On the Usefulness of Pagans and Heretics

The pagan world is useful to the Church. Certainly, it doesn’t seem that way most of the time. We often cry out with David in Psalm 3:2, “O Yahweh, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me!” We remember the words of Jesus concerning the world: “In the world you have tribulation” (Jn. 16:33); and the Apostle John writes, “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 Jn. 3:13). But the ruler of this world has been judged (Jn. 16:11), the world is not free to act as it wishes against the Church, and, in fact, the world must serve Christ’s purposes for his Church.

Why doesn’t the Lord simply do away with the world right now? That’s like asking a fisherman why he doesn’t destroy the sea: he wants to catch the fish! God our Savior desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4). Yet there’s more reason to keeping the world around than that. In the book of Judges the Lord does not speak about saving the Canaanite nations, as much as we know from other parts of Scripture that the Lord takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (e.g. Eze. 18:23, 32, 33:11). In the book of Judges the pagan world is a tool in the hand of God, and God wields that tool to accomplish his ends.


Judges 2:20 So the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel, and he said, “Because this nation has transgressed my covenant that I commanded their fathers, and they have not listened to my voice, 21 yea, I myself will no longer dispossess any man from before them of the nations that Joshua left when he died, 22 in order to test Israel by them: Will they keep the way of Yahweh to walk in it, as their fathers kept it, or not?”

In the previous notes on Judges 2:11-19 we heard the four-part cycle that happens six times in the book of Judges. The overview of the cycle concluded by noting that while Israel returned to serving the Lord under each judge, when that judge died the Israelites turned aside once more. Judges 2:20-22 records the Lord’s reaction to Israel’s hasty departure from him.

The Lord disciplines his people by leaving a remnant of the other nations among them. This happened just as Joshua said it would: “Now take great heed unto your souls, to love Yahweh your God. For if you turn back and you cleave to the remnant of these nations, these that are left with you, and you intermarry with them and you come in to them and they in to you, then know for certain that Yahweh your God will no longer dispossess these nations from before you, and they will be for you a trap and a snare, and a scourge in your sides and thorns in your eyes until you perish from this good land that Yahweh your God has given to you” (Josh. 23:11-13).

But this discipline is not merely punishment. It is “testing.” When the Lord tests people there are only two possible outcomes. Or in other words, the Lord’s testing reveals a dichotomy among man. Consider the outcome of Jesus’ teaching and signs. Some believed his Word and saw that the signs testified to the truth of the Word; others were disobedient (unlistening) and would not believe the Word or receive confirmation from the signs. The longer Jesus taught and did signs, the further people became entrenched in one of the two camps, so that by the time we get to Holy Week some hail Jesus as God and others plot to put him to death. “Will they keep the way of Yahweh to walk in it, or not?” Jesus’ ministry is a test in that it reveals the answer to that question. The presence of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, accompanied by the command not to eat from it, was a test in the same way.

Note that there are two things going on simultaneously during such tests. First, the Lord seeks to discern the faithfulness or unfaithfulness of man. But second, the Lord is no passive observer; he is active in his testing. The test itself moves people in one direction or the other – toward faithfulness or toward unfaithfulness – and the direction in which someone moves depends on whether they meet the test with faith or unbelief.

We have a ready analogy for this in Scripture: the refining of silver and gold. In the Old Testament, there are two words for this refining. One is TSARAPH, which means “burn,” the process of applying fire to metal for the purpose of removing the dross. The other is BACHAN, which means “smelt,” the process of separating metals from one another by melting them. They both come up in Psalm 17:3, “You have smelted (BACHAN) my heart, you have visited me by night, you have burned me (TSARAPH): you will find nothing.” The word for “test” here in Judges 2:22 is NASAH, which is a more general term for “test” or “prove,” but is in the same category as BACHAN and TSARAPH, as seen, for instance, in Psalm 26:2 where all three words are used together.

So picture a gold nugget with imperfections, or a hunk of ore composed somewhat of silver and somewhat of other metals. The nugget and the ore may appear precious and fine; a superficial glance reveals only a small part of the slag and common metals that permeate the whole. But add the fire, test the metal, and the true and the false will show themselves. The fire may not be pleasant to the pure gold and silver, but the gold and silver can rejoice that the fire is not meant for their harm, but for their purification. The gold and silver can also rejoice that the fire has made the dross obvious.

In Judges 2:20-22 the Lord speaks of a similar test. Israel was like a chunk of unrefined ore: ribbons of the faithful and the unfaithful intertwined in a solid, confused mass. The Lord used the pagan nations as his fire. The pagan nations would cause one of two things to happen: either 1) the pure would cling more tightly to the Word of the Lord and become even more pure, or 2) the impure would further degrade themselves with the Other gods and licentious practices of the world around them.

23 And Yahweh gave these nations rest, not driving them out quickly, nor did he give them into the hand of Joshua. 3:1 And these are the nations to whom Yahweh gave rest, that he might test Israel by them, specifically those [of Israel] who had not known the wars of Canaan 2 (It was only so that the generations of the sons of Israel should know, to teach them war, at least those who previously had not known them): 3 The five lords of the Philistines, and all the Canaanites and Sidonians and Hivites who inhabited the mountain of Lebanon, from the mountain of Baal-Hermon unto the entering of Hamath. 4 And they were to test Israel by them, to know: Will they listen to the commandments of Yahweh that he commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses?

In these verses, the Lord makes his purpose clear: he is not trying to make Israel faithless; rather, he is trying to teach Israel to fight. In the book of Judges, this meant literal war. The Israelites were to take up weapons and resist the pagan nations and drive them out. The war for the Church today is not a war of swords, but a war of words. We do not resist the pagan world by slaughtering people, but by faithfully confessing the truth of God’s Word and faithfully teaching the truth.

The Lord wants his people to know how to wage war. If the Lord had driven the pagan nations out entirely so that a whole generation grew up and supposed there was no such thing as an “enemy,” what would happen when an enemy came? The sons of Israel wouldn’t have known how to wield a sword, how to engage in battle, how to defend a city. They would have fallen, and great would have been the fall.

Likewise, today, if the Church enjoyed complete peace for a generation, if the world loved the Church, if Christians faced no opposition in the faith, then when the world changed and offered persecution or temptation we would stand in a precarious position. We would be soldiers with lax arms and weak knees who could barely hold the shield of faith and didn’t know one end of the sword of the Spirit from the other. But because the world rages and tempts and persecutes we’re constantly being driven back to God’s Word, both for the strengthening of our faith and for combat against the world.

The faithful can thank God for this testing. We see that by this testing he intends a good outcome for us. “Testing” should not, therefore, make us think of punishment, but of separation and strengthening: by his testing, the Lord makes the division between the Church and the world clear, and by his testing, the Lord strengthens the faithful by driving them to his Word.

5 And the sons of Israel dwelt in the midst of the Canaanites, the Hittites and the Amorites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites. 6 And they took their daughters to themselves for wives, and their daughters they gave to their sons, and they served their gods.

This is what happens when people meet the test with unfaithfulness. In their unbelief, many of the Israelites were seeking Other gods and foreign wives, and the Lord’s test was nothing more to them than the opportunity their flesh had been looking for. They wanted to be unfaithful, the Lord left the pagan remnant in their midst, and the unfaithful took advantage of it to become even more unfaithful.

What do you get when you mix a pagan with a nominal son of Israel? All sort of heresies – that is, sects, parties, factions – that have departed from the one holy catholic and prophetic Church of the Old Testament. Now not only do the sons of Israel have the pagan world among them, they also have false sons in their pale.


The Church finds herself in the midst of a pagan world and beset with heresies. We cry out with David in Psalm 13:1-2, “How long, O Yahweh? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long will I set counsels in my soul, with agony in my heart daily? How long will my enemy be high above me?” Yes, living in a pagan world, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed – it makes us cry all the more, “How long? Come, Lord Jesus!”

But we also say with David in Psalm 18:34, “He teaches my hands for war, that my arms may draw back a bow of bronze.” Through pagans and heretics, the Lord makes his people warriors. The pagans and heretics have their purpose, just as the Canaanite remnant served the Lord’s purpose in the book of Judges. Indeed, the Church has received many a good gift because of pagans and heretics.

This makes more sense in light of the crucifixion of Jesus. The devil wanted Jesus dead. He put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus (Jn. 13:2), then Satan entered into Judas as he took the morsel of bread at the Last Supper (Jn. 13:27). When Judas/Satan betrayed Jesus, that began a whole chain of events that led to the death of Christ, which is our salvation.

Is the devil, then, the cause of our salvation? Of course not! Here it’s useful to distinguish between various types of causes. There’s the principal cause of salvation, who is the Lord. Then there are the instrumental causes of salvation: for example, the Roman soldiers, the cross, Judas, and yes, the devil. But these instrumental causes are subordinate to the principal cause, and they only effect what they effect because of the principal cause. So there’s no sense in thanking the devil for the role he played in accomplishing our salvation, first, because that sounds like heresy, and second, because ultimately the Lord was using him as a tool: therefore we should thank the Lord.

Pagans and heretics are instrumental causes of the Church’s strengthening and training for war. They are like fire in the hand of the smelter. Consider how strong the Church is becoming in the area of anthropology as the world upholds homosexual unions and the separation of gender from biological sex. The pagan world has driven us back to the Scriptures, and we study, and learn, and become strong. We can say what man is, what woman is, what marriage is in some of the clearest terms with which the Church has ever spoken on these matters.

Heretics have long played their part as well. Arius began his antiphonal chanting to teach his followers to deny the divinity of Christ. It was in the midst of this Christological controversy, and in response to Arius, that singing erupted in the Church in both the East and the West. But we won’t thank Arius for the great hymn “Savior of the Nations, Come,” or the Nicene Creed. He was merely the fire, not the smelter.

In the sixteenth century, the Reformers had the Roman Church on one side and the Enthusiasts on the other. Our fathers chose their words very carefully, responded to false teachings very thoroughly, and gave us some of the most pure and refined writings the Church has ever seen. Shall we thank Pope Leo X, or Andreas Karlstadt? Nonsense! They were the test: through their fire, the faithful became tenaciously faithful, and the Church is the better for it; no thanks to the heretics and all praise to God.

The usefulness of pagans and heretics has long been recognized by the Church. We see this in a line from Psalm 59. I should note that the inscription of the psalm says, “To the cantor, do not destroy, of David, a miktam; when Saul sent, and they watched the house to kill him.” David wrote this psalm pondering an attempt on his life. In Psalm 59:11 David prays to the Lord concerning the enemies, “Do not slay them, lest my people forget; cause them to tremble by your power and bring them down, O our Shield, Adonai.”

Notably, David does not ask the Lord to spare the enemies so that the enemies will have time to repent. He asks the Lord to refrain from slaying the enemies “lest my people forget.” Having enemies around is beneficial for the memory of God’s people. When we have foes who send us running to God’s Word, we won’t quickly forget that Word.

St. Paul notes the benefit of heresies when he addresses the church in Corinth about the Lord’s Supper: “For first, when you come together in the church I hear that there are schisms among you, and I partly believe it. For it is necessary that there be factions (Gk. haireseis = heresies) among you, that those who are genuine may become manifest among you” (1 Cor. 11:18-19). Heresies (factions) are the test that make genuine teaching appear genuine. Interestingly, Paul goes so far as to say that heresies are necessary for this manifestation of those who are genuine.

Finally, here’s a quote from Clement of Alexandria:

“For it is clear that obtaining the truth is difficult and toilsome; and because of this the controversies have happened, from which come self-loving and vanity-loving heresies, belonging to those who have neither learned nor received in the true manner, but rather have taken a mere pretense of knowledge. Therefore through greater consideration we must seek the real truth, which alone is concerned with him who is really God. And after hard work follow both sweet discovery and sweet remembrance.”  (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book VII, Ch. XV; translated by the author).

Clement notes that heresies make us seek the real truth (from God’s Word). When we take up this “greater consideration” and search the Scriptures, we do not end in defeat or frustration, but in “sweet discovery and sweet remembrance.” We do not end by being concerned with heresy, but by joyfully concerning ourselves “with him who is really God.”

So raise a glass. Here’s to pagans and heretics! May they ever remain useful tools in the hand of our God!

It is good for me that I was afflicted,
That I may learn your statutes.

    Psalm 119:71

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