Abortion and the Sacraments

If there is one fact that characterizes the biblical narrative, it is God’s desire that we live.

A Different People

“You are the light of the world.” “You are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:14, 13). “[O]nce you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Eph. 5:8). “We know that we have passed out of death into life….” (1 John 3:14). Throughout the New Testament, the followers of Jesus Christ who make up the Christian Church are those who live in newness of life. They are not those of the old age so characteristic of our world, with its death and destruction, its violence and its hatreds, its sins and its sorrows. Instead, Christians are those who live, at least partially, in a new age of life and justice, peace and love, goodness and joy. They are those who are no longer enslaved to the ways of this world, but are those who are given a foretaste of the freedom of the coming Kingdom of God. Though citizens of this earth, they stand with one foot in heaven, and they live not by their own powers, but by the powers of the triune Lord. We Christians are made to be different—different from the society and world around us, different in our actions, our thoughts, our world-view—different in whom we worship and what we treasure.

It has always been thus with the people of God. Previously, in the Old Testament, Israel was a nation set apart for God’s purposes (Exod. 19:6), “not reckoning itself among the nations” (Num. 23:9), following not the ways of Egypt or Canaan, but the ways of the Lord (Lev. 18:1-5). And that unique character of the covenant people continues into the New Testament. “Do not be conformed to this world….” writes Paul. Be different.

If we ask where such uniqueness comes from, then it is clear it comes from our God. We gather each Sunday morning, or more frequently, to worship an incomparable God, who is like no other deity known to human beings (cf. Isa. 40:18). He is not some numinous world soul who is known through the forces of nature (cf. Deu. 6:4; 1 Kings 19:11-12), not some mystic Om who is sensed as indefinable Other, not some ingrained spirit possessed by all human beings (cf. Hos. 11:9), not the power in crystal, pyramid, guru, magic charm or amulet (cf. Isa. 8:19; Deu. 18:10-11). No. He is the Lord solely revealed by his own words and actions to his people Israel, and finally incarnated in his fullness in his Son, Jesus Christ (John 10:30). “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” that Son tells us (John 14:9), and so he reveals God’s person—full of grace, glorious in majesty, Lord over nature and history, Power beyond all powers, King above all kings, just Judge and hater of evil, but unlimited in mercy and love. And he calls those who worship him to imitate his nature—an imitation defined by his sacrificial love in Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:1-2). Surely it is a call to every one of us Christian worshipers to be different in the world.

It is not easy to be different, however, not easy to be a unique people who are in the world but not of it. The world’s ways call us to a life of comfort—at least they do so in this country. Despite the sufferings and worries that everyone goes through, our physical necessities are usually met and the daily rounds of our lives are for the most part stable. So it is tempting to live as our society lives, to adopt the goal of the accumulation of things, the relativistic definitions of right and wrong, the bogus freedom of everyone for himself, and the indifferent acceptance of every lifestyle. And if we don’t, our society makes us suffer for it. The ways of God and goodness are out of fashion in our country, and we are set against the tide if we try to live a distinctly Christian life, with God as Lord over what we do. According to God’s ways, humility and not self-centered pride has to become our stance. We have to depend on a Word and a Presence not found in ourselves. We lose control of our own days and destinies. Justice, mercy, love like Christ’s become our goals, and we are subject to the ridiculous necessity of forgiving our enemies and loving the weak and believing that the meek shall inherit the earth. Surely no things are more difficult in twentieth century America!

Perhaps no problem presents us more clearly with the radical Christian call to be in the world but not of it than does our present society’s wrestling over the issue of abortion. Our society’s views, or at least those of our government, on the issue are very clear—no woman
who desires an abortion should be hindered in her right to obtain it. To be sure, the majority of Americans harbor doubts about the advisability of such laws, and many want some limits put on the ability to obtain the operation. Equally, many women agonize over their decision when they consider undergoing the procedure. Yet the siren song of our society is very strong: women should be able to maintain control over their bodies and personal lives; lifestyles, education, future plans should be undisturbed and left in comfort; the weak and helpless can be sacrificed to the able; there are some who will never contribute to the material wealth of the nation or who will cost it money, and who therefore should be eliminated. Control, comfort, ability, wealth—these characterize the goals of our society and prop up the demands for abortion rights. And everyone of them contradicts the unique life asked of Christians, for Christians are called to turn over control of their lives to God in Jesus Christ and to look for all their ability and welfare from their Lord. Especially is that Christian contradiction odious to many radical feminists, for they are fighting their battles specifically for power and control, and the Christian requirement to give up those rights brings forth only their scorn.

God’s Desire that We Live

That there is final wisdom in the Christian faith comes sharply into focus, however, when we consider the ultimate contradiction that the Christian faith makes to our society. Over-against the death-dealing ways of the world and the finality of the grave for all of us, the God of the Bible sets the contradiction of life abundant and eternal. If there is one fact that characterizes the biblical narrative, it is God’s desire that we live. “[C]hoose life, that you and your descendants may live” (Deu. 30:19); “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone” (Ezek. 18:32); “I am the bread of life” (John 6:48); “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10); “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28). God wants us to live and not to die. And so finally he bursts the tombs of earth with the resurrection of his Son and renders death’s darkness impotent to hold us, and gives to everyone who trusts his victory the gift of eternal life. Plainly, as our Lord Jesus taught us, when we lose our life—that is, when we surrender it into the hands of God—we save it (Mark 8:35 and parallels). For our God is the God who gives life instead of the death of the world.

Right there, it seems to me, is the most radical contradiction to abortion—that God desires that all persons, whom he has created, live and not die. And surely the child in the womb is included in that number, for “it is he that made us, and we are his” (Ps. 100:3). He clothed us with skin and flesh and knit us together with bones and sinews (Job 10:11), until we emerged the wondrous, unique creatures that we are, each with our own DNA and fingerprints, our stature and our special voice. We clever human beings may fertilize human eggs in a petri dish or even clone ourselves, but God furnished the initial cells and the DNA, and apart from his creation of life, our science would be impossible. We come from God, and his purpose for all of us—born and unborn—is that we live.

The Christian faith calls us, therefore, to that life-giving surrender to our Father, in which we trust his purpose in making us and our unborn children in the first place, and then further rely on him to guide and provide for us and our child, no matter what our circumstances. Yes, children interrupt our lifestyle and comfort; they require our money; some of them may seem to have the most dismal futures; and goodness knows, we never can control them, much less ourselves, to our satisfaction. But God has willed our children in his creative purpose and we continue to trust him with our lives and theirs. That trust is the way of life and not the way of death. And it is radically different from the ways of the world.

Baptism Into Life

Are all of these facts not those that we confess when we and our children are baptized? Baptism is initiation into the different life of the Christian faith, and it shares all of those characteristics.

First and foremost, baptism is God’s act toward us—the fact that distinguishes sacraments from our sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving and offerings to God. In sacrifices, we act toward God. In sacraments God acts toward us. And so baptism is God’s objective pouring out of his grace upon us. It is not primarily parents’ or sponsors’ dedication of a person to God, and it is not simply a christening whereby a Christian name is bestowed. No. Baptism is God’s act of giving of himself to us. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit…” (John 15:16).

And what is the nature of the gifts that God gives in baptism? He bestows on us his Holy Spirit, his active working of himself within us. Every baptismal ceremony, therefore, asks first for the gift of the Spirit. And by that Spirit, then, we are given newness of life, as if we had undergone a whole new birth (cf. John 3:110). We are removed from the old way of life and set into the new, and we receive such a gift because the Spirit is the Spirit of the risen Christ.

Do you not know,” writes Paul, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4). In short, for every baptized Christian, the old life of the old age is gone. The ways of the world and our participation in them have been forgiven, and by the death and resurrection of our Lord, we have been given a new start in the new age of God’s coming kingdom. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). As Karl Barth once remarked, “Life doesn’t begin with birth; it begins with baptism.” And Christians have passed, though still imperfectly, in their baptisms, into that new world that is different from our old.

Moreover, by the Spirit given in baptism we Christians are given the risen Christ’s power to live the radically new life. Certainly, weighed down by the temptations and turmoils of our society’s old ways, we by ourselves have neither the desire nor the power to live differently. But because we have been baptized by the Father into Christ Jesus by the Spirit, it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives and works in us (cf. Gal. 2:20). And he has triumphed over all of the old world’s evil ways. The baptized have the power, in Christ alone, to live in newness of life.

Baptism as Redemption and Adoption

The New Testament states that fact in the figure of redemption. To be “redeemed” in the Bible is to be bought back from slavery (cf. Lev. 25:47-52). And we have been bought back from our slavery to sin and death by the “redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us” (Eph. 1:7). By Christ’s death and his resurrection, God “has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sin” (Col. 1:13-14). The old age has been overcome and the new inaugurated, and we are participants in it.

For that reason, baptism further signifies, as an outward visible act, the fact that the baptized person now belongs to God. There is no thought in baptism that we are our own person, responsible only to ourselves and managing our own lives, as our society seems to think. No. The baptized person belongs to God, as his child (cf. John 1:12). He or she has been adopted into God’s family. He or she has been set apart by the family name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He or she can now call God “Father” in the power of the Spirit (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).


In baptism, God now reclaims the child whom he created in the beginning, but who wandered away in sin or, in the case of an infant, who was born into a sinful world (cf. Ps. 51:5), and now that child belongs to God and to no other. And nothing now can snatch that child away from God’s hand. The evil principalities and powers of the world no longer hold the baptized captive. Indeed, we are assured by the Apostle Paul that nothing now can separate the baptized from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:38). To be sure, we baptized Christians continue sometimes to forget our Father and to fall often into sin, wandering away like some prodigals, with all the inheritance of God’s promises in our pockets (cf. Gal. 4:7). But the Father waits eagerly each day for our return, and welcomes us always into his household, because he is rich in mercy toward his children whom he has adopted as his own.

The Challenge of Baptism

Given these facts about baptism, the question arises, then, why it is that the church continues to sanction those ways of the old age, including abortion, that belong to the world with its darkness. Obviously no child, born or unborn, is ours to do with what we like. The child belongs to God; we affirm that unconditionally in baptism. And just as obviously, we no longer need be captive to the ways of the old age. Our sins and deaths are overcome, and Christ’s Spirit is poured out upon us. In faith, we therefore have the power to live in newness of life, to trust the Father, even in a “problem pregnancy,” and to walk in the ways of his new age of the kingdom. Why then do we persist in living as if we have never been redeemed, slaughtering our unborn children and thinking that we have to provide for ourselves and them, all on our own? Christ died and rose again—those events have taken place. Why do we continue to ignore their benefits?

There is more to consider, however. We are not just baptized as individuals, but are anointed with water and the Spirit into a community—into the one universal Christian Church. We thereby are given a history—a history that was prepared amidst a bunch of Semitic slaves in ancient Egypt, that was dreamed of by prophets in places like Anathoth and Moresheth and Babylon, and that took shape among a little group of men and women gathered together for prayer in an upper room in Jerusalem. That history has spanned twenty centuries since biblical times and has included persons from every race and nation. And that history will continue long after we have made our little contributions to it. So you and I now have a sacred past and a sacred future in the purposes of God, and it is God’s intention that we incorporate into that future history every child who comes forth from the womb. “For the promise (of forgiveness and baptism) is to you and to your children and to all that are far off” (Acts 2:39). There is no thought that we should erase the future life of any child created to be incorporated into God’s history.

More than that, far from being on our own, we are participants in a confessing company of saints and prophets, wise men and shepherds, psalmists and historians, apostles and disciples, monks and nuns, evangelists and servants, and a whole motley crew of sinners across the earth, who are just like ourselves. All have been baptized into Christ Jesus. And we are bidden by our Lord to draw all persons whom he has made into that company (Matt. 28:20).

The result is that we take responsibility for one another in the community of the church. Whenever a person is baptized, not only do the parents or sponsors take vows, but the present congregation takes them also. And they promise to nurture and to love one another in the power of Christ’s Spirit, to help each other grow in sanctification and to live lives of example to one another. Does that not say something to us baptized Christians about our ministry toward those with “problem pregnancies”—to the unwed mother, the poor woman struggling with too many children, the ashamed, the fearful, and yes, the indifferent, who plans easily to be rid of her pregnancy? Does it not say something to us about the teaching we give in the church concerning sex and marriage? And does it not equally lay upon us baptized souls the responsibility for every child in the womb and out? As Paul constantly reminds the Corinthians, we need to live up to our baptisms! Indeed, perhaps we need to rethink our entire attitudes toward abortion and the ways of our society’s life in the old age. For we are not of the way of darkness, but of the way of light in Christ Jesus. And he is our Lord who wills life for all and not death. Life—abundant, eternal—that must be the goal of Christ’s church.

The Lord’s Supper

Had we only all of these facts of our baptisms to go on, we might feel bereft, like those first disciples who stood gazing bewilderedly into heaven when the risen Christ was taken up in his ascension (Acts 1:9-10). Then we would have only the memory of what God had done to us in the past in our baptisms to fortify our endeavors. It is hard to live the life of the new age of the kingdom on the strength of memory alone. But Jesus promised his disciples that he would not leave them desolate, but come again to them (John 14:18), and it is in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper that his promise is time and again fulfilled. The Scriptures tell us that Christ is with us always to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). But the eucharistic sacrament forms the heart of that communion. At the table of the Lord’s Supper, we commune with Christ. His is a “real presence” with us, and by the symbols of the bread and the wine, we participate in his very being. “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation—(a communion, a sharing)—in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:16)? “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:56). Through the Supper, we live in Christ and Christ lives in us, and we are lent his risen, newness of life.

All the gifts of baptism are included in that gift—our forgiveness, our redemption from sin and death, our receipt of Christ’s Spirit, our resurrection into new life, our adoption into the family of God from whose hand we cannot be loosed, our participation in the history of God’s ongoing universal purpose, our future of eternal life. All those acts wrought by God in the past are not just remembered, but are rendered anew in the present, as God in Christ works in us here and now through the sacrament. It is no wonder that the Lord’s Supper is called “the feast of God for the people of God,” for our past baptisms into the church are rendered no longer past but present.

It is in the Supper, therefore, that we once again, in repentance and faith, vow to live the new life in Christ and not the old life of our sinful world. It is in the Supper that we renew our covenant with our Lord, for from its beginning, the Lord’s Supper has been a covenant meal. Its forerunner in the Bible is that covenant meal of Moses and the elders of Israel, eating and drinking with God on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 24:9-11). Its historical precedent is Christ’s last supper with his disciples before he goes out to be crucified (Mark 14:115 and parallels). But noteworthy from the beginning is the fact that those who eat and drink with God make the covenant promise, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:8; 24:7). Thus, the classic introduction to the Lord’s Supper in the church has been the vow on the part of the people to walk in newness of life. Ye who do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to live a new life following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to Almighty God. (The Book of Common Worship, 1946).

The church used to have a preparatory service of repentance in which the congregation prepared its hearts and minds to receive that invitation and to walk anew in God’s ways. Now the custom is sometimes to read the Ten Commandments at the beginning of the communion service itself, in order that the people may examine their hearts. Then the service proceeds with the confession of sin. But whatever the approach, our vow in the covenant service of communion is to turn and to live the new life in Christ. We all come as sinners to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper—and no baptized sinner need feel that he or she is unworthy, not even those who have participated in some way in the abortive murder of an unborn child. With God is plenteous mercy. But the Supper stands as the guard, after baptism, to persistence in sinful backsliding, and it offers to all the opportunity of living the new life in Christ, because it incorporates us into him.

Communion with Neighbor and Saint

We not only commune with Christ in the Lord’s Supper, however. We also commune with one another, and there once again, as at our baptisms, we take on the responsibility for one another’s lives. How can I possibly be at one with my neighbor if I ignore her need in her problem pregnancy? If she is unwed, I cannot condemn her. If she is alone, I cannot fail to give her friendship and support. If she is poor, I cannot fail to supply her need. The persons surrounding me in the pews at the Supper have multiple anxieties and troubles—sometimes guilts, sometimes ignorance, sometimes weaknesses—as do I. All of us have failed to live up to our baptisms. But in the forgiveness, the renewal, the vitality, the love of Christ, we are bound together as one in the Supper, and that is the new energy that sets the people to minister to one another. Just what is your church doing to help those with difficult and problem pregnancies? What is it doing to guide young people to use their sexuality according to the ways of God? What is it doing to welcome the new child, born to a mother in impoverished or unpromising circumstances? Anything at all? For years, most congregations have closed our minds to these questions and said, “Those are not our problems.” But the Lord’s Supper makes us all one, and as Paul writes, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).

At the table of the Lord, we not only commune with those present, however. We also commune with all that great company of faithful who have gone before us in the “communion of the saints.” We are bound together with Abraham and Moses, Isaiah and Peter, Mary Magdalene and Mother Teresa, indeed, with every faithful soul who has confessed the Lordship of Jesus Christ and passed on to Christ’s eternal life. And yes, we commune with our deceased, Christian loved ones— with our parents who have died, and the friends we have buried, and all those whom we have so cherished. At the table of the Lord, we commune with the mothers who did not abort us, but who were willing to bring us forth to life. And we commune with the fathers who paid the bills and played with us and guided our years, and who loved us so very much. That whole marvelous company of life—all the motley, mixed, milling multitude of it—eats and drinks with us at Christ’s table, and we are one with them in faith and in the love of Jesus our Lord.

That vast company brings with it to the table their witness from the past—Martin Luther’s words: “…those who have no regard for pregnant women and who do not spare the tender fruit are murderers and infanticides.”1 And there is the witness of Calvin: If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his most secure place of refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy the unborn in the womb before it comes to light.2

And those are only a small sample of the words against abortion that come to us from that great cloud of witnesses from the past that commune with us at the Supper. Can we eat and drink with them in integrity since the passing of Roe v. Wade or since the government approval of partial birth abortion? Can our congregation? Surely our participation in the body and blood of Jesus Christ demands a new life that does not follow the ways of the old!

Thanksgiving and Future Kingdom

The Lord’s Supper is called the eucharist, however, and that means “thanksgiving,” stemming from the Greek eucharisto, “to give thanks.” And out of all of our heartfelt penitence for our sin in the past and for our easy acceptance of the old ways of our world, there emerges from the celebration of the Lord’s Supper finally good news. For the Supper is our Lord’s gracious invitation made possible to live a new and abundant life. There at his table he mercifully forgives us once again. Eating and drinking with him he wipes clean the past, and pours into our bodies and souls his risen life, full of vitality that never dies and love that never ends. By his Spirit we are once again born anew and made whole. By his Spirit we can think and do what is good. By his Spirit, he pours out upon us those clean, refreshing, bubbling waters that well up to eternal life (John 4:14) and that allow us, indeed, to celebrate life, marvelous life!

Our Lord tells us at the last supper with his disciples, “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you….” (Matt. 22:15). Our Lord eagerly desires that we live! And later he adds, “I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29). The Lord’s Supper looks toward the future, not the future of this darkened and sin-pocked world with its ways leading to death, but to the future of the Kingdom of God when all things have been made new and all things in heaven and earth have been united in one great communion of life (Eph. 1:10). Then, the Scriptures tell us, abortion and its sufferings, evil and its ways, will have been done away for good. God himself will be with us, and we shall be his people. He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning or crying nor pain any more, for the former things will have passed away (Rev. 21:3-4). The Creator and Giver of all life, and his risen Son will be the victors. And the God of life will have banished this world’s death forever!

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This article first appeared in Theology Matters in May/Jun 1999, Vol 5, No. 3. At that time Dr. Achtemeier (1926-2002) was a retired adjunct professor of homiletics and OT from Union Theological Seminary in Richmond. She co-authored with Terry Schlossberg, Not My Own: Abortion and the Marks of the Church.

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1 What Luther Says : An Anthology. Compiled by Ewald M. Plass. St. Louis : Concordia Publishing House , 1 95 9, Vol. 2, No . 2826,p . 9 05 .

2 Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses . Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1950, pp . 4 1- 42.

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