Lord’s Day Forty
Ursinus included a table in his commentary on the Catechism that provides a helpful summary of what is commanded and forbidden in the sixth command.
The sixth command forbids unlawful injuries to the well-being of others, in general forbidding anything we say, think, or do that fails to properly honor the image of God in those who bear it, and, by doing so, adequately esteem the value of the image-bearer – remember the price God paid for our redemption. At the same time it enjoins that we do all within our ability to preserve, protect, and defend the well-being of others.
So what about the death penalty?
“When God forbids the infliction of any wrong upon society, and wills that the magistrate be the defender and preserver of order according to the whole Decalogue, he also designs that those who manifestly and grossly violate this order be restrained and kept within proper bounds by just punishments. The magistrate, therefore, may be guilty of doing wrong not only in being cruel and unjustly severe, but also in being too lenient …
Obj. It is here said, Thou shalt not kill. Therefore no one must be put to death… you who are merely a private person, according to your judgment and desire, when I do not command you, and give you any warrant from this law. But this does not do away with the office of the magistrate; “for he is the minister of God and does not bear the sword in vain.” (Rom. 13:4) Hence when the magistrate puts wicked transgressors to death, it is not man, but God who is the executioner of the deed. …some are to be put to death, lest human society be destroyed by thieves and robbers” Ursinus
A foundational element of just war theory is found in this, the lawful use of the “sword” by the civil magistrate to guard society or nations against evil-doers. Only the magistrate and not private citizens can issue a call to war; only those acting on the authority of the magistrate act lawfully when they take the life of another. The magistrate is responsible before God for the justness of the war; the soldier is responsible before God to submit to the authority of the civil magistrate.
On the side of what is forbidden, the wrongness of direct assaults on life and/or safety is obvious. It is wrong to attack someone’s life, health, character, integrity. What is not so obvious are the injuries we cause by our internal affections – anger, hatred, desire for revenge, malice in our hearts toward someone else. We must consider Jesus’ teaching that it is not necessary to commit an overt act in order to break the law of God. See Matthew 5:21-22; 5:27-28 He makes it plain that failing to honor the commands of God in our thoughts is just as much a sin – not as grievous, because to think and then act on our thoughts compounds one sin on another – as it is to commit the overt act.
Similarly, on the side of what is commanded, the rightness of helping to preserve life and safety through humanity – that is, benevolence or philanthropy toward others, mercy and friendship is obvious – doing good to our neighbors, attempting to mitigate the calamities of the less fortunate, and performing the duties of friendship.
The rightness of commutative justice, that’s easy to understand but more difficult to practice. For justice to be commutative, there must be “equality between offense and punishment, inflicting either equal punishments, or less in view of just and satisfactory causes, having a proper regard to the circumstances which should ever be taken into consideration in civil courts.” Ursinus Repeat offender laws, “three strikes and you’re out”, the sex-offender registry, our desires to lock the perverts up and throw away the key or exile them to Cuba, all of these are regulated by the sixth commandment.
Fortitude is that virtue which braves danger for the glory of God, the salvation of the church and country, and preservation and defense against wrongs and oppressions. Indignation is the zeal that responds to a wrong committed against the innocent (including reproach against the name of God) and strives to make it right.
Now for the really complicated situations, those times in life when life and technology intersect – persistent vegetative states; fetal defects; premature birth; end-of-life issues; execution methods (hanging, electrocution, lethal injection, firing squad). When is withholding technology or effort justified? Is it ever justified? Dr. deKay and the Day boys illustration. We certainly have the duty to do what is reasonable to maintain an acceptable quality of life – providing food, shelter, clothing. But when preserving life approaches “simply” prolonging basic bodily function the decisions become much more difficult.