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Picture of a shield with the words 'Fight Valiantly'

Fight Valiantly! Not By Force

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 8 Apr 2019

Fighting valiantly against the world, the flesh, and the devil is not a matter of violence, says Lee Gatiss in the next instalment of our Lent series. Watch the video for today's episode on our YouTube channel.

Contending for the faith is a spiritual battle, not a physical matter of force and compulsion or mere politics. As Luther said, speaking of his attempts to persuade people away from the Roman Catholic Mass, “Christian love should not employ harshness here nor force the matter…no one should be dragged away from it by the hair; for it should be left to God, and his Word should be allowed to work alone, without our work or interference…We should preach the Word, but the results must be left solely to God’s good pleasure.”

We bring people to true faith not with harshness but with patient teaching of the word. When Luther says “without our work or interference,” Luther doesn’t mean to deny a place to preaching or persuading or planning; what he means is clear: we don’t contend for Christian things in un-Christian ways, by force or by cacophonous screeching. We trust in God’s word to work.

This had always been the way in the early church too, of course. It is well worth noting this continuity. Lactantius (250–325) wrote in the early centuries that “there is no occasion for violence and injury, for religion cannot be imposed by force; the matter must be carried on by words rather than by blows, that the will may be affected.” The Venerable Bede (673–735) made the same point in the early middle ages when it came to the early evangelisation of England, insisting that “the service of Christ must be accepted freely and not under compulsion.”

Later in the middle ages, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) thought somewhat differently, saying that although Jews and heathens should not be compelled to faith, “On the other hand, there are unbelievers who at some time have accepted the faith, and professed it, such as heretics and all apostates: such should be submitted even to bodily compulsion, that they may fulfil what they have promised, and hold what they, at one time, received.” Crusades and Inquisitions marred the medieval church’s efforts to promote the gospel lovingly.

During the Reformation, however, Thomas Cranmer repeated the Protestant line when thinking about how to persuade his major theological opponent, Stephen Gardiner: “Shall we perhaps…by severity and cruel behaviour overthrow him…? I do not take this to be the way to allure men to embrace the doctrine of the Gospel.” Or as Richard Taverner also preached at that time, people “ought not violently to be drawn to our faith, but lovingly rather invited and allured.”

In the nineteenth century, Charles Simeon declared that the sword of the magistrate “may indeed be properly used to suppress any evils which injure society, and to protect the godly in the free enjoyment of religious liberty: but it must not be put forth to propagate the truth. Let Mahometans bathe their swords in blood, and Papists kindle their fires, to make proselytes to their religion; but God abhors such measures; and has declared, that ‘they who take the sword shall perish with the sword.’” Later in the nineteenth century, the Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon agreed, concluding that “For the church of God ever to avail itself of force or compulsion in order to propagate its doctrines would be clean contrary to the spirit of Christianity.”

Questions for Reflection

1. Why is it important not to contend for Christian things in un-Christian ways?
2. How should our approach to heretics who profess to be Christians differ from our approach to those who don’t claim to follow Jesus at all?
3. In what ways should true faith be enforced within the church?

Catch up on the whole series here.

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and the editor of Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion, the latest book from Church Society.

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