July 9, 2023
In the closing portion of his letter, Jude reminded his readers of the scoffers who would come, encouraging believers to deal mercifully with “those who doubt.” Explaining Jude’s exhortation, Alistair Begg addresses how we should care for these three types of doubters: with the first group, kindly and patiently bearing with them; with the second, pursuing them wholeheartedly to save them from imminent danger; and with the third, proceeding cautiously to avoid being pulled into sin ourselves. In all scenarios, we are reminded that the answer and hope for each group is at the cross of Christ.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Let me encourage you to turn to the letter of Jude, the second-last book of the Bible. And let me read… Just to set context for the two verses which we consider this morning, let me read from verse 17. And Jude writes,
“But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, ‘In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.’ It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. 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. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.”
And a brief prayer:
Father, what we know not please teach us. What we have not please give us. What we are not please make us. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
In the last month, amongst a variety of letters that came my way, I received a letter in which somebody offered to paint my portrait. I didn’t accept this offer. But as I read the letter, I said to myself, “I wonder, if someone painted my portrait, if they would do me justice.” And then a voice in my head said, “It’s not justice you need; it’s mercy. It’s mercy.”
Now, our word this morning, the sermon in one word, is mercy. Mercy. Classically, in The Merchant of Venice, in the conversation between Portia and Shylock, we have the very same thing reinforced in a far better fashion. Portia says to Shylock,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
We pray for mercy for ourselves, and having discovered the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are then entrusted with the responsibility and privilege of being merciful towards others.
I try and understand for myself the distinction, if we need a distinction, between grace and mercy. They’re really two sides of one coin. But if we think of grace in terms of what God lavishes upon us even though we do not deserve it, then the flipside of that would be that in mercy, God does not give to us actually what we deserve, and he refrains from executing justice upon us by executing judgment on his dearly beloved Son.
Now, Jude has been addressing these matters of great significance. His concern’s that those who were followers of Jesus would take seriously their responsibility of contending for the faith that has been once given to the saints, and he has reminded them from the very outset of the letter that God has multiplied his mercy towards them. And in our address last Sunday, we found ourselves at the end of verse 21, where he is reminding his readers that they are actually waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ. When Christ returns, then that which is ours embryonically, if you like, will be ours in its fullness, fully revealed to us, welcomed on that day on account of the mercy of God.
And the Bible, of course, centers on this. You don’t have to look very carefully for it. Even taking your concordance and looking up the word mercy, you would find yourself immediately at passages like Ephesians chapter 2, where Paul is reminding his readers we “were by nature,” he says, “children of wrath.” That’s what we deserved, just “like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
You see, religion—in terms of an external design whereby an individual tries to make oneself acceptable to God—religion will eventually end in either despair, because we’re aware of the fact that we cannot meet even our own standards, or pride, believing somehow or another that we actually are able to keep these standards. So, religion expressed, if you like, in the position of the Pharisee that we just read in the parable Jesus told: Jesus was making the very point that what was required was mercy. And so the one who was declared in a right standing with God was not the one who said, “I don’t do this, and I don’t do that, and I do this, and I do that,” and thereby seeking to justify himself but the one who said, “God, you need to be merciful to me, because I am a sinner.”
Now, what Jude has done, of course, in this last little section is remind his readers of the scoffers who would come. And then he has encouraged them to make sure that in light of that, they—we, as the readers—are keeping ourselves in the love of God, building ourselves up in the most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, and awaiting the mercy of God. “Now,” he says, “I need to exhort you to deal mercifully with doubters and with disputers.”
When this letter would be read in its first reading, or first readings, the people that were assembled would hear it. They would look on one another, perhaps, as it was read in a context where they were looking upon one another rather than in rows. And when he talks about scoffers coming, people’s eyes would respond; they would be motioning to one another. And when it came to the mention of how to treat those who doubt, there would have been those who found themselves saying, “Well, this is important, because I doubt.” There’s only reason for him to address those who are the doubters because he knows that there are doubters who are there.
And I don’t doubt but there are doubters here on a routine Sunday—people who have not actually come to a really convinced position about Jesus, a convinced position about the Bible, a convinced position about what it means to be in the wrong and how someone gets put in the right. And you may even feel that it would be dreadful if anybody knew that you were in that position. Well, it would be dreadful if someone was to discover and decide that the way to respond to you would be to take your doubts and denounce them, to take your distrust and seek to argue with you. That would be to violate the clear direction that is provided here.
Jude is actually saying that dealing with the doubts and the disputers is not about winning an argument; it is actually about wooing them, winning them, saving them. And I take it that here in verses 22 and 23, he has three separate groups in mind. I may be wrong in that. Some people think there are four groups here. Some people think there are only two. Choose for yourself which group you would like to be in. I think it’s three, because as you know, Jude is very fond of the triplets—the Central Bank of Kenya and the Milwaukee Public Library, and he goes on all the way through with his threes. So I think what we have are three.
First of all, “Have mercy on those who doubt”—group one. Well, who are these people? I take it that these are folks who perhaps have been attracted by the story that has been brought to them by the folks who have “crept in.” They “crept in”—verse 4—“unnoticed,” and they are present. It’s not that they are unaffected by the error; it’s just that they’re not certain that it’s actually better than the faith. So they find themselves in a quandary, doubting—doubting maybe about Jesus, who is “our only Master and Lord.” But, of course, these people who have crept in are saying, “No, we deny that he is our only Master and Lord. I mean, Jesus is whatever you want to think he is, but he is not Master and Lord.” And some people say, “Well, I don’t know whether he is or whether he isn’t.” They’re doubting.
Doubting about the dreams—because these people were the proponents of dreams. They were able to say to them, “You know, I know you listen to many of these talks, and you study the Bible together, but you ought to come where we are. Because we dream some amazing dreams, and out of our dreams we’re able to find a way to live this life that is not buttoned-down and difficult in the way that Jude and others would present.” And the people said, “Well, I don’t know. I like the dream thing, actually. It seems more immediate. It seems more direct. It seems more spiritual.” And they’re doubting.
Doubting about the nature of freedom. They had been brought up to believe that the Ten Commandments was a moral law and that it framed the way of life—that it wasn’t a ladder for acceptance with God, but it was a mirror that showed us our need of mercy. But now these people have come, and they’ve said, “No, you don’t really need to get tied up with that. You don’t need to be so serious. You don’t need to be so scrupulous. Why don’t you just lighten up? Lighten up!”
I was reminded in the first service, when I used the phrase “lighten up,” of an encounter that I had years ago in Bridgnorth in Shropshire, where on a Sunday evening I had gone to church. And when I got to church, it was a little different from what I had experienced prior to that. And there were various things going on, and various expressions of this and that and the next thing, and people speaking in what were a variety of tongues that were entirely unintelligible to me. And at one point I wondered, “Is anybody going to tell me what it is that we’re supposed to be receiving from this great sound that is emanating here?” And eventually somebody stepped forward and said, “I can interpret. I can interpret.” And so the place went very quiet. I couldn’t wait. And he said—this is the gospel truth—he said, “God is saying, ‘Whoop it up!’” I said, “God is saying to me, ‘Go home.’” And I did. Because remember, they asked Luther, “How do you know when God is speaking or Satan is speaking?” and he said God always speaks with sweet reasonableness. God always speaks to our minds, to instruct us, to cause us to question. And in that environment of thinking, it’s not surprising when there are those who are doubtful.
The same word, actually, is translated—“doubt,” that is—is translated “dispute” in verse 9. And so the person who begins to wonder, begins to doubt, may become a disputer. They inevitably become wobblers, and they need to be steadied. And what Jude is saying is “You need to say to them, ‘Hey, look out. That’s dangerous.’” It is, if you like, a call to preventative care. It’s a call to pray for our friends, to be patient with our friends, to be persevering with them. I mean, it’s the call to be akin to a decent schoolteacher, who recognizes that X or Y is having a dreadful time. They’re not sure about Pythagoras’s theorem. They had never met Pythagoras, and they weren’t sure what they would do if they met him. And so the teacher said, “What an idiot you are!” No! Teacher said, “Here, let me help you,” and she stayed a little while extra, and she helped us through. (I shouldn’t let you know these details about my life, should I?)
This is what Jude is saying. Have met one of your congregants in the coffee shop, and they told you that they’re not sure about the return of Jesus Christ? They’re wondering. They’re unsettled by some of the things that they’ve been reading or that have been coming their way.
Some are sick, … some are sad,
… some have never loved you well,
and some have lost the love they had.
And what he’s saying is “Love them to win them.” Love them to win them. They’re not going to be won by argument. In fact, Peterson paraphrases this opening line, “Go easy on those who hesitate in the faith.” Go easy on them. I’m not suggesting that you diminish the gospel. I’m not suggesting that we do anything other than contend for the gospel. But it says, “But when you come across those who are really struggling with this, here’s your mentality.”
That’s the first group.
Secondly, snatch others from the fire: “Save others by snatching them out of the fire.” I take it that these individuals that he has in mind have gone a step further. These individuals are not just unsettled by what has been said, but they’ve actually begun to embrace some of it. They’ve begun to dilly-dally. They’ve begun, as it were, to take a seat along with some of the scoffers themselves. You remember the opening of the Psalms: “Blessed is the one who doesn’t stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord.” And so here’s what’s happened: they once really delighted in the law of the Lord, but now the scoffers have come and told a different story, and some of them began to say, “Well, I think I’ll take my seat there”—been enamored with the new way of seeing things. Instead of embracing truth as being objective and universal and verifiable and ultimately proclaimed in Jesus himself, they have succumbed to the idea that there are all kinds of truths. In fact, it seems far more appealing if you can have your own truth, if you can have your own spirituality, if you can put it together like a LEGO, but with no directions. Just make your own image. Just believe what you want to believe. This seems far more attractive. After all, it’s far more flexible. The other way seems so restrictive.
These are the kind of people who would think that somehow or another, if you really wanted to have a game of golf, the best thing you can do is to not put any pins on the green; do not have any red stakes for a hazard; do not have any white stakes for out-of-bounds. And they say, “This will be fantastic. I will be playing in the Open championship before long.” Well, it’ll be your own Open championship, because what you’re playing is not golf. Because there is no golf without the place which is a target, without the places that are in bondage, and without the places that are out of bounds. And these people are saying, “This is the way you ought to figure your Christianity. Don’t let anybody give you any of those stakes stuff. Don’t let anybody tell you that at all. No! Make your own framework.”
You see, for these people, I take it, the “holy faith” was wholly unappealing. And so he says, “You’d better snatch them out of the fire.” I don’t know whether you envisage that as a big, blazing furnace or whether you envisage it as like a firepit, where they all sat around and said, “You know, come over here. It’s so cozy at the fireplace. Come over here, and let’s talk together about freedom. Let’s talk together about fulfillment. Let’s talk together about the things that really make life, life. And let’s not be bothered with Jude and his contending for the faith. Let’s leave that aside.” And Jude says, “You’d better go over and get them from there. You’d better go and snatch them.” “Snatch them.”
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that he says that you are to “save others by snatching them”? “Save … by snatching them.” Well, of course, only God saves. But the means that he uses in salvation include those who are his children. And Jude has already pointed out in verse 7 what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah when they went down the same road that these people who have “crept in” were suggesting they go down. It is impossible to miss the direct correlation between a deviation from the truth of God’s Word and a complete aberration in terms of human sexuality. There’s no doubt. They “pursued unnatural desire,” and they offer us “an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” They’re being scorched. They’re being burned. They’re in great danger. Go get ’em! So in other words, if group one is “Go easy on group one,” it is “Go after group two.”
Now, what is the “snatching” mechanism? The “snatching” mechanism, if we can put it in that way, is the gospel. It’s the gospel. It’s the story of the immense love of God in Jesus for those who are tempted to take a different path, believe a different story, and try it in their own way. It’s not an argument. It’s an adventure. It’s a love story.
In 1972, when I was chasing down an American girl in Dallas at the Campus Crusade event, they had various… They had Billy Graham there. They had Johnny Cash there. They had Kris Kristofferson there. They had LoveSong there. It was a week! And one of the groups I’d never heard of was called LoveSong. LoveSong. The guy who wrote the songs was a fellow called Chuck Girard. I think that’s how you pronounce his name. The reason I mention this is because this morning, a phrase came into my mind early in the morning, and the phrase was this: “If there are doubters in the crowd…” That was it. I said, “If there are doubters in the crowd,” and I said, “I know what that is. I can find that.” And I found it. And the song goes like this:
We’re all gathered here
Because we all believe.
If there’s a doubter in the crowd,
We ask [you] not to leave.
Give a listen to his story;
Hear the message that we bring;
[Place your faith in Jesus only];
Lift your voice and with us sing.
Accept him with your whole heart,
And use your own two hands;
With one reach out to Jesus,
… With the other, bring a friend.
You see, the reason we’re close to Jesus is because God has reached out to us in Jesus. He took the initiative and took hold of our hand. Now, what are we to do with those who are sitting, as it were, in the dangerous position of doubting and dissenting and disputing? We’re not to walk idly by. We’re not to leave them. We’re to save them—save them by “snatching” them. And the “snatching” mechanism is the story of the gospel. We become the means whereby God brings people to salvation.
Whenever this has laid hold of somebody, it propels them. And there is no doubt that there are people who are peculiarly gifted in evangelism, who just have an obvious knack at engaging people in conversation and, without being a nuisance or a pain in any way, are able to move things in the direction of a consideration of the gospel.
Fanny Crosby wrote lots and lots of hymns. She was blind, if you will remember. And after the age of sixty, she moved not from hymn writing—she continued—but she moved into what she regarded as the second phase of her life. She relocated to Lower Manhattan. She took an apartment there in order that she might work in rescue missions for three days a week. She’s blind. She’s a hymn writer. She’s got royalties—enough to fill your downstairs study. But she’s there. Why is she there? What’s she doing there? She is actually living the lyrics of her own hymns:
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save.
Isn’t that what Jude is on about here? This is what James says: “My brothers [and sisters], if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back,” or brings her back, “let him know”—listen to this—“let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death.” That’s what’s involved here! That’s why he says, “I had to urge you to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.” Because if that goes, you’ve got nothing left. “Don’t listen to these people that have crept in. The scoffers will come. Keep yourselves in the love of God. But don’t get smart. Don’t get smug. Don’t get argumentative. Don’t get self-righteous. Don’t become an ugly congregation. Have mercy on those who doubt. Save those by snatching them out of the fire, because you will save their souls from death and cover a multitude of sins.”
What about group three? “Mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” I take it that these folks are so far gone that it will not be possible to intervene without putting oneself in danger. Doesn’t it seem that that’s what he’s saying? “To others show mercy with fear.” Why does he introduce fear? What fear?
Well, maybe he has in mind the fear that Paul has in Galatians 6, where he says, “Brothers [and sisters], if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” And then he says this: “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” In other words, “If you go into that environment where they are, do so in the fear of God and in the realistic fear of your own sinful heart.”
I’m having flashbacks all the time today, but I remember when Arthur Blessitt… Do you remember Arthur Blessitt? Arthur Blessitt, with the cross? He had a cross with a wheel on the end of it, and he wheeled it all around the place. Eventually, one day, he wheeled it into Edinburgh, and he came into our church. And I remember he was explaining his ministry to Derek Prime, my boss. And I remember little Derek sitting there and his eyes getting bigger and bigger as Blessitt said, “You know, and, you know, what I’m mainly doing now is I’m going into strip clubs and I’m going into those environments.” And I don’t know if Derek and I ever spoke about it, but I saw his eyes, and it said, like, “Whoa! Look out, Arthur. Look out.” I don’t want to besmirch the memory of Arthur, but by his own pilgrimage subsequently, it bears testimony to the warning “To others show mercy with fear.” Take care that you are not carried away by the lawlessness of sinful people, lest you lose your own stability.
Now, let’s just be honest about it: this is one of the great problems with marital collapse involving pastors—pastors sitting down one-on-one with women who come to tell the pastor that their husband doesn’t love them the way that he should. And the pastor, who has a sinful heart, shows compassion to the individual, which goes beyond compassion to affection, which goes beyond affection to lust, and before you know where you are, the whole church is up in absolute flames. Why? Because the person should not have been there. He should not have done that. He thought he could show mercy without fear. He didn’t fear God. He didn’t fear the judgment of God. He just didn’t fear. He didn’t hate sin. That’s what he’s saying. There’s no way to bypass this.
Hywel Jones, professor at Westminster of old, he says, “Those who would save gross sinners have to go nearer to sin and Satan’s domain than it is safe for them to go.” In other words, over group three there is a big sign, and it says this: “Approach with extreme caution so as not to be contaminated.” In other words, be tender with sinners, but don’t get soft on sin. Because sin stinks to high heaven.
That’s the point he’s making here: “hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” If you want cross-references: Zechariah 3, Revelation chapter 3. I leave it to you. “Avoid all contact with sin so that it does[n’t] contaminate you. Hate sin as you would loathe filthy undergarments [soiled] by human excretions.” I can see your faces; you’re like, “Whoa! I can’t believe he even said that.” He said it. He said it. In fact, you just look at Revelation chapter 3; Jesus uses the very same picture: “Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white.” That’s the point.
You see, some people, I think, are given peculiar abilities in areas like this. It’s not for everybody to throw ourselves into this. I mean, William Booth of the Salvation Army was a unique individual for sure. He’s the one who said,
Some want to live within the sound
Of church and chapel bell.
I want to run a rescue shop
Within a yard of hell.
But the point for the congregation, for Jude’s readers, and for us is to hate the sin but treat the sinner with mercy—to realize that from our perspective, such people as in group three appear to be, it would seem, beyond hope. But they’re not beyond hope. Because they may still be the recipients of God’s grace. Because Jesus can save fully and completely those who approach God the Father through him. With God, failure is never final. It’s never final. We don’t give up.
You see, the challenge, I think, to us as a church family is in part this: that a church such as ours, that is very, very clear, seeks to be clear, about the importance of the gospel, the finality, the fullness, the sufficiency of Scripture, and everything, can actually lose Jesus in that process. So, “We’re very clear about our theology, very clear about our convictions, very clear about this, very clear about that. We can’t believe that somebody isn’t clear. Maybe they should be somewhere else. This is where the clear people are.” Well then, you’ll never have any doubter setting next to you.
If what we exude is that kind of self-righteous clarity, then we have no right, actually, to have people coming. God does not grant adoption to families that are incapable of caring for the spiritual children amongst whom there are those who doubt, those who need to be snatched from the fire, and some who need to discover the gospel—need to discover that the hands that reach out to them have scars in them. The hands that they think are there to push them away are actually the hands that reach out to draw them in.
Because the answer to every group is at the same place, in the same person: at the cross of Jesus, before whom we all come and bow down and say with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me; I’m a sinner.” Have you ever said that to God? It’s not a question about “Have you ever got interested in religion?” Have you ever actually faced up to that?
Let’s just pray:
O God, you search us, and you know us. You care for us. Your love towards us in Jesus is beyond our ability to grasp. Save us from self-righteousness, from a spirit of smugness. Help us to become more like Jesus and less like what we are by nature. For we ask it in his name. Amen.
 William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 4.1.
 See Jude 3.
 Ephesians 2:3–5 (ESV).
 See Luke 18:9–14.
 Jude 4 (ESV).
 Henry Twells, “At Even, Ere the Sun Was Set” (1868). Language modernized.
 Jude 22 (MSG).
 Psalm 1:1–2 (paraphrased).
 Jude 7 (ESV).
 Chuck Girard, “Two Hands” (1971).
 Fanny Crosby, “Rescue the Perishing” (1869).
 James 5:19–20 (ESV).
 Jude 3 (paraphrased).
 Galatians 6:1 (ESV).
 See 2 Peter 3:17.
 Hywel R. Jones, “Fighting for the Faith,” Tabletalk, March 25, 2022, https://tabletalkmagazine.com/posts/fighting-for-the-faith.
 Revelation 3:4 (ESV).
 Luke 18:13 (paraphrased).
 See Psalm 139:1.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.