Contending for the Faith
From the September / October 1996 issue of The Concordia Lutheran
CONTENDING FOR THE FAITH
“Ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” –Jude 3
In these latter days of sore distress, the claim is frequently heard that what outward Christendom really needs is another reformation. Indeed, many of the symptoms of degeneration in the “visible church” today are similar to those which our 16th century forefathers identified in the Church of Rome: Scripture alone is no longer the only source and norm of Christian doctrine and practice, and its inerrancy and authority are (for all practical purposes) denied. The doctrine of justification has been recast into an image more palatable to the “mind of the nineties” (whatever that is); and, even among many “Lutherans,” God’s forensic, objective justification of the world has disappeared altogether. The Bible is still hailed as “God’s Word” but God’s Law is flagrantly ignored and even deliberately set aside, and His precious Gospel is savagely perverted into a sugar-pill which even the impenitent and carnally secure find attractive. Churches and church bodies now have a political and social agenda instead of a spiritual purpose and mission. The clergy has resurrected the former arrogance of power which it had under the papacy, making ordination its claim to supreme authority in the church. The laymen are woefully ignorant of even the “basics” of Christian doctrine, and their pastors are ill-equipped (and largely unmotivated) to teach them anything of substance. Emphasis is constantly being placed upon externals such as liturgical forms, corporate affiliations, outward membership, perfunctory participation, philosophical posturing (“conservative”, “confessional” etc.), and numerical growth. There is little if any interest in (and scarcely any tolerance of) sound doctrine, which very term has become a “nasty word” characteristic of narrow-mindedness and bigotry; and pastors (and even laymen) who try to focus attention upon false doctrine and practice are “dealt with.” To be sure, they are not burned at the stake or subjected to the rack, but they are ostracized, deposed, banned, and even sued in court in a transparent attempt to minimize the effectiveness of their testimony!
On the other hand, unlike the visible church at the time of Luther’s Reformation, which was for all practical purposes one denomination and church body, the scene today is more complex. There are literally hundreds of nominally “Christian” denominations in which errors vary as widely as styles on a department store clothing rack. And while the symptoms noted above indiscriminately cross denominational lines and pervade the entire “Christian” landscape, the specific issues can barely be “scratched” in a set of Ninety-five [updated] Theses or in twenty-eight articles of a new Augsburg Confession! Luther and his colleagues worked at first within the system, as it were, and had the blessed advantage of being able to target a comparatively limited number of false doctrines, practices, and abuses; and then, when some of the reformers themselves departed from the truth, their errors, too, had to be addressed. And, while we would not for a moment dispute the obvious fact that the churches and church bodies of our day and time which identify themselves as “Christian” are by and large suffering from spiritual putrefaction, whether a broad-based “reformation” of the entire visible church, addressing all errors in doctrine and practice is either practical or even possible today, is a question open to honest debate. Some, however, are of the opinion that it is essential.
This very year, for example, a “reformation” effort of sorts is being mounted by so-called “concerned conservatives” who have banded together under the name “Christians for the Truth.” The group has its base primarily in Germany, but there is active interest and participation apparently on a world-wide scale. This cross-denominational organization recently published a new set of “Ninety-five Theses” (which it intends to nail symbolically to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in this “Luther Year”) in an effort to call attention to its concerns and its ecumenical movement to “reform the church”. While some of its theses zero in on the obvious blights mentioned above, others are weakly stated, suggesting a willingness to compromise; and many errors and abuses are not mentioned at all. The movement seems to be getting high marks from many so-called “conservatives” even in Missouri Synod circles, but it is the kind of unionistic effort (with joint worship services and other acts of “selective fellowship”) that orthodox Lutherans should want consciously to “avoid” in obedience to God’s clear Word (Romans 16:17).
This is not to say, however, that we Christians should simply stand idly by and say and do nothing. For the Apostle Jude’s exhortation was written also “for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (I Corinthians 10:11). Indeed, it was penned specifically because “certain men crept in unawares” (v. 4) into the churches to defile them with false doctrine and practice, as the following context of Jude 3 clearly shows. In fact, the Apostle’s description of what was afoot among his readers is strikingly similar — even in the specific detail of errors and abominations that were being introduced — to the situation in our own day and time! Jude shows that we Christians dare not merely “rest on the laurels” of Luther and Chemnitz and Walther and Pieper, who by the Lord’s hand, like Moses and Aaron, “saved the people out of the land of Egypt” (v. 5). We dare not smugly say concerning our “heritage of the truth” as Lutherans that “we still HAVE the Word of God in its truth and purity.” For if we do not “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” and fight to KEEP it, we may well find that we no longer even HAVE it and that we ourselves have become “leavened” (Galatians 5:9) with all the rest and well deserve the “woe” that Jude pronounces upon the “filthy dreamers” who seek to defile the flocks of God! (vv. 11ff.) “From this preserve us, heavenly Father!”
Jude exhorts us to “contend for the faith,” that is, for the body of doctrine, “which was once delivered unto the saints.” This is not the “faith which believes” [fides qua creditur], the confidence, created in us by the Holy Spirit through the Means of Grace, which lays hold on the blessings of salvation; for that faith is not of our making, nor do we strengthen and preserve it in ourselves by merely “contend[ing]”. But this is the “faith which is believed” [fides quae creditur], the objective faith to which the believer clings for the facts and realities and assurances concerning salvation. It is “the doctrine which ye have learned” (Romans 16:17), departures from which “profane the name of God among us” (First Petition of the Lord’s Prayer). “This is the universal faith, which, except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved” (Athanasian Creed). This is the faith for which we must “earnestly contend” so that it is not subverted, perverted, or converted into a man-made tradition which will lead precious souls to hell and thus make the Word of God of none effect (Mark 7:13). This is the faith “which was once delivered unto the saints” — once and for all in one pure and unadulterated form — to make men “wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 3:15).
We can “contend for the faith” only if we KNOW WHAT IT IS. Therein lies the first challenge to every true Christian in Jude’s exhortation. It is a sad commentary on the state of outward “Lutheranism” today that in the so-called “teaching church” there is precious little real teaching going on. Indoctrination is not only regarded with suspicion by those laymen and pastors who pride themselves in their freedom and ability to “think for themselves” and to “do the right thing” without being made to “conform” to a standard of doctrine and practice, but “the time [has] come when they will not endure [that is, put up with] sound doctrine” (II Timothy 4:3). And sadly, Lutherans today (more notoriously than those in other Protestant denominations) are known to despise instruction. Bible classes are poorly attended where they even exist; interest in studying Christian doctrine is at an all-time low; and pastors very frankly tire of leading unwilling horses to water, much less of trying to interest them in drinking. No doubt one of the reasons for such lack of interest is that people don’t want to be held responsible for judging between truth and error, for standing up to be counted, and for “contend[ing] for the faith” and with knowledge comes just such responsibility. Then, of course, there are also many pastors who, like those in Luther’s day (whom he addresses in his preface to the Small Catechism), do not themselves know Christian doctrine, do not themselves have any interest in learning it, and therefore themselves have no zeal for teaching it in spite of the mandates of God’s Word that they do so (John 21:15-17; Acts 20:28; II Timothy 4:1-5; I Peter 5:1-4; etc.). “O ye bishops!” cries Luther, “how will ye ever render account to Christ for having so shamefully neglected the people and having never for a moment exercised your office! May the judgment not overtake you!” Indeed, it is precisely because the warning and exhortation of the Apostle Peter falls on deaf ears still today that so many have erred from the faith and are in no condition to “contend” for it! He warns us Christians against being “unlearned” and “unstable” in our knowledge of the Scriptures and says: “Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own steadfastness. But grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:17-18). Those who don’t grow remain “babes” (Hebrews 5:13), “unskilful in the Word of Righteousness,” and therefore unable “earnestly [to] contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.”
Moreover, fighting for purity of doctrine requires mounting a strong defense when the truths of God’s Word are questioned and assailed. Readiness by virtue of solid instruction in and thorough knowledge of Christian doctrine is essential to such a defense; and we are not only encouraged but we are, as sanctified children of God, required to “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (I Peter 3:15). When people ask us why we believe what we believe, we should be ready to answer them, meekly submitting the question to Holy Scripture for a definitive judgment and in Godly fear deferring to its wisdom for the answer we give. How indeed can anyone “earnestly contend for the faith” when he cannot even defend and give answer concerning what he believes when he is asked??
But a rock-solid, well-informed and uncompromising defensive posture is only half the battle. We Christians must also be ready and able resolutely to go on the offensive, especially when false prophets and their adherents attempt to breach the ramparts of our doctrinal position and to infiltrate our ranks — either from within (Acts 20:30) or from without (v. 29). For Holy Scripture is “profitable … [also] for reproof, for correction,” Paul writes to Timothy (II 3:16); and he instructs Titus “after the first and second admonition” from that perfect “norm” or standard of doctrine to “reject” one who teaches contrary thereto (3:10). Sadly the refusal of the larger Lutheran church bodies, particularly during the last half of the present century, to exercise doctrinal discipline in their respective midsts resulted in the systematic toleration of error rather than its refutation; and thus they forfeited the orthodox character that once typified at least the synods comprising the Synodical Conference of North America. Oh, there were organized efforts at reform here and there; but many of the protests lodged, for example, with the 1950 Convention of the Missouri Synod, became so much “sound and fury signifying nothing” because most of their supporters simply rolled over and played dead when their pastorates and pensions were threatened. We think, for example, of the pastors in the Chicago Study Club in the late forties and early fifties, who courageously marked errors and errorists in the Missouri Synod for awhile and then suddenly fell conspicuously silent when a few of their brethren were “purged” by synodical officials and were made “object lessons”. The “contend[ing] for the faith” effectively lost the momentum it could have had, and the Missouri Synod continued on its downward slide into the cesspool of indisputable heterodoxy where it finds itself today. Oh, we hear an occasional “gurgle” from beneath the surface, but it doesn’t last long, especially when the protester is determined to stay in the cesspool and drown instead of avoiding it in obedience to God’s clear and unmistakable command.
By God’s grace the pastors and congregations of our beloved Conference, statistically insignificant as far as our numbers are concerned, continue to “contend earnestly for the faith” by their individual testimony as opportunities present themselves and by their joint testimony through our CONCORDIA LUTHERAN, which we send out gratis to over two hundred and fifty different pastors each time it appears in a bi-monthly issue. We are hardly the “silent little fringe group” that some regard us to be. On the contrary, our Theses have been posted publicly in legible print on the “visible church’s” door for almost fifty years; and it is inconceivable that anyone truly interested could NOT know who we are, what our position is, and how we are determined by God’s grace to continue “earnestly contend[ing] for the faith,” come what may. This does not mean, however, that we see ourselves as a paragon of forthrightness in testifying and fighting for the truth. On the contrary, “we are unprofitable servants; we have done that which was our duty to do” (Luke 17:10), and there is much more to be done: –First and foremost, we pastors must continue teaching with all diligence the unvarnished truth of Holy Scripture to our own people, and they in turn must continue gladly to hear, mark, learn, and inwardly digest “sound doctrine” at every opportunity afforded them (II Timothy 4:3), so that we all continue to “speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among [us]; but that [we] be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (I Corinthians 1:10). –Secondly, we all, pastors and laymen alike, must be “ready always to give an answer” concerning our faith (I Peter 3:15) in defense of God’s precious truth “which was once delivered unto the saints,” even unto us. Christian people can easily talk about sports and politics and their children and their jobs; why not about Christ crucified and the full truth of His precious Word?? –And finally, we dare not be shy about stepping to the forefront of the hottest battle to fight offensively against those who would “bring in damnable heresies” (II Peter 2:1) to pollute the pure water of the Gospel from which we and our children drink in spiritual life and health and strength for our souls.
“Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand …” says Paul in Ephesians 6. That kind of “reformation” is an on-going, perpetual fight that we, as soldiers of Christ’s cross, must continue to wage even unto the end, so that when the smoke of battle clears at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, we may still be on our spiritual feet, “steadfast in His Word and faith unto our end” (Luther), and, by His unmerited grace alone, “be accounted worthy … to stand before the Son of Man” in His righteousness which is ours by faith. To that end, may each and every one of us, individually and collectively, “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints,” praying with the hymnwriter:
Would to God that I may ever, as the martyred saints of old,
With the helping hand of heaven steadfast stand in battle bold!
O my God, I pray Thee, in the combat stay me!
Grant that I may ever be loyal, staunch, and true to Thee!