Near the end of his short epistle, Jude tells his readers to respond with sensitivity to others, according to their situation (Jude 22-23). Alas, the text is something of a ‘mingle-mangle’, to use John Knox’s description of the English Reformation. The NKJV has two groups but the NIV and ESV have three groups: ‘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.’ Jude seems to think in terms of triplets, but for our purposes the point is that Jude does not have one response for all people..

There are people who are not strong in the faith, and the best thing we can do for them is to work it through in a spirit of kindly mercy. We must be patient with all (2 Tim.2:24-25). It is not Christian to push every view at the same rate (Phil.3:15-16). Sometimes Jesus was harder than at other times – compare Luke 9:50 (‘the one who is not against you is for you’) and Matthew 12:30 (‘whoever is not with me is against me’). He could weep over those who rejected Him and He could denounce them (Luke 19:41; Matt.23:27).

Rev. Thomas Scott was a clueless Anglican minister located near to Olney, where John Newton pastored. Scott was clearly not a Christian as this stage, and in 1775 had said that God would not condemn a sincere Socinian (one who only believed that Jesus was a great man). In reply, Newton pointed to Matthew 7:7-8 and John 7:16-17. Scott was spoiling for a fight, but Newton replied with great patience and kindness to him, and by 1778 Scott was attending Newton’s mid-week meetings, and writing The Force of Truth, which is the story of his conversion.

            With others the tone becomes more urgent. The angels who come to Sodom to announce God’s judgment on it and to rescue Lot had to make him hurry because he was prone to linger (Gen.19:12-22). Calvin points out that ‘it would not be enough to beckon with the finger, or kindly to stretch forth the hand.’ Context means so much in evaluating our response. Paul thought it appropriate to tell Timothy to be patient in calling people to repent (2 Tim.2:24-25), but he told Titus to rebuke the people of Crete sharply (Tit.1:13).

To his brother-in-law, John Catlett, a solicitor who called himself a free thinker, John Newton felt obliged to adopt a rather vigorous approach. He pressed him: ‘I have experienced the good and the evil on both sides, and you only on one.’ He would add: ‘But here lies the difference, my dear friend, you condemn that which you have never tried.’ Finally, he wrote – or prayed: ‘May He who has opened my eyes, open yours.’

            There are dangers for us all – of speaking when we are out of our area of expertise; or denouncing sins of which we ourselves are guilty; or of misjudging where our hearers stand. If it only takes a little bit of tweaking to distort the truth, the same can be said of zeal. Jehu serves as a warning here (2 Kings 9-10; Hos.1:3-5).

            Calvin said of Christian teachers: ‘We therefore need two voices: a gentle voice to encourage those who are teachable and to lead them in the right path, and a different voice to cry out against wolves and thieves, to drive them from the flock and to defend God’s pure truth’. This is more difficult than it seems at first. Iron sharpens iron (Prov.27:17), yet it is easy for two sides to drive each other further apart. We are to speak the truth in love (Eph.4:15), but that is not an endorsement of the Aristotelian mean. Jesus once told Peter: ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ (Matt.16:23) Yet Gamaliel put in a good word for mildness (Acts 5:33-39). The way of wisdom tells us that a soft answer can turn away wrath (Prov.15:1), and a gracious man can make his enemies to be at peace with him (Prov.16:7).

            Yet peace is a fragile thing: ‘The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out’ (Prov.17:14). It is a long-held view that the lack of communication can lead to wars. Maybe so, but too much communication can achieve the same end. The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20). Whenever each one insists on having the last say, there exists not a chastened and teachable spirit, but the Christian equivalent of ‘Which one is Johnny and which one is Amber?’

This takes us back to an application of the verses we began with from Jude. Joni Eareckson Tada prayed after reading these verses: ‘Lord, forgive me for my nonchalant attitude toward the eternal destiny of my friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family.’ Yes, and forgive my lack of self-awareness and blinkered spirit.

                                                                        With warm regards in Christ,

Rev. Dr Peter Barnes, Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia