No One Left Behind

Tom Nettles
| Acts 16:16–21 and Psalm 139 | January 15, 2018

I often pass by carcasses of squirrels, raccoons, and occasionally a deer. I have seen other animals attending those dead bodies, but they were not of their kind nor was their purpose a mission of mercy and respect. Carrion eaters often surround those freshly killed bodies or putrefied remains. Animals of their kind have not bothered to come and take the body away and give it care, decent removal, a time for family mourning, and dignified burial. Though they have instincts of personal survival, necessary care for their young, they do not seem to invest any depth of concern with the death of their kind, no long term sense of loss, no efforts to show ongoing affection and establish means of remembering.

The instincts of humanity are qualitatively different from those of other types of life. The image of God, the law written on the heart, the conscience all witness to human dignity and a sense of loss at death. Societies influenced by Christian doctrine have developed a highly elevated manner of dealing with humanity, both in its living and in its dying. Recently I viewed a movie entitled “Taking Chance.” It was about the preparation, transport home, and eventual burial of a young man killed in action in Afghanistan. The message about human dignity that permeated the movie was impressive and a strong witness to the intrinsic sense that humans have of the dignity and superior worth of the human species.

Evolutionary thought hypothetically sees all life as one, with no distinctions that give an intrinsic value to one life form over another. We simply have been the outcome of different paths accidentally established in the process of natural selection. One might just as easily swat a baby as swat a mosquito, or prefer the company of snakes over the company of humans. For humans to value their species above others is a particularly onerous kind of arrogance somehow accidentally connected with our species not characteristic of others.  No transcendent or absolute value should be attached to a human baby above a baby opossum, or whale, or chimpanzee, or, for that matter, worm.

Scripture, however, establishes the reality of purposeful distinction and degrees of value in its first statement, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God is the eternal being, self-existent, all powerful, all-wise who has brought all other things into being out of his power and purpose. All things that are not him are created by him, for his pre-ordained purpose, and for the manifestation of  his glory. He has established all things in their place by his design and made all living things operate within a sphere according to his determination. Binary existence is established as basic to worldview by the first verse of the Bible.

Within the created order itself, all is not one, but created in different forms, with different functions, and to be propagated according to their kind. Plants may be eaten (Genesis 1:29) and since the flood, animals may be eaten (Genesis 9:3). Men and women are distinctly different genders created and established to be so (Genesis 2:21-25). Marriage is the union of one man and one woman in a lifetime commitment to each other to bring children into the world, love and nurture them, and to live together in joy, love, respect, and in unity of mind and body (Genesis 1:27, 28; 2:24; Matthew 19:4-9; Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18-21).

Every engagement in sexuality outside the purpose and command of God is a perversion of the nature of creation and a violation of the image of God in man. Fornication (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8), various manifestations of homosexuality (Romans 1: 26, 27), bestiality (Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 18:23). The present day posturing of Hollywood in a mocking attempt to take the moral highground on sexual pressure and abuse while continuing to promote utter relativism in sexual matters, glamorize sexual infidelity, tantalization, and experimentation, and scoff at convictions of sexual purity and fidelity presents us with the mass confusion and destruction that come from a rejection of the distinctions established in the created order by the Creator himself.

Even as the only guideline in sexual engagement has been reduced to the consent of the respective partners, so it is with the propagation of the race. We are encouraged to believe that the presence of a child in the womb is not a distinct person, but only an extension of the person and will of the mother to be disposed of according to her desire. A major defense of abortion has been reduced to the euphemistic phrase, “The right of a woman over her own body.” There is no realization of the distinct personhood between the mother and the child. It is all one, and the binary reality of creation in which distinctions must be observed has been obliterated. Eliminating the “fetus,” another convenient euphemism, is defended as the sovereign right of the mother as she must be given prerogative “over her own body.” No consent is given to the obvious biblical, and persuasively scientific, position of the personhood of that which is conceived in the woman.

Contrary to the shrill contention of the abortion providers and defenders, personhood begins at conception. According to Scripture, children bear the image of God from the moment of conception and are to be valued and nourished from that moment to the end of their earthly lives.  The text suggested in the lesson material, Psalm 139: 13-16, pictures the active involvement of God in his creative and sustaining power in forming a baby in his mother’s womb. How beautifully poetic and powerfully decisive is the language, “You formed my inward parts; you wove me in my mother’s womb.” Although the process was established at creation, and human propagate after their kind, all things in the created order still have their present existence only on the basis of the sustaining purpose and power of God: “All things were created through him [Christ] and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things consist” (Colossians 1:16, 17). The Lord Jesus is active as creator and sustainer in the womb. The thing that he has created and still creates is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” God’s works all are filled with wonder, but in a transcendent way, the human being from its conception and on into eternity is a revelation of the wonder, the virtually unexplorable power, intelligence, and goodness of the Creator. When the world comes to it decreed end, we still will not have explored fully the mystery of the operation of the human mind and body. We sense that it is so. The Psalmist said, “And my soul knows it very well.” God knows all of it, for he has designed it and put it together. Though its workings are only partially known to us they are fully known to God for “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was made in secret and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth.” This is a poetic way of describing the transformative wonder of divine power, intelligence, creativity, in making such a being from the earth, in the original creation (Genesis 1:26, 27; 2:7, 21, 22). God breathed into the piece of dirt he had formed to give him life, qualitatively distinct from all other living things that he had created. We have come from dust and to it we shall return, to receive from that very dust, wherever it may be, bodies, immortal and incorruptible, to rejoin our spirits in the great day of resurrection. Fearful and wonderful indeed! God sees, that is, is intimately acquainted and purposive in his attention to the earliest stage of development: “Your eyes have seen my unformed substance.”

The Psalmist affirms the sovereignty of God over all the days of our lives. The verse shows us the mystery of divine providence even in abortion as it relates to the flow of human history and human responsibility. “And in your book were written all the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.” God’s purpose for us as persons, precedes even our conception. Though abortion is not outside the reaches of divine providence and knowledge, it is outside the rights of humanity. Though the death of Christ was foreordained and included in divine providence according to the counsel of God’s wisdom, yet the hands that crucified him were guilty hands and the act was an infinite evil in the realm of human responsibility (Acts 2:22, 23; 4:10-11, 27-28). So providence sees and ordains the days even before the womb, but human hands that abort are wicked hands performing a wicked act.

Other Scriptures from which we infer real personhood at the moment of conception are strikingly plentiful and remarkable important. “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity and in sin my mother conceived me,” so David wrote (Psalm 51:5) indicating that even at conception the moral continuity with the corruption of Adam continued. He was a moral being at conception. Even so was our Lord Jesus Christ: Mary was told, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” Both the conception and the bearing concern the son. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.” Literally, the text says, “the holy begotten one.” At the moment of conception, Jesus was holy, bearing an immutable moral nature of holiness. Also we know that he had full personhood at conception for when Mary’s egg was fertilized by the Holy Spirit, the Father overshadowed her in his eternal operation of generation of the Son. So from the moment of conception the Christ was a person, assuming his personhood from the eternal personhood of the Son of God eternally generated by the Father.

During a recent week in January, I did a survey of students at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on the issue of abortion. About 15 out of the sixteen that I approached with the question responded to me. One did not want to express her opinion. The fifteen who did, unanimously stated that they believed that abortion was wrong for it was the taking of a human life. When I asked what convinced them of that, all said Psalm 139 convinced them. When I mentioned both Psalm 51 and Luke 1, they all agreed that these texts fully implied the true personhood of the baby from conception. Some indicated acquaintance with the science of conception and indicated that science confirmed what we would expect to find in light of the biblical text. Conception is the beginning of a human person. All constituent elements are present at that moment and only time, growth, development of intrinsic factors, and appropriate care are needed. Some sent me other texts of Scripture that use language about conception that assumes the presence of a human being who can be named. “For behold you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb. And he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” Judges 13:5. “Ephraim’s glory shall fly away like a bird—no birth, no pregnancy, no conception!” Hosea 9:11; “Did not he who made me in the womb make him? And did not one fashion us in the womb” Job 31:15

The Acts 16 Passage was handled a few week ago. I give it again here in a slightly amended form and with some expansion. This passage indicates that, even in the most distressing of conditions, we still must see that every human being is made in the image of God and should be rescued from the destructive powers of sin and Satan. The girl in this passage was under bondage to the devil and was being used by profiteers in the demonic insight given to her. One of the purposes of the gospel was to release people from the power of Satan (Ephesians 2:2; 2 Corinthians 4:4). “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them in [the cross]” (Colossians 2:15). Compassion for the girl would drive Paul to cast out the demon in the name of Jesus.

Her message, while strictly true, was not in its essence the gospel but drew attention to Paul and Silas themselves. Also, it could easily be interpreted in term of the philosophical questions of the day and the pagan deities. The “Most High God, could indicate a hierarchy of gods of which Zeus was the epitome. In addition to that possible misconception, this announcement could have been an attempt on the part of the demon to achieve a compromise so that he would not be cast out, and Paul would end up with some degree of alliance with the enemy in his task of gospel preaching. See parallel in Mark 5:1-13, where the demons were addressing Jesus as “Jesus, Son of the Most High God.” Jesus’ disclosure of his identity was his business not theirs.

If Paul needed supernatural intervention, he knew, as an apostle, God would provide what was needed and he should not in any sense imply approval of the demonic possession of a person made in God’s image. His personal proclamation would be a sufficient demonstration of the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16, 17). The immediate concern was to dissociate himself from any kind of apparent partnership with the demonic, and to show the power of the name of Jesus over the demonic, and to release this girl from the bondage of Satan.

Paul’s action in casting out the demon showed the true power of the name of Jesus Christ in freeing the girl from the darkness of such spiritual oppression. Nothing more is said of her, but it is hard to imagine that she did not also hear and respond to the gospel. Perhaps like the man of a legion of demons (Mark 5:15, 19) she was now settled in a peaceful repose, in her right mind, and fully attentive to the true gospel as a child of great mercy.

This passage demonstrates powerfully the distinction between correctness of head knowledge and the consent and adoration of heart knowledge. The devil in Matthew 4, the demons of Mark 5, the spirit of Acts 16, and the devils of James 2:19 all indicate true notions about God and Christ, even fitting fear, but nevertheless are enemies of the gospel and have the intent of destruction. True faith arises from a change of heart, both understanding and affections. This involves assertion of the truth, confession of personal blame and need, and opening of spiritual eyes to the glory of Christ’s person and work in freeing us from sin and Satan and uniting us to the saving grace of God.

The owners of the girl showed how aggressively evil manifests itself in a covetous spirit. In Mark 5: 17, the owners of the pigs wanted Jesus to leave their territory; these owners of a person wanted Paul and Silas to be punished for their action. It is amazing how evil will seek its position and protection from the law, all the while ignoring the law of God. Their motivation had nothing to do with true justice, but only to do with a loss of profits gained by the most sinister of means. Jeremiah isolated one of the causes of God’s judgment coming to Israel as profiteering from trafficking in humanity. “For wicked men are found among my people. They watch like fowlers lying in wait; they set a trap, they catch men. Like a cage full of birds, so their houses are full of deceit; therefore, they have become great and rich. They are fat, they are sleek, they also excel in deeds of wickedness; they do not plead the cause, the cause of the orphan, that they may prosper; and they do not defend the rights of the poor. Shall I not punish these people, declares the Lord, ‘On a nation such as this shall I not avenge myself?”

The call of God to every human person is to protect human life, in accordance with justice and equity, from its conception to its death. As Christians we join in that work but extend our concerns far beyond. For we labor also for the redemption of humans from the slavery of sin and the death of the curse, knowing that even beyond the grave we must all stand before the judgment bar of God to give an account of the deeds done in the body.