A few years back I was busy preparing for a cross-country series of pro-life presentations. My research had me digging through some articles on what Scripture says about who or what the preborn child is, what our responsibility to the preborn child is, and what the law’s relationship to the preborn child ought to be. In one of piece I came across the following Bible text from Deut. 21:1-3a, 7-9:
If anyone is found slain…and it is not known who killed him, then your elders and your judges shall go out and measure the distance from the slain man to the surrounding cities. And it shall be that the elders of the city nearest to the slain man will take a heifer…. Then they shall answer and say, “Our hands have not shed this blood, nor have our eyes seen it. Provide atonement, O LORD, for your people Israel, who you have redeemed, and do not lay innocent blood to the charge of Your people…” So you shall put away the guilt of innocent blood from among you when you do what is right in the sight of the LORD.
The passage left me pondering: should we, as Reformed churches, be regularly praying for forgiveness for the shedding of innocent blood, as it relates to abortion? We know that the carcasses of dead babies can be found in nearly every hospital in every major city in this country. Ought we to be in specific prayer on this issue? Or would that be a misapplication of the text?
No forgiveness without repentance
I turned the passage and the text over to Professor emeritus of Old Testament, Dr. Cornelis Van Dam. He wrote the following.
“What is striking is that although the murder was unsolved, and no one could specifically be held accountable, God teaches that there is nevertheless corporate responsibility. The people as a whole needed to respond to it through their elders. The elders of the two closest cities have to make atonement on behalf of Israel and pray for forgiveness. By making atonement, the people through the elders show remorse over this murder and thus provide a basis for asking for forgiveness.
“[Now] there are some major differences with our current situation. Canada is not in a special covenant relationship with God, with special rules for affecting atonement in the land. However, the country’s rulers are ultimately responsible to God, also with respect to the sixth commandment (Rom 13:1-5). But, as a nation, we have not received special covenant regulations for making atonement. Atonement has been made in Christ and it is the church that has been given the duty to proclaim that gospel. Hence your question, does the church also have the task to pray for forgiveness?
“Abortions are not unsolved murders and we certainly have corporate responsibility as a democratic society for the murders of those children not yet born that take place in hospitals. Abortion has become a taboo topic. Those who govern are determined to let abortions continue. Can we pray for forgiveness when there is no repentance? The biblical answer is ‘no.’ We can pray that God withhold his wrath from our decadent society, bless the proclamation of the gospel so that many repent, and bless the work of those who want to honor God’s rights in the land. But simply to pray for forgiveness would go against the biblical principle that repentance is necessary for forgiveness to be possible. Think, for example, of Christ’s words: ‘If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him’ (Luke 17:3). God only forgives us if we are repentant (Luke 13:3; Acts 3:19) and his forgiving is to be a model for ours (Eph 4:32; Col 3:13). If and when Canada repents of the sin of abortion, then the church should certainly pray that God also forgive that heinous crime.
“The crime of abortion is extremely serious. Israel had to make atonement lest God’s wrath descend on the land. But Israel also had to repent in order for the sacrifices of atonement to be accepted. Without repentance, God rejected the sacrifices and – due to Israel’s continued sins – ultimately destroyed both the northern and southern kingdoms in accordance with the covenant curses. Even though Canada is not in a special covenant relationship with God, this country too faces God’s judgment and at some point it will happen unless there is repentance and the forgiveness that follows. After all, God holds all nations accountable, especially those who know or could know his will (cf., e.g., Luke 10:14).”
But what of Jesus and Stephen’s prayers?
Dr. Van Dam’s response was very helpful, but it did prompt one more question. If repentance must precede forgiveness, what should we make of Jesus’ plea on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do?” (Luke 23:34) And what should we make of Stephen’s prayer as he was stoned to death, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
Dr. Van Dam responded with the following:
“In the light of what Scripture teaches, the late Dr. William Hendriksen, in his commentary on this passage, rightly paraphrased this prayer of our Savior thus:
“Blot out their transgression completely. In thy sovereign grace cause them to repent truly, so that they can be and will be pardoned fully.”
“In this way he interceded for the transgressors (Isaiah 53:12). Christ’s prayer was heard. Thousands of Jews believed in Christ after his death when they realized what they had done (Acts 2:37-41; 4:4; 6:7). At the same time, the nation as a whole stood condemned and the judgment pronounced on Jerusalem could not be averted (Luke 21:5-6). The city fell to the Romans in 70 AD with the resulting slaughter, enslavement, the sacking of the city, and the destruction of the temple. It was the end of the Jewish state. Stephen’s prayer can be understood in the same light as that of the Lord. It was a plea that those who were killing him would see and realize what they were actually doing and repent and so receive forgiveness.”
As Christians then, we must be a shining light in this country darkened by the heinous crime of abortion. We must continue to work also to bring repentance to our decadent society so that, one day, our Father might forgive Canada our trespasses. As one pro-life apologist said to me, “May their sins of commission never be because of our sins of omission.”