Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
Our Obligation to Preserve Human Life
Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD. Leviticus 19:16NKJV
Today we continue our study Question 136 of the Larger Catechism, which asks, “What are the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment?” The second part of the answer states, “The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are… the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life…” Last time we focused on the Biblical distinction between sinful murder and lawful killing. This week we consider our obligation to maintain our own life and the lives of others.
The sixth commandment forbids murder, which is to say the unjust killing of one person by another. The rationale is simple. God alone is the author of all human life. Life is His gift; His alone to give and to take. God has appointed the specific day, time, and means of the birth and the death of every human being (Job 14:5; Ps. 139:16). Additionally, He has not delegated to mankind the authority to take away the life of anyone except in those very specific instances we looked at last week of lawful execution, just war, and self-defense. Furthermore, God has told us the reason for and value of human life. Each person has been given the gift of life for the purpose of glorifying God and enjoying Him forever. In the dominion mandate of Gen. 1:26-28, God appointed mankind as His vice regents to rule over and take care of everything else He made. Human life, therefore, is a tremendous honor and privilege; an inestimable blessing. We have been made like God, in order to take care of God’s stuff the way God Himself would do it, and to enjoy it and delight in it, the way God Himself enjoys and delights in it.
Previously, we noticed that God’s laws are a reflection of His character. He does not merely conform to an outward obedience but He loves righteousness and hates sin in His heart. Therefore, with respect to the sixth commandment, God not only refrains from the overt act of unjustly killing a human being but He thinks and does nothing that would give rise to or promote such a death. We are to be like God in keeping this commandment. So we must do nothing that would even tend toward unjustly ending a human being’s life. Accordingly, we cannot unjustly neglect or withdraw the lawful and necessary means of preserving our own life or the life of others without breaking the sixth commandment.
When are the means of preserving life unjustly withdrawn or neglected? Some of the answers are easy. To not eat food to the point that my health is adversely affected is one example. So also is to not provide enough food for those who are justly dependent on me to provide it. The same is true for the requisite amount and quality of water, air, clothing, shelter and all the other necessities of life. I cannot willingly and unnecessarily neglect or withdraw these things from myself or others to the degree that one’s life would likely be harmed. Assuming I am not sinfully responsible for such circumstances as war, famine, poverty, sickness, injury, or imprisonment, where the necessities of life become scarce, I may not always be able to legitimately procure them, but whenever I knowingly deny someone something needed for life, which I could have lawfully provided, then I am guilty of transgression.
So much for the easy part, what about when it comes to medicine and medical procedures? Without claiming to have the right answer for every situation, it seems to me two principles should always guide us. First, we must take the advice and counsel of medical experts seriously. God has given mankind great knowledge and understanding of the body and mind and it is wrong to neglect this gift. However, the second principle is just as important. And that is, no one can force a person, who is a rational adult, to take medicine or undergo a procedure against his will. Doctors are not God. They cannot guarantee this chemo will cure my cancer, or this amputation will stop my infection. So also, if my heart or lungs can no longer function naturally, as directed by my brain, no one else can force them to from their brains. No human being can claim ownership over someone else’s life. In the end I am responsible to weigh the advice and make the decision I think is most in accord with the law of God. May God give each one of us the grace and wisdom to more obediently value and promote human life!