[A16] Thou Shalt Do No Murder (The Small Catechism)

“This discussion brings us to the important subject of capital punishment. Capital punishment is the legally enjoined punishment for the crime of murder. It is the conviction of many that the enforcement or non-enforcement of this penalty has much to do with the attitude of our people toward the Fifth Commandment, the first requirement of which is not to take human life. Notwithstanding, there are a great many who consider this punishment as contrary to the spirit of the age and of Christianity.”

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16. Thou Shalt Do No Murder

“Thou shalt do no murder.” — Exodus 20:13.

“Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” — Genesis 9:6.

“All they that take the sword shall perish by the sword.” — St. Matt. 26:52.

God’s Word provides the lenses through which we get to see human life in the right light: what it was originally, what it has become, what it may yet become. It shows us that life not only came from God, but that it had impressed upon it the very image of God the Maker, Himself. It shows us that, in spite of all that devils and men have done to mar, to destroy, the image of God in man, its potential elements are still present in such manner that its restoration is possible.

This Word, moreover, shows us how desirous God Himself is to have this image restored, and tells us what He has done and is still doing to have this restoration realized.

Further, this Word helps us to visualize the endless career which stretches out before the children of men, a career which means either an endless groping in darkness and self-loathing or an endless fellowship with the spirits which inhabit the celestial realm and walk in company with the Eternal Father Himself. Only when we thus view life, are we capable of appreciating aright its sacredness and begin to realize the full import of the command of the great Author of life, “Thou shalt do no murder.” Influenced by right conceptions of life, we will want to keep our hands free from the stain of blood, not only because we are afraid of becoming entangled in the meshes of the law; but because we appreciate what life is, and cherish it as God’s greatest gift.

Gross Forms of Murder

When we speak of the usual forms of murder of the gross kind we need spend no time on definitions. We know what is meant by this species of murder, whatever may be the particular manner in which it is committed or whatever the weapon or instrument used in its commission.

It might seem that there is but little need of speaking against this kind of murder to the average audience of intelligent, humane, not to say, Christian, people. Are not the only classes who need instruction on this subject those who have fallen into the clutches of the law, and are gathered into our jails and other penal institutions? Unquestionably the average man and woman detests the crime of murder. But there is, nevertheless, much reason why the men and women of the law-abiding class, yea, why the men and women who sit regularly in the pews in our churches should hear the voice of God thundering from Sinai, “Thou shalt do no murder.” If for no other reason, we should hear it because we are a part of the common, or social, body, bearing our share of the responsibility for the conditions which prevail in our citizenship; for, with respect to the crying sin of murder, conditions are far from good in our country.

The late Andrew D. White, one of the most 14 capable and painstaking students of American criminology, has shown that in spite of our boasted advance in the art of living, the number of murders in proportion to the population has been steadily increasing. He called this the most disgraceful evil in our national life. This shows us that for the proper safeguarding of human life merely intellectual culture and the inculcation of merely humanitarian considerations is not enough. Men must be impregnated with the thought of the sacredness of human life as God’s Word presents this truth. The Spirit of God, who alone teaches men rightly to cherish life, their own and that of others, must dwell in their lives as the most potent influence.

We sometimes hear this increase of murder explained by attributing it to the influx of people of foreign birth, many of whom are of an undesirable class. But the point of this argument loses most of its force when we are reminded that in no other civilized country in the world are there so many murders in proportion to the population as right here in our own land. Even southern Italy, where the Camorra and Mafia societies flourish, has many less murders to a given population than we have here. And just beyond the border in Canada, where there is just as much of a mixture of nationalities as we have here, there are far fewer violations of the Fifth Commandment than on this side of the invisible boundary. Whether we will have it so or not, this condition puts part of a grave responsibility on us; for we are a part of the society in which this state of things exists, and we are not free of the blood of the slain till we have done our utmost to rectify conditions; nor free of the blame till we have done all we can do to have proper laws enacted and then fearlessly and impartially executed, whether the offender be a prince of the intellectual realm or the merest lout, a millionaire or a pauper. We are our brothers’ keepers.

Capital Punishment

This discussion brings us to the important subject of capital punishment. Capital punishment is the legally enjoined punishment for the crime of murder. It is the conviction of many that the enforcement or non-enforcement of this penalty has much to do with the attitude of our people toward the Fifth Commandment, the first requirement of which is not to take human life. Notwithstanding, there are a great many who consider this punishment as contrary to the spirit of the age and of Christianity.

That capital punishment, namely, the taking of human life as a punishment for murder, was sanctioned by God’s Law of old can not be questioned. Such taking of life was not murder. Nor are those murderers who, today, execute the just decrees of the law. Murder is the taking of human life on one’s own initiative, from the desire of revenge or other evil motives. The Fifth Commandment prohibits the taking of human life in this way. Language cannot be clearer and more absolute than the words, “Thou shalt do no murder” (Rev. Ver.). Where the Scriptures speak of the taking of human life by due process of law and as a punishment for a crime deserving such treatment, another word is used. This removes the objection of those who appeal to the inclusive and peremptory character of the Fifth Commandment as an argument against capital punishment.

Some of the modern advocates of the abolition of capital punishment remind us of certain of the ancient sectaries, such as the Manichaeans and others, who pressed the Fifth Commandment so far that they thought it sinful to pull for food a growing turnip or to kill a troublesome flea.

So insistently did God’s ancient law decree the penalty of death for the murderer that no sanctuary sufficed to shield him from this fate. You recall that God had cities of refuge appointed to which those who unwittingly, by ignorance or accident, took human life might flee, and be safe from those who still desired to wreak vengeance on them. But the one who, with malice and purpose, took life might be taken from the very altar and put to death. God established this law of retribution, to be executed by the proper tribunal instituted by Himself, not only to emphasize the sacredness of human life, and the inalienable right of the inoffensive man to life and liberty; not only because it was the punishment best befitting the crime committed, but, unquestionably, because it would serve as the most effectual deterrent to those who would be restrained by no other consideration. And, notwithstanding all arguments to the contrary, experience has proven that it is the most effectual check on those who recognize no law but their own angry passions. In other lands, for instance in the British Isles, where murderers are far less likely to escape the penalty of the law than in our land, murder is of much less frequent occurrence than with us.

Those who argue for the abolition of the death penalty for murder generally do so on the ground that we should get away from the barbaric blood-thirstiness of the dark ages, or base their plea on the character of the New Testament. The plea for mercy, even for the murderer, has an appeal in it which it is hard for some natures to resist. There is no normal man who does not recoil from the thought of having anything to do with the taking of human life. But shall all the mercy be shown the criminal who takes human life, and none the law-abiding citizens who must live in fear of being deprived of life? The law takes cognizance of mitigating circumstances, and this is right. No man’s life should be taken when any doubt exists as to his guilt. It is even questionable whether the death penalty should ever be enacted on merely circumstantial evidence. But where it is clear that men with malice aforethought or in the course of other crime, commit murder, then the society that sets them free makes itself a partner in that crime, and no less so in the future crimes they may commit.

Some Christian people argue that the New Testament, if not the Old, breathes a spirit which precludes the idea of taking human life as a penalty, even by due process of law. They say the spirit which Christ taught his disciples is opposed to it. If that is true we say yea and amen. But we have failed to find this spirit in His teaching. We grant that the ideal toward which the Kingdom of God is to move is the reign of the Gospel of peace and good will. But the ideal has not yet been attained. As long as men persist in resisting God’s goodness and refuse to live on the Gospel plan and perpetrate crimes, they are under the law, and must accept the penalty of outraged law.

The passage in which Christ tells Peter, who would have defended his Master with carnal weapons, to put up his sword, because “they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (St. Matt. 26:52), is adduced as evidence that Christ prohibits capital punishment. It is much rather a reproof of Peter’s failure to realize that Christ’s Kingdom cannot be furthered by weapons of carnal warfare, because it is not a kingdom of this world. It was to Peter a reminder of the law which forbade the individual taking the law into his own hands. By so doing he would make himself subject to the law of the land, which could put him to death for such rash conduct. In reality these words, instead of disproving capital punishment, rather sanction it.

In Romans thirteen, which we considered a few weeks ago, we are told that government is of God, and that rulers are for the punishment of those who do evil. If men are not to be adequately punished for murder, if justice is to be a lost virtue, why not apply the same principle to the thief and every other law-breaker?

The trouble is that men are turning away from the Word of God. The old Biblical doctrine of sin and punishment is distasteful to them. They prefer the doctrine of development, of reformation. We all want reformation, but let such reformatory effort be put forth before men have become murderers and inoffending citizens’ lives have been sacrificed. We stand by the Word of God, which teaches the right and duty of those in authority to punish evildoers. The truth set forth by St. Paul, in Romans 13, is affirmed by St. Peter (2:14) and by St. John (Rev. 13:10).

I have dwelt on this subject at some length because of the periodic and persistent agitation for the abolition of the death penalty. It seems a very strange condition of things that the legal execution of murderers should be about the only form of taking human life that draws upon itself, to any great extent, the protests of the sentimentalists. Are we not known throughout the civilized world as the nation where murder most abounds? And is there not much complacency about it? We have heard of no campaigns started for the correction of the evil. Only one murderer out of four in our land is ever brought to trial. Only one out of every ten of those brought to trial is even sentenced to prison for the crime of murder. Only one accused murderer out of every eighty is executed. With this condition staring us in the face, a condition at which the world points the finger of scorn, there is but little outcry about the sacredness of human life, about the inalienable right of man to life and the pursuit of happiness. The only class which elicits the sympathy of our sentimental re formers is that of the murderers. This uncalled-for outcry against the death penalty has had much to do in bringing about the condition we have described, and which is constantly getting worse. It is because we have lost our respect for the sovereign majesty of the law. It is because we fail to seek the good of the many who are law-abiding citizens, and have turned our misguided sympathies toward the few who have elected to be anarchists, knowing no law but their own perverted will and passions. I believe it is the solemn duty of every Christian to vote against the abolition of capital punishment, and to use every opportunity for lifting up his voice, and to bring all influence to bear on the strict enforcement of the law, whether it be against murder or any other violation of law.

War and Murder

The subject of war properly comes up for consideration under the Fifth Commandment. All the more does it press for careful treatment at a time like this, when our brothers across the sea and to the south of us are drenching the ground with the heart-blood of their bravest and strongest.

A great cry of anguish is going up to the throne of heaven, not only from the wounded and dying, not only from the widows and orphans, not only from bereaved fathers and mothers; but from all those who know and feel anything of the ties of the general brotherhood of man, from all those who believe in a Kingdom of God on earth, and who work and pray for its upbuilding. Everywhere the declaration is made that this must be the last great war. We pray that it may be so. That is the Divine ideal. Jesus came to make men brothers. War compels them to act as fiends. War is one of the most dreadful evils that can be visited on a people. In addition to causing the loss of life and property, it sets back civilization greatly. Human ideals of the more spiritual kind are greatly hindered. Every constructive movement is arrested in its progress. Both victor and vanquished suffer in this way. If all rulers and those who help to make their policies were really Christians, and were not so often consumed by insane jealousies and equally insane greed, the prophecies descriptive of the Messianic Kingdom would be nearer realization:

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isa. 2:4).

But we entertain no sanguine expectations that present conditions shall be speedily and radically changed. Still more certain are we that universal peace will not come as the result of humanitarian Peace Congresses, or inter national treaties. Present European conditions — a curious commentary upon the boasted twentieth century culture — are sufficient proof of this. These movements have some influence; as an educational propaganda they will not be fruitless; but they prove no effectual barrier against the spirit of national aggrandizement, racial antipathy, and the burning desire for commercial supremacy. The only guarantee of a real brotherhood, which shall no longer learn the arts of war, is to get the nations to hoist to the very pinnacle of their flagstaff s the pennant of the King of kings, and make subordinate to that the emblems of all parties and interests. But to bring this about, the majority of the people everywhere, and especially the leaders, must be children of God, not only in name, but in reality. God must be the acknowledged sovereign of men’s hearts, before the real brotherhood of man can be inaugurated.

The contention is not Biblically correct that all warfare is necessarily wholesale murder, though I do believe that in every conflict of the mailed fist some person or party will have to bear the guilt of wholesale murder. We have reached a stage where calmness, sanity of judgment, and methods of arbitration should be allowed to settle all difficulties. But as the State is bound to defend society against a murderous person, so it is bound to defend its people when another State arises against it. If patient, brotherly pleading will not deter the aggressors nor bring them to just measures, those assailed may rightfully defend themselves. They should indeed be long-suffering; they should exhaust every peaceable means of securing justice; they should even be willing to surrender much, and endure much; but if driven to the wall they have the right to appeal to the arbitrament of the sword. Self-defense is a right of nations as well as of individuals. And Christian citizens need have no hesitancy in yielding obedience to the requirements of the civil power under such circumstances. This is proven by the fact that God Himself has more than once, and in more than one way, sanctioned war (Judges 20:27 f.; I Kings 22:6 ff.). If Israel had not been directed to make war upon the vice-eaten nations of Canaan, she would soon have been extirpated, and the establishment of the Kingdom of God would have been impossible. What was morally permissible then cannot be wrong now. The fundamental principles of morals never change.

If any change was to have been made we should have expected it with the founding of the New Dispensation. But we find no such prohibition of war. The right of waging warfare under certain circumstances is assumed. When soldiers came to the iconoclastic John the Baptist, asking what they should do to prepare themselves for the Kingdom of Christ, he did not stipulate as a requisite that they should lay down the profession of arms. The centurion, so highly praised by Christ, was a soldier; yet he received no censure. Another centurion, who received a heaven-sent vision directing him in his spiritual perplexities, and upon whom the Holy Spirit descended in miraculous manner, was allowed to remain in the service even of a heathen king (Acts 10).

Our God is not a God of war. He is no Christian Mars. He is a Father, a God of peace and good will. His aim is to cause wars to cease unto the ends of the earth. But His omnipotence extends even to the sphere in which there is clash of arms. When the monsters of man’s construction belch forth death and destruction, He is still God. And in the end He makes these chastisements, which are the fruits of wickedness, to praise Him.

Self-Murder (Suicide)

Another dark, gruesome subject that must be treated under the Fifth Commandment is that which deals with self-murder, or suicide. The increasing prevalence of this crime renders the consideration of this subject imperative. In the past half-century suicide has increased in European countries four hundred per cent., while the population has increased only sixty per cent.

Self-murder has ever been prevalent among heathen people. This is explained by the twofold fact that they have no true conception of the sacredness of human life, and that among them living conditions are less tolerable than in those lands where the beneficent rays of love, Divine and human, are shed abroad among men from the page of Revelation. But even clear-sighted heathen discerned the cowardice of self-destruction. Plato, for example, described suicide as a desertion of the post of duty.

It is a sad commentary on the religious condition of most professing Christian countries that suicide is alarmingly on the increase. We have about ten thousand suicides annually in the United States. In ten years an army greater than those which decided some of the great battles of history ushers itself, uncalled, into the presence of God. It makes one shudder to contemplate this awful fact. In a number of European countries the condition is still worse. This is attributable to two correlated causes. The chief one is that men are losing their faith: their faith in God and their faith in their own eternal destiny. We are not surprised that men like Hume, Gibbon, and Ingersoll should argue in behalf of man’s right to end his own life. It is because virtual infidelity has taken hold of so many people that life is held so cheap. This is shown from statistics. In Germany a few years ago, to everyone hundred thousand of population there were seven hundred and thirteen suicides. Of these only sixty-eight were even nominally Christian, forty were Jews, and six hundred and five were non-Christian. I doubt not that the same disparity would be found elsewhere.

Through the loss of faith men become material ists. They live only for what they can get out of the present life in the form of material gain, honor, or pleasure. When these things fail, when disease or misfortune cut short their hopes of gain, the ties which hold them to life fail, and they end it all, as they say. Life, to them, is no longer worth living.

Ending it all! But it is not ending it all. “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the Judgment” (Heb. 9:27).

Sometimes the stories of self-destruction are exploited in the newspapers in the language of heroics. In any case, it is nothing short of cowardly and contemptible for people to take their own lives. And all the more is this so when, as is often the case, the self-murderer leaves behind those still less strong and capable to fight alone the unequal battle with adverse circumstances.

The real instigator of this crime — of all crimes, indeed, but more directly of this than of many another — is the devil, who was “a murderer from the beginning,” and the father of lies, especially the blackest and most damnable of all lies — those which deceive men as to the nature, purpose, and destiny of life.

The Fifth Commandment applies as well to the self-murderer as to the murderer of any other life. “Do thyself no harm,” is the admonition of Holy Writ. And another Scripture declares that “no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15).

A question that injects itself into this discussion is that which has to do with the responsibility of the person who lays destroying hands on himself. It seems that a fully rational person could not be capable of such an act. Many, unquestionably, are not rational at the time the deed is done, but he who knows Satan’s power over the soul deceived by him will not doubt that many commit suicide with full consciousness of what they are doing. And we dare not forget that responsibility may go back far beyond the time when the deed is committed. When, by the spirit of ambition or greed, one has been led to apply himself so strenuously as to under mine his health and dethrone reason, or if the same results are brought about by sin, such as drunkenness or lust, the responsibility for suicide remains, because a moral and spiritual collapse brought on that of the mind. This fact helps to emphasize how careful and prayerful we should be in watching the whole sphere of life.

The terribleness of the sin of suicide is augmented by the fact that, if successful, it ushers the perpetrator into the very presence of God with little or no opportunity for repentance.

In cases of suicide where the mind has become unbalanced, from sickness or other causes not superinduced by overt acts of sin, we may suspend judgment and leave the victim to the mercy of God, who deals rightly with all.

Race Suicide, Infanticide [and by application, Genocide]

One of the forms of murder which often ends, if not purposely, in self-murder, is that of race suicide, or child-murder. Of all the dark sins which blacken the pages of history, chiefly unwritten history, is that of the murder of unborn offspring. If there were no other evidence, this would suffice to prove that there must be a hell of some sort; otherwise this class of murderers would not get their desert. Of all the cruel, damnable things I think the darkest and most damnable is that which links the name which should be the sweetest and most sacred among men — the name mother, with one of the foulest of crimes, murder.

Race suicide, the refusal of men and women, especially women of a certain sort — selfish, luxury-loving, without patriotism, women who wish to be wives but not mothers, is bad enough, though no murder be committed. It runs counter to the highest laws of God and the noblest instincts of humanity. It is both a result of race deterioration and a decisive contributing factor to it. It marks a condition of social dry-rot. It helps to loosen the marriage bond. It is a fruitful parent of lust. But when, to avoid maternal duties, prospective parents, lacking the parental instincts native even to the tiger and the hyena, redden their hands and damn their souls by taking the life of their unborn children, language fails to be an adequate medium for expressing the feelings of loathing and condemnation which surge through the souls of right-thinking people.

Some of the most perplexing, heartrending problems I have ever had to deal with in my ministry were those brought by cases of this kind. What can be done, in a brief space of time, to help those in a spiritual way who, in perpetrating murder, give at the same time the thrust which speedily wrought their own destruction.

And of all those who deserve execration and contempt at the hands of their fellows, at the head, indeed, in a class by themselves, stand those who are called to minister unto life, who have taken the Hippocratic oath to defend and save life; but, for a few paltry dollars, debase their noble profession and become the instruments for taking the most innocent and helpless form of human life. If there were no hell, such men would not get their deserts.

The Punishment for Murder

Of the legal punishment for murder I have spoken under the caption of both capital punishment and of war; but there is a punishment for murder above and beyond that of human law. Murder shuts the door of heaven in the face of its perpetrator.

“No murderer hath eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15; Gal. 5:21).

There are venial sins, sins of mere thoughtlessness and weakness, the commission of which does not imply that the one guilty of them has ceased to be a child of God. But the one with the spirit of murder in his heart cannot be a child of God. He must cease to be a murderer, not only in act, but in spirit, before he can ever become a child of God. That this is possible for even the actual murderer is shown by the example of the thief on the cross, and by Christ’s prayer for His own murderers.

There is another punishment for murder of which it is questionable whether any one can ever be fully freed. There is no other sin against an other person which wreaks its own vengeance on the perpetrator as does murder. It comes through the conscience, that monitor within, which is but the God-implanted counterpart of that Law which He wrote on the table of stone, “Thou shalt do no murder.”

The murderer can seldom rest. He feels that everybody knows his dark secret. Even inanimate objects seem to him to have tongues with which to tell of it. The spectre of his victim haunts him in the silent watches of the night. Perhaps you recall the first scene of the fifth act in Macbeth. Macbeth, at the instigation of his wife, had slain Duncan, King of the Scots, while he was their guest. The crime preyed on her mind. It made her sleep troubled. Every night she would rise in her sleep, take the lighted taper she kept in her room, walk back and forth, and go through the motion of washing her hands. But with all her washing the imagined stain would not disappear. “Yet here’s a spot,” she was forced to say. And then she cried aloud, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say! What, will these hands ne’er be clean? Here is the smell of blood still; all the perfume of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” So works the voice of conscience, which is but the soul repeating the voice of Him who said, and still says, “Thou shalt do no murder.”

There is but one agent can cleanse the hand and the heart stained with blood. Not the perfumes of Arabia, not all the penance the most determined spirit can perform; but the blood of Jesus Christ the crucified, received in penitence and faith.

“Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isa. 1:18).

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.

To request a printable copy [PDF] send an email to: editor@lutheranlibrary.org with the title of this post.

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

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