God Protects His Image
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
In this Fifth Commandment, God forbids us to take the life of another person (such as through murder, manslaughter, abortion, or euthanasia) or to take our own life. Only God has the authority to take a human life, to avenge wrong, and to punish crime. Now, as we heard in last week’s sermon on the Fourth Commandment, God does entrust this authority to others. Theologians call this “the power of the sword” based up Paul’s continuing instructions in Romans 13. Therefore Christians can in good conscience wage just war and punish and execute criminals under rightful government authority. God continues to protect His precious gift of human life through these human institutions.
But before we go any further, we must ask an important question: “Why does God value human life?” Why does God value human beings above all His creatures? Why does God place penalties on the taking of human life but not that of plants and animals? What makes man so special?
God Himself tells us in Genesis. As He blessed Noah and his sons after the flood, God included the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and the creatures that move along the ground, as things that could be eaten for food in addition to the green plants He had already given for food at the time of creation. But the more frequent killing of animals was not to make people indifferent to the shedding of human blood. God therefore announced this general rule and why He made this rule: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man his blood will be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:6). According to this passage, it is the image of God that gives unique value to human life.
In Genesis 1:26-27, we read that God created the first man and woman in His image and likeness. But we also know that in the fall, that image of God was lost—not just to Adam and Eve but also to all their descendants. Seth was not born in the image of God, but in the image of his father, Adam (Gen 5:3). Which brings us potentially troubling questions: If this image of God was lost to Seth and all of Adam’s descendants, how can God still prohibit the shedding of human blood on the basis of man being made in the image of God? Can humans born under the curse of original sin still be considered to be “made in the image of God”?
It depends upon what “the image of God” means. Nathan Jastram offers a simple, yet very inclusive definition of the image of God: being “like God” in some way. And this can occur in a variety of ways. First, there is the righteousness and holiness associated with being like God. Adam and Eve had a perfect knowledge of God and His kindness. Adam and Eve were holy and righteous and, consequently, immortal. But being like God also includes having reason and intellect that makes us different than the animals. It includes being able to make moral choices and ruling over God’s creation.
After their fall into sin, Adam and Eve were no longer like God in terms of righteousness and purity of the knowledge of God. Theirs was only a natural knowledge of God, of His power seen in His creation, a knowledge that brought no love or trust in, but only fear of God. There was no longer joyful conformity but hostility that did not submit to God, but was by nature God’s enemy.
In order to rescue His creation that was no longer like Him in holiness, God took on the likeness of man. Although He remained sinless, Jesus took upon Himself humanity’s unholiness, our unrighteousness and mortality. He bore the wrath of God that all humans deserved as He was forsaken by His heavenly Father on the cross. Jesus rose from the dead to validate all that He had done through His holy life and unholy death. Complete payment for sin was made once and for all.
By God’s favor and through faith in Christ’s victory, the likeness of God’s holiness is being renewed in believers. There is renewal of the knowledge of God. St. Paul writes: “You have become a new person. This new person is continually renewed in knowledge to be like its Creator” (Colossians 3:10). Unlike the original knowledge of God, however, this knowledge is not natural and is only revealed through the Gospel of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).
In the Gospel, there is renewal in righteousness and holiness. St. Paul also writes that you were taught “to put on the new self, created after the image of God in true righteous and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). Unlike the original righteousness and holiness, however, this is not perfect or complete. Paul spoke of the sinner that still remains in all of God’s saints. “I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15). The image of God is being renewed—we are being changed into His image with ever-increasing glory—but it is not yet complete.
The end of time will mark the full restoration of the image of God. In the new “heaven and earth” God creates, there will once again be the direct knowledge of the goodness of God. The intimate relationship with God that Adam and Eve experienced will be restored. Sin’s consequences will cease to exist: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There won’t be any more death. There won’t be any grief, crying, or pain, because the first things have disappeared” (Revelation 21:4).
With that in mind, we are now ready to discuss the place the image of God has in the innate value of human life. Passages like Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9 indicate that even after the fall, value is attached to human life because of the image of God. After the fall into sin, human beings are no longer like God in terms of holiness, but there still remains a likeness to God that engenders inherent value and respect for human life. Human beings are still like God in terms of reason, intellect, and the ability to choose. Despite the fact that these all have been marred by sin, such things elevate human life above animal life.
It seems proper, therefore, to argue that the child in the womb has value to God not only because God is intimately involved in the creation of that child (Psalm 139:13-14) and declares that the child is a gift (Psalm 127:13), but also because in the beginning human life was elevated above all other aspects of the creation and was created in the image of God. Though the child in the womb is no longer like God in holiness, he or she is still like God in terms of reason, intellect, and the ability to choose, and, therefore, has inherent value as a human being.
We can also argue that all human life is given special value because God sent His Son to make complete payment for the sins of the world. The gift of God’s Son is the ultimate proof of the value God places even on unbelievers, be they born or unborn. Jesus came to die for the “ungodly” (Romans 5:6) and for those who were His “enemies” (Romans 5:10). Every human life is a life for whom Jesus died to redeem, to restore to His image.
It is also proper to argue that Christians have special value because God is at work in them. Indeed, our bodies are temples of God’s Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Through the Word and Sacraments, the Holy Spirit is at work renewing us in the true knowledge of God “from the face of Christ” and applying to us the “righteousness and holiness” of Christ. Christians do not have value because we bear the image of God as did Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But we do have value because God’s Spirit is at work in us renewing that image through Christ, which will be fully restored on the Last Day in the resurrection.
Murder strikes at the majesty and glory of God. And since the divine image, lost in the fall, can be regained only during a person’s lifetime, to end someone’s life means to cut off his time of grace and, if he has not regained God’s image, to doom him to an eternity of separation from God. God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” God wants everyone to be restored in the image of His Son. That it is why He gives us the Fifth Commandment.
“You shall not murder.” That doesn't sound so difficult, does it? After all, I haven’t shot anybody. I haven’t drawn a knife or cast a stone (that is, if you don’t count that time when I lobbed that one and my brother jumped in front of it). I haven’t run through a stop sign and plowed into another vehicle. And although I was in a few tussles in my younger days, I’ve never been in an actual fistfight.
But the Fifth Commandment doesn’t end at the shedding of blood. Jesus raised the bar considerably, showing that this commandment can also be violated by one’s words and thoughts. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘Raca! You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22).
There is such a thing as righteous anger, which is concerned about God’s honor and God’s truth, but here Jesus speaks about sinful anger, which is concerned about revenge and may involve hatred. Such anger may not even be evident to other people, but God is aware of it, and it deserves God’s punishment.
It is difficult to translate accurately the word Raca and the word Jesus used for “You fool,” but it evident that the latter expression is more vicious than the preceding one. It has been suggested that Raca was not even a real word, just a sound of disgust or contempt that was accompanied by appropriate gestures. I imagine it as the kind of thing that happens whenever someone suddenly pulls out in front of me in traffic, causing me to apply my brakes more quickly than I planned. What Jesus illustrates here is that even sinful desires or evil words that fall short of the act of murder are transgressions of God’s commandment and deserve the severest penalty. St. John writes: “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him” (1 John 3:15).
But even if you’ve managed to somehow avoid these sins… even if you’ve never called someone a name who has cut you off in traffic, or made a threatening gesture…even if you’ve never been angry with a member of your family or of our congregation… you’re still not off the hook. Those sins only pertain to the negative part of this commandment and not the positive.
Luther explains the full meaning of the Fifth Commandment: “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” Notice, there are two sides of this commandment: what you must not do and what you must do to protect innocent human life. Obviously, the positive side of the commandment is much more difficult, more demanding, more open-ended. We can avoid hitting and killing people, and refrain from calling them bad names, but how do we help them?
Jesus Himself laid that out in His discussion with the rich young man (Matthew 19). “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” he asked. Jesus replied, “Keep the commandments… ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The man replied, “All these I have kept” (v.20). How could he say this? He really believed he had observed the Commandments fully. But he was looking only at one side of the Commandments. He didn’t recognize the wide-open, demanding positive side. He thought he could make himself acceptable to God by his wonderful life. Yet, deep inside, he knew something was wrong. That’s why he came to Jesus.
Jesus pushed him to recognize the impossibility of the game he was playing, the game the Pharisees had the whole nation playing. Jesus said, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (v.21). Jesus took just the one commandment and spelled out what it means to fulfill it.
The Fifth Commandment means more than not killing or hurting. It means going out and helping. It means sacrificing for the sake of others’ welfare. It means thinking of others’ needs, not just your own. It means “count[ing] others more significant than yourselves.” It means “look[ing] not only to [your] own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). That’s hard. That’s demanding. That’s impossible.
That’s the point. It is impossible. The Commandments are not a game God gives us to play against impossible odds. He knows we cannot carry out His perfect will. He wants us to confess our sin and our need for a Savior. That’s why Jesus came and fulfilled all the Law’s demands in our place.
We admit every Sunday that we have sinned “by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” In fact, 99 percent of our sins are sins of omission, not sins of commission. It’s the thousands of good things we fail to do that are really at the root of our sinfulness. We don’t see them. We pass right by because we are blinded and hardened by sin. We focus so sharply on ourselves that we don’t see the opportunities to help and befriend other people every day.
We confess, “We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” We have loved ourselves first and foremost and unfailingly. What have we ever really sacrificed for the sake of others in need? Even what we have given hasn't really hurt us. We hardly missed it. We haven’t come close to carrying out this commandment: “Sell what you possess and give to the poor.” And that’s why we honestly confess, “We justly deserve Thy temporal and eternal punishment.”
That’s also why we boldly and devoutly cling to Christ: “For the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us.” Jesus came to bring us that perfect, eternal mercy from God. The game is over. It need never be played again. Jesus played it and won. He was the perfect sacrifice for sin in our place. Now we just exult in His total, free acceptance.
Because Christ fulfills the Law for us, we can love our neighbor with His perfect love. In spite of all our sin and rebellion and weakness, we are accepted. We are welcomed into His presence. He calls us His own, rebels though we are. And then He sends us out to spread His kingdom of love. He sends us to be His arms of mercy in a hurting world. He teaches us to pray, “Our Father… give us this day our daily bread.” We pray not just for ourselves, but also for our brothers and sisters around the world, especially the poor. We look for ways to help and befriend our poor brothers in all their bodily needs. And when we fail, we repent of our sins, trusting in His mercy and grace, and seek to amend our sinful ways.
Human life is important to God. Your life is important to God. God is the Giver of life. God is the Creator of life. God is the Redeemer of life. God is Sanctifier of life. Christ has lived and died and rose that you might have life and have it to the full. For His sake, you are forgiven of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.