The end of the nineteenth century in the United Kingdom was a period when the authority and the sufficiency of Scripture were under vigorous attack. The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement faced ridicule, not from outsiders but from ministers of the church. During what became known as the Down-Grade Controversy, Charles Spurgeon recognized that God was being robbed of His glory and that men and women were being robbed of their hope. He wrote, “Avowed atheists are not a tenth as dangerous as those preachers who scatter doubt and stab at faith.”1
Throughout history, the church has triumphantly withstood attacks from the outside. Far more threatening have been the threats from within, whether in the nineteenth century, the first century, or today. Contemporary evangelicalism is still confronted by those within the church who attack Scripture’s authority and sufficiency and ridicule essential doctrines.
The New Testament letter of Jude speaks to these circumstances. Arguably the most neglected of all of the New Testament books, this short letter calls us to be on guard and resist attempts to distort the Gospel message that has been entrusted to us.
An Urgent Appeal
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. (Jude 3)
Jude, the author of this letter, was the “brother of James” (Jude 1) and so also the half-brother of Jesus according to the flesh (Matt. 13:53). Like James, though, he instead calls himself Christ’s “servant” (Jude 1; James 1:1). Jude had become a leader in the church, and he wrote out of a sense of concern for the church. He urged his readers “to contend for the faith”—not just faith in general but the objective truth of the Gospel that has been delivered to us and that we must believe to experience the Lord’s redemption and salvation.
The import of the phrase “once for all” is that the Gospel handed down to the apostles was complete and exactly what God intended for the church. It was not to be added to, tampered with, or diluted. It is the Gospel that God Himself delivered to us.
The sad truth, though, is that Jude’s urgent appeal is still necessary in our modern church context. Key biblical doctrines are not preached faithfully in all “evangelical” churches today. For example, certain churchgoers and ministers alike find the idea of God exercising wrath to be morally repugnant. They may sing, “O the deep, deep love of Jesus!”2 but never such lyrics as “On the cross when Jesus died, the wrath of God is satisfied.”3 They say, “God is not a violent God. He is opposed to violence! He could not plan from all eternity to do such a thing to His Son—never mind what the Scriptures say about God’s settled opposition to sin.”
We need to be aware of what the main things and the plain things are so that we can set theological alarms in our hearts and minds.
When pastors and church leaders go astray, it’s because they have already gone wrong on the doctrine of Scripture. But the Christian faith is not an intellectual sandbox in which any view may be entertained just so long as the insight does not claim finality. It is “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints,” and we have not right to change it to suit our tastes.
Set the Alarms!
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. (Jude 4)
We buy home security systems and religiously set our alarms in the hope of keeping intruders out. And if everything is working properly, we’ll be loudly alerted when someone is there who shouldn’t be. But if we forget to set the alarm or we leave a door or window open, then somebody might creep in unnoticed.
The “certain people” that Jude warns us about creep in. They do not make a loud announcement about their intent to challenge the sufficiency of Scripture, the atonement of Christ, biblical views on human sexuality, or anything else. They don’t present themselves as opponents of orthodoxy. They call themselves Bible teachers. They say things like “Don’t be so hard-hearted! Don’t be so dogmatic! Don’t be so old-school!” Because they use Christian language and elevate some Christian doctrines, they seem to be friends of the “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints”—yet by ignoring and even outright denying the core doctrines of the faith, such teachers gradually unmoor people from authentic, historical, Christianity.
This is why it is so important that we are firmly established in the truths of the Gospel. We need to be aware of what the main things and the plain things are so that we can set theological alarms in our hearts and minds. Because these false teachers creep into our churches, our ministries, and our Christian schools, we need pay attention and measure everything we hear by the standard of God’s Word.
Recognizing the Wolves
Jude also lays out two characteristics of the false teachers themselves that will help us set our alarms and recognize them.
First, they “pervert the grace of our God into sensuality.” These kinds of individuals may preach well, but they can’t be taken at face value because of their immorality. They ask or hear the Romans 6:1 question—“Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”—and answer it wrongly, making light of the great word of the Gospel that reaches into the depths to lift us, restore us, and keep us. When sin is dealt with lightly, when freedom is expressed as lawlessness, when we dismiss the concerns of earlier generations for purity and holiness as simply being legalistic tendencies, then we are closer to this perversion than we are prepared to admit.
Second, their opposition is heretical: they “deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” In refusing to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is sovereign, they reveal a problem that is both moral and theological. If Jesus is the Sovereign Lord, then Christians must believe everything that Jesus taught. They must believe the Bible and behave in a way that the Bible says is right. When we sing, “Jesus is Lord,” it’s not an expression of a sentiment; it’s a statement concerning the identity of Christ Himself. Either we bring our morality into conformity with the truth of the Gospel, or we fiddle with the truth to manipulate it in such a way as to accommodate our personal morality. These people do not want to conform morally, so they deny Christ’s sovereignty, imagining instead that they are being conformed into the image of a supposed savior of their own invention.
Beware! If we are contending with a rising spirit of denunciation, then we have missed Jude’s point entirely.
Jude later describes these people as “waterless clouds,” “fruitless trees,” “wild waves,” “wandering stars,” “unreasoning animals,” and “loud-mouthed boasters” (vv. 10, 12–13, 16). They are empty, foolish, dangerous, and vigorous self-promoters. We must be on our guard against such people.
How to Contend
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. (Jude 20–23)
At the very beginning of his letter, before his urgent warning, Jude greets Christ’s church with a warmth that is essential to the task before them. He tenderly reminds the readers of their identity as those who are called, loved, and kept by God, and he prays that mercy, peace, and love would be multiplied to them (Jude 2). And again, by the end of the letter, Jude returns to these themes of love, mercy, and God’s keeping power.
These reminders are crucial, because as we recognize that dangers that have crept into the church, our tendency may be to take people on in an antagonistic and combative manner. Beware! If we are contending with a rising spirit of denunciation, then we have missed Jude’s point entirely. We must not harbor secret joy in condemning people we think unfaithful. Jude’s letter, as short as it is and as neglected as it has been, has nevertheless proved to be a happy hunting ground for people who are antagonistic, belligerent, combative, and just generally disagreeable.
Yes, the church is to be courageous in preserving the faith handed down to it. But like Jude, we ought not to do so out of consternation. We need a deep, heartrending sense of the awfulness of corrupting the Gospel of Christ—but it should come alongside tears in our eyes for those who are being led astray from the truth. We need to be rooted in our Christian identity as those who are called, loved, and kept. And with a strong sense of God’s mercy, we need to seek diligently that others would be rooted there with us.
As Isaiah 40:8 reminds us, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” Forever is surely worth contending for.
This article was adapted from the sermon “I Found It Necessary…” by Alistair Begg.
C. H. Spurgeon, “Another Word Concerning the Down-Grade,” in The Sword and the Trowel: A Record of Combat with Sin and of Labour for the Lord, vol. 23, 1887 (London: Passamore and Alabaster, 1887), 399.↩︎
Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, “In Christ Alone” (2001).↩︎