We preachers very often find ourselves up against the necessity of preaching a topical sermon about one of the difficult and yet pressing issues of the day. Take the issue of abortion, for example. Few of us dare touch the issue from the pulpit, because it is much too controversial.
Everyone out there in the congregation either has an opinion about it or they do not wish to discuss the topic. Certainly some women in the congregation have had an abortion or know someone who has. And were we to preach about abortion from the standpoint of the Scriptures, we would do nothing but arouse angry feelings among our people and perhaps divide them into warring camps. No, we think, it would be much better to leave the subject to the hard-core “crazies” who attack abortion clinics and just get on with our efforts to build up the congregation in harmony and love.
The difficulty, of course, is that issues like abortion are being forced upon us by happenings in our society. If we are astute observers of society’s scene, it is clear that human life is growing cheaper and cheaper in the United States. The newspapers are full of tales of assisted suicide and euthanasia and adequate medical care denied to the elderly, and abortion is just one more evidence of our readiness to take decisions about who shall live and who shall die into our own hands.
Every year, 1.5 million unborn children end up as “medical waste” in this country, over 31 million since the Supreme Court decision of Roe vs. Wade in 1973. And of course the freedom to increase that number at will is now seen as a woman’s “right.” Said Pamela Maraldo, the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America — the largest abortion provider in the U.S. — “Abortion is where the rubber hits the road, the line in the sand for women to become fully equal citizens.” Her implication was that women become sexually equal to men by the ‘freedom’ to kill their unborn children.
Surely the Christian faith, with its understandings of where true freedom lies, with its standards of sexual morality, and with its concern for the most helpless among us has something to say from the Gospel to that attitude — and therefore something from the pulpit!
Theological Reasoning from the Text
So how do we begin? It is necessary in topical preaching, as with every type of sermon, to begin with a text, and certainly the central text when dealing with abortion is the commandment from the Decalogue, “You shall not kill” (Exod. 20:13). But it is the preacher’s meditation on the theological reasons for that command that aids the preacher in filling out the content of the topical sermon.
A. From the doctrine of creation
We Christian preachers always start with the presupposition that the relationship to our God in Jesus Christ is the most important fact of human life, and the presupposition is no different when dealing with Exodus 20:13 and its relation to abortion.
Our Triune God is the Author of all life on this planet, we affirm, and so He is the Creator of human life in the womb. That theological fact immediately eliminates our society’s endless arguments over when human life begins, for it cannot be denied that when a woman’s egg is penetrated by a man’s sperm in the woman’s fallopian tube, to form the zygote, God has set out to create a human being. It does not look human to us, but it contains the 46 chromosomes necessary to develop into a unique and unrepeatable person. God has extended His arm to give the gift of a child, and the only question then is whether we will brush aside the arm and refuse the gift, or gratefully accept it from God’s grace. We are dealing with what God the Creator has given when we speak about abortion.
B. From the doctrine of redemption
We preachers are also dealing with that which belongs to God. We confess in our biblical faith, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Ps. 24:1, NRSV). We do not belong to ourselves. Abortion advocates live by the creed that says, “My body is my own,” but everything in our faith contradicts that faithless claim. “It is he that made us, and we are his,” sings the Psalmist (100:3).
Indeed, when we try to deny that and to become autonomous and self-governing, God sends His Son to find and reclaim us as His beloved children (John 1:12-13; Gal. 4:4-7). And so, says Paul, “You are not your own … you were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). And we affirm that fact every time we baptize a child or an adult. This baptized person now belongs to God, we claim, and therefore nothing in all creation can now separate this child of the covenant from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:29). All life which God creates, whether in the womb or out of it, belongs to that one Creator and Redeemer of ours, and unless we mortals would take to ourselves supreme lordship over life, we are not free to rob God of what belongs to Him.
Surely that fact lies at the basis of all Christian parenthood — the acknowledgment that our children do not belong to us but to God. And so daily we lift them up in prayer before the Father, and beg his guidance and protection of them. And daily we seek to bring them up in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4), instructing them, by word and example, how to walk in ways pleasing to God, so that they do not fall into the deadly slavery that characterizes our sex-saturated culture (cf. 1 Cor. 7:23).
C. From the doctrine of the church
We Christians further confess that we are our “brother’s keeper” (Gen. 4:9), that we are responsible to God for loving our neighbor whom God loves, and that we “fulfill the law of Christ” by bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). And that is the answer to our heedless society’s rationalizations that claim it is better for some children not to be born.
The problem of the 15-year old pregnant teenager in our midst is no longer, in the love of Christ, simply her problem. It is our problem — the church’s problem. And the problem of the poverty-stricken, of the abused, or of the unwanted child is the anguished call to the church in every community to get to work to save its children. We do not avoid God’s condemnation of the church by supporting or aiding in the abortion of such children; we magnify it. As Mother Teresa once said, “If you do not want the child, give him to me; I want him.” That surely is the readiness of faith with which the Body of Christ must gird itself in this age of unrestricted abortion.
Thus, in some such fashion, working out of the sensus fidelium — out of the theology and apostolic faith of the church — does the preacher fill out a sermon on a thorny topic like abortion, and bring to bear the Gospel on the attitudes of the day.
Practical Results of the Sermon
It is the hope of every preacher, when dealing with a pressing issue of the day, to produce practical results in the lives of the congregation — to spur them to some sort of action, or at least to work some change in their attitudes that will eventually lead to action. Ernest Campbell used to recommend that after every sermon on a social-action topic, a table be stationed in the vestibule where parishioners could sign up to go to work on the problem.
With respect to the issue of abortion, the preacher may wish therefore to enlist names for a committee within the congregation to deal with problem pregnancies and crises. Certainly the formation of such a group would signal the willingness of the congregation to receive into their fellowship and care for those they had perhaps formerly shunned — the unmarried and promiscuous teenager, the scared and pregnant college student, the welfare client, the impoverished.
Such a committee, supported by the awakened congregation, would take upon itself the responsibility for enabling a woman to avoid the tragedy of abortion. Many women who have submitted to abortion have done so only because they thought there was no one to help them. Any congregation that decides it will tackle the problem of abortion can furnish that invaluable help. In short, they can demonstrate love’s willingness to be burdened with someone else’s problems.
For those pregnant women who need it, the problem pregnancy committee can arrange baby showers and clothes closets, medical and financial help, job training, education, counseling, housing, aid with adoption when desired.
Most important, the congregation that decides to work to reduce the number of abortions, also takes upon itself the responsibility of so living as the Body of Christ that the pregnant woman and then her baby, after it is born, also become Christian disciples of our Lord. Jesus Christ was born to an unwed, betrothed teenager and laid in a poor cattle manger. When he was a man, Jesus said He had nowhere to lay His head. The church of such a Lord should know how to welcome into its midst all those helpless ones who know the same poverty.
Avoiding Moralism
We preachers preach about sin. And in a society that no longer believes in sin and thinks that anything goes, it is a necessity to keep before our congregations the reality and seriousness of God’s commandments. We preachers above all others are give the task of picturing all of life in relationship to God, and our Lord has made it very clear through the Scriptures that His commandments are to be obeyed, that He cannot be mocked, and that we will reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7-8).
In dealing with the text of Exod. 20:13, however, if something of the above theological and practical suggestions are utilized in the sermon, the preacher has first explained to the congregation the Christian reasons for the commandment, “You shall not kill,” and he or she has pointed the congregation toward some practical solutions of what to do in response.
But the Christian preacher, to avoid finally sinking into moralism, has also to explain to a congregation that God’s commandments are not legalistic demands laid upon us. Rather they are God’s gracious guidance of us in the new life which He has given us in Jesus Christ.
We do not work our way into relationship with God: every person who claims the name of Christian should know that fact. “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). The redemption was worked by the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The atonement was made. God Himself, in His Son, reopened our way into His presence and reconciled us to Himself, thus enabling us to live in peace with Him and with each other. Further, He poured into our hearts the Spirit of Christ, and thereby gave us the power to live righteous lives and to do the good in obedience to His commandments.
In other words, having restored us to fellowship with Himself and given us a new life in Jesus Christ, God did not then just leave us to our own devices to wander around in the dark, wondering what to do and making up the rules as we went along. No. By means of His commandments, God provides instruction and guidance. God shows us the way; He gives us “Torah”, which means He “points the finger.” “This is the way,” He says to us. “Walk in it, that you may have life and have it more abundantly.” We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation,” and by means of His instruction in His commandments, God answers the prayer.
Thus God’s command, “You shall not kill” is a gift out of His merciful grace which instructs us how to walk in our new life in Christ with respect to the problem of abortion. Indeed, when we consider the theological reasons behind that command, it and many of its surrounding verses are seen to be applicable to that issue. “You shall have no other gods before me” (including your self and your claim that your body is your own)… You shall not kill” (your unborn child). “You shall not commit adultery” (which will destroy the home of your child and may even lead you to have an abortion). “You shall not steal” (your unborn child who belongs to God). “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (which can lead you into sexual sin and abortion).
The church in our promiscuous society has hesitated to press these gracious claims of God with respect to sexual sin and its resulting abortion. The courage that we found during the civil rights movement, that led us to triumph through sit-ins and murders and legislative battles, has crumbled before the onslaught of the “sexual revolution,” and we have not taken on the hedonism of a society far from God. As a result, the majority of abortions in this country are now obtained by white women under the age of 25, who have never been married and who have never had a child. And 31 million unborn children have become the victims of our cowardice.
The Goal of the Sermon: New Life in Christ
If we will not proclaim the commandments of God with respect to sex and abortion, however, then we also cannot proclaim the heart of our Gospel, can we — that there are forgiveness and healing and new life, by the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, for those of us who have sinned. If there is no sin, there is no need of forgiveness, and Christ died in vain, and we preachers might as well forget the whole task of the pulpit and go sell insurance or something. Let therapy take care of the ‘false’ sense of guilt under which our people labor, we rationalize. God condemns no one, and we are all O.K. and accepted.
Our congregations know, to the contrary, that they are not O.K. however. The adulterous husband knows he has destroyed all trust in his marriage. The promiscuous teenager fears that she is heading for a catastrophe called AIDS. The woman just out of the abortion clinic has the vague sense that she may have murdered someone. The date-raper wonders what happened to his self-respect in his lust for power. And it is the church’s business, through its preachers, to speak of those sins in order that God through His Son may deal with them.
Let me cite an example: A pastor-friend tells the story of a woman who had undergone an abortion and who, like so many who obtain abortions, became deeply troubled by what she had done. She sought help from a counseling center and from various friends, but they only made excuses for her act and left her burdened with her guilt. Finally she turned to the pastor of a local church and told him of her unease.
“You have done wrong,” he said to her, to which she replied in relief and tears, “That’s what I wanted to hear!” At that point, repentance took place, and the forgiveness of the Gospel could be received. But apart from the clear annunciation of wrong from that church’s pastor, healing could not begin.
We do not help our people by overlooking or denying sin. Rather we leave them victims of guilt, with no way for their shattered relations with God to be healed by his merciful forgiveness, and with no way therefore for their old life to be transformed by God’s grace and made new.
Because abortion is such a pressing problem in our time, and because it is increasingly being sanctioned and aided by both government and societal approval, it would seem wise for the preacher to devote an entire sermon to the issue at least once a year. “Sanctity of Life Sunday” rolls around every year during January and furnishes an opportunity for the preacher to devote the sermon to the problem.
Certainly much of the discussion that I have given above can aid the preacher in filling in the content of the sermon. In addition, there are many books on the market that are devoted to the issue, including Not My Own: Abortion and the Marks of the Church, coauthored by this writer and Mrs. Terry Schlossberg, and published by Eerdmans Press in the spring of 1995.
Abortion should be mentioned in other sermons, however, in conjunction with other illustrative material. For example, when the preacher is discussing the people’s obligation to love their neighbors and to aid the poor and helpless, certainly our obligation to the most helpless among us, the unborn child, should be included. Or when the preacher is dealing with the doctrines of creation and redemption and church, abortion can figure in that discussion, as I have shown above.
When the sermon is dealing with our sinful attempts to be our own gods and goddesses, our propensity to take matters of life and death into our own hands by means of abortion can be cited. And perhaps most important, when the healing and forgiveness of God by means of the cross and resurrection are being proclaimed, that mercy should also be extended to those in the congregation who have sinned by aiding or obtaining abortions.
The sin of abortion is very real. In our day it is dismembering and sucking and scraping out from the womb the life of millions of children — children whom God created and who belong to Him; children for whom Christ died that they might have life and have it more abundantly; children for whom God intended a place in His ongoing purposes; children for whom the church is asked to care and to raise to enjoy God and to glorify Him forever.
We are preachers and people in the Christian Church of a resurrected Lord, of a Lord who willed life for us and not the death of the abortion clinic. It is that wanton slaughter that is almost unspeakable in our time, but speak to it we must from our pulpits. For we preachers are those who have been given the task of speaking always about God.
This article will appear in the forthcoming book Sermons for the Church: On Life and Abortion, edited by Paul T. Stallsworth. Used by permission.

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