Soldiers, Salvation, and Vocation

Yesterday saw a lot of 9/11 tributes. They were reminders of the attacks on the United States ten years ago. But they were also a reminder of the wars that the U.S. and her soldiers were led to fight (Iraq and Afghanistan). And that leads to an interesting question. Can a Christian legitimately serve as a soldier, and even kill another human being, and have it be considered a God pleasing act?

How do we reconcile the 5th commandment—you shall not kill— with the vocation of a fighting soldier? And since we are on the topic, and since the commands and imperatives of Jesus are often brought up on this blog, how do we reconcile Jesus words from the Sermon on the Mount with the vocation of a soldier:

38You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  39But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  41And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” Matthew 5:38-41

Though I objected to some of David Platt’s conclusions regarding his notion of “radical obedience” in my last post, I did agree with his indictment against Christians obsessed with the American dream. But a further curious consideration would be if his call for radical obedience to Christ’s commands would also include Jesus’ words of Matthew 5:38-41?

As Platt criticizes those Christians pursuing the American dream, Stanley Hauwerwas in one (among others) who criticizes Christian Americans, and I think rightly so at times, for getting so caught up in their zeal for country, that their patriotism (or nationalism) becomes their idol. (As he poses, which flag will heaven be flying anyway?)

Even so, using Platt’s notion of radical obedience, Christian soldiers, like my youngest brother who fought in Iraq and still bears the scars and shrapnel in his body from his battles, would seem to potentially fall outside of proper obedience to Christ. For, using Platt’s reasoning, how can a soldier proclaim the Gospel and disciple Muslim unbelievers when he is engaged in violent, deadly war against them? Is that evidence of radical obedience?

Stanley Hauwerwas is also quite clear, though thoughtfully so, that Christians ought to be committed to nonviolence if they are serious about what Christ endured for the salvation of the world. He is not bashful about invoking Jesus words to turn the other check and he challenges Christians to reconsider positions regarding the acceptance of using violent force. So what do we do?

Martin Luther in his 1526 work titled, Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, provides some insights about this, trying to balance the reality of the God created office of government and soldier and their proper use of force, with when the use of force would be wrong:

“A soldier ought to have the knowledge and confidence that he is doing and must do his duty to be certain that he is serving God and can say, ‘It is not I that smite stab, and slay’ but God and my prince, for my hand and my body are now their servants…

 [Yet] ‘Suppose my lord were wrong in going to war.’ I reply: If you know for sure that he is wrong, then you should fear God rather than men, Acts 4 [5:29], and you should neither fight nor serve, for you cannot have a good conscience before God” (p.130).

Luther was also well aware of concerns regarding Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount and preached openly on them (from his 1530-1532 commentary on the Sermon on the Mount):

“This text has also given rise to many questions and errors among nearly all the theologians who have failed to distinguish properly between the secular and the spiritual, between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the world. Once these have been confused instead of being clearly and accurately separated, there can never be any correct understanding in Christendom, as I have often said and shown…” (p.105).

 “Thus when a Christian goes to war or when he sits on a judge’s bench, punishing his neighbor, or when he registers an official complaint, he is not doing this as a Christian, but as a soldier or judge or a lawyer. At the same time he keeps a Christian heart. He does not intend anyone any harm, and it grieves him that his neighbor must suffer grief. So he lives simultaneously as  Christian toward everyone, personally suffering all sorts of things in the world, and as a secular person, maintaining, using, and performing all the functions required by the law of his territory or city, by civil law, and by domestic law. In other words, a Christian as such does not live for the things that are visible about this outward life. They all belong to the imperial government, which Christ has no intention of overthrowing. Nor does He teach us to escape from it or to desert the world and our office and station, but to make use of this rule and established order.  Yet while we keep our obligation to this rule and established order, inwardly we live by another rule, which does not hinder it nor even deal with it, but which is willing to put up with it” (p.113).

This understanding is summarized in the official Lutheran confessions: It is taught among us that all government in the world and all established rule and laws were instituted and ordained by God for the sake of good order, and that Christians may without sin occupy civil offices or serve as princes and judges, render decisions and pass sentence according to imperial and other existing laws, punish evil doers with the sword, engage in just wars, serve as soldiers, buy and sell, take required oaths, possess property, be married, etc. Augsburg Confession XVI.

My point? In short, Lutherans recognize the significance of all Christ’s words and do not simply aim to ignore, marginalize, or elevate as all supreme, any one phrase or sentence. Rather, we seek to give thoughtful reflection to the entirety of God’s Word (and its context) as well as His mission, acknowledging all the vocations God has established and ordered, while also recognizing that His mission is broader than one isolated command or phrase of Jesus.

As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments and reactions as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).


Rev. Woodford


9 responses to “Soldiers, Salvation, and Vocation

  1. Pastor Woodford, this is simply unfair. David Platt is not saying “We need RADICAL obedience—so support gay marriage!” He is not saying “We need RADICAL obedience—so let’s re-start the sacrificial system!”

    This is foolishness. David Platt’s book was targeted towards specific issues. You can’t just pull out a concept (Radical obedience) and just pell-mell apply it to something else to make the author look stupid.

    Let’s flip this around: Since you think it is ok for soldiers to kill, this must mean that in war time, there is no such thing as a war crime. Soldiers can kill civilians without giving it a second thought. Women and children can be targeted in attacks, along with hospital and orphanages. Since it is ok for soldiers to kill, they can any person, for any reason they want to.

    Is that what you are saying?

    Well, of course it is not. The same applies with David Platt.

    You say that you are looking for collegial and constructive comments—I wish that you would do the same for Platt, because this post seems to be an utter twisting of his words.

    • Dear Rev. Louerback,

      My aim is certainly not to be unfair. I always appreciate your efforts to keep me above board. However, in this case, I believe that I was simply looking at the logical conclusion one would have to make if one embraces the fullness of Platt’s position on radical obedience regarding Jesus words. I appreciate your concern and I will take another look to see if I am twisting his words. However, having read the book twice, I feel confident in my assessment.

      My aim is not to make Platt “look stupid” but rather to demonstrate where, from my perspective, his theology will logically lead. Yes, Platt did aim his book toward issues—the American dream, materialism, me-ism, etc. I have acknowledged that more than once. But remember he addressed these “issues” by developing a pervasive theology that is to permeate all of life—“radical obedience.” One can’t cherry pick who they want their theology to impact when they say it is what Christ demands of every Christian. I am simply aiming to honestly and collegially recognize the consequences of such theology, which, in the case of this post, involved the vocation of soldiers who are Christians.

      My post was using my understanding of Platt’s theology and contrasting it with how Lutherans see vocation, specifically here, the challenges in the vocation of a fighting soldier. You appear to question the Lutheran doctrine of vocation with, what I gather to be, an affinity for Platt’s take on his portrayal of true authentic Christian living. I have never said we can’t learn from other perspectives. And I have affirmed what I feel I am theologically able to affirm about Platt. But what I am saying, and trying to make clear, is that Lutheran theology is clear on what it proclaims and what it does not proclaim.

      And yes, my aim by this blog is collegial and honest theological dialogue. In fact, that is why I addressed Platt. I wanted to be collegial and honest about his theology. You may grow weary of my adherences to classic Lutheran theology, but my point is, what else should a Lutheran be expected to do? And please know, I am not saying that we cannot learn from other non-Lutheran authors or pastors. But what I am saying is that I believe our Lutheran theology is not incomplete or in need of revision in light of our age or culture. (Though, yes, our practice of it may certainly need some reforming). My aim is simply for Lutherans to be respectfully honest about their theology and practice—when it is Lutheran and when it is not Lutheran—and be comfortable declaring so in both circumstances.


      Rev. Woodford

  2. Do not misunderstand me: I am not weary in any way of classical Lutheranism.

    I am all for fairness. And you are simply being unfair. It is blatantly foolishness to say that a position that says “We need to be obedient” would lead to say “Christians cannot be soldiers.”

    This simply does not follow. You attempt to make it follow by saying “Well, since an argument can be made about this, it must be that he cannot say Christians can be soliders.”

    That is to say, you are not taking his argument — you are instead taking YOUR interpretation of what you think that his position MIGHT be concerning Mat 5.

    David Platt could just as easily say “John says soldiers ought not to shake down people. Radical obedience would be to do just this.”

    Once again: it is clear that your argument does not not follow at all from what he says about obedience. It simply doesn’t. It just comes from your own interpretation of what he might think about a passage that doesn’t mention soldiers at all.

    So, please, this is not the “consequence” of his theology at all. No more than saying that allowing war crimes is a consequence of our theology.

    Once again—and I know that I am a guest, and I want to be nice — but you are not at all giving him a fair shake on this. Not at all. I don’t mind you picking at him for his confusion of law and Gospel or his decision theology. Those are positions he is actually holding to.

    You are just twisting his words and saying “Oh he might hold to this” and that position is clearly not a logical extension of his theology. Clearly not. It is no more a logical extension of his theology than Gay Marriage is a logical extension of our theology.

    • Dear Rev. Louderback,

      Thanks for your persistence. Below are some excerpts from the first three or so chapters of the book, of which, I contend, support my perspective on Platt’s theology. (I am sorry I do not have pages numbers to go along with them as my edition of the book in on Kindle and I don’t seem to have the page number feature, or have not found how to turn it on yet. If someone knows how to do this, feel free to let me know.) You will note that he espouses obedience to Jesus’ words. And yes, he does at times reference specific texts, but tends to express the point for obedience to the words of Jesus in general.

      God created each of us to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, and I propose that anything less than radical devotion to this purpose is unbiblical Christianity. (Can a person be committed to this statement when they are a fighting soldier?)

      Whenever the crowd got big, he’d [Jesus] say something such as, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”… Soon I realized I was on a collision course with an American church culture where success is defined by bigger crowds, bigger budgets, and bigger buildings. I was now confronted with a startling reality: Jesus actually spurned the things that my church culture said were most important. So what was I to do? I found myself faced with two big questions. Was I going to embrace Jesus even though he said radical things that drove the crowds away? Was I going to obey Jesus? My biggest fear, even now, is that I will hear Jesus’ words and walk away, content to settle for less than radical obedience to him.

      I am convinced that we as Christ followers in American churches have embraced values and ideas that are not only unbiblical but that actually contradict the gospel we claim to believe. And I am convinced we have a choice. You and I can choose to continue with business as usual in the Christian life and in the church as a whole, enjoying success based on the standards defined by the culture around us. Or we can take an honest look at the Jesus of the Bible and dare to ask what the consequences might be if we really believed him and really obeyed him.

      I could not help but think that somewhere along the way we had missed what is radical about our faith and replaced it with what is comfortable. We were settling for a Christianity that revolves around catering to ourselves when the central message of Christianity is actually about abandoning ourselves.

      We do have to give up everything we have to follow Jesus. We do have to love him in a way that makes our closest relationships in this world look like hate. And it is entirely possible that he will tell us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor.

      The price is certainly high for people who don’t know Christ and who live in a world where Christians shrink back from self-denying faith and settle into self-indulging faith. While Christians choose to spend their lives fulfilling the American dream instead of giving their lives to proclaiming the kingdom of God, literally billions in need of the gospel remain in the dark.

      Here we stand amid an American dream dominated by self-advancement, self-esteem, and self-sufficiency, by individualism, materialism, and universalism. Yet I want to show you our desperate need to revisit the words of Jesus, to listen to them, to believe them, and to obey them.

      If you are serious about taking this journey I believe a couple of preconditions exist. This goes back to the two big questions I started asking myself when I realized I was a megachurch leader trying to follow a minichurch leader. First, from the outset you need to “commit” to “believe” whatever Jesus says…Then second, you need to “commit” to “obey” what you have heard. The gospel does not prompt you to mere reflection; the gospel requires a response.

      Now, you object that I am being unfair because I have twisted Platt’s words to say something he is not. At a minimum, the above quotes demonstrate, from a Lutheran perspective, my objections to his theology of radical obedience. Even so, I will concede that I spoke to the consequences of Platt’s theology rather than to his specific words. Nonetheless, his words above are meant to offer some initial rational of how I arrived at my conclusion. Regardless, my point of this post was to demonstrate the unreasonableness of the final consequences of Platt’s theology of obedience. Even though he does not speak against soldiers, if he is sincere and consistent about his theology of obedience to Christ’s words, he would, out of necessity, have to come to the conclusion that fighting soldiers are not following Christ’s words, or he would have to therefore disregard certain words of Jesus. This is why I also invoked Stanley Hauerwas. He is one who methodically takes Jesus words, particularly those of Matthew 5, and challenges people who call themselves Christians, to be obedient to them.

      With that said, I will concede your point if you can agree that the natural result of Platt’s theology of obedience would necessarily lead to one of the two above conclusions: Obedience to all of Jesus’ Words (which would have vocational consequences) or ignoring certain phrases of Jesus.


      Rev. Woodford

  3. I have a good friend of mine, a Lutheran pastor, who is a pacifist. Like other pacifists, he believes in non-violent resistance. He and I argue about this, but ultimately he believes that he is being obedient to the Words of Christ.

    He can spell out his position, and his argument, because he actually holds to it.

    You on the other hand say this:

    ” Even so, I will concede that I spoke to the consequences of Platt’s theology rather than to his specific words. ”

    Hm. The question is, are they actual consequences? Or are you simply saying “Pacifists think they are being obedient; if someone says you need to be obedient, that means you must be a pacifist.”

    Which actually would not apply to David Platt…it would apply to every single Christian. Because we all advocate obedience. So, are you arguing against David Platt’s position or just against pacifism?

    Let’s spell out your argument:

    David Platt says “Our life ought to reflect a radical obedience to the words of Christ.” He says specifically: “God created each of us to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, and I propose that anything less than radical devotion to this purpose is unbiblical Christianity.”

    Jesus says the Words of Matthew 5.

    Pacifists have said “You cannot be obedient to Christ and be a soldier. Non-violent resistance is what the Christian is called to as their life of the cross.”

    From that, you draw the conclusion that a person be committed to this statement can’t fight soldiers.

    Wait—all you are doing is holding to the pacifist’s position…it has nothing to do with David Platt.

    Nothing at all. It is simply the argument of pacifists. They believe they are being obedient. But so what? Plenty of people think their positions are one of obedience—Gay marriage, polygamy, etc.

    Obviously, they are not. You need to spell out your argument a bit more: you say “he would, out of necessity, have to come to the conclusion that fighting soldiers are not following Christ’s words” — why is this? Because pacifists say that obedience to Christ requires it? Why are they automatically right?

    I say, the soldier’s ultimate goal is to protect civilians. That is the very goal of war—to bring peace to people. In this way, he keeps civilians from being harmed by aggressors. (I don’t want to drag just war theory into the argument, but just war generally does not support the aggressor—which is not the same as the person who attacks first, right?)

    That is how a person can be a soldier and also have a radical devotion to sharing their faith.

    So, once again: your criticism of David Platt is not based upon his argument. It is not a logical extension. It is not a necessary position. All you are doing is taking his position, slapping a pacifist position on it, and pretending that it does not match up with Lutheran theology.

    But it is not a natural consequence of his theology. It is just a natural consequence of saying “Pacifists think they are obedient.” Well, so do a lot of people.

    And that is what I find so irritating. You are not opposing David Platt where he is—you are not going after honest objections to what he is saying. You are twisting his words (obedience = pacifism) and saying “How silly.”

    We ought not to do that.

    • Things that are irritating have a way of keeping us both on our toes. 🙂 Bottom line, I am arguing against Platt’s position. Platt cheery picks the words of Jesus that he wants to use to define the Christian life. My use of pacifism was simply an example to draw that out. I believe you read into Platt a more generous pliability (how you defined soldiers could indeed be Christian according to Platt) than his theology would allow. I cannot fully embrace Platt’s position because, bottom line, he devalues (whether intentional or unintentionally) the vocations of earnest, active, and devoted Christian disciples. The quotes I provided above amply demonstrate this. Yet, I am not alone. Others agree with my assessment. Numbers of them can be found on the Amazon reviews. However, one in particular was the formal review of the book given by Reformed Pastor and Author, Kevin DeYoung on his website. A portion of which is below. Thanks for the all good dialogue on this.


      Rev. Woodford


      There is much to like about Radical. I applaud David’s call for serious discipleship. I love his bold words about counting the cost and pursuing something better and riskier than the “good life.” I am grateful he never shies away from the hard edges of God’s sovereignty and God’s wrath. I especially appreciated Chapter Seven (“There is No Plan B”) where David walks through the book of Romans and makes a strong case for why non-Christians must hear the gospel and put conscious faith in Christ in order to be saved and why Christians must make it a priority to reach those who have never heard. Radical is a stirring book that will help many Christians.

      A Few Concerns
      But not everything here is helpful. Let me highlight a few concerns I have with the book and with the some elements of the larger “get radical, get crazy Christianity” that is increasingly popular with younger evangelicals. I hesitate to mention these concerns because there is so much in the book I agree with and because David does provide caveats here and there to soften the blow of his rhetoric. But people tend to hear what we are most passionate about, and I’m afraid the take-home message from Radical for many people may reinforce some common misconceptions about what it means to be sold-out for Jesus.
      Here are a few concerns in increasing order of importance.

      First, I think David’s context sometimes leads him to overstate his conclusions. For example, David is very negative about church buildings, calling them “temples,” “empires,” and “kingdoms” (118). I can’t help but feel that David’s own struggle with preaching “in one of these giant buildings” has forced him to speak too sweepingly about the way most churches in America (which are small) approach their facilities (119).

      Second, we need a better understanding of poverty and wealth in the world. The Christian needs to be generous, but generous charity is not the answer to the world’s most pressing problems of hunger, inadequate medical care, and grinding poverty. Wealth is created in places where the rule of law is upheld, property rights are secured, people are free to be entrepreneurs, and there is sufficient social capital to encourage risk-taking. We can and should do good with our giving. But we must not lead people to believe that most of human suffering would be alleviated if we simply gave more.

      Third, there is an implicit, underlying utilitarian ethic in many “radical” streams of Christianity that makes faithfulness to Christ impossibly daunting. To his credit, Platt says we don’t need to feel guilty for everything that is not an absolute necessity (127). But earlier we are made to feel bad for the money we spend on french fries (108). It is easy to stir people to action by relating how little everyone else has and how much we have in America, but we are not meant to have constant low-level guilt because we could be doing more.

      Paragraphs like this pack a punch, but on closer inspection are not as helpful as they seem:
      Meanwhile, the poor man is outside our gate. And he is hungry. In the time we gather for worship on a Sunday morning, almost a thousand children elsewhere die because they have no food. If it were our kids starving, they would all be gone by the time we said our closing prayer. We certainly wouldn’t ignore our kids while we sang songs and entertained ourselves, but we are content with ignoring other parents’ kids. Many of them are our spiritual brothers and sisters in the developing nations. They are suffering from malnutrition, deformed bodies and brains, and preventable diseases. At most, we are throwing our scraps to them while we indulge in our pleasures here. Kind of like an extra chicken for the slaves at Christmas. (115)

      I know David believes in the necessity of corporate worship but I’m not sure how our obligation to worship squares with this paragraph. Surely, we are not guilty for worshiping on Sundays just because the poor exist. Moreover, surely it is appropriate to hold to believe in some sort of moral proximity when it comes to the pressing needs of the world. We do have more responsibility for the boy drowning in our pool than for the boy starving on the other side of the world. The whole world wasn’t rebuked for neglecting the man on the Jericho road, but the priest and Levite were (Luke 10:29-37). The needs of the church come before the needs of the world (Gal. 6:10) and the needs of our families take on a priority that other needs don’t (1 Tim. 5:8).

      Along the same lines, as evangelicals rediscover a biblical concern for the poor we must be careful our applications are tied to careful exegesis. Some passages we quickly employ, like James 5 (see p. 109), are not just about the rich, but about the ungodly rich who acquire their wealth by cheating the poor. And other passages like the rich young ruler (Mark 10, Luke 18), which David uses extensively, must be seen in their larger context. The question “Who then can be saved?”—referring to the disappointed rich man in Luke 18—is answered in Luke 19 where Zacchaeus gives, not everything away, but half of his goods to the poor (v. 8). Others in Luke are well-regarded for simply supporting the disciples “out of their means” (8:3). The point of the rich young ruler is not to make us worried that having anything might be too much, but to help us see more clearly the models of lived out faith in wealthy people like Zacchaeus and Joseph of Arimathea (Matt. 27:57; Luke 23:50-56).

      Fourth, I worry that radical and crazy Christianity cannot be sustained. If the message of Jesus translates into “Give more away” or “Sacrifice for the gospel” or “Get more radical” we will end up with burned out evangelicals. Even when Jesus said his hard saying (and he said a lot of them) it was not his basic stump speech. His message was repent and believe in the gospel (Mark 1:15). When Jesus challenged the crowds to count the cost or let the dead bury their dead it was to make clear that following him was not all about miracles and wonders, it was about giving him the preeminence. The emphasis was doxological first and foremost. Worship Christ. Believe in Christ. Walk with Christ. And therefore, before you follow Christ be prepared for opposition.

      I don’t worry for David’s theology, but I worry that some young Christians reading his book might walk away wondering if a life spent working as a loan officer, tithing to their church, praying for their kids, learning to love Christ more, and serving in the Sunday school could possibly be pleasing to God. We need to find a way to attack the American dream while still allowing for differing vocations and that sort of ordinary Christian life that can plod along for fifty years. I imagine David wants this same thing. I’m just not sure this came through consistently in the book.

      Fifth and finally, we must do more to plant the plea for sacrificial living more solidly in the soil of gospel grace. Several times David talks about the love of Christ as our motivation for radical discipleship or the power of God and the means for radical discipleship. But I didn’t sense the strong call to obedience was slowly marinated in God’s lavish mercy. I wanted to see sanctification more clearly flowing out of justification.

      Now I don’t believe that every command we ever give must include a drawn explanation of the gospel. But in a book-length treatment of such an important topic I would have liked to have seen “all we need to do in obedience to God” growing more manifestly out of “all God’s done for us.” At times the discipleship model came across as: “Here’s how we need to live. Here’s how we are falling short. Here’s how Christ can help us live the way we ought.” The gospel looks more like a means to obey the law, instead of resting in the gospel as respite from the law.

      Further, I wish there was more of an emphasis on what we do when we fall short of radical obedience. How do we get balm for our stricken consciences? Where do we find rest for our sin-sick souls? Just as importantly, I would hope that as David speaks in risky ways in order to challenge us all to shake off nominal Christianity, he would also on occasion speak in such a risky way that he’s charged with antinomianism (Rom. 6:1). On the whole, I think the motivation for obedience in Radical would have been more biblical and more balanced if it landed more squarely on the greatness of God’s love for us as opposed to the nature of the world’s great need and our great failures.

      In conclusion, I should say that David and I have had a chance to talk about some of these matters over the phone. His demeanor could not have been any kinder. He listened humbly and pushed back graciously. I’m happy to call David a friend and look forward to learning from him in the years ahead. To that end I’ve invited him to respond to my review and suggest any areas he thinks I’ve misread or any areas he might want to clarify.

  4. Well, Kevin DeYoung disagrees with David Platt and does not have to make up positions that he is taking. It is a response that is appropriate.

    ” I cannot fully embrace Platt’s position…” — and by that you mean what? That we ought to be pacifists? That we ought to make decisions for Christ? The problem is, we don’t actually see what your objection is to—we see how you object to pacifism, and how you think the position holds to this—but what exactly is Platt saying that you have issues with?

    As I said, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has made me re-think vocation more than Dvid Platt. I encourage you to read it and then reflect on what we mean when we say vocation.

    • Thanks for you thoughts. I might direct you back to my original (review) posting on the book. And I respect your right to pejoratively critique me, though, of course, I do not agree with it.

      Rev. Woodford

  5. You reviewed Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother!!! Excellent! Where???


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