May We Shoot to Kill?

The problem of war brings us face to face with God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Although there are some who would have us believe that God has abdicated or, at least, that he is in eclipse when this ghastly evil comes upon the world, the Word of God leaves no doubt that war vindicates the sovereignty of the God. of all the earth. “Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” (Amos 3:6) “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things” (Is. 45:7).

“Come, behold the works of Jehovah. What desolations he hath made in the earth. He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; He breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; He burneth the chariot in the fire. Be still, and know that I am God: I wiII be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Ps. 46:8–10).

If it be granted, however, that war leaves the sovereignty of our God intact, or that it expresses his sovereign rule over all the nations, what, then, is my duty as a Christian with respect to the waging of war? This question ought to be divided into two parts: How am I to think of war? Is it right for me to go to war? What is to be my· attitude in time of war? And, in the second place, What am I to do as a Christian soldier? How shall I wage war and keep the law of God at the same time? How can I who am called to kill my fellow-men lie down in peace and sleep?

These are some of the questions that come to mind to which I would invite all serious-minded Christians to give their attention with me. No blanket judgment will do.



Human Reason Not Our Guide

As in every other question, the Calvinist does not depend upon human experience or the light of reason to chart a way, but he goes directly to the divine light of the Word. If history and reason are in accord with the Word it is well, if not, they must be discounted. If the pacifist tells us that all war is wrong because it involves bloodshed and that it is an unmitigated evil because of the train of human suffering which it inevitably produces, we shall listen respectfully, but we are not impressed. The pacifist is usually a humanist, for whom there is no higher value than human personality. The secret, underlying assumption of all pacifistic talk is simply this, that the world exists for man and ought

to be run for the sole benefit of man. To say that all war is from the devil, because war is an evil resulting from sin and the devil was the instigator of sin, is true if we place this in its proper framework, namely, that God planned and created the devil and also sends the evils of war.

On the other hand, merely because the Bible gives us a record of many wars that took place during Bible times does not validate them as such, nor does it mean that it is legitimate for us to engage in war. We also have a record in the Scriptures of many of the sins of the saints, but these are not given for our emulation. The question is simply this: What is normative in Scripture? Although the Bible gives us a record of Noah’s drunkenness and Abraham’s lies and Moses’ anger and David’s adultery, it does not sanction these but rather condemns them as heinous sins in the sight of the Lord.

The Bible Does Not Condemn All War

Over against this stands the fact that the Bible, though it often mentions war, never condemns war as such or those that engage in war. As II matter of fact, war is never forbidden or prohibited. God on occasion calls his people to engage in war, and some of the greatest warriors of the Old Testament lived the closest to God. Abraham, who on occasion waged war with great success (Gen. 14), is called the friend of God. David, who confesses that God taught his fingers to war and who through many wars and conquests strengthened himself in God, is called a man after God’s own heart. Moses and Joshua, to mention no more, were confidants of the Lord and were mighty leaders in battle.

War, in the Bible, is represented as achieving the justice of God. He uses wars to achieve his holy designs, and for this purpose he has committed the power of the sword to the government. It is the duty of the God-instituted governments to punish the evildoer, “for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is a minister of God, an avenger for wrath to him that doeth evil” (Rom. 13:4,5). The State has received the monopoly of the power of the sword from God for the purpose of executing the justice of God. There are some who would restrict this power of the sword to the punishment of evildoers within the territorial limits of the cultural unity which comprises the State, but most Reformed exegetes see no principal difference between the police power and the power to wage war against external bandits or international gangsters (cf. Prof. Haitjema of Groningen, Prof. Grosheide of the Free University, and Calvin in The Institutes).

In this connection it may be well to point out that not only does the Old Testament not forbid participation in war, but neither does the New Testament ever infer that it is sinful for the saint to participate in war. Our Lord himself did not condemn the soldiers with whom he came into contact, but commended one for his great faith (Matt. 8:5ff.). John the Baptist did not turn the soldiers away nor did he command them to give up their profession when they would be converted. Peter, coming to the house of Cornelius, captain of the Italian band, did not command this devout man in the service of Caesar to give up his commission. As a matter of fact, Jesus tells his disciples that they must be soldiers of Caesar, for the sword belongs to the kingdoms of this world (Peter is told to put his sword back into the scabbard, that it is useless in the spiritual warfare, and Pilate is told that if Christ’s kingdom were of this earth his servants would have fought for him), and they must give unto Caesar the things that are rightfully his.

Is All Killing Murder?

But, someone remonstrates, as far as my personal responsibility is concerned the law of God says: “Thou shalt not kill” (Exod. 20:13). And that law is inviolate and binding upon all men.

It is indeed always wrong for me as an individual to kill my neighbor or fellow-man. “Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place unto the wrath of God: for it is written, Vengeance belongeth unto me; I will recompense, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). Certainly it must be clear to all of us that this prohibition must be taken in its context and must therefore be taken in a relative rather than an absolute sense. There are certain religious groups that take the injunction “Thou shalt not kill” in the absolute sense that it is wrong to kill any living thing, and so they only eat vegetables and would not harm a snake or a tiger. Others, less absolutely (pacifists); say that it means that we may never, under any circumstances, take the life of another man; hence a Christian may not go to war.

But what, then, are we going to do with the rest of Scripture? It is true that God by a special command forbade killing the first murderer, but after the flood, when God gave his commandments about the sacredness of man’s life because of his creation in God’s image, this “rider” is attached: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” The same law of Sinai that forbids murder commands the government to put the Sabbath-breaker and other violators of the Mosaic law to death. And the same Paul who exhorts us not to avenge ourselves tells us that the government does not carry the sword in vain, which, if it means anything at all, tells us that the evildoer is to be executed by the sword.

God’s Justice Pre-eminent

In consequence, Calvinism has always accepted capital punishment as in accord with the Scriptures because the majesty and justice of God is of greater importance than the life of a murderer. Murder is blasphemy against the Creator and lese-majeste (an affront to the dignity of the Lawgiver) and as such is punishable by death. To kill the murderer is not murder in turn, but is a judicial killing. We call it an execution. The hangman is not guilty of murder, nor is the FBI agent who shot Dillinger in line of duty to protect the citizens. The same applies to our boys fighting in Korea at the present moment. They are simply agents of a God-instituted government for the punishment of the evildoers (North Koreans).

But what of the principle underlying this interpretation? We believe that the prohibition against killing is directed to men as private individuals. That is a law written in men’s hearts as well as being given in the Decalogue. However, the command to kill the murderer is directed to mankind as a corporate entity—“by man shall his blood be shed”—and the command to kill the lawbreaker is given to the government in its official capacity and was to be consummated after having ascertained the crime as fact. God in his sovereign wisdom did not choose to punish every murderer from heaven directly, nor did he entrust the maintenance of justice to private individuals; but he delegated this authority to the civil government, which is founded on the rower of the sword and achieves its end by executing justice.

Our Belgic Confession says that God has instituted governments “to the end that the dissoluteness of men might be restrained, and all things carried on among them with good order and decency. For this purpose He has invested the magistracy with the sword for the punishment of evildoers and for the protection of them that do well” (Art. XXXVI). And Calvin observes that “princes are armed, not only to restrain the crimes of private individuals by judicial punishments, but also to defend the territories committed to their charge by going to war against any hostile aggression: and the Holy Spirit, in many passages of Scripture, declares such wars to be lawful.”

Sermon on the Mount The Law of the Kingdom

Since, then, it is the government’s responsibility to execute the laws and to maintain righteousness by force if necessary, it is not reprehensible, it is not murder, if the policeman, the guardsman, the soldier or the executioner kills a human being under orders from his government. The question of “conscientious objection” to war is not real for the Calvinist. It could only have relevance for an Anabaptist, who believes all government to be evil and of antichrist, or for a modernist, who, in his humanism, has no regard for the law of God and for whom man’s happiness is the highest good.

But what of nonresistance as proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount? “The Sermon on the Mount is a favorite portion of Scripture referred to as evidence that it is wrong for a Christian to wage war. In it Jesus is describing to the multitude the proper conduct in the kingdom of God. H e very definitely preaches the doctrine of nonresistance.”2 As Dr. H. Henry Meeter intimates in the passage quoted, Jesus is here outlining the proper conduct for citizens of the kingdom in their relationship to one another. It is a gross misinterpretation of the Christian ethic to apply this law of the kingdom of heaven to civil governments, or even to the relationship of the saint to all men on all occasions. Non-resistance as a corporate obligation would negate the power of the sword and would make us all the prey of violent men who fear not God.

No, indeed, the meek shall not inherit the earth here and now, as some modernists would have us believe. The poor in spirit shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and the meek shall inherit the earth in which peace and righteousness dwell—but only because our Prince of Peace shall have destroyed his enemies by the breath of his mouth and shall have turned the wicked upside down and shall have consumed them out of the earth.

There is, therefore, no real conflict between the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 13, since the former refers to our action as individuals in the Kingdom of Heaven, which is a reality here and now; and the latter refers to our corporate action as members of a State in a world of sin. War is the legitimate exercise of the power of the sword by a divinely instituted government for the maintenance of justice. It is, however, to be used not as policy or as a necessary moment in the development of the nation, but as an extreme remedy. We may never seek to annihilate the enemy or demand unconditional surrender in order to make a commercial nation into a cow pasture (a la Morgenthau and Roosevelt), but we must strive for a just peace in which the rightful interests of all are insured.

A Corporate Responsibility

The question of whether a war is justifiable happily is not the responsibility of the individual Christian. Neither, on the other hand, is it within the province of the chief executive to decide the issue. This question ought to be decided by the conscience of the nation as a whole and, more particularly, by its representatives in Congress. No individual can ever take responsibility, and no Christian may refuse military service, on the ground that he finds the war presently in progress to be unjustifiable. The question of obey· ing God rather than man is irrelevant and does not apply in this instance. As part of the nation. the church and the saints, in their capacity as citizens, will certainly pass judgment on any given war. It may be necessary on some occasion to testify against the government’s decision, but in the meantime the individual Christian is bound to give unto Caesar what is his due taxes, honor, and military service.

In conclusion, then, war is a stern reality in a world of sin. It is the rightful function of government in the pursuit of justice. War, as such, is not prohibited by Scripture nor contradicted by divine legislation directed to the individual. The law of God and the ethic of the New Testament do not prohibit the violence and killing in war, but they prescribe rigidly concerning the conduct of war. That, however, demands separate consideration in a following issue.