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The Sanctity of Life in the Heidelberg Catechism: the Sixth Commandment

In his comments on the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” John Calvin writes, “The purport of this commandment is that since the Lord has bound the whole human race by a kind of unity, the safety of all ought to be considered as entrusted to each.” As creatures made in God’s image, we are called to do whatever is required to “defend the life of our neighbor; to promote whatever tends to his tranquility, to be vigilant in warding off harm, and, when danger comes, to assist in removing it” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.8.39).

Calvin’s explanation highlights what the Christian tradition has often referred to as the commitment of “solidarity.” The sixth commandment, according to Christian teaching, does not merely prohibit outright violence. It calls us to do everything in our power to protect and preserve human life. Calvin puts it quite strongly: “if you do not according to your means and opportunity study to defend his safety, by that inhumanity you violate the law” (2.8.40). Note Calvin’s use of the word study. This is not simply a casual obligation. Unless we study and work, as individuals and collectively, to do all that we can to ensure the safety of our neighbors, we are guilty of inhumanity.

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The Heidelberg Catechism teaches the same interpretation of the sixth commandment in Lord’s Day 40. The prohibition of murder not only means that I am not to “belittle, insult, hate, or kill my neighbor – not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds.” It also requires that I love my neighbor as myself, being “patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to him,” and that I “protect him from harm as much as [I] can.” I am neither to harm or “recklessly endanger” a person made in the image of God.

In short, the catechism calls us not merely to be reactive against threats to the sanctity of life. We must be proactive in fostering the conditions necessary for life. We do this only when we stand in solidarity with one another in love, mercy, and friendship.

The Heidelberg Catechism makes it quite clear that these obligations do not merely fall upon human beings as individuals. On the contrary, government is armed with the sword for this very purpose: “Prevention of murder.” It is striking that the catechism does not merely say – as some Christians have said – that government is given the sword to punish those guilty of murder. It calls the government to use its power to prevent murder from happening in the first place. Government, too, is called to be proactive, not merely reactive. Indeed, protecting and promoting the sanctity of human life is the primary reason why we have coercive government at all.

Catholic theologians have described Christian teaching as protecting the sanctity of life as a “seamless garment” from conception to the grave. Protestant ethicists have emphasized the need for Christians to hold to a “consistent ethic of life.” This has several important implications.

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The CRC Needs to Have a Conversation About the Gospel and Social Justice

One of the dismaying trends within evangelical Protestantism in America is the growing divide between those evangelicals who emphasize the church’s responsibility to proclaim a gospel of individual conversion and those who emphasize the church’s responsibility to advocate for social justice. It is a trend that featured prominently at this summer’s synod of the Christian Reformed Church. CRC pastor Andrew Beunk characterized it as a divide between “a strong accent on gospel centered confessionally rooted proclamation, and on the other side an accent on justice and mercy. Everyone in this room wants these things held together all the time. We all want that. And yet we feel like these things are getting accented in ways that at times make us uncomfortable.”

One of the frustrations expressed at Synod 2017 was that calls for the church to serve the poor and the oppressed and to advocate for justice are too often expressed without reference to the church’s gospel mission. As Craig Hoekema put it, referring to a specific recommendation under discussion, “It’s not because we don’t like justice; it’s not because we don’t think the church is called to do justice. It’s because in this recommendation, for example, there’s very little language that connects these activities to the unique mission of the church—which is to make disciples.”

Hoekema went on, “I think I speak for many of us when I say that what we’d like to hear more of in a recommendation like this is how we engage in these kinds of efforts in order to bear witness to the kingdom of God so that others may come to faith in Jesus Christ. That would more clearly connect this call to justice with what is the unique mission of the church…and why this is a recommendation, not just for a secular social agency, but for an ecclesiastical body.”

Hoekema is exactly right. The gospel calls us to seek first the kingdom and its justice/righteousness (Matthew 6:33), and Jesus proclaimed the blessings of the kingdom for those who are persecuted either for the sake of justice/righteousness or for the sake of Jesus (Matthew 5:10-11). Any theology that fails to hold these together is a false theology. A church can hardly claim to be faithful to the confessions when it does not advocate for the sort of justice taught in those same confessions, nor can a church claim to stand for the justice of the kingdom without proclaiming the gospel that is summarized in those confessions.

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