Fighting for the Faith
God’s people are often agitated about the moral, political or even the physical state of the world, but they ought to be much more concerned about the way things are going in the Christian sphere. Two millennia ago, Jude wrote of how “certain men have got in unnoticed … ungodly [persons], turning the grace of our God into dissoluteness, and denying our only Master and Lord Jesus Christ” (v4). It might seem remarkable that such could get into fellowship unnoticed but they did, and the fact that they succeeded seems to be what gives impetus and urgency to Jude’s writing to God’s people “to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints” (v3). Whether it was because of ignorance or apathy is not clear, but the infiltrators and their doctrinal aberrations ought to have been picked up immediately.
Turn over a few pages, and we read of the Assembly in Philadelphia not only being commended for having “kept my word” (Rev. 3: 8) but also being warned to “hold fast what thou hast, that no one take thy crown” (v11). Holding fast is not a passive thing: it requires energy and watchfulness. Satan knows what he is about—he is a very patient enemy. Thus, little by little, Biblical Christianity is disappearing, even where it once seemed to be firmly established. Each successive generation seems to have a feebler grasp of divine things, and one consequence is that the defence of the faith is becoming progressively weaker. In his second epistle to Timothy Paul writes of a time “when they will not bear sound teaching … and will have turned aside to fables” (2 Tim. 4: 3, 4). That time has certainly come because many today are incapable of distinguishing truth from falsehood—so great has been the drift towards what is essentially no more than Christianised mysticism.
All this is both alarming and depressing. However, it is not faith to withdraw in upon ourselves, comforting our hearts with the thought that the only thing left is to look for the return of the Lord. We have been enlisted as soldiers of Jesus Christ (see 2 Tim. 2: 3) and are not at liberty to excuse ourselves from the battlefield. Thus, when Jude exhorts the saints “to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude v3), then that is precisely what we must do.
Why We Must Contend
Many Christians do not like contention, and in their minds seem to muddle up fleshly strifes (see Gal. 5: 20) and a spiritual contending for the faith as if they were one and the same thing. Of course, it is a poor thing to be contentious for the sake of it (see Titus 3: 2), but what Jude wrote about is something else (hence the Spirit of God inspired the human authors to use quite different Greek words). Jude speaks of contending “earnestly” (Jude v3), because what he has in mind is not a mere intellectual dispute but that which goes to the very core of what we are as Christians. It is like a man defending his own home against an intruder. We fight for the faith because it means a great deal to us. Hence Paul exhorts Timothy to strive earnestly in “the good conflict of faith” (1 Tim. 6: 12), and sums up his own course here as “I have combated the good combat, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4: 7). At no point was he a compromiser, and to the false brethren in Galatia he would not yield “even for an hour, that the truth of the glad tidings might remain with you” (Gal. 2: 5). Those who advocate ‘going on quietly’ for the sake of peace necessarily attach little value to what they profess to believe. Shammah was one of David’s mighty men, but he is called such because he defended a plot of lentils (see 2 Sam. 23: 11-12). The lesson is clear: we ought not to surrender anything, however small—and yet how much is sacrificed to pacify the worldly element among God’s people (as typified by the Philistines Shammah was fighting)! Indeed, what the spiritually ignorant judge to be inconsequential is often found, on careful examination, to be critically important. We are in a spiritual war of attrition, and it ought to be a source of concern to us as to whether we are gaining or losing any ground.
The faith that was given by the apostles to the saints was once for all delivered—that is, there was to be no addition or subtraction from it. However, within a short time of the departure of the apostles, a significant proportion of their teaching had been abandoned, and it was many centuries before there was any significant recovery. Sadly, history appears to be repeating itself. Almost wherever you look, modern-day Christianity appears to be sliding into a childish state, with solid Bible knowledge the exception rather than the rule. All people now desire is sufficient religious activity of a certain sort to make them content and comfortable—they demonstrate little interest in serious Bible study. It is little wonder that even believers of long-standing are “tossed and carried about” (Eph. 4: 14) by whatever vagary of human thought comes their way. How much better if they made an effort to follow the example of the first Christians who “persevered in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, in breaking of bread and prayers” (Acts 2: 42). What these put first, even in front of the apostle’s fellowship, the breaking of bread or prayers, was the apostle’s teaching, and it is that teaching that is to govern and underpin the links of saints with one another, their worship of God, and their comings together. Ignore that order and you end up with something in which elements of apostolic doctrine may be present, but where their teaching has been removed from the governing position in which the Spirit of God has placed it. It is not that fellowship, the breaking of bread or prayers are optional or unimportant—they are clearly fundamental to true Christianity—but how believers partake in these and other activities must be dictated by the teaching. Sadly, in recent times, some who once knew better seem to have forgotten this order. Such spiritual forgetfulness is not a good state to be in. The writer of the Hebrews chastised those who had “become dull in hearing” and who, instead of being able to teach others, had “again need that [one] should teach you what [are] the elements of the beginning of the oracles of God, and are become such as have need of milk, [and] not of solid food” (Heb. 5: 11, 12, my emphasis). Weakness or ignorance in a new convert is perfectly understandable; the same things in a believer of long standing are shameful. If the authority of the Bible is on the wane in the soul, it will not be long before spiritual decline manifests itself in dullness of understanding. God is not mocked.
The Sword of the Spirit
This matter of our spiritual vitality cannot be ignored for it is impossible to conduct the defence of the faith in an unspiritual way. Though “walking in flesh, we do not war according to flesh. For the arms of our warfare [are] not fleshly, but powerful according to God to [the] overthrow of strongholds; overthrowing reasonings and every high thing that lifts itself up against the knowledge of God, and leading captive every thought into the obedience of the Christ” (2 Cor. 10: 3-5). The Scripture just quoted is of course not limited in its scope to contending for the faith (all evangelistic work, for example, has the character of spiritual warfare) but it shows the sort of weaponry that must be used. Is it not strange then that many of those engaged in the fight are not wholly trusting to spiritual weapons—even if they claim to be ‘Bible-believing’ Christians? They have taken many things into the armoury—oratory, ridicule, force of personality, the authority of tradition, scholarship and more—but none of these advance a spiritual conflict one inch, and confidence in them really witnesses to a lack of confidence in God. Human reasonings can only be overthrown and every thought brought into the obedience of the Christ by spiritual means. It is as wearing “the panoply of God” that we will we be “able to withstand in the evil day, and, having accomplished all things, to stand” (Eph. 6: 13, my emphasis).
A critical part of this armour is “the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word” (v 17). This is an extraordinary weapon for “the word of God [is] living and operative, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and penetrating to [the] division of soul and spirit, both of joints and marrow, and a discerner of the thoughts and intents of [the] heart” (Heb. 4: 12). How puny and ineffective are the best human devices by comparison! However, there is an interesting difference between Eph. 6: 17 and Heb. 4: 12. The Greek word in Heb. 4: 12 for word is logos, which refers to the total expression of a matter, while in Eph. 6: 17 it is rhema which is more limited and means a “saying”. Hence, Eph. 6: 17 does not refer exactly to the Bible, but to texts within it. In that sense, the Bible may be viewed as an armoury containing thousands of swords. As is well-known, the Lord Jesus, when tempted by Satan, three times replied “it is written” (Matt. 4: 4, 7, 10)—if you are going to refute error, then you need bring forward a specific Scripture to meet the case.
Strange to say, on many allegedly ‘fundamental’ issues, the protagonists seem incapable of presenting plain Bible verses. Instead they resort to highly complex interpretations of the Scriptures that often require a chain of inter-related deductions. Yes, Paul “reasoned … from the Scriptures” (Acts 17: 2) but the Greek word for reason (dialegomai) simply means intelligent discourse and has nothing to do with using human brain power to find hidden meanings in the Word of God. Certainly, there are many things in the Bible “hard to be understood” (2 Pet. 3: 16), but to portray something as ‘fundamental’ without being able to easily point to a Scriptural justification tells its own tale. As someone once observed, ‘cream lies on the surface’. In saying this, I do not overlook the fact that the power of individual Scriptures can be overstated. In using a rhema to combat erroneous teaching account must be taken of the logos! That not only means that every verse must be read in context, but the subject of which it treats must be read with an eye on all other relevant passages—including those viewed as problematic or difficult. Of course, some ‘proof texts’ really are worthy of the name—the message they convey being so obvious—but most Scriptures are better viewed as part of the body of evidence that the Bible presents. Elevating ‘favourable’ verses, and ignoring or downgrading ‘difficult’ verses has nothing to do with contending for the faith, and simply points to an unbalanced apprehension of the truth. The man of God will draw upon all that the Bible has to say on a subject. Indeed, there is great power when multiple and varied passages can be brought forward to buttress an argument—as in Rom. 15: 8-13.
In order to draw upon the riches of the Bible we need to be like Timothy who from a child had “known the sacred letters” and was “thoroughly acquainted” (2 Tim. 3: 10, 15) with Paul’s teaching. Now there is a lot more in the latter Scripture than might at first be apparent. In vs. 2-9 the apostle describes the wickedness which will characterise mankind in the last days and then addresses Timothy directly: “but thou hast been thoroughly acquainted with my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings” (v10). There is an intentional contrast made by Paul between himself and the men he has previously described. What is the reason for this? It is because Paul is a model of a completely different sort of man. Now seeing that that the apostle regards himself as having “finished the race” (2 Tim. 4: 7), he clearly envisages that what has characterised him will transfer to Timothy—including the “teaching” that heads the list. If “wicked men and juggling imposters shall advance in evil, leading and being led astray” (2 Tim. 3: 13), Timothy, like Paul was to be on a different course: “but thou, abide in those things which thou hast learned, and [of which] thou hast been fully persuaded, knowing of whom thou hast learned [them]” (v14). Timothy had been tremendously privileged to have been a companion of the apostle but now he was to occupy (according to his measure) the space that Paul had vacated. It was a formidable challenge, and, on the subject of teaching alone, it was necessary that he had at least “an outline of sound words, which [words] thou hast heard of me” (2 Tim. 1: 13). Not only that, but what he had received he was also to pass on, for “the things thou hast heard of me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, such as shall be competent to instruct others also” (2 Tim. 2: 2). The line of faith was to be maintained.
Now this is all very interesting, but there is a great danger of reading these Scriptures in an abstract way as if they were merely ‘history items’. They have been preserved to us for a reason. Thus, when Paul says “But thou hast been thoroughly acquainted with my teaching” (2 Tim. 3: 10), the question is forced upon you and I: ‘Have we been similarly “thoroughly acquainted” with the apostle’s teaching? You cannot contend for the faith if you do not have much of a grasp of what it is in the first place. To emphasise this point, look at the original language. The Greek word lying behind “thoroughly acquainted” is parakoloutheo, which is derived from para, meaning beside, and akoloutheo which means to follow. This clearly suggests that close attention is involved. Parakoloutheo is only found four times in the NT but one of those occasions is in 1 Tim. 4: 6: “nourished with the words of the faith and of the good teaching which thou hast fully followed up” (my emphasis). “Thoroughly acquainted” and “fully followed up” are terms that imply a significant level of intensity and dedication. Seeing as we cannot interact directly with the apostle, parakoloutheo says a lot about the level of application required in our Bible study!
Where Responsibility Lies
Some might try to explain all this away by saying that Timothy had some kind of ‘official’ capacity that does not apply to the ordinary Christian. In a certain sense, that may have been true in the first epistle, since there he was given instruction on the appointment of both overseers and ministers—but not in the second for in that epistle he is simply “a good soldier of Jesus Christ” and “a workman” (2 Tim. 2: 3, 15). Even if something is made of the fact that in 1 Tim. 6: 11 he is addressed as a “man of God”, the title is used only in an abstract way in 2 Tim: 3: 17 and hence is applicable to the reader. The ‘ordinary’ Christian cannot excuse himself from the passage.
Of course, the dominant view in the Christian profession that the defence of the apostolic doctrine is particularly the responsibility of those in positions of authority in the Assembly. There is some truth in this because an elder was to be characterised by “clinging to the faithful word according to the doctrine taught, that he may be able both to encourage with sound teaching and refute gainsayers” (Titus 1: 9). Furthermore, this sound teaching was to be more than merely academic (a constant danger) for the apostle goes on to speak of “the things that become sound teaching”, and how these practical features “may adorn the teaching which [is] of our Saviour God” (Titus 2: 1, 10). None of this, however, undermines the basic truth that every believer (according to his measure) is expected to contend for the faith. We are all soldiers (see 2 Tim. 2: 3). An elder, by virtue of his office, was to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Pet. 5: 2), and therefore had a distinct role, but this in no way abdicates the rest of the local assembly from the responsibility that is laid upon them.
Others take the view that there are no elders today—but there really is no basis for this, even though the authority to appoint such is lacking. Paul writes to the Thessalonians that they were “to know those who labour among you, and take the lead among you in [the] Lord” (1 Thess. 5: 12) where the word know has the force of discern. Possibly the difficult early history of that assembly had prevented elders being appointed, but that does not mean that those possessing the moral qualities necessary to exercise oversight were not already present and perceived by the spiritual. All gatherings of saints ought to have persons of weight and experience marked out as clinging to the faithful word, “sober, grave, discreet, sound in faith, in love, in patience” (Titus 2: 2)—and older women too as “teachers of what is right”, admonishing the young women in their behaviour “that the word of God may not be evil spoken of” (vs. 3, 5). What we see instead in some quarters are men (and women) of grey hairs sitting quietly by while the apostolic faith is watered down—either under the plea of maintaining unity or of making things more attractive to outsiders. Such a situation is shameful.
None of us can abdicate our personal responsibility as individual believers and ‘leave it to others’, however more qualified than ourselves they may be. When Jude writes exhorting his readers to “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude v3), his exhortation is not addressed to a select group. Certainly, that faith had been delivered to the saints by a special class (the “apostles and prophets”—Eph. 2: 20), but when it comes to its defence then all who believe must involve themselves. Jude writes simply “to the called ones beloved in God [the] Father and preserved in Jesus Christ” (Jude v1). Are you a called one? Then you have an obligation to take your place in the battle for the faith.
So how are things with the reader in terms of the task set before him? Is he pressing on, striving “earnestly [in] the good conflict of faith” (1 Tim. 6: 12)? Or has he become too entangled “with the affairs of life” (2 Tim. 2: 4) to give divine things the attention that they deserve? Christianity (at least in the western world) needs to face up to the fact that it is in a fight—a fight for survival no less. Anyone that imagines that this kind of warfare is ‘not for him’ is living in a fantasy world. We are either walking in self-will and self-indulgence or we are on active service as good soldiers of Jesus Christ, contending for the faith once delivered to the saints. As the Lord Himself said, “why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things that I say?” (Luke 6: 46).