This article by Andrew Fulford appeared in the April issue of Ad Fontes magazine. This is an edited version of a section from the first title in a new series: the Davenant Guides. To subscribe to receive full issues in your inbox, click here.



At last we come to the matter at hand, and answer the question: was Jesus a pacifist? The previous sections in this book have provided strong prima facie evidence from Jesus’ background context and the earliest foreground interpretation of his legacy, that he was not a pacifist. Now a positive explication of Jesus’ teaching and example are needed.

The strongest and most common arguments for pacifism from Jesus’ teaching come from a few places in the Gospels. Primarily, these seem to be: the temptation narrative, the Sermon the Mount (and parallel texts), his teaching about taking up the cross, his teaching about Caesar, his teaching about Gentile rulers, and his teaching about taking the sword. Another argument comes from Jesus’ acceptance of his own crucifixion.


In Matthew’s account, the final temptation given to Jesus is world domination (Matt. 4:8-11):

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

The pacifistic argument from this account usually follows the logic that this temptation represents the “zealot option” for Jesus’ ministry, and that in rejecting it, Jesus rejects violence in toto. However, there are several reasons to reject this interpretation. First, it wrongly conflates a zealot ideology, which is really a Holy War option, with a just war approach. Just war thinking follows certain criteria, including: (a) that a legitimate authority must wage war, (b) that the prospects of success in war must be probable for waging it to be licit, and (c) that acts of war should discriminate between the guilty and the innocent. Holy war thinking need not follow any of these criteria, and often has not in history.

Second, it overlooks the background to these temptations. In the wilderness temptation, Jesus recapitulates Israel’s wilderness wandering, but succeeds where Israel failed. This point is highlighted in the mode of Jesus’ reply: he quotes the word of God as sufficient reason for his obedience to God. He obeys God’s commands where Israel failed. In the desert, Israel caved into the temptation to worship idols. So in the present temptation, the command Jesus cites in reply to Satan is not “You shall not kill”, but “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”

A good positive explanation of this text is provided by the demonology of the NT. Paul teaches in 1 Cor. 10:20 that: “what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.” Further, the apostle confirms this assessment of Satan in a sense, when he states that the devil is (2 Cor. 4:4) “the god of this world”, and the apostle John echoes this concept in his first epistle (1 John 5:19): “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” For the NT, to live in any way other than obedience to God is, de facto, to be subject to and in fellowship with demons. Fellowship with evil can give pleasures for a time, including the pleasures of power. This is the temptation Jesus faced, and it is in fact the ultimate temptation: the temptation to replace God with the creature in our moral universe. Jesus’ rejection goes much deeper than a refusal of a certain kind of political tactic; his reply goes to the heart of the problem with the human condition. And this leads to the second background to the text, which is the failure of humanity at its origin, the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden. And what was the temptation they faced? Not the temptation to use violence, but the temptation to distrust God, and to strive for their desires in disobedience to his commands. It is this fundamental problem that Jesus’ refusal to worship Satan addresses, and not an ethically downstream matter like zealot violence.


In the preface to his book, The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination, Dr. Dale C. Allison writes about two common errors in exegesis of this sermon:

Some people would say that the Sermon on the Mount is the quintessence of Christianity. I am not among them. The erroneous conviction comes from the unfortunate habit of viewing the Sermon in isolation. Readers, especially modern readers, have again and again interpreted Matthew 5-7 as though the chapters were complete unto themselves, as though they constituted a book rather than a portion of a book. Symptomatic is the occasional reprinting of the Sermon in anthologies of literature. But the three chapters that constitute the Sermon on the Mount, chapters surrounded on either side by twenty-five additional chapters, neither summarize the rest of Matthew nor sum up adequately the faith of Jesus, much less the religion of our evangelist. How could anything that fails to refer explicitly to the crucifixion and resurrection be the quintessence of Matthew’s Christian faith? …The Sermon on the Mount is in the middle of a story, and it is the first goal of this little commentary to interpret the discourse accordingly.

There is a second way in which this commentary seeks to place the Sermon in context. All too often in the past–the strategy goes all the way back to Tertullian and Augustine–the Sermon has been read against Judaism. That is, the superiority of Jesus and the church over against Judaism has been promoted by arguing that this word of Jesus or that expression of Matthew brings us, within the world of first-century Judaism, something startlingly new, or even impossible. Most such claims, however, do not stand up under scrutiny. What we rather have in the Sermon is the product of a messianic Judaism… [and] most of the sentiments found in the Sermon already appear, at least here or there, in old Jewish sources. It is primarily the relationship of those sentiments to one another and, above all, their relationship to the person of Jesus and his story that gives them their unique meaning for Christians. So responsible exegesis will seek to highlight the continuity between the Sermon and Jewish teaching, whether within the Hebrew Bible or without, and moreover the immense debt of the former to the latter. The time of polemic against Judaism is over. So too is the time when Christians could pretend, in the words of Adolf Harnack, to find in the Sermon on the Mount teaching “freed from all external and particularistic features.”[1]

The following commentary on Jesus’ teaching will attempt to do what Dr. Allison suggests should be done, i.e. interpret the sermon in these two contexts. In many cases, I will simply be following Dr. Allison’s lead in doing so. Dr. Allison also highlights another important aspect of this sermon that some interpreters throughout the centuries have missed:

One must reckon seriously with the fact that the Sermon on the Mount is partly a poetic text. By this is meant that it is, unlike codes of law, dramatic and pictorial. The reader sees a man offering a sacrifice in Jerusalem (5:23), someone in prison (5:25-26), a body without eye and hand (5:29-30), someone being slapped (5:39), the sun rising (5:45), the rain falling (5:45), someone praying in a closet (6:6), lilies in a field (6:28), a log in an eye (7:4), wolves in sheeps’ clothing (7:15). These images and comments upon the sermon hardly add up to anything can be called legislation. The Sermon does not offer a set of rules–the ruling on divorce is the exception–but rather seeks to instill a moral vision. …

The Sermon’s primary purpose is to instill principles and qualities through a vivid inspiration of the moral imagination. What one comes away with is not a grossly incomplete set of statutes but an unjaded impression of a challenging moral ideal.[2]

Below, we will highlight the texts used most often to support pacifism in order to show how they do not, as well as various other aspects of the Sermon that confirm Allison’s general analysis.


When Jesus said to Peter (Matt. 26:52), “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword”, he uttered a common piece of timeless wisdom. This statement finds OT precedents, where it could not be pacifistic. What it really means is something people have truly recognized forever: that unjust aggression provokes vengeance from others. At least in the OT, however, this was not taken to mean that state coercion could never be effective. Further, it would find clear application in the case of revolutionaries and the seditious. These people, the OT taught, were very likely to meet a nasty end as a result of state vengeance. It is this aspect of the saying in particular which directly applies in Jesus’ context, for Peter’s violent act was committed against deputies of the state, and no doubt had a zealot holy war ideology as its engine. But Jesus knew the zealot agenda had no chance of succeeding against the might of the first century Roman empire. All those who took up the sword in that sense and context would surely die by it. And sadly, because they did not heed his warning, that is exactly what happened to Jewish zealot movements in 70 AD.


By far, the most common event in Jesus’ life used to justify pacifism is his submission to crucifixion. The basic claim is that his refusal to defend himself was an expression of his condemnation of violence in general. He regarded dying as preferable to killing in all situations, and so also in that situation.

But there are problems with this argument. Interpreting the intentions behind actions can often be difficult, for the same actions can be motivated by very different intentions. And such is the case with being willing to die. Granting that Jesus willingly suffered death, a number of possible explanations could provide the rationale for this act, without entailing pacifism.

One such motive would be to provide the propitiation for the sins of mankind. While some scholars have attempted to refute this possibility by denying the NT teaches Christ’s death was a propitiation, that attempt should be regarded as a failure. Though space does not permit defense of this here, Dr. John R. W. Stott’s masterpiece, The Cross of Christ, provides evidence that Jesus himself taught this was a purpose for his death, and interested readers would do well to begin with his survey.[3]   The logic of just war theory provides another [motive.] Given Jesus’ historical situation, where he knew very well that God did not wish to save him by means of legions of angels, and where his human followers had no political power, Jesus could not actually wage a successful war against the Herods, the Sanhedrin, and the Roman empire. He had no prospect of success. Further, in the system of human positive law that he lived under, Jesus had no political authority. These two facts alone mean, by just war logic, that he could not rightly fight the state when its agents came to arrest him. Just war criteria demanded his surrender at this point.

Pacifists will also sometimes suggest that Jesus’ death at the hands of the Romans somehow entails that government per se is always unjust, or at least that capital punishment is such. But of course, this does not follow with any kind of necessity from Jesus’ death. This conclusion must be read into his death first before it can be read out of it. For even in Jesus’ day people were well aware that unjust killing could happen (e.g., there were OT laws against murder for a reason) without concluding that capital punishment was therefore always unjust.


Andrew Fulford is currently studying for a PhD in Reformation history at McGill University. He is the author of Jesus and Pacifism and a contributor to the recently released Richard Hooker and Reformed Orthodoxy.


[1] Dale C. Allison, The Sermon on the Mount (New York: Crossroad, 1999), xi-xii.

[2] Allison, Sermon on the Mount, 11.

[3] John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ: 20th Anniversary Edition (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 72-79.


VIDEO: Pillars in Practice IV: Should Christians Avoid Public Schools?

The issue of Christian education is one of the most important questions most Christian families face, and also one fraught with controversy, that has often divided churches. In this video, Brad Belschner and Brad Littlejohn explore how we can navigate the principled and prudential questions surrounding this issue, and in so doing, illustrate how one might apply Davenant’s focus on “essentials” vs. “non-essentials.”

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 Discussion Points

00:26: Should Christians Avoid Public Schools?

00:45: Should the Government be in the business of educating?

1:00: Increasing Centralization of our Education System

1:55: The Reformers’ view

2:32: Aren’t parents responsible for education?

3:45: Should we have only Christian teachers?

4:47: The biggest problem – the environment of immorality.

5:30: Even some Christian schools are no better.

6:45: Why isn’t it it a black and white question?

8:25: Avoid making pronouncements on Christians that are divisive.

8:50: Essentials and Prudentials.

Common Places: Gregory Soderberg on Reformed Communion Practices and Church Discipline

Gregory Soderberg (PhD Candidate VU Amsterdam) speaks on the changes that were implemented in communion practice during the Reformation by Bucer, Calvin, and Oecolampadius.



1:40-7:00– What were some common communion practices in the pre-Reformation church?
7:30-What did the Reformers want to change about the practice and frequency of communion?
11:00-The importance of understanding the liturgy.
12:00-The uniqueness of the Swiss Reformation and the process of Reformation in Switzerland’s city republics.
13:30-16:00-The influence of Johannes Oecolampadius in the Swiss Reformation.
17:00-18:30-Martin Bucer’s influence on Calvin’s view of church discipline.
22:30-Efforts to examine church members before communion.
25:00-26:00-Calvin’s program of church discipline and the role of the consistory.
26:00-27:40- The Reformer’s view of discipline and centrality of the Word. 
27:45-31:20-Calvin’s advocacy of weekly communion.
36:00-Celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation
39:00-How do we move forward with the work of Reformation in our own time?




Pearl and Leaven: The Gospel Church as Institute and Organism

This article by Jordan J. Ballor appeared in the March issue of our Ad Fontes magazineTo subscribe to receive full issues in your inbox, click here.

A hallmark of neo-Calvinist thinking about the church in the nineteenth century and beyond is the distinction between the church understood as an institution and as an organism. The Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) elaborated this doctrine in his opening sermon as pastor in Amsterdam in 1870. The sermon’s title, “Rooted & Grounded,” is derived from the hope expressed by the Apostle Paul that the church would be “rooted and grounded in love” (Eph. 3:17).[1] The church is a living body, rooted in its connection with the living Word, Jesus Christ, the true vine and source of life. The church is also grounded in its institutional expression, its confessions, teachings, and practices.

The distinction is intended to articulate the authentic Reformed position over against two errors: the overemphasis on the institution found in Christendom and the overemphasis on the organic life of the church found in radical sects. Only the Reformed view, and only as it increasingly defined itself against older models of church and state, keeps the proper balance and relationship between these two aspects of the church’s existence.

The magisterial reformers had articulated a distinction between the visible and the invisible church as a way to explain and understand the difference between membership in a particular earthly community and citizenship in heaven. Kuyper develops a new dimension to this received understanding by exploring the difference between the church in its formal, institutional and its disseminated, organic expressions. The institutional church has to do with what the church does in some kind of formal, ecclesiastical sense. Here the traditional marks of the church are in view: the institutional church is defined by pure preaching of the gospel, right administration of the sacraments, and appropriate exercise of church discipline. The institutional church is visible when the church gathers together in corporate worship.

The organic church, however, comes to expression as the church is spread throughout the world in various arenas and vocations. If the institutional church is found in worship, the organic church manifests itself in work. The church as institution is gathered for worship; the church as organism is scattered for work. Older models of the relationship between the church and the world, such as those found in Christendom, tended to conflate civil and ecclesiastical powers, often with ecclesiastical power absolutizing the authority of institutional church. This was, thought Kuyper, the fundamental error of Rome and one that was largely replicated among early magisterial Protestant communities. And in contrast to the ecclesialization of all of life under Christendom, various radical responses tended to emphasize the organic and spontaneous aspects of the Christian religion. Here the formal structures of Christian worship and church life could be seen as dispensable, and even as impediments, to true faith.

The institute/organism distinction is thus intended to address an inconsistency in the Reformed embrace of older Christendom models while at the same time guarding against excessive pietistic spiritualization and understandings of faith as merely expressions of individual experience. It is also designed to provide a framework for understanding how the church ought to function within a pluralized and institutionally secularized society. The institutional church, argues Kuyper, has no right to impose its confession on the world through the use of the civil government’s coercive force. “We advocate a rigorously confessional church,” says Kuyper, “but not a confessional civil society, not a confessional state.”[2] In this way Kuyper’s vision was of a “free church” and a “holy nation.”[3] Thus, he asserts, “We must be free in order to escape Rome’s paralysis, but we must no less be church in order to escape the draining away of our lifeblood as a result of spiritualism.”[4] The true church of Christ, according to Reformed conviction, “envisions through her influence on state and civil society nothing other than a moral triumph, not the establishing of confessional ties, nor the exercise of authoritarian dominance.”[5]

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), Kuyper’s younger antirevolutionary colleague and successor to Kuyper as professor of theology at the Free University of Amsterdam, articulated an analogous distinction in his description of the kingdom of God as both a pearl and a leaven.[6] For Bavinck, the gospel comes to expression as a pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46) in the institutional church’s proclamation of the gospel and administration of the means of grace. Salvation is like a pearl that is worth everything we have. But this salvation is not just a matter of a one-time, individual experience. The regenerated and converted person, increasingly dying to self and living to God, continues to live in the world. As the Belgic Confession puts it, “those who are regenerated have in them a twofold life, the one corporal and temporal, which they have from the first birth and is common to all men; the other, spiritual and heavenly, which is given them in their second birth” (Art. 35). This second birth creates human beings who still live in the world and encounter it in their daily work, occupations, and social relationships.

The organic church is thus the primary way that the church exercise a reforming influence on the broader society outside the walls of the institutional church. “Although the worth of Christianity is certainly not only, not exclusively, and not even in the first place determined by its influence on civilization,” writes Bavinck, “it nevertheless is undeniable that Christianity indeed exerts such influence. The kingdom of heaven is not only a pearl; it is a leaven as well.”[7] For both Kuyper and Bavinck, the organic church is the living foundation for the edifice of the institutional church, which serves to support and instruct the body of Christ.

This dual emphasis on the importance of the church both as an institution and as an organism, akin to the biblical images of a pearl and a leaven, is a significant legacy of Dutch Reformed ecclesiology in the nineteenth century, and one that offers much help for navigating the difficult and perennial challenges of the church’s mission in the world.

Dr. Jordan J. Ballor is a senior research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty and a general editor of the Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology (abrahamkuyper.com)



[1] See Abraham Kuyper, “Rooted and Grounded,” in On the Church, ed. John Halsey Wood Jr. and Andrew M. McGinnis (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 46.
[2] Abraham Kuyper, Common Grace, vol. 2, ed. Jordan J. Ballor and Stephen J. Grabill (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, forthcoming), 36.3.
[3] See John Bolt, A Free Church, A Holy Nation: Abraham Kuyper’s American Public Theology (Grand Rapids, MI; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001); and John Halsey Wood Jr., Going Dutch in the Modern Age: Abraham Kuyper’s Struggle for a Free Church in the Netherlands (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
[4] Kuyper, “Rooted and Grounded,” 49.
[5] Kuyper, Common Grace, 2.36.3.
[6] See Jessica Driesenga, “A Pearl and a Leaven: The Twofold Call of the Gospel,” in The Church’s Social Responsibility: Reflections on the Evangelical Church and Social Justice, ed. Jordan J. Ballor and Robert Joustra (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian’s Library Press, 2015), 39-45.
[7] Herman Bavinck, “Christian Principles and Social Relationships,” in Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 141.


A Report on the Davenant Trust Colorado Convivium

We were very blessed to have Colorado Christian University, and our esteemed friend Michael Plato in particular, host our first Convivium in the Mountain West earlier this month. Mr. Plato kindly wrote up this thorough summary of the event to give you a taste of the rich conversations we enjoyed. If you are interested in listening to the recorded lectures and panel discussion, you can join Davenant Trustees and download or stream them through the private Trustees portal.


Recently the Davenant Trust hosted its first convivium in Colorado. The convivium was titled “Faith Alone: Recovering the Heart of the Reformation,” in recognition of the 500th anniversary of the recognized beginning of the Reformation. The event was held just west of Denver, at the campus of the event’s co-host, Colorado Christian University, on March 10th and 11th. Colorado Christian University’s new academic facilities and campus, located within view of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, provided a scenic and comfortable location for the gathering.

The event attracted a number of attendees from the local Denver area, as well as from further afield, including Colorado Springs; the majority of those in attendance, however, were students from the university. Though CCU is a confessionally Evangelical institution it is not specifically Reformed, and it was a good opportunity for many of the students to engage with Reformation history and theology at a deep level, that was also convivial.

The convivium began Friday evening with presentations made by David Buschart of Denver Seminary, and Aaron Denlinger of Westminster Theological Seminary.

Read more…

VIDEO: Pillars in Practice III: What is Natural Law?

In recent years, many Christians have turned to the notion of “natural law” as a way of engaging a hostile culture or secular political sphere. But how does natural law work? How does it fit with total depravity? Is it supported by Scripture? And is it really useful? Brad Littlejohn addresses questions such as these in this video.

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 Discussion Points

00:40: What is natural law, and how does it function in everyday human ethics?

1:40: Natural law is the awareness that, as a certain kind of creature, there are certain things that are good for us, and certain things that are bad for us.

2:35: What about total depravity? How has sin snuffed out our moral instincts?

3:15: There is no part of our nature that has not been touched by sin, and when it comes to our relation to God, sin has entirely incapacitated us.

4:05: The doctrine of natural law recognizes that sin has not snuffed out all awareness of our moral good.

4:55: What does the Bible say about natural law?

5:35: The Book of Proverbs takes for granted that we can discern something about moral order from the world.

6:05: How do we use natural law in Christian engagement with a hostile culture?

6:55: C.S. Lewis’s notion of the Tao; different moral values all find their basis in a common foundation.