This article is adapted from a sermon, of the same title, I preached on 20 January 2019. The audio and video are here.
What should a Christian think about abortion? There probably isn’t a more personal, more sensitive topic a pastor can discuss. I hope this article helps Christians think about this issue deeply and constructively, that it presents a winsome, persuasive case for unbelievers, and also showcases God’s grace, mercy and love – even in the face of a terrible sin like abortion.
Defining the terms
I will be talking about induced abortion. There are different kinds of induced abortion:
- Therapeutic: to save the life of the mother
- Eugenic: to avoid a physical or mental handicap regarding child
- Elective: a decision by mother (or both parents) to terminate the pregnancy
In this article, I’ll be talking about elective abortion. But, before we begin, it’s important for Christians to emphasize that God can forgive abortion. He can forgive anything, for anyone who comes to Him. Even though we’re each born as children of wrath, God is rich in mercy, grace, love and kindness (Eph 2:1-7).
Why is human life sacred?
The best explanation of why human life is special and sacred is from the Book of Genesis. It says God created the first human being, gave him life, made him a living creature:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Gen 1:26-27).
This tells us a few things that’re important, when you think about abortion:
- Every person is made in the image of God
- The image isn’t lost; every single man, woman, boy and girl still reflects it in a dim and damaged way
- It has nothing to do with intellect, money or gender – it’s a universal fact, hardwired into human nature
- There’s an implicit brotherhood of sorts among all people
- All people are under authority; we’re not autonomous
But, what does it actually mean to be “made in the image of God?” The Bible doesn’t explicitly say! We know it isn’t a physical resemblance; because God doesn’t have an innate, physical form – He’s a spirit (Jn 4:24; 2 Cor 3:17; 1 Tim 1:17; the shekinah glory cloud, etc.). So, even though Moses didn’t spell out exactly what this means; the Bible does hint at it over and over.
It means God created us; which means we aren’t autonomous – we’re under authority. It means humans are God’s highest creations, because nothing else is said to be made in His image. It means human life is sacred above all other life, because God never says this about any other creation of His:
From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image,” (Gen 9:56).
It means we reflect God’s qualities or characteristics, to some extent:
When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth,” (Gen 5:3).
It’s not that Seth looked like Adam; it’s that Seth reflected his father’s qualities and characteristics. It’s also something the Lord changes us into bit by bit, if we’re Christians:
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18).
If you’re a Christian, God changes you to reflect His image, little by little. This means the “image of God” is about characteristics; somehow, some way, we reflect God’s qualities or traits. The Bible tells us Christ is the perfect image of God (cp. Col 1:15):
In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Cor 4:4)
Christ isn’t the image of the Father in a physical sense; but He is the image in the sense of status and nature. This means that, the more Christlike a Christian becomes, the more he owns up and lives up to the image of the God in whose image He was made. One day, all Christians will perfectly reflect Christ and the ruined image will be fixed. This is why the Apostle Paul said that, as you put off the “old you” and replace it with the “new you,” you’re “being renewed in knowledge after the image of [your] creator,” (Col 3:10).
“for those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son,” (Rom 8:29).
“the first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Cor 15:47-49).
So, here’s the answer; here’s what it means:1
- The image of God in humans is the characteristics and qualities that enable us to do what God created us to do; (1) to love Him, (2) love each other, and (3) serve Him
We, alone among all of God’s creatures, have the self-determination, intelligence, self-awareness, introspection consciousness, willpower, and emotions to actually know God, respond to Him, love Him, love one another, and do all the amazing things God has created us to do. Christ is the model for the perfect human, because He (1) has perfect fellowship with the Father, (2) has perfect obedience to His will, and (3) has perfect love for others.
This is why the Apostle Paul says Christians are renewed in Christ’s image bit by bit, little by little – the more you reflect Christ, the more you live up to the image of God you were created in.
What does it matter? What does it have to do with abortion?
It matters because babies are made in God’s image, too. Babies were made to reflect God’s glory, to have a chance to live their own lives, have their own children, and to (hopefully) honor the Lord by their lives; to see their own grandchildren do the same. Human life is sacred because it comes from God, who made it sacred for a reason – that’s why God told Moses it was a capital offense to take someone’s life; “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image,” (Gen 9:6).
This is the theological foundation upon which the Christian position stands – people are sacred, babies are sacred, unborn children are sacred because they’re made in the image of God. Every Christian might not be able to articulate this coherently or in a winsome way; but it’s the essence of the Christian position
The other view
What is the essence of the other position, the other side, the pro-abortion side? How do they define “personhood” and assign it value?
They say an unborn child isn’t a person. This isn’t to say that every woman who has an abortion believes this view; it just means this pillar undergirds and props up the very idea that “abortion is ok.”
You can sum up these two positions (the Christian and pro-abortion positions) in two ways – structural vs. functional:2
The structural position says you’re a “person” because you’re made in the image of God. Once a sperm fertilizes an egg, a new entity is produced which has a continuous existence from conception through death:
- from an initial singlecelled organism,
- to a multicelled embryo,
- to a fetus,
- to a newborn infant,
- to an adolescent,
- to an adult,
- and (eventually) to death; no matter how long or short that life is3
On this view, which the Bible teaches, your status as a “human being” is rooted in what you are, intrinsically and definitionally, not in what you can or cannot do! This is why Christians still see:
- unborn children,
- the elderly,
- the medically comatose,
- those who Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia,
- and those with some sort of mental incapacitation
as having intrinsic worth and dignity in God’s eyes.
However, the functional view of “personhood” sees you as a “person” if you can do certain things; certain actions or activities. For example:
- minimum intelligence,
- a degree of self-awareness,
- capacity for selfcontrol,
- a sense of the passage of time and of futurity,
- conscious recall of the past,
- the capability to relate to and communicate with others,
- a capacity of concern for others,
- a responsible control of existence,
- being open to change and creativity in life,
- a right balance of rationality and feeling,
- being idiosyncratic in the sense of having a recognizable individuality, and
- having a functioning brain that allows you to accomplish all these
If you can’t do these things, if you don’t have this capacity, then you don’t qualify as a human being with rights. Thus, a “fetus” is not a “person.”
For the Christian, it’s clear which one of these definitions (structural or functional) fits our own experience, and the Scriptures:
- Personhood is a sacred status, given by God, by nature of being made in His image
- It’s a structural thing, hardwired into the very makeup of our creation; it’s a status thing!
- It confers dignity on the unborn, the elderly, the mentally handicapped, and physically handicapped, the medically incapacitated, and those with some form of dementia
- It gives intrinsic status, worth, and dignity to people because of what they are and who they are!
The other option, the functional one, is morally unacceptable from a Christian perspective:
- It doesn’t reflect reality
- It has no grounding; where does this definition even come from!?4
- It doesn’t match the reflexive instincts God gave all of us (we know it’s instinctively wrong to kill mentally handicapped people, for example)
- It has no logical stopping point; do small children and the elderly even count, for example? On what basis, given the argument?
The functional definition of “personhood” is the presupposition (self-conscious or otherwise) behind this recent statement from an editor of a magazine for millennial women:5
This article will continue in the next installment.
1 I am heavily indebted to Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 517-536. He has the best discussion on this issue.
2 For this discussion, I’m heavily indebted to John S. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World, 2nd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 63-109.
3 “The initial point is that neither sperm nor egg alone is a human being. If sperm doesn’t fertilize an egg, both will die. No one would think an entity has died, mourn, hold a funeral or do anything else appropriate at the loss of some being like a human baby, or even the loss of a dog or cat. On the other hand, once sperm penetrates an egg and fertilizes it, a new organism exists that begins to develop into the baby that will eventually be born, grow to old age, and die. There is continuity between the initial one-celled organism formed at conception/fertilization, the one-celled embryo, the multi-celled embryo, the fetus, the newborn infant, the adolescent, and the adult who one day will die,” (Feinberg, Ethics, 89-90).
4 Of course, Christians are open to the charge of circular reasoning, here. Are Christians saying, “the Bible says human life is sacred, therefore human life is sacred, because the Bible says it’s sacred?” If that’s all one says, then it is circular and shallow. However, everyone begins from a certain presuppositional standpoint. The key is to weigh which presupposition actually has grounding and credibility. Which worldview best fits the evidence? For a brief discussion on the charge of circular arguments, see John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1994), 9-14.