God’s Holy Violence

So this last Sunday I continued my sermon series through the Gospel of Luke, coming to Luke 19:28-48, which includes the triumphal entry, Christ weeping over Jerusalem, and the cleansing of the temple. In the course of that message, I said this:

Christians really must get their minds and hearts around the fact that the way of Jesus is the way of a holy violence (Lk. 12:49, 51-53, cf. 14:26-27). To say this out loud in our world is to invite the cries of hate, religious extremism, terrorism, crusades, inquisitions, and abuse-shaming. But the Bible teaches that we will either have the violence and hostility of the cross, the only path of real peace or else there will be violence and hostility in our homes and streets and there will never be peace. There are no other options.

And I tweeted a portion of that yesterday morning. You can read the full outline here or listen to the audio of the sermon here.

Following the sermon, I’ve receive a few questions, specifically wondering if I’m creating confusion by likening the way of Jesus to “violence” or the cross as some kind of active violence. One friend linked to some of Peter Leithart’s work on the word “violence” in Scripture, who argues that it is almost exclusively used to describe immoral, wicked, and malicious acts.

First off, I don’t have any problem with making that lexical-moral-theological point. The biblical usage is significant and striking. The wicked are violent, and while God may use force, bring destruction, and wipe out cities and nations, strictly speaking, the Bible seems to reserve the word “violence” perhaps without exception to acts of the wicked. That is important to note. I’ve made a similar point in a more limited way with the story of the exodus. Strictly speaking, the word “armies” never applies to Pharaoh and his troops. The biblical text says that Pharaoh has chariots and horses and soldiers and might, but it never says that he has “armies” per se. The only uses of the word “armies/hosts” in the exodus narrative always refer to the children of Israel. They are the armies of Lord. And I believe this has some rich theological import for us to consider. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to take this lexical-theological point and then insist that Pharaoh really, historically had nothing that at all resembled “armies.” Likewise, while we can certainly make the lexical-moral point about the word “violence,” we must not be manipulated into a corner where God’s righteous acts are explained away as human fury tampering with the record or else implicitly convicting God of actual immorality.

One of the weaknesses of academics is that sometimes they can be manipulated by the facts. This happens often because academics are busy doing good work in a particular area, and because they are specialists, they aren’t watching the whole field. This is why Christian academics and scholars need pastors (and vice versa). Sometimes pastors are weak on the facts, and they need the specialists holding up their arms in the battle. Pastors need the specialists, and the specialists need pastors.

There are at least a couple of things to consider when it comes to speaking of God’s “holy violence.” While I’m happy to grant that biblically speaking “violence” is ordinarily charged with immorality, it’s important that we not cede ground to the secularists. The primary reason we’re having this conversation (or at least why it can tend to be a somewhat emotionally charged conversation) is because we’ve been groomed by our secular overlords for the last few hundred years to believe that wars and violence and bloodshed are primarily caused by “religion.” Our enlightened secularist priest-nannies remind us regularly in soothing tones that secularism is the solution to all of our religious fits and tantrums. And part and parcel with this is the constant barrage that the God of the Old Testament is blood-thirsty, tyrannical, abusive, and, among other things, a moral monster. “I could never believe in a God who… destroyed the world with a flood, nuked Sodom and Gomorrah, ordered Israel to slaughter men, women, and children during the conquest of Canaan, commanded the stoning of sodomites and adulterers, etc.”

I have no problem at all insisting that strictly speaking the Bible refuses to categorize any of those divinely sanctioned judgments as “violence,” given the fact that they were ordered by God and therefore were completely just and holy and good. But our enemies (and our Enemy) are often more crafty than we are. If the Christian scholar or preacher, does in fact celebrate the goodness of God in destroying Sodom and Gomorrah and Jericho and Agag the Amalekite and dashing Babylonian babies against the rocks (Ps. 137:9), then I have no qualms with him. But often, perhaps unintentionally, the lexical move is the prelude to compromise, retreat, and eventual surrender. Please read me carefully: I’m not accusing anyone in this current conversation of doing that, but I am generally concerned that the Church is a skittish pony that jumps at the slightest sounds of offense and reprimand. In other words, call me jumpy, but there are a lot of incentives out there for people to downplay the holy war of God against all sin and evil and our record is pretty miserable. And if you can’t see that, you aren’t paying attention and are not qualified to be part of this discussion. If your primary concern is that using the phrase “holy violence” may incite Christian terrorism, then congratulations, you’ve been thoroughly discipled by the High Priests of Modern Secularism.

And here’s how I know: Do you have the same concern when you read Jesus when He says:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matt. 10:34)

If not, why not?

If not, then you aren’t reading the Bible carefully. You have been trained to read the Bible with soothing secular lullabies thrumming in your ears. Wake up.

The centerpiece of God’s holy war is the cross of Jesus. The cross was a most brutal and violent act by wicked men, and yet, God, without engaging in anything sinful, commandeered that violence for His own purposes such that the sin of His people was laid on Him who knew no sin in order that the wrath of God against sin might be satisfied. In the cross, Paul says that God was “killing the hostility” that exists between God and man (Eph. 2:16). In this way, Jesus is our peace, our only peace. And the call of the gospel is to take up this cross and follow Jesus, in this way of peace. That call to repentance and obedience is a call to join Jesus in laying our lives down, but this is not merely a passive thing. The New Testament describes this as warfare, a holy war. Jesus says that the hand that causes us to sin should be cut off and the eye that causes us to sin should be plucked out (Mt. 5:29-30). Paul says that we must put to death what is earthly in us (Col. 3:5). “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). The mortification of the flesh is an active, daily crucifixion of our old man, a holy hatred and violence against the flesh. As John Owen put it, “be killing sin or it will be killing you,” and “let not that man think he makes any progress in holiness who walks not over the bellies of his lusts.” Add to this the command that we put on the full armor of God and wrestle against the powers of darkness (Eph. 6). Or again:

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, but ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete (2 Cor. 10:3-6).

Finally, I would remind folks of Hebrews 11. There in Hebrews 11, we are told that the heroes of the faith engaged in many different acts of obedient faith. Some left homes and families, some received power to bear children, some rejected the fleeting pleasures of this world, but some “through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (Heb. 11:33-34). In other words, while the Bible is clear that the center of warfare is the cross of Jesus, obedience, and repentance, and the weapons for that warfare are not of the flesh — nevertheless that same faithful obedience and repentance will sometimes require acts of self-defense, civil disobedience, execution of criminals, and just war (e.g. Dan. 6, Acts 4, Rom. 13). While I do believe that the herem war motifs of the Old Covenant were pointing to the cross, mortification of sin, the Great Commission, and ultimately Hell itself, obedience to Jesus still requires justice in the public square, and when the Word of God requires it, the use of judicious and holy violence. Let the secularists shriek, but we will obey the Lord Jesus.

“Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, ‘So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence, and will be found no more…” And when that happens, the people of God will shout, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just…” (Rev. 18:21, 19:1)

Can you shout Hallelujah? There is no other way to have the peace of God.

“The Lord goes out like a mighty man,
like a man of war he stirs up his zeal;
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
he shows himself mighty against his foes” (Is. 42:13).


Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash

  1. Elisabeth Swanson January 21

    One of Pastor Sumpter’s extraordinary sermons voiced the understanding that their white robes were robes of war. Why then is war and violence an issue? To fight the good fight of faith we are to lay hold of salvation. Matthew 11:12, already taught is the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. In Dakes Annotated commentary I quote: Greek biazo, to use force, to force one’s way unto a thing. The idea here is that before John the kingdom could only be viewed in the light of prophecy, but now it was preached, men pressing into it with ardor resembling violence or desperation, seizing by force. Luke 16:16 It expresses the earnestness that men must have in getting rid of sin, all satanic powers, the world, and standing true when opposed. Dakes, Matt. p 11.

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