Previous article in this series: May 15, 2014, p. 375.
Unavoidable is the theme of, and even imperative, for warfare that runs throughout all of Scripture and therefore also our Psalter, our Three Forms of Unity, and the doctrinal terminology taught us in catechism class. If the Bible were a book I had never seen, and upon my first encounter with it I read it through from beginning to end and thereafter someone asked me what were some things that struck me about that book, whether I had saving faith or not, I would surely conclude, among other things, “Warfare. Much warfare. So much warfare.” What do individual believers and true churches do? They war a good warfare. What does God in Scripture require of us? Warfare. We read this. We sing this. We confess this. We teach and learn this in catechism. As was emphasized last time, we must be conscious of this. The Christian life is one of warfare.
Old Testament Israel was a militant nation. After leaving Egypt and being constituted as a nation at Sinai, she was immediately attacked by Amalek in the wilderness. Upon arriving in Canaan under Joshua’s leadership, and thereafter if she was faithful, she warred. Her good history was one of spying, blasting, blowing, marching, shouting, surrounding, encamping, discomfiting, slaying, slaughtering, avenging, pursuing, hanging, casting down, breaking down, beating down, dispossessing, binding, utterly destroying, cutting, burning, lying in wait, ambushing, tearing, securing, seizing, houghing, spoiling, possessing, driving out, catching, thrusting, subduing, over-throwing, pitching, smiting, chasing, consuming, hurling, drawing, and because the Lord of Hosts was on her side, conquering!
Alas, the son of Jesse became her king, “a mighty valiant man, and a man of war” (), known for his many exploits, from killing a bear and a lion, to felling a giant and slaying his ten thousands. A prefiguration of King Jesus David was, in the establishment of the kingdom of Israel through warfare.
Because Israel’s warfare in the old dispensation was typical, we are not surprised to find in the New Testament the reality of and the call to warfare for the church of the new dispensation and her members. Not only as officebearers, but as members of true churches with weapons of warfare that are not carnal but mighty (), our calling is to “abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” ( ); “war a good warfare” ( ); “fight the good fight” ( ); “endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” ( ); “earnestly contend for the faith” ( ); as those of faith who “quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens” ( ), so that we can say on our deathbed, “I have fought a good fight” ( ), as we certainly shall, for Jesus said, “I have overcome the world” ( ), therefore, “…whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” ( ).
The New Testament begins with Jesus doing battle against the Pharisees and apostate Israel, continues with the apostles warring against the venomously hostile Jews and all manner of Gentile opposition, and concludes with the book of Revelation revealing that the millennium for us who are on earth is anything but perfect peace and rest but rather ongoing hostility with the dragon Satan who in his short time and great wrath assaults us until Jesus returns to take vengeance upon his kingdom of darkness and vanquish it once and for all. Far bigger than any, while at the same time including all of our personal battles with sin, is Jehovah’s own war against opposition to His kingdom and covenant, and thus the Bible is from one point of view “The Book of the Wars of Jehovah” ().
When we sing the Psalms in our Psalter (a practice worth fighting for) we sing of our life as one of warfare. Representative are these more familiar lines: “…Infant lips Thou dost ordain, wrath and vengeance to restrain, weakest means fulfill Thy will, mighty enemies to still” (Psalter 15.1). “Uplifted on a rock, above my foes around, amid the battle shock, my song shall still resound…” (71.5). “Be thou my helper in the strife, O Lord, my strong defender be, Thy mighty shield protect my life, Thy spear confront the enemy. Amid the conflict, O my Lord, Thy precious promise let me hear, the faithful, reassuring word: I am thy Savior, do not fear” (92.1). “Behold what God has done on earth; His wrath brings desolation, His grace, commanding wars to cease, brings peace to every nation…” (128.3, the tune of which calls to mind the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation”—“Almighty Fortress Is Our God”). “Against us sin has battled hard, for help we look to Thee and pray; Thou our transgressions wilt forgive, yea, Thou wilt take them all away” (166.1). “Christ shall have dominion…” (200.1, the tune of which not only calls to mind “Onward Christian Soldiers” but ofttimes stirs our little ones into a march). “The wicked Thou wilt surely slay, from me let sinners turn away, they speak against the Name divine, I count God’s enemies as mine” (383.4). “Blest be the Lord, my rock, my might, my constant helper in the fight, my shield, my righteousness, my strong high tower, my Savior true, who doth my enemies subdue, my shelter in distress” (392.1). What might an unconverted stranger think should he happen upon one of our school/church programs and hear our children singing such anthems? We sing of war.
Our Three Forms of Unity
When we confess the truth of our Three Forms of Unity, we confess that the Christian life is one of warfare. Because the confessions were penned in days of fierce ecclesiastical warfare for the sake of the truth, they not only set forth the true doctrine but “reject all errors that militate against this doctrine” (to borrow the language of our Formula of Subscription, which when signed by an officebearer indicates his pledge to conduct warfare for the truth’s sake). Thus in the Belgic Confession, for example, we “reject and abhor the error of the Sadducees” (Art. 12), “reject that damnable error of the Epicureans” (Art. 13), and “detest the error of the Anabaptists” (Arts. 27, 36). In the Heidelberg Catechism we call the popish mass “an accursed idolatry” (L.D. 30). In the Canons of Dordt we reject the heresy of the Arminians as the Pelagian error brought again out of hell (Head 2, Rejection of Errors, 3).
Furthermore, in the Belgic Confession we confess “the devils and evil spirits are so depraved that they are enemies of God and every good thing, to the utmost of their power, as murderers, watching to ruin the church and every member thereof, and by their wicked stratagems to destroy all…” (Art. 12).
More significantly, our confessions explicitly define the Christian life as warfare. When asked, “But why art thou called a Christian?” we reply with the Heidelberg Catechism, “Because I am a member of Christ by faith, and thus am partaker of His anointing; that so I may confess His name, and present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to Him: and also that with a free and good conscience I may fight against sin and Satan in this life, and afterwards reign with Him eternally over all creatures” (L.D. 12, Q.A. 32). Only that young person who fights sin and Satan may be called a Christian. To demonstrate our gratitude for certain victory, we pray. When we pray, we say, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” that is, “since we are so weak in ourselves that we cannot stand a moment; and besides this, since our mortal enemies, the devil, the world, and our own flesh, cease not to assault us, do Thou therefore preserve and strengthen us by the power of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may not be overcome in this spiritual warfare, but constantly and strenuously may resist our foes, till at last we obtain a complete victory” (L.D. 52, Q.A. 127). Warfare! And what according to the Belgic Confession are the “marks of Christians”? They “avoid sin, follow after righteousness, love the true God and their neighbor, neither turn aside to the right or left, and crucify the flesh with the works thereof. But this is not to be understood as if there did not remain in them great infirmities; but they fight against them through the Spirit all the days of their life, continually taking their refuge in the blood, death, passion, and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Art. 29).
Our Doctrinal Terminology
When we go to catechism class we learn doctrinal terminology that reflects the truth of the Christian life as one of warfare. Two examples we give. First, the word “antithesis” refers to our spiritual separation from the ungodly world (). However, we have not fully grasped the truth of the antithesis if we understand it merely as separation. For, as every catechumen knows, Jehovah of the covenant of grace did not say to the serpent, “I will put separation between thee and the woman….” Jehovah said “enmity!” “I will put enmity.” War was declared. The antithesis is not merely passive separation from but active opposition to the kingdom of darkness. We are not strong enough to engage in mere separation, for the attraction to evil is too strong, as it was for Israel when they tried to live near but apart from the Canaanites instead of routing them. Antithesis means “warfare.”
Second, the term “church militant.” We speak of our deceased loved ones in heaven as members of the “church triumphant,” while we here on earth are members of the “church militant.” There is an identification we do well to ponder in our hearts. Church militant.
The scriptural imperative to war is unavoidable, appearing in the Psalter, the Three Forms of Unity, and our catechism books. In fact, when we were but babes in arms in one of the front pews of church with the sacramental water still trickling off our crown, the minister, together with the whole congregation, prayed that we would grow up in the Lord Jesus Christ and “manfully fight against and overcome sin, the devil, and his whole dominion” (Form for Baptism).