Contend for the Faith
The letter of Jude found in the back of the New Testament was written by the half brother of Jesus and brother of James. It is a letter of warning and exhortation. Oddly enough, it is not the letter that he intended to write. But it is the letter that Jude had to write. He explains in verse 3:
Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
There are two letters mentioned in this verse—the letter that he intended to write and the letter that he actually wrote. His desire was to write a warm, pastoral letter. But he was compelled to write a letter of strong exhortation and warning.
The letter that was not written
The letter that was not written was going to be a warm, pastoral letter designed to build his readers up in the faith. Jude contemplated writing such a letter with an eager desire. This is what he means by being “diligent.” In other words, he was filled with a zealous concern for his recipients and that concern had motivated him to write them a pastoral letter.
This indicates that Jude obviously had a good relationship with his readers. He thought about them and wanted to encourage them. He desired to help them become more solidly grounded in God’s gracious salvation. To him they were “beloved.” Because of these close, pastoral ties Jude planned to write a letter that would be a great encouragement to them. The content of that letter was going to be their “common salvation.”
Obviously, we do not have that letter, but it is not hard to imagine that it would have addressed the nature of salvation. Perhaps Jude planned to write about the wonders of justification or the mystery of regeneration. Maybe what he had in mind was the completeness of the atonement or the power of the resurrection.
Whatever the specific direction than he planned to pursue, Jude intended to write a letter in a leisurely, studied, pastoral fashion so that his readers would be encouraged by considering all that God had done for them in granting them salvation through Jesus Christ. That would have been a great letter to write—and a great letter to receive. But it is not the letter that we have here in the Bible.
The letter that was written
The letter that we do have was born not out of a leisurely desire but out of a sense of urgency and necessity. “I found it necessary to write to you,” he says. Instead of edification, his purpose shifted to exhortation. The same pastoral love that fueled his desire to write a letter of warm devotion also inflamed his heart and mind to put that desire on hold for something of great urgency and importance. As Michael Green has written, “Christian love is no acquiescence in what others are doing; it is no substitute for conviction.” In fact, true love emerges out of conviction.
The letter that Jude did write is a call not for reflection, but for action. Specifically it is a call to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” This action is what I want to focus on in this article. Jude declares that every Christian must be willing to contend earnestly for the faith.
What is to be done?
What is it that Jude has in mind when he admonishes us to “contend earnestly for the faith?” The verb he employs means to struggle for or to fight for. It was used to describe the strenuous, even grueling effort that Greek athletes exerted in their competitions. Jude uses it to call believers to stand firm on the truth of God’s Word—energetically, forcefully, going to great lengths and at great pains, if necessary—in order to insist that His revealed truth is not compromised.
This is what he means by “the faith.” The faith. A very literal translation would read, “the once-for-all-having-been-delivered-to-the-saints faith.” This refers to faith not as believing but as that which is believed. Jude is referring to a recognized body of truth. This is that apostolic doctrine that united the early church (Acts 2:42).
The New Testament is quite clear in teaching that God has revealed truth to His church. In 1 Timothy 3:15 Paul calls the church the “pillar and ground of the truth.” The church is the repository of God’s truth. It is the place where God has chosen to put His revealed truth on deposit.
When Jude speaks of the faith that has been once-for-all-delivered to the saints, he is referring to the doctrinal propositions that define the Christian faith. He is speaking of propositional revelation. I know that in our day it is out of fashion to speak of revelation as consisting of propositions or truth statements. We are told today that revelation is personal, not propositional; that we should simply focus on Jesus, and not quibble over doctrine because God has revealed Himself in a person, not in truth statements—as if the two are mutually exclusive.
That is not the way the New Testament looks at it. Jesus made it very plain that the personal God reveals Himself in the truth statements of Scripture. When He refuted the Sadducees Jesus accused them of “not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God.” Then He said, “Concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?” (Matthew 22:29, 31–32a). “Have you not read what was spoken to you by God.” Jesus is here affirming that written Scripture is exactly what God spoke to them. God revealed Himself (spoke) in propositions (such that they can be read).
This is also the way that our Lord’s apostles understood revelation. They recognized the existence of a body of truth that must be learned, believed, defended and passed down throughout the ages. Paul refers to this truth as the “traditions” in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (see also 2 Thessalonians 3:6). In 2 Timothy 1:13 he writes, “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.” Obviously Paul had in mind a body of truth that he had taught Timothy. We may even have an outline of his “body of divinity” in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff.
The same perspective is in Jude’s mind when he exhorts his readers to stand up and fight for “the faith.” He is pleading with us to commit ourselves to the revealed truth of God that is given to us in His holy, infallible and inerrant Word, and to be willing to contend strenuously for it. In the words of the wise man, we are to “buy the truth and sell it not” (Proverbs 23:23).
If we are to take Jude’s admonition seriously then we must not be deceived by those who would pit “Christ” against “doctrine” as if we can have one without the other. Such people are biblically ignorant and are attempting to tear apart that which God has joined together! “Keep your doctrine just give me Jesus!” That sounds very pious and spiritual. But it is actually deadly—it destroys biblical Christianity.
No one saw this more clearly than J. Gresham Machen, the great Presbyterian theologian of the last century. In his 1923 book, Christianity and Liberalism, he shows Liberalism is not simply another kind of Christianity, it is an altogether different religion from Christianity. He argues that liberalism and orthodoxy are not “two varieties of the same religion,” but in reality, “two essentially different types of thought and life.”
There is much interlocking of the branches, but the two tendencies, Modernism and supernaturalism, or (otherwise designated) non-doctrinal religion and historic Christianity, spring from different roots. In particular,… Christianity is not a “life,” as distinguished from a doctrine, and not a life that has doctrine as its changing symbolic expression, but that—exactly the other way around—[Christianity] is a life founded on a doctrine.
The faith that has been once for all delivered to the saints is the faith that has been revealed to us. It is the truth that has made Jesus Christ known to us. It is the truth that constitutes Christianity. Jude says that we must contend for it.
Who is to do it?
Who is responsible for this kind of contending? Certainly pastors and elders are. Scripture says much about the responsibility of faithful shepherds to feed and lead the church in the truth of God. The qualifications for spiritual overseers include “holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). But Jude is not writing primarily to elders or pastors. Rather, he addresses his letter to what we might call “ordinary believers” or “regular” church members.
Every believer receives this admonition because God’s truth belongs to the whole church and not exclusively to church leaders. The stewardship of truth most certainly is not restricted to professional theologians! Theology belongs to the church, not to the academy. Therefore, Jude charges the whole church to contend for the faith.
Paul demonstrates this same conviction in his letter to the Galatians. In the opening chapter he teaches us that all church members are responsible to guard the doctrinal purity of the gospel.
I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:6–9).
Paul assumed that they would understand the gospel well enough to recognize when it was being perverted. And he calls on them to stand against those who would do so. In fact, Paul expected them to be so discerning about the gospel that even if an angel from heaven or an apostle of the Lord Jesus were to come preaching a different message, the members of those churches would recognize it and stand against it. Every church member has the responsibility to know and contend for the truth in this way.
One clear implication of this is that no faithful follower of Jesus Christ should support ministries where the gospel is being perverted. Believers should not pretend to be in agreement with those who reject the clear teachings of God’s Word. We must contend for the faith. This is the call of God’s Word to every Christian.
Brothers and sisters must acknowledge and joyfully embrace this responsibility that God Himself has laid on each one of us as followers of Jesus Christ. And those who are charged with the added responsibility of shepherding God’s flock as elders and pastor-teachers must teach God’s people to be involved in and to support the effort of contending for the faith.
Why must this be done?
Why does Jude give such a strong exhortation? What provokes him to issue this charge? The reason is because heretics have entered the camp. People have come into the church and, according to verse 4, they have turned “the grace of our God into lewdness.” In other words, they cheapen grace. They treat salvation by grace as a common, insignificant thing. They profess and teach that the grace that saves does not necessarily cause a person to live any differently from the way unbelievers live.
In addition, they deny “our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (ESV). This is a very bold claim. Jude is saying that these people who have infiltrated the church and become accepted as part of the church have actually renounced Jesus Christ as Lord and Master. How have they done this? Well, it is obvious that they have not done so openly or defiantly. Otherwise, they would not have remained “unnoticed.” Everyone would have recognized what they were doing had they simply declared, “We deny Jesus Christ and turn the grace of God into lewdness.”
Instead, these are people who come in casually, nonchalantly. They profess Christ, but they are not passionate for Him. They claim to be His followers, but will not bow unconditionally to His sovereign Lordship over their lives. They take a cafeteria-style approach to His teachings and commands.
The Bible regularly warns against the subtle emergence of false teachers among the people of God. Jesus warned that such spiritual terrorists will infiltrate the ranks of God’ s people as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Paul warned the Ephesian elders that from within their own ranks men would emerge who would prove to be savage wolves, teaching perverse things (Acts 20:29–30). They look good, sound good and are accepted by the church. But their teaching—their misrepresentation of the faith once for all delivered to the saints—wreaks havoc on the people of God.
As a pastor I have witnessed this very thing more times than I care to remember. It is always painful to see the spiritual carnage that is left in the wake of those who propagate wrong views of the faith. People are spiritually damaged by the teachings and counsel of those who misconstrue the gospel of Jesus Christ. Because this is true, we must be diligent in our duty to contend for the faith.
But there is a second, more ultimate reason that we must heed Jude’s admonition to contend for the faith. We cannot afford to neglect this because of what is at stake. If the body of doctrine that constitutes “the faith” is lost, then salvation will be lost. Jude states that these infiltrators “turn” the grace of God into licentiousness. The point is that they transpose God’s grace, they use it as an argument to justify lewdness. Yet, the Bible teaches that we cannot have both God’s grace and licentiousness.
Paul writes in Titus 2 that the “grace of God that brings salvation” teaches us to “deny ungodliness and worldly lusts” and to “live soberly, righteously and godly in the present age” (vv. 11–12). Hebrews 12:14 says that without holiness, no one will (savingly) see the Lord. To depart from the biblical gospel that makes men pursue holiness through faith in Jesus Christ is to miss the grace of God. So, what is at stake is eternal salvation. Contending for the faith is not a mere academic exercise—it is a fight for life and death.
If we care about the souls of men and women we must be willing to contend for the faith that has been once for all delivered to the saints. We must stand against those who subtly come into the camp and promote a teaching in the name of salvation that does not take seriously the Bible’s teaching on holiness. What such false teachers advocate is not biblical Christianity. Jude recognizes this and therefore calls on us to defend the doctrines of our faith for the sake of the gospel itself.
Make no mistake, there is no salvation if Jesus Christ is denied even though His Name is invoked. Everyone who talks about Jesus Christ is not necessarily preaching Jesus Christ. People who teach that you can be saved by God’s grace and contentedly live immoral lives or who think that you can be saved by Jesus Christ while denying His Lordship over their lives are lost. They will go to hell believing those lies and unless they are refuted will take others along with them.
So do not confuse the call to contend for the faith with an invitation to engage in academic pursuits. Jude does not encourage us to participate in theoretical speculations. Rather, he commands us to stand for truth so that the salvation that God gives to sinners will not be hidden from those who desperately need it.
Contending for the faith is the duty of every believer. It is not optional. Neither is it easy. To take this admonition seriously opens you to many temptations. Most notably, it carries with it the temptation to develop a crusty, pugilistic attitude. It is very possible in the midst of contention to forget the reason you are in the fight. For a Christian, it is never simply to win arguments. Rather, our contending must always be for the purpose of winning people.
There is also the danger of developing a love for the fight. Some people naturally enjoy the vigor of a good debate. Yet, Christians ought to contend for the faith not with excitement about the fight but with zeal mixed with grief and horror and love that are born out of the realization of what is at stake. Robert E. Lee’s sage observation applies to believers who contend for the faith: “It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.”
As God gives us grace, ability and opportunity, each follower of Jesus should aspire to be like Bunyan’s “Valiant-for-Truth.” This noble character in Pilgrim’s Progress can teach us much about the duty and dangers of contending for the faith. When we first meet him he has his sworn drawn and his face is bloody from battle. He tells of being attacked by three enemies who threatened him with three options: 1. He could become one of them, 2. He could go back where he came from, or 3. He could die on the spot. Since he would not be intimidated to leave the path to the Celestial City, he was forced to fight. The names of his enemies were “Wild-head,” “Inconsiderate” and “Pragmatic” (which in the 17th century meant officious, meddlesome, or dogmatic in a dictatorial way).
With these names Bunyan is teaching us that the greatest enemies that a man who is Valiant-for-Truth will ever face are the enemies that reside within his own heart. What is the answer to the temptations that every contender for the faith inevitably faces? Pull back? Become less strident about the faith once delivered to the saints? Downplay conviction or doctrine? No! The answer is to become as valiant for the truth being worked out in your own heart as you are for it being preserved and proclaimed in the church. Go hard after the application of truth in your own life.
John Piper has somewhere said, “If it is worth fighting over, it is worth rejoicing over!” I agree. The faith that we contend for is the faith that has given us Jesus Christ. It is that which has revealed to us the forgiveness of sins in Him. It is that which assures us of an eternal home in heaven. So as we fight, we must do so joyfully and never let our commitment to contending become a cover for mean-spirited rancor.
May our Lord call out all who will live and serve as such contenders!
1 Michael Green, The Second Epistle General of Peter and the General Epistle of Jude, an Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, reprinted 1994), 170.
2I am indebted to James White for pointing out the significance of this verse in demonstrating the propositional nature of revelation.
3 From “Christianity in Conflict” in Selected Shorter Writings, J. Gresham Machen, edited by D. G. Hart (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2004), 563-64.
4 See Green, 173.