Who Will Stop the Killing?

Law enforcement officials investigate a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

This past Lord’s Day (Nov 5) a (non-Islamic) terrorist walked into an unassuming country church. Armed with a Ruger AR-556 (or AR-8515?) rifle, he murdered 26 persons and injured an additional 20. He killed or wounded nearly everyone present that morning. This happened only one month after another (non-Islamic) terrorist unloaded into a sea of persons attending a country music concert in Las Vegas, killing 58 and wounding over 600. On and on the list goes and on and on these examples will continue. We have become numb to mass murder, but we must cry out “who will stop the killing?”

I have seen comments from other Christian pastors on this subject. They say that the true problem is spiritual. The source of our national sickness finds its source in the sinful heart of mankind. “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). They conclude that the solution is therefore not political or sociological. Only repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ can take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh, wherein God’s law is inscribed on our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit. Wars and violence will continue to the end of the age. At long last King Jesus will return and usher in universal peace and righteousness. Swords will be beaten into plowshares and violence will be no more.

At first blush this seems like a good Christian answer. It is true that violence springs from the evil within the human heart. It is true also that utopian dreams and the perfection of human society will elude us this side of heaven. Finally, it is true that the shooter Devin Kelly was an outspoken atheist (and ex-Christian) that surrendered to his nihilistic beliefs. The error is the fatalistic attitude that suggests there is nothing anyone can do other than to pray and point sinners to Jesus.

The suggestion that American gun violence is an exclusively spiritual problem that requires an exclusively spiritual solution is an implicit denial of fundamental Christian doctrine. All Christian traditions affirm this teaching. In Protestant circles we refer to this teaching as the first (Lutheran) or second (Reformed) use of the moral law.

In Reformed dogmatics we distinguish three uses of the moral law. The first is the theological use, wherein God’s law is our taskmaster that exposes our sin, convicts us of our guilt and drives us to Jesus in order to find grace and forgiveness (Rom 3:19-20; Gal 3:23-24). The third use of the law is the rule of obedience for the Christian. In the knowledge that we are loved by God as his children, we are motivated by love and gratitude to obey God’s commandments (John 14:21; Rom 8:4). What then is the second use of the law?

The second use of the law is the civil use. A function of the moral law is to act as an external restraint on sin. This use of the law is directed to the impenitent who give no thought to God and who would rush headlong in violating the life and liberty of others apart from this external restraint. The restraining use of the law is St. Paul’s emphasis in 1 Tim 1:9, where he teaches that the law is given “for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful.”

There are two interlocking concepts that comprise our view of the second use of the law. The first concept is that God reveals his moral law universally and immediately in the human conscience (Rom 2:14-15). Our consciences, which accuse us when we sin and excuse us when we do right, are a gift of God by virtue of our being created in God’s image. Although we have been corrupted by sin and no longer retain original righteousness, yet the vestiges of a properly working conscience remains. Even so, we are able to suppress the truth and harden our consciences, thereby giving ourselves over to evil.

The second concept is that God has given to us civil government for the express purpose of restraining evil and promoting good in the body politic. God has ordained the human institutions of government “to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right” (1 Pet 2:14). We know that all human government is corrupt and ineffective in greater and lesser degrees, and yet God’s purpose in civil government has not completely failed. The Roman state in the days of the apostles was characterized by gross corruptions and miscarriages of justice, yet St. Paul could still say, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad,” and “For it is God’s servant for your good” and again, “for the authority does not bear the sword in vain!” (Rom 13:3, 4).

An emphasis of the Protestant Reformation was the honorable vocation of the public servant. The Reformers affirmed the temporal authority of government, and the magisterial duty before God in supporting the rights of the poor, restraining the ambition of the wealthy, and maintaining law and order, so that the life and liberty of all may be protected.

“Believe in Jesus” is the answer to the question, “what must I do to be saved?” When Christians suggest that “Jesus” is the answer to any and every question they descend into self-parody. They are like the child in Sunday School Student who thought Jesus was the answer to the question, “what has a bushy tail, lives in trees and stores acorns for the winter?” Even the historical antinomians affirmed the civil use of the law.

Our sin problem does find the final and ultimate solution in Jesus. But God has also given us temporal tools useful in restraining civil crimes like murder. Therefore, our sin problem is partially sociological and technocratic. An international comparison of social sins like murder, suicide, violence, theft, and abortion is illuminating. The uncomfortable fact is that the American gun violence is a perverse form of American exceptionalism when compared against other wealthy nations.

There can be no doubt that there are public policies that will significantly reduce murder rates in the United States. There is doubt, however, as to which policies will be most effective. Christians need to weigh the evidence and debate these matters. Those who are dismissive of such discussions claiming that “Jesus is the answer” are without a theological leg to stand on.

Are there gun safety measures that will save lives, or is the problem that too few people are packing at all times? Is the problem that we do not invest enough in mental health care? Or, do we have too much care in the form of over prescribed psychotropic drugs? Is gun violence related to a love for shoot-em-up video games and violent movies? This is unlikely, but there are some who take up that argument.

Christian theologians do not necessarily have the answer to gun violence or the other social ills. As it turns out, the Bible was written before guns were invented. But, as fellow citizens, it is good and right that Christians think carefully about social sins and their temporal remedies, even as we point to Jesus as the only, ultimate, and final solution.