Once Delivered

Dear friends, although I have been eager to write to you about our common salvation, I now feel compelled instead to write to encourage you to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. (Jud 1:3)

And so Jude begins his short letter to the Saints – those who follow Jesus in truth. It is easy to skip past this short introductory sentence and become fascinated with the images of corruption, deceit and destruction that follow, even to the point of obsession. I think it is prudent to stop and consider this verse alone, for there is something interesting here. The word “faith” is used in a different sense than normally used in the New Testament.

Here in Jude, “faith” seems to refer to religious doctrine. After all, you cannot literally deliver faith to someone else. Faith requires an action on the part of the hearer, not merely an intellectual comprehension of the ideas. Thus Jude is using the phrase “faith…entrusted to the saints” in a figurative sense to represent the body of teachings about faith that form the core of the Gospel. In order to understand the rest of Jude, we need to first remind ourselves of what that Gospel was and what it meant.

Generally speaking, faith simply means “a firm reliance” and, when applied specifically to Christian teachings, means to rely only on Jesus for our salvation. We do that by binding our heart, mind and soul to the Holy Spirit to the extent we become a “new creature,” no longer led by our carnal desires, but by a power and influence from God. It follows, then, that our own acts, as good as they may be, based on our will power are not the source of our salvation; neither is our salvation dependent on religious rituals and observances. The purpose of the Church, and it’s religious observances, is to provide a vehicle to carry the Gospel forward through time, teaching successive generations what was originally entrusted to the disciples of Jesus. Our faith is not in the Church, the leaders of the Church, or even in the doctrines of the Church, but only in the One the Church talks about – Jesus Christ. True faith in Jesus requires us to acknowledge our weakness and his power, and thus rely on him alone. Just as we must “die to self” we must “die” to anything that displaces the Holy Spirit in our lives. This is the message Paul repeatedly gives through his epistles, but the strongest and most direct statement is found in Galatians.

You foolish Galatians! Who has cast a spell on you? Before your eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Although you began with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort? Have you suffered so many things for nothing?  if indeed it was for nothing. Does God then give you the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law or by your believing what you heard? (Gal 3:1-5)

It’s unfortunate that English lacks a verb form of “faith” because that is really what this passage means where the word “believing” is used. It would be awkward, but more correct, to translate as, “faithing what you heard.” The important thing to grasp is that Paul warns the Galatians against trusting in their own religious works (e.g., circumcision) as a condition of their salvation. They were to trust in the miraculous power of God, proven by the resurrection of Jesus, to work a renewal in them also.

For us today, this may seem banal and obvious, but it is something that must be repeated again and again. Every generation seems to forget this simple doctrine of Christianity, or at least fails to actually live by it. We are saved by grace, acquired by faith, and not by our observance of religious rituals or works of charity. The purpose of that grace is to transform our nature into the being that God desired when He created mankind. That transformation of man’s soul demonstrates not only God’s power but also His love – a love that caused Him to sacrifice His own Son because of our need. Man’s failure to completely trust in God generally leads to man’s reliance on religion as an easier and more demonstrable substitute. It is easy to show you how many times a man went to Church and how much money he gave to charity; it’s difficult to show you that there is an internal change of his nature. Thus men fall back into the error of relying on outward conformity and appearance as proof of their righteousness, and the Gospel gets misunderstood in the process.

The greater danger is that we misrepresent the Gospel to non-Christians. They perceive Christianity as a religious observance and set of moral behavior patterns, but fail to hear the underlying premise, and are then quick to point out the failings of those who call themselves Christian. We do not always live up to the standards that Jesus taught, and those against us will continuously berate and belittle those of faith for the apparent hypocrisy. Yet, to those who truly understand, we know that our weakness is God’s glory. We are going through a series of changes, not yet completed, and are judged by the improvement in our nature brought about by the Holy Spirit, not the temporal failings of the flesh.

But this understanding, true as it is, can lead to the corruption that Jude warns about. The error that Jude is warning against is licentiousness based on a misunderstanding of the nature of God’s grace. Just as man can fall back into reliance on religious ritual rather than faith in Jesus, man can also fall into an alternate deception, believing that our actions have no consequences. Since God saves by His power alone, and we can do nothing to earn the grace that saves, some will argue that we should not worry at all about what we do. That is the error that Jude is warning against.

For certain men have secretly slipped in among you - men who long ago were marked out for the condemnation I am about to describe - ungodly men who have turned the grace of our God into a license for evil and who deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jud 1:4)

The problem Jude was aware of is spoken to by the other epistles in the New Testament. Paul makes explicit mention of this problem in Romans 6 and 1 Corinthians 5-6.

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not! Do you not know that if you present yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were entrusted to, and having been freed from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness. (Rom 6:15-18)

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, the verbally abusive, and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God. … Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! ... Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God with your body. (1Co 6:9-20)

The message is clear: God’s grace is not license to sin. It does not mean we can do whatever we want. The epistles of James deals with this same attitude in a slightly different context. The often misunderstood remarks of James make perfect sense when we recognize it is a warning against licentiousness, the attitude that we don’t have to worry about how we live our lives.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this kind of faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, keep warm and eat well," but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it? So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself. (Jas 2:14-17)

James’ use of the word “works” seems to conflict with Paul, but that is only because each is speaking in a different context. In principle, they are exactly the same. Paul is using “works” in the sense of observance of religious rituals, not in the sense of moral action in general. Paul clearly encourages his readers to acts of charity, love, and avoidance of sin. James is warning his readers that their faith will result a change in their attitudes and actions towards others, and the lack of that response indicates they are hypocrites. They do not have live faith, they only speak dead words.

The epistles of John warn about this also and remind the readers to hold fast to what they were taught in the beginning.

Now this is the gospel message we have heard from him and announce to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him and yet keep on walking in the darkness, we are lying and not practicing the truth. (1Jn 1:5-6)

The point made in all of these passages should be clear if you understand the “faith once entrusted to the saints.” The power of Christ in us works a transformation. THE HOLY SPIRIT WILL CHANGE YOU. To keep going in the ways of the world, following the lusts of the flesh, is to rebel against the power of the Holy Spirit. That rebellion can show up in subtle ways, even in those who intend good. Recognizing our failings, we want to hurry things up, make ourselves look good, and think that we should do-this and do-that to make sure we put on a righteous appearance. It comes about, in part, because of impatience. We expect things to happen immediately, or at least according to a time schedule we have worked out. But, as James points out:

My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything. (Jas 1:2-4)

Faith takes patience. We must not only rely on God to work in us, but to do so at the time and pace of His choosing. That is not an excuse for apathy, or an excuse to just go along to get along. It simply means that we are in God’s hands and trust that He will work things into Good (Rom. 8:24-29). But a lack of patience, another form of lack of faith, leads eventually to the second part of Jude’s warning. When things don’t happen the way men expect them to, they start making up new “doctrines” that eventually will deny Jesus. This inventiveness is another perennial problem in the Church. Well meaning preachers and theologians have a tendency to add onto the Gospel, trying to extend it to justify why things have not worked out the way men think they should.

Above all, understand this: In the last days blatant scoffers will come, being propelled by their own evil urges and saying, "Where is his promised return? For ever since our ancestors died, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation." …Now, dear friends, do not let this one thing escape your notice, that a single day is like a thousand years with the Lord and a thousand years are like a single day. The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. (2Pe 3:3-9)

The scoffers and mockers will come, denying that the Gospel has any relevance to us today. Corrupt men will always try and pervert the Gospel to make it fit men’s desires. They will promise a “heaven on earth” to those who turn from faith to self-willed action, or deny the divinity of Jesus. They will twist the words of Jesus into self-serving means to an end, usually setting themselves up as “prophets” who are revealing some novel and true interpretation of the scriptures that no one ever saw before. Some will be overly “religious” requiring strict obedience to some set of rules, giving a false image of righteousness. Others will promote a fake freedom, a do-what-you-want attitude based on a false representation of God’s grace. The so-called “New Agers” present a watered-down Jesus, only a moral teacher not the true power of God in human form. The secular scholars do likewise, seeking to “de-mystify” Jesus based on their materialistic world view. Worst of all, perhaps, are those who want to discard orthodox teachings of the Gospel in favor of some supposed “true” Christianity that was suppressed by the Church. Don’t believe any of it.

Hold to the faith once for all entrusted to the saints. God’s grace provides forgiveness for sin and a power to overcome sin. We are not free to sin; we are free from sin. We do not change ourselves, but work diligently towards good, relying on the Holy Spirit to empower us. We wait patiently for God to work out His plan when and where He sees fit. We live in a world that is in rebellion against God and surely trials and tribulations will come. It may seem that doing good in such a world is of no consequence. But our good works, no matter how insignificant, are a direct manifestation of that power working in us, and we boast of God’s power and love, not our own. Just remember that during the process of spiritual regeneration by the power of God, there will be failures, backsliding, and other such things. This is not to be taken lightly and brushed away as if it were nothing. We must never take the attitude that God doesn’t care about our sin, our corruption, our hypocrisies, our divisiveness, our quarrelling, and our lack of love towards others. He does care, and is doing something about it. He has given us the power to overcome these things, and we appropriate that power to overcome by faith in Jesus Christ.

I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In the world you have trouble and suffering, but take courage - I have conquered the world. (Joh 16:33)

All the things that may trouble us, from our own failings to the wickedness that is in the world, are subject to the power of Jesus Christ. Our solution to the problems we face has always been the same. No matter what political or economic distress may come, no matter what weakness we find in our own flesh, the solution is the one once entrusted to the saints: The just shall live by faith.

But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith, by praying in the Holy Spirit, maintain yourselves in the love of God, while anticipating the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that brings eternal life. And have mercy on those who waver; save others by snatching them out of the fire; have mercy on others, coupled with a fear of God, hating even the clothes stained by the flesh. Now to the one who is able to keep you from falling, and to cause you to stand, rejoicing, without blemish before his glorious presence, to the only God our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time, and now, and for all eternity. Amen. (Jud 1:20-25)

Jude’s closing says it all. That is what we should be doing. We do not need to invent new, enticing, clever doctrines; the sayings of Jesus are sufficient. We do not need to destroy those who oppose us; we need to help them to repentance. We do not need to fix the world system; God will deal with it in due season. We need to hold on to the Gospel as it was given from the beginning.


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