Just War, God's War? - Romans 13:1-7

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 1st June 2003.

Click here to read the bible passage. Click here to use larger text.

A group of academics and historians compiled this startling information ten years ago: Since 3600 B.C. the world has known only 292 years of peace! During this period there have been 14,351 wars large and small, in which 3.64 billion people have been killed. The value of the property destroyed is equal to a golden belt around the world 97.2 miles wide and 33 feet thick. Since 650 B.C., there have also been 1,656 arms races, only 16 of which have not ended in war. The remainder ended in the economic collapse of the countries involved.

Well there is no doubt that we live in a world where war is sadly all too real and all too common. Just in the last sixty years since the Second World War there have been 80 different wars, though only 28 fought in the conventional way. And war always brings up strong feelings on both sides. Pope John XXIII said this about war: 'For a Christian who believes in Jesus and his gospel, war is an iniquity and a contradictionis becoming humanly impossible to regard war is this atomic age as a suitable means of re-establishing justice when some right has been violated.' Martin Luther King once said: 'Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.' And yet there are others who would say that war, though not good, is sometimes necessary. Tony Blair, in his speech in the House Commons Emergency Debate on Iraq in March said: 'This is a tough choice: But it is also a stark one: To stand British troops down and turn back; or to hold firm to the course we have set. I believe we must hold firm.'

And even though we are now in the 21st century, yet the wars continue. War continues to destroy countless lives, despite what we are told about so called 'smart' weapons. War continues to eat into government resources. For Gulf War II Gordon Brown set aside billion, but the total cost will no doubt exceed that sum. The American bill ran into tens of billions of dollars. And though we live in a so-called peaceful society, yet we still spent billion on defence last year, according to government statistics. Sadly war is a very real issue, and as September 11th showed, war has taken on a new guise in the form of global terrorism in this 21st century.

So what are we to make of all this as Christians? Should we be for or against war? What does the Bible have to say on this topic? Because that must be our first port of call as we seek to answer any moral question we're faced with. What does God say about it? What we need to do with any difficult problem that arises it to find out the Bible's marker posts, to think through the principles and then to make Biblically informed and wise decisions. Now it needs to be said that this is not an easy issue. There are no easy answers. And of course for some of us it is painfully close to home. We ourselves may have experienced war, or we may have loved ones involved. But I would ask us to come with humility to the Word of God this morning, willing to hear God's voice and submit ourselves to his wisdom. And our approach this morning will be threefold. First we'll survey four Biblical principles, then we'll seek to understand those principles and then we'll apply them.

1) The Biblical Principles Surveyed

So first then, we survey four Biblical principles.

a) God's World is Broken- And the first principle is that God's world is broken. For although God made a perfect world with perfect people, yet the Bible tells us that we did not want God as our loving ruler and king. (Rom. 3 vv 9-11) And the result is that we have all rejected God and are what the Bible calls sinners, people who want to rule our lives our way. And the result is a world which is broken and wrecked. When you get so many people living together all doing what they want, then it's no surprise that people fall out with each other. Relationships are broken at every level. With God, with each other and with the physical world. Even at very young ages our children display this innate desire to be their own masters. One of the first words they learn is no. And if you put two toddlers together with just one toy, then we all know what happens. The toy comes off worst! And if you apply this selfish desire to the world situation, then is it any surprise that nations fall out with nations? Jesus himself recognised the possibility, indeed the inevitability, that wars would happen before he came again. Nation will rise up against nation, he said. (Mk. 13 vv 5-8) We shouldn't be surprise then when wars happen, since we live in a broken world.

b) God occasionally allows war- But the next principle we discover from our reading of the Bible is that God occasionally allows war. If you read through the history of Israel in the OT, you find that there are wars that are sanctioned by God. (Deut. 20 vv 1-4; 10-15) But we need to remember one very important principle. And that is that in this context the people of God are a specific nation with a specific task to conquer the promised land. They are a nation in the league of nations of the Middle East in the 15th century BC. Therefore they are very different to Christians today. In that context God allowed war as a way of bringing about his sovereign will and just judgement on nations through his people. But God didn't want his people to go willy nilly into war. In fact we learn in Genesis 15 v 16 that God waited until the sin of the nations was sufficient to warrant such extreme measures. War was a serious thing and was only undertaken on God's strict instructions. Indeed sometimes God forbade war (Deut. 2 vv 4-5, 9, 19). And moreover later on in Israel's history, God allowed others to wage war on Israel as a punishment for her sin. But amid all this war, God gave very strict provisos. We read that prisoners are to be taken care of and wars are to waged under God's direction. There was no room for personal vendettas.

But that is very different from the people of God today. Today we are a people scattered throughout the whole world. We are not one nation. So we cannot claim such verses as Deuteronomy 20 as a warrant to go to war. These are specific verses for a specific nation. So it's worrying if nations today take these verses and use them to justify their actions. But as we will see in a moment from other passages in the Bible, the very least these OT passages teach us is that force may not necessarily be completely ruled out in God's purposes, though he clearly has very strict limitations on it's use. So it's no surprise to read in Ecclesiastes 3 v 8 that there is a time for war as well as peace. So our second principle is that God occasionally, with provisos, allows war to be used.

c) God strives for Peace- Our third principle though is that God strives for peace. The Bible tells us that God does not delight in the death of a sinner, but instead is slow to anger and abounding in love. He is the God of peace, according to Hebrews. And of course the model is Jesus himself.

i) The Model- Jesus himself lived a life of love and peace and sought never to fight back. That's not to say he was completely unwilling to use force. One day Jesus went through the Temple courts turning over the tables of the money changers since they were an offence to God and were degrading God's Temple. No, Jesus could get angry when he wanted to be. He is not therefore a model of complete pacifism which advocates peace in all circumstances. There clearly is a place righteous anger. But Jesus was a model of peace and love, and perhaps the best example is when he is on the cross. For there was the one occasions when he could have rightly retaliated. But he didn't. (1 Pet. 2 vv 21-23) Jesus was the supreme peace maker. And as the model he also encourages his followers to go the same way.

ii) The Demand- Jesus demands that his followers not retaliate and take vengeance into their own hands but instead to entrust themselves to God. In fact in Matthew 5, Jesus urges us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. (Matt. 5 vv 38-45) Now this is pretty challenging teaching where Jesus is advocating a principle of humility before taking vengeance yourself. Instead of acting against our enemies we should love them! And of course this has always been a mark of the most devoted servants of Jesus throughout history. So that's our third principle, that God strives for peace.

d) God's Heaven is Perfect- But there is a final principle we need to remember when thinking about war and that is that God's heaven is perfect. You see the fact is that God will not leave this world in the mess that it is. He will not allow his world to be messed up permanently by us. Rather one day he will bring the old world to an end and create a new world where there will be no more pain or suffering or wars. (Is. 2 vv 3-4) So, for example, the prophet Isaiah sees a time when one day the weapons of destruction, the spear and the sword will be turned into instruments of fruitfulness, the plough and pruning hook. It's a picture that one day in heaven everything will be perfect. So at the end of the Bible we read in Revelation 21 that there is no more suffering or mourning or crying for the old order has passed away. (Rev. 21 vv 3-4) Suffering and sin and wars were never part of God's blueprint. And one day God will remake his world to be a place where those things are no more. That's our hope.

So the Bible gives us these four principles for us to bear in mind when thinking about this subject of war. First that God's world is broken. Secondly that sometimes God will allow for war under strict provisos. Third that God strives for peace. And fourthly God's heaven is perfect. And it seems looking at this survey of the principles that there is some tension in the Bible. Whilst God wants peace and will one day bring it about, yet war sometimes happens. So can we shed any further light on this? Is there a way to work out how to live with this tension? Well there is because the Bible helps us to see that there is a key difference between the role of the individual and the role for the state. So let's turn to our next heading, the Biblical principles understood.

2) The Biblical Principles Understood (Romans 12 v 17- 13 v 5)

And to help us we're going to turn to Romans 12 v 17- 13 v 5. Because there in the space of one passage we some of these tensions resolved. We discover that the individual, God and the state all have different responsibilities.

a) The Individual's Responsibility (Vv 17-18)- First Paul teaches us the individual's responsibilities. And they are very similar to what we have seen in Jesus. Paul tells us in verse 17 that we are 'not to repay evil with evil. We are to be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.' It's almost inevitable that we will suffer evil at the hands of someone else at some point, and Paul's command is that we are careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone, even in the eyes of those who have wronged us. Of course, he recognises too that it's not all down to us, which is why he says, as far as it depends on you, but at least, says Paul, makes sure you don't make the situation worse. It's always tempting to give as good as you get in life, especially when we have been wronged. My mother used to say that you should do unto others as you would have them do to you, but make sure you do it first! She applied it particularly to driving! However, Paul reflects Jesus own teaching in this area. For Jesus said; 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.' It's hard teaching, but he modelled what he taught, as we have seen. Jesus prayed for those who nailed him to the cross. He didn't say a word in reply to the accusations that came against him. He was silent before his accusers. That's not to say we should never defend ourselves (remember Jesus often went on the verbal offensive!). But as Paul says here, we should seek to live at peace with everyone. And we should never take revenge into our own hands. So Paul is advocating a loving and selfless attitude that is to be the mark of the church. And that is a very powerful witness to the world around.

Several years ago a man called Johanne Lukasse of the Belgian Evangelical church was becoming deeply disturbed by the seeming lack of progress in people becoming Christians in Belgium. The nation had had a long history of infighting and cults and secular forces at work that evangelism seemed impossible. But then he came up with a new plan. His plan was to get together a group of Christians who would live together in a house and work together. They did so, and after some months of small squabbling, they gradually began to love one another and care for one another. As a result many people in the city began to hear of this house where these Christians lived and many were led to become Christians. So they fulfilled Jesus promise: 'All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.' It's a wonderful antidote to an selfish and war mongering world. And if we here at St. John's were to love one another with a sincere, devoted and humble love, who knows what would happen? That's the individual's responsibility.

b) God's Responsibility (Vv 19-21)- So if that's our responsibility, to love others and not take revenge into our own hands, then what is God's responsibility? Paul tells us in verse 19: 'Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge. I will repay,' says the Lord.' This is perhaps the hardest thing to do, to trust that God will bring about his justice in his time. There isn't always justice in this world, but we can be assured that there will be justice in the next. God will avenge and put right all the wrongs, and it is not for us to take revenge into our own hands. Instead we should trust the God of perfect justice. And actually it is a great comfort to know that one day there will be justice in a world of so much injustice. We can be sure that even if Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden escape justice in this world, they won't in the next. For it's God's job to avenge. And it's right that it is his job, because he would know all the facts and he is in the best position to make sure and perfect judgements. For with God there will be no miscarriages of justice, no Guildford 4's or Birmingham 6's. God's responsibility is to act in justice. And we should leave him to it.

c) The Government's Responsibility (13 vv 1-5)- So the individual's responsibility is to love and not take revenge. God's responsibility is to execute perfect justice, and one day he will. What is the state's? Well Paul is arguing in chapter 13 that the state is authorised by God to execute his justice on people in the short term. The final books will be balanced by God, be assured. But in the meantime, to prevent anarchy and chaos, God in his sovereignty has allowed governments to rule and wield the sword as Paul puts it. So in verse 1 Paul says that 'authorities have been established by God.' I think Paul is talking generally here, in that he has allowed humans to have the responsibility for governing themselves under him. Paul means that all human authority is ultimately derived from God's. So Jesus can say to Pilate: 'You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.' (Jn. 19 v 11). Of course, Paul is not saying that God approves of unjust governments like Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Whilst God is sovereign over all governments, yet he cannot be held responsible for their sinful actions. Individual governments and rulers must themselves give an account to God. The responsibility is on the rulers to use authority and power wisely and justly. So Paul says in verse 4: The ruler is 'God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.' And then Paul makes a fascinating statement in verse 5: 'Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment, but also because of conscience.' Now it's worth remembering that Paul was writing against the background of the Roman empire. As time went on this empire would become increasingly oppressive towards Christians. And yet as far as it was possible Christians were to submit. But if a government asks us to go against God, then we cannot, as the disciples showed frequently in the Acts of the Apostles. We must obey God rather than men they said. And as we are seeing in our evening services, Daniel and his friends deliberately go against the Babylonian government when they are asked to renounce their faith. But here our point is simply that governments have a responsibility to punish wrongdoing and encourage well doing. And sometimes that must mean wielding the sword as Paul puts it, using force to punish wrong doing.

So Romans 12 and 13 show us the difference between the individual and the state. The individual is to love and show kindness to all. The state is to punish wrong doing, and ultimately God will judge all. And in these two chapters, the seeming tension that we started with is made a little clearer for us. But let's see in our remaining time how Christians down the ages have applied these Biblical principles to the question of war. Is it ever right for countries to God to war? Can it ever be just?

3) The Biblical Principles Applied

Based on the evidence that we have looked at so far, and especially from Romans 12-13, Christians down the centuries have come up with what is known as the Just War Theory. It's a theory that has a long history, beginning with men like Augustine in the early centuries of the Christian church and being fine tuned along the way by others like Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century and especially two Spanish theologians called Vitoria and Suarez in the sixteenth centuries. They advanced the theory of God's sword being given to governments in Romans 13 to suggest that sometimes, in very limited circumstances, war is necessary and possible, though of course, never a good thing. It's important to see too that this theory springs from love and not war mongering or an insatiable thirst for revenge. As we will see it springs from a desire to protect the oppressed and the victims, as well as bring justice in limited situations. When you read non Christian writers like Cicero from the first century and what he has to say on the just war, then his motives are decidedly vengeful. But for a Christian, war must be a last resort and in very limited circumstances. Augustine himself once said: 'The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust for power and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.' So what the theory boils down to is this: 'A Just War is a war waged for a just cause, by just means and with a just end'. Let's follow the argument through. Each part breaks down into a number of questions:

A Just Cause

In the first case, it must be a just cause. And a number of questions follow:

1. Is the cause just? Just causes include defence against violent aggression, but offensive war is only permitted in very limited circumstances. So if a country invades another, then that clearly is a cause for fighting back. Interestingly, invading another country to stamp out aggression can only be done on very limited circumstances. There could be serious human rights abuses, or the illegal uses of weapons, but such instances must be proven beyond all reasonable doubt.

2. Is the intention to restore justice between friend and foe? Some wars do irreparable and lasting damage to the prospect of just relationships. Wars must not be undertaken to get revenge or as a vendetta.

3. Is the action a last resort? Every negotiation and other resort must have been properly tried and failed.

4. Is the action instigated by the highest governmental authority? In our situation, this is the nation-state, not the UN; but the UN symbolises the greater rule that national rulers are under. They should be under international law.

5. Are the goals limited? Leaders must clearly state what outcomes are required. This enables an enemy to comply, or an army to secure those outcomes. Otherwise, wars degenerate into a passion for inflicting harm, a cruel thirst for vengeance, a lust of power.

Just Means

So it's got to be a just cause, but secondly by just means. Again questions follow:

6. Is the action proportional to the offence? The methods employed in open warfare must not exceed the initial problem. Only necessary force is to be used.

7. Will casualties be kept low, particularly among those who can not or do not bear arms? This must be a part of the just means. Casualties must be kept as low as possible. In modern warfare with precision guided bombs it is becoming easier to restrict casualties, though inevitably there will be some killed.

a Just End

And finally a just cause with just means towards a just end:

8. When contemplating an offensive war, is there a reasonable hope of success? This prevents some wars of principle, where an attack is against hopeless odds.

So that was how the Biblical principles were applied. A just war can only be waged when there is a just cause with just means for a just end.


So what shall we conclude? We have seen that there are a number of tensions in the Bible when we look at this topic of war. God clearly is a God of peace and yet there are times when in a sinful and broken world, war seem to be the lesser of two evils. God has given authority, not to individuals, but to states to exercise the right to act in justice. But let me also suggest that there are one or two practical things that we can do as we think about this topic in closing.

a) Pray- (1 Tim. 2 v 1-4. First we need to pray for our leaders. We do this usually weekly in our services, but we need to be praying too on our own for our leaders, that they would lead the country in a godly and just way. But also we could perhaps pray for the people's of the world in war zones, and especially Christians who are often persecuted by oppressive regimes.

b) Hold leaders to account- Romans 13 verse 4 says that governments are God's agents. And we as the people need to hold our leaders to account. That's why the democratic system is a good one, because we can make a difference. We can write or make our views know elsewhere, and it can make a difference.

c) Support soldiers- Thirdly, we must support soldiers. Interestingly there is never an instance of Jesus saying to a soldier lay down your arms, though he had plenty of opportunity to do so. There are many stories of centurions and solders coming to Jesus for advice and help. And we need to be in the business of supporting our soldiers in what they do, and especially Christian soldiers.

d) Keep working for heaven- But ultimately the best thing we can be doing is to be keeping working for heaven. We can't get heaven on earth, because it's not possible, but we do long for Jesus to return, and we long for him to bring all suffering to an end. We long for heaven! The news this week has been full of Hillary and Norgay's ascent of Everest in 1953. But back in 1924, Mallory and Irvine were within a few hundred metres of getting to the top. No-one ever knows if there did. But the last person to see them alive said of them that they were 'going strongly for the summit.' And that is what must be said of the Christian. For heaven is our home, and we need to be in the business of pressing on to heaven and of bringing others to Christ so that they too can be in heaven with us. For ultimately that is the place where there will be no more war and tears and again. Yes this world is full of pain and suffering. But let's keep going strongly for the top. For one day that hope will be fulfilled. And then we will live in peace with God enjoying him forever.

Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.