Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
Just this week, our Prime-minister has been talking about sending more troops to Afghanistan. And while that matter is a political debate for many New Zealanders, for those who serve in our defence forces, like ____________ and many others, it can mean saying goodbye to loved ones and heading over to a war-zone. And you will know that during WWII men were drafted into the army to fight in the Pacific and in Europe. And there may come a time when war is once again a reality that many of us need to face. And this is because we live in a fallen, sinful world. Since the Fall, greed and corruption and violence have been and will be a part of human society until the Lord Jesus returns. Indeed, the Lord Jesus said, “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars … for nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” before the end of time.
So last time we were together, we saw that God has established civil government and that it is our duty to be law-abiding citizens. And we saw this from 1 Peter 2. And we considered that topic in connection with Articles 1&4 of our Westminster Chapter and the FIFTH COMMANDMENT, which has to do with honouring those in lawful authority.
Today though, we turn our attention to the SIXTH COMMANDMENT, which is “You shall not murder.” And we do so in connection with Art. 2 of our Westminster Chapter. The article begins by telling us that “it is LAWFUL FOR CHRISTIANS TO HOLD PUBLIC OFFICE WHEN CALLED TO IT.” And we have many examples of this in the Bible: From the OT, you will remember that Joseph and Daniel were a part of the governments in Egypt and Babylon, and from the NT, we see Paul’s Romans 16 greeting to a believer named Erastus, who was the city treasurer. So it is quite legitimate for believers to hold public office.
But our specific interest today is in the SECOND PART OF THIS ARTICLE. For there we see that as part of their duty, Christians who hold public office “may now, under the New Testament, lawfully wage war upon just and necessary occasion.” So according to our Westminster article, war is sometimes just and necessary, which means that SOLDIERS WHO SHOOT AND KILL OTHERS IN A JUST WAR ARE ENGAGED IN LAWFUL KILLING. But is this Biblical? Are there times when it is lawful to kill?
And we ask this because the KJ Bible has the sixth commandment as “THOU SHALT NOT KILL.” And there have been Christians, especially since the time of the Anabaptists of the 16th century, who have held to the view that all killing is unlawful – including war. And this idea gave rise to the idea of PACIFICISM, which holds that Christians cannot participate in warfare and therefore cannot serve in the military.
In fact, a very recent and popular Hollywood movie, called Hacksaw Ridge, is trying to make pacifism seem very noble and lofty. But is that what the Bible teaches? Is there such a thing as a just war where it is lawful to kill a human being?
Well, as we seek a biblical answer to that question, it will help us to begin with a brief look at the WORDING OF THE SIXTH COMMANDMENT. You see, while the KJ Bible has the commandment as “Thou shalt not kill,” most English Bible versions have the commandment as “YOU SHALL NOT MURDER.” But while this is a better way of expressing what is in view in the commandment, some suggest that “You shall not kill unlawfully,” or “You shall not kill without just cause,” would be even clearer. And this is because the Hebrew word used (ratsach) is used in connection with murder but also with what we call manslaughter and unintentional and accidental killing. The death of one human being by another is so serious, that all these are in view with this word and this commandment; all these are unlawful killings.
But what is interesting is that when we read in the Bible about God killing someone, a different word is used (harag).
And when God ordered the people of Israel to kill a law-breaker, by stoning him or her, that same word is used (harag).
And when Elijah killed the prophets of Baal, he did not ratsach them he haraged them.
And with particular relevance for our topic today, that same word is also used in relation to the killing that took place in the wars that God commanded the people of Israel to wage. So, for example, the people of Israel did not ratsach the Philistines, they haraged the Philistines.
Now, there can be some crossover in when these words are used in the OT, but the use of different words for different types of killing already alerts us to the fact that not all killing is forbidden by the sixth commandment, but only that which is unlawful.
But to think some more about whether or not it is lawful to kill in a just war today, let’s turn to our text in Romans 13; we read vv1-4.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
Well, before we say anything else, we should note that THESE WORDS COME AFTER ROMANS 12:1. The first 11 chapters of Romans survey salvation by grace alone, in Jesus Christ alone, which is received by faith alone. And it is because of this gracious salvation, which Paul calls “the mercies of God” in 12:1, that we are to present our bodies “as a living sacrifice.” So with the rest of Romans, Paul describes what living the Christian life in view of salvation in Christ looks like. And our text is a part of that.
And so, from v1, we see that because of God’s mercies to us in Jesus Christ, we are to be SUBJECT to the governing authorities. And we considered this in the last Westminster Confession series sermon as we looked at 1 Peter 2, which is a parallel passage to this one. Believers ought to be law-abiding, tax-paying citizens, who pray for and honour not only good governors, but also those who are unjust.
And the second half of v1 gives us THE REASON why we are to be subject to the governing authorities, which is that civil government is not an invention of humanity but an INSTITUTION OF GOD. It is God who raises up kings and governors and Presidents and Prime-ministers and generals and judges and policemen. And so, as v2 continues, when we resist or rebel against these authorities, we are ultimately resisting or rebelling against “what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
And in v3 we are told WHY GOD HAS ESTABLISHED CIVIL GOVERNMENT; government is meant to be a “terror” or a “cause for fear” to those who would behave badly, and to “approve” or “praise” good behaviour. And so, if you do good, if you obey the law, you should have nothing to fear from the governing authorities. But to those who would break the law, there is this POWERFUL WARNING IN V4, “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not carry the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
And it is this verse that we are particularly interested in today. It should be that the description of the governing authority as ‘carrying the sword’ ends the discussion. And this is because there is nothing ambiguous or unclear about the purpose of a sword. Right? We are not talking here about opening envelopes Swords are for punishment. We are being told here that God has entrusted civil government with the task of punishing law-breakers, including, when appropriate, executing them.
But to remove any doubt at all that this is what is being stated here, let’s think about these words in the light of the rest of scripture.
You will recall from our earlier reading in GENESIS 9 that God said to Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image.” So because every human being is made in the image of God, God demands that the murderer lose his or her life for that crime. Life for life. That is the universal principle laid down in Genesis 9.
And later on in the law of God, in Numbers 35, we read about the CITIES OF REFUGE. These were cities that you could flee to if you had killed someone and you wanted your case to be judged by the congregation. If it was proven that the killing was unintentional, your life was spared. But if it was proven that you were a murderer, the law said, “The murderer shall be put to death. The avenger of blood shall himself put the murderer to death.” It seems that the family of the murder victim would appoint someone as the avenger and they would put the murderer to death.
I think you can guess though how easily this system was USED AND ABUSED. For example, you had to make it to a city of refuge to get a trial. If you did not, the avenger could kill you, even if you had killed unintentionally. And in Judges 19-21 there is an account of one woman being killed, which leads to the death of 25,000 men as revenge!
And so, what we read here in Romans 13 is God taking vengeance and punishment away from the individual and ENTRUSTING IT TO THE GOVERNING AUTHORITIES. The Genesis 9 principle of life for life remains, and the Numbers 35 principle of there being an avenger of blood remains, but it is now the governing authority who ‘bears the sword’ as “the avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
From all of this, it follows then that there is such a thing as lawful killing or killing with just cause. The most obvious example of this from our text is capital punishment. By God’s design and decree, the governing authorities should execute murderers. And when they do this they are not breaking the sixth commandment but actually reinforcing the sixth commandment. This ultimate punishment is given to governing authorities to deter people from taking the life of those made in the image of God.
And it follows from this that if the governing authorities may use the sword against evildoers within the country, then they may also use the sword against invaders from without. And we could also add here the principle of self-defence that God’s law establishes in Exodus 22. And so, all these principles demonstrate that SOLDIERS WHO SHOOT AND KILL OTHERS IN A JUST WAR ARE NOT VIOLATING THE SIXTH COMMANDMENT, BECAUSE THEY ARE ENGAGED IN LAWFUL KILLING.
Now, it needs to be stated here that war is not something we should ever like or glamourize. If war can be avoided, that is well and good. But there may be times when it is just and necessary to go to war. And let me be clear also that we are not saying here that all wars are just and necessary. But we will have to leave the biblical principles about what makes a war just and necessary (and there are biblical principles that help us determine such things) to another time. Our key concern today has been to demonstrate there is such a thing as just and necessary war. And this means that to serve in the defence forces is a good and honourable profession. This is why we have and will continue to pray for ____________ and all those who serve in this way.
In JOHN 15:13, the Lord Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.” And if you have attended Anzac day commemorations, you have probably heard this verse read out. We admire and we thank God that there are those willing to lay down their lives to protect the lives and the freedoms and the property of their countrymen.
But when the Lord Jesus said these words, He was ultimately talking about Himself. You see, the positive side of the sixth commandment is love for our neighbours. It is that we would do all in our power to promote his well-being and to protect him from harm. Well, the wages of sin is death. So, as sinners, we begin life dead in our sins and we must all face physical death and we all deserve eternal damnation. But such is the love of the Lord Jesus for His friends, for all those that God has chosen to salvation, that He went to the cross so that instead of being dead in our sins we might be made alive in Him, so that though we must die, we will one day be resurrected to eternal life with Him!
Ultimately then, the sixth commandment points us to the Lord Jesus Christ and it should make us long for His return. And this is because the life we enjoy with Him in heaven will be a life free of killing and war.
So we say, Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.