Contending for the Faith
...earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.Jude 3
We live at a time when the purity of the Gospel is increasingly threatened. There is great confusion – even amongst evangelicals – over basic questions like 'What is Christianity? Who is a Christian? What is the Church?' What then is the present duty of those who unashamedly profess the Apostolic and Reformed Faith? The words of Jude clarify our God-given task.
The Duty of Contending
In our highly ecumenical age it is fashionable to be 'positive'. We are told to engage in 'positive preaching', and to avoid being 'negative'. So, are 'negative statements' out? Clearly not, if our Lord's ministry is our model. He was often 'negative' and controversial: "Take heed, beware..." (Mark 8: 15). He warned against the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Their successors are with us still in the forms of liberal Protestantism and Roman ritualism. No less pernicious in a multi-faith age is 'pluralism'. Evangelicals sometimes say "We make our contribution..." But is ours merely one viewpoint among many? No! Reformed Evangelical Christianity is the truth! We will, of course, be branded as 'narrow-minded bigots'. Let that not deter us! We are in good company. Contending Paul insisted that there were no other 'gospels' apart from his (see Galatians 1: 9).
We are to contend for THE FAITH. Not so much our personal faith but the Faith of the Gospel, the Christian Faith. The Faith, the whole Faith and nothing but the Faith. Not parts but the whole. Not just 'predestination' or 'baptism' or 'prophecy'. The Faith in its totality and harmony. Biblical truth is like a diamond. Its beauty is seen in its many facets. Heresies arise when only one facet is concentrated upon to the neglect of the others. In the early church, truth was taught in balance: Election and the free offer of the gospel; justification by faith and the necessity of holiness.
We must contend as Martin Luther did before the Emperor Charles V. Refusing to renounce his views he declared: 'My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me. Amen!' We must contend like William Tyndale. When Roman clerics said the common people were better off with the Pope's laws than with God's, Tyndale – driven by deep biblical conviction – made his thrilling and famous reply: 'I defy the Pope and all his laws... If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scriptures than thou doest.' Like these and many other heroes, we must 'contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints'. Not a faith supplemented by tradition (Mark 7: 5-13) but given through the apostles complete and sufficient for every age and circumstance.
Dangers of Contending
We are to contend as saints, in a manner appropriate to Christians. It is possible to contend in a false way, in a manner unworthy of Christ. Our motives must also be pure. We must therefore avoid:
A carnal, vindictive spirit. The Lord Jesus Christ warned the disciples against this (see Luke. 9: 51-56). John Howe, a chaplain of Oliver Cromwell said: 'There is a contention for religion which is a duty and there is a contention even concerning religion which is a sin ... The church's contention against its enemies strengthens it, while contentions within weaken it'. Consider the time of the Reformation. While differences between Luther and Zwingli over the Lord's Supper were not unimportant, at the colloquy of Marburg in 1529, the volcanic Luther lost his temper with the gentle reformer from Zurich. Indeed, notwithstanding the greatness of the German reformer, Calvin too lamented Luther's rage.
A party, sectarian spirit. The Lord Jesus Christ also warned his disciples against this (see Mark 9:38-40). Oh that we had never known the sad fragmentation of Evangelical Protestantism! A failure to grasp and practise Christ's teaching has done much mischief among the Lord's people. During the Evangelical revival of the 18th century, the Calvinist Augustus Montague Toplady, author of the famous hymn 'Rock of Ages', used unbecoming language when criticising the Arminian Wesley. Wesley was called 'Pope John', and 'an old fox tarred and feathered'. Not surprisingly, the venerable Wesley was rather provoked. When one of his friends urged him to respond, Wesley declared, "Mr. Toplady is a very dirty writer. I never meddle with chimney sweepers!" How we should avoid 'party spirit', even when differences are not insignificant. Philip Doddridge rightly commented: 'Christ is not divided: nor were Luther or Calvin, or even Peter or Paul, crucified for us; nor were we baptised into their names'.
A cold, loveless spirit. While commending the Ephesian church for its zeal for purity of doctrine, the Lord Christ rebuked them for their lack of love (see Revelation 2: 1-5). Indeed, the Apostle Paul urges us to 'speak the truth in love'. To be sure, not love without truth but truth with love. I quote Doddridge again: 'When we are called to plead the cause of truth in the name of the God of truth, let it be in a manner worthy of Him as the God of love'.
In short, we should contend without being contentious. When it is necessary to criticize, let us avoid a critical spirit. Someone may now object, "How can I fulfill the duty of contending for the faith while avoiding its dangers? Is it possible to do one yet avoid the other?" Clearly, the answer must be 'yes'. Indeed, in this very letter, Jude shows us how. Thus he gives us:
Directions for Contending (vs. 20-21)
Build yourselves up in the faith. You will never contend for the faith if you are not well-taught in the faith. Thus the Apostle Paul also says: 'As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, as you have been taught...' (Colossians 2:6). When we look at one another, we see warm-blooded faces full of life and vitality. Beneath the surface, there are lungs, a brain, a heart and other organs. Equally necessary are our bones. The skeleton gives structure and form for all the rest. Exactly! That is what doctrine does for our spiritual lives. Can you imagine yourself without a skeleton? A pulsating, quivering mass of flesh and blood on the floor going nowhere fast! Indeed, the thought is ridiculous. But too often we are like this: all emotion and no thought. All devotion without doctrine. So Jude says, 'Build yourself up in the faith'. How vital is doctrine and clear Bible teaching! Luther's preface to his Commentary on Romans challenges the empty-headed prophets of the Toronto experience: 'This epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes'. It is a question of appetite.
Pray in the Holy Spirit. After Paul had urged the Roman Christians 'not to be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind', he urged them to 'continue instant in prayer' (see Romans 12:2, 12). Whence his concern? Doctrine must be blended with devotion. Prayer keeps truth from becoming dead. Here we stress the balancing use of the above illustration: Christians need more than a skeleton. We need to be clothed with life and warmth. William Cowper expresses this perfectly:
Restraining prayer, we cease to fight,
Prayer keeps the Christian's armour bright;
And Satan trembles when he sees
The weakest saint upon His knees.
How encouraging is this. Satan fears prayerful saints who might find some doctrines hard to grasp more than prayerless students of systematic theology!
Maintain a vital sense of God's love. This really reinforces the previous point. How useless is a prayerless and loveless Christian. Truth and experience must always go together. Experience of truth gives energy to spoken truth. Hence the great Apostle says that 'the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us' (Romans 5:5). This is why reformation always needs revival. John Wesley surely illustrates this. Although he was an Arminian, none can doubt his Protestant convictions after reading his Reply to a Roman Catholic Catechism (1756). Like Whitefield, Wesley experienced the power of the love of God. His 1738 'Aldersgate' testimony is famous: '...one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation: and an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death'.
Look for God's mercy. Why does Jude add this? Possibly because those who earnestly contend can easily forget that their salvation depends not on their earnestness but on God's mercy. There is a need to be kept humble even while we contend. In addition, others will accuse us of arrogance and bigotry. But if we are deeply persuaded of the need for God's mercy, we need never fear the predictable jibes of Christ's enemies. Charles Wesley surely strikes the right note:
Depth of mercy, can there be
Mercy still reserved for me;
Can my God His wrath forbear,
Me, the chief of sinners, spare?
By observing and practising these four directives, the Lord's people will contend aright, avoiding the dangers in the midst of their duty. Indeed, they will make the duty a delight! Furthermore, Jude supplies the ultimate assurance when he reminds us that God 'is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy' (v. 24). 'God must win!' wrote John Calvin in 1559 to his persecuted brethren in France. God's sovereign invincible power was the support and stay of the Huguenots and Waldensians of old, inspired as they were by the mighty Psalm 68:
God shall arise, and by His might
Put all His enemies to flight;
In conquest shall He quell them.
Let those who hate Him, scattered, flee
Before His glorious majesty,
For God Himself shall fell them.
Our comfort is to know that we are in His almighty hands. Assured of His mercy and grace, let us 'contend earnestly for the faith'.