In Jude 1:3-4 the author says, “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.“
The faith once delivered to the saints is the same gospel preached by Jesus Christ, the apostles, the church fathers, the reformers, and the Puritans. It is orthodox Christianity. These doctrines are affirmed in a number of confessions of faith produced by various church councils throughout the past 2000 years. They include the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, The Chalcedonian Definition of the Faith, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Belgic Confession, The Canons of Dort, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the London Baptist Confession. These are all proclamations of the essential doctrines “once for all delivered to the saints” formulated to defend the church against false teaching.
Since these doctrines were “delivered once for all” they never change. But God has revealed them progressively throughout history. The Old Testament prophets spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit, but they did not always understand the significance of their own words. The Apostle Peter affirms as much when he says, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who predicted the grace that would come to you searched and investigated carefully. They probed into what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating when he testified beforehand about the sufferings appointed for Christ and his subsequent glory.” (1Pet 1:10-11) Peter goes on to say that the prophets did not fully comprehend what they were saying because the meaning was reserved for the church in coming ages, “It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to [j]look.” (1 Pet 1:12)
Although Peter spent three years with Christ, he himself had an incomplete understanding of Christ’s mission. In the eighth chapter of Mark, he acknowledged that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. But only moments later he rebuked Jesus for saying that he must be offered up to die at the hands of Jewish leaders. Peter did not understand the Old Testament teaching that the Son of God must suffer and die. None of the other disciples did either. After his resurrection, Christ appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus and had to explain to them at great length how the events they had witnessed fulfilled scripture. The significance of Christ’s death and resurrection became evident only after his resurrection.
The Apostle Paul adds to the understanding of the church by explaining such doctrines as the sovereignty of God in salvation, the inclusion of Gentiles in the plan of redemption, the relationship between Christ and his church, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the significance of the sacraments, and the future hope of believers. All of these teachings were revealed to Paul personally by Christ. This probably took place during the three years that he spent alone in Arabia after his conversion. (Gal 1:18-2:2) He describes how this revelation came to him on at least one occasion in 2 Cor 12:1-6 and Eph 3:3.
The church fathers continued to build upon the foundation laid by the prophets and apostles as they defended the faith against various false teachings that arose in the course of church history. Saint Augustine organized the teachings of scripture on the Trinity into the first systematic theology in the fourth century to defend the deity of Christ against false teachers. Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other reformers reclaimed the great doctrines of the faith from the Roman Catholic Church which had replaced biblical authority with the authority of the institutional church.
Building on The Past
As the book of Hebrews says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” (Heb 1:1-2) With each revelation has come more clarity and definition. With the advent of Jesus, God arrived on the scene to deliver the message in person. In those days Jesus pronounced judgment on the towns where he had performed great miracles because they had received not just an indirect message by way of a prophet, but the very Living Word of God. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” (Mt 11:21-24) Because we have a record of the life and works of Jesus Christ in the Bible, we are no less accountable than the people of Jesus’ day. As Jesus said, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” (Lk 12:48)
The Price of Ignorance
When God gave the law to the children of Israel, he said through his servant Moses, “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known.” (Deut 11:26-28) On that day the Israelites agreed to do all that the Lord commanded. But it was not long before they went astray. In fact, they so completely abandoned the way of the Lord that they eventually lost the book of the law. It was not until some 800 years later that they rediscovered it when King Josiah of Judah commissioned the renovation of the temple. It had come into disrepair from years of neglect. The discovery prompted great anxiety, for when the priests read the law, they realized they were under the wrath of God for their idolatry. Although the king destroyed all the idols and killed all the false prophets, God did not spare the Israelites from judgment. Shortly after the death of Josiah, he sent the armies of Babylon to invade Israel and take the people captive. The price they paid for abandoning God’s word was seventy years of humiliating captivity in the land of Babylon.
Over the past two generations we have made mind-boggling progress. Before that scarcity and short life spans were common. The annual Global Wealth Report from Credit Suisse said recently: “Two generations ahead, future extrapolation of current wealth growth rates yields almost a billion millionaires, equivalent to 20 per cent of the total adult population.” (http://ind.pn/2lnch). Rapid growth in knowledge has led us to believe that nothing is beyond our reach. We tend to think that we are smarter than those who went before us because we have achieved so much is so short a time. This pride of accomplishment as affected our view of scripture. We no longer look to the great saints of the past for wisdom. We have replaced the faith of our fathers with a man-made religion based on modern methodologies. Instead of the classics on Christian theology, books on how to live the Christian life fill the shelves of Christian bookstores. Go to almost any church small group meeting and you will study some popular contemporary Christian author or listen to one of their CDs or watch one of their DVDs. Your Sunday School teacher probably uses their materials in class and your pastor likely bases his sermons on them. Try to find a church that affirms the great creeds of the faith or teaches them through a catechism class or features sermons that draw upon the great works of the church fathers and reformers and you will be sorely disappointed.
Although rich in material ways, today’s church is poverty stricken when it comes to knowledge of God because it has severed its ties with the past. It is the church described in the third chapter of Revelation, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Rev 3:17) What does God say to this church? “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” Gold, white garments, and salve were the products of the Laodiceans’ commercial success and the source of their self-sufficiency.
Today’s church has become far more wealthy and self-reliant by comparison. Like the rest of society, it has come to believe that there is no problem that cannot be solved by man with modern methods. And in its pride, it has forsaken a rich theological heritage for a form of self-help religion based on modern therapeutic methods. But therapy is a poor substitute for theology because it is based upon the knowledge of the creature rather than the revelation of the Creator. The attributes of God go well beyond human comprehension. They cannot be ascertained apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit. They are so profound that God has had to reveal himself over generations of redemptive history. We would do well to build upon that foundation rather than to assume we can do a better job with tools acquired through human progress.