07 December 2012

Hey Jude, don't make it bad

For an upcoming sermon, I am preaching out of the books of 2 John, 3 John, and Jude.  That sounds like a lot, but all three of those books put together are only 52 verses.  I am preaching about the truth of the Christian faith, or as Jude calls it, "the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3).  I didn't realize how troubling of a book Jude is.  Most of the book describes the attributes and demise of false teachers who had slipped in among the Christians to whom Jude is writing.  These "godless men" were changing "the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord" (v. 4).  They pollute their own bodies, reject authority, slander celestial beings, speak abusively about that which they don't understand, have no qualms about eating with other believers (in the "love feast," an early Christian practice), grumble and find fault, follow their own evil desires, and speak about themselves and others only in such a way as to advance themselves (see v. 8-16).  Bad guys, for sure.  It should be easy to spot them, right?

Not so fast.  Look around, closely, at any church, and you will find these types of sin still happening.  People twist Scripture all the time to justify their immorality (the word in Jude 4 for "immorality" usually refers to some kind of sexual sins or immoral sensuality).  People pollute their own bodies, and we Americans are experts at it, as we are at rejecting authority and promoting self at the expense of others.  Who doesn't occasionally grumble and find fault ('cause "it's not my fault").  So, are we the bad guys, too? Is our condemnation also written about long ago (v. 4)?

A few brief facts will help.  First, the verbs used to describe these people are overwhelmingly present tense verbs, denoting an ongoing, continuous action.  To twist Scripture once is bad, but to make a habit of it is worse.  Second, while these men are "godless" (asebeis in Greek), "at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly" (asebon, a different form of asebeis; see Romans 5:6).  No one is outside the reach of Christ's love and offer of salvation.  Third, we can have assurance of our salvation because "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1).  Many, many times in the NT letters, the writers tell Christians to stop doing sinful things.  They don't condemn them to hell for sinning; they primarily rebuke sinful behavior because it hurts one's relationship with the body of Christ and because it hurts our relationship with God.

That said, I can't ignore the kind of people Jude (and 2 Peter 2, for that matter, which sounds a lot like Jude 5-16) writes about.  The examples he gives in v. 5-7 are examples of willful apostasy, people who knew the truth but abandoned it anyway.  Verse 5 refers to the ten spies who gave a pessimistic report about the promised land, convinced others to join in their fear and lack of faith, and ultimately were killed (see Numbers 13:1-14:38).  Verse 6 refers to angels who rebelled against God and now are doomed to destruction.  These are beings who were sinless and in the very presence of God, about as safe as you can be, one would think.  Yet, somehow, they rebelled ("abandoned their own home").  Verse 7 is about the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, who "gave themselves up" to sexual immorality and perversion, another way of saying that they knew the truth but kept on refusing to obey.  In at least two out of the three examples (spies and angels), they were saved and then fell away and were destroyed.  Verse 13 says these Scripture-twisting, egocentric Christians are "wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever."

The promise of no condemnation in Romans 8:1 is for those "who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit," because "if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God" (Rom. 8:4, 13-14).  We can't deny that there is a connection between obedience and final salvation, a difference between a faith that produces works and a faith that is dead (see James 2).  If there was absolutely no possibility of forfeiting one's salvation, then why would these (and many other) dire warnings be in Scripture?

So this is a tough sermon to write.  I can't resolve the tension in 30 minutes, as if the sermon were some sort of sitcom where everybody's relationships are restored and all problems solved by the end of the episode.  I don't know what I am going to say, how it will be received, or what results will come.  But I have to preach the Word as I understand it, unless and until someone more fully explains this.

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