Why Should I Contend for the Faith?

The word “imperative” describes a grammatical mood of a verb that indicates that a verb has been issued as a command to its audience. The expectation on the part of someone who uses an imperative verb is that the audience will do or cease doing whatever is communicated by that command. When that Someone is God, speaking through the pens of the inspired writers of His word, it is imperative that we notice what He said imperatively.

Besides an imperative that appears as a part of a quote from Enoch (Jude 14 – “Behold”), the imperatives of the book of Jude in the Greek text all appear in a cluster from v. 17 to v. 23. You could be forgiven for thinking that the first imperative found in the book of Jude is the word “contend” found at its start as it appears as an imperative in some English translations (Jude 3). The verb here though in  Greek and in many English translations is actually an infinitive, a verb form which Jude uses to describe the activity he is encouraging with his epistle. Given that his primary goal is to encourage contending for (i.e., actively defending and fighting for) the faith, it is reasonable to assume that his commands will have something to do with this activity. The imperatives not only elevate contending for the faith to a “must,” but they also reveal how to do it.  

Depending on the Greek text considered, Jude uses either four or five imperatives found in what are rendered as three sentences in most translations. As the latter two or three imperatives are found in the same sentence and so are related, Jude effectively commands three lines of action in order that one might “contend earnestly for the faith” (Jude 3). The rest of the epistle bears out why it is important to do so, namely, the attack upon the faith and its followers by false teachers who distort the truth with their words and disobey the truth in their lives while encouraging others to do the same.

The first imperative is, “remember” (Jude 17). Christians are called to remember the words of Jesus’ apostles and in particular, “how they told you that there would be mockers in the last time who would walk according to their own ungodly lusts” (Jude 18). The first time we encounter someone in the Lord’s church who holds a position of leadership or teaching but behaves in the way Jude describes, it can be disorienting. We tend to expect mockers in the world and even in denominationalism but can be surprised to find them among those who have embraced New Testament Christianity. Jude’s words call us to remember that mockers can be anywhere.

The second imperative is, “keep” (Jude 21). The word translated “keep” carries not just the idea of holding but of guarding and protecting. Christians must actively guard their location in the love of God, as though nothing can take it from them (cf. Romans 8:35-39), they can remove themselves from it.

Jude uses three participles to describe the one who keeps himself/herself. First, the Christian who would guard himself/herself must continually be “building” themselves up in the faith, growing in knowledge, understanding, and wisdom from the Word of God (Jude 20). Second, he/she must continually be “praying,” and, in particular, offering relational prayers “in the Holy Spirit,” and not uttering “vain repetitions” (Jude 20; Matthew 6:7). Third, he/she must continually be “looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude 21). While “building” and “praying” are essential for us to guard ourselves, without the compassionate help of Jesus, we would be lost. Thankfully, it can always be said of Jesus, “He does give aid to the seed of Abraham” (Hebrews 2:16).  

Before considering the final imperatives, it is worth noting that both “remember” and “keep” are in the aorist tense, a Greek grammatical tense which speaks to punctiliar action (action that occurred in the past, affecting the past, present, and future). Jude doesn’t envision a Christian beginning to “remember” and to “keep” when false teachers emerge; he envisions these actions as being the continual state of Christians. By way of contrast with the first two imperatives, the rest of the imperatives are in the present tense, indicating a new and direct response to the problem at hand.  

The final imperatives can be considered as a single group. Depending on your translation, you might see two: “have compassion” and “save with fear” (NKJV; cf. KJV) or three: “have mercy,” “save others,” and “show mercy with fear” (ESV; cf. ASV, NASB) (Jude 22-23). While there is compelling manuscript evidence that has seen the ESV, NASB, and others prioritize the Greek texts they have translated, that reading seems to create three groups with an unclear difference between the second and third. The texts behind the NKJV/KJV however presents a clear and helpful picture of two approaches for two kinds of people: a compassionate, merciful approach for the doubters; an urgent, heavy-handed approach motivated by fear for those in the fire and defiled by a fleshly lifestyle. Either way, the imperatives point to the work of evangelism and restoration, i.e., defending against false teaching by winning both the teachers and others over with the words of truth.

Christians, we must “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered” to us (Jude 2). To do so, we must remember what the apostles taught, guard the faith that teaching has created in us with the help of Jesus, and work to bring salvation to the lost with mercy and at times with fear. If we keep these imperatives, there is no fear; Jude says to those who do so that God “is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy” (Jude 24).
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org

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