The danger of losing “the faith” took priority in Jude’s mind over a devotional treatise about salvation. It was therefore essential that those who were recasting the faith were to be identified and confronted and for their errors to be refuted (Jude 4, 10, 12, 16, 19). The Apostles Paul and John referred to the fact that such defection would occur from within the church (Acts 20:29–30; 1 John 2:19) and through invasion from the world. Behind both was an unseen supernatural world of evil.
In the early days of the church, there was a cluster of truths that distinguished Christianity from every other religion, Judaism included. It was taught by the Lord’s Apostles and transmitted to the churches. Luke records that the first converts “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42) and that a “great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). Soon afterward, news that Saul of Tarsus was preaching “the faith that he once tried to destroy” spread quickly (Gal. 1:23). He continued to preach the faith throughout his ministry (Phil.1:27, 29; 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 4:9), paraphrasing it as “the traditions” (2 Thess. 2:15), the “pattern of sound words . . . and the good deposit” that was to be passed on to “faithful men, who will be able to teach others” (2 Tim. 1:13–14; 2:2). This is what Jude describes as having been “once for all delivered” (Jude 3) and as being “most holy” (Jude 20). James, his brother, wrote that it was able to “save souls” (James 1:21). In the New Testament era, it functioned as an embryonic creed. It gave shape to the church and strength to the saints.
Jude’s letter is an example of theology’s being fervently applied to the life of the church. He wove several truths about “the common salvation” into his written sermon. Intent on putting “the church under the Word,” he presented “the faith” in terms of its being monotheistic in focus, mediatorial in character, and moral in its effect. We consider each before taking note of what he says about its opponents.
Monotheistic: The Only God Our Savior
By the words “the only God” Jude is taking his stand in the mainstream of Old Testament teaching (Jude 25). Every orthodox Jew was a monotheist. The gods that were worshiped by the surrounding nations had no existence. They could not hear, speak, or save, though they had ears, mouths, hands, and feet (Ps. 115:4–8; Isa. 46:1–8). They were made and set up or carried about by their worshipers, whereas Israel’s God was the Creator and Upholder of all things. “I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (Isa. 42:8) was standard belief from the earliest days of the nation of Israel. Israel did not carry their God; He carried them.
And He was “a Savior”! God, Having revealed Himself to the patriarchs as El-Shaddai, appeared to Moses at the Burning Bush as Yahweh, who would deliver their descendants from bondage in Egypt. Israel owed its existence to His power and grace as revealed in that ineffable name, “This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations” (Ex. 3:15). The mysterious “I am who I am” became Yahweh, their “Savior” and their cardinal confession was “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4).
And He was also a “Father” whom Jude connected with “Jesus Christ our Lord” (Jude 1, 4, 25). This declaration took Jude beyond his Jewish inheritance in which God’s fatherhood meant His care for Israel, His “firstborn son” (Ex. 4:22) but not outside it because the Jesus to whom he referred was God’s “Christ,” the Messiah promised in the Old Testament who was also the sovereign Lord (Jude 1, 4, 17, 21, 25). “The only God” who is a “Father” is therefore associated with Jesus who is His Christ, and both are linked with “the Holy Spirit” (Jude 20–21). Jude’s “one God” is not a monad! His monotheism is incipiently Trinitarian and redemptive. The saving of sinners (or the making of saints) requires a God who is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to devise it thoroughly, accomplish it fully, and bestow it effectively.
Mediatorial: Through Jesus Christ Our Lord
Love, care, mercy, and peace (Jude 1, 2, 24) are specific blessings of this “common salvation,” but “grace” (Jude 3–4) combines them all because it points to the way that God deals with sinful human beings. “Grace” is often described as something that is undeserved, and that is true. But what makes it truly amazing is that it is the opposite of what is deserved. It is possible for people to think of something from God as undeserved while they think of themselves as having some merit but just not enough to deserve salvation—and so God’s grace becomes no more than a needed top-up or what tips the balance sufficiently in one’s favor. But the reality is that no one has any merit before God (“worth” is something different), and everyone deserves God’s condemnation on account of their disobeying His law. Grace gives love, mercy, and care (Jude 1–2) to the guilty, bankrupt, helpless sinner, and that means there is something sovereign about it because no one can obligate God, and grace is free because God is not obliged to give it (Rom. 4:4; 11:6).
But how can God, who is just, do that without becoming unjust? He cannot be gracious at the expense of His justice except through someone who, bearing the demerit of others, pays their debts and so distributes gains. He therefore in grace provides such a mediator—“the man Christ Jesus” (Jude 1). As God He brings God’s grace into this world; as man He obeys His Father’s broken law, bears the penalty due, and procures the promised blessing. He is the one and only mediator provided by God between Himself and sinners (1 Tim. 2:5–6).
Moral in Its Effect
This is highlighted in the letter in two ways. First and positively, the very term “saints” has an ethical dimension to it because they have been separated from the dominion of sin and the world and consecrated to God as a result of having been “called” through the gospel. Their response of faith to the truth heard is assumed, and they have received new life (2 Peter 1:3). They have become conscious of God’s “love and mercy” to which they should respond in mutual edification, corporate prayer, and by abiding in God’s love and in expectation of Christ’s return and their admission into life eternal (Jude 20–21) and their duty toward any who have been affected by the drift from “the faith” in the congregation (Jude 22). Second and negatively, there is that catalog of immorality that is strongly repudiated as in contradiction of the nature and purpose of the “grace of our God” (Jude 4). Jude’s basic presupposition was that a true experience of God’s grace motivates toward godliness and produces it increasingly.
“Faith” and “Other Faiths”
Before moving on to what Jude says about “the foes,” it ought to be noted that his expression “the faith” was not commonly used in twentieth-century Protestantism. Instead, it was “faith” and “other faiths” that were preferred. Picking it up from nineteenth-century German liberalism, the awareness that other sacred books and religions existed resulted in an examination of the Bible as a text and Christianity as a religion in much the same way that religious documents and dogmas were examined. The erudition with which all this was done was impressive, but its ethos was evolutionary. As the Bible was no longer to be regarded as the sole written divine revelation and Christianity was to take its place beside other religions, the idea enshrined in “the faith” became untenable. The Christian church had to fight its own corner—no longer on the basis of revealed truths but on the basis of so-called reasonable ideas or ideals. Christianity became a religion with “feeling” as a foundation, not fact.
This attitude and outlook affected ministerial preparation not only on the Continent, but students from the United States and United Kingdom who traveled to Germany to undertake postgraduate studies were also exposed to it. As early as 1867, “Rabbi” John Duncan, Old Testament professor in the Free Church of Scotland, saw the direction that things were drifting there and said:
It requires more charity than I possess to believe that some of the critics do not know where all this will lead us. The Person of Christ, His Work, His Salvation are the things against which these attacks are really levelled.1
In 1881, theologian Robert L. Dabney pointed this out in memorable terms in a most valuable essay on German theological literature.2 His analysis of its spirit was that “it tends to unsettle everything, and settle nothing. It claims the privilege of pursuing the Protestant freedom, ‘to prove all things and hold fast that which is good’; but it perverts that right to a questioning of good things which results in the holding fast to nothing.”
Soon, this analysis began to be verified in their respective countries. The controversy between Charles Hodge and C.A. Briggs erupted in America, and the teaching of A.B. Davidson, W. Robertson Smith, and others was having considerable effect in Scotland, C.H. Spurgeon was embroiled in the Downgrade Controversy in England, and Presbyterian churches of Ireland and Wales were being affected too. Higher criticism and liberal theology became entrenched, and an anti-evangelical and pro-ecumenical network built itself up, acquiring positions of importance, controlling committees and agendas, and securing appointments to theological colleges. The saints became such an ineffective minority that they could be practically ignored in their denominational courts and assemblies.
Protestant churches did not officially reject their creeds and confessions, but they were being consigned to denominational archives via historical and psychological interpretation.3 Anything that smacked of being “dogmatic” was frowned on, especially if it was expressed in metaphysical or negative terms. In practice, it was as if these core doctrines had no place or use in their worship and witness. Catechisms were a thing of the past. Philosophy of religion displaced systematic theology by way of preparation for the Christian ministry.
Ecumenism grew with the slogan “Doctrine divides,” and mass evangelism based on a call for an ill-informed decision for an ill-defined Jesus flourished. The distinctiveness of Christianity (the term “exclusiveness” is now anathema) became clouded by an over favorable recognition of the validity and value of other faiths. In fact, everything that had been handed down became a target for updating—morality included. Consequently, the church has been struggling to hold its own over against other “faith communities.”
But the note Jude sounded did not go completely unheard in the last 150 years or so. Notable figures engaged in a fight for “the faith” on both sides of the Atlantic. As the twentieth century opened, C.H. Spurgeon and B.B. Warfield had been challenging the drift away from historic Christianity, and they were succeeded by J. Gresham Machen and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. According to their different gifts, they all presented a robust and devout defense of “the faith” in a gracious spirit but at great personal cost. Machen’s definitive work Christianity and Liberalism in 1925 exposed the chasm that existed, and it was supported by articles and radio addresses that made a popular appeal, culminating in The Christian Faith in the Modern World in 1936. Lloyd-Jones addressed students at Wheaton College in 1947 on Truth Unchanged, Unchanging and in the United Kingdom as president of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship on Maintaining the Evangelical Faith Today in 1952. His opening words were “For the last thirty years, although I would not have chosen such a course for myself, a great deal of my time has been taken up with the task of maintaining and defending the evangelical faith.”4 In the 1980s, a neoevangelicalism that originated in Fuller Theological Seminary gave rise to the International Council for Biblical Inerrancy. Soon afterward, David Wells showed that evangelicalism had become nontheological and that Christians were being blown about in the wind of a culture that is individualist and pluralist.5
“Keeping the faith” or “Semper Fi” is now the slogan for a political party, business corporation, military unit or some other human enterprise. British coinage carries the abbreviation “Fid. Def” which is short for Defensor Fidei (defender of the faith) and that rendering of the Latin is part of the coronation oath, but the heir to the throne has said that he wishes to be known as “Defender of Faith.” When “the faith” drops out of the church’s vocabulary, it has already gone from its theology, and it is about to depart from her piety and morality.
In the years after the Second World War, the trend to “free thinking” generated by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was evident, and it spawned the cult of “free living” or the “new morality” that was a distortion of “the law of love.” The sixties was the decade in which this became plain to see in the United Kingdom, with an Episcopalian bishop appearing in the Old Bailey defending Lady Chatterley’s Lover and a Church of Scotland elder and a renegade Welsh Nonconformist pressing for the decriminalization of homosexual practice, easier divorce, and abortion—and all in the name of a “civilized society.” Barely a generation has passed, and there is now abortion on demand, no-fault divorce, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism. To say that truth and morality are knowable and definable for all is an absolute nonsense to so many and at all levels of national life. Those who do so are no longer pitied but proscribed. An antinomian and anti-Christian hurricane is blowing.
Jude did not write to the foes of the faith, but he wrote a lot about them. They probably had no label for themselves or their system. Even if they did, Jude’s concern was with what they were in light of “the common salvation,” and that was what the saints needed to realize. He therefore declares at the outset that they were “ungodly” and presents the essence of their “religion” to prove it (Jude 4). He then records examples of their ilk from the past (Jude 4–13) and concludes by repeating the epithet several times in short order (Jude 14–16), using a noun, adjective, verb and adverb to cover their words, deeds, and desires. Clearly, he wants the saints to be in no two minds about their being in opposition to the faith of the gospel.
The term “ungodly” was widely used in secular Greek for irreligion and profanity, and Jude would have been aware of that. But as a Jew, he would also know of its use in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures where it describes “the wicked” in Israel whose “way” showed that they had no “fear of the Lord,” in contrast to “the righteous,” who were so motivated and governed (Prov. 4:17–20). That was the kind of situation that existed in the church addressed where foes “pervert[ed] the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4). The picture is of God’s grace being so grossly abused by “sensuality,” which is the unharnessed expression of “their own sinful desires” (Jude 16), that His saving governance was being blatantly denied.
Jude then gives six examples of such ungodliness from the Old Testament era. The first three involve groups—namely, Israelites, angels, and the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah—and the second, individuals—namely Cain, Balaam, and Korah. We will look at each grouping and how Jude makes use of it.
The first three displayed an ungodliness that ranged from unbelief after deliverance to unbridled and unnatural sexual activity. The generation of Israelites that came out of Egypt tested God time and again, finally refusing to enter the promised land out of fear of its inhabitants. When forbidden to do so by the Lord, they made an assault on it. The angels who refused to remain in the place assigned to them sought a sexual liaison with human women, and the Sodomites sought union with angels.6 God manifested His displeasure against them all in fearful ways. Jude makes a link between them and the false teachers by the expression “in like manner” (Jude 8), which means that the same spirit was displayed. Whether there was a closer correspondence in terms of the sexual sins committed is open to question.
What Jude said about them was related to dreams, defilement, and defamation (Jude 8). The first of these is the dominant feature as it introduces the rest. Jude wrote “dreaming . . . they defile . . . reject . . . and blaspheme.” Dreams were probably the medium by which they acquired (and authenticated?) what they taught and how they lived. In the Old Testament, the “dreams” of false prophets served as the opposite of “the word” that true prophets received (Deut. 13:2, 4, 6; Jer. 23:16, 25–32). “Defiled flesh” refers to sexual immorality—whether of the kind exemplified by fallen angels or the Sodomites or not. It was regarded as having no serious bearing on their version of Christianity. They despised all government, whether of God and the Lord Jesus Christ, or their angelic representatives and unlike the archangel Michael, they had no temerity about their own opinions. They were filled with self-importance and recognized no one as greater than themselves. They had no reverential love for “the only God” or the “Master” Jesus Christ whom they knew something about. The secret knowledge to which they laid claim led them to debased and depraved living, more in keeping with instinct than reason (Jude 10). Free thinking was becoming free living with a vengeance.
Whereas the relevance of the former triad to the situation in hand was grounded on general resemblance (“like manner” in Jude 8), this second triad is more specific. “Woe to them for they” is a pronouncement of judgment on the false teachers for the sins for which Cain, Balaam, and Korah were regarded as notorious in Jewish tradition. Cain exhibited defiance of the divine word by building a city when he had been consigned to be a wanderer (Gen. 4:18). Balaam added seduction to avarice when he was prevented from cursing Israel (Num. 22–24; 31:1–20). Korah led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron’s leadership and authority (Num. 16). They were all dangerous, avaricious, useless, and unstable and untrustworthy like dirty blemishes or hidden reefs, greedy shepherds, empty clouds, barren trees, stormy waves and wandering stars (Jude 4, 8–16). Enoch prophesied about them, and so did the Apostles of the Lord. Like the unbelievers in Israel, they were perennial dissidents—grumblers and loud-mouthed boasters (Ex.16:1–12). They were the ones who were disrupting the fellowship, making much of others but to no good purpose (Gal. 4:17–18) and were “devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 19) as they pursued their program of self-aggrandizement to their own destruction and that of others. They were no real friends of the faith—or of the church.
Battle lines are therefore being clearly drawn, but the “location” of the battlefield must be borne in mind. It is the church and so the danger of collateral damage must be minimized. A fight for the faith in the church must not turn into a free-for-all, no-holds-barred conflict, as Jude goes on to show. The Apostle Paul recognized that the church was not immune from dissension or heresy but envisaged that in such crises there would be some in the fellowship who would show that they were more capable at handling such matters than others (1 Cor. 11:18–19). These “leaders” should always be looked for and followed and orderly procedures observed until there is no alternative to secession. A church without “the faith” is not a church—but that does not mean that its members are not Christians.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on Jude. Previous post.
- See R.A. Finlayson, How Liberal Theology Infected Scotland in Reformed Theological Writings (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 1996), 195.
- Robert L. Dabney, Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, vol. 1 (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 416.
- “The creeds of Christendom are not expressions of Christian experience. They are summary statements of what God has told us in his Word.” Machen’s essay “The Creeds and Modern Advance” in God Transcendent (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 1998). See also The Boundaries of Christian Belief in Crisis in the Church. John H Leith asked, “Is there really such a thing as ‘. . .’ ”?
- Truth Unchanged, Unchanging.
- See No Place For Truth OR Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?and subsequent volumes.
- See Num. 14; 15; Gen. 6:1–3; Gen. 19:5.