Three Steps to Getting Jude 3 Right: What Does it Mean to “Contend for the Faith”?

written by Dr. Doug Potter

The epistle of Jude is often quipped by apologists of all stripes as a justification that Christians should “contend . . . for the faith.” We see it on our cars, t-shirts and social memes. Although it may sound apologetically sacrilegious to even ask . . . but can this verse be used to justify apologetics today? And what was the original context for Jude’s urging his first readers? And further dare we even question, what Jude means by “contend” and “the faith”? Without answering these questions first, we may be missing the real message. 

To answer these kinds of questions, we must not only recognize the context of Jude but also resist the tendency to read today’s apologetics into the text. Once we understand the context and contention Jude is advocating, then we see, perhaps more clearly, if there be extension and application to today. 

Indeed, there is an important distinction between interpretation and application. Interpretation must stick to the one and only meaning of the text in its context. However, the application can be multiple, direct and indirect. It is direct as if we face the same or similar situation that Jude is addressing and indirect if we can extract a principle or point and follow the model of integrating its truth for today in a different milieu. This indeed is what apologists may be intending when they quip Jude’s phrase as a reason for doing apologetics today. However, this often overshoots Jude’s meaning and immediate application. To help us get it right, we will follow three steps, first we introduce the letter, second, we explain the letter, then third we see if it can apply to today.

Step One: Introduction

Jude is a short general letter-sermon. Although we do not know what specific church(es) it was sent to, it was intended to be read aloud in an instructional setting. It includes thoughtful literary devices. These include a chiastic (ꓫ) structure that builds to the climactic and prophetic “woe” (v. 11) and recedes to parallel what was previously said. It contains an inclusio (v. 4 – vv. 14-15), several triplets (three words close together, e.g., mercy, peace, love, v. 2) and alliterations only evident in the original language. This short sermon was indeed written by Jude, the brother of James (v. 1) marking him as the brother of Jesus of Nazareth, the risen Messiah, and Lord. It is likely an act of humility that he does not explicitly appeal to his kinship with Christ or his apostolic standing (1 Corinthians 9:5). Given that hundreds of years latter fraudulently literature arrogantly boasted to be from famous figures of first-century, this reason as well as others places the letter well within the first century. Likely written and read before 70 AD and perhaps as early as the 50s, its main theme, think many, is the very phrase we will attempt to explain, that is “contending . . . for the faith” (v. 3). But Jude does not seem to be explicit about the “kind” of contention nor what is meant by “the faith.” For this, we must explore the context and content of his letter. 

Step Two: Explanation

Jude explains that he is writing this letter because certain teachers have crept into the church (vv. 4, 19). These people are “ungodly” teachers. Why? They are worse than the typical “false” teacher because they are unbelievers (v. 19) masquerading as believers, perhaps even teaching rightly about Christ and his resurrection but leading the faithful away from the faith. 

The ungodly teachers say they have received new revelation through dreams (vv. 8, 16) and claim that the law was maliciously given by evil angles, thus cutting it off as a revelation from God (contrary to Paul’s teaching, Galatians 3:19). Hence, Moses, according to the ungodly, delivered a law that was not from the finger of God, but the figuring of angelic creatures. This allows the teachers to reject all moral authority, above and below, making themselves their own moral authority. As such, they teach that the gospel of Jesus Christ frees them from living a life of righteousness (a teaching Paul also had to counter, Romans 6:15). To truly be spiritual or close to God, one must live, according to the ungodly teachers, a life of sexual immorality (vv. 10, 12) divorced from the control of reason (v. 10). And of course, if you want to know more, just send money (v. 11).

Such ungodly teaching, Jude explains, is egregiously spiritually and physically harmful to the believer’s life (vv. 10, 12), not to mention the unity (vv. 4, 19) and mission of the church (vv. 2, 22-23), that makes addressing this more important than teaching about their common salvation (vv. 3, 20). 

The Faith

What does Jude mean by “the faith”? While some may want to read into this a set of church doctrines or creeds, a good case can be made that Jude’s use is similar to Paul’s (Galatians 1:23). While it is not beyond possibility, it is not probable that Jude is referring to written doctrines or creeds when he says, “the faith.” Jude’s emphasis is on the gospel and teaching that has come directly from God through the lips of the apostles (vv. 3, 17). Hence, “the faith” may simply be a shorthand way of referring to believing the gospel or having faith as taught by the apostles to his original readers and listeners (vv. 5, 18). And preserved for us in their new writings. Indeed, the earliest creed we know is just the gospel itself (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) from the apostles according to the Scriptures. 

Contend

Jude, unlike Paul, but not in opposition to him, who faced similar ungodly teaching (Romans 3:8; 6:1, 15; Galatians 5:13) does not appeal to argument or debate, instead, they are told to do three things: First, avoid contamination with their ungodly teaching and sin (v. 23). Second, live out the righteousness of the gospel that was originally given to them by the apostles (vv. 5-7, 17-18). And third, recognize the prophetic pronouncement of future judgment that is already upon these ungodly teachers (vv. 9, 14-15). If Jude’s readers will do these, they will be saved by God from stumbling into sin, so they can stand unblemished in the presences of God with joy (vv. 24-25). Thus, they will have contended for the faith (v. 3). Only this kind of contention will allow them to extend mercy to some (v. 22) and snatch others from judgment (v. 23) which may even bring the ungodly teachers to the faith. 

Step Three: Application

Does this verse apply to apologetics done today? Yes, but there is an immediate or direct application we cannot miss. As ungodly teachers, such as Jude faced in the church then, still exist today. And if we jump to extending this phrase to doing apologetics today, we may miss the Word’s immediate application to our life. Jude is saying every Christian should defend their faith by avoiding the contamination of sin associated with ungodly teachers, living out a righteous life will create opposition to all kinds of false teachers and teaching, and then read aloud in the all churches the impending pronouncement of judgment to come upon them. Put in contemporary terms, Jude is advocating for polemics grounded in the Old and New Testament, an appeal to reason and truth outside of Scripture, and condemnation on false teachers to be pronounced in the assembly of believers today.

And Yes, there is an indirect or extended application to apologetics today. However, note well that Jude is not instructing his readers then or now to teach the formal subject of study known as Christian apologetics that involves making a systematic case for the truth of Christianity and answering sincere objections and questions. This, of course, does not preclude teaching apologetics as such in the church, nor recognizing the legitimate role of argument and debate as modeled in the rest of Scripture (Acts 17). Indeed, Jude and the rest of Scripture raise no such objection to this kind of apologetic teaching, if needed and indeed it is needed. Quite to the contrary, philosophy shows us that we can demonstrate some truth about God independent of Scripture (Romans 1:20). And, give evidence, not dependent upon prophetic inspiration, that demands the verdict: God raised Jesus from the dead (1 Corinthians 15). In fact, Jude has no objection to appealing to truth outside the Scriptures (vv. 9, 14-15) or a rational defense of the apostolic teaching (vv. 5, 17) that is taken from their testimony to the true gospel of Jesus Christ.

The apologists today, must be mindful of Jude’s context and content, to not read into his words a contemporary apologetic. Yet, at the same time, the principle and model Jude set for “contending . . . for the faith” certainly can be extended and applied to us today. If needed use sound reason and valid evidence no matter where it is found to show Christianity is the true faith and always invite anyone anytime to believe the apostolic teaching of the gospel. But most of all, do this while living out the righteousness of the gospel, regardless of the opposition.

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