I am Troubled About an ERLC Article on Abortion

Phoebe Cates wrote an article that is posted on the ERLC website entitled, “Why our hearts matter when talking about Abortion.”

I agree with the title of the article. We should have a broken heart over the tragedy of every abortion and a tender heart toward every person who needs Christ. We should approach the woman who is contemplating abortion or has had one with love, truth, and gentleness (Eph 4:15; 1 Pet 3:15). I appreciate Phoebe reminding us of the importance of our heart when we engage women who struggle with or have had an abortion.

The statement that initially prompted me to comment on her article was her statement, “These reveal that most women don’t need you to tell them that abortion is wrong; they know it is.” She is referring to six related statistics, which she mentions in the article, two of which seem most germane to her conclusion that I quoted above. The two statistics are “66% of women knew that abortion was wrong” and “67.5% of women said that having an abortion was one of the hardest decisions of their lives.”

She then says, “God’s Word tells us that the law is written on our hearts, so that when we sin our conscience bears witness (Rom. 2:15). What women with abortion in their past, or who are considering an abortion now, need to hear most is that Jesus came, conquered their sin, and offers healing and eternal life. It’s what we all need to hear most.”

First, the statistic is that “66%” knew abortion was “wrong.” It is unwarranted, and I believe a dangerous leap to equate someone believing something is wrong with their believing such is sinful; little contemplation brings to mind many things that someone might believe are wrong but not sin. This reality is even truer in our present milieu. Moreover, surely, we have encountered people who may believe they did something wrong but not sinful; I know I have. To wit, many make no connection between Jesus dying for their sin and their wrong being sin.

Second, it seems to me there is always a need to make sure people understand that abortion is not right, a right, or even humanly wrong but always a dreadful sin, a sin against a holy God. We can do this compassionately; to not make it clear that it is a sin, and there is only one way to deal with sin, which is trusting Christ’s atonement for our sin, is most uncompassionate. I do not believe we should take for granted that people mean sin when they speak of a wrong.

Third, I think it is a great error for her to trust the human conscience as a reliable guide in showing oneself a wrong, much less sin. This seems evident even in the statistics quoted because if the conscience were reliable, the number of women who think abortion is wrong would be 100% rather than “66%”. But even if their conscience did lead them to think abortion is wrong, it might have stopped short of leading them to understand that it is a sin of murder. While all sins are wrong, not all wrongs are sin; for example, the weatherman is often wrong in predicting the weather, but that is not sinning. Without understanding abortion is sin and not merely wrong, their awareness may leave them relying on their own resources to deal with their abortion and the suffering afterward through counseling, personal resolve, or medication. Or they may even make a therapeutic and light-hearted confession of faith.

Reliance upon a person’s conscience to lead to a sense of wrong, much less that the wrong is a sin, is seriously flawed for the following reasons:

  1. The Bible teaches that every aspect of a human being is corrupted by sin, including our conscience; therefore, it is an unreliable guide in determining right and wrong or leading to grasping concepts like righteousness and unrighteousness. That is why God uses the conviction of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11) and his power in the gospel (Rom 1:16). The good news without clarity about the bad news transmogrifies the good news into ordinary news (Rom 3:10-18).
  2. Regarding one’s exposure to truth, John MacArthur notes, “Consciences vary in sensitivity, depending on the degree of one’s knowledge of and feeling about right and wrong. The person who has considerable knowledge of God’s Word will have a more sensitive conscience than someone who has never had the opportunity to know Scripture.” [1] This would surely be a factor in whether a person connected a wrong with being sin.
  3. One’s response to previous encounters with truth can either increase or decrease a person’s understanding of sin and righteousness, even right and wrong (Titus 1:15; 1 Tim 4:2).
  4. While a believer’s conscience is different than a lost person because we have been born again (Rom. 13:5; 1 Cor. 8:7, 12; 10:25, 29; 2 Cor. 5:11), it is still not totally reliable. For how many times is a Christian confronted with God’s Word and thereby convicted about his beliefs or practices that his conscience theretofore had not convicted him about.
  5. The conscience is not static. Much of childrearing is to mold their conscience so they will know more about right and wrong and even be more likely to choose the right action over a wrong. But it can also go the other way if the child is taught differently. A child taught in the wrong way can do many wrongs and even sinful things without being pricked by their conscience; these are the very same things they would have been convicted about if they had been taught higher morals, which is a pervasive problem in our present culture.
  6. The very need for the gospel, the conviction of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11), the drawing of the Father and Son (John 6:44; 12:32), and the need to study the Scripture (1 Pet 2:2; 2 Tim 2:15) remind us of the unreliability of the conscience. This does not mean our conscience is not an important aspect of being human, but only that is not absolutely trustworthy; it can be evil (Heb 10:22), and, for everyone, it requires being cleansed (Heb 9:14).

Depending upon a person’s upbringing, previous responses to exposure to right and wrong, righteousness and unrighteousness a person’s conscience can be “good” (Acts 23:1; 1 Tim. 1:5, 19) or clear (Acts 24:16; 1 Tim. 3:9; Heb. 13:18), but it can also be weak” (1 Cor. 8:7, 10, 12), corrupted (Titus 1:15) and  even seared” (1 Tim. 4:2). Since only God knows a person’s exact state, we must make it clear that even for those who recognize some true rights and wrongs, all people need to trust the Lord Jesus Christ so God can cleanse their consciences (Heb. 9:14). This requires a clear understanding of our sins, like abortion, and not just our wrongs.

Therefore, while our heart surely matters in such encounters, so does the truth from Scripture about the sinfulness of abortion so that the person to whom we speak understands that only trusting Christ’s atoning work on the cross can truly heal their sin of murder and their wounded heart. A failure to clarify the sin, not just the wrong, may leave them less than clear on their need for a Savior.


[1] John F. MacArthur Jr., Romans, vol. 1, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), 141.