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  • Writer's pictureDr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.

The Right and Duty of Self Defense vs the Sin of Murder

Then He said to them, “But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.”

—Luke 22:36


Today we begin to study Question 136 of the Larger Catechism, which asks, “What are the sins forbidden in theSixthCommandment?” The first part of the answer states, “The sins forbidden in theSixthCommandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves, or of others, except in case of publick justice, lawful war, or necessary defence...” Here, we begin to consider the sins forbidden by theSixthCommandment by way of an exception clause, in which we find the distinction between unlawful murder and lawful killing. This distinction is made necessary by the justice of God.


God created all things freely, having no obligation upon Himself to give life or existence to anything. Thus, all life entirely belongs to God. He gives life and He takes it away (Job 1:21). He formed man from the dust and He returns him to the dust (Psa. 90:3). In creation, God gave man the right to everlasting life, which right he would keep by not sinning against God. When man sinned, he forfeited his right to life and came under the death penalty of God. Now for Christians, death is no longera penalty since Christ took away the penalty aspect of death when He was punished unto death in our place: “O death where is your victory?” (1Cor. 15:55). Death now is the means whereby Christians are finally freed from our sinful natures, as our souls go to be with the Lord until He is pleased to clothe us with new, deathless bodies. In the meantime, in God’s perfect wisdom and justice and according to His great mercy, all human beings still die. God has decreed it to be so. And in His absolute sovereignty over life and death, God is perfectly in the right in appointing the time, manner, and means of death for each person’s death in whatsoever way He chooses.


However, this right to take away life is not extended to human beings. Thus, when someone is murdered, the murderer cannot excuse his actions by appealing to the sovereignty of God in appointing and allowing him to sinfully kill. God is free to make use of sinful men to accomplish His good purposes, but insofar as they do the evil they desire and choose to do, they are responsible for their sin. Thus, in the betrayal unto death of Jesus Christ by Judas Iscariot, Scripture affirms both God’s sovereignty to appoint and permit the sin, and Judas’ responsibility for willfully committing it: “The Son of Man indeed goes just as it is written of Him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had never been born,” (Mark 14:21). It was written that Jesus would be betrayed and murdered exactly the way He was, yet those involved in His demise did exactly as they wanted chose to do, and thus, they are rightly held responsible for their evil deeds. Thus, also: “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death,” (Acts 2:23). It was all done by God’s plan, but the hands that carried it out did so lawlessly (sinfully).


Murder, the unjust taking of the life of any human being, is forbidden by God. Here, the key word is unjust. God is just and all of His commandments show forth His perfect justice and righteousness. Because we live in a sinful world, there may be times humans must kill in order to maintain God’s justice. The Catechism gives three headings under which justice may sometimes demand the killing of human beings. First is the case of public justice. As we saw in an earlier question, the Bible, out of the supreme value it places on human life, commands the death penalty for murderers (Gen. 9:6). The second and third exceptions both flow from the principle of self-defense. Human beings are made in the image of God. As such their lives are supremely valuable, requiring the utmost effort to be expended in defending them. It is permissible to act in order to stop an evildoer from murder. When this occurs on an individual level it is justifiable homicide. When it is done by a nation it is just war. Specific circumstances are surely debatable, but the principle must be affirmed by all who love life and fear God.


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