How to Contend for the Faith
Last week, I entitled my column, “How to Wreck a Church.” In my mind, the false teachers in Jude had (and have) the potential to do just that. They come in secretly; they flatter; they are immoral and follow their own desires; ultimately, they will be destroyed by God. But when we step back and look at Jude’s letter as a whole, we see that everything in the letter – including the description of the church-wreckers – is written in the service of one major theme. It all falls under the umbrella of contending for the faith. In fact, in verse 3, Jude tells us as much. He says that he wanted to write an encouraging letter, meditating on the glories and privileges of salvation, but he felt compelled to write a letter urging his readers to strive hard in serve to their faith.
Now one important thing to notice at the outset is that Jude is not urging his readers to contend for faith. The definite article is important. It’s not that Jude wants them to support and look out those who have a vague belief in something; rather the faith refers to a body of Christian teaching, constantly under assault – and not least from those who sneak into churches secretly. This is an important indication that even in the days of the New Testament, there was a widely understood set of doctrinal formulations which set the boundaries for appropriate teaching.
It is very interesting to note that this phrase “The Faith” still has content. It still means something. Charles, Prince of Wales, has asked that if and when he becomes king, part of his ancient title should be altered from, “Defender of the Faith,” to “Defender of Faith.” This is instructive. Prince Charles knows what the definite article symbolizes here. He understands the import of the phrase “the faith” as opposed to “faith.” And while he apparently does not want to be defending any particular body of beliefs, but he is perfectly comfortable standing for some kind of generalized subjective feeling of faith, regardless of its object. But make no mistake: Jude commands us to contend for a body of specific beliefs.
But of course, we hear about people subtracting from the faith all the time. Every month some supposedly Christian denomination decides that one doctrine or another is outdated and in need of revision. I don’t think I even need to give examples of this; we see it all the time. And while we do need to reform ourselves and our churches according to Scripture, there is a body of doctrine – the faith – which must never be altered according to our whims and fancies.
There is also the danger of adding to the faith. In Mark 9, Jesus condemns the Pharisees not for what they have subtracted from the Bible, but for what they have added. In adding man-made regulations, they have actually taken away from the authority of that which was truly from God.
This is one of the great dangers of being a part of the church. There are always those who want to take away unpopular teachings, and those who would add teachings which they suppose will actually complement the faith.
So this is the overall command we’re given – “contend for the faith.” But how does that work itself out in practical terms? What can we do to defend this faith?
First, according to verses 17-19, we are to remember the warnings given ahead of time. Jesus and the apostles both were adamant about the fact that opposition would arise. Jesus, in Matthew 10, told His disciples that He was sending them, “As sheep among wolves.” Paul, to cite just one of the apostles, warned that in the last days men would not want to hear the truth, but would want their ears tickled with smooth teaching (2 Timothy 4:3). We should not be surprised that there are false teachers – even very smooth and persuasive ones – in our midst. Jesus warned us of this threat from the beginning, and the apostles reinforced his warnings.
Why is this such a necessary message today? Because we too can become complacent in our defense of the faith. While we need to avoid needless suspicion of everyone, we dare not become passive. And we need to be sure that we know the truth in order to spot errors. I have heard that the reason that art historians are so good at spotting forgeries is not because they are familiar with all forms of forgery, but because they are so familiar with the real thing. The same, apparently, is true for experts in spotting forged currency. They cannot possibly anticipate all the techniques that might one day be employed in the practice of forgery, but they can become increasingly familiar with the real thing, the genuine article.
And so we have to recognize how vital it is that we understand the truth. We have to know the truth of the faith so intimately that whenever deceptive and divisive false teaching arises in the church, we will be well-equipped to diagnose it properly and refute it clearly. Do you intimately know the truth about the Christian faith? Is that something you leave to pastors and Christian leaders? The point that Jude makes is that the burden is on us as Christians – the “beloved” of verse 20 – to build ourselves up in order to recognize counterfeit teaching.
But recognize that this is not a one-man operation. Verse 20 uses plural nouns. The commands are given to congregations. This means that if you are only marginally attached to a church, your faith is at risk. If you doubt this, then I have to wonder if you are taking the warnings and prophesies of the Lord and His apostles seriously. Jude makes it quite clear that there is always a great danger of the faith being perverted. We are enjoined to help one another. As Hebrews reminds us, we must, “Encourage one another daily…so that none of you will be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Hebrews 3:13).
Jude also admonishes believers to “pray in the Spirit.” Grammatically, this is a subpoint under the overall command to keep yourselves in God’s love (Jude 21). And this prayer in the spirit is not some special kind of prayer. Instead, Jude is saying, all of you can pray by the power of the Holy Spirit. The prayer was to be for discernment and preservation in the midst of what will always be trying times. And the prayer was specifically to be a prayer which would keep them in the love of God.
Finally, we are to be merciful to one another, and to rescue those going blithely down the path of sin. One of the especially striking features of this advice is that Jude is firm on the need to avoid sin, but he recognizes that there is no one-size fits all approach to keeping others from it. Just as two different children may respond to different kinds of parenting – even though the parents should have the same basic goals in mind for both – so spiritual children are sometimes in need of extra mercy in the midst of sin; sometimes they are in need of harsh correction, such as in 1 Corinthians 5, when the errant sinner is turned out of the church, so, Paul says, “his body can be turned over to Satan, so that his soul might be saved.” Harsh medicine – but entirely appropriate on some occasions for the purity of the church.
So contend for the faith – those fixed beliefs enshrined in the scriptures. There are those who would add and those who would subtract, but it is incumbent on all of us to continue to be built up, to continue to pray, and to continue to warn and care for each other.