Church Discipline (Jude 1:17-25)
The year was 2007. Josiah was eight years old, not the strapping young man you see today. We were camping in the Finger Lakes region of New York, and stopped at a scenic overlook a short distance away. Suddenly we saw Josiah where he shouldn’t be. He had climbed over the fence and was walking on the ridge right beside the drop-off, with nothing between him and death.
We were shaken. My first impulse was to yell, but I didn’t want to startle him. So I approached him carefully and quietly, and asked him to come back on the other side of the fence. He did, and he was safe again. But I still have that moment frozen in my mind even today. It was horrifying.
The question that we all face is: what do we do when we see someone who’s in danger? In Josiah’s case, it was physical danger. It’s usually a no-brained to take action when someone is in physical danger. But what happens when someone is in some other kind of danger, when they are making decisions that will do them harm? That’s a lot trickier. The default today is to mind our own business out of a sincere desire to mind our own business and not intrude in the affairs of others.
But the Bible presents another option. Actually, it’s not even an option. The Bible calls us to a better alternative. My goal today is to tell you about it, and then to describe how it could work in a church like Liberty Grace.
If you’ve been around, you know that we’re in a series about our life as a church. We’ve been looking at what the Bible describes as the life of a church. As part of this, we’ve been looking at some pretty challenging topics, and today is no exception.
Today I want to look at a passage in Jude. Jude was written by Jesus’ half-brother. What’s interesting is that Jude doesn’t follow the typical formula that people used to write letters in that day. Jude skips all the pleasantries, because he’s writing to the church, and he knows that the church is facing a danger.
That’s why he writes in verses 3 and 4:
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.
Jude gets right down to business because he knows there’s a danger. They’re on the other side of the fence, and a lot is at stake. What is the danger? False teachers have infiltrated the church. False teaching is a serious matter, and you can see how concerned Jude is. False teaching never stays at false teaching. In verse 4 Jude says that it’s perverting God’s grace and turning it into sensuality. It’s a denial of Jesus Christ himself. It’s a serious matter.
Here, in Jude, we’re asked to contend.
…Our mind is forced to go on red alert. We are being asked to read standing in readiness. Jude is finished with pleasantries; some required action is at hand. Urgency and immediacy move him. He wants contenders, and he wants them now. And with this letter he means to raise them up. (David Helm)
Let me pause here and say that this danger is one that hasn’t passed. We read later in verse 18 that the apostles predicted that it would happen, and it has happened indeed throughout church history right to the present day.
A man in Britain suffered “horrendous” symptoms for three days after mistakenly taking a drug prescribed for high blood pressure. He was accidentally given the wrong prescription at his pharmacy. He said that it “felt like someone was standing on my chest and I was having to take big deep breaths every few minutes throughout the entire night and following day as the medicine was making me feel like I couldn’t catch my breath.” Three people have died in that chain of pharmacies from being given the wrong prescription.
Jude says that we’re in danger too. When we get the gospel wrong, it’s not a small matter. Lives are at stake. And so Jude calls us to contend for the faith. We must do this because of the danger.
Two Ways to Contend
So how do we contend?
I wish I had time to look through the whole book of Jude with you. It’s not that long. It’s only 25 verses. But we don’t have time.
What I want to do is to take you to the last few verses in which Jude gives us two ways that we must contend for the faith. He gives us a positive action we can take as well as a corrective one.
Positively: Keep Yourselves in the Love of God
Verses 20 and 21 say:
But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.
Jude gives us one big way that we can contend for the faith, and then three ways to do this. If you look at the grammar of verses 20 to 21, there’s one command and then three participles that describe how to keep the command. The main command is this: keep yourselves in the love of God. The antidote to losing our way spiritually is to keep ourselves in God’s love. Don’t you love that?
Jude opened the letter by reminding us of God’s love. He addresses the letter to those “who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ,” and then he prays that “mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you” (Jude 1:1-2). God’s disposition to us is love. Our job is to keep ourselves in this love.
If you are not a follower of Jesus, I want you to know that what God offers you is love. "God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). We deserve judgment, but God has offered us love instead. Forgiveness and unending love are yours if you turn to Jesus in repentance and trust. Receive the greatest gift today. Don’t delay. It’s yours in Jesus for the asking.
If you have trusted Jesus, then you have one job: to keep yourselves in God’s love. How do you do this? Jude gives us three participles, three practical steps we can take to keep ourselves close to God’s love in verses 20-21:
- By building yourself up in your faith — in other words, to continue to grow in your understanding of the gospel, the teachings that were handed down to you at their conversion. You’re doing this right now as you hear God’s Word preached. You do this when you open up your Bible to read during the week, or when you get together with friends to disciple and encourage each other. Keep learning. Keep growing in your understanding of the gospel. It’s a great way to keep yourself in God’s love.
- By praying in the Spirit — It’s what Paul talks about in Ephesians 6:18: “Pray at all times in the Spirit with every prayer and request, and stay alert with all perseverance and intercession for all the saints” (CSB). It’s what one author (Jared Wilson) calls spilling your guts to God. Talk to God about everything. Just talk to him. It’s a great way to keep yourself in God’s love.
- By waiting eagerly for the return of Jesus Christ — One of the major motivations in Scripture is that Jesus is coming back. Want to keep yourself close to God’s love? Remember that. Think about it. Wait eagerly for it. Look forward to it as much as you look forward to anything in this world.
Our job as a church, put positively, is to work to collectively stay close to God’s love. It’s why we gather together. It’s the reason that we are talking about covenanting together as a church community. The command to keep ourselves in God’s love is not given to an individual, but to a church. We need each other. We need to do this. It’s essential.
That’s the positive way of contending for the faith. But there’s a corrective action we need to take as well.
Negatively: Show Mercy to Those Who Struggle
At any given point, some of us will struggle. How should we respond? It depends. Jude gives us three actions that we should take depending on the situation.
By the way, what Jude is about to describe is what we mean when we talk about church discipline. That sounds like such a nasty term. It’s not. It’s just caring for others because we care about them. What’s nasty is being indifferent to people who are struggling. That’s selfish and nasty. What Jude says here is an expression of mercy and love to those who are struggling. We must do it if we really care.
So what does Jude say we should do? It depends on what kind of struggle you’re dealing with.
First, he addresses those who doubt. He’s probably talking about some in the church who have started to be swayed by the false teaching. They’re wavering in their commitment to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. They have doubts about the Bible, about the Christian faith. They have questions. They want to know if the Bible is true, if we can trust what we’ve received. Jude says: have mercy on these people. Be helpful to them. Build relationships with them. Your relationship with them should be characterized by mercy. I’m sure you can think of people who fit into this category. You have the opportunity to invest in their lives if you have mercy on those who doubt.
Second, he addresses a second group. He says, “save others by snatching them out of the fire.” These people, it would seem, have gone further down the road with the false teachers. They’re in danger of judgment, characterized by fire. Some have been so influenced by false teaching, Jude is saying, that they are teetering on the edge of hell. We need to snatch them and save them before it’s too late.
When we encounter someone who has departed the faith, we can’t just give up on them. God does restore people. One pastor had a friend who walked away from the Christian faith and began living a very immoral lifestyle. He went and visited his friend. Afterwards he was so drained that afterwards he pulled out this verse and with tears in his eyes reminded himself that God still does save wayward sinners, and that his counsel still might bear fruit in his friend’s life. Jude calls us to do this. When people walk away from the faith, they’re in danger of judgment. Contend for them. Save them by snatching them out of the fire.
Then there’s one final group. He says, “to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” By the strength of the language it seems like Jude is talking about the false teachers themselves. They’ve abandoned themselves to false teaching, but they’re not beyond redemption. Jude says to show mercy to them. Pray for them. Treat them kindly. But also be cautious. Be on guard. He talks about the garment stained by flesh. He’s talking about the clothing worn closest to the body. This is pretty graphic. He’s talking, in essence, about clothing that’s been stained with human waste. Show mercy to them, he says, but be cautious. As one person put it:
One is working on the edge of the fire, so to speak. Not only are those being rescued at risk, but the rescuers are endangering themselves. Sin is deceitful enough that those trying to help others could themselves get trapped. That is no reason not to “show mercy,” but every reason to have fear. (Peter H. Davids)
When responding to people who are struggling, you need to do some triage. Your response will differ depending on which type of person you’re dealing with. Reach out to those who are going astray, but be wise in how you do so. Pay attention to the danger that you could be in as you reach out to those who are going astray.
What This Looks Like
You may be wondering what this looks like practically.
As a church, we’re committing to watch over each other. Our covenant states:
I further engage to watch over you, my brothers and sisters, in brotherly love; to remember you in prayer; to aid you in sickness and distress; to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and courtesy in speech; to be slow to take offence, but always ready for reconciliation, and mindful of the commandments of our Saviour to secure it without delay.
We’re covenanting to positively keep ourselves in God’s love by relating to each other positively and practicing the one-another commands of Scripture.
We also say:
I also understand that if I am overtaken in any fault, I will be subject to biblical discipline which seeks my restoration.
We’re covenanting to watch out for others, and for them to watch out for us.
Part of our responsibility is to do what Jude describes here. When we see that someone is caught up in sin or false teaching that’s visible, serious, and unrepentant, we must show mercy. That means that we go to them, just as I went to Josiah when he stepped over the fence, and invite them back over to safety. We’re to do this gently, and the goal is always restoration.
What if they don’t listen? What if they persist? Show a lot of patience. Move very gently and slowly. But then, according to Jesus in Matthew 18, the whole church gets involved so that all the covenant members are praying and showing mercy. As a last resort, if they refuse to respond, then we get to 1 Corinthians 5:2 with mourning: “Let him who has done this be removed from among you” — with the hope that they will one day be restored.
The every day application is much smaller, though. I like what one person said:
Unfortunately most churches don't employ formal discipline until offenses are so terrible, relationships so shattered, and patterns so ingrained, that the chances of restoring someone are very small. (Ken Sande)
Positively, work together to keep ourselves in God’s love. Correctively, show mercy to those who struggle.
I was going to close this sermon with a story that illustrates how this all works out. I even had two stories to choose from, but in the end, I threw them out. Instead, I’m going to tell you my own story.
I was a young pastor in an old church. We had a young man come and give his life to Christ. He became a member, and he became active in the church. He was a great guy.
But then he started to sleep with a married woman in the church. I met with him. Others met with him. We just couldn’t get anywhere. Eventually, we took it to the church. We asked people to pray for him, to encourage him to turn away from his sin and to turn back to God.
We gave it some time, but eventually the time came to remove him from our church’s membership — to excommunicate him. It was a hard decision, as it should be. Nobody enjoyed it. It was brutal.
I can’t remember how long it took, but eventually he came back. He’d repented of his sin. He stood in front of the congregation and told them, “Thank you. Thank you for loving me enough to confront me.” We were overjoyed to welcome him back into membership.
As one pastor who went through a similar situation put it:
I am reminded that, when we do things God's way, he does not always respond in our timing nor with the short-term results we desire, but his way is always right, best, and true. With praise, the whole church got to see God at work…
Positively, work together to keep ourselves in God’s love. Correctively, show mercy to those who struggle.