Take part in TGC’s Read the Bible initiative, where we’re encouraging Christians and churches to read together through God’s Word in a year.
We live in a time of great theological confusion. According to Ligonier Ministry’s latest State of Theology survey, 30 percent of professing evangelicals reject the deity of Christ, 46 percent believe people are good by nature, and 22 percent think gender identity is “a matter of personal choice.”
Perhaps if surveys could’ve been taken in centuries past, we would find it has always been so. But our culture has definitely injected a strong dose of relativism and individualism that makes it hard for people to recognize any authority above themselves. As a result, people prefer a faith that resists clear definition and a Christianity empty of specific content.
All of which makes it a good time to reflect on Jude 3, in which Jesus’s half-brother urges us to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” I want to look at this verse from three angles, which will clarify what it means to contend for the faith in an age of moral and theological confusion.
1. Faith with Definite Boundaries and Content
This word “faith” usually refers to that act of the heart by which we put our trust in Jesus Christ as our only hope in life and death. But “the faith” refers not to the act of believing, but rather to what is believed.
This suggests that even in the first century, there was already a recognized body of teaching that all Christians were expected to embrace. Jude can urge Christians in AD 65 to contend for “the faith” and assume they know what he’s talking about. Unlike some modern skeptics, Jude doesn’t speak of multiple “Christianities.” Like Paul, he believes that there is “one faith” (Eph. 4:5), and that those who taught contrary to it were not simply offering valid alternatives, but were preaching false gospels (Gal. 1:6–9). Christians don’t have to agree on everything (see Rom. 14), but they do have to agree on some things (1 Cor. 15:3; Gal. 1).
Jude can urge Christians in AD 65 to contend for ‘the faith’ and assume they know what he’s talking about.
It also suggests that though the Bible is a big book, its teaching can be accurately summarized. This is what a good creed or confession does. If a church’s website doesn’t contain a section telling me “What We Believe,” I’m reluctant to point people to that church. You can’t contend for something you can’t define. The faith wasn’t an empty bucket for Jude—it had content. Which raises the question, what was in that bucket?
2. Faith Filled with Moral and Doctrinal Truth
For Jude and the early church, the faith would have included both fundamental moral and doctrinal truths.
First, the faith includes fundamental moral truths about sin and righteousness. Indeed, Jude was making this appeal precisely because “certain people [had] crept in unnoticed . . . ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (v. 4).
Living in sensuality and then creating theological rationalizations for it is a denial of the faith—and of Christ. In a stroke that makes this passage extremely relevant for our culture, in which some churches are flying the rainbow flag in the name of Christian love, Jude cites as a warning the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, which “indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire,” and thus “serve as an example of undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (v. 7).
Make no mistake: our apostolic faith states that “we believe in the forgiveness of sins” (1 Cor. 6:9–11; Col. 1:13–14). But that also assumes we know what sin is. If “Christ died for our sins” is a matter “of first importance,” then a right understanding of sin must also be of first importance.
Jesus didn’t come to relax the commandments, and he didn’t die to change the moral grain of the universe (Matt. 5:19). He died so we could be forgiven and released from sin’s bondage; he was raised so we could walk in newness of life. That’s the faith. And that’s what these false teachers were denying—both in Jude’s day and in ours.
If ‘Christ died for our sins’ is a matter ‘of first importance,’ then a right understanding of sin must also be of first importance.
And lest I seem one-sided, let me add that we can deny the faith not only by affirming sexual immorality, but also by refusing to care for our aged parents: “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). The same faith that teaches us to flee fornication also teaches us to honor Mom and Dad.
Any attempt to reduce the faith to the doctrinal truths contained in the early creeds (usually in an effort to avoid conflict with the sexual revolution) is a pipe dream that puts people’s souls at risk.
If one ditch sees Christianity as simply affirming a set of doctrinal teachings (regardless of how you live), the other ditch sees Christianity as simply being a good person (regardless of what you believe). After all, surely one can be a good neighbor without believing in the Trinity!
Of course, no one should deny that atheists and Hindus can be good neighbors, or that loving neighbor is the heart of the faith. But it’s not the whole heart. Don’t forget the first great commandment, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart.” According to Jesus, “this is eternal life”—to know “the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom [he has] sent” (John 17:3).
If one ditch sees Christianity as simply affirming a set of doctrinal teachings (regardless of how you live), the other ditch sees Christianity as simply being a good person (regardless of what you believe).
A Christian is not simply someone who lives a certain way. A Christian is someone who believes certain things. The faith affirms that certain events really happened—like the creation of the universe ex nihilo and the resurrection of Jesus (Heb. 11:3; 1 Cor. 15). It affirms that certain statements are really true, such as “Jesus is Lord,” “the LORD is one,” and “all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols” (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3; Deut. 6:4; 1 Cor. 8:6; Ps. 96:5). And it affirms that certain events really will take place, like the judgment of the wicked and the resurrection of the body (Jude 6, 14; 1 Cor. 15; 2 Tim. 2:18).
Beliefs without behavior may be dead, but behavior without beliefs is deadly, too. The faith isn’t simply about being a good person—it’s about recognizing that you haven’t been a good person. Claiming that “good” people can be saved regardless of what they believe about Jesus is moralism, pure and simple. It’s a denial of the faith.
3. Faith That Outlasts the Zeitgeist
Orthodox Christians have repeatedly been told “Christianity must change or die, since modern man simply cannot be expected to believe in ________.” Here’s what’s interesting: Trevin Wax points out that 100 years ago the things that “modern man” couldn’t be expected to believe were usually the doctrinal truths—teachings like the virgin birth or the resurrection. Modern man in 1920 was fine with the Bible’s morality, he just couldn’t be expected to believe in miracles.
A Christian is not simply someone who lives a certain way. A Christian is someone who believes certain things.
But today it’s almost the reverse. It’s the Bible’s moral teachings that our culture finds offensive—especially on sexuality. And once again, we’re told that we must evolve or die. Yet if you look back over the 20th century, you see the exact opposite. The churches that evolved were the churches that died. It’s the churches who were willing to lose their lives who saved them.
Jude could’ve told us. The faith isn’t something we can tweak to fit the zeitgeist, because the faith isn’t something we invented—it’s something that was “delivered once for all to the saints.” And it’s still the same today.
And though human cultures may alternate on which aspects of the faith they find most offensive, the same basic stumbling blocks remain. People still want a God who allows them to indulge their sensual appetites and who accepts them based on their good deeds. The Christian faith offers neither. Instead, it offers something better.
We do indeed live in a time of great theological confusion, and the temptation to give people what they want instead of what they need remains as strong as ever. But fallen people have never been good judges of what they need. So the most unloving thing we could do is tweak the faith in order to give people what they want. And the most loving thing we can do is exactly what Jude said: contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.