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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Watch with Both Eyes

Published Monday, March 1, 2021 By Allen C. Guelzo


Whatever else Jude was—and he was many things, as he tells us in the first four verses of his short Epistle: a servant of Jesus Christ, a brother of James (and by extension, a brother of Jesus himself)—he was a worried man. Worried, not in the sense of someone who has no idea of what is going to happen, but in the sense of seeing a profile in events others do not see that he knows will corkscrew downward.

Just look at the opening verses. He was writing urgently. There is no elaborate introduction here, such as we often have in Paul’s letters, complimenting people on their love or their persistence or their generosity. Instead, Jude blows straightaway through the front door, as though there is not a moment to waste:

Beloved, I am writing urgently to you about the salvation we share in common. I’ve found it necessary to ask you to contend for the faith which has been delivered to all of you as saints. (vv. 3–4)

What is driving this urgency? The same thing that might drive us if we discovered a break-in at our house or a virus in our computer. Only this time, the vandalism or the virus is about “some people who have crept” into your fellowship (v. 4). He doesn’t name names. All he needs to do is to outline what such a spiritual virus looks like and the danger it has posed in the past, and everyone will be able to see the spiritual super-spreaders for who and what they are.

A Breach of the Church’s Firewall

Who are these people who pose such an urgent threat to the health of the church?

First of all, they’re people with a long history, a history you need to be afraid of: they are ones “who were written about of old and who were even then identified for judgment.”

Second, they are “impious.” They are godless in what they think, and what’s more, they live that way, too. (Jude will use this word again in v. 15 to describe their lifestyle.) In the early church, Jude was understood to be referring particularly to preachers and teachers who, like the false prophets of the Old Testament, gave a free moral pass to anyone who demanded it or paid for it. [1]

Third, “they have taken the grace of God and used it as a pretext for licentiousness.” They don’t just stand weakly to one side while others do evil; they try to argue that evil itself is good. Their idea of church is the biggest wild party you’ve ever seen.

Last, they have “denied Jesus Christ.” It is the same denied used to describe Peter’s denial of Jesus in John 18:25; it is utter, complete, a refusal even to recognize someone. These are people who, no matter what their profession, never really knew Jesus, and their behavior is now a living demonstration of it.

What worries Jude is that these are people who are now running the show among these believers. If he could put this in modern tech terms, Jude would be saying: your fire-wall has been breached. These people have not just shown up with fake IDs or elbowed their way in. Jude’s word for “crept in” has the sense of someone slipping in from the side alley, smuggling themselves through a back window. [2] These are people you didn’t even notice at first. Then one day, they were simply there. For a while, since they didn’t cause any trouble, they seemed reasonable, balanced, and polite. They were apparently harmless pieces of computer code, tagging along unnoticed on the back of an email—but actually designed to mess up other people’s lives.

The big question is why such people would want to slip into Christ’s fellowship in the first place. If they are, as Jude describes them, impious or ungodly at heart, then they might seem to be the last people who would have any interest in mixing with the pious or the godly. After all, the impious aren’t passive. Impious, for Jude, describes people who actually revel in falsehood and immorality.

But remember: what Jude calls impiety is their idea of fun, of liberation. It may seem strange that the impious want to be part of Christianity at all, but just reflect for a moment on all the time you’ve spent in organizations or clubs where just one person happily urges everyone to disregard the rules (because rules are so old hat, you know, or so oppressive) and thus sends the whole business into a tailspin. Or the folks who volunteer so cheerfully to help your event and then quietly hijack it as a vehicle for their own self-promotion.

So, it really shouldn’t surprise us that the church has its share of these types, too. They don’t become part of a congregation so they can worship, support, or learn. In truth, they don’t give a wet slap for any of these things except how they can use the church for their own ends—and you don’t get more impious than that. (There is, believe it or not, an upside to this situation because maybe, in a backhanded sort of way, their eagerness to hijack the church is actually a testimony to the church’s integrity. After all, no one ever sets out to imitate something that is fraudulent or cheap. As much as we complain about fakery in religion, the truth is that no one could be bothered faking it in religion if there wasn’t something truthful at its core worth faking.)

Contending for the Faith

In Jude’s case, what these hackers have done is take the grace of God and use it as a pretext for licentiousness—and it’s not hard to imagine how this could be done. Doesn’t this reasoning seem to make sense?

•   Mary Magdalene was a prostitute and Jesus forgave Mary Magdalene, ergo, it’s okay to be a prostitute, or at least to live like one.
•   Jesus turned water into wine; that must mean Jesus loved wine, ergo, open the taps and let’s get sloshed.
•   Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament, ergo, I don’t have to pay any attention to it.
•   Jesus loves sinners, ergo, all you need is love.

What unites all these statements is their plausibility. They sound substantive. But plausibility is also what draws God’s rebuke to Job’s false comforters—“Who is this that obscures knowledge with words?” (Job 38:2)—because these words really are words without knowledge and the proof is in the results.

In so doing, Jude warns, they deny our only Lord and Master Jesus Christ. They do not merely make mistakes. . . . [T]hey do not merely hold a differing view. . . . [T]hey do not merely pose interesting questions, any more than a hacker is merely experimenting with computer code. Their business is really much more stark: to deny our only Lord and Master Jesus Christ—and Jude is determined to call them on it. They had, in the words of one old Puritan, the uniform of Christ on their backs but the works of the devil in their hands. [3]

This is a hard message to hear in our day. We are supposed to celebrate diversity, to honor tolerance, and we are reluctant to exclude or stigmatize dissenters. These are not bad impulses. They are even Christian impulses, and God forbid that they should ever be absent among us. But impulses unguided by knowledge of the Scriptures are the path to gullibility, and gullibility rarely ends well. Jude brings forward three instances—the deliverance from Egypt, the angels, and “the cities of the plain”—to remind Christians that the firewall of genuine faith has been breached before and that the consequences were dire.

In verses 5–7, Jude says, but I want to remind you, even though you were taught all this, that:

     1.  God brought his people up out of Egypt, through the Red Sea and with a pillar of cloud and of a fire, and with manna in the wilderness—and there were still people who didn’t believe and led others astray.
    2.  There were angels who dwelt in God’s presence, but who still decided to rebel and who are in prison even now until the Judgment Day.
    3.  The people of Sodom and Gomorrah couldn’t even stand the testimony of their own created nature, and they, too, ended up in judgment.

The common thread of these stories is you’re not immune. There have been infiltrators in the past, with malice aforethought, and there’s no reason why you should think there won’t be now. Watch with both eyes.

It’s not a lovely thought. But it is a reality. There are false teachers and pseudo-Christians who still sneak into churches today. Jude, however, is reminding us that you can’t run a chicken farm on the supposition that foxes don’t exist. The instinct to thrash around the farm, nosing out heretics, is a powerful one and should be resisted, because it can do real harm to others and puff up the vanity of those who are eager to be feared. But the instinct to do nothing about the foxes is also a powerful one: it can do real harm, and it can also puff up the vanity of those who are eager to be admired. How then do we tell the difference? How do we separate out the spiritual hackers from the simply confused, the church hijackers from the stranger, the friendless, the eccentric?

Part of this discernment has to come from wisdom—wisdom based on an intense immersion in the Scriptures, on a mature understanding of human frailty, and on long experience in reading the words and body language of others. There is what the French call a coup d’œil—a “coup of the eye”—a recognition system in some people that acts as a gift in accurately evaluating others. Paul calls it the gift of discernment. We need to cultivate that gift in ourselves, and we need to find that gift in our church leaders.

Another part is time. Discernment is like a stress test, and we have no way of accurately measuring all the aspects of a person’s character and motivations until we have seen that person operate in a number of settings. In the same way, the stress test of true Christianity takes time to show its fruits. Christianity is a matter of a life, not a moment; it is the long-distance run, and real proof is not in what we say we believe, but in what we endure and persevere in.

One of the trademarks of evil is impatience. The impious whom Jude describes never like to waste time, and sooner rather than later, they will unfurl their Jolly Roger flag and the real piracy will begin. Once confronted, though, they also pack up and move on with surprising speed. Christians are in the Lord’s service for the long haul. That long haul will be the primary revelation of who the hackers, the creepers, and the wild partiers really are.

Still, you complain, that’s good in the long run, but we don’t live in the long run. Who will assist us now? The answer is, as we shall see, the angels!

Allen C. Guelzo is senior research scholar in the Council of the Humanities and director of the Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship in the James Madison Program at Prince­ton University.

  • Allen C. Guelzo

1. Gerald Bray, James, 1–2 Peter, 1–3 John, Jude, vol. XI of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, ed. Thomas C. Oden (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 247.
2. W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 630.
3. William Jenkyn, An Exposition of the Epistle of Jude (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1853), 104.
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