Foundations: No.77 Autumn 2019

Contending In The Perpetual Battle: Jude And The Constant Need To Fight Valiantly Against Heresy

Jesus did not call us to an easy life. Those who come to know him by faith “have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1), but the Christian life is not all tranquility and calm. That is not what he meant when he promised us “rest” (Matthew 11:28). He warned that the path to heaven would be paved with “many dangers, toils, and snares”, as the hymn Amazing Grace puts it, and to get there we would have to deny ourselves and carry a cross (Luke 9:23).

In an important sense, Jesus did not come to bring peace to the earth but a sword, because true faith in him divides families and communities and even nations (Matthew 10:34-39). The Bible says that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:12-13). So a calling to follow Jesus is a hazardous and risky one. In the Church of England it comes with a charge when we are baptised to “fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil”, and to continue his faithful soldiers and servants until the end of our lives, or until he comes again.[1]

A brief look at Christian history shows us that there has always been enmity against the church and discord within it. In the early days after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Christians struggled against many external foes which sought to stamp them out. This was to be expected, as Christianity presented a grave threat to the existing order of things, and Jesus had warned it would be so. There were also internal threats from various heresies, which felt like a betrayal of the truth and hence excited great passion. Fighting the good fight of faith will always be necessary, because new threats are constantly arising. The Apostle Paul warned the Ephesian elders that even from their own number wolves would spring up to twist the truth, scatter the flock and lead people astray. Diligence and vigilance will always be required, he said (Acts 20:28-30). Wolves are attracted to sheep, so wherever there are sheep, wolves will inevitably follow (however sound our church may appear to be in theory).

So what does it mean for Christians to join in this perpetual battle against the world, the flesh and the devil, especially when it sometimes involves striving against other professed believers, perhaps even within the same denomination or church? I have examined the biblical and historical answers to this in my book Fight Valiantly! Contending for the Faith in the Bible and in the Church of England.[2] It is not an uncontroversial question. What to some looks like contending feels to others like mere contentiousness; and while many may be engaged in effective contending in all sorts of ways, they may be accused by others of quiet compromise or acquiescence – because their understandings of what it means to contend are fundamentally different.

How do we stand firm and fight on in a way that pleases Christ? Truth will always need upholding and fighting for. This has always been a sometimes exhausting and often nauseating necessity, whatever our denomination might be. What does the Bible say about this contending? What is it, what is it not, and how are we meant to engage in it? In Fight Valiantly! I survey the key passages in the Bible on this subject. I think we can sum up the biblical doctrine by saying that contending is the vital spiritual discipline of applying and promoting the gospel lovingly in a context of opposition. Contending is not a mere worldly exercise, but an application of the gospel itself both personally and corporately. It must involve boundaries and saying no to various things, as true love always does; but this ought to be done in a way that is courteous and godly, consistent with what the gospel tells us about ourselves. All of these pillars are vital for biblical contending, and to forget any of these aspects of the task would hamstring our efforts.[3]

If we were to pick just one passage of the Bible on which to reflect further about this subject, it might well be the short epistle of Jude. Jude tells us to “contend for the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints”. He will help us to work out what this means, so we can join in, and fight valiantly behind the one “whose battle-cry is love.”

Jude tells us about the call to contend, the need to contend, and the way to contend.

I. The Call to Contend

Jude 3-4 says:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

Rather than writing a more positive letter about our salvation, Jude decided to write an appeal instead, a vital appeal for people to contend for the faith. There is an attractive alternative translation of this verse (e.g. NRSV) which could be understood to mean that the letter we have actually is the letter he intended to write, i.e. “Since I’m eager to write about our common salvation, I’m writing this to urge you to contend for that faith.” I think the ESV and NIV, and the majority of scholars, are right to understand that he is in fact talking about two letters: an originally intended general one, and this more focused and urgent one.[4] Jude adds that this faith was “once and for all delivered to the saints”. It is not something which can change, or which can be added to. It was definitively delivered, handed over intact. So there is such a thing as “orthodoxy”, a definitive body of doctrine that has been passed down to us.

The false teaching, which Jude outlines a little more in the rest of the letter, includes the idea of changing our gospel, our message. Indeed, he says certain people want to transform the grace of the gospel so it turns into a licence for immorality. They want to undermine the Lordship of Jesus as our Master, that is, one with rights over how we behave. So, contending here is in the context of false teaching; it is contending for something, positively – contending for the faith. It means not changing our doctrine and not changing our moral and ethical applications of it, which certain people would like us to do. It means contending for the doctrine that we do not get to decide how to live, because Jesus is our Lord and Master.

II. The Need to Contend

So that is Jude’s call to contend for the unchanging faith. Second, he also tells us why there is a need to contend. Let us listen again to what he says:

… I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

The reason there is a need for this struggle is that there are false teachers about. Jude wants his readers to understand what the false teaching is that they are meant to oppose, because he spends most of the rest of his letter describing it. He tells us how it replaces holiness of life with sensuality and immorality instead.

Is that something startlingly new in the history of the church? I do not think it is. For starters, Jude tells us that this was prophesied long, long ago. God always knew that people would sneak into the church and try to whisper lies into the ears of his people – just as Satan sneaked into Eden, and seduced Adam and Eve to doubt God’s unerring word. Verse 17 says the apostles predicted that scoffers would come, “following their own ungodly passions”. Jude reminds us in verses 5-7 of those who fell in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. Paul also reminds us in 1 Corinthians 10:8-12,

We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

Jude recalls Sodom and Gomorrah, in verse 7, “which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire”. The last phrase there could mean homosexuality, the sin to which Sodom gives its name even today. Or in a parallel to Genesis 6, where the angels lust after beautiful human women, it could be a reference to the Sodomites’ desire to have sex with the angels, who had come to rescue Lot.[5] Not that the people of Sodom knew they were angels; they called them “men” when they shouted for them to be thrown out and raped (Genesis 19:5). Whatever “unnatural desire” means, the general word for sexual immorality here (ekporneusasai) included all kinds of heterosexual and homosexual sins – any sex outside of heterosexual marriage, essentially. This has of course been contested,[6] but the overwhelming weight of scholarship and all the available evidence from the ancient world points firmly in this direction.

Jude says this is the kind of immorality which has often crept into the church. People who rely not on the word of God for their morality, but their own dreams (verse 8), will always “defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones”. They rely on their base instincts, and go the way of Cain, Balaam and Korah in the Old Testament – they want sex, money and power in this earthly city, rather than denying themselves, taking up their cross and following Jesus to the heavenly city. As verse 16 says, they are “grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires”.

In many ways it might appear that Jude was not just speaking to his own day, but particularly to us in ours. However, if you have been worshipping or ministering in the church for a few years and you have only just worked out that there are some people claiming to be Christians who are not quite sound, I want to ask: don’t you know your Bible? Don’t you know your church history?

In the middle ages, Thomas Aquinas talked about various heresies he knew of. And he said “from the beginning men have rationalized to find reasons why fornication and other sexual sins were not really sins, so that they might indulge their sinful desires without restraint”.[7] Moreover, he said, “if a person were to maintain that God is not triune and one, or that fornication is not a sin, he would be a heretic”.[8] That is why Jude says we must contend for the faith once delivered to the saints – because there are always people who deny his lordship over our sexuality. This is not a secondary issue, but a matter of truth or heresy.

In the sixteenth century it was the same, even after the Reformation. One bishop of Hereford complained particularly of his cathedral, that it was a place where “idleness… contempt and depraving of true religion, and such like occasions of the sin of sodomy do… reign and rule”.[9] Then there was the pious evangelical headmaster of Eton, the Revd Nicholas Udall (1504-1556), educated at Winchester. During the Reformation, he translated and wrote many works of spirituality, but in 1541 was found to be not only an enthusiastic beater of children, but also “sexually involved” with one of his boys.[10] After a spell in prison (friends in higher places kept him from the usual more severe punishment), he became a vicar in Essex and then the Isle of Wight, before going back to be a headmaster again, at Westminster School. Jude warned us long ago that such people would creep into the church.

In the seventeenth century, John Wesley’s great grandfather, John White was one of the trustees of the staunchly puritan St Antholin’s lectures.[11] He published a book about one hundred of the most scandalous and malignant priests of his day in 1643.[12] Number one in John White’s book was John Wilson, a vicar in Sussex. He was a practising homosexual, who seduced young men in his parish and was very open about it. He denied the doctrine of Jesus’ virgin birth and the doctrine of original sin, and had a Catholic view of the sacraments and images in churches. This Liberal Catholic “hath openly affirmed”, said John White, “that Buggery is no sinne”.[13] There are ninety-nine other stories after this, of vicars and senior clergy who followed their own ungodly passions in many and various ways – gambling, drinking, sleeping around; lost in superstition and often out clubbing, or prowling the streets. Jude told us it would be so “in the last time”.

In the 18th century, the Baptist preacher, Benjamin Keach, complained thus in 1701:

Was ever sodomy so common in a Christian nation, or so notoriously and frequently committed, as by too palpable evidences it appears to be, in and about this city, notwithstanding the clear light of the gospel which shines therein, and the great pains taken to reform the abominable profaneness that abounds? Is it not a wonder the patience of God hath not consumed us in his wrath, before this time? Was ever swearing, blasphemy, whoring, drunkenness, gluttony, self-love, and covetousness, at such a height, as at this time here?[14]

People followed their own sinful desires, even senior churchmen! Jude alerted us to the fact that it would always be so.

So none of this is new. When Jude says certain people will pervert the grace of God into a licence for immorality, we must believe him. Furthermore, we must not panic when he turns out to be telling the truth, as if something strange and unusual was happening to us in our generation, that has never happened before. The present is never exactly like the past – there may be new combinations of heresy in our day, and it may be more virulent in some places – but what Jude says applies throughout the last days, until Jesus comes again.

In such a situation, believers need to stand firm and do something in the face of that threat to a right understanding of God’s grace to us as sinners. So Jude moves from the call to contend, and the need to contend, to tell us – finally – the way to contend.

III. The Way to Contend

What is that something that we need to do? How are we meant to contend for the faith when there are false and deceitful workers operating in God’s vineyard?

It is some kind of struggle against difficulty. That is what the word to “contend” means – a strenuous, agonising, battle. But what? Violent resistance? Execution of heretics? Public denouncements? Dank memes on social media? Jude actually applies his own teaching himself at the end of his letter, so we can see what he thinks it means. He says, in verses 17-23:

But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.

Here, he defines ways of contending for the faith, in days when the church is divided. It is the false teachers, he says in verse 19, who cause the divisions. They are worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. But what should we be like? Verses 20-23 are “the climax of the letter to which all the rest leads up” as Bauckham says.[15] They tell us what to do in answer to Jude’s exhortation to contend for the faith:

1. Build ourselves up in our most holy faith

Note this interesting description: it is a holy faith, a truth which leads to godliness. We are to build ourselves up in this. So the immediate focus is not on something we do towards others, the heretics. Jude wants us to look to ourselves in this situation, and edify one another with the truth.

2. Pray in the Holy Spirit

We can pray in the Spirit, unlike those devoid of the Spirit (see the previous verse) whose prayers are not in accordance with the will of God the Holy Spirit. But all things we do should be suffused with prayer, rather than trusting to our own strategies and strengths.

3. Keep ourselves in the love of God

Jesus defines love, within boundaries. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” he said (John 14:15). So keep yourself in that love, and live in a way that is pleasing to God. Again, this is something we must do with respect to ourselves in order to be contending, rather than something focused directly on our opponents. We contend for the faith by keeping ourselves in the love of God.

4. Wait for the mercy of the Lord to eternal life

The way out of the struggle, will come when Jesus returns, or when he decides to act, to mercifully deal with the opposition.

I agree with the interpretation of Tom Schreiner,[16] that technically the only imperative here is “keep yourself in the love of God”. The other verbs are participles telling us how to do that (building ourselves up, praying, waiting). Each of these also, however, virtually functions as an imperative and is an application of verse 3. So there are four components here to contending for the faith, all of them focused on our own personal and corporate spiritual responsibility – focused on ourselves, keeping watch over ourselves. Then, and only then, does Jude say how we should behave towards the false teachers or, more accurately, those affected by them. Jude’s strategy for contending for the faith is very different to worldly methods of fighting for what you want. His approach is characterised by mercy:

i) Have mercy on those who doubt

Not harshness, but be merciful. People faced with persuasive, passionate and powerful false teaching are often fooled. And they often doubt. They do not know what to think. The way we contend for the true faith must be merciful to those people, and attract them to the true faith rather than putting them off it. Waverers can be reclaimed.

ii) Save others by snatching them out of the fire

That sounds like vigorous action which helps individuals avoid plunging wholeheartedly into the heresy. Do we even think about snatching such people from the fire of hell, as part of our contending? Maybe we think of it as evangelism. But even those who seem to be heading to perdition can be saved, by the way we mercifully contend for the truth. Does this motive come through in the way we speak about things? Are we loving in our motives and our attitudes?

iii) Show mercy with fear to those tainted by the sins promoted by the heretics

Again, we show love and kindness to people caught up in false teaching and living. I think “mercy mixed with fear” is about making sure that as we do work with such people, we do not get caught up in sin ourselves, the sort of entangling sin being promoted by the false teachers which is not easy to escape. We may think we are clear and sound, but it is all too easy, if we are focusing on other people’s sins all the time, not to notice our own fallenness in the same areas – or to proudly assume we are immune to temptation, and become ensnared.

Interestingly, Jude goes straight to a doxology after that, in which the attention is shifted away from others, back to God and ourselves. So part of our contending is about looking to God to keep us from stumbling (verse 24). The danger of not contending is great. But contending and then falling or stumbling into sin and error ourselves is also a huge danger. So we need to be looking to God, who can present us blameless – giving glory to him for this, not patting ourselves on the back for being so orthodox and sound and godly.

The Fall has left none of us entirely straight; we are all bent towards sin. That means orthodoxy in the faith is a gift from God and not a human work in which we can boast. Its long-term persistence must be something which requires not only our thoughtful and careful effort but the aid of the Spirit of God himself. No matter how good our confessional formulas and church structures might be, we will always need the ongoing grace of God.[17] Indeed, God alone can keep us from stumbling. To God alone be the glory.

Perhaps it is fitting then, to end with a prayer:

 

Almighty God,
who gives victory to his faithful people
not by might, nor by power, but by your Holy Spirit:
Grant in your mercy that we may not be ashamed
to confess the faith of Christ crucified,
and to fight valiantly against sin, the world, and the devil
contending for the gospel as his faithful soldiers and servants
until the end of our lives;
for we ask in the name of Jesus,
who conquered the powers of darkness
and gave himself up, to rescue us from this present evil age.
Amen.

 

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