How does the sixth commandment speak to our culture?

November 29, 2018

“You shall not murder.” That’s the entire sixth commandment. In Hebrew, it’s actually even shorter—just two words, in fact: lo, the negation (“not”), and ratsach, “murder.” It seems like an obvious, uncontroversial commandment. If any command could go unstated, any that we as human beings and good neighbors would simply assume, perhaps it would be this one. Surely people from all times and places could agree that we shouldn’t murder.

Let me highlight three related areas that are particularly relevant (and sometimes controversial).

The sixth commandment prohibits suicide

There is almost no topic more painful than suicide for those who have experienced it with family or friends. Suicide is a sin—not the unforgivable sin, but a sin. Of course, that’s not what I would lead with as a pastor going to visit a family who just lost a loved one to suicide. I’m not talking about my pastoral care strategy at the moment, but giving you the doctrinal foundation.

There may be extreme cases where a suicidal person has clearly lost control over his or her faculties, such as certifiable dementia or closed head injuries. Such a person doesn’t have any sort of capacity for rational decision making. But in the majority of cases, we are right to see suicide, as tragic as it is, as a morally culpable and blameworthy choice. For centuries the church has consistently viewed suicide as a violation of the sixth commandment, since self-murder is still murder.

There are five instances of suicide in Scripture: Judges 9:50– 57; 1 Samuel 31:1–7; 2 Samuel 17:23; 1 Kings 16:15–19; and Matthew 27:3–10. All these suicides are in the context of shame and defeat. Likewise, when more noble characters ask God to take their lives (such as Jonah or Job), God clearly views their self- destructive requests unfavorably.

We hear far too often of famous movie stars, athletes, or entertainers who have committed suicide. Many people were understandably upset and saddened by Robin Williams’s death. There was much conversation and punditry, and people said things in perhaps an unhelpful way or with unhelpful timing. But one of the recurring themes was a lack of moral responsibility: “We all have our demons. We all have to face this. We shouldn’t put any sort of ethical blame on one who commits suicide.”

Initially that sounds compassionate—but it isn’t. Listen to a woman named Julie Gossack, who wrote for the Journal of Biblical Counseling ten years ago. She’s a wife and a mother who has suffered through the suicides of five family members. I can scarcely imagine that. She said this:

Suicide is not a genetic trait nor is it a family curse. Suicide is a sinful choice made by an individual. This statement is neither unloving nor disrespectful. It is the truth. I dearly loved my family members that committed suicide, but their choices were sinful and not righteous.[1]

She adds that she intends her words to be loving, so that other people in a dark place who might be considering taking their lives would, if there are no other restraints, perhaps be restrained by the law of God. Suicide might feel like the only way out, but Scripture tells us that God will never lead us into a situation where violating his commandments is the only option.

We do not help struggling saints by refusing to tell them that suicide is displeasing to God. Lovingly spoken, in the right time, that may be one way in which God jolts the suicidal soul back to better, saner, more righteous thinking. Your life is precious to God, even when you have concluded that it’s pointless.

The sixth commandment prohibits abortion

“For you formed my inward parts; / you knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Psa. 139:13). The psalmist is speaking here of the nascent life (which is truly life) within the mother. I already mentioned. If you read the context [of a law from Exodus 21: “Eye for eye” (v. 24)], it has to do with injuring a woman’s baby while still in the womb. There were punishments for doing so, because that life was considered life.

Until very recently the church has universally opposed abortion. The Didache says, “Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant”—two practices that were common in the ancient world. It was chiefly in [the worldview] in the early church that children were valued and considered to need protection. Commenting on Exodus 21:22–25, John Calvin writes:

For the fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light.[2]

Life begins at conception. That’s a scientific fact. Any embryology book will tell you that the life of each one of us traces back to the zygote—to the moment of conception. We didn’t become something different. We’ve all been formed from that original life, which is still us.

The only way to think that ending life in the womb is appropriate is to think that personhood begins at some time other than the beginning of biological life. And yet the Bible assumes—and, until very recently, everyone in the Western world agreed—that there is a profound and organic unity between body and soul, such that personhood exists wherever biological life exists.

The ancient heresy Gnosticism posited a dualism whereby the physical body and the soul did not exist in organic unity. One was trapped inside the other and needed to be set free. But we understand from a biblical anthropology that, though they are two things, the body and the soul have an organic union. When your biological life begins, you also exist as a person made in the image of God, created to honor God, and with a life that deserves to be protected.

The sixth commandment prohibits euthanasia

Assisted suicide laws continue to make headway in America and in the rest of the Western world. Legal and medical experts point to a number of problems with the laws themselves. Some of these laws don’t require notification of family members. They don’t specify which kind of doctor must diagnose you. They also allow you to pick up your suicide drugs at your local pharmacy and administer them on your own. And that’s to say nothing about doctors getting their terminal diagnoses wrong.

Just as important are the ethical problems with these laws. How can we try to prevent suicide among teenagers and young people and encourage it among the sick and elderly? I often see signs in high schools that read, “Say No to Suicide,” or, “Thinking about Suicide? There is help.” How can we promote that message to students and then put forward a very different message to the elderly? We are to do what we can to preserve and protect all innocent life.

We must not let foggy definitions of compassion cloud our thinking. This is the key distinction: we are not talking about the termination of treatment, but the termination of life. Sometimes people hear that spiel about suicide and say, “Look, I don’t want to be put on a respirator. I don’t want to have a machine do my life for me.” That’s not what euthanasia laws are about.

My grandfather passed away a couple of years ago at ninety-one years old. He went downhill very quickly. When he was in hospice care, he was told, “There are some things we can do. We can force you to get up and move around and give you some further treatments, and it might preserve your life for another four or five months. Or we can keep you comfortable, give you palliative care, and you can rest in your bed. You may not live more than a week or two.” He said, “I’m ninety-one. I’ve lived my life. I want to rest. I don’t need to do all that to preserve my life for four or five more months.” Many of us face those decisions, and we know loved ones who’ve had to face them. Those decisions are not wrong. He was choosing to end treatment, not to end his life.

Assisted-suicide laws have consequences most people don’t think about on the front end. The Netherlands was the first nation to allow legal assisted suicide, and over time they’ve seen the voluntary become involuntary. When it becomes an option for you to end your life, insurance companies say, “Well, we aren’t going to pay for that treatment to extend your life another six months or a year. You can just take these pills and end your life.” You become a burden to insurance providers, to the state, and to your family.

More and more requests for assisted suicide in the Netherlands are coming from family members, not from the patients them- selves. During the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Dutch physicians refused to obey orders by Nazi troops to let the elderly and the terminally ill die. In 2001 Holland became the first country to give legal status to doctor-assisted suicide. As Malcolm Muggeridge noted, it took only one generation to transform a war crime into an act of compassion.[3] Blessed are those who have regard for the weak (Psa. 41:1).

Every human life is precious. Unborn life is precious. Children with special needs are precious. Aging parents are precious—even when they don’t remember because they’re suffering dementia, they’re still made in the image of God. Nonverbal children or parents, those in a wheelchair, and those who are completely dependent upon others or doctors are precious. All of life matters to God. If we have our eyes open, we can see this in even the most surprising places in the Bible, like in the lex talionis of the Mosaic law. You see it in imago Dei. You see it in the incarnation, when God entered the world as a helpless babe.

Defend, honor, and give thanks for life—yours, your children’s, and your parents’. The sixth commandment means to protect it.

*Content taken from The Ten Commandments: What They Mean, Why They Matter, and Why We Should Obey Them by Kevin DeYoung, ©2018. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.

From the tiniest unborn life to the elderly at the end of life, from immigrants and refugees to those trafficked against their will, all life matters to God. Join the ERLC in Washington, D.C. on January 17-18, 2019, for Evangelicals for Life, one of the largest gatherings of pro-life Christians in the country. Speakers include Russell Moore, J.D. Greear, Steven Curtis Chapman, Keith and Kristyn Getty, and more. Register now to join us!


  1. ^ Julie Gossack, “Life after the Suicide of a Loved One,” January 2, 2006; Journal of Biblical Counseling, vol. 24, no. 1 (Glenside, PA: Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation), n.p.
  2. ^ Calvin’s Commentary, vol. 3, Harmony of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993), n.p.
  3. ^ Edmund P. Clowney, How Jesus Transforms the Ten Commandments (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), 79.

Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung (M.Div., Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He serves as a council member at the Gospel Coalition, blogs at DeYoung, Restless, and Reformed, and is assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte). He is the author of several … Read More