The idea that professing Christians may not be true Christians is something not easily acknowledged in the present climate of the church. One finds it even more difficult to believe that ministers, with acknowledged gifts and abilities, whose teaching may have been blessed to many, could after all be devoid of true grace themselves. The fact that error and apostasy appeared so early on in the history of the New Testament church was to be a solemn warning to the church in later ages. We find that in a very short time after Pentecost error was creeping in, for example, to the church in Corinth and to the churches of the Galatians. Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus are full of warnings of the readiness of some to apostatise from the truth. The Epistles of John and the Epistle of Jude warn Christians of the danger of falling away. The threat of apostasy is highlighted in the letters to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation chapter 2 & 3. How frequent the promise there is made “to him who overcometh”.
Satan is behind apostasy
If that was true of the church in the age of the apostles, what will become of us, if we cease to be watchful and not use the means of keeping ourselves from falling away? The enemy of our souls is ever active in this respect. His malice is made clear by John Owen in his treatise on ‘The Nature and Causes of Apostasy from the Gospel’: “Satan is ever at work attempting to lead Christians into apostasy. He blinds their minds, inflames their lusts, pours out his temptations, involves them in false and corrupt reasonings, transforms himself into an angel of light, and uses signs and lying wonders, all to support his delusions. Satan never tires; he never goes on holiday.” Dr D M Lloyd-Jones said: “I am certain that one of the main causes of the condition of the church today is that the devil is being forgotten.”
Jude, in his General Epistle, gives us solemn warnings about apostasy but goes on to apply the preservative. At the outset of the Epistle he tells us that he was about to write on “the common salvation” (v3), when something came to his attention which required urgent action. His focus was drawn to threats that caused him to exhort his hearers “to earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered to the saints”. He was aware of Satan using men as instruments of this apostasy. “There are certain men crept in unawares”. It was like someone slipping poison into a glass. Certain men were perverting the grace of God and turning it into sensuality. He goes on to speak of their doom, which is as certain as what happened to Israel in the wilderness, to the fallen angels and to Sodom and Gomorrah (vv5-7).
Protection from apostasy
Following all the warnings Jude addresses his readers with the remedy (vv20-21). “But ye, beloved”. There must be a distinct difference as far as true believers are concerned. We are to go in the opposite direction from the apostates. There is one central remedy set before us: “Keep yourselves in the love of God”. If we were to follow some modern translations of verses 20-21 we would be considering four imperatives – build, pray, keep and look. But the original points to only one imperative – keep, and then to three participles – building, praying and looking. There is the what we are to do, and then the how we are to do it.
I. The what we are to do
“Keep yourselves in the love of God”. How is this possible? Two things are implied:
1) It is because God has set His love on us that we are Christians. There is no salvation outside that consideration. We are the objects of the benevolent love of God to hell-deserving sinners. The apostle John said: “We have known and believed the love God hath to us” (1 John 4:16). Hold on to that. Keep yourselves in “the faith that worketh by love”.
2) It is because God’s love for us has become His love in us. “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given to us” (Rom. 5:5). In His love to us He imparts to us His own nature. We are made “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). That nature is love. The commandments are the imprint of his nature and therefore we keep his commandments. Love becomes the moving power or principle within us. “God is love, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:16). There is a reciprocal love in the relationship. Jesus said: “As the Father hath loved me so have I loved you, continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:9-10) The triune God comes to love us with a love of complacency.
II. The how we are to do
Three things are required:
1) “Building up yourselves on your most holy faith”. We are to build on the only true foundation and as living stones we are being fashioned into the temple of the church, which is Christ’s body. Instruction in the truth and spiritual illumination are the means for preserving our souls. “Gospel truth is the only root from which gospel holiness grows.” (John Owen)
2) “Praying in the Holy Ghost”. There is saying prayers, as Saul the Pharisee did frequently, but only when he was wrought upon by the Holy Spirit could it be said, “Behold he prayeth” (Acts 9:11). Prayer is the vital breath for maintaining the spiritual life.
3) “Looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life”. The Lord Jesus Christ has given eternal life to His own (John 17:2). It is “the life proper to the age to come” and it has entered our souls in this present age. “Ours is a religion,” said J G Vos, “whose centre of gravity lies beyond the grave in the world to come.” That is where our focus must be.
Keeping short accounts
The Puritans used to say: “Keep short accounts with God and men.” The truth is that there is no such position as standing still in the Christian life. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:12-13) If we are not going forward we are going back and that is where the seeds of apostasy are liable to be sown in the soul. The neglect of warnings leads to a false sense of security. We need to be constantly reminded that only “he that endureth to the end shall be saved” (Matt. 10:22). It is by faith that we will overcome. But “the faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance.” (John Murray) According to Hebrews 10:37-39, if one perseveres in faith he will gain his life; if he shrinks back he will prove himself reprobate. In the words of R L Dabney, “the saint is a penitent until he reaches heaven”. And Philip Henry was surely right when he said, “I will take my repentance to the gates of heaven.”