[A15] The Sacred Mystery of Human Life (The Small Catechism)

The Fifth Commandment (“Thou Shalt Not Kill”) has not become antiquated… (In it) we have a statement of that Law of God which gives emphasis to the sacredness of human life, and throws about it the protecting shield of His care.

Table of Contents

15. The Sacred Mystery Of Human Life

“The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” — Genesis 2:7.

“Thou shalt not kill.” — Exodus 20:13.

The Second Table of the Law starts out, in the Fourth Commandment, by throwing a safeguard about the very fountainhead of human life, and human society. It sets before us the family, parentage, and the reciprocal relations of parents and children. In that first commandment of the Second Table we were brought face to face with the great problem of human life; a problem of which no thoughtful, pure, reverent soul can think without being devoutly stirred to the depths of his being. In the Fifth Commandment, which we are next to take up for consideration, we have a statement of that Law of God which gives emphasis to the sacredness of human life, and throws about it the protecting shield of His care.

The Fifth Commandment has not become antiquated, or outgrown. The world has made much progress in certain forms of appreciation of human life; but this law is still needed, badly needed. It has been wrought into the organic law of every civilized nation. But there is still a great deal of reckless and needless jeopardizing of human life.

“Thou shalt not kill” is a prohibition which, because of present conditions, shocks the moral consciousness of a goodly portion of our people, and which ought to burn like a branding-iron into the consciences of princes and of thousands of others. The flower of the manhood of many nations is being cut down in the prime of life by the hundreds of thousands. Someone, or some coterie of persons or interests, is responsible. Would that in every drop of spilled blood they might have to read, in letters which burn, the words: “Thou shalt not kill.” Would to God that in the groan of every wounded man, and in the shriek of every shell they might hear the voice of an outraged God, saying, “Thou shalt not kill.”

Yes, in spite of the way men usually prize life; in spite of the advances made in the study and appreciation of life; in spite of the hoary age of the law against the taking of human life, we constantly need to have it impressed anew. Before we take up, in a direct way, the prohibition of the Fifth Commandment, we shall consider today the more general and preparatory subject of the Sacredness of Human Life.

The Mystery of Life

What a wonderful, awe-inspiring subject we approach when we take up the problem of human life. Life there is all around us, life in various forms, life without intelligence, life differing widely in degrees of intelligence, life serving widely differing purposes in the great complex which makes up this universe.

Life! The savage bushman, almost as fierce in his disposition as the tiger which shares with him the jungle, has some faint, shadowy conception of the wondrousness of life. In spite of the fact that, in practice, the life of his fellowman may not be held sacred by him, he has, nevertheless, a certain superstitious reverence for the phenomenon of life itself.

Life! The greatest sages of all ages, those who have looked lovingly and with keenest discernment into the deep problem of the causes, nature, and tendencies of things, have stood with bowed head before this profoundest of earthly mysteries, — life, especially human life. If anywhere in the realm of nature there is a shrine before which men might bow with some show of justification, it is in the presence of this mystery of life. But great as is the mystery of life in its general aspect, it is raised and intensified a thousandfold when we follow it from its lowest and insensate forms to its most perfect form — in man. There are wonders to challenge the intellect and to call forth admiration and praise for the creative Cause when we view life merely in the vegetable kingdom. And what science has done, and is doing, in this sphere only helps to reveal such wonders, though there is still much here which no savant has ever fully explained. What we find in the vegetable kingdom we find also in the lower animal kingdom — the wonders of life, such as growth and self-propagation, and, added to it, sensation, a form of consciousness, mind. And what we find there we find in man, but something more, something so much greater that we find difficulty in expressing it without using the terms of infinity. The gap between the simplest protozoan and the most highly developed vertebrate is as nothing to the distance between the highest mere animal and man, between the life of the most highly endowed animal and the life of man, who is the image of God.

Human life — life which thinks, and wills, and loves, and hopes, and aspires, and struggles to realize its destiny; life which spans the ocean with cables, binds the earth with tracks of iron, skims the bot tom of the pathless deep, and soars through the upper air as if on eagle’s wings; what a wonderful object is this life! Think of its flight of imagination! It delves into the darkness of the lower regions, and paints such pictures as we have in Dante’s Inferno. It goes back through the millenniums and gives us the sublime imagery of Mil ton’s Paradise Lost. It pierces the untraversed and still unpolluted future and gives us a vision of Paradise Regained. In the sphere of reason it gives us such creations as those of Plato and Kant and Hegel. Besides these and other renowned products of the human mind in the sphere of the liberal arts, we have those sublime creations in the wide field of the fine arts. Think of the poems conceived in the souls of men like Michael Angelo and Sir Christopher Wren, and then wrought out in stone and metal. Think of the symphonies which the responsive souls of men like Beethoven and Bach have caught from the orchestras which God has placed all around us in the universe, and which they have translated into the language of mortals. Think of the master pieces of such artists of the brush as Raphael and Rembrandt.

All this and much more is the product of human life. What a transcendently wonderful thing it is! In a score of ways, what a wonderful thing is life! And yet how little most of us think of it, at least in this light. We are so accustomed to the manifestations of life, so used to living, that the wonderfulness of life no longer makes much of an appeal to us. We have reduced life largely to a round of rather commonplace, and often sordid, activities. Let us make amends for this remissness. Let us think more of life, and, if need be, a little less of merely living, or making a living. But when we have done our best, life will still be largely a mystery — ! but a mystery of which we shall think with more reverence, and of which we shall be more careful.

The problem of life has ever been one of in tense interest to man. Philosophy has dealt largely with it, has tried to account for it, to define it. Modern science has tried hard to reduce life to its final elements, and compass it in the terms applicable to phenomena in other spheres. The devotees of science have attempted to uncover life with the scalpel, and compound it in the laboratory. While we are grateful for all real advances made, it re mains true, as is said by one of the noted philosophers of the present time that, “The intellect is characterized by a natural inability to comprehend life.” No mere human intellect has ever told us whence life came, no human research can discover to us the fountain out of which it streams, the goal whither it is bound, nor what shall be its final estate.

There is only one place where the great problem of human life is given an explanation which really satisfies the spirit of man. This answer is found, not in the book of Nature, but in the volume of Revelation. All other lines of investigation have met with baffling difficulties. And what does Revelation tell us of life? It leads back along the pathway of history till we come to the point which is designated as the beginning. There we hear the uncreated Creator speaking the potent words:

“Let there be!”

By these words of God every living creature that moves was brought forth. And then we come to the boldest, and most pregnant words, so far as man is concerned, ever wrought into the language of mortals:

“And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness. So God created man in His own image; in the image of God created He him.”

We do not profess — it would be the height of folly to profess — that this record eliminates all the elements of mystery from human life. It does nothing of the kind, and does not profess to do so. Life is still mysterious. No man has ever seen it. We see only its manifestations. But this much it settles: we have learned to know our parentage. We do not owe our being to some tadpole which came to wiggle, somehow, in the primeval ooze. Nor do we count in our ancestral line some chattering chimpanzee which inhabited some prehistoric jungle. Nor are we, as individuals, the sporadic manifestation of some all-pervading, impersonal life element. Whatever others may claim, or be willing to accept, God, the great personal Father, the supreme Intelligence, the all-working Love, is the Author of our being. And He placed us here to work out, by His gracious help, a glorious destiny.

The Sacredness of Human Life

The origin of human life, coming as it did directly from the hand of God; its character, being created to bear the image of God; its destiny, being created to share the inner sanctuary of the universe in fellowship with God Himself for all the aeons to come, these are the things which help to emphasize the real greatness, the sacredness of human life.

The nobler-minded of the heathen, though they looked at man with eyes enlightened only by the lamp of human reason, and measured human life only by the standard of his capacity for pleasure and present achievement, or in view of that for which they but dimly hoped, sometimes had rather exalted conceptions of the character of human life. But usually it was not so. With them, generally, life was held very cheaply. In ancient Rome multitudes thronged the amphitheater, to witness, with every manifestation of delight, strong men hew each other to pieces. It is so wherever God has not been allowed to teach man his own true nature. It is the truth concerning human life revealed in God’s Word which makes it so inestimably precious. And it is not only because we were created by God, but because of the relationship we are to sustain to Him. We are not only God’s handiwork, but His children.

Throughout the whole history of the covenant relationship between God and man there has been a progressive revelation of the sacredness of human life. So far as the revelation itself is concerned, it reached its climax in the coming and teaching of Jesus Christ. In the very fact of the Son of God becoming man we have a witness, greater than human language can ever express, to the worth and potential greatness of human life.

The worth, the sacredness of human life! Is it not foolishness to speak thus? If we open our eyes and look around us, is what we see not enough to disprove all talk about this greatness and sacredness of which men speak? Not to see much which makes earnest, thinking people sad at heart is to be blind and obtuse indeed. The blush of shame must often mantle the cheek as the result of what one sees and hears. All around there are lying, drunken, selfish, beastly, besotted men and women; those who scheme and plot, and are cruel in carrying out their plans. Everywhere there are those who, like bats, love the darkness, and fatten like vampires on the blood of their fellows; those who leer and gibe and mock at everything holy, whose looks and words are salacious, who live in a moral and spiritual charnel house. All this is only too sadly true. But all this, and all that might be added, does not disprove our contention, nor quench our optimism. What we see is not human life as God brought it forth. It is a wretched caricature of it. Sin has terribly disfigured the handiwork of God as it was shown in human life when it left His hand. But the groundwork, the potentiality, is still there. It is when we see the Spirit of God at work in man, when he has come forth a spiritually new creature, loathing sin and struggling to be liberated from it; when we see him a humble suppliant at the throne of grace, walking humbly with God, and going forth with the light of new faith and love in his eyes, strong in his determination to count no cost in the service of God and of God’s other children, — then we begin to catch glimpses of that other man, the true man, the man made in the image of God.

You have heard, have you not, of the lost portrait of Dante? This portrait was painted on the walls of the Bargello, at Florence. For many years, I know not how long, it was supposed that the picture had been destroyed, so completely had all traces of it been lost. In the course of time there came an artist who had hopes that it might be found, and with determination to spare no pains in the attempt to find it. The place where tradition said the picture had been painted was a lumber room, filled with all kinds of litter. The walls had been heavily coated with whitewash. Undaunted, the artist had the place carefully cleaned. Then he began, cautiously, to remove the whitewash from the wall. After a while lines and color began to appear. And after much careful, painstaking work had been done, there was to be seen, in much of its original strength and beauty of execution, the picture of the grave, noble face of the great poet. A striking illustration this of the work Christ did for the restoration of humanity. Man is lost, but he is lost only because he originally belonged to God. Man is a prodigal, but a prodigal is still a son, and there is still a place for him in the Father’s house. He may dwell among the swine, and may have developed many swinish propensities; but he is not one of them. He is capable of being brought to his senses, of recalling his Father’s house, of appreciating his Father’s embrace, and of wearing with growing grace the new raiment the Father provides. The image given him has been disfigured, but it is capable of being restored. Life, as it is now by nature, is sadly disjointed; but it is capable of being again articulated. Man is a guilty sinner, but God is willing to pardon, and man is capable of reconciliation and growing holiness. This is all God’s work, but even God could not do it if the possibility were not in man. Thus, does man, even in his worst estate, give evidence of the greatness and sacredness of his life.

The final word as to the proof of the worth of human life is found in this that, to accomplish that of which we have been speaking, the Son of God did not only become man in order to give the world another glimpse of a real, true man in his beauty and power; but to die for mankind. And what is the central meaning of this inexpressibly great sacrifice, if not to show us that God Himself counts no sacrifice too great to pay for the redemption and restoration of a human life?

The Christian Attitude Toward Life

The supreme practical question of Christianity is that of man’s attitude toward life. The question of our attitude toward life is virtually one with that of our attitude toward God. We cannot have right thoughts about life and wrong thoughts about God. We cannot serve God acceptably and neglect or abuse life. Ignorance of life, its origin, nature, and destiny, is back of much of the waste and abuse of life. It is this which must be corrected. Because of sin and consequent weakness, man’s achievement is always many degrees behind his vision and desire. We can never, therefore, expect men to show their appreciation of life in any adequate degree till they have become impregnated through and through with the idea of its dignity and worth.

We see this principle illustrated in every sphere of life’s activities. Men struggle for the things which they think most worthwhile. They scramble for money, position, fame — a variety of goals dominated by the much abused term “success.” We must put something of this principle into practice with respect to life, but we must fashion it from the viewpoint of God’s Word and will. The first step is the cultivation of a consciousness of the true worth of life. Life is not the mere fact of living, nor the struggle to get and enjoy; it is the God-given gift of life itself of which we speak. When this has been accomplished, a motive will have been established, more powerful than any other, for the proper care of life.

The Christian attitude toward life is one of keen discrimination. The child of God knows that his body is worth taking care of, for his physical life also is God-given. Because of this he cannot with impunity abuse or weaken it. It is the instrument by and through which he is to work. He is obligated, then, to take the best possible care of it. It is a sin against God unnecessarily to weaken or injure the body, and thus to lessen the scope and character of the work which might have been done through it. Much of this is constantly being done by ignorance, but the ignorance itself is a sin; for we have no right to be ignorant of such important, far-reaching matters. Ignorant, careless children are not usually entrusted with pieces of mechanism delicate and costly. The very fact of our having life ought to lead each one to make a study, as thorough as possible, of its nature. If we take life, care for it, use it as a gift of God, it will crown us with blessings. If we handle it carelessly, degrade it, abuse it, it will curse and slay us.

The highest worth of the bodily life lies in this that it is the vehicle, or instrument, of a higher form of life, that of the soul, or spirit. There are too many, not only in the world, but in the churches, who give evidence that they understand by life chiefly that of the body, and even such fragmentary conceptions do not always move on the highest plane. They pamper the body, gratify all its desires and call this caring for the body. Nothing is further from the truth. The body must often be kept in restraint, and its desires crucified, if the inner life is to flourish. Indeed, Jesus Himself teaches us that circumstances may arise which call for the sacrifice of the bodily life, and that only by so doing can one inherit the larger life. It is the soul-life, and its salvation, which is the matter of supreme importance, according to the Biblical, Christian view.

It is eternity, and man’s eternal relationship to God, the author of life, without whose presence and favor no life can be blessed, which gives its vital importance to the great problem of human life. And this earthly span of existence is the school in which we are to receive the training for the great beyond. God has done all that infinite wisdom, power, and love, working through a Father’s heart, can do to make our schooling a success. He has sent a Savior to make it possible for us to profit by our schooling. God is still sending His Spirit to open our blind eyes, to touch and revitalize our dead hearts, to enable us to receive Christ in whom we have forgiveness of sin and new life, and to be our constant teacher and comforter. And God’s aim, in all the disciplining processes of this school-life, is to prepare us for eternal life. And eternal life is by no means the same as an endless continuity of life. No human life shall ever cease to be, so the Word of God teaches us. But eternal life is eternal holiness, eternal blessedness, eternal glory, eternal fellowship in all these things with God Himself.

In the enlightened Christian view of life there is no room for the question, “Is life worth living?” That is settled by the premises which condition life itself. Life here may be but poorly provided with the things which minister to comfort; it may be heavily handicapped by weaknesses, and burdened with pain; it may be hard beset by trials and temptations; but it is still the gift of God, and if it is submitted humbly, believingly, to Him, its discipline will be only such as will fit it for its glorious destiny. And none of those who have caught the vision of what life is, and of that radiant angel of life who beckons us on and gives us, ever and anon, glimpses of the life which is to be, will count the cost of the discipline too great.

Let us prize life! It is Divine in its origin, mysterious in its nature, magnificent in its possibilities, utterly beyond the full comprehension of any merely human mind, as it is beyond the complete control of any human power. What obligations this puts upon us to take proper care of it, and cultivate it! If any one of us had a casket of gems, would he not exercise every precaution to preserve them? The value of life, of each individual life, is beyond computation in the terms of material things. It is the only thing with which we shall stand in the presence of God. When we come into that presence may we stand adorned with the righteousness of Christ! That righteousness, possessed in faith, is eternal life here and now, and the pledge of it in its final beatific fullness and majesty.

By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.

Luther’s Small Catechism: Series A – The Ten Commandments

Publication Information

  • Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
  • Title: “The Ten Commandments”
  • Originally Published: 1915 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2019
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0