The Value of Life: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day #40


  1. What does God require in the sixth commandment?

That I do not revile, hate, insult, or kill my neighbor either in thought, word, or gesture, much less in deed, whether by myself or by another,1 but lay aside all desire of revenge;2 moreover, that I do not harm myself, nor willfully run into any danger.3Wherefore also to restrain murder the magistrate is armed with the sword.4

[1] Matt. 5:21–22; 26:52; Gen. 9:6. [2] Eph. 4:26; Rom. 1:19; Matt. 5:25; 18:35. [3] Matt. 4:7; Rom. 13:14; Col. 2:23. [4] Ex. 21:14; *Matt. 18:6–7.


  1. Does this commandment speak only of killing?

No, but in forbidding murder God teaches us that He abhors its very root, namely, envy,1 hatred,2 anger,3 and desire of revenge; and that in His sight all these are hidden murder.4

[1] Rom. 1:28–32. [2] 1 Jn. 2:9–11. [3] Jas. 2:13; Gal. 5:19–21. [4] 1 Jn. 3:15 *Jas. 3:16; *1:19.


  1. But is this all that is required: that we do not kill our neighbor?

No, for in condemning envy, hatred, and anger, God requires us to love our neighbor as ourselves,1 to show patience, peace, meekness,2 mercy,3 and kindness4 toward him, and to prevent his hurt as much as possible;5 also, to do good even unto our enemies.6

[1] Matt. 7:12; 22:39. [2] Eph. 4:2; Gal. 6:1–2; Rom. 12:18. [3] Matt. 5:7; Lk. 6:36. [4] Rom. 12:10. [5] Ex. 23:5. [6] Matt. 5:44–45; Rom. 12:20–21; *Col. 3:12–14; *Matt. 5:9.

The Value of Life

One of the great principles of the Christian faith is the essential value of all human beings.  Man is made in the image of God, and that truth gives a worth and dignity to every person that far transcends all differences between people.  There are men and women; there are young and old; there are rich, high-status people and poor, despised ones; there are people with very high IQs and people with little education or even serious mental handicaps.  The very common human thinking is to rank the value and dignity of a human life based on these kinds of subjective judgments, to believe that some kinds of human beings, or particular individual human beings, are more human or more important or more valuable than others.

There’s no denying that there are real differences between people and that these differences impact human relationships and social order.  The Bible instructs us that children are to obey their parents, that women cannot be officers in the church, and that citizens are to obey their civil rulers, for example.  Yet all of those kinds of distinctions fade in importance next to the much more fundamental principle of the equal worth and dignity of all human beings.  We should not say an “infinite value” or that human life is “sacred,” since those things are only true of God, but that every human’s life has an equal value, and that their value is so high as to outweigh any concern of mine that might harm, jeopardize or denigrate that life.

The Sixth Commandment arises from this principle.  We are to respect the worth of all other human beings.  One human never has the right to decide that another human should die.  Our lives are in God’s hands and for a man to attempt to seize that right from God and take another man’s life into his own hands is a wicked sin.  The perceived relative rarity of murder in our own society only demonstrates the deep impact of Christianity on our culture.  It was not at all rare in the ancient world, when tribes routinely raided their neighbors for slaves or animals and killed whoever got in their way. Violence within societies is one of the oldest and most dangerous problems that human culture faces.  And murder is quite common in our own society.  We just disguise a lot of it by calling it a medical procedure on a lump of tissue.

But the Sixth Commandment, as the Catechism well teaches us, requires that we treat others always with a sense of their dignity and worth.  That dignity and worth has nothing to do with any particular behavior of theirs or external condition or status of their life, but exists simply because they are made in the image of God.  That extends not only to my physical acts but to words and even attitudes that we have toward people.  If I call a man a fool, an idiot, or other name, then I am saying that they have less worth or less right to exist than I, and as such, I am murdering them, depriving them of life, if only in my heart.  Thus, Jesus says, such an attitude puts one in danger of hellfire.  Those attitudes are the root or seed of physical murder.

The Biblical teaching of the death penalty is sometimes held out as an inconsistency here.  But quite the contrary; it is the fact that a society that will not execute murderers is one that does not take human life seriously.  It is precisely because we have no right to denigrate the worth of another human being that someone who does so in such a drastic way as to murder them has lost their right to life, and this is not a human judgment, but a divine one.  It is God that said that he who sheds man’s blood ought to have his blood in return shed by man.  The death penalty is therefore a necessary part of the judicial system of any society that truly values human life.  But that penalty should only be executed with great caution and true to Biblical principles.  Our human responsibility is to determine whether or not a man has committed murder, but what to do with such a man is not a matter of human judgment.  God has spoken.

Out of the heart flow the issues of life, and as always we are commanded to obey this principle first in our heart, by cultivating love and respect for those around us.  God is the Lord of the heart and not of the body only, and we are culpable of sin that is only thought or felt, even if never acted upon.  If sin is allowed to take root and grow in our heart, we can be sure it will express itself in action anyway.

Though it is the most natural thing in the world for us to believe that we are better, more important, or of higher value than other people, walking with Christ requires us to constantly attack this natural pride.  Christ is our guide, who always put others ahead of Himself, who never acted out of concern for His own respect or dignity, but even when rebuking others (sometimes with quite sharp language) did so always with a concern for their welfare and never demeaning them as people.  This great love led Him to even lay down His life for others, something He did not only at the end of His life on the cross, but throughout His days on this earth.  He was a servant to all.  The Christian will desire to be conformed to Jesus’ image in all things, including this respect for the worth and dignity of all other human beings, and not just as an intellectual abstraction but in the way we talk and think and treat those people with whom we interact in our lives.