The Scriptural Lessons of Sergeant York.


Shane Morris

There’s a quote often attributed to Mark Twain which says, “History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes.” This reminds us that we can’t expect the same events to occur in the same order, but human nature often shows up in similar ways at different times. By looking at the past, even at those we admire, we can learn from the mistakes we see there and use these to aid us in our problems of the present.

Shane Morris talked with Eric Metaxas about his new book, “Seven More Men and the Secret of Their Greatness,” a chronicle of the lives of godly men of history who lived out their faith in a remarkable way. As part of their conversation, they dealt with the lessons to be learned from a war hero. As important as his martial exploits were, there’s something for us today to hear about his earlier errors, and what that can mean for us today.

Below is an edited excerpt of their conversation, or you can go here to listen to the full discussion.

The story of Sergeant York is another one that, if you were living in the ’40s or ’50s or ’60s or ’70s, everybody knew who he was. Because World War I was recent enough, and Gary Cooper was the star of a film playing the famous Sergeant York, everybody knew. Now, people don’t, and he’s somebody that you don’t want to slip away from history.

Now, Sergeant York doesn’t quite rise to the level of Solzhenitsyn, but he has a lesson, particularly for evangelicals. I have to say, I find this funny because I didn’t write about him because of this. But in the course of writing about him, it dawned on me that this is really a story for many evangelicals. They need to hear this.

Here’s what I’m talking about. Here’s a guy who was a big sinner, and he has a big salvation experience. He’s kind of a simple guy. Like a lot of people, he’s kind of all-in for Jesus, like in a crazy young man’s kind of way.

There’s a big upside to that and a big downside. The downside is sometimes our zeal makes us think we know things that we don’t. For evangelicals specifically, one of the great temptations is to so focus on Scripture that you focus on individual Scriptures at the expense of the whole counsel of Scripture.

The Scripture that Sergeant York fixated on was, “Thou shalt not kill,” which of course is a mistranslation, but still. This is classic. He says, thou shall not kill. It doesn’t really say that. It really says thou shall do no murder.

But, when you go to war, you’re not murdering the enemy. You may be killing them, but that’s not murder. Since we’ve had the just war theory and believers in the God of the Bible way before that, Christians have always made a distinction that there’s killing, and then there’s killing.

So, when David kills Goliath, we don’t say, “Well, that’s before he became a Christian, and then he got saved and then he repented and apologized to Goliath’s family.” No, we celebrate it, right?

York is a classic example of somebody who is so on fire for God that he loses the ability to think rationally. I mean, that’s really a contradiction, of course, because God would never lead us to that. But it sort of becomes emotional, and it becomes intense and passionate. So, he focuses on this.

The story of Sergeant York forces us to think clearly, and it forces us to think, “What does the Bible actually say?” Not what does that verse say. Forget about that verse. What does the whole Bible say? Because we understand that tons of people love to take Scripture out of context. So, for me, the Sergeant York thing is the classic example of that tendency. It’s a good tendency that goes wrong.


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