The Biblical Basis for Self-Defense

In light of John Piper’s recent comments on whether Christians should ever use force to defend themselves or others, I would like to add my own thoughts regarding the Scriptures on this matter. When Jesus said, “Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matt 5:39), he was speaking with respect to our actions as individual Christians when mistreated for our faith. We are not to take revenge on those who persecute us because God will avenge us (Rom 12:19). He is not speaking with regard to the role of the government in punishing those who do evil or the obligation of a man to protect his family or the duty of God’s people to protect those who are helpless (Exod 2:17-19; 22:2; Deut 22:27; Neh 4:13-14; Esth 8:11; Job 29:17; Ps 82:4; 94:16; Prov 24:11; Eze 33:6; Matt 24:43; Luke 11:21; Acts 7:24; Rom 13:4; 1 Tim 5:8; 1 Pet 2:14).

Peter’s use of the sword against the Romans was sinful because he was using force against a legitimate authority (Rom 13:1-2). The church, of which Peter would be a cornerstone, advances the kingdom with spiritual weapons, not physical ones (2 Cor 10:4). In contrast, a person who is trying to murder your family is not a legitimate authority and should be repelled by force. Dying by the sword in Matthew 26:52 is a reference to the death penalty which those Peter had just attacked were capable of using and one day would use against him (Rom 13:4). Jesus himself used force to drive out the money changers from the temple because they were breaking God’s law (Matt 21:12; Mark 11:15-16; Luke 19:45; John 2:15). Therefore, it is not always sinful to use force or else Jesus would have been a sinner.

Jesus commanded his disciples to be armed with a sword in Luke 22:36 to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 that he would be numbered with the transgressors. But the act of being armed to defend oneself is not sinful or else Jesus would be commanding his disciples to sin. It was the use of the sword against a legitimate authority by Peter that was sinful, not owning a sword for self-defense. Some interpreters argue that the sword of Luke 22:36 is figurative rather than literal. But in that case, how would a figurative sword fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 and number Jesus among transgressors? Why would a person need to sell their cloak to buy a metaphorical sword?

We must be neighbors to those closest to us before those who are evil. Refusing to protect helpless people in distress is not being a neighbor to them, it is being a coward. Loving our neighbor requires us to protect them from those who would harm them. Men are called to provide for their families (1 Tim 5:8). That includes providing for their protection against those who would try to harm them. A husband who will not protect his family is even worse than one who will not provide for their financial needs.

It is the false shepherd who runs away and flees when confronted with danger. Jesus says in John 10:10-13: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” If a shepherd would use force to repel a wolf from attacking his sheep, how much more should husbands use force to protect their families. The reality is pacifism is often cowardice in disguise under a cloak of righteousness.

All human fighting, violence, and crime flow from man’s sinful craving to satisfy his appetite for power, money, pleasure, food, and significance. Christians turn from sinful lust by finding their identity in Christ instead of trying to build their own kingdom on earth. Because it is God who is our lasting satisfaction, we do not need to wage war to create heaven on earth. Crime will not cease until the second coming because violence is a problem of the heart. That requires constant vigilance by society to protect the innocent against those who are evil.

Pacifism in a fallen world invites violent men to take advantage of those they know will not fight back. In this sense, pacifism is a form of over-realized eschatology that does not take into account the reality of fallen man’s propensity to engage in violence even when there are strong deterrents. There will be no need for guns in the new heavens and new earth, but that day has not yet come. Other examples of over-realized eschatology include persecution of religious minorities, taking vengeance on others, the prosperity gospel, antinomianism, perfectionism, hyper-dispensationalism, hyper-Calvinism, hyper-preterism, never allowing any exceptions for divorce even in cases of unrepentant sexual immorality, and never allowing deception for the purpose of protecting the innocent (Exod 1:16-21).

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