Contending for the Faith
By T.A. McMahon
“Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” – Jude 3
Originally, Jude wanted to share those things of the faith with his fellow believers which were common to them all. But the Holy Spirit redirected him to a matter of greater urgency. Issues of the faith, “once delivered unto the saints,” were being both subtly undermined and overtly perverted. As then, so today. All saints (i.e., Christians––Eph:1:1; Col:1:2, etc.) are to earnestly contend for the teachings of the faith “given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim:3:16).
To earnestly contend for something is not a laid-back activity; the common cross-reference for that phrase is 1 Timothy:6:12: “Fight the good fight of faith….” In both instances the meaning has to do with laboring fervently, or striving, just as an athlete would when participating in a sporting event. The sports analogy provides a very graphic illustration: good athletes must train vigorously, in keeping with the demands of their sport. Likewise, a committed Christian must spiritually condition himself in keeping with Paul’s exhortation to “exercise thyself…unto godliness” (1 Tim:4:7). Paul often used the correlation between athletic endeavors and the Christian walk to show that a born-again believer’s life is not a passive proposition. It requires spiritual training which includes many of the qualities that a superior athlete demonstrates: diligence, commitment, self-discipline, teachability, etc. Yet, common to the sports scene today, many of us have dedicated ourselves to being spectators––not necessarily “couch potatoes,” but definitely not players.
Too often the reaction to Jude’s exhortation is that contending for the faith is “best left to the experts,” i.e., to scholars, theologians, apologists, or cult authorities. There are at least two problems with such an idea. First, Jude’s words were not written to theological experts but to “them that are sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ, and called”—that is, all His “saints” (Jude 1,3). Second, a major aspect of contending for the faith has to do with every saint’s spiritual development . In other words, contending for the faith isn’t just for cult experts, nor does it necessarily involve arguing with or confronting others. It should be the lifelong spiritual regimen of every believer (1 Pt 3:15).
Earnestly contending for the faith requires the desire to diligently study God’s Word. Jesus set forth the basis of a developmental program for everyone who is committed to Him: “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed” (Jn:8:31). Second Timothy 2:15 underscores the practical, everyday exercise for the believer: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” The heart of Christianity is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Studying and applying the Scriptures is the primary way our personal relationship with Him develops; it’s predicated upon knowing Him through His revelation of Himself.
Earnestly contending for the faith requires knowledge . We needn’t become experts before we share “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints,” but we are to be diligent in our pursuit of the knowledge of the Lord. Though it’s all too often attempted, it is nevertheless foolish to try to contend for something when one is uninformed. Solomon writes, “My son, if thou wilt receive my words, and hide my commandments with thee; so that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding; yea, if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding; if thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord giveth wisdom: out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding. He layeth up sound wisdom for the righteous: he is a buckler to them that walk uprightly. He keepeth the paths of judgment, and preserveth the way of his saints” (Prov:2:18).
Contending for the faith requires the diligent practice of discernment . In Hebrews:5:13-14 we find, “For every one that useth milk is unskillful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” The “milk” and “meat” of these two passages are metaphors which refer to spiritual growth; limiting ourselves to a spiritual infant’s diet and program inhibits our spiritual development. However, those who exercise their senses by studying the Word of God will grow in discernment, no longer remaining “children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive…” (Eph:4:14).
Earnestly contending for the faith requires that we willingly receive correction. Correction, however, is not a “psychologically correct” endeavor today, either in the world or in the church. It is regarded as a threat to one’s positive self-image by many who promote the humanistic theology of self-esteem. It’s incredible how such a worldly mindset has impacted those who should be separate from the world and whose thinking is to reflect the mind of Christ. Even a cursory search of the Bible reveals example after example of correction which would be viewed today as potentially destructive of one’s psychological well-being! Was Peter’s “self-esteem” psychologically damaged, and both his self-image and ministerial image irreparably harmed by Paul’s public correction? Was Peter’s ministry written off by most of the early church because Paul was not sensitive (or biblical––supposedly not heeding Matthew 18) enough to meet privately with Peter? Isn’t that the way many in the church see things today? And what about the ego trauma felt by the publicly corrected Barnabas (Gal:2:13), Alexander (2 Tim:4:14-15), Phygellus and Hermogenes (2 Tim:1:15), Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Tim:2:17-18), Demas (2 Tim:4:10), Diotrephes (3 Jn:1:9-10), and others?
Correction is foundational to the life of every Christian. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he counseled his young disciple concerning the value of using the Scriptures for correction (as well as for reproof !), “That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim:3:17). Correction must begin at home; that is, there must be a willingness on the part of an individual not only to be corrected by another, but a desire to correct oneself. The admonition to “examine yoursel[f], whether ye be in the faith” (2 Cor:13:5) is not a public survey; it requires checking ourselves out and then doing what’s necessary to make things right before the Lord. Without a willingness to consider the possibility of a “beam” in one’s own eye, hypocrisy will take the reins in any correction of another.
Earnestly contending for the faith requires playing by the rules. While some go out of their way to avoid giving scriptural correction, others turn it into a big stick, swinging it at whoever seems to disagree with their views. The Scriptures tell us (in the context of heavenly rewards) that those who compete for a prize will disqualify themselves unless their conduct accords with the rules of the event (2 Tim:2:5). This should also be applied to the way we go about contending for the faith, especially in regard to correcting one another. The first and foremost rule is love. Biblical correction is an act of love. Period. If one doesn’t have a person’s best interest at heart, love is not involved. If love isn’t the motivating factor in correcting one another, the approach isn’t biblical.
The manner in which we correct one another is an important part of “the rules” of contending for the faith. “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (2 Tim:2:24-25). Yet a stern rebuke is also biblical; the Scriptures abound with examples of such reproofs and rebukes when the situation required it. But they are a far cry from correction accompanied by sarcasm, put-downs, attacks on personal character, and anything else that puffs up the corrector rather than ministering to the one being corrected. It’s ironic that the prevailing humor (TV, comic strips, etc) of this “self-esteem”-conscious, ego-sensitive generation is sarcasm, especially the put-down. Making someone else feel inferior has become the “in” way to boost one’s own self-esteem.
A simple test for biblical correction here is the degree of smugness on the part of the corrector. If there’s any at all––he fails. Another quick test is the “nastiness” barometer. If the one correcting treats another in a way he would object to being treated himself––he’s part of the problem, not the biblical solution. To make that very point, we’ve been tempted to return some of the more malicious letters we’ve received to the writers with their own names superimposed over ours.
Earnestly contending for the faith involves knowing what to contend for. That which involves the direct subversion of the gospel, particularly the major doctrines related to salvation, demands our earnest concern and attention. The book of Galatians is a good example. The Judaizers were coercing believers into accepting a false gospel, i.e., adding certain deeds of the Law as a necessity for salvation. Paul earnestly contended with them, as he also instructed Titus to do (Titus:1:10-11,13). In a similar vein, we (TBC) would and do contend with those who promote or accept a false gospel of salvation (e.g., Mormons, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Roman Catholics among others).
While some issues may not seem to be related to the gospel, they may indirectly subvert God’s Word, turning believers away from the truth and thereby inhibiting the grace necessary for a life pleasing to the Lord. Psychotherapy, for example, is one of the most popular vehicles for turning Christians to the ungodly (and therefore grace-barren) solutions of men.
Contending for the faith also requires knowing when to avoid contending. Chapter 14 of Romans deals with matters where contending becomes contentiousness. Paul addresses situations where immature believers make issues of things which ought to remain nonissues. Some were bringing about division by contending over what foods should or should not be eaten, or which day should be recognized as a day of worship. The scriptural counsel here is: there are some things that we should not judge, being peripheral issues which do not deny the faith, matters of decision for the individual conscience (v 5). Only the Lord can judge one’s heart and mind in such matters.
When Jesus discussed the signs of the last days with His disciples on the Mount of Olives (Mat 24), the first sign He cited was religious deception. Its extent today is unprecedented in history. That fact alone ought to make our regard for earnestly contending for the faith a major concern. It also means that there are so many deviations from the faith (1 Tim:4:1) to be considered, we may need to prioritize when and for what we contend. In regards to our own walk with the Lord, we are to examine everything that seems at odds with the Scriptures and make the necessary corrections. However, when it comes to biblically questionable teachings and practices being accepted and promoted by others, discernment may also include when and how to address them. These days it’s not uncommon to be wrongly perceived (or in fact to merit the reputation) as one who “finds fault with everything”; so seeking the Lord’s wisdom and leading is always critical to our contending being fruitfully received.
Finally, earnestly contending for the faith is not coercing for the faith. Too often we forget that our eternal life in Christ came to us as a free gift, a gift of God’s unfathomable love which must be offered to others in love. Love is destroyed by coercion. While we may not intend to force matters of the faith upon others, it’s important to regularly check our motives and methods. Earnestly contending for the faith must be carried on as a love offering. We must remember that we are merely channels of that love, and that if any change in the heart is to take place it will be accomplished through the grace of God, who alone is the grantor of repentance (2 Tim:2:25-26).
Acts:20:27-31 contains some thoughts that many today would regard as unbalanced in contending for “all the counsel of God.” But they are God’s words , passionately communicated by the Apostle Paul to those in the church at Ephesus and to us : ” Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock….For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch , and remember , that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn everyone night and day with tears.”
In these “perilous” last days (2 Tim:3:1), please pray that all of us, like Paul, demonstrate a passionate concern for the spiritual welfare of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and for the purity of the gospel essential to the salvation of souls. TBC