How Should We Think of Suicide?

How Should We Think of Suicide?

April 9, 2013 @

The Bible is clear that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone and that if one is truly saved, nothing (not even suicide) can separate them from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Praise God that all our sins, even those committed in death, are covered by the blood of the Lamb of God.

"Death of King Saul" by Elie Marcuse, 1848 (click picture to enlarge). "The battle pressed hard against Saul, and the archers found him, and he was badly wounded by the archers. Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, 'Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and mistreat me.' But his armor-bearer would not, for he feared greatly. Therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it. And when his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him" (1 Sam 31:3-5 ESV).

With the recent loss by Pastor Rick Warren and his family of their son who had been a lifetime member of Saddleback Church, Christians are once again asking whether a believer is saved, even when he commits suicide. This question adds to the extreme grief the survivors suffer for a long time after a suicide. Gordon H. Cook, Jr., pastor of Merrymeeting Bay Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Brunswick, Maine, has written a good article about the implications of suicide and how pastors are to counsel and deal with both patients and survivors in  “Suicide: A Complicated Grief.” Here’s an excerpt from the article:

THE STIGMA OF SUICIDE
One common experience among families who experience the suicide of a loved one is the perceived need to make up a story which will explain the death in some other way. The first funeral I ever performed as a pastor was for a young man who had been in an “automobile accident.” I comforted the grieving widow, consoled family members and friends, and gently shared the gospel with the crowd which gathered at the graveside. It was years later that I learned that the authorities suspected that Bill had intentionally driven his pickup into the tree.

There is a social stigma which is associated with suicide in western societies. This stigma of suicide is found in Roman society, predating the rise of Christianity. 1 The early church Fathers condemned suicide, though at the same time defended voluntary martyrdom. It was Augustine’s statement, “those guilty of their own death are not received after death into that better life” 2 which became the law of the church throughout the Middle Ages. Yet even Augustine struggled with the suicide of a godly woman, Lucretia, because she was unable to endure the horror of the foul indignity perpetrated against her. 3 Augustine approached the issue with due caution noting that he would not “claim to judge the secrets of the heart.”

The church of the Middle Ages engaged in a variety of superstitious abuses against the bodies of those who had committed suicide. 4 Most theologians of that period denied any possibility of salvation for one who died in such sin. Martin Luther viewed suicide as demonic in character. His assertion that suicide was a murder committed by the devil continued to perpetuate the stigma, while actually relieving victims of at least some responsibility for their deaths. Calvin and most of the Protestant Reformers simply reaffirmed Augustine’s view that suicide was a violation of the Sixth Commandment and as such, serious sin, without supporting the superstitious excesses of the medieval church. 5

In the struggle among English Puritans, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics, the issue of suicide became a polemical weapon. As such the rhetoric regarding suicide was escalated. There was a tendency to demonize the act, as Luther did. When prominent representatives of the various religious movements succumbed to the pressure of intense persecution and torture, they were held up as examples of the demonic character of their religious cause. 6 It is, in part, from this conflict that we have inherited the strongly conflicted feelings about suicide that are still shown in American society today. Suicide remains a taboo subject, rarely discussed, even more rarely acknowledged.

GRACE

"Samson Destroying the Temple of the Philistines" by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, 1616-70 (click to enlarge). "Then Samson called to the LORD and said, 'O Lord GOD, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God, that I may be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes.' And Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and he leaned his weight against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other. And Samson said, 'Let me die with the Philistines.' Then he bowed with all his strength, and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he had killed during his life" (Judges 16:28-30 ESV).

Our Catechism reflects the view of Calvin, but neither the excesses of superstition nor the polemic described above. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 69 reads, “What is forbidden in the sixth commandment?” The answer given is that “The sixth commandment forbiddeth the taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbor, unjustly, or whatsoever tendeth thereunto.” According to Scripture and our confessional standard, suicide is a serious sin, a violation of commandment of God, and ought to be avoided. Notice that the catechism leaves room for a just taking away of our own life, perhaps with a thought to Samson, who intentionally brought the house down upon himself in order to gain victory over his enemies and to bring glory to God (Judges 16:28–30). Suicide is serious sin. Does this mean that a person who commits suicide cannot enter glory?

God’s Word suggests otherwise. Jesus assures his disciples, saying, “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (Matt. 12:31). Most Reformed exegetes would understand “blasphemy against the Spirit” as willfully and deliberately ascribing to Satan what belongs to the Holy Spirit. 7 We should not miss the grace spoken in this passage, promising that all other sins will be forgiven to those who trust in Christ alone for salvation.

This reminds us that the entrance to glory is through Christ alone, and not through our own works. It is the finished work of Christ on the cross that secures our redemption. His blood avails for each and every sin of those who trust in him. And his love, demonstrated in his sacrifice for us, is such that nothing, not even our sin, can separate us from that love.

One sin, one failure to resist temptation, one impulsive act, does not undo our union with Christ and the blessings which this brings. Our eternal security does not hang upon our perfect obedience at every point in life. To the contrary, our security is found in the sovereign mercy and grace of God, secured for us by Christ upon the cross and at the empty tomb. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).

This grace should not lead any to sin. Presuming upon the grace of God is forbidden in his Word (Rom. 6:1–2). Nevertheless, it is Christ’s perfect obedience and righteousness which alone secures for us eternal life and all other blessings of salvation. Even a violation of the Sixth Commandment can and will be forgiven for those who by faith are united with Christ in his death and resurrection.

As to the stigma of suicide, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’ ” (Gal. 3:13). This is our confidence when we stand before God, “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isa. 1:18).

We would all do well to heed Augustine’s caution, and not presume to judge the heart of another. That judgment belongs to God alone (Heb. 4:12; 1 Sam. 16:7).

Here’s the official OPC position on this sober matter:

The OPC holds that suicide is a violation of the sixth commandment. Our Larger Catechism answers the question “What are the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment?” in this way:

“The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves, or of others, except in the case of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defense; the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life; sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge; all excessive passions, distracting cares; immoderate use of meat, drink, labor, and recreations; provoking words, oppression, quarreling, striking, wounding, and whatsoever tends to the destruction of the life of any” (Q. 136, emphasis added).

The “taking away the life of ourselves,” as the Catechism states, is a violation of the sixth commandment because it is unlawful killing. The same standard applied to the murder of our neighbor must also be applied to ourselves. If it is unlawful to kill our neighbor because he is created in the image of God, it is unlawful for us to take our own lives because we, likewise, are created in the image of God. In other words, we may not destroy the image of God that we ourselves are.

What happens, then, when a Christian violates the six commandment by committing suicide? Though the suicide of a professing Christian leaves us with many troubling questions regarding the hopelessness this person felt, the Bible is clear that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (Eph. 2:8) and that if one is truly saved, nothing (not even suicide) can separate them from the love of God in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:38-39). Praise God that all our sins, even those committed in death, are covered by the blood of the Lamb of God.

We cannot begin to know the suffering of Pastor Warren and all our brethren who are suffering unspeakable grief with the death of a loved one. So let us pray for their comfort and peace.

Michael Horton preached a very helpful sermon at the funeral of his friend who, after suffering for most of his life, committed this sin:

“What Happens When Christianity Doesn’t Work: A Funeral Sermon for Dr. Timothy Brewer”

Notes:

  1. The information in this section comes from Georges Minois, History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).
  2. Augustine, City of God, Book 1, Chapter 26 (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1986), 38.
  3. Augustine, 29.
  4. Minois, 34–37.
  5. Minois, 72.
  6. Minois, 73-74.
  7. William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973), 529; Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 318–19; D. A. Carson, Matthew, The Expositors Bible Commentary, Vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Regency, 1984), 291; C.E.B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1959), 141–42, though Cranfield allows that the text may also point to apostasy, a turning away from Christ and his teachings. William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 145, offers a slight alteration, “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit denotes the conscious and deliberate rejection of the saving power and grace of God released through Jesus’ word and act.” I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 517, though Marshall also allows that “the NT reflects a less strict earlier usage; here the word refers to ‘the conscious and wicked rejection of the saving power and grace of God towards man.’ ”

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