The Godly Kind of Mercy Killing

There’s a ungodly type of mercy killing that receives a great deal of sympathy, if not support, in our world today. Consider the Terri Schaivo case that lasted from 1990—2005. Terri had been diagnosed by her doctors as being in a persistent vegetative state, which led her husband’s attempts to end life support. His efforts were opposed by her parents, who fought to continue life-prolonging measures until her feeding tube was finally disconnected on March 18, 2005 and her death occurred on March 31. Those who advocate mercy killing and the “right to die” would argue that it is unethical to prolong the life of someone like Shaivo, whose quality of life was clearly impaired after suffering from brain damage following cardiac arrest in 1990.


John & Diane Rehm

Or consider the more recent example of the well-known public radio host Diane Rehm and her husband John, whose suffering with Parkinson’s disease became so great that he wanted to die. The doctor informed John that he could not aid him in ending his life, despite his personal feelings to the contrary. In an interview with NBC News, his doctor is reported to have said, “I don’t disagree with your wish that you could die with the help of a physician but I cannot do it in the state of Maryland.” Consequently, John ended his own life by dehydration, which took nine days. After his death, Diane expressed her support for physician-assisted suicide, claiming that her husband’s slow, deliberate death was unnecessary. For more on John Rehm and physician assisted suicide, listen to Wesley Smith on this July 11th episode of Issues, Etc.

It’s ironic: while Christians can be sympathetic to something that is so contrary to God’s will, there is a often a strong resistance to the godly kind of mercy killing. The existence of a godly mercy killing is attested to by the prophet Jeremiah: “Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). This is the death that is worked by the Law of God, the crushing of the stony heart, the putting of the Old Adam to death. As St. Paul says, “through the law comes knowledge of sin,” (Romans 3:20), and such knowledge renders us spiritually dead in the sight of God (Romans 7:9).

The godly kind of mercy killing, therefore, is nothing other than the putting to death of the sinful flesh through the preaching of God’s Law. Though it may be the unpleasant, alien work of God, it is nevertheless God’s work. This is important for both those who preach and hear God’s Word to bear in mind. It is incredibly unpleasant to proclaim God’s Law in all of its sternness, much as the surgeon might find it unpleasant when cutting into the flesh of a patient during surgery. Such a thing results in bleeding, and even carries with it the risk of death.

It’s one thing to smash a rock into pieces, to use Jeremiah’s image, but it’s quite another to crush the self-righteous pride that dwells in people whom the preacher loves, himself included. Such preaching is unpleasant, it hits too close to home, and it always risks causing offense and disturbing the peace of the congregation. Fire always burns (Jeremiah 23:29). But pastors must have enough compassion to weekly administer this lethal dose of the law—for the sake of Christ and his hearers. People may avoid going to the dentist because they are afraid of pain, but this doesn’t nullify the dentist’s responsibility to do the required surgery. Most people understand that some degree of pain is necessary before healing can take place. It is no different when it comes to the preaching of God’s Law.

While pastors may be tempted to spare their hearers any discomfort when preaching the Law, to do so is actually the opposite of mercy; it’s the work of Satan. As Luther says in The Bondage of the Will,

“For Satan knows that if men were aware of their misery, he would not be able to retain a single one of them in his kingdom, because God could not but at once pity and succor them in their acknowledged and crying wretchedness, seeing he is so highly extolled throughout Scripture as being near to the contrite in heart, as Christ too declares himself according to Isaiah 61, to have been sent to preach the gospel to the poor and to bind up the brokenhearted. Accordingly, it is Satan’s work to prevent men from recognizing their plight and to keep them presuming that they can do everything they are told,” (AE 33:130; emphasis added).

Satan would keep hearers in ignorance of their disease so that they would be ignorant of their need for the healing medicine of the Gospel. He would keep hearers captive to their sin so that he might keep them captive in his kingdom. To soft peddle the wrath of God against sin is to act as the false prophets, the messengers of Satan. The sternness of God’s wrath against our sin and the depth of His mercy is seen most clearly on the cross, where God made Christ, His beloved Son, who knew no sin to be sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

God does not put to death through the Law because He delights in killing, He does so in order to raise us up to new life in the Gospel (Ephesians 2:5). The Gospel cannot be heard in its full sweetness unless the Law has first been heard in its full severity. As Luther says, those who “neither recognize sin nor feel death have no use for the mercy promised by that word,” (AE 33:138). The moment that we, by the grace of God, are shown even a hint of our wretchedness, we can do no other than flee to Christ and He to us.

Cranach, Law & Grace

Cranach, Law & Grace

The kind of mercy killing that the world finds acceptable is actually the opposite of mercy. It brings death for death’s sake. The preaching of God’s Law brings death for the sake of life, in order to prepare hearers for the Gospel. The sinful flesh resists this sort of mercy killing with every fiber of its being, but death will come one way or the other. One can die to sin or perish eternally. Mercifully, the Holy Spirit puts our sinful flesh to death through the unadulterated preaching of God’s Law and brings us to life through the Gospel. Difficult though it may be, any preaching that avoids this sort of mercy killing is the work of Satan.


The Godly Kind of Mercy Killing — 11 Comments

  1. I had been a faithful listener to the Diane Rehm Show on NPR for years. It seemed she always had the most knowledgeable people on for most front page stories of the day. This was especially true concerning health issues like breast cancer and other health topics in which I was interested. When I heard on Issues,etc. that she was advocating for assisted suicide I was deeply disappointed. I’ve stopped listening to her show. It truly is a shame that our society is so misguided by this thinking.

    In Christ,

  2. Pastor Andersen,

    Thanks for the article. It seems to me, though, that it is the Gospel that kills the old man. Here are my thoughts. The Law was given to increase sin, to expose it. This doesn’t kill the old Adam. Nor does a knowledge of sin render us, as you say above, “spiritually dead in the sight of God.” Sin does that. Knowledge of sin makes us realize that we are spiritually dead. But acknowledging that the old Adam exists (i.e. that we are spiritually dead) is not to kill the Old Adam. That happens by the Gospel. It is only when the new man comes that the old man can die.


  3. @Elizabeth Peters #2
    Is it not more accurate to say we are dead to sin and this relates back to the bite from the apple? The law reveals our helpless estate and that our fate is accomplished lest we are born again. It is only when one is “born of water and the Spirit” that there is life. The grace of the Lord Jesus brings new life and assures that when our worldly life is over, it is then that we defeat death. For Jesus said “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”

  4. @Elizabeth Peters #2

    From the Smalcald Articles Luther shows that it is the law that kills and the gospel gives life:

    “This office [of the Law] the New Testament retains and urges, as St. Paul, Rom. 1:18 does, saying: The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Again, Rom 3:19: All the world is guilty before God. No man is righteous before Him. And Christ says, John 16:8: The Holy Ghost will reprove the world of sin.

    2] This, then, is the thunderbolt of God by which He strikes in a heap [hurls to the ground] both manifest sinners and false saints [hypocrites], and suffers no one to be in the right [declares no one righteous], but drives them all together to terror and despair. This is the hammer, as Jeremiah 23:29 says: Is not My Word like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces? This is not activa contritio or manufactured repentance, but passiva contritio [torture of conscience], true sorrow of heart, suffering and sensation of death.

    3] This, then, is what it means to begin true repentance; and here man must hear such a sentence as this: You are all of no account, whether you be manifest sinners or saints [in your own opinion]; you all must become different and do otherwise than you now are and are doing [no matter what sort of people you are], whether you are as great, wise, powerful, and holy as you may. Here no one is [righteous, holy], godly, etc.

    4] But to this office the New Testament immediately adds the consolatory promise of grace through the Gospel, which must be believed, as Christ declares, Mark 1:15: Repent and believe the Gospel, i.e., become different and do otherwise, and believe My promise. And John, preceding Him, is called a preacher of repentance, however, for the remission of sins, i.e., John was to accuse all, and convict them of being sinners, that they might know what they were before God, and might acknowledge that they were lost men, and might thus be prepared for the Lord, to receive grace, and to expect and accept from Him the remission of sins. Thus also Christ Himself says, Luke 24:47: 6] Repentance and remission of sins must be preached in My name among all nations.

    7] But whenever the Law alone, without the Gospel being added exercises this its office there is [nothing else than] death and hell, and man must despair, like Saul and Judas; as St. Paul, Rom. 7:10, says: Through sin the Law killeth. 8] On the other hand, the Gospel brings consolation and remission not only in one way, but through the word and Sacraments, and the like, as we shall hear afterward in order that [thus] there is with the Lord plenteous redemption, as Ps. 130:7 says against the dreadful captivity of sin” (SA III, 3).

    Notice “Through sin the Law killeth. On the other hand, the Gospel brings consolation and remission…”. The Gospel brings life, it doesn’t kill. That is the job of the law.

  5. Thanks Jim, but I think you are misunderstanding. The Law kills by bringing knowledge of sin. That’s what Paul and Luther say. They DO NOT say that the Law or sin kills the OLD ADAM. Killing the Old Adam is a salvific action and is therefore attributable only to the Gospel. I completely agree with Pastor Andersen that the Law kills. But how and what? It kills by bringing me to a knowledge that I am dead, that I am an Old Adam. But to kill the Old Adam is quite different. That is to kill sin. Killing sin, killing the Old Adam, is the work of the Gospel.

    Put another way, to say that we are dead in sin and to say that we are the Old Adam is to say the same thing. The Law reveals that we are dead to sin, it doesn’t remove the fact. Just so, it does not kill the Old Adam. If anything, it makes him writhe and scream and object.

    I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

  6. @Green #3

    Thanks Green. That’s a great way of putting it. That’s the sense of what I am saying too. The Gospel puts the Old Adam to death – which is what happens in Baptism, which is 100% pure Gospel, with no Law whatsoever.

  7. Does justification pertain to the inward transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit in the believer?

    If not, and the above rather is the definition of sanctification, then this piece has justification and sanctification confused. Which means it also has Law and Gospel confused.

    The term “mercy killing” should never be put in a positive light. It’s simply awful. The unjustified killing of an innocent person, even for the consequence of eliminating their pain (or our emotional anguish, which truly is the chief motivator behind euthanasia) is unwarranted.

    Likewise, the Law should never, ever, and I mean ever, be considered an expression of God’s mercy when it is preached against sinners. Or the instigator or source of good works. That’s Reformed teaching, not Evangelical Lutheran teaching.

    Where this piece errs is in the assumption that the dying/rising motif of which Paul speaks in Romans 6 concerning Baptism is an expression of justification, when Paul is speaking chiefly of sanctification, the daily contrition and repentance that should mark the life of the being-sanctified person.

    But it is not justification. We don’t go to the Divine Service for God to justify us by killing the Old Adam and raising our New Man. If we do, then we go for God to justify us through our inner renewal, which is an Evangelical Lutheran no-no.

    Finally, the suggestion that the “dying” motif relates only to the preaching of the Law and not to the daily mortification of the flesh, where we crucify our flesh by denying ourselves fleshly pleasures, really lets us off the hook, doesn’t it? Perhaps we could say “Law-lite.” I don’t need to stop drinking because I always get drunk when I do, I just need for the pastor to make me feel guilty for 5 minutes on Sunday.

    Boys, its time for you to dust off your Pieper, unless you’ve swallowed Forde feathers and all.

    Oh, and what Elizabeth Peters said.

  8. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for your post. I’d like to object to your interpretation of Romans 6. It is about justification, and justification as the blueprint of our sanctification. In Baptism we die Christ’s death, because he is our substitute, and what he did (died for sin and rose to righteousness) is applied to us. This then is to be the basis on which we build by the Holy Spirit’s working. We put to death the sin in our members and live to God. But even in our daily life, this first involves receiving the forgiveness of sins by returning to our Baptism.

    I agree very much with your fourth paragraph. The Law is horror against the sinner. It is not mercy. It is condemnation. However, we can understand it as a merciful act in the sense that it is preliminary to the Gospel, because it is the alien act of God that he does for the sake of paving the way for the Gospel.

    Thanks again for your post.

  9. “The Gospel cannot be heard in its full sweetness unless the Law has first been heard in its full severity.”

    Absolutely brilliant phrasing. Is this a quote or did you think of this? This is why I am Confessional LCMS. Direct and to the point.

  10. Elizabeth Peters :

    I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

    Elizabeth, it wouldn’t be the first time I mistook what someone else is saying. 😉

    My earlier point was to agree with Pr. Andersen’s words regarding the law killing. His words are sound, scriptural, words. The law tells us it is God’s command that we should walk in newness of life, but the law lacks the power to give us the ability to walk in newness of life. Instead, the law condemns us (Romans 3:19-20), it shows us that we can’t be declared righteous through observing it. Indeed, the law shows us our sinful condition (Romans 7:7). This is what I meant by the law “killing” and that is what I hear Pr. Andersen getting at.

    So, no, I wasn’t saying that the law kills the Old Adam. You are correct in that the Old Adam is drowned in the waters of our baptism. Yet, the Old Adam still kicks around and this is where we need to hear proper law and gospel so that we return to our baptisms and remember the promised Word of God telling us that we now have the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and are therefore free from the condemnation of the law.

    I hope this all helps to clarify what I was saying in my agreement with Pr. Andersen.

  11. @Robert #7
    The term “mercy killing” should never be put in a positive light. It’s simply awful. The unjustified killing of an innocent person, even for the consequence of eliminating their pain (or our emotional anguish, which truly is the chief motivator behind euthanasia) is unwarranted.

    Read more at: | Steadfast Lutherans

    “Emotional anguish” may play a part in individual decisions, but more and more, where euthanasia is legal, it’s simply a means to get a “defective” out of the way. “Doctor assisted voluntary suicide” they called it in the Netherlands and Belgium, except (I read yesterday) as many or more deaths are involuntary, as they not asked for by the patient.
    The “defect” may merely be age.

    [If this is off your intended topic, it’s in your headline!]

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