Editor’s Note: this is the second of a two part series that examines how a social imaginary influences how people in a culture view children. The first article may be found here.
If the problem in our country is the fact that children are portrayed as inconvenient and are justifiably purged when “unwanted,” we need more than a campaign that says, “Don’t do that.” If the moral fiber of our country has run out, and Genesis 1:28 has been laughed out, then we need to do more than shout down the wickedness of abortion. We need to rehabilitate an entire view of the world. That is to say, we need to go back to the God who has made us in his image and hear what he says.
In what follows, I offer four steps for rehabilitating a social imaginary that values children in a way that mirrors the heart of God. Indeed, I do not intend to deny legal efforts to block abortion or political policy-making that defends life. In God’s mercy, there remain in our country laws and lawmakers who are committed to protecting life. But because expressive individualism has become America’s civil religion, there is a rising belief (or feeling) that one man and one woman bound together in covenant marriage with the goal of raising a family filled with children is not just unattractive, but offensive or even immoral.
We need to consider what Scripture tells us about the blessedness of children and why we must protect the unborn and offer a new set of images, stories, and celebrations, which reform our social imaginaries in ways that honor God and his command to be fruitful and multiply. For this reason, I want to wade upstream where the waters of God’s Word are life-giving. And there, from the pages of Scripture, I want to pour out four truths that we need to protect life.
Four Life-Giving Truths
1. Love God
At root, the problem of abortion is not political, medical, or cultural; it is theological. As A. W. Tozer famously quipped, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” This point has been oft-quoted, but what he says next is equally telling.
1. A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, 1.
The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God.
Rightly, Tozer connects what a man knows to what a man worships. But as Psalm 115 reminds us, the context of idol worship is national, not just individualistic. The nations who worship idols “become like them,” and “so do all who trust in them” (v. 8). Indeed, what a people beholds with affection they will become like in action. And this is exactly what has happened in our nation.
3. See G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry.
Today, the person looking in the mirror (or posting the selfie on Instagram) is the expressive individual loved in our nation. The therapeutic mindset has told people that they cannot love others unless they love themselves. And conversely, if someone puts another ahead of himself, he is inviting harm and may be denying his only chance at happiness. Tragically, such self-directed hedonism flies in the face of biblical truth.
In Scripture, Christ commands his followers: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30–31). Love, as God defines it, is the summary of the law (Rom. 13:8–10). And this love necessarily requires self-sacrifice, not self-expression (Phil. 2:1–4). As Jesus says in Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” With a touch of divine irony, this call to “hate” fathers, wives, and children does not impair one’s ability to love, but actually makes true love possible, not to mention holy. True love requires that we put God first and love what is true. And this is where we need to begin when we consider abortion.
If our actions follow our affections, then we must engage public ethics and the protection of life with something more than the law. That is to say, we must call our neighbors to repent and turn to the Lord. Whether or not America is a “Christian nation” is immaterial here. The message of Christianity is a universal call to turn from sin and trust Christ. If anything in our nation proves the need for a message of repentance, it is our nation’s civil religion of self-worship. Abortion is the most pernicious fruit hanging on that poisonous vine, but it is a fruit, not the root.
Indeed, to get to the root of abortion, we must get to the heart. We must call everyone, from those who picket abortion clinics to those who pay for abortions inside them, to love God first. To say it another way, we must preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone. Only God’s life-giving Word can change the heart (2 Cor. 4:4–6), renew the mind (Rom. 12:1–2), convict of sin (John 16:8–11), and empower lovers of self to become lovers of God. To say it another way, our goal is not merely for people to be pro-life, but for people to be pro-Christ (and therefore pro-life).
As Paul frames it, Christ has “died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15). Among other things, salvation sets sinners free from self-love. Paul warns of those who are “lovers of self,” “lovers of money,” and “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:2, 4). Indeed, this self-love is why Christ had to die. On the cross, he paid the penalty for every kind of sin. And in his glorification, he sent his Spirit to empower his children to love God, which entails an abiding and self-sacrificing love for the image of God.
2. Love God’s Image
Essentially, God’s law commands us to love God and to love those made in his image (Mark 12:30–31). In the second commandment of the Decalogue (Exod. 20:4–6), Israel is forbidden from making and worshiping images. On the surface, this commandment denies golden calves (Exodus 32) and other false images of the true God, but underneath it implies something greater—namely, that God has already made an image of himself and that, in the fullness of time, he will bring forth the true image of God, Jesus Christ, God the Son incarnate (Col. 1:15).
Going back to the beginning, Genesis 1:27 tells us that “God created man in his own image—in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Accordingly, men and women, boys and girls, are not to be worshiped—they are to be begotten! As the next verse continues, “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it’” (v. 28). Here, we return to that creation mandate which is so mocked and misunderstood.
If we are going to love God, we must love what God loves. And what does he love? He loves his glory and everything in creation that reflects his glory. In creation, everything from the heavens (Ps. 19:1) and their starry host (1 Cor. 15:40–41), to the earth and its various inhabitants (Ps. 65:9–13; 104:31–35) reflect something of God’s glory, but David is fundamentally correct when he says of mankind that God has “crowned him with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5). Mankind is the pinnacle of God’s creation (Gen. 1) and the embodiment of his glory (cf. 1 Cor. 11:7). And thus, if we are going to see abortion ended, we must reimagine a world overrun with God’s glory—a glory enfleshed with human eyes, ears, fingers, and toes.
Truly, when God made mankind in his image, he made a vessel fit for royal glory. That is, God created the first Adam to have dominion over the earth (Ps. 8), with such authority passed on to his offspring (Gen. 5:1–5). Though Adam forfeited his royal glory by sin (Rom. 3:23), the story of redemption has centered on the promise of ‘sons’ inheriting the kingdom (see e.g., Gen. 17:6, 16; 2 Sam. 7:14; Isa. 9:6–7). In Christ, this storyline finds its terminus. Jesus Christ, as the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:18), becomes the true and last Adam (1 Cor. 15:20–28) and the one who has authority over all creation (Matt. 28:19). Indeed, even in his birth announcements, the royalty of Jesus is proclaimed (Luke 1:32–33), thus confirming the fact that God is going to restore the kingdom of God, as well as the image of God (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).
4. The fact that men and women are designated ‘sons of God’ is not a confusion of gender, but a recognition of royal status in the kingdom of God (Gal. 3:25–29). In Christ, all God’s children, male and female, are heirs of the kingdom.
In this history of royal heirs, therefore, God the Son would have to be born of woman (see Isa. 7:14; Luke 1:35–37). For in no other way could God redeem his children, except for God the Son becoming like us (Heb. 2:5–18). Indeed, through the incarnation, the glory of God assumed a human nature (John 1:14–18), and even today the glorified Christ indwells a human body that shares certain physical properties common among all humanity (Rev. 1:12–16). Knowing the plan from the beginning, God made Adam and Eve as vessels fit for glory. And when this royal glory is understood as a universal property of humanity, it changes the way we look at fetal status and abortion. Let me explain.
Until sin shattered the world, the command to bear children was a command to bear “kings and queens.” The language of “subdue and rule” in Genesis 1:28 is language primarily used for kings, and/or the nations they rule (see 2 Sam. 8:11; 2 Chr. 28:10; Num. 24:19; 1 Kings 4:24; Pss. 72:8; 110:2). God is the first king, and Adam is the original “son of God” (Luke 3:38). As Genesis 1–2 recounts, God put the man in the Garden of Eden to be a royal king. Moreover, with his royal helpmate (Gen. 2:18–25), the first man and woman were commissioned to have children who would reflect the glory of God and spread the beauty of Eden throughout the world. That was the original plan—God’s glory would cover the earth as Adam and Eve ruled the world with their royal children.
Tragically, this plan was halted when sin entered the world (Rom. 5:12–19). God multiplied the pains of childbirth for the woman, cursed the ground in which the man labored, and subjected all humanity to the constant threat of death (Gen. 3:14–19). Long story short, what God had intended for good, man had upended for evil. And from Genesis 4 on, the marred image of God not only shed innocent blood (Gen. 4:1–7), redefined marriage (Gen. 4:19, 23), and repurposed sex (see Genesis 16, 19, 38), but they also began to prey on children. For example, the Law warns of imitating the nations, and explicitly applies this to killing children: “For they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods” (Deut. 12:31; cf. Jer. 7:30–34).
5. It’s striking that Deuteronomy 12–13, which warns of worshiping God like the nations, is an exposition of the second commandment. When we get the image of God wrong and make idols like the nations, children suffer the consequences.
Returning to the Decalogue, the second commandment warned against worshiping images, but the fifth commandment forbade killing the image of God (Exod. 20:13). Previously, God told Noah that “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6). The rationale for putting a man to death was the fact that when an image bearer kills another image bearer, the murderer forfeits his own life. Such is the value of God’s image.
Later, Paul will speak of how the image of God is being renewed by knowledge of Christ (Eph. 4:20–24; Col. 3:9–10), but from the beginning and throughout the whole Bible, image-bearers, redeemed or not, are protected by God’s Word. Hence, in James 3:9, we are told to guard our speech from evil, because people made in God’s likeness deserve protection from violent speech, let alone violent action.
In sum, the Bible portrays all image-bearers, regardless of sex, age, ethnicity, or social class, as dignified royalty who are created to serve God. The language of image and likeness, though disputed throughout church history, contains a functional and a substantial element. In Genesis 1–2, the role of mankind is identified with ruling over creation and cultivating and keeping the garden-sanctuary. In this way, God has made mankind to reflect his dominion in the works that he does. Yet, we need not restrict God’s image to the things that he does. The enfeebled heir of a king is still an heir (see the way David treated Mephibosheth in 2 Samuel 9), and the child growing in the womb is still protected by God’s law (Exod. 21:22–23). Moreover, the infant who is dead retains a personal nature, such that David can say of his dead son, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (1 Sam. 12:23). Clearly, there is something inherent in humanity that makes human lives worthy of respect and protection.
In sum, all of these verses indicate the value, worth, and royal dignity of humanity. Accordingly, we who love God must love the image of God, even when that image is still in the womb. Thus, not only does God’s Word call us to repent away from loving ourselves and towards loving the image of God, God’s Word also calls us to love the little children, no matter how small.
3. Love the Little Children
In Matthew 19, we read how Jesus’s disciples sheltered him from some approaching children. Verses 13–14 read, “Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’ And he laid his hands on them and went away.” In these two verses, we see the heart of God for children.
Whereas the culture of Jesus’s day looked down on children as unreliable and unproductive, Jesus saw children as image-bearers who pointed to the kingdom of God. Indeed, previously in Matthew 18, when his disciples debated who would be greatest in the kingdom (v. 1), the Lord said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (vv. 3–4). In this context, children are not just to be received, they are to be prized as models of humble dependence. Indeed, unless we are born again and treat God as our father, we will not inherit the kingdom of God (John 3:3–5). Moreover, only as we receive children do we display that our inheritance is in God’s household (Matt. 18:5). Conversely, if we harm the precious children formed by God, we are liable to his judgment.
God’s love for children is undeniable. And if we love God, we must love the image of God from the moment of conception. In the Gospels, God’s love for children is witnessed in Christ. But Christ’s care for the little ones is in accord with the whole Bible. That is to say, there are no unwanted children in God’s economy. Instead, he treats them as full persons from conception. Let’s consider a few places where Scripture demonstrates this.
First, God treats children in the womb as persons.
In Genesis 25:22–23, the LORD treats the sons of Isaac and Rebekah as two nations while they grow in her womb. It is telling that the Lord who declares the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:9) sees the connections between the child in utero and the generations that will come through their offspring. Such divine sovereignty over life, including naming kings like Cyrus long before they were born (Isa. 45:1), reveals that children in the womb are treated personally—even prior to their conception.
Likewise, Exodus 21:22–23 defends the life of a child, as it calls for retributive justice to fall on the man who harms a pregnant mother and her child. David too understands the death of his son as the death of a person whom he will see again (1 Sam. 12:23). And Luke 1:41–44 reports the interaction between pregnant Elizabeth and pregnant Mary. When the mother of our Lord greets Elizabeth, the older woman says that her child, John the Baptist, “leaped in her womb” (v. 41). In short, Scripture is unequivocal. God treats children in the womb as persons, not pre-persons or even potential persons.
Second, God creates persons in the womb.
If the Bible shows that God treats the unborn as persons, it also shows how he forms them. In Exodus 4:11, for instance, the LORD says that he makes man’s mouth and grants or withholds sight, hearing, or speaking. In short, all that God gives to a person begins in the womb (cf. Ps. 40:6–8; Heb. 10:6-8). Most famously, Psalm 139:13–16 says,
For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.
While Psalm 139 is the most well-known ultrasound in Scripture, it is not alone. In Job 31:15, the man made famous by his suffering reflects on his own gestation, “Did not he who made me in the womb make him? And did not one fashion us in the womb?” Similarly, Job 10:8–12 echoes Genesis 2:7, saying,
Your hands fashioned and made me, and now you have destroyed me altogether. Remember that you have made me like clay; and will you return me to the dust? Did you not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese? You clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews. You have granted me life and steadfast love, and your care has preserved my spirit.
In all of these passages, we discover that the womb is a place of life and formation, not death and destruction. In fact, the Psalmist likens his spiritual formation to that of his physical formation, saying, “Your hands have made and fashioned me; give me understanding that I may learn your commandments” (Ps. 119:73). In all of these ways, life formed in the womb comes from the creative work of God. Man may contribute the seed, woman may provide the soil, but God gives the growth. Therefore, whatever God ordains is right. Whether a pregnancy is conceived in rape, incest, a one-night stand, or in a loving marriage, the life of the child is from God.
8. On this point, see Andy Naselli “Don’t Women Need Access to Abortion for Rape?”
Third, God assigns vocations to people in the womb.
In Jeremiah 1:4–5, the LORD speaks of his knowledge of the weeping prophet along with the plans he would give him: “Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’” From this verse, we learn that the source of life is not random chance, but divine choice. As Proverbs 16:4 declares, the wicked are made for the day of trouble, while Romans 9:23 identifies God’s “vessels of mercy” as those “prepared beforehand for glory.” From these verses, we can reiterate the point: A person is a person because God in his perfect, unchanging, and eternal knowledge has known him or her from before the foundation of the world.
9. My point does not depend on a certain view of unconditional election. More basically, God predestines people in eternity, so that in time, he can form them in the womb for his purposes. From God’s perspective, their personhood actually precedes their conception.
Sharing this view of God’s sovereignty, Paul echoes Jeremiah when he, who was untimely born (1 Cor. 15:8), reflected on God’s gracious calling. He says in Galatians 1:15, God “set me apart before I was born.” Then, speaking more broadly, he says in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” The implications from these verses are that God in eternity knows whom he will create in time. And thus, from the moment of conception, God thinks of the zygote, blastocyst, embryo, and infant in personal and even eschatological terms (cf. Rom. 8:29–30).
10. If one wanted to press the language, “one untimely born” (ektrōma) could be rendered “one abortively born.” While Paul’s apostleship came from an unlikely origin, God wanted his birth (i.e., regeneration). And thus Paul uses this unusual term to express God’s grace, a point that is equally true in the study before us. When God has grace on us, it impels us to show grace to others who are unwanted.
To put this all together, God is a personal God and there is never a time when each image-bearer he makes is anything but a person to him. On this point, the church must stand up and speak. As Philip K. Dick envisions in his dystopian novella, abortion is funded by a worldview that says some people are not persons. Indeed, abortion invites those who have unwanted pregnancies to save themselves by the sacrifice of another, or more conveniently, to treat the “pre-person” as some-THING to be discarded.
11. For a further study on this point, see Nancy R. Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality, 18–20.
Clearly, God has a different conception of life. As Scripture shows in multiple ways, the unborn are persons not because man says so, but because God says so. And thus, we who love God and his image must speak on their behalf. Image-bearers are both known and loved by God.
4. Love God’s Mission
The final step in reimagining a world where children are wanted is to love God’s mission. As we noted earlier, Christ came to save sinners from their self-love (2 Cor. 5:15). And when he does that, he sends us into the world with a “message of reconciliation.” In the same context, 2 Corinthians 5:10 says, “knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.” And again, verse 14 says, “the love of Christ controls us” and leads us to a “ministry of reconciliation” whereby we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Ultimately, only the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection can create the kind of love that will rejoice in Genesis 1:28. At present, the number of unwanted children is exacerbated by a childless social imaginary and a world that treats children as a curse instead of a blessing. In this world, we must offer a counter-example and a compassionate willingness to sacrifice ourselves in order to rescue the perishing. To put it succinctly, we must demonstrate God’s love by wanting children and by protecting the unwanted. In other words, we must love God’s mission to fill the earth with his image-bearers.
First, Christians need to picture the beauty of wanting children.
If movies and advertising present a childless view of the world in well-appointed hotel rooms, Christians need to provide another picture—and not just an alternative reality, but a vision of a better way of life. Indeed, if you read the whole short story of “The Pre-Persons,” Philip K. Dick masterfully demonstrates the wickedness of abortion and the way it devastates a culture. This is how stories work. And we need more of them. We need artists and poets and authors that show us how empty chosen childlessness is, and how beautiful multi-generational families can be.
12. On the place of music and artists aiding our moral imaginations, see Trent Hunter, “How One Nineties Youth Pastor Fought Abortion with a Song.”
At the same time, we need more than literary works exposing abortion. We need flesh and blood families displaying what God intended. We need churches, where families and singles, those who have children and those who can’t have children, demonstrate the wisdom of God as a household of faith (see Eph. 3:10–11; 1 Tim. 3:15; Titus 2:1-9). In truth, Satan hates God’s image and he hates children made in God’s image. But one thing he loves is to form families whose appetites are shaped by screens, social media, and self-centeredness. And when an individual has only known broken families, the intentionally single life can look optimal. Yet, God has another vision, one centered on the Holy Spirit inhabiting believers such that all members of Christ will live for God and not themselves. In the church, this looks like discipleship. In the home, it looks like children.
Admittedly, having children, raising families, and filling the earth with image-bearers is not easy, but that doesn’t mean it is not God’s good plan. As God intends to draw from the earth a family of believers who are joined in union with Christ, he empowers men and women to repent of self-love and to seek the good of others, even at their own expense. Indeed, the false gospel of abortion promises freedom from consequences by way of child sacrifice. By contrast, those who know the true gospel have spiritual life to die to themselves in order to care for others—beginning with their own children.
Today, the world needs to see such self-sacrifice, and thankfully, this is what the Spirit of Christ is doing. Many are the friends, church members, and heroes of the faith who love their children, adopt orphans, foster the unwanted, and enlarge their tents to show the beauty and goodness of a biblical family. Friends, your efforts are not in vain, and in time, wisdom will be proven by all your children (Luke 7:35). Or as Paul says in a slightly different context, “My beloved brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).
Second, Christians need to protect the babies who are currently unwanted.
If today the fiction of “The Pre-Persons” has become fact, we need to consider how we can rescue unwanted babies. As I have tried to demonstrate in this essay, this begins with preaching the gospel and praying that God would change hearts and minds. In truth, we are facing a “me culture” that is so committed to self-expression and personal freedom that inviting someone to lay down his life to receive a child feels like a death sentence.
And yet, that is exactly what God did. He announced to a human race hell-bent on loving self that such self-preservation evidences guilt before God. In that hopeless condition, salvation comes from the Son of God who did not save his life, but laid it down for undeserving children. If a culture of life is going to be regained today, this is the message that must be believed, proclaimed, and embraced.
Indeed, the best way to make babies wanted again is to see hearts of stone replaced with hearts of flesh and self-love overcome by love for God and his image. As that happens, we may also see better elections, better law-makers, and better laws. Men and women seek abortions because they love themselves and they hate others, including the child in the womb. In response, we must offer a robust message that calls to unwanted children, “You are precious to God and precious to us.”
In the early church, babies were left for dead in the woods, and Christians organized search parties, listening for crying infants. Today, churches can do the same thing. By staffing pregnancy care centers, engaging patrons at abortion mills, petitioning state representatives, celebrating the birth of children (and the noises they make in church), or simply by making our love for children known, we can make a difference one-by-one.
13. Cf. Gregory Soderberg, “The Christian Compassion Revolution.
God alone changes hearts and the culture in which we live, but he does this through means. And thus, as we are able, we should seek to alleviate the burden of unwanted babies by saying loudly and lovingly, “We want your baby.” This is a burden Christians must take up.
We certainly cannot say, “We don’t know what is happening.” We do know. Fueled by a social imaginary devoid of children, unwanted children are not treated as God’s beloved image bearers. They are treated as “life unworthy of life,” and accordingly, we who have received life in Christ must protect babies who are unwanted. Therefore, for all the reasons outlined above, we do well to remember that the children formed in the womb are people whom God loves. And thus we must not shrink back, but press on to rescue the perishing—the kids that nobody wants. As Proverbs 24:11 charges us:
Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.