Shorter Catechism Qs. 67–69
Q. 67. Which is the sixth commandment?
A. The sixth commandment is, Thou shalt not kill.
Q. 68. What is required in the sixth commandment?
A. The sixth commandment requireth all lawful endeavors to preserve our own life, and the life of others.
Q. 69. What is forbidden in the sixth commandment?
A. The sixth commandment forbiddeth the taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbor, unjustly, or whatsoever tendeth thereunto.
“You shall not murder.” (Exod 20:13)
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” (Gen 9:6)
Surely, this is a commandment that needs no explanation. What can be simpler than “Do not kill”? But, of course, nothing important is ever simple. And there are some questions that come up surrounding this commandment. The two most common questions involve how the sixth commandment relates to life and death issues of abortion and capital punishment.
As with the rest of the decalogue, the sixth commandment needs to be applied at once in a positive sense (in the sense of teaching us the positive duties we ought to perform) as well as in a negative sense (in the sense of teaching us what we shouldn’t do). The positive lesson of the sixth commandment is to protect and preserve life. The negative lesson is not to murder.
First, the negative. Time to time the sincerity of the Christian convictions are called into question when critics ask how Christians can oppose abortion and support capital punishment. Obviously, an ethical question of this nature requires more than a brief treatment of a blog post. But at some level we have to realize that opposing abortion and supporting capital punishment is a problem only if we get rid of all concept of justice.
No one today is unaware that sometimes the innocent receive capital punishment. It is a travesty of justice. The grave injustice of condemning the innocent should make us tremble. The Lord hates false scales and he will certainly judge those who pervert justice. For this reason we whole-heartedly approve the labors of those who come to the defense of the innocent. May the Lord bless their labor!
But capital punishment for capital crime preserves the basic notion of fairness and justice. In most civilized societies not all taking of life leads to capital punishment. Rightly so. There can be extenuating circumstances. But a premeditated taking of someone’s life needs to be met with a response that is no more or no less than the effect of the crime. When the court issues the guilty verdict after a careful and honest process, then life is paid with life. We sometimes think that “eye for an eye” or “tooth for a tooth” kind of language in the OT is barbaric. Far from it. It’s justice that requires no more or no less than the loss incurred. On the one hand it prevents uncontrolled retaliation that is not proportionate to the crime, and at the same time it respects the victims’ right to see justice done.
It is true that one generic translation of the sixth commandment can be “You shall not kill.” But the clear meaning of that commandment is “You shall not murder.” That is why newer translations such as the ESV does not say “You shall not kill” but “You shall not murder.” Sometimes justice requires capital punishment. It must be doled out carefully. But only a cynic can ignore the difference between justice and murder. To kill and to murder are not the same things.
Positively, we have the responsibility of protecting life, and preventing all things, as far as we have the ability, those things which will lead to the loss of life. We oppose abortion on this account. One of the signs of the tragic erosion of moral conviction is categorizing abortion as a political agenda. It is not. It is not a cultural preference. It is a matter of righteousness and sin before our holy God.
When a human life is violently ended in abortion, the aborted have not been found guilty of capital crime. Their lives are taken away unjustly by a unjust society that can no longer tell right from wrong. It is murder. This is injustice. This is profoundly wrong.
How, then, can we apply the sixth commandment? We teach. We educate. We argue. We vote. We do everything short of breaking God’s law, as was recently done, when a wicked man murdered the doctor who performed abortions. Christians cannot fight the violation of the sixth commandment by breaking the sixth commandment. To do so would be evil. But everything else is a fair game, if done to God’s glory and with love for not only those in our circles, but with whom we argue and disagree.