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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 01/10/1999
"Beloved, while I was making every effort to write to you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints."
This great exhortation by our Lord's half brother has always been a strong rallying cry for me, but I have somehow never gotten around to preaching on it--until today. That the Faith needs to be contended for now more than ever in this day of doctrinal vagueness, moral looseness, and reliance on spiritual hype, I take as self-evident. I would therefore ask, What does it mean to contend for the Faith? And how does this affect our approach to the church, to spiritual warfare, and to the whole Christian life?
The word translated "contend" here is the Greek AGONIZOMAI. The English derivatives are agony and agonize, words with painful connotations that focus on just one part of the Greek idea. The Greek word means to strain mightily, to give one's utmost effort, to groan with exertion. The emphasis is on effort rather than agony, but this kind of effort never comes without a cost, so the English derivatives are not at all irrelevant to understanding their Greek original. This is a word from the world of athletics; it is the Greek Olympic athlete contending for the laurel crown. This is the offensive lineman who hunkers down one more time when the game is on the line and his team needs one more first down. He has given his all and feels he can barely walk, but somehow he must summon up the strength and energy to knock the opposing defender on his posterior one more time. This is the miler in the last lap of the race who has spent what feels like all his energy and strength just keeping up with the leaders, whose heart is pounding and lungs are burning, but who must somehow reach down and find that last "kick" for the sprint to the finish if he is to make a difference for his team in the standings. Eyes clenched shut, face red, veins bulging, teeth gritting, muscles straining, sweat pouring, voice roaring, the ultimate effort: that's AGONIZOMAI.
By choosing this word, Jude is telling us that contending for the faith is not something we do in our spare time. It is not a hobby, something we pursue if we can get around to it. It is a life and death struggle, an all-consuming passion, something for which we would spend our life's blood. This kind of contending takes all that we have to give and more.
If we are to contend with our last measure of strength, we had better be clear about what we are contending for and what we are contending against. The lineman's last agonizing effort is of no avail if he blows his blocking assignment for the play that has been called; the miler's "kick" is of no avail if he is running outside the lines.
What we are contending for is "the Faith once delivered to the saints." This is not faith as a personal religious experience but faith as a body of doctrine which was delivered once and for all to the saints by the Apostles in the First Century. It is not about your personal doctrinal position or your denominational distinctives. This is the Depositum Fidei, the central core of Christian truth, the heart of the Gospel with which the whole Church has been entrusted. These are the kinds of truths about which Paul could say to the Galatians, if even an angel from heaven departs from it, let him be accursed. For us at this point in history, I would define it as the Nicene Creed supplemented by the five Reformation "solas" rightly understood: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria. Scripture alone (as the only final authority), Grace alone (as the only ground of salvation), Faith alone (as the only way to receive that salvation), Christ alone (as the only Mediator and Lord), and Glory to God alone (for the salvation He has wrought apart from our works): these are all the kinds of thing that Paul was wanting to draw a line in the sand about in Galatians. And he drew it so well and so clearly that the Nicene Fathers did not even feel called upon to address them. It would require another thousand years of progressive ecclesiastical corruption before they would have to be defined again in the Reformation.
This then is the Faith once delivered. Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists; Baptists, Anabaptists, and Paedobaptists; Sprinklers, Pourers, and Dunkers; A-, Post-, and Premillennialists; even Calvinists and Arminians can all agree on this. The rest we may discuss; the rest we may even argue about. For this, we contend. For it is the Faith once delivered to the saints.
That is what we contend for. It is clear and plain. But the identity of the enemy we contend against is much more subtle, and it is at this point that the larger context of our passage becomes interesting indeed. In v. 4, the reason for this contending is that certain persons have "crept in" unnoticed. They are ungodly, turning the grace of God into licentiousness and denying our only Master and Lord, Jesus. In v. 12 they are described as "fruitless." It is easy to get distracted by Jude's outlandish apocalyptic imagery, but these points about the source of the problem at least are clear. What do they mean?
These people cannot be people who have denied Christ explicitly, for then they would not be in the First-Century church at all. So they outwardly profess him, but they deny him implicitly, by their lack of spiritual reality. They turn God's grace into an excuse for licentiousness in v. 4. Probably they were not teaching antinomianism overtly, but they were living it. They were all talk and no walk, lacking the fruit of the Spirit. What Jude is describing here is NOMINAL CHRISTIANITY. The word "nominal" is related to the word "name." Something that is nominal bears the name only without participating in the reality. These people were in the Church but they were insufficiently different from the World. Therefore, they denied Christ by their lives even as they confessed him with their lips.
Now, this is probably not the enemy most of us were expecting to be contending against. It is not (in First-Century terms) paganism or the Roman state or syncretism or Jewish zealotry that the Church had to contend against. In terms of our own times, it is not atheism or secular humanism or liberalism or post-modernism or the cultured despisers of religion that is the greatest threat to the preservation and propagation of the Faith once delivered to the saints. All of these things are problems and potential threats that need to be responded to, but none of them is the primary focus of our contending for the faith. Why not?
In a way, it should not be surprising. The Church is not the kind of organism that can ever be defeated from without. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. External threats only serve to strengthen her. As John Colet so astutely observed in his "Convocation Sermon" of 1512, "In the persecution of tyrants, the church, being vexed, was made stronger and brighter. In the invasion of heretics the church, being shaken, was made wiser and more cunning in Holy Writ." She can rightly appropriate Obi Wan Kenobi's words to Darth Vader: "You can't win, Darth. Strike me down and I will become more powerful than you can even imagine." The Church cannot be defeated from without. Therefore, the greatest struggle for her identity and for her very survival will always be against the rot that comes from within. The greatest threat to the Faith once delivered is not from those who oppose it but from those who espouse it without living it! That, far more than the shallow and inane arguments of heretics, is what makes the Faith unbelievable to seekers after truth. It is not liberalism but nominalism that must bear the fullest brunt of our contending.
How then are we to pursue this contention for the Faith against Nominalism? A number of hints are scattered throughout the remainder of Jude's epistle.
First, we must contend against Nominalism in ourselves. We are always in danger of falling into it. We must begin here as the spiritual equivalent of the excellent advice that airline stewardesses give us when they are going over the emergency procedures: get your own oxygen mask on first, and then help others. Jude gives us five ways to contend against Nominalism in ourselves.
First is v. 17. "But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ." Remember the words! Before you can contend for the Faith once delivered you have to know what it is, understand it clearly, be well versed in it. But it is not enough just to rehearse it intellectually--that is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of spiritual health. So second we must "build ourselves up" in our most holy faith (v. 20). This is parallel to the idea of edification in Ephesians. On the foundation of that Faith we construct full lives that are consistent with it, are rich incarnations of it. Third, we are to "pray in the Holy Spirit" (v. 20). For our warfare is not against flesh and blood. Fourth, we must "keep ourselves in the love of God" (v. 21). All love requires maintenance; all relationships require maintenance if they are to remain healthy, and our relationship with God is no exception. And finally we are to "wait anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ" (v. 21). We must not get too comfortable in this life, but stay oriented to the Kingdom that is coming. All good spiritual advice that we have heard before. But wait: we must realize that v. 3 is the thesis statement for this little one-chapter letter; that, in other words, these are all ways in which we are supposed to AGONIZOMAI for the faith. All these verbs flow from that verb. So what Jude adds to our understanding of these things is not only that they are ways to combat incipient nominalism in ourselves, but they are to be pursued with the kind of whole-souled intensity that is conveyed by that governing verb. They may seem like the humdrum routine of the Christian life, but they are the front lines of the battle, the wrestling mat or the football field or the track of the Spirit where victory or defeat are at stake. Is that how we treat them?
But we are also to contend against Nominalism in others. We are to have mercy on some who are doubting (v. 22) and snatch others out of the fire (v. 23). We are to have mercy on those who doubt! In other words, when we are confronted by doubt, or even by the Nominalism which leads to the spiritual unreality that is the breeding ground of doubt, either in the Nominalist himself or those around him, then inaction, tolerance, a live-and-let-live attitude, is cruel.
We must have mercy first on those who doubt, those who are wavering. The nominal Christian is not our enemy, but the nominalism in him is his. We have mercy on these. They must be won by our love and by the spiritual reality that is in our lives as a result of our own contention against nominalism in ourselves. Those who are weak in faith need answers that hold up; but more, they need answers from people who are living those answers themselves, so that they are answers they can see in action.
Then for those on the brink, we are to snatch them from the fire. On the brink of what? Of the fire, i.e., of destruction! If you are a nominal Christian, you are in grave danger of being lost. The doctrine of Eternal Security is true, but it does not apply to you. For it is the eternal security of the BELIEVER, not of the PROFESSING BELIEVER. And real believers are defined as those whose faith makes a difference in the way they live. There is a sense of urgency in this verse, both as a warning to the nominal and a stimulus to the true believers to confront them with the real issues of eternity. We have grown to accept nominalism as normal rather than as a horrible spiritual disease. The results of this acceptance are disastrous for individuals and for the Church. How many souls have been lost by our inaction?
Finally, there are those already polluted. These are people whose nominalism has already led them into scandal. We have mercy on them with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh (v. 23). These are people who should be in the process that leads to church discipline. But the end of that process is a last resort. Until it is reached, we are still seeking to reclaim them. But we must beware that we do not ourselves fall into the evil they represent. To deal with them without "hating the garment polluted" is naive and dangerous; but neither are we to let that hatred and fear cause us to withdraw from contending for them. There is an important balance we must maintain here that is too often absent from our dealing with these matters.
This all sounds like business as usual, what the Church should be doing day by day. And that is precisely the point. Jude's point is that this is where the most crucial front of spiritual warfare is to be found; this is the arena where the Church's battles will be won or lost. Will we keep our own faith not only sound but also whole and vibrant? Will we be complacent about the large number of members in our churches whose faith is not? This is where the Church lives or dies. This is where we should be contending--agonizing--for the faith. This is where we should be living as spiritual Olympians. That is why I, like Jude, feel the necessity of "appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints."
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams