The following blog post was originally published on August 21, 2015. —ed.
Deception from heretical infiltrators has been an ever-present threat throughout 2,000 years of church history. Fighting that deception is a war for the truth that all Christians have been called to wage (Jude 3). But in the heat of battle we must never neglect our primary calling as missionaries (Matthew 28:19–20).
That is why Jude, in his call for Christians to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3), also exhorted us to evangelistically exercise that faith. We are to reach out to the casualties of the truth war: “And have mercy on some, who are doubting; save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh” (Jude 22-23).
Last time we considered the true victims of doctrinal deception who have had their faith drastically shaken by unbiblical lies. They are those “who are doubting” (Jude 22) and their vulnerable state requires gentle and gracious correction when we reach out to them. But the mission field created by the truth war does not end there.
Jude 23 goes on to discuss those who need to be plucked from the precipice of hell. They are people who have bought into the deception to such an extent that they require “snatching out of the fire” (Jude 23). Of these, John MacArthur writes:
The fact that these people are in the fire suggests that they have bought the lie. They have (to some degree) owned the false doctrine. They are already being singed by hell. They need something more than mere mercy; this is an urgent rescue operation. Jude is urging us to use any means—every legitimate means—to pull them from the fire. These circumstances call for aggressive action. . . .
At the same time, you cannot embrace someone as a part of the true fellowship who rejects essential aspects of gospel truth. You don’t offer someone who is convinced of a serious falsehood unconditional acceptance as a believer. But Jude is very specific about how we should respond to such people: go after them in a very critical rescue operation. Try to snatch them out of the fire.
Again, snatching them from the fire means giving them the truth—but with accents of urgency befitting the serious danger such people are facing. You come with force. You don’t toy with such error or invite the purveyors of it to a dispassionate discussion over tea and biscuits. You treat the situation with an urgency and sobriety that is commensurate with the evil of apostasy.
That is exactly how Jesus responded to the Pharisees.John MacArthur, The Truth War (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 179–180.
Jude then reserves his harshest language for the most dangerous part of this mission field. These are the deceivers themselves. God is so merciful that He even includes an evangelism strategy for reaching those who deliberately pervert His truth. These people represent the most hazardous zone on the mission field requiring “mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh” (Jude 23). MacArthur elaborates:
Obviously, pulling people from the fires of apostasy requires us to get close to them. Jude suggests there is severe danger in this. We can’t always tell the difference between the merely convinced and the fully committed. Some are deceived; others are deliberate deceivers. Some are disciples of error; others are the propagators, the leaders—the false teachers themselves. Jude suggests that we ought to show even the false teachers themselves a kind of mercy (for sometimes even the deceivers themselves are, to a degree, deceived, and occasionally, by God’s grace, even they can be pulled from the fire). So show them mercy, Jude says. But do it with fear, despising the defilement of their evil.
The expression Jude employs is shocking. It is as coarse as any expression in Scripture. Jude uses a Greek word for “garment” that signifies underwear and a word for “polluted” that means “stained in a filthy manner; spotted and stained by bodily functions.” He is comparing the defilement of false teaching to soiled underwear.
If you have ever questioned what God’s own view of false religion and apostasy is, that is it. One of the most important aspects of Jude’s entire message is this theme, which runs through the whole of it: false teaching is the deadliest and most abhorrent of evils, because it is always an expression of unbelief, which is the distillation of pure evil. . . .
These passages not only give insight into what God thinks of apostasy; they give us explicit instructions about how to deal with apostates. False doctrine and the wickedness of those who believe it stain the soul. Don’t get close enough to be corrupted. Paul said something similar at the end of Romans: “I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them” (Romans 16:17, NKJV). You can’t build a real friendship with a false teacher. You cannot pretend to accept such a person as a fellow believer. You have to understand that people who buy into apostasy and damnable error are (either wittingly or unwittingly) agents of the kingdom of darkness and enemies of the truth. Don’t risk being defiled by their corruption.
Nevertheless, there is a place for showing apostates mercy. It is a fearful mercy, and once again it involves giving them the light of truth. Confront their error with the truth, for that is the only hope of freeing them from the bondage and defilement of their own apostasy. But do it with the utmost care, always mindful of the dangers such an evil poses.The Truth War, 181–182.
It is easy to overlook our evangelistic responsibilities in the heat of conflict. But Jude delivers us a vivid reminder of the demands and dangers involved. Rather than fear such a necessary task, we should approach it immersed in Jude’s initial words of encouragement to us as God’s elect: “To those who are the called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ” (Jude 1). Yes, there are dangers and hazards. But those whom God calls are beloved by Him. And those who are beloved by God are in His eternal safekeeping. May we boldly approach this mission field in the rich comfort of that promise.