An Introduction: Acknowledging Our Warfare (1)
We are at war.
Not a war that leaves our blood pooled on the soil underfoot and holes in our flesh—though it may and it did for the captain of our salvation one dark day on a hill outside of Jerusalem—but it is a war in which souls are killed. It is a war with Satan and his hosts, with this present evil world and all of its rebellious attitudes, vain philosophies, carnal pleasures, and corrupt behaviors, and with our own desperately sinful flesh. It is a war with and against sin. “Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin, and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (James 1:15). Lust (any desire for what God forbids) in the heart must be treated the way Israel treated the inhabitants of Jericho—utterly destroyed. For lust begets sin. And sin when it has run its course always brings death. And death is the judgment of God, the one who must be feared because He is able to destroy both body and soul in hell (Matt.10:28).
We are at war right now, not against God, but against sin.
We are always at war.
As Samson in the lap of Delilah was surrounded by Philistines lying in wait to take him, so we find ourselves, often against our will, in the lap of this sinful world with spiritual enemies in high places lying in wait to take our souls. Always! Worse, there is the traitorous foe that is the old man of sin within always scheming and orchestrating attacks by bringing forth fleshly lusts (wicked desires). Lust begets sin, and sin works death. Not only are we as individuals under assault, the entire kingdom of Jesus Christ, in which we fight, is forever under assault. The gates of hell are continuously warring against God’s church.
Whether we confess it or not—and we ought to—we are at war. Whether we are conscious of it or not—and we ought to be—we are at war. Whether we prayed for strength for the battle in our devotions this morning or not—and we should have—we are at war. Whether we preach it or not—and we ought to—we are at war.
The seriousness of this war surpasses all others in magnitude, rendering them as mere sport. The wise and prudent will study world history and write tomes on the most significant battles of all time. The babes will know by both faith and experience that the war against sin that rages in their own souls as members of God’s covenant is far more significant. Souls are at stake. The consequences are everlasting. God be thanked we have more than knowledge of the war, for we have knowledge of the certain victory that is ours in the crucified and risen Lord.
However, our certain victory—perfect peace with God eternally—comes in the way of warring. Thus, warfare we must learn. Our children and young people must be taught war. In much of the tribal warfare in Africa there are more adolescent warriors than adults. Children learn to wield a weapon before a pencil. In the church, spiritual warfare is not reserved for seasoned adults, but demanded of all—young and old alike. Even little children must be taught to “abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” (I Pet. 2:11). We are at war.
With this article in the rubric “Strength of Youth” we begin a lengthy series of instruction on holy warfare in the name of Jesus Christ and on behalf of Jehovah’s covenant for the generation of the children of Israel among us today. Our theme is “To Teach Them War,” taken from Judges 3:2. God left wicked Canaanites in Canaan so that the new generation in Israel might have opportunity to learn to war and prove themselves. God left enemies in the land “to teach them war.” We use this rubric in order to teach the youth war. Omitting spiritual military discipline from the instruction we give our children is inexcusable. We must teach them war.
A significant purpose of this series is, if nothing else is accomplished, to make us conscious of our warfare and the calling to engage in it. Probably everyone has read something about spiritual warfare, or heard a particularly stirring sermon on spiritual warfare producing a heightened awareness of our calling to do battle against sin. But how long does our conscious awareness of the battle last? I must ask myself that. All week? All day? All morning? For an hour? A passing moment? Perhaps this article will trigger a sanctified desire in our hearts. But what about tomorrow at this time?
One of the greatest dangers in our spiritual warfare is that we are not always conscious of our warfare and we slip and drift away into an inattentiveness like a slumbering soldier atop the city wall. Then temptations are not avoided but discovered and entertained. Sins, especially bosom sins, are not hated but tolerated, and worse, justified. Wicked attitudes, words, and thoughts are not condemned but enjoyed for just a moment, a night, a season. Selfish pride is not crucified. Proudly waged as something noble before God, unholy fighting with our peers breaks out, and over issues not worth fighting for. The cause and name of God are not advanced but dishonored. The church slumbers, and certain men creep in unawares.
Probably more dangerous than any enemy is the soldier’s own carelessness. In many battles, letting down one’s guard only a little proves to be one’s last move. One day king David not only stayed home from the battle against the Ammonites, but that very act contributed thereafter, he was arranging for his neighbor’s wife to enter his bed chamber. “Little” sins like letting down our guard in the battle can lead to “big” sins, even gross, public sins. We are at war, and we cannot afford moments or days or weekends or seasons or periods of carelessness, as individuals or as churches. God, who “holdeth our soul in life, and suffereth not our feet to be moved” (Ps. 66:9), be thanked that we are never one sin away from lapsing into everlasting death. Yet we must know that safety comes in the way of conscious fighting.
Should a weakened consciousness of spiritual war ever be present, could distance from both national and ecclesiastical war be a contributing factor?
Most of us in the PRCA have no firsthand experience in national warfare, or even in the ever changing but always chilling sights and sounds of war. Very few have ever trained for and fought in war. Another foreign power has not invaded and overtaken our country. Our boys are not catching the train en masse and heading off to battle. We do not have Philistines encircling our camp, Assyrians besieging our walls, or Roman soldiers stationed up and down our streets. Life in North America for us is never one of deafening volleys and sirens throughout the night, the rumble of choppers overhead, fields and beaches strewn with corpses, constant bloodshed and smoke. God be thanked for rest in the homeland! But national rest is rare. The history of the world is a history of nations warring. Is there a spiritual danger? It would seem true that national war would heighten one’s awareness of the reality of spiritual war and if nothing else draw one farther and farther away from sin and closer and closer to God, which is the essence of spiritual war.
Besides no war for most of us, there is for us as churches no great poverty, no severe bodily persecution, no recovery from a catastrophic calamity that wipes out whole cities (though that could change in a moment, and as they say here in southern California, we are due for a big one—an earthquake, that is). Rather there remains easy and ready access to amusement, the comforts of affluence, and pleasure. God’s good providence has made it so. From many points of view our world does not resemble a battlefield and remind us of our calling to war, but an amusement park with blinking neon lights, frivolous jingles, loud screams, and a long line of giddy pleasure-seekers eagerly awaiting their turn at the base of a towering Back-Slide that alluringly promises unforgettable thrills as one slides farther and farther away from God toward a pit called Bottomless. Outside of God’s Word there is nothing that will remind us of our calling to war. You need it. I need it. The church needs it. For, we are at war.
Nor do most of us have much experience in ecclesiastical warfare over doctrine. Certainly the church is always under attack, and is always engaged in holy warfare. At every worship service, monthly meeting of the local consistory, and meeting of classis and synod there are battles even when we acknowledge there is peace in the congregation/denomination. But we are not living, for example, in the 1950s, when in the PRCA there was a fierce battle over a fundamental doctrinal issue because the lie of man’s sovereignty in salvation presented itself in a certain definite form, threatened to make inroads into the churches, and had to be driven out. There was a battle waging that was taxing to individuals and the churches in so many ways, and was at the same time so spiritually rewarding as weary soldiers pressed closer and closer to their God. Those are not our days.
Not only that, but in the church world at large, the art of right ecclesiastical war is increasingly disparaged and abandoned. When heretics and false doctrine appear in the camp, rather than take up the sword, many are inclined to play the possum and roll over to play dead before the lie, or worse, to embrace it. False doctrine in many Reformed and Presbyterian churches is not viewed as it was during the great Reformation of the sixteenth century, a foe to be slaughtered hip and thigh. The very concept of ecclesiastical warfare is castigated in the name of a false ecumenicity. Young people do not learn war by scanning the surrounding ecclesiastical landscape. Neither, for that matter, will they properly learn biblical warfare in Christian colleges, where being an alert soldier might be most urgent.
Such warfare is not part of our ordinary daily national or ecclesiastical experience. Outside of God’s Word, nothing will remind us of and instruct us in our calling to war as individuals and churches, and the need to be conscious of our calling. The purpose of this series is to do just that. We are at war. War we must learn and wage as young people.