For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. Jude 4
Crept in unnoticed – Now how is this possible? How can it be that some slip into the assembly to do harm and no one notices? The Greek verb suggests that they settled in alongside (pareisduo – coming alongside twice – in duo – both in the open and hidden). How did they get in? Well, they must have said the right things. They must have pretended to be worshippers. They had to look the part. If this reminds you of something in Genesis 3, don’t be surprised. They were unnoticed because they appeared to share a common commitment. But time will tell, and in this case, their true colors soon became apparent.
What were those true colors? How did Jude conclude these people were the enemy? He tells us that they turned God’s grace into licentiousness. What does that mean? Grace is the Greek word charis. Its Hebrew equivalent is shamah – to rejoice, be joyful, be glad. But in Hebrew thought, joy is both inward and outward. The feelings result in action. In particular, shamah is the experience of God’s saving acts. Joy comes when God delivers. This is the sense that Jude has in mind. God has saved us. We rejoice. But Jude sees the need for a warning. Salvation does not mean life without obligations. Our rejoicing entails a certain code of conduct – a path of righteousness. Yes, we have joy because God has delivered us, but that does not mean we are free to do whatever we wish. It means that we are free to obey His instructions. Without the visible sign of obedience, we are pseudo-believers. We might have a wonderful warm and fuzzy feeling on the inside, but we lack all the outward evidence that indicates God actually delivered. You don’t get one without the other.
Notice that Jude expressly indicates what kinds of behaviors deny the true inner experience of charis – shamah. He uses the Greek word aselgeia, a word that Peter associates with Sodom and Gomorrah. But perhaps we are too quick to relegate the meaning only to sexual immorality. While this is the usual meaning, the word carries the idea of license, not simply sexual permissiveness. In other words, Jude warns not to turn the goodness of God’s benevolence into an excuse for permitting any behavior we wish. Grace comes with rules. That doesn’t mean grace depends on rule-keeping. That would be the mistake of associating God’s goodness with human achievement. But just because God sheds abroad His grace on undeserving men does not mean that grace in action has no boundaries. Grace is demonstrated by the change in behavior that accompanies its transformative character. Grace, as Paul reminds us, is never an excuse for sinning all the more.
All of this seems perfectly reasonable. At the human level, we love our children but that doesn’t mean we let them do whatever they want to do. Love comes with obligations and expectations, not for the good of the parent but for the good of the child. But notice what this implies. It implies that there is an acceptable and recognized standard of conduct. It’s no good trying to tell your children that they need to live according to the family expectations if you don’t tell them what those expectations are. And that’s Jude’s point. Those who are part of the assembly of the Messianic community have been grafted into the commonwealth of Israel and therefore, they have been given instructions that accompany what it means to be Israel. To suggest that people can experience God’s grace and reject these instructions is contradictory – and Jude knows it. That’s why he warns his flock about the destructive nature of those who teach that the rules no longer apply.
I suppose we should ask ourselves if we have turned God’s grace into permission to do what we want to do rather than what He wants us to do. And, obviously, we aren’t talking about Sodom and Gomorrah anymore.
Topical Index: grace, charis, shamah, joy, rules, Jude 4, aselgeia, licentiousness