I Found It Necessary: Going from Good to Better in Defense of the Faith

The Missouri Baptist Convention has published a new resource called The Last Apologist: A Commentary on Jude for Defenders of the Christian Faith. The 275-page book is available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon, and in print from the MBC. But we also want to make each of the 16 chapters available online. This post features the first part of Chapter 5: I Found It Necessary: Going from Good to Better in Defense of the Faith.

Previously: Chapter 4: Copycats? The apologist’s challenge concerning Jude and 2 Peter 2

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Dear friends, although I was eager to write you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write and exhort you to contend for the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all. (Jude 3)

It’s Christmas night 1776, and General George Washington’s Continental Army could use some rest. Tired, cold, and harried, the soldiers would welcome a blazing fire, a warm meal, and a good night’s sleep as a holiday respite from their travails.

But instead, Washington leads 2,400 troops across the icy Delaware River, where they stun German Hessian mercenaries garrisoned at Trenton, New Jersey. The Patriot forces catch the British-sponsored enemy completely off guard. “The lasting effect was that the success raised rebel morale and proved that the most professional army in the West could be beaten.”

Some 17 centuries earlier, Jude ponders a good thing for the harried believers besieged by false teachers. Evidently, he has given much thought to writing about their common salvation, but the Holy Spirit prompts him to take a more aggressive tack and spur his fellow believers to engage in a doctrinal battle that influences the course of the early church.

Jude demonstrates a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, and a willingness to turn from something good to something better in defense of the Christian faith.

Our common salvation

Jude’s original intent is to fashion a letter that celebrates the “common salvation” of all believers. By this, no doubt, Jude means the redemptive work of Christ that reaches across geographical boundaries, language barriers, and cultural divides. As one who came to faith only after witnessing Christ’s resurrection, Jude knows first-hand the grace and mercy of God; the sin debt paid through the sacrificial and substitutionary death of His sinless half-brother; the authority over Satan, sin, and death secured through Jesus’ bodily resurrection; and the security of everlasting life by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Perhaps Jude had resolved to summarize the core doctrines of the Christian faith in order to encourage fellow believers to endure persecution. Or maybe he wanted to remind them that the finished work of Christ ensured the coming of the Holy Spirit, who now lives in them and is working patiently and persistently to conform them to the image of their Savior. Or, it’s possible he wanted them to persevere in their faith, live in the light of eternity, and look forward to the return of the Messiah, who had dramatically ascended from the Mount of Olives a few decades ago.

In any case, he has devoted considerable thought to writing about the beliefs Christians share in common. The Greek word translated “common” in verse 3 is koinos, the verbal form being koinoneo, “to become a sharer, a partner.” Thus, the idea of a “common salvation” refers to those cherished truths possessed in common with others.

Before we move on in our study of Jude, it may be good for us to think about the non-negotiable doctrines that bind us together as the Body of Christ. With an estimated 2.2 billion Christians in the world, worshiping in more than 41,000 denominations, one may legitimately wonder how we can possibly fulfill the prayer of Jesus that we all be as one (John 17:22). Indeed, the fact that Christians worship in so many different ways offers up all the proof some cults need to declare that their leader alone has the truth, and that their organization is the only genuine form of Christianity.

But diversity does not necessarily mean division. The differences among the world’s Christian denominations generally have more to do with location, culture, worship styles, missionary efforts, and forms of church government than they do with major doctrinal differences. Even so, it’s good to ask: What are the core doctrines of the Christian faith? Can we come to full agreement on every shade of belief and practice? And if not, which doctrines are worthy of a vigorous defense?

How do we identify the non-negotiables?

Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, refers to the process of discerning biblical truth as “theological triage.” The word “triage” comes from the French word trier, which means to sort. In emergency rooms, on the battlefield, and elsewhere, triage is the process by which medical personnel evaluate and prioritize the urgency of patient needs. A scraped knee can wait; a severed artery cannot.

Mohler suggests that a similar method be used in our churches to determine a scale of theological urgency. Other Christian leaders have offered similar suggestions, and church history seems to show that a similar system was used in the past, largely through church councils.

So, let’s set some standards for theological triage in our churches. Mohler and others suggest three different levels of theological urgency – what some call primary, secondary, and tertiary issues.

Primary issues

Primary theological issues, sometimes called first-order doctrines, focus on beliefs most essential to preserving the Christian faith. These doctrines include, but are not limited to, the Trinity; the full deity and full humanity of Jesus; justification by faith; and the authority of Scripture. Here are brief summaries of these great doctrines, along with false teachings that at times have challenged the church throughout its history:

The Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity states that there is one living and true God, who exists and reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being.

False teachings about this doctrine include:

  • Tritheism – a belief in three separate gods who share the same substance.
  • Modalism (also called Sabellianism) – which explains the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as different modes of God’s self-revelation; in other words, God exists as Father, Son, and Spirit in different eras, but never as triune.
  • Partialism – which teaches that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are components of God; each person is part God, becoming fully God only when the three come together.

 The full deity and full humanity of Jesus. Scripture reveals Jesus as the eternal Son of God, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Some 2,000 years ago He set aside His privileged position in heaven and came to earth, adding to His deity sinless humanity via the miracle of the virgin birth. Thus, Jesus rightly may be described as the God-Man, fully divine and fully human.

This so-called “hypostatic union” describes how God the Son took on human nature yet remained fully God. Jesus sometimes operated within the limitations of His humanity (John 4:6; 19:28), and other times in the power of His deity (Matt. 14:13-21; John 11:43-44). In both, He remained one person with two natures, thus living a sinless life by which He secured the redemption of people through His sacrificial and substitutionary death on the cross.

False teachings about this doctrine include:

Arianism – the belief that the preexistent Christ is the first and greatest of God’s creatures but not fully divine.

  • Docetism – a belief that Jesus is a purely divine being who only had the appearance of a man.
  • Adoptionism – which posits that Jesus is born totally human, only to be “adopted” by God in a special way either at His baptism or at His resurrection.

Justification by faith. Justification is God’s gracious and full acquittal of all sinners who repent and believe in Jesus. It is based on the finished work of Christ on the cross and is received by grace alone, through faith alone, in Him alone. To be justified is to be declared righteous before God and thus to be freed from the penalty of sin. God ensures that all those who are justified by faith are glorified one day – that is, given resurrected bodies free of the curse of sin – as the completion of God’s redemptive work (Rom. 8:29-30).

False teachings about this doctrine include:

  • Antinomianism – a view that Christians are freed by grace from obligations to any moral law; in essence, it twists the doctrine of justification by faith into a license to sin.
  • Legalism – the polar opposite of antinomianism; it is the notion that obedience to a code of religious law – such as the Mosaic Law – is necessary for salvation.
  • Pelagianism – a belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is capable of choosing good or evil without the aid of God.

Authority of Scripture. As we learned in the last chapter, the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible, and sufficient Word of God. When we speak of its authority, we mean that Scripture is the sole and final authority for Christians in all matters of faith and practice. The Bible is authoritative because it is God’s Word, which He breathed out through human authors, and by whom He reveals His sovereignty over all things.

Scripture “reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried.”

False teachings about this doctrine, particularly with respect to divine inspiration, include:

  • Neo-orthodox – the view that God is so different from us that the only way to know Him is through direct revelation. Thus, the words in the Bible are not God’s words but mere human concepts. The Bible is only “inspired” in that God can sometimes use these words to speak to individuals.
  • Dictation – a theory of inspiration that acknowledges God as the Author of Scripture but limits man to the role of merely taking dictation rather than engaging his mind and experiences under the divine direction of the Holy Spirit.
  • Limited inspiration – the opposite of the dictation theory; limited inspiration sees Scripture as primarily man’s work. God guided the human authors but allowed them the freedom to express themselves in their work, even to the point of committing factual and historical errors.

In the earliest centuries of the church age, heretics directed their most dangerous attacks on the church’s understanding of who Jesus is, and in what sense He is the Son of God. Docetists, for example, upheld the deity of Christ but denied His humanity, arguing that He only “appeared” human. The term “Docetism” is derived from the Greek dokein, “to seem.”

The apostle John faces this attack head-on in his first epistle: “This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit [person claiming divine gifting for service] who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. But every spirit who does not confess Jesus [that is, that He has come in the flesh] is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist; you have heard that he is coming, and he is already in the world now” (1 John 4:2-3).

In the fourth century, an Alexandrian priest named Arius convinced many of his followers to accept his view that Jesus is the first and greatest of God’s creatures, but is not divine. The Nicene Creed addressed the Arian controversy in plain language. It begins:

We believe in one God,

the Father almighty,

maker of heaven and earth,

of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

begotten from the Father before all ages,

God from God,

Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made;

of the same essence as the Father.

Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation

he came down from heaven;

he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,

and was made human.

He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;

he suffered and was buried.

The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.

He ascended to heaven

and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again with glory

to judge the living and the dead.

His kingdom will never end.

The deity and humanity of Jesus are essential to the Christian faith. If Jesus is not divine, He cannot be the Messiah; His claims and proofs of divinity are bold deceptions. At the same time, if Jesus is not fully human, He cannot be our Savior, for then His death, burial, and resurrection are illusions, and we must yet await a perfect human substitute to take away our sins. As the apostle Paul writes concerning the bodily resurrection of Christ, which presupposes His bodily crucifixion and burial, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17).

The earliest creeds and councils of the church – Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon – were, in essence, emergency measures to protect the core doctrines of the faith. As doctrinal lines in the sand, they separated orthodoxy from heresy. From that point on, the church has affirmed the essential truths of the Incarnation, including Jesus’ virgin birth, full deity and full humanity, sinless life, sacrificial and substitutionary death on the cross, physical resurrection, ascension to the Father’s right hand, and imminent return. Those who deny these essential truths are, by definition, not Christians.

The same is true of the Trinity, the doctrine of justification by faith, and the belief in the inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, and sufficiency of Scripture. These are non-negotiable doctrines for any believer and any church that truly claims to be Christian.

Secondary issues

Next are secondary, or so-called second-order, doctrines. These are important issues, but they may be distinguished from primary issues in that Christians may disagree on secondary issues without accusing one another of heresy. Nevertheless, disagreement on second-order doctrines leads to significant boundaries between believers.

When Christians organize themselves into local congregations, and these congregations form into denominations, conventions, associations, or networks, the boundaries become clear. One example of secondary issues is the meaning and mode of baptism.

Baptists and Presbyterians disagree over the most basic understanding of Christian baptism. Baptists reject infant baptism (paedobaptism), while Presbyterians trace infant baptism to their most basic understanding of the covenant.

Baptists and Presbyterians stand united on primary theological issues. They recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Yet their doctrinal convictions concerning paedobaptism prevent them from fellowship within the same congregation or denomination.

Other second-order issues include, but are not limited to:

  • The role of women as pastors and/or deacons in the church
  • The understanding of baptism in the Holy Spirit and its impact on devotional life and corporate worship
  • Elder-led vs. elder-ruled forms of church government
  • And the doctrine of divine election

As Mohler points out, “First-order issues determine Christian identity and integrity. Second-order issues determine ecclesiology.”

Tertiary issues

Tertiary, or third-order, doctrines are beliefs over which Christians may disagree while remaining in close fellowship, even within local congregations. Unfortunately, third-order issues can and do split churches, but they shouldn’t.

Examples of tertiary issues include:

  • Pre-, post-, and amillennialists may understand the Day of the Lord differently with respect to the order of events, or to the meaning of apocalyptic symbols. However, they should agree on first-order doctrines pertaining to the second coming: Christ’s imminent, glorious, physical return; the resurrection and final judgment of all people; the separation of the righteous from the unrighteous; and the creation of new heavens and a new earth.
  • Types of worship formats – contemporary, traditional, blended, etc.
  • Days and hours of worship services and other local-church activities
  • Frequency of observing the Lord’s Supper / Communion
  • How the local church engages its community
  • Discipleship strategies – for example, Sunday school vs. small groups, age-graded ministries, curriculum choices, etc
  • How missions are supported financially

Mohler cautions that there are two extremes to avoid. The first is theological liberalism. The dumbing down of first-order doctrines, over which believers have sacrificed their lives, cheapens the redemptive work of Christ and pollutes His bride. True liberalism often is marked by its denial that primary theological issues even exist.

First-order doctrines are demoted to secondary or tertiary issues. Thus they are relegated to the status of issues no greater or less important than the color of the carpet, or which church member’s three-bean salad is the tastiest.

The second extreme to be avoided is theological fundamentalism. The error here is in the opposite direction. Rather than minimizing the theological weight of primary issues, fundamentalism raises most or all theological issues to the rank of first-order doctrines. The result is contention in the local church, division among believers, and serious wrongful harm to individual Christians.

In Jude’s day, there already is great diversity in the church, as we see by reading through the Book of Acts and the epistles. There also are the tell-tale cracks of division as the next generation of church leaders following the apostles are, in some cases, teaching another Jesus, a different Spirit, and a different gospel (2 Cor. 11:4). Jude’s desire to write about our “common salvation” may have been a longing to affirm the core doctrines of the Christian faith, while urging his fellow believers not to fight over secondary and tertiary issues.

However, there are doctrinal issues worthy of vigorous defense. Thus, prompted by the Holy Spirit, Jude changes his approach – mid-sentence – from a message of remembrance to a message of exhortation.

Next: Why Is Contending for the Faith Necessary? [A continuation of Chapter 5]