Jude: a gospel of fire insurance?

The following is a slightly modified section from a sermon I gave on Sunday, June 3 on the book of Jude. The text of Jude can be read here. I have adapted it for this blog, but the content remains the same.

Is the good news according to Jude simply a gospel of “fire insurance”? Certainly, the letter of Jude easily leads to this conclusion. We see in Jude what sounds like an exclusionist form of the gospel—us vs. them, insiders vs. outsiders—which bears a lot of similarities with James 4 and 2 Peter. He speaks about “the salvation we share” and near the end of the letter he says to “build yourselves up on your most holy faith” and to “keep yourselves in the love of God.” Certainly, all of this is right and good, but it is very one-sided. It focuses entirely on the community of believers to whom Jude is writing and does not seem concerned with the extent of the gospel outside the walls of the church. If we take these verses at face value, one might get the impression that within the church you are safe, but outside of it you are totally doomed.

On the basis of these verses, we might conclude that the gospel in Jude is one of exclusion and “fire insurance”: those who are not in our circle are utterly lost without any hope, while we have “insurance” to keep us out of the “eternal fire” and the “eternal chains in deepest darkness.” Jude even says to the church: “save others by snatching them out of the fire” (v. 23). Is the gospel then really one of insurance? Is salvation really about avoiding the eternal fire of hell?

Two mistakes might lead us to this conclusion: first, reading Jude apart from the rest of the New Testament, and second, reading Jude as a proclamation of the gospel. The two problems go hand-in-hand. We often tend to want every book in the NT to proclaim the gospel, so we look for the basic message of salvation in each letter and try to harmonize them to get the overall biblical message. This is problematic on one level because Jude never sets forth the gospel message in itself, and it’s problematic on another level because it assumes that Jude’s message is entirely harmonizable with the rest of the NT. But this cannot be assumed uncritically.

The most important argument in the early church was whether or not the gospel extended to Gentiles. Paul felt that he had a mission from Christ himself to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. Because Christianity began as part of Judaism, the notion that the good news extends to Gentiles was something unheard of at the time. The whole debate was decided at the council of Jerusalem which is recorded in Acts 15 and more briefly in Galatians. The debate as Paul records it in Galatians is between Paul, Barnabas, and Titus on one side, and the Jerusalem church leaders on the other side. One of the primary leaders in the Jerusalem church is James, the brother of Jesus, and while we have no direct evidence, it is most likely that Jude was part of this same group in Jerusalem. His association with James (which Jude makes clear in the first verse of his letter) likely indicates that he was initially either against or neutral regarding the Gentile mission. He probably did not come out in support of it the way Peter did (at least as Luke records it). We do not know anything for certain, but the connection between Jude and James makes this conjecture the most likely option. And the exclusionist language in Jude, common to others in the same camp, helps to support the point.

We cannot assume that Paul and Jude are in agreement, simply because they agree on the basic confession of Jesus Christ as the Son of God who died to rescue humanity from sin and death. We have to read Jude in light of Paul, and we have to read them both together. Paul is a preacher: he proclaims the essence of the gospel in just about every letter, and most especially in Romans, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians. Jude, by comparison, is a pastor: he is the shepherd of a small Jewish-Christian community, and he is concerned about their spiritual health. He is a concerned parent, whereas Paul is a traveling missionary. Jude presents a message for a select group of people; Paul presents a message for all people. In this light, I think we have to say that, from a canonical perspective, Jude presupposes Paul. Paul preaches the core of the gospel, while Jude ministers to a community that is facing a threat to this gospel. They may already know that salvation is for all, but now they are facing deceivers and intruders who are disturbing the peace and causing divisions in the church. Jude’s goal is to fix these problems, not to (re-)proclaim the message of salvation.

When we look at the text of Jude, not once do we read about the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Apparently, what Christ accomplished for us on the cross is assumed. What is important now is that the church remain firm in its foundation, never wavering in its adherence to the truth that God has indeed rescued us in Jesus Christ. We are no longer what we once were; we are now “those who are called, who are beloved in God the Father and kept safe for Jesus Christ” (v. 1). According to 1 Peter 2:9, we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” Once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people; once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy (1 Pet. 2:10). Certainly these statements give glimpses into the heart of the gospel, but they do not proclaim the gospel itself. These “Catholic epistles” are focused on the church that has received the gospel already. We have to read them together with Paul’s letters and the Gospels in order to get a more accurate picture.

I will give just one example of how reading Jude by itself can be very misleading. Jude speaks repeatedly of these intruders into the church as the “ungodly.” In v. 4, he writes: “For certain intruders have stolen in among you, people who long ago were designated for this condemnation as ungodly” (NRSV). Or as the NIV puts it: “For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people . . .” Then later in v. 15, Jude quotes a passage from 1 Enoch which he appropriates in order to say that the Lord Jesus Christ came “to judge everyone, and to convict all the ungodly of all the ungodly acts they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the defiant words ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” In case you missed it, these intruders are ungodly! Apparently, Christians are, by implication, the “godly ones.”

But now to complicate matters. In Rom. 5, Paul writes the famous words: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. . . . God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (v. 6, 8). In other words, for Jude, Jesus came to judge the ungodly, whereas for Paul, Jesus came to die for the ungodly. So which is it? Judgment or death? Condemnation or salvation?

Most translations of Jude 14 say, “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone.” Some translations include a footnote saying that the Greek actually says, “See, the Lord came,” and this is in fact the correct translation. The Greek speaks of Christ’s coming in the past tense. It makes sense, though, why translators would prefer the text to say, “The Lord is coming,” because this gives the impression that Jude is speaking about the second coming of Christ. But in fact the text most likely speaks about Christ’s coming as Jesus of Nazareth. The problem, of course, is that Jude seems to contradict what Paul himself declares to be the heart of the gospel, that Christ came to die for the ungodly rather than judge and convict them.

The question as I just put it—did Jesus come to judge the ungodly or die for them?—makes it either one or the other, but this need not be the case. While neither Paul nor Jude say this directly, we can and must say that Jesus Christ came to judge the ungodly and die for them. Or rather, Jesus Christ came to judge the ungodly by dying for them! We cannot lessen the notion that the ungodly are truly ungodly. They are against God, deserving of eternal fire. But there is an important insight which Paul argues for in Romans that we do not find in Jude, namely, that all of us are the ungodly. We are all ungodly apart from Jesus Christ. As Paul states, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10). We are all destined for condemnation. We are all guilty of committing deeds of ungodliness. We are all potential—and at times even actual—enemies of the gospel. We might even be guilty of causing divisions in the church and hindering the truth of Jesus Christ. Not a single one of us is free from this on our own strength and power. Apart from Jesus Christ, everyone is ungodly.

Jesus Christ thus came to the world to judge us. He came as the eternal and holy Judge in order to judge our sins, and he did this by being judged in our place. Jesus Christ is the Judge who was judged in our place and on our behalf. On the cross, our ungodliness was crucified; our old ungodly selves were killed and laid to rest in the tomb once and for all. The resurrection of Christ is thus the resurrection of our new selves, the new human person who is no longer “the ungodly” but rather a saint, no longer a deceiver and intruder but rather a witness to the truth. We are no longer “clouds without rain, blown along by the wind” (Jd. 12), but we are thunderstorms full of God’s living water. We are no longer “autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted, twice dead,” but we are instead, according to Psalm 1, “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither” (v. 3). We are no longer “wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame” (Jd. 13), but we are rather like the Sea of Galilee calmed by the voice of Jesus. We are no longer “wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever,” but we are instead, as Daniel 12:3 declares, “the wise who shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” Or as Psalm 148 says, we are like the “shining stars” and “highest heavens” which praise the name of the Lord. We no longer wander, lost like the Prodigal Son, but instead we have been found by God and brought home to eat of Christ’s glorious banquet. We are no longer confined to the blackest darkness of hell, because Jesus went to the depths of death and broke open the black gates of hell with his radiant light. All of this is only because Jesus Christ came as our judge and was himself judged in our place so that we might worship him forever.

So in a sense, both Jude and Paul are right: Jesus came to judge the ungodly, but he did so by dying for them, by going to the grave for them, and most importantly, by rising from the dead for them. With Jude, we must surely be concerned about those who might deceive us and lead the church astray into immorality and division, but we must never forget the truth of the gospel: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Or as Paul writes a little later: “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:10). Apart from Christ, we are the enemies of God. But because of what Jesus Christ accomplished for us as the Judge judged in our place, we are now sons and daughters of God, coheirs with Christ, friends of the Almighty. We have been judged in Jesus Christ, and therefore we can live as the children of God freed from sin and death, freed now to carry out the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18), freed to live new lives that bear witness to the love and mercy of God.


Anonymous said…
One difficulty with this kind of approach is the question of the NT Canon, viz., why was Jude included? By the time the NT canon was finalized, Paul's account of the gospel was universally normative. So, how was Jude heard by these early Paulinists as the Word of God--as it must have been heard in order to have been included??
I confess that I read the Bible in a canonical way which harmonizes the texts theologically even if the historical development of the canon and the views of the early church do not actually support my interpretations. This of course comes from my indebtedness to Barth's own method of theological exegesis. But it also is faithful to what Jude himself does when he sees Christ as the one who liberated Israel from Egypt and revises Enoch's prophecy so that it speaks about Jesus specifically. I'm just taking Jude's own method a step further.

That said, I'm not sure that Jude was included in the canon because the early church heard in it the same Word of God they heard in Paul's letters. I think part of it has to do with Jude's own connection to Jesus and the fact that his letter is a primary source for 2 Peter, the rock of the church. There are historical connections that make Jude's letter important, and apart from these factors I doubt whether it would be in the canon.

Moreover, Jude is likely one of the very earliest letters, and so it was received by the church with some measure of authority prior to or at least concurrently with the universal acceptance of Paul. Certainly Paul was the heart of the NT canon, but I'm not sure it would be correct to assume that the early church heard Jude as harmonious with Paul. The internal debates and factions within the early church are probably replicated in the inclusion of both Paul and Jude, though in the end Jude's historical connections made him a necessary part of the final canon.
Just to be clear: I have next to no knowledge about the canon and the early church, so everything I say could well be wrong. I'd love to learn more about these matters, but I simply don't have time to investigate them. :)
I like this, Dave, especially the bit about the 'ungodly.' Are you sure that you are supposed to be a professor and not a preacher?
Anonymous said…
Judged by whom, exactly? I'm fine with your sermon up to that point where Jesus is characterized as being judged. By God? I thought that substitution theology was a small part of the picture of redemption. From what I understand of the early fathers, the whole context and language of judgment had the tone of discernment, or judgment in the way that a doctor judges - diagnoses - an illness. But not for condemnation and unless I misread you, I think you are saying that the sort of judgment going on was condemnatory.

I do agree that the 'ungodly' are both 'judged' (in the sense of diagnosed) and saved by the death and resurrection of Christ...and I also agree that a fundamental malady of current readings of scripture is to overload individual passages with all sorts of doctrinal baggage.
A. Chapin,

Am I right in assuming that you have not read any Karl Barth? The line that "Jesus Christ is the Judge judged in our place" is a direct quote from Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1.

Now, that said, there is quite a bit more to judgment than simply discernment, and I absolutely do not think the church fathers ever limit the category of judgment to this. If the NT does not have such a limitation, then certainly the early fathers do not. Why the aversion to judgment? I certainly hope it is not because of some fear that this makes the Father some kind of vicious, blood-thirsty being. Those kinds of red herrings can be easily discarded by a doctrine of the Trinity, in which the Son is not a second being in distinction from the Father, but rather the one God posited a second time (and the Spirit the same God posited a third time). God is a triune being of mutual otherness, in which the Son is both the Judge and the judged.

But maybe the issue is with substitutionary atonement. I disagree that it is a small part of the redemption picture. On the contrary, it is the life and center of reconciliation. Without substitution, no salvation. Of course, we need not fall into a grotesque kind of penal substitutionary theory. But we must hold on to substitution -- it's the very heart of the gospel!

Was the judgment a condemnation? Certainly. "God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus Christ stood in our place and on our behalf. He bore the judgment for sin that belongs properly to us, and in so doing he justified us so that we might now be the righteousness of God. Remember: I'm not speaking about Jesus as a person different from God, but rather of Jesus Christ as God. God in Godself came and bore our judgment in order to liberate us from sin and death -- this is the gospel.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for your reply! Very honest. I did not realize this sermon was a continuation about a prior essay on Barth…?
As you note, the question IS was the judgment a condemnation? That is the very question at hand, and I would ask why does it need to be? We (modern Christianty in general) have an attitude about sin that is punitive, legalistic, rather than compassionate, I would assert. You quote 2 Cor 5:21. As I see it, there is a big leap from the text to the interpretation that Christ bore the judgment for our sin. Whose judgment, I ask?
You say, “Without substitution, no salvation. Of course, we need not fall into a grotesque kind of penal substitutionary theory. But we must hold on to substitution -- it's the very heart of the gospel!” So, what exactly does this mean? What sort of substitutionary theology? I thought the essence of such theology was also that God is ‘at his core’ condemnatory. Therefore, unpack it, if it is something else.
I ask your forgiveness, since I do seem to have pushed a button. But I am frustrated with theology that recites maxims without rethinking what is being said. And I probably unfairly accuse you of this – since I probably am MORE a universalist than those who would claim to be.
“He who became sin”….do we really know what that means? I do not think so. Maybe it means He who identified with the sinner to the degree that He says to the sinner, “I can understand why you did that.” This is not justification, but empathy, compassion, understanding. Is this substitution, or empathy, or the appropriation of the realm of the sinner by God? God heals what He touches, does he not?
A. Chapin,

I'm sorry if I seemed a little too animated at first. There have been a lot of different attempts in recent years to get rid of the language of judgment and condemnation as if this is the source of the despicable views of God as some kind of cosmic sadist. But misuse does not bar the proper use of these terms, and there is an urgent need today to recapture the gospel of reconciliation (God's Yes) without doing away with divine judgment and sacrifice (God's No).

I think I understand what concerns you, and let me reassure you: I do not think that God is a vindictive judge who deals out retributive punishments. That said, there are very good biblical reasons to hold on to the notion of judgment (cf. John 5:22-30, 8:16, 12:31; Rom. 8:1-4). Of course this is not to suggest (as some do) that there is a No of God which is disconnected from the Yes of God. On the contrary, with Barth, the No of God's judgment of sin and death (on the cross of Christ) is the basis for God's reconciling Yes. The Yes can only be universal (with which I fully agree) because the No is also universal; as Paul writes in Rom. 8:3, God condemned the sin of the world in the flesh of Jesus Christ, and consequently there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (8:1).

God takes the condemnation of sin upon Godself so that there is now no condemnation for us. But there is still a condemnation of sin -- it just happens to be the case that God willed to take this upon Godself in Jesus Christ. The judgment is real, but it is also judgment that is creative, that gives life, and restores, heals, and reconciles. So I completely affirm the notion that God heals and renews.

The one place where I must emphatically disagree regards the notion of substitution. Any loss of the substitutionary nature of the atonement is a loss of God's reconciling Yes altogether. The loss of substitution is a loss of the gospel. If Christ did not stand in our place (and on our behalf) then we cannot have confidence that our sin was definitively destroyed on the cross. Empathy cannot accomplish reconciliation, since we are estranged from God apart from Christ. God must kill the old self of sin in order to bring to life the new self who lives by faith.

Certainly, a substitutionary atonement does not mean that God is condemnatory by nature -- just the opposite! This would be more apropos of "penal substitutionary theory," which states that God is a God of wrath who must be appeased by death in order to then be a God of grace and love. Theologians have rightly denounced such a notion. But though we should lose the view of a God who must be appeased, we cannot lose the view of a God who graciously and lovingly justifies the ungodly (Rom. 5:6-8). God is not satisfied by the death of another; God satisfies God's self in God's own death upon the cross. This satisfaction is not a satisfaction of God's wrath, but a satisfaction of God's love!

I'm sorry for preaching like this. I just feel very strongly about these matters. Just so you know, the original post was part of a sermon and isn't connected with any project on Barth. But Barth's theology is indeed central to my interpretation of Jude.

One more thing. In my series on "The Spirit of the Lord," I have an upcoming post on the forensic dimension of the eschatological reign of God. I write at length in this post about the nature of divine judgment as a life-bestowing judgment. You'll probably find this post helpful as a clarification of my views.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for your reply and I will look for that post.
You make fair points regarding wrong use does not then cancel out right use. And it would be equally naïve to adopt a distorted view of redemption in order just to eliminate the God-will-get-them-in-the-end mantras.
I’m sure we’ll probably have another discussion after your next post, since as this conversation goes on, it becomes clearer where we vehemently (and respectfully) disagree:
I very much like the phrase ‘on our behalf’ but not ‘in our stead.’ Maybe it’s my own semantic baggage around common sayings such as ‘Jesus died for our sins’, which I’d agree with or not depending upon how that was explained in more detail. As you note, if it’s substitution for a God of Wrath, I have questions. This will sound odd for sure, but why is there such a concern about sin? No, I’m not endorsing ignoring sin, but making dealing with sin too much the focus of the redemption can lead to a theology where the person becomes more interested in being righteous in God’s eyes than being in God’s eyes per se, right?. I’m thinking of Jansenist mindsets here.

Also, why the need for our sins to die on the cross? My own bias, but I don’t like the whole language of ‘death of the flesh’ in the NT. God is certainly creative, and can transform our sins – not encouraging more of them – but make of them the outline of the space where God’s affection is proven constant. We can look at the times where we sin and still find God there with us.

I know you’ve read Julian of Norwich….you know the parable of the servant in there and how the whole presentation about sin seems so fundamentally inconsistent with the position that God condemns sin. Maybe the condemnation of sin is our perspective, because we want to be perfect in God’s eyes; we still have a rough time bearing the love of God in our weakness.

‘In our stead’ I find limiting. For me it circumscribes the meaning of the crucifixion around the area of the wages of sin is death. It doesn’t bring with it all the mystery of the incarnation itself.

I have several music CDs that are Sufi Arabic music - one of them has a poem/prayer in it that goes like this:

You drew me from a drop of water
You have been my beginning
You shall be my end.
I care nothing for heaven or hell
All I want is to be with you.

Does this author care about justification?

OK, probably unintelligible, this was, my apologies. I do look forward to the post you reference.

I've changed my mind. My response can be found in this earlier post from my series on universalism.
a. steward said…
David -

I am obviously very enthusiastic about your desire to read any and all talk about judgment through the christocentric lens of the "Judge who was judged in our place." In that regard, this is some great stuff, and does indeed say basically everything I intend to say in my posts on justice and mercy. However, the idea that a biblical author does not understand the implications of his message as well as we do...well, that's still a pretty tough pill to swallow.