds the concept of good works as the “fruit of the Spirit”—thoughts and actions that are opposite of the “works of the flesh.” These good works produced by God’s Spirit in us are “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Ungodly works are actions that God does not accept. They are deeds that break His law.
Paul uses the term “works of the flesh” to define unacceptable works: “Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like” (Galatians 5:19-21). These actions are the carnal thoughts and actions of the flesh.
Paul also uses the word works to correct those who believed they could be justified by their actions. Paul shows that obedience to ritual law or, for that matter, any law could not make them upright before God. Paul uses the phrase “works of the law” to describe such attitudes and actions. He explains that the only way to be justified (forgiven of sins so one may be upright before God) is by faith in the sacrifice of Christ. Only the blood of Christ can remove sins—obedience to law cannot do that.
Now that we understand how the word works is used in the New Testament, we can analyze the expression “dead works.”
Clarke’s Commentary defines dead works as “such works as deserve death—works of those who were dead in trespasses, and dead in sins, and dead by sentence of the law, because they had by these works broken the law” (emphasis added).
This comment agrees with Paul’s statement in Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.” The apostle John defines sin: “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). Sin is breaking God’s 10 Commandments and the penalty is everlasting death if the sinner refuses to repent of the sins.
Other versions of the Bible translate “repentance from dead works” in other ways, such as “repentance from acts that lead to death” (New International Version) and “repentance from the deeds which led to death” (J.B. Phillips New Testament).
Repentance from dead works is ongoing
Every human being, excluding Jesus Christ, has sinned. Paul writes, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
The apostle John warns Christians: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10).
Therefore, due to sin, everyone has “dead works” that must be repented of and forgiven by God. Dead works (ineffectual and vain works) preceded conversion. Works that lead to death must be continually repented of and overcome after conversion.
For further information, please read our section on “Christian Conversion.”