Earnestly Contending for the Faith

Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Our churches and our seminary represent and stand in a glorious tradition. That tradition is called the Reformed faith. It consists of the truth of Holy Scripture as expressed in the great creeds of the church; as restored over against the errors of Rome through the 16th century Reformation, especially under the leadership of God’s servants, Martin Luther and, more especially, John Calvin; and as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity, our Reformed Confessions. That truth is taught in the Protestant Reformed Churches along the distinctive lines of particular and sovereign grace over against the errors of common grace and along the line of God’s unilateral and unconditional covenant of friendship with the elect in Christ Jesus.

I call your attention especially to two things about this tradition. The first is that for it we ought to be profoundly thankful. That we are what we are is not because of our faithfulness or strength but only because of God’s faithfulness and grace! For that we ought to thank Him without ceasing. And, secondly, we ought to be zealous, enthusiastic, eager to preach and teach and to give witness to that great truth! We must never be ashamed of the gospel. We ought not be defensive about it, for, as the inspired apostle wrote in his epistle to the Romans, “It is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” And we must thankfully, joyfully preach it from our pulpits and on the mission fields, and teach it to our children.

If we are to do that we must be willing to fight for that great and glorious tradition. From the very beginning of her history the church has been involved in what Scripture calls “the good fight of faith.” The truth of Holy Scripture has been under vicious attack all through the ages. And the church has had earnestly to contend (or fight) for the faith.

I need not tell you that that is true in our day as well. The Reformed faith is almost everywhere scorned and denied except by a small remnant. If our churches are to remain faithful in doctrine and in life we will have to heed the urgent exhortation found in the third verse of Jude that we must “earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.”

If my address appears to be cast in the form of a sermon, it is deliberately so. I would like to speak to you on the topic, “Earnestly Contending for the Faith.” 1) Contending for What? 2) Contending What? 3) Contending Why?

Contending for what? The answer is: for the faith, which must be understood in the objective sense. This is not faith as the bond which unites us to Christ, through which faith we receive all of the blessings of salvation. Nor is it faith as the certain knowledge of God and the assured confidence that He is our Father for Jesus’ sake as set forth in the Heidelberg Catechism. But it is faith as that truth which Scripture teaches, and that truth which we must believe.

The faith is the troth of Holy Scripture: all the various doctrines revealed in Scripture as they constitute the one great truth of God—God as the sovereign, almighty Creator and sustainer and governor of heaven and earth and all that is in them, the God of our salvation in Jesus Christ!

The faith is the truth of Holy Scripture as set forth in the great creeds of the church. In these ecumenical creeds the church set forth the biblical truths of the Trinity, the divinity and humanity of Christ, and others. It is the truth set forth in the Reformed Confessions: The Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession of Faith, and the Canons of Dordt. These creeds were formulated for the instruction of the members of the church, especially the children and youth. They were formulated as an apology for the Reformed faith to the civil rulers. And they were formulated as the biblical expression of the doctrines of grace over against the errors of Arminianism.

The faith is the truth of Scripture, summed in the creeds as taught in the Protestant Reformed Churches! If our professors and ministers do not believe that, we may as well close the doors of our seminary and our churches!

The faith includes many truths cherished in our churches. There are, for example, the doctrines of grace, the T U L I P doctrines of the Canons (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints), with emphasis perhaps on double, eternal predestination. The faith includes the doctrine of the church (the marks of the true church which is distinct from the false and from which no one has the right to separate himself; the autonomy of the local congregation; and more); the doctrine of the inspiration, clarity, infallibility, and absolute authority of Holy Scripture; and, closely related to this, the doctrine of expository (or exegetical), thematic preaching as the chief means of grace.

But the doctrines of the faith which distinguish our churches from almost all other Reformed churches is our insistence on the truth that God’s grace is always particular, that is, for the elect in Christ Jesus; and on the truth that God establishes, maintains, and realizes His unconditional covenant of friendship with believers and their children. It is these truths which are distinctively Protestant Reformed and which must be maintained over against the Arminianism of common grace and especially its well-meant offer of the gospel (the little point of the first point), and the Arminianism of a conditional promise of the covenant to all children of believers.

We should understand well that this faith has to do with our salvation. Jude found it necessary to write about the common salvation, the salvation which all the saints have been given by God in His grace, the salvation which is deliverance from the deepest misery of our sin and death into the highest glory of fellowship with God. That the faith for which we must contend has to do with our salvation means it is a matter of life and death: eternal life and eternal death.

That is the faith, the Reformed faith, the great, glorious tradition in which we stand. If we are to be profoundly grateful for this faith and if we are to preach and then to live it without shame, then that faith will have to be either directly or indirectly (explicitly or implicitly) the content of all of the instruction given and received in our theological school!

That faith has been “once delivered to the saints.” Literally the text says, “once,” and that means “once and for all.” It never needs to be repeated. And “delivered” means to give into the hands of another, to deliver into another’s hands for that one’s use or power.

How has the faith been once delivered to the saints? This brings us to the very basics. According to Scripture’s own testimony, it was by the miracle of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The whole Scripture, in all its parts and details, is inspired by the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ and is therefore infallible, without error, and the only and absolute rule for the faith and life of the Christian.

Scripture reveals the whole counsel of God. That whole body of truth has been delivered once and for all to the saints. All the doctrine of holy Scripture that makes up the one great truth of Jehovah God has been delivered to the saints.

And that has crucial implications. The faith does not change! It is not culturally conditioned in the sense that it meant one thing in Bible times and something else in. our culture today. What it meant to the church in Bible times it means for the church of all ages. And while, certainly, the church grows and develops (and must do so) in its understanding of the riches of God’s truths revealed in Scripture, God’s truth itself never changes. That is because God never changes! The truth of God transcends all peoples, races, and cultures; and it must not be adapted to any time or place or culture. Rather, the demand of the faith is this: it calls for the repentance of all who hear it in every age, race, and culture!

For that faith we must contend earnestly.

The words, “earnestly contend,” are one word in the Greek. It means to enter a contest, to compete in the gymnastic games. From this it has the meaning in Scripture: to fight with adversaries, enemies, those who are opposed to the faith of God and to its truth. Hence the Authorized Version captures the meaning nicely, “earnestly contend.”

Now, note that this is an exhortation, and an urgent one at that! Jude writes: “I gave all diligence.” Literally we could translate, “having interested myself most earnestly” to write unto you! And he adds: “it was needful for me,” literally, “it is necessary for me to write unto you, exhorting, or urging you to contend earnestly for the faith. In other words, Jude, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, considered it his sacred duty to exhort the saints to contend for the faith.

This, therefore, is the calling of the church. The exhortation, you will notice, comes to “the saints.” And that means all of the people of God. This is not merely the duty of the seminary and its professors, nor merely of the ministers and elders and deacons in the church. It is the sacred duty of all the saints of God to fight earnestly for the faith.

Here we have no option. Divine necessity is laid upon us earnestly to contend for this faith. In all our preaching and teaching in the seminary and in the churches, in all our writing, as well as in all our witnessing and daily life, we must be earnestly contending for the faith.

And it demands our all. Just as the athlete had to give all of his time and efforts for the training for the competition, so we must concentrate all our attention to this calling to fight for the faith.

I know, it is not the “in thing” these days. Everyone is so nice, you know! People will ask us why we have to fight all the time. But we must expect sharp criticism for doing this. “Why must you always be so negative? You should be positive.” But this must not deter us! God’s Word says: earnestly contend for the faith once and for all time delivered to the saints.

The reason for the exhortation is urgent, as stated in verse 4-19. Jude tells us that certain men crept into the church unawares. Ungodly men denied the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, they were very evil men who deliberately and viciously attacked the faith once delivered to the saints. Peter speaks of them in his second epistle, the second chapter, as, “False teachers who privily bring damnable heresies into the church, even denying the Lord that bought them.” And, Peter adds, many follow their pernicious ways, by reason of whom the truth :is evil spoken of. Thus the apostolic church already had to contend earnestly for the faith!

So it is in our day! The Holy Scriptures make plain that these false teachers are an ever present danger to the church of Jesus Christ. No denomination is exempt. And the Protestant Reformed Churches must heed this exhortation as well! Scripture makes equally clear that these men are never honest and they are never sincere. They are always deceitful and subtle, immoral. And their false doctrines lead inevitably to ungodly living. I am not saying this; the Biblecalls it lasciviousness and pernicious ways. And always, the Scriptures make clear, many, the majority (not a few but many) follow them into destruction.

And that is what is going on in the church today! It has been going on all through history, but especially now. Many articles of the faith are openly denied! Think of the doctrines of creation and double predestination; the sacraments are profaned; women are allowed into the church offices. The direct result of this departure is ungodliness. The Sabbath is no longer observed by many, and so many other practices of the fathers are discarded. There is divorce for any reason, and remarriage. The antithetical Christian life is scorned and worldliness prevails.

All of these and more are but symptoms of the real problem. The real problem is this: Scripture itself is denied. That is, no longer is the Bible considered to be the inspired, divinely infallible rule for the faith and practice of the church. Higher criticism of the Bible has won the day in the seminaries of this country and in Europe!

Our calling is plain and urgent! Our own seminary must earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints! Our Reformed fathers were keenly aware of this. Article 18 of the Church Order of Dordt (our Church Order!) describes the office (calling) of professors of theology in these terms. Professors must expound the Holy Scriptures and vindicate sound doctrine, notice, against heresies and errors! The Form for the installation of Professors of theology charges them “to expound the mysteries of the faith to the students, instructing and establishing them in the knowledge of God’s Word,” and “to caution them in regard to the errors and heresies of the old, but especially of the new day.” That, brothers, colleagues on the faculty, is our urgent task. To it we must give our all. Only insofar as the seminary is faithful to that task will the churches be enabled to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints.

And, students, your calling is to receive that instruction in the faith, to give yourselves wholly to your studies, so that you know the faith and become equipped to preach, teach, and defend over against the heresies always plaguing God’s church. Let that faith become the burning conviction of your hearts. Your learning must be mixed with faith.

People of God, this is your calling as well. Not only through the synod of our churches and its theological school committee. That too, to be sure! The seminary needs a Theological School Committee that will support the school, that will give it proper direction, and that will carefully guard it against unfaithfulness. And it needs a committee that will encourage professors and students, that will admonish them when necessary as well. We are thankful to God for giving us that committee. But do not forget that the exhortation comes to the saints, to the church. The seminary belongs to the churches. It exists for the sake of the churches and never the other way around. Pray for us, will you? Support us and the cause of theological education. Pray that God will give us as seminary and churches professors who are faithful men of God and who will humbly, yet boldly, contend for the faith once delivered to the saints. Pray that God will continue to give students who will learn and believe the faith; who will preach and teach it in the churches and catechism classes and on the mission fields as God gives us open doors; who will earnestly contend for that great and precious faith.

May God, in His mercy, grant this in these latter days for the glory of His Name!