I do not wish to speak of how to fight as though the subject were a matter of technique. That could be a legitimate way of understanding the title, but my purpose here is rather to discuss the adverbs that would describe the workings of our internal spiritual weather.
How do we fight? Is it angrily? Is it proudly? Is it reluctantly? Viciously?
Or, on the positive side, is it fiercely? With exuberant joy? With a martial courage?
We are the Church Militant, and so the fact of our warfare should be a given. The language of militancy is found throughout the New Testament. The apostle Paul faced wild beasts at Ephesus (1 Cor. 15:32). We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers (Eph. 6:10-20). Paul says that the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but they are weapons (2 Cor. 10:4). And he solemnly charges Timothy to wage the good warfare (1 Tim. 1:18). We are to contend for the faith once delivered (Jude 3).
We have been at war since God first established the antithesis in the third chapter of Genesis, a judicial act which settled constant enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. All attempts to settle this enmity with some kind of a truce are actually efforts to go over to the other side.
So we cannot do anything about the fact of our warfare, and should not want to. But we can do a great deal when it comes to our manner of fighting. Shall we fight like hired mercenary thugs, or shall we fight like gentlemen cavaliers?
“And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? “But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village” (Luke 9:54–56).
Summary of the Text
Jesus and His disciples were making their way to Jerusalem, and because they were Jews who traveling through Samaria, on their way to the “wrong worship mountain,” they were denied hospitality (Luke 9:53). James and John—sons of thunder indeed—wanted to know if Jesus would desire that His disciples call down fire from Heaven to consume the inhospitable Samaritans. Jesus told them that they did not understand “the spirit they were of.”
He explicitly says that they did not know their own spirit because they were not accurately reading the story they were in. Jesus explicitly cited the nature of His own mission. He had not come to destroy men’s lives but rather to save them. They were His disciples, and because they did not understand His mission they therefore did not understand themselves.
As a corollary, they did not understand Elijah’s place in the story either. They did not understand his mission. They attempted to justify violence from Heaven, for the sake of their stung pride, with an argument that said, in effect, “well, one time fire came down from Heaven for completely different reasons . . .”
Corruption of the Adverbs Comes in From the Side
Now if we examine the New Testament carefully, we will find that problems with our motives creep in from the side. It is one of the hazards that comes from having fellow workers, from having companions, from having other people laboring on your side. What do I mean? I mean it’s all in Girard, man.
I do not believe it is a coincidence that a few verses before James and John betrayed the fact that they did not know their own spirit—when it came to fire incinerating Samaritans—a different sort of cluelessness had erupted. This is what it says back up in verse 46. “Then there arose a reasoning among them, which of them should be greatest” (Luke 9:46).
Those who wanted to smite the Samaritans had just been throwing elbows at their fellow disciples only a short time before. The issue is rivalry, envy, ambition. If you want to isolate and find a carnal spirit when it comes to fighting the enemies of God, one of the best things to do is to glance to your left and right, at your companions, and then to check your heart.
How often this issue comes up in the New Testament!
The ecclesiastical guardians of the Torah should have been the welcoming committee for the Messiah, and instead they turned him over to the Romans for crucifixion, and they did so because they were moved by envy (Matt. 27:18; Mark 15:10). It was the brothers of Joseph who sold him into Egypt, and they did it out of envy (Acts 7:9). At Pisidian Antioch, when Paul and Barnabas drew a huge crowd, the Jewish leaders were moved into opposition by their envy (Acts 13:45). The apostolic teaching the week before didn’t do that, it was the enthusiastic response to the teaching that did it. And then the same thing happened in Thessalonica (Acts 17:5).
Paul comments on those preachers that he knew about who were preaching as a means of causing extra trouble for Paul (Phil. 1:18). One of the things he had to deal with was upstart rivals within the church, like Hymenaeus and Philetus, who were New Testament versions of Dathan, Abiram and Korah, saying that “all the congregation are holy.” Paul quotes from Num. 16:5 in dealing with them—“the Lord knoweth them that are his.” And Paul expressly warned the elders of Ephesus that they would be confronted by savage wolves from outside the church (Acts 20:29), and that even some of their own men would rise up to lure disciples away after themselves (Acts 20:30).
In light of this, Paul was careful not to build on another man’s foundation (Rom. 15:20). Turf concerns are an issue in biblical governance and polity because everyone knows that good fences make good neighbors. Paul was an apostle to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews (Gal. 2:7). Elders are instructed not to lord it over God’s heritage (1 Pet. 5:3). The word there is lots, as in, allotment, as in, how the land of Canaan was apportioned by lot.
What this means is that if we want to learn how to fight the forces of wickedness properly, we must begin by mortifying our own internal rivalries, our secret envious promptings, our inveterate tendency to want to compare. As Pogo once put it, we have met the enemy, and he is us. We cannot fight the citadels of unbelief, pride, and rebellion so long as we are casting sidelong glances at the others who are with us besieging those citadels.
This particular wormhole pulls on all of us, and can work with almost any material. Suppose I was sitting out there with you all, and suppose the speaker were waxing eloquent on this very theme, and he quoted that great line of Whitefield’s, which was “let the name of Whitefield perish!” And let us say that he expanded on it, applying the truth forcefully to the vineyard workers of the CREC. Suppose he said something like, “Let the name of Leithart perish! Let the name of Brito wither! Let the name of Wilkins die the death!” How long do you think it would be before the devil whispered something to me—“I wonder if he is going to mention my name as being among the names that must perish . . .” But the reason he didn’t is that I had the great privilege of going first. And didn’t like it very much.
We are standing on the edge of that great ocean of heavenly self-forgetfulness and humility, and that noise you hear is me scuffling with the archangel who was given the arduous task of tossing me in.
We wouldn’t mind saying something like what Whitefield said, so long as it was remembered and quoted.
Think it through. Everybody wants to be a servant, but nobody wants to be treated like one.
So I would finish this section by quoting one of Ronald Reagan’s best observations—“There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
But suppose this fatal heart tendency to be mortified. Then what?
Nothing to Do but Fight
Let us not surround this subject with so many cautions that we hesitate to pick up a sword because somebody else in the entire history of conflict has done it wrong. Remember the cautions, mortify sin, and do your duty. In these times, to echo Uri’s citation of Kuyper, being at peace is a sin.
What comes to mind is a comment made about Robert Breckenridge by the great Southern Presbyterian theologian, J.H. Thornwell.
“What he does, he does with his might. Where he loves, he loves with his whole soul; when he hates, he hates with equal cordiality; and when he fights, he wants a clear field and nothing to do but fight.”Thornwell
Since I am going to post these comments online, I can spare some of my adversaries some time googling. Let me just acknowledge that Thornwell and Breckenridge were both Southern Presbyterians who supported the Confederacy, being from South Carolina and Kentucky respectively, and I would like to top off this free information by saying that I don’t feel any twinge in my conscience about referring to either one.
We live in perilous times. Let Isaiah describe us.
“For the nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish; Yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted.”
Isaiah 60:12 (KJV)
And so who around here wants a clear field, and nothing to do but fight?
If you can look at what is happening in the world around us today, and you are not hunting around in your spiritual armory, then there is something profoundly wrong with you. I am speaking metaphorically, of course, but these are times which call for spiritual claymores, kilts, bagpipes, and faces painted blue. But a quick review of Scottish history will also inform us that the sidelong glance was not exactly unknown there, and treachery was an art form. But if the Spirit is truly with us, there will be none of that in our hearts.
A Deeper Right
One of the best things my father ever taught me is the truth that there is a deeper right than being right. This is always true, in every situation. But let us not abuse such a glorious truth. We abuse it when, in the name of pursuing that “deeper right,” we neglect our plain responsibilities. We can fulfill our surface responsibilities and neglect the heart issues, which is what I have been addressing. But if we address the heart issues, not only will we be in the fight that everyone can see, but we will be formidable there.
The conflict is a given. As Trotsky once put it, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Like it or not, you are in this conflict. Like it or not, you are in the midst of a hot war. Like it or not, the fact that you are Christian pastors means that you are right in the middle of everything.
So check your hearts. Then check your gear. Then into the fray.
This was a talk delivered the delegates of the Council of the CREC and her combined presbyteries, October 26, 2021.