Tonight I call your attention to the Christian and his proper attitude toward war. I have taken it upon myself to shorten the subject as it was originally assigned to me. We were taught in our theological school to have our themes as short as possible. The late Rev. Hoeksema had a strong dislike for lengthy themes. I, therefore, took it upon myself to shorten the subject assigned to me, and I believe that I give expression to it in the words: The Christian and War.
War is a fearful reality. This was true throughout the Old Dispensation. Think of all the wars that were fought among the heathen nations as they strove for world supremacy, leading to world empires such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, the Medes and Persians, Greek-Macedonia and Rome. And then there were all the wars that were fought by Israel, as especially under David. This also applies to the New Dispensation, except that in the New Testament these wars occurred and occur upon a grander and more fearful scale. Several years ago I heard a radio sermon by the late Rev. P. Eldersveld, then the radio voice of the Christian Reformed Church, and in that sermon he gave a resume of all the wars that were fought in the New Dispensation in Europe. I do not recall the details, but I do remember that it was a most appalling list. Think of all the wars that have been fought by our own country. The fact is that we have had a war for every generation, and it is also a fact that since the outbreak of World War II the world has been continuously in a state of war, whether you call it a hot war or a cold war. In 1776 we had our Revolutionary War, and this war was immediately preceded by the French-Indian wars, which wars were but a “side-show” of the war that was being waged for supremacy in Europe between the nations of England and France. In 1812 we had our war with England that is called the War for Commercial Independence; in this war our country fought for independence upon the high seas. In 1845 we had the Mexican war, and this war is famous, among other things, for the battle cry: “Remember the Alamo”; in this war we are reminded of such men as Davy Crockett, Sam Bowie and Sam Houston. In 1861 we had our own Civil War and in 1898 our country was engaged in a war with Spain. In 19 14 the first World War broke out and the second World War began in 1939. In the late 1949’s we had the Korean war and now we are engaged in a war in Vietnam. Isn’t this a sober thought, that we have had a war for every generation?
And, of course, these wars must be. They must occur because Christ predicted them. They must also occur because man is a child of war. He is that. That constitutes his very being. He is filled with hatred and enmity, toward God and also toward his fellowman. He is a warmonger. So, also for this reason wars must come. And, thirdly, a world at peace would be far worse than a world characterized by war. That would indeed be catastrophic. To this thought we will return in due time.
Assigned this subject of the Christian and War, your committee confronted me with certain questions. What should be the Christian’s attitude toward war? Then, what must be said about conscientious objectors? And, finally, should covenant parents discourage their sons from volunteering for military service? I now call your attention to:
THE CHRISTIAN AND WAR
I. An Impossible Position
II. Its Fundamental Principle
III. Its Wonderful Comfort
I. An Impossible Position
When I call your attention to an impossible position, I refer to what a certain seminary professor once advocated many years ago. According to him, every individual must determine for himself whether a war is justifiable or unjustifiable; should a war be unjustifiable and he has lodged his protest against it, then he is free to refuse induction into the military service; should he be convinced of the unjustifiableness of a war, and he does nothing about it, then he is personally responsible for all those killed in the war. In a war, we all understand, murder is committed upon an awesome scale. Secondly, however, if anyone have any doubts as to the justifiableness of a war, then he should obey his government’s call to arms and go to war. This, we say without hesitation, is individualism, Pelagianism, revolution and anarchy.
This position is certainly impossible. First, it is surely impossible and untenable to maintain that if anyone have any doubts as to the justifiableness of a war he should obey his government’s call to arms. We read inRomans 14:23: “And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” If it be true that he that doubteth is damned when he eats, and therefore sins (to be damned when he eats surely means that he is condemned, and therefore sins), then it is surely true that he who doubts whether a war is justifiable, but nevertheless goes to war, also sins. Fundamentally there is no difference between Romans 4:23 and a man who doubtingly obeys his governments call to action and goes to war. It is true, of course, that war is terrible and is fought today on a grand and awesome scale; it is surely an awful thing to be responsible for the deaths and murders of millions of people. However, if we doubt, we do not know whether an action is good or bad; hence, if we doubt whether we are doing good, then the solution is not to do it, but not to do it; we may be doing wrong and we should take no chances. How wonderful it would be, also and particularly for our young people, if they were to follow this principle! How wonderful it would be if we all would follow this principle! How wonderful it would be if, not sure whether a certain action we contemplate is good, we would refrain from taking such action. And we should surely understand that something is not good or bad because we determine something to be good or evil. This would be subjectivism. Something is not good or evil because we deem it good or bad. Something is good or evil in itself, regardless of my subjective opinion. In this, we have a sure guide, the infallible and unerring law and Word of God. That Word of the Lord is reliable, and it alone.
However, to take the position that every individual must determine for himself whether a war is justifiable or unjustifiable and then refuse to be inducted into the armed forces or go to war when concluding that a war is unjustifiable is also an impossible position. This is generally true. It is our belief, then, that a certain war is unjustifiable and that we may therefore not engage in it. We state our objections to the government, and the government may not agree with us but maintain that the war is just. But, we maintain our position and therefore refuse to take part in it. The result will be that anybody may have objections, and this would mean that the government’s power to declare and wage war would be hopelessly crippled. Who, then, would not have an objection? Besides, what must a government do under such circumstances? Should it conduct a national survey, a “Gallup poll,” go from house to house and determine how many people have objections to the war before it declares war? This would render the waging of any war by the government utterly impossible. However, this is not all. This also applies, specifically, to the fighting of any particular battle. This means that if one believes a certain battle to be wrong; he may remain in his barracks and refuse to fight. What must a general do under such circumstances? Should he take a poll of the soldiers under his command, try to convince them of the righteousness of the battle about to be fought? What an impossible situation!
To this something else must be added. How will it be determined whether a war is just or not? This can often be a very difficult and complicated question. To determine the justness of a war may not be as easy as it may sound. The government, of course, knows the facts; they are on the inside and are aware of so many things we do not and cannot possibly know. And, of course, they will justify the war. This lies in the very nature of the case. And it will be by no means easy for an individual to understand just what is going on.
Finally, this position is individualism and it must lead to revolution and anarchy. This would mean that everybody simply takes the law into his own hands. Let us understand: it is not a question of the government exposing to me my error, of overruling my objections. This position would maintain that an individual may believe what he deems to be true; I have a right to my objections and the government must honor them, regardless of whether it agrees with me or not. This, however, is individualism, everybody for himself, and the result can be revolution and anarchy.
II. Its Fundamental Principle.
In the first place, war is not necessarily wrong. This applies, on the one hand, to the Old Dispensation. Think of all the wars in which Israel was engaged. David was not permitted to build a temple unto the Lord because he had shed much blood, Perhaps some may counter with the remark that these wars of Israel in the Old Dispensation were holy wars. Of course, they were holy wars. But, are not in a certain and very real sense of the word all wars holy wars? Of course, we realize that when the nations of the earth wage war (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, Hannibal of Carthage, Caesar of Rome, Napoleon of France), they were not prompted by the same motive as was Israel in the Old Testament. And it is also true that the Christian may not assume a merely passive attitude over against unrighteous wars, unrighteous from the subjective aspect of the wicked rulers who engage in them. Nevertheless, it is also true that, ultimately and in a very real and fearful sense of the word, the red horse of war of Rev. 6 is sent out by Christ, Who alone is the Lord of lords and the King of kings, that He wages them, and that, as He wages them, they are, from His viewpoint, holy wars. It is surely the Lord Who raised up men such as Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus and Alexander the Great, Hannibal and Caesar and Napoleon. It is surely He Who controls and directs the red horse of Rev. 6.
That war is not necessarily wrong is also taught in the New Testament. Is it not a striking thing that the centurions mentioned in the New Testament leave a very favorable impression? There we read of the centurion whose servant was healed, of the centurion at the cross, of Cornelius in Acts 10, and also of Julius inActs 27. Besides, very pertinent is the question asked of John the Baptist by the Roman soldiers in Luke 3:14: “And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.” This passage is surely pertinent. Mind you, John the Baptist had preached that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, and he had called upon the people to repent. This question of the soldiers, therefore, must be understood as: What must we do, as soldiers, who have repented, in this Kingdom of Heaven? Mind you, they were soldiers of Rome. And it is certainly not true that the wars as waged by Rome could all be classified as justifiable. And what is the answer of the Baptist to them? Does he tell these soldiers to leave their military service, to refuse to fight underneath the banner of Rome? Does he admonish them to determine, before they enter into a certain battle, whether this particular battle is a righteous battle? No, he simply tells them to do violence to no man, to accuse none falsely, and to be content with their wages.
As far as the fundamental principle of this issue is concerned, the late Rev. H. Hoeksema once expressed in relation to this matter as follows: “As long as the magistrate exercises the sword in its Divinely appointed domain, whether within its own boundaries or in relation to other territories, it is sovereign, and the refusal to serve is revolution; if, however, it steps outside its own domain, as in the domain of the Church and acts against Christ and His cause, where it can have no sovereignty, it is no longer magistrate but simply man, and then this principle is applicable: one must obey God rather than men.”
What does this imply? On the one hand, outside of its sphere the magistrate has no sovereignty, has no authority to act. We read in Acts 5:29: “Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.” This history we know. Peter and the apostles had been arraigned before the Jewish Sanhedrin, and they had been commanded by the Jewish authorities to remain silent with respect to Jesus of Nazareth. Now we should notice that Peter calls them merely “men.” They are merely men; they have no authority or sovereignty in this matter; they have no right to demand of them silence with respect to Jesus Christ of Nazareth; this is not their domain. They have stepped out of their sphere or domain; they have intruded into the domain of the Church, would act against Christ and His cause, where it cannot possibly have any sovereignty. So, they are no longer magistrates but simply men, and then this principle is applicable: one must obey God rather than men. It requires courage to say this, but this the church and the child of God must always declare and maintain. This, however, does not constitute our subject for tonight.
In its own sphere the government is sovereign. The government certainly has the authority to declare war. They have the sword power. The sword power in Scripture is the legal right to use force. This sword power has not been given to the individual; we may distinguish between using the sword and taking it up. To use the sword means that one has the right and authority to use it; to take it up, however, means to use it when one does not have the right. He who takes it up will perish by the same. The sword power has been given to the magistrate. This implies that he has the authority to declare war. He alone has that authority. People or individuals do not declare war. Of course not! This would be impossible. Only the government may and does declare war. This is clearly taught in the Word of God. We read in Romans 13:1-4: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” This passage is very clear and speaks for itself. There is no power or authority but of God, and the powers that be are the ones ordained of God. And notice, please, that we read in verse 4 that he beareth the sword not in vain. This means that he bears the sword. All the people do not bear the sword; only the magistrate bears that sword. And from this it also follows that the government has also the power to wage war. He not only has the authority to declare war. But he also has the power to execute this authority.
From this we may conclude the following. First, no Christian has the right to refuse to serve. To be sure, he may protest against his government’s waging of a war when convinced that it is unjustifiable. But he may not refuse to serve his country’s summons to the colors. The responsibility for the waging of a war is not his but his government’s, and what a fearful responsibility this is, namely to wage a war that is unjustifiable! So, we do not agree with the conscientious objector. Secondly, I believe that I have said enough in answer to the question: what must be the Christian’s attitude toward war? And, thirdly, should covenant parents discourage their sons volunteering? We have already noted that the military service is not necessarily wrong in itself. However, it is very difficult for me to understand how covenant parents can do anything else but discourage their sons from volunteering for military service, not only because of all the temptations and evils to which they will be exposed while serving underneath the colors, but also because of what they leave behind in their homes and in the church.
III. Its Wonderful Comfort.
What must we say about our modern day pacifism, all the hue and cry of our present day against war? We heard a certain radio speaker say on a Sunday afternoon broadcast that if only the nations of the world would gather around the peace table with Jesus of Nazareth, peace would come to our troubled world. Of course, war is a terrible reality. And this is true, not only because of all the dead and maimed in battles, but also because of all the misery that wars leave in their wake, such as ruin, desolation, pestilence and disease. Surely, this modern day pacifism, also as voiced by the church, is nothing else than humanitarian concern for that which is below. It is not concerned about God or His Christ or His coming again. It seeks the end of war because it wants peace, not the peace of Calvary, but the peace of this world, the carnal enjoyment of that which is below. If they were interested in the peace that is from above, the peace of the Kingdom of Heaven, then they would also be interested in the signs of the coming of the Prince of Peace. That the wicked die upon many battlefields, is that such a terrible thing? What would all the news media of our present day do if, in one night, one hundred eighty five thousand communists were to be killed in one night? Yet, when the angel of the Lord destroys one hundred eighty five thousand Assyrians in one night, but one verse is devoted to this event in the Word of God: II Kings 19:35. Is it such a terrible thing when dead people die? But it is surely something else when a dead man is made alive! And so an entire chapter, John 11, is devoted to the Scriptural story of the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead and out of the tomb. And when God’s people die upon these battlefields, they are received up into glory!
In our third point we call your attention to a wonderful comfort. Imagine a world without war! And picture to yourself, if you please, the church as it shares this concern for the peace of this world and is busily engaged with the world in the pursuit of it! A world without war? Then Christ would never come. And the church of God should strive and pray for this? Wars and rumors of war are terrible. Indeed! But, they are also signs of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. And let us understand: Christ can come no other way. Christ does not stand in a relation of love towards the world, but in a relation of wrath and holy indignation. Christ always means ruin and disaster for the world. His coming can never mean anything else than such ruin and disaster for the world. So, His coming throughout the ages produces wars and rumors of wars. All the signs of His coming are signs of judgment and disaster, also the sign of the preaching of the gospel, which is to the reprobate wicked a savor of death unto death. And, finally, His coming will mean the everlasting ruin and destruction of the world. But it will also signal the heavenly and immortal salvation of the Church of the living God. So, the victory is certain and the crown is sure. May we look forward to this coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
(Note: speech delivered at an Officebearers’ Conference in our Hudsonville Church, April 6, 1971.)