This article is part of our weekly series, “Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.” Read more from the series here.
(105) Q. What is God’s will for you in the sixth commandment?
A. I am not to belittle, hate, insult, or kill my neighbor—not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds—and I am not to be party to this in others; rather, I am to put away all desire for revenge. I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself either. Prevention of murder is also why government is armed with the sword.
(106) Q. Does this commandment refer only to murder?
A. By forbidding murder God teaches us that he hates the root of murder: envy, hatred, anger, vengefulness. In God’s sight all such are disguised forms of murder.
(107) Q. Is it enough then that we do not murder our neighbor in any such way?
A. No. By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly toward them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.
The sixth commandment is a perfect storm for hypocrisy. Murder is the easiest sin to condemn and, we feel, the least likely for us to commit. We hear of another mass shooting and wonder, Who could do such a thing? But this is the wrong reaction. John Piper once said that a horrific school shooting was “a warning to me—and you. Not a warning to see our schools as defenseless, but to see our souls as depraved. To see our need for a Savior.”[i]
All of us have more in common with murderers than we think.
What Is the Sixth Commandment All About?
Murder is commonly defined as the unlawful premeditated killing of one human by another. But God’s law is more exacting. Murder is the “unlawful injury” of a human, and “every desire” thereunto.[ii] This masterful definition keeps us from interpreting murder too narrowly or too broadly.
Not all murder is killing.
Vicious thoughts, angry words, and unlawful killing all fall into the same category. Literal murder begins in the heart. “By forbidding murder God teaches us that he hates the root of murder: envy, hatred, anger, vengefulness. In God’s sight all such are disguised forms of murder.” “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15). “Everyone who is angry with his brother” is judged by the same law that condemns murderers (Matt. 5:22). “You murder” (James 4:2).
Not all killing is murder.
Murder is unlawful injury of another. There are lawful reasons to kill. Here are three examples.
- The state does not murder when it operates as “the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4). The state might murder. Judges and law enforcement officers can and do dishonor Scripture’s strict standards for taking life. But the state may kill. “Prevention of murder is also why government is armed with the sword.” Not punishing evildoers violates the sixth commandment (Gen. 9:5, 6).
- Soldiers do not murder while serving properly in a just war. Not all wars are just. Not every action in a just war is right. So Christians have a “responsibility to determine the moral legitimacy of a particular war and to govern their participation accordingly.”[iii] But soldiering is not inconsistent with Christianity (Luke 3:14).
- Private citizens do not murder who justly take life while protecting themselves or others (Exod. 22:2–3). Lethal force should be a last resort in self-defense. But “God wants us to … protect” ourselves and our neighbors “from harm as much as we can.”
These exceptions help prove the rule that because all people are divine image-bearers, life is sacred; we may not violate it in thought, word, or deed.
What Sins Must I Put Off?
Honoring the sixth commandment means putting off sins that the dictionary doesn’t consider to be murder. We put off such sins by admitting our guilt and seeking divine and human forgiveness.
Repent of “the roots of murder: envy, hatred, anger, vengefulness.”
“If you wish or plan anything contrary to the safety of a neighbor, you are considered guilty of murder” in God’s eyes.[iv] “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother” (1 John 3:12). But he murdered his brother first in his heart; he was envious and “very angry” (Gen. 4:3–8). “You desire and do not have, so you murder” (James 4:2). Every form of murder is our way of punishing people who challenge our glory. Murder signals our rejection of God’s providence and our distrust of his willingness or ability to exercise just vengeance (Rom. 12:19). Our murderous anger “does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).
Repent of dishonoring your neighbors.
Honor is a heart disposition. But we belittle and insult others with heartfelt words, looks, gestures, and actions. Is this not satanic (John 8:44)? God creates; Satan kills. God builds up; Satan destroys. If we do not leave others better than we met them, we have treated them murderously.
Repent of self-harm and self-endangerment.
We might self-harm out of ambition, pride, or neglect; either way, we forget that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). Self-harm can also be a twisted way of exposing immaterial pain or atoning for our sins. But the hymn writer is correct: “not all my … sighs and tears can bear my awful load. Thy work alone, O Christ, can ease this weight of sin; thy blood alone, O Lamb of God, can give me peace within.”[v]
We sin against God by sinning against our neighbors who are created in his image. God condemns envy, hatred, and anger. So must we—and in ourselves first.
What Virtues Must I Put On?
There are two sides to every commandment. True obedience requires more than avoidance of vice. To be anti-murderers we must love our neighbors—even our enemies—as ourselves (Matt. 5:43–48). Anti-murderers put on patience. Like Jesus, we must suffer long through frustration. Anti-murderers put on peace; we must model contentment and comfort in God even in turbulent times. Anti-murderers put on gentleness; following Jesus we resist imitating the world’s harshness and aggression. Anti-murderers put on mercy; we speak truth married to love (Ps. 85:10). Anti-murderers put on friendliness; we are tenderhearted toward the hurting and hurtful, and strive to maintain warm and cheerful dispositions that reflect the kindness that God has shown us. Finally, anti-murderers protect others; we show our concern for all human life by defending it even at personal cost.
More than anything, the sixth commandment, like all the commandments, makes us “more earnest in seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ” (Q&A 115). We come to Jesus because there has never been a more perfect anti-murderer. Jesus came to bring life (John 1:4). He preached peace, performed good works, and healed all who were oppressed by the devil (Acts 10:36–38). Yet, in God’s perfect plan, the anti-murderer was murdered. Why? To be an atonement for his chosen people. We are all guilty of murder. Our “feet are swift to shed blood” (Rom. 3:15). Our speech cuts others down. Our looks kill. Our attitudes are vengeful. By rights, God should treat us as murderers. Instead, God pardons us of murder and says, “Go and sin no more.” Christ was murdered to free us from the sin of murder. Through his resurrection, we have been recreated to use our thoughts, words, and actions to give life to others.
[i] Piper, John, “A Lesson for All from Newtown.” Desiring God, December 15, 2012. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/a-lesson-for-all-from-newtown
[ii] Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary, 583.
[iii] The Testimony of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, https://www.firstrpcdurham.org/_files/ugd/fa31d5_8be1832877dd4a08911025262b735b1f.pdf
[iv] John Calvin, Institutes, 2.8.40.
[v] Horatius Bonar, TPH, 435.