“Earnestly contend for the faith which
was once delivered unto the saints.” —Jude 3
In the introduction to his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Luther famously describes justifying faith in this way: “Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly” (translation by J. T. Mueller). Indeed, saving faith is not some inactive quality or condition of the heart that passively exists deep down inside without also affecting the way one thinks, talks, and acts. A true, living faith will produce good works (James 2:17, 20, 26). This is how a Christian shows his faith to others—“I will show thee my faith by my works” (James 2:18; see also Matthew 5:16)—as well as also providing evidence for himself that he is a genuine Christian—“Hereby we do know that we know Him, if we keep His Commandments. He that saith, ‘I know Him,’ and keepeth not His Commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoso keepeth His Word, in him verily is the love of God perfected; hereby know we that we are in Him” (I John 2:3–5). It is the Lord’s love, who first loved us (I John 4:19) that moves true Christians, out of love for Him, to serve Him gladly and willingly (I John 5:3; II Corinthians 5:14–15).
One of the fruits of a living faith is the willingness to do as the Lord, through the Apostle Jude, exhorts us, namely, “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” Now “the faith” to which Jude here refers is not the belief of the heart—the subjective faith, or trust, of the individual believer (fides qua creditur), as in Romans 3:28—but is, instead, that which is believed—the objective teachings of the Christian faith (fides quae creditur), as in Galatians 1:23 and Ephesians 4:5. This faith, the body of Christian doctrine, had been delivered to “the saints” (the believers) through the prophets in the Old Testament and through the evangelists and apostles in the New Testament; and this faith has been preserved by the Lord down through the ages on the pages of Holy Scripture. However, “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” was scarcely known at the time that Luther was born into the world. Why? For one thing, most of the people who thought that they were Christians had been utterly deceived by their religious teachers to believe that forgiveness and salvation must be earned by the works and worthiness of men—the exact opposite of what the faith that God delivered to the saints teaches. Another thing that contributed to the general spiritual ignorance of that time was that the Bible was basically inaccessible to the common people. Bibles were not found in homes, but in universities and monasteries; and they were generally available only in the Latin translation (the Vulgate).
In contrast, we Christians of today are greatly blessed with having the Bible so easily accessible in various forms—being available (for free in many cases) in a wide variety of print, electronic, and audio formats. So then why must we “contend,” or fight, for those teachings of the Christian faith, as they are set forth so plainly in the Bible, when the Bible (as a book) is only becoming more and more accessible with time? There is, of course, a huge difference between having the Christian faith accurately recorded in a book as opposed to having that Christian faith accurately taught, understood, and believed by those who have access to that Book. Many simply use the Bible as a stage prop in their endeavors to make others think that they are good people; others refer to the Bible as if it were merely a collection of inspirational sayings; some think of it as a self-help guide to attain earthly prosperity; and still others think that the Bible shows man how he can get to heaven by doing good works, by following Jesus’ example of self-sacrificing love. All such people, no matter how thick their sheep’s clothing may be, and regardless of their fleshly appeals to the Bible, are in fact enemies of the faith (Cf. Philippians 3:18). Certainly there is a great need for us Christians of today to “contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.”
Contending earnestly for the faith means fighting for it—struggling vigorously against all that would undermine it or distort it. While not physical in nature (II Corinthians 10:3–4), such contending for the faith is an intense and real battle to resist being drawn away from the truth into the ways of sin and false doctrine. The spiritual enemies against whom we must contend are the ones that the Lord consistently warns us about in the Scriptures, namely, our sinful flesh, Satan, and the opponents of the truth in the world around us. Concerning his ongoing battle with his own flesh, the Apostle Paul says: “I keep under my body [‘beat it up’—Greek], and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway” (I Corinthians 9:27). Because the old man of sin is completely corrupt (Romans 7:18), the carnal mind naturally sets itself against God (Romans 8:7) so that natural man neither understands nor values the saving doctrines of the Christian faith (I Corinthians 2:14). The Christian, therefore, must continually contend against anti-Scriptural thoughts and feelings arising out of his flesh, which would lead him away from the blessed teachings that God has delivered to His people for their faith and life (see Romans 7:14–23; Galatians 5:17).
With regard to our fight against the devil, we Christians are told in Ephesians 6: “Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; and your feet shod with the preparation of the Gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (vv. 11–17). It is imperative for us to use that spiritual armor and weaponry; for when we contend for the faith against Satan, we are not wrestling against a flesh and blood opponent (v. 12), but against a vicious adversary who is far more powerful than man, who invisibly stalks us Christians looking for opportunities to deceive us (I Peter 5:8–9; John 8:44). His cunning “Yea, hath God said” (Genesis 3:1) has been used over and over again through the centuries to pull men away from the faith once delivered to the saints (Revelation 12:9); but with the grace and power of God on our side (Romans 8:31–32; 37), we can successfully resist this deadly enemy and put him to flight (James 4:7).
So also against the unbelievers—the children of the devil (John 8:38, 44), the children of this world (Luke 16:8)—God wants us to contend earnestly for the one true Christian religion based upon His Word. Such contending includes rebuking errorists who violate the teachings of the Bible (Ezekiel 33:8–9; Ephesians 5:11), turning away from their lies (Romans 16:17; I Timothy 6:20), and, in spite of their opposition, holding firmly to the faith once delivered to the saints (II Timothy 1:13). It is not surprising that we would have to contend for the faith against open blasphemers of the Lord. But it might surprise some Christians to learn that there are times when they should also contend for the faith against other Christians. Even our spiritual brethren (because they too have the sinful flesh) may be used by the devil in his efforts to pull us away from the Savior and His holy Word, as Satan caused Peter to be his messenger in tempting Jesus (Matthew 16:21–23). Thus it is important for us to work at maintaining “the unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3) in our fellowship by using “the Word of Christ” in “teaching and admonishing one another” (Colossians 3:15–16). Of course we would expect erring brethren to receive the correction of God’s Word and to remove any offenses they have given. But what about those who steadfastly refuse to be corrected with the Scriptures, but still represent themselves as being Christians? The way that the Bible tells us to contend against them is to “reject” them (Titus 3:10) and “shun” their teachings (II Timothy 2:16), “withdraw” ourselves from them (I Timothy 6:3–5), “mark” and “avoid” them (Romans 16:17). This, however, is the exact opposite of what the vast majority of people in outward Christendom today do when faced with such opportunities to contend for the teachings of the faith delivered by God to the believers of old.
The sin of unionism—the joining in religious work and/or worship with those who adhere to or tolerate false doctrine—is so common nowadays; and contending for the full truth and purity of God’s holy Word is typically regarded as being futile and even contrary to the spirit of Christian love and brotherly toleration. Futile, because it is believed that purity of doctrine and oneness of faith are impossible to attain (despite what the Bible says in John 8:31–32, I Corinthians 1:10, etc.); unloving, because it is believed that Christian charity would be tolerant of false opinions (despite what the Bible says in Matthew 16:6–12, I Corinthians 13:6, etc.). In fact, it is generally regarded to be unloving and judgmental even to label opposing doctrinal views as being “false,” instead of accepting them as legitimate differences of interpretation. What lies at the root of such unionistic opinions is a denial of the perspicuity of Scripture (that the Bible is clear and easy to be understood, as we read in Psalm 119:130), as well as a failure to distinguish between Godly unity among spiritual brethren and sinful unions among and with the heterodox. The unity that God desires and commands His people to have is oneness in doctrine and practice (John 17:20–21; I Corinthians 1:10)—not an outward union with those who hold to or tolerate false doctrine, which the Lord forbids in His Word (II Corinthians 6:14–18).
But can the full truth of the Christian faith ever really be known? Absolutely; but this knowledge can only come through the Scriptures. Jesus declares: “If ye continue in My Word, then are ye My disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31–32). This passage reminds us who is the Author and Giver of “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints”—our God and Savior, Jesus Christ—and it describes the spiritual blessings that are conveyed to us through His doctrines: We are brought to a knowledge of the truth through which we are freed from doctrinal error, as well as from the slavery and consequences of our sins (I Timothy 2:4-6). If we understand these points, we should have no trouble understanding the importance of clinging to the doctrines of the Christian faith, defending the same, and fighting to keep them pure and uncorrupted by fleshly errors, which would only hide the truth from us and take from us the blessed freedom that Jesus gives through the Gospel (John 8:31–32; 36) .
True Christians, as a fruit of the faith worked in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, respect and love the words of their Lord and Savior (John 8:47; 14:23). It may seem strange, therefore, to see so many who call themselves Christians tolerating other so-called Christians taking liberties with and even perverting the doctrines recorded in the Bible—putting private interpretations upon passages of Scripture contrary to II Peter 1:20. Due to the influence of the devil, the world, and their flesh, many have been deceived into thinking that the only errors that really need to be fought against are the ones that directly undermine the grace of God in Christ or that deny the doctrine of the Trinity and other primary fundamental doctrines—thinking that errors in other points of Scripture can be safely permitted. The Apostle Paul, however, warns of the danger of even the smallest amount of false doctrine, which will spread and bring dangerous consequences if Christians neglect to contend for the true faith. “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (Galatians 5:9). “Shun profane and vain babblings, for they will increase unto more ungodliness. And their word will eat as doth a canker” (II Timothy 2:17).
The thing that really motivates a Christian to fight for the pure doctrines of Holy Scripture in all points is “the love of Christ” (II Corinthians 5:14)—the Gospel of God’s grace in Christ Jesus. Appreciation for the Word of Grace is what moved Luther to contend so vigorously against the Romanists, who sought to destroy the blessed comfort of the Gospel by getting people to trust in things that could in no way save them—things such as their own works, the intercession of the saints (especially Mary), plenary indulgences purchased with money, and a host of rituals invented by the Roman Catholic Church to give false comfort to consciences burdened by sin. Perhaps the most famous example of Luther contending for the faith is the courageous stand that he took at the diet in Worms, Germany—boldly declaring his God-wrought intention to cling firmly to the doctrines of Scripture no matter what the earthly consequences of such a stand might be. Also at the Marburg Colloquy, Luther showed his willingness to fight for the doctrines delivered to the saints when he refused to yield even the smallest amount on one single word of Christ—the word “is” in His institution of the Lord’s Supper, “This IS My body…this IS My blood.” Furthermore, on a regular basis, Luther contended for the faith in the sermons that he preached, in the classes that he taught, and in the many books and pamphlets that he wrote. “For [Luther], theology, in addition to being instruction, also was and remained a battle for the truth and a defense against the assaults of the devil. In one of his final speeches at the opening of a disputation, he lapsed from Latin into German: ‘It will always be this way; we will always have to fight’ [WA 39:266, lines 15–16]” (Brecht, Martin Luther: The Preservation of the Church, p. 133).
You and I are greatly blessed to have the faith that was once delivered to the saints, in its full truth and purity, taught in the Bible classes and proclaimed from the pulpits of each congregation of the Concordia Lutheran Conference, and of those congregations in fellowship with us. Just consider what a great treasure that is! Consider also how rare that treasure is nowadays! However, just because we have this correct faith set forth in our churches does not mean that we have no need to “contend for the faith” as Jude exhorts us, because of the continuous attacks of the devil, the world, and our flesh. Now if we really value the doctrines of the Christian faith—in response to God’s awe-inspiring love for us in the Gospel of Christ—then we should certainly be willing to fight vigorously to preserve it. May the Lord graciously bless us as we earnestly contend against our spiritual enemies to maintain each and every blessed doctrine of the Christian faith in its full truth and purity—in the same pristine form in which it was delivered by God to the saints of old!
— P. E. B.