Constructive Christians in a Collapsing World and Church
2 Peter 1:1-4
The reader of Jude and 2 Peter 2 can hardly fail to see the similarity between these two passages, a similarity that gives critics something to argue about. By-passing such misleading criticism, to consider what each of these parts of the New Testament say, we will find in both of them, in their similarities and differences, exactly the kind of guidance that today's Christians and church need.
Need to be militant and constructive
Jude, at the beginning of his letter, informs us that when he was intending to write a letter about "the common salvation," he faced an emergency which made it necessary to write instead urging the readers "to contend for the faith that God has once for all entrusted to the saints." Godless men had "secretly slipped in" to "change the grace of God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord." Such a hostile invasion called for Christian soldiers, not for celebrators. When fire is destroying the house the work of fireman takes precedence over that of painter and decorator.
The second chapter of 2 Peter shows us that the Apostle was dealing with the same situation with the same urgency as did Jude. Instead of, like Jude, plunging immediately into "contending for the faith," Peter first reminds us of what and how supremely valuable that faith is and how it is conveyed to us.
When the Christian faith is under attack, as it is in our time, which of these two approaches should we take, that of Jude or Peter? The Bible's answer is that we must not choose between these two, but adopt both of them, for they do not disagree, but complement each other. When some are telling us today that a Christian must never be negative or militant, they are simply wrong. When the Christian faith is under attack, God orders us to "earnestly contend for" it. There is a temptation, however, that in having to persistently contend against errors, we may become so preoccupied with the ongoing struggle against what the enemy is trying to do that we lose our own perspective on the extent and riches of the faith we are seeking to defend. Harry Blamires in his splendid little book The Christian Mind has highlighted that danger.
We have accepted secularism's challenge to fight on secularist ground, with secularist weapons and secularist umpire, before a secularist audience and according to the secularist book of rules. Having done so, we look around in dismay at the discovery that our followers are few, our predicament misunderstood, our cause misrepresented." Instead of letting our efforts be "doctored to the secularist mentality" he urges that we "shift our ground" and "set about reconstituting the Christian mind." We must begin "by taking for granted the authoritative, God-given nature of the Christian Faith, and re-establishing within ourselves an unfaltering sense of the objectivity of Christian truth (p. 117).
This is exactly what the Apostle Peter does in his introductory chapter. Let us see how he does this, and then, in a following article see how Jude after the "call to arms" of his letter, concludes it with the same kind of positive outline of how we must seek to be "constructive Christians in a collapsing world and church."
We observe first that the Apostle highlights the surpassing value of the Christian Faith. He speaks of a "precious faith" (v. 1), "whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises" (v. 4). Running through the whole Bible is a recurring stress on the values it reveals and conveys.
More to be desired are they than gold ... than much fine gold.Psalm19:10
Why do people who call themselves Christians and their churches lose their faith in our time? Isn't it often because they no longer consider these things important?
Would you let someone casually walk away with your wallet or purse? Certainly not! You'd lose credit cards and driver's license, as well as the money in it! If we are careful to protect even our wallets, why should we let anyone quietly deprive us of our infinitely more important faith? Let no one say that such a thing is imaginary. It is exactly what has been permitted to happen in most of the churches of our time. Some time ago a book described "the trivialization of the United Presbyterian Church," as the Bible and its doctrines quietly slipped out of sight without the general membership realizing that it had lost anything. There are many indications that our churches, which traditionally share the same Biblical and doctrinal heritage, are undergoing the same kind of loss, although most church members are totally unaware of it. Peter's letter calling attention to the values of our faith is like the travel guide's alert to protect our wallets and handbags from pickpockets. It recalls our Lord's similar warning to a church, "Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown" (Revelation 3:11).
The cure for the disease
Just what is so "precious" in this faith and in these promises that impels us to hold on to them more than to anything else? Consider what happens to us if we do not have them. Without them, we are victims of "the corruption that is in the world through lust" or, in more common words, the "rottenness" that is in the world by "lawless desire." Throughout our experience in this world we encounter the problem of things rotting, rusting and breaking down. The Bible diagnoses our human plight as being, in a moral and spiritual sense, victims of a rot that is destroying everything human. That pervasive decay becomes increasingly evident in our current life and society in the breakdown of personalities, families and communities as honesty, decency and goodness seem to be rotting out of them. The cause of this pervasive rot the Bible identifies as "lust" or lawless desires. The revolt of human desires against God's order which the Bible calls "sin" is our real problem. Even if we begin to see or sense this, we do not in ourselves have any means to "escape" from it. The only way to escape from it is through the "precious" gospel "promises." They alone can free us from our enslavement to the pervasive "corruption.”
Through the powerful gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ we completely escape from the "corruption that is in the world through lust." That is only one side of our deliverance, however. Positively, we are given "everything that we need for life and godliness." This is the familiar promise of Christ our Lord that "whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16), but it says even more. Through the knowledge of Christ, "His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness." The Apostle assures us that through the knowledge of Christ we are so completely equipped that we do not lack even one thing that is needed for life and godliness! One cannot imagine anything that could be added to this complete and wonderful work of God into which we are brought as active participants.
Becoming like God
After seeing all this, we might think that we have exhausted the possible portrayal of the gospel riches. Peter points out that they have still another dimension. Through these gospel promises "you may participate in the divine nature!" This sounds incredible! Is he even saying, as some heretics arrogantly claimed, that by this religion men become gods? Indeed not! But by the gospel we are saved and called to become "like God" in the sense of "being renewed in knowledge" in His image (Colossians 3:10), and "created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:24). Thus from following, resembling and sharing the destiny of the devil, this amazing gospel changes and calls us to follow, become like and share the eternal fellowship of God as His children!
Introduced by the gospel to such amazing riches, we are urged to engross ourselves in acquiring them. We are assured that if we do that, they will not only provide a rich and productive life here (v. 8), but also promise an exuberant royal reception (the Greek word suggests "provided with a choir!" v. 11) "into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."
Treasuring and Sharing God's Gospel
How are we to acquire these fantastic gospel riches? They are, from first to last, the gift of God, given by "His divine power" (v. 3; cf. also Ephesians 2:8, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.") God grants us this gift by leading us to know Him through the gospel. That is why that gospel is all-important, worthy of every possible effort to spread it.
Considering its amazing claims, how may we be sure that they are true? That gospel is not composed of men's "cleverly invented stories" ( literally, "myths," v. 16), but of the revelation of God, experienced by the apostles and attested by "a more sure word of prophecy" which never originated from men, but from the Holy Spirit (vv. 19-21).
This, in substance, is the way Peter prepares us for what we must do whenever the Faith and church are being wrecked by false teachers who replace God's gospel with their own opinions (2:1-3). We have to expose and oppose the false teachings, but we can do that most effectively if we constantly stress, as He did, the unimaginable riches of God's gospel. Entrusted with such treasures as these, how can one help but seize every opportunity to speak about and work with them? How can a church with such a trust squander a Sunday morning trying out liturgical trivialities (or dances!), or listening to a rehash of last week's news and columnists' opinions, or even to some budding scholar's guesses about how a Bible story (or doctrine) ought to be rewritten? One has to be, as Peter said (1:9), "blind," to be diverted into such nonsense. If brighter days are to come for us and our churches, we will have to wake up and realize anew "how vast the benefits divine which we in Christ possess" and devote ourselves "with all diligence" to them.
When we walk with the Lord in the light of His Word, what a glory He sheds on our way!
A little reflection at this point shows us why present efforts to modernize, "contextualize" or popularize the gospel by skipping any talk of sin and simply appealing to people's "felt needs" or natural desires, inevitably fail. How can a doctor successfully treat a disease if he will not admit that it exists? If the cause of all of our trouble is "lust" or "evil desires," how could anyone who is himself still ruled by and encouraging such desires help anybody else escape from them? As Peter wrote (2:19), "While they promise ... liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption..!"
Jude, when he had intended to write a letter about "the common salvation," was driven, because of the attack on the Christian Faith by false teachers within the church, to write a different, more militant kind of letter. He had to urge Christians "to contend for the faith that God has once for all entrusted to the saints." He supported this ringing call to arms by recalling how the Lord throughout the centuries had rewarded such devilish perversions of His truth with the severest of judgments.
When as in our time, that kind of attack on the faith is prolonged so that Christians have to keep on fighting it off, they may be tempted, without realizing it, to have their own appreciation for and grasp on the faith somewhat narrowed by the continuing conflict. Harry Blamires, in his little book, The Christian Mind, shows how in having to fight secularism we have ourselves been "secularized," moved much more than we ourselves realize, to try to fight on the enemy's ground with the enemy's weapons.
A recent visitor to the Netherlands called attention to the fact that the activities of the orthodox "Concerned" people there had, to some extent, restrained the present slide of the Dutch Reformed churches into apostasy. Without their efforts, conditions would be worse. While such restraining influence is to be appreciated, we may never be satisfied with merely slowing down a movement in the wrong direction, if, whether rapidly or slowly, the church is still going in the wrong direction! There is no future for them or for us in letting ourselves and our families be carried along by an unfaithful church into its own apostasy. We may never be contented with merely "putting on the brakes" to slow down such a course. We, as well as the concerned brothers there, have to refuse to go along in the wrong direction – and we have to quit "buying the gas" that keeps the vehicle going in that direction!
Instead of letting ourselves be dragged where we ought not to be, we must, as Blamires said, "shift our ground" and "set about reconstituting the Christian mind" (p. 117). It is interesting and instructive to see how both the Apostle Peter in the introduction to his (second) letter (as we saw last month) and Jude in the conclusion of his, guide us into such a constructive course.
Building on the faith
Instead of letting ourselves and our families be carried along by false teachers into their own apostasy, Jude urges us to be "building yourselves up on your most holy faith" (v. 20). The word "faith" is and often may be used to mean either our act of believing or what we believe, and the prevailing tendency in the church of our time is to use it to refer to our actions, feelings and experiences. That is NOT what Jude means by "your most holy faith," for he says that we must "build ourselves up" ON it. That "faith" is not our actions, feelings or experience, but that mentioned in verse 3, "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" for which he was urging us to earnestly "contend." This "faith" is the revealed gospel reality on which we saw the Apostle Peter also focusing all attention in the first chapter of his second letter. The most pervasive and destructive error in the Christian churches in our time is the shift of their foundation from God's revelation to human experience. Our Lord concluded His "sermon on the mount" by warning that only those who come to Him and hear and do His word will be building a house that will stand in a storm (Luke 6:47ff.; Matthew 7:24ff.). When, as in our time, the storms of error threaten the churches and their faith, Jude urges us to work at that kind of building. To state it more prosaically, this means that the Lord's way to prepare Christians to withstand and overcome all kinds of error is by their studying, teaching and preaching the Bible and its doctrines. That is what built them up when they were once delivered from an ancient paganism; that too is the way they will have to be rebuilt as a resurgent popular paganism is currently sweeping them away.
"Praying in the Holy Spirit"
While the order to be busy "building up ourselves on the faith" stresses our activity, we must also remain aware of our own inability and our dependence from beginning to end on the saving grace of God. The Holy Spirit was promised to all who ask for Him (Luke 11:13) as the indispensible guide into all the truth (John 16:13). Accordingly, we must pray for His presence and guidance if we are to accomplish anything.
Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it. Psalms 127:1
"In the love of God"
Our prayers are one side of the relationship with God into which He in His grace brings us. We are to "Keep yourselves in the love of God." The Apostle John who stresses so strongly our need to abide in truth in the same breath stressed our remaining in the love of God:
In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him ... He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
1 John 4:9-11
The Apostle Paul who so stressed sound doctrine also warned, "If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed" (1 Corinthians 16:22). The Lord Himself, while He praised the Ephesian church for its rejection of false teachers, also warned it that if it did not return to its lost "first love" it would lose its light (Revelation 2:1-6).
A sure hope
Living in this relationship with the Lord, brings a confidence about the future as we are to be "looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life." This "hope" must never be reduced to a mere wish as the word often is in daily language; it is as sure as the promises of God. We are to anticipate, as we already begin to experience something of the reality of "eternal life" (John 3:36; 5:24).
An evangelistic outreach
While we are ordered to build up ourselves upon the Faith, we must not be preoccupied with self but must also look at all kinds of people around us. Although many of them may be strangers or enemies to the Faith, we are to see them as lost people who need the same grace of God as we do and we are to "have compassion" or, literally, "have mercy" on them. As we "look for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life," we are to have and show that kind of mercy or loving concern for them. We are to try to lead them out of their ignorance and "doubts" into the gospel that we have been given.
We are to try to save them "with fear, pulling them out of the fire." That startling expression shocks us into considering what the real predicament of everyone apart from Christ is. In our time it is very unfashionable to say that every non-Christian is like someone caught in a burning building and needing to be rescued, but God's Word says that that is the simple truth. As Harry Blamires observed in The Christian Mind (p. 114), in our secular age people live with the false "pretense that, inside or outside, (the truth) conditions are pretty much the same." God's Word says that the non-Christians' house is afire and we have to work with all of the urgency of a fireman trying to get them out of it.
Firemen must be constantly aware of the dangers of their work – Remember the local fireman who lost his life on the job. Therefore "fear" or caution is necessary. Because the error is so dangerous, threatening with "eternal fire," Christians trying to help those who are caught in it must be careful that they themselves do not become victims of it. (How many "missionaries" have not themselves been lured into the very errors from which they were intending to save others? That has characterized the dreary history of many, perhaps most, modern missions!)
A different, equally striking illustration stresses the same point. We are to be "hating even the garment defiled by the flesh." That expression recalls the Old Testament ceremonial laws about avoiding things that were "unclean." Although those ceremonial laws are no longer applicable after the coming of Christ, their warning against the contagion of moral and spiritual error is at least as urgent now as it was then. Those ceremonial laws, incidentally, protected God's people against what we in our time are beginning to understand as germ-caused diseases. In the light of current discoveries, the warning seems even more relevant than it may have seemed when it was given.
In hospital visits I have sometimes been surprised by unexpected orders that all visitors don sterile coats, gloves and masks. What was the reason for such awkward requirements? The staff had suddenly become aware of a spreading staphylococcus infection that must be stopped if the hospital would help rather than endanger its patients. A recent TV program highlighted Australian hospital studies that showed this to be a much more serious and difficult problem than had been suspected. It showed that doctors who neglected to wash their hands between visits to patients were some of the worst offenders! (Could it be that a similar carelessness among the churches' theological "doctors" or teachers has often made them sources of heresies instead of healthful teaching?) At any rate, the important point that Jude makes is that if we are to succeed in building up the Christian churches' resistance to destructive heresies, we will have to obey some elementary laws of sanitation and beware of spreading by our own carelessness the very thing we are supposed to combat. It is a saddening fact that in a time when we are increasingly alerted against the dangers of contaminated foods and drugs, educational and government leaders (abetted by Liberal churchmen) defend the free spread of much more destructive moral and religious teachings as a "civil right," and then wonder why the troubles of our society multiply. If we are to bring the healing gospel to people around us we will have to stop spreading the moral and spiritual contamination that makes people sick.
Shouldn't this reminder of the size of our assignment and its dangers make us fearful and discouraged? It should not! Jude in ending his letter directs us to God "who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy." If we had only ourselves and our own resources, we would be as helpless and hopeless as everyone else. But the gospel is the help and hope that the Lord gives us. It is not an uncertainty, but a sure thing. In alerting us to danger, He is able to keep us from stumbling. By His gospel He is at work making each believer "faultless." And that future in His presence promises overflowing joy! Doesn't that sure prospect incite us to devote ourselves with renewed enthusiasm to Christian building, praying and working, and to trying to bring the same wonderful gospel to the many around us who also need it?
The enormity of the grace that God is giving us prompts us to share ever more deeply in the enthusiastic thanksgiving with which this letter ends: "To Him that is able to" do all this,
To God our Savior,
Who alone is wise,
Be glory and majesty,
Dominion and power,
Both now and forever.