Judges 1:1–36 (ESV)

1 After the death of Joshua, the people of Israel inquired of the LORD, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?”

How exactly are we to apply a passage like this that concerns the matter of holy war? To some it may appear obvious that we today are not called to implement holy war on our unbelieving neighbours. Unfortunately, however, many of the Old Testament passages concerning holy war have been misapplied throughout history by Christians in order to wipe out their enemies.

It is important to remember Ephesians 6:12: For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. For Christians, from the time of Jesus onward, the focus of holy war is not physical, but spiritual. For those who have the Spirit in their hearts, their task is to carry on with the holy war initiated by their Lord against the spiritual enemies who lie in back of the kingdoms of the world and are intent on polluting and destroying the holiness of the church (Ephesians 6:10–11). That means that the church does not, cannot, take up the sword against the enemy. We are commanded to put on the full armour of God and engage in spiritual warfare. The New Testament is full of military metaphors to describe such warfare.

The question then is, How are we faring in this regard? Are there areas where we, like Israel, fail to implement the holy war because of a lack of faith and obedience, because of a failure to implement Christ’s commandments? How are we struggling to implement Ephesians 6:10–20 in our lives? “To say that the Canaanites are a picture of the sins that remain among us is not all that far off track. That is what compromise looks like to us. Compromise is very tempting. It probably seemed very beneficial to the Israelites to co-inhabit with the Canaanites. There was relative peace, good trade, and they could mutually benefit each other. Too often, we are completely complacent in our sins. We have a lot of little sins that we think do not necessarily hurt us or anyone else. We are comfortable with them."1

If we are honest, we are not all that far off track to say that the Canaanites are a picture of the sins that we are comfortably living with. We allow sin to remain within us. To persist in us. That’s what compromise looks like to us. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that we do nothing. Instead of driving out our sin, we negotiate with it, much like the house of Joseph with the man from Luz. Doing something that is inconsistent with being faithful to God can always be made to sound reasonable, but it is always wrong. The temptations in our day are many, and often very subtle. Under the pressure to deal kindly with sin, like the spies promised to deal kindly with the Canaanite, we can compromise our commitment to the truth of the gospel, and the lordship of Christ. Maybe the way you spend your time in entertainment in its various forms has subtly taken over all your spare time to serve the Lord and study his Word. Maybe an acquaintance or a friendship with someone of the opposite sex who pays some attention to you has turned into something adulterous. Maybe your financial situation has become so tight that you are withholding offerings, or your contributions.2 Are you at all letting the enemy live comfortably within you? Is your sin more persistent in dwelling in your heart than you are persistent in looking to the Lord, who is with you, to drive it out?

Israel’s failures included either a lack of obedience (not driving out the enemy) or compromise (living among the enemy). This can also be true in the modern context. If we examine our lives, the bulk of our failures—especially in spiritual matters, but not exclusively—are the results of outright or disobedience to God's explicit, straightforward commandments, or of attempting to live in such a way that we blend into the world. Believers are under constant pressure to conform to the world's standards and the desire not to be different is pronounced. Yet God has called us to different standards. To compromise is to endanger our very lives.3

“Many Christians become so consumed with the world that they simply do not believe they are really in a spiritual confrontation. They have compromised with the world and have forgotten the apostle’s admonition 'do not love the world or anything in the world' (1 John 2:15). Judges 1:1 – 2:5 warns us of the dangers of not trusting in God’s Word and heeding this admonition."4

Instead, in this holy war the church is called to fight, as a kingdom of priests, by proclaiming the gospel and making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). Jesus at his crucifixion disarmed the rulers and principalities, stripping these demonic forces of their power (Colossians 2:15). But the forces still exist, so the church universal must continue to fight against them. Holy war is being waged when the church exercises its mission of leading sinners to conversion.

We are to wage holy war. A war that has also been redefined because of Christ. Here we actually have the foundation for widespread evangelism. The whole earth has become the new land that is to be conquered in God’s name (Matthew 28:18–20). And there is hope for modern wicked people in a way that there was no hope for the Canaanites. When wicked people repent and are baptized into Christ, they undergo death…and resurrection. They do not stay dead and destroyed because Christ raises them. When they come to Christ in faith, they experience both death to the old life and resurrection to the new life. And so the church is called to fight not only by waging war against the sin within us, but also by proclaiming the gospel and making disciples of all nations.5