On Self-Defense

A correspondent asked the other day for a brief account of the biblical doctrine of self-defense. Let us establish some fundamental truths. First, God is sovereign over all things. He is Creator and Redeemer but he administers creation under the sphere of his general providence and redemption under a distinct sphere, which Jesus calls the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. The civil magistrate is a general, secular (not “secularist”), creational institution. The church is the principal manifestation of the sacred or the Kingdom of God/Heaven. Christians, i.e., those redeemed by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) belong to both spheres simultaneously. The family is a creational institution but one which, insofar as there are Christian families, straddles both spheres. Without making a distinction between these two spheres in what Calvin called the “twofold kingdom” (duplex regimen) the question of self-defense will be hopelessly muddled.

That we should distinguish between a fundamentally eschatological (heavenly) sphere and an earthly, proximate administration of God’s kingdom is evident from our Lord’s words to Pilate, “Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36; ESV). Our Lord affirmed the legitimacy of civil government and a clear distinction between the temporal and the eternal when he said, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21). The Apostle Paul taught the same in Romans 13:4 where he calls Caesar “God’s minister for your good.” There are things that belong to Caesar and there are things that do not. Everything, belongs to God but he administers his kingdom in distinct spheres.

Through the history of the church there have been two great errors on this question. One is to identify the common realm with the kingdom of God. This was the great error of Constantinianism, in which the civil magistrate was made more than a minister of God (Rom 13:4) authorized to use the sword for the preservation of this-worldly civil peace but in which he was considered to be God’s minister for the advancement of the gospel. There is no evidence in New Testament for such a notion. The advance of the gospel is considered to be a purely spiritual and ecclesiastical matter.

The other great error is that of the monks and the Anabaptists, who attempted to flee the world in disobedience to Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 5:10. We were never called literally to leave “the world” (i.e., the great mass of unbelievers) but to go into “the world” with the gospel of Christ and his kingdom (Matt 28:18–20).  Spiritual repudiation of broader pagan culture should not be confused with a literal withdrawal from it. The world that we must repudiate is the remnant of sin and death within ourselves, to which we must die to sin (1 Pet 2:24) but taking up our (metaphorical) cross (Matt 16:24).

The distinction between creation and redemption is a fundamental distinction. Christians live in both. It was the second-century Gnostics who denied the goodness and reality of creation, who decried the God of Genesis as a demiurge, a sub-deity. With Scripture, the Christians have always affirmed the goodness of creation (Gen 1:10). Creation, even after the fall, is not fundamentally evil. Humans are profoundly sinful and wicked, dead in sins and trespasses (Eph 2:1) but creation per se remains good and awaiting the consummation of all things (Rom 8:22). As citizens in a twofold kingdom Christians have responsibilities in both spheres, under creation and redemption. We ought not set the two against each other even as we distinguish them.

With those distinctions in mind consider what we may learn from Scripture about self-defense. There can be little doubt that the Hebrew Scriptures teach a right to self-defense. Would Abel (Gen 4:8) have sinned had he defended himself against Cain? Was Abel morally obligated to allow Cain to murder him? It would seem not. After all, we have already learned from Genesis 1:26 that human beings were created in the image of God. Legally innocent human life is sacred to God. This is the basis for the post-diluvian legislation in Genesis 9:5–6:

And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image (ESV).

The image of God in man is legal basis for the civil punishment of murder. By analogy, the image of God in man is sufficient warrant for self-defense.

Turretin is helpful here:

XV. Second, defensive homicide is not forbidden when anyone, for the purpose of defending his own life against a violent and unjust aggressor (keeping within the limits of lawful protection), kills another. To be considered as lawful protection, it is necessary: (1) that the aggressor unjustly assails and falls upon us; (2) that the defender be placed beyond all blame, while every other way of escaping morally by speaking or flying or yielding is shut against him; (3) that the defense be made during the very attack and not after it is over; (4) that nothing is done by him either under the impulse of anger or with the feeling and desire of revenge, but with the sole intention of defending himself.

XVI. The reason is clear. Although it is not lawful to return like for like and to avenge oneself, still to repel force by force and to defend oneself belongs to natural and perpetual right (especially where the aggression is simply violent and destitute of all public authority) even unto the slaying of the aggressor (although not intended by itself, but inasmuch as we cannot otherwise defend our lives and free ourselves from his unjust oppression). Nor do civil laws alone approve this, as is evident from the Codex to the Cornelian law and to the Aquilian law: “All laws and all rights allow the repelling of force by force” (cf. Corpus Iuris Civilis, I: Digesta 48.8 [“Ad legem Corneliam de sicariis”] [ed. P. Krueger, 1955], pp. 852–53 and ibid., 9.2.45 [“Ad legem Aquiliam”], p. 162). But God himself is found to have intimated this clearly in the law where a case of private defense is set forth from which a judgment can be formed concerning the practice of that law: “If a thief be found breaking up” (in the very act) “and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him” (Ex. 22:2). If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be blood shed for him if doubtless the slayer could discover that he had come only for the purpose of stealing and not of killing (Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, (11.17.15–16) ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 2 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–97), 2.115.

The passage to which Turretin appealed says, “If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him” (Ex 22:2–3). Under the Mosaic civil law, if a fellow finds someone in his house in the middle of the night and the homeowner kills the thief, the homeowner is innocent. Should, however, the homeowner kills the thief during daylight, when the homeowner can see that the burglar is a thief and not attempting homicide, the homeowner is guilty. The principal embedded here, in the language of the Westminster Confession 19.4, the “general equity thereof” is that a person has a natural, creational right to self-defense—even under the temporary, theocratic Israelite kingdom and laws. Remember, the Israelite kingdom and laws were intentionally temporary and were to be understood as a kind of manifestation of heaven. God met with Moses (the Old Covenant mediator) at the top of Sinai, manifesting himself from heaven. He commissioned the Israelites to conduct a holy war against the Canaanites as a picture of the final judgment. In its own way, the eschatology of the old covenant, national people of God was highly realized. Nevertheless, that relatively highly realized eschatology did not wipe out nature or creational laws and institutions (e.g., marriage and the Sabbath). The natural right of self-defense, to which Turretin referred, is part of the creational pattern that existed before Moses (e.g., under Adam, Noah, and Abraham) and that persisted under Moses (upon which the temporary Mosaic laws were superimposed) and under the New Testament.

This is a significant truth that helps us to understand the New Testament teaching in regard to the sword and self-defense. Both the monks and the Anabaptists (and many modern evangelicals in their wake) had an over-realized eschatology, i.e., they understood the new covenant era in redemptive history to be more eschatological or more heavenly than it really is. In comparison to the old, Mosaic covenant administration, the new covenant eschatology is, in some ways, less highly realized and in some ways more highly (not to say fully) realized. In the spiritual and ecclesiastical spheres the types and shadows have been replaced by the realities promised. The Spirit is present in a new and powerful way after Pentecost. We have those realities for which the prophets searched (1 Pet 1:10). In the civil realm, however, after Israel, no magistrate can claim to represent the Kingdom of God in the way that David could. No magistrate has the authority to conduct a “holy war.” In the New Covenant, our common, civil life is conducted under creational norms. Paul sketches out the abiding validity of natural law in Romans 1–2 and expects the civil to enforce it (Rom 13:1–7).

With this background we the categories we need to understand what the New Testament says about the sword, the civil magistrate, and the right of self-defense. The NT speaks of the sword both literally and metaphorically. Our Lord Jesus commanded his disciples to purchase literal swords:

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough (Luke 22:35-38; ESV).

This passage alone seems to be overwhelming prima facie evidence against the pacifist rejection of the right of self-defense. Our Lord commanded his disciples to buy swords for no other reason than for self-defense. Even if we say that the swords were for self-defense only against animals (sheer assumption), that is still a form of self-defense. They did not need swords for hunting—there were ways of hunting without swords (e.g,, fishing and trapping). Any claim that the ownership and use of weapons for self-defense is unchristian must reckon with our Lord’s own words. If swords were inherently evil our Lord could not have commanded his disciples to buy them and if they were never to be used then the command to buy them is nonsensical.

It is true that our Lord rebuked Peter for cutting off Malchus’ ear (Matt 26:51–52; John 18:19) but it is also true that Peter owned a sword and that Jesus did not tell him to get rid of it. He told him to return it to its scabbard. A sword is returned to its scabbard for future use. This passage is the paradigm for sorting out the distinction between self-defense and martyrdom. Jesus was not acting as a citizen of the temporal realm but as the King of Kings, to whom his Father had given an everlasting spiritual kingdom. He was acting in his capacity of a kingdom that is not established with military force. He was acting in his capacity as Savior and Redeemer of those whom the Father gave to him from all eternity. This is distinction between self-defense and martyrdom. When a criminal breaks into a house at 2:00 AM and the homeowner defends himself and his family, that is in defense of those who are legally innocent. In such a case, the homeowner is acting in lieu of the civil magistrate. This is why citizens have authority to detain and arrest criminals until the police arrive to relieve them.

When the pagan magistrate arrests Christians and demands that we renounce Christ or face death, we must choose death as we did in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd centuries AD. We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). Our Lord warned of coming persecutions: “So everyone who confesses me before men, I also will confess him before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 10:32–33). The early post-apostolic church wrestled for three centuries with the crisis created by martyrdom, until the legalization of Christianity. Those who refused to confess and who later repented of their cowardice and unbelief were called the “lapsed.” Some (wrongly) thought they should be excluded entirely from the visible church.

The sword to which the Apostle Paul refers in Romans 13:4 is also a literal sword, which he expected the magistrate to literally to use in defense of civil order. That is why the magistrate does not bear the sword in vain, because he uses it. The first-generation Anabaptists, because of their pacifism and their over-realized eschatology (their refusal to distinguish the Christian’s twofold citizenship) concluded that Christians may not serve in civil government but such a conclusion was (and remains) utterly unwarranted. Erastus was “city treasurer” (Rom 16:23). He was clearly a Christian and a part of the civil government. Our Lord did not command the centurion to resign his commission as an Roman military officer (Luke 7:1–10). Cornelius the centurion (Acts 10) was used by God and presumably participated in the outpouring of the Spirit recorded there.

If swords (and the purpose for which they are intended) are either inherently evil (a view that seems closer to Gnosticism than to Christianity) or now forbidden to Christians, why then does the NT consistently employ the metaphor of the sword? If something is either inherently unjust (e.g., murder) we would not expect it to be used as a metaphor for the Christian life. If the sword were wholly inappropriate for Christians, again, we would not expect to see it used as a metaphor for the Christian life. The sword is used, however, as a metaphor for the Christian life and even for God’s Word (Heb 4:12).

Our Lord himself said that he came to bring a metaphorical sword to divide one against the other (Matt 10:34). The Apostle Paul uses martial imagery to describe the Christian life and struggle against sin:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication (Ephesians 6:12–18; ESV)

Notice to what end Paul employs this military imagery: spiritual warfare. Christians are not called to gear up and go to literal warfare to advance the Kingdom of God or for spiritual purposes. This was one of the many great errors of the Crusades. If the West needed to defend itself against the Islamic military expeditions (it did) it should have left Christ and his Kingdom out of it. Those who “preached” the crusades (e.g., Urban and Bernard of Clairvaux) confused the two spheres of God’s kingdom when they promised indulgences to those who served. Soldiers do not march under the banner of Christ. They march for the common good, as God’s ministers in the civil, common sphere.  Still, this imagery would hardly be appropriate for Christians were swords etc both unknown and forbidden to Christians in the new covenant.

Christian pacifism is misguided because it confuses two distinct spheres of God’s sovereign rule over all things. It ignores the semi-eschatological condition under which Christians exist until the return of Christ. It confuses the sacred and the secular. In short, it is the result of a series of category mistakes which makes those so subject to the confusion unable to understand and synthesize what Scripture actually says about the Christian’s role in civil life generally and in the new covenant specifically.


  1. Dr. Clark,

    If ISIS were to attack my church on a Sunday morning, I believe under this analysis I would have a right to resist and defend my wife and family to the extent possible, and not assume that I have to commit myself and my family to martyrdom. Would you agree?

    • I agree. ISIS does not meet any reasonable definition of a magistrate. They are terrorists. It would be one thing for the magistrate to arrest and kill Christians for their faith. It’s another thing for a band of terrorists to do the same.

      The piece was already too long but I might also have addressed Calvin’s doctrine of “lesser magistrates,” which helps in this context.

  2. Dr. Clark, thank you for this extended explanation. What of the American Revolution? Were the Colonists acting for the common good, or is such aggression never, ever warranted? If someone in North Korea had the chance to knife Kim Jong Un, and the man was a Christian, should he not?

    • Adam,

      That’s why I mentioned Calvn’s doctrine of “lesser magistrates” (Institutes, 4.20). The American Revolution, in distinction from the French Revolution, was not a mass (democratic), mob rebellion. Duly appointed representatives acted on our behalf, after petitioning for relief. The Continental Congress was, arguably, a “lesser magistrate” seeking to hold in check a tyrant and failing that, to seek freedom from him. There is a long Reformed tradition of even more radical theorizing on this going back to Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos and Beza’s On the Right of Magistrates and other such texts. The great weakness of those approaches, in distinction from Calvin’s, was that they would deny that any modern state is the equivalent of national Israel but then write about them as the state was functionally the equivalent of national Israel and the king was David (or some wicked Israelite king).

      I’m interested in the work of Johannes Althusius. I’ve done a little writing on him here.

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