March 12, 2021

Covid Vaccines, Common Grace & Christian Discernment

associate pastor

associate pastor

Ken Rathburn

In our current sermon series, the Apostle Paul urges us “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” (Ephesians 4:1) We have been reconciled to God through the person and work of Jesus Christ and called to a life of faith. Part of this means that we don’t keep our Christianity in one box while living daily life in another. No, we must strive to apply God’s Word and His Gospel—“the whole counsel of God”—to all of life. (Acts 20:27) In light of this, this blog post aims to address some (not all) of the common ethical questions Christians face regarding Covid vaccines. There is quite a bit of information out there, some helpful and some less so. Social media posts and short soundbites are poor places to find answers to these questions. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released statements on this topic, but they are at best confusing.

Let me be crystal clear: This blog post does not wade into the highly-charged general debate about vaccines. Many among us have well-settled convictions on that matter—some very much in favor and some strongly opposed. Rather, this blog post is for those Christians who are generally open to vaccinations, but want to understand and apply Biblical principles so they can discern what to do in this particular case of Covid vaccines. I am not a scientist (nor do I wish to play one on the internet), so I will not directly comment on the scientific information with respect to the safety or efficacy of Covid vaccines. Here is a broader article from The Gospel Coalition that I commend on those points, which contains links to other helpful articles and scientific resources as well.

Background: Human Life & Common Grace

From Adam forward, each and every human being is “created in the image of God” and given a command to fruitfully steward God’s creation. (Genesis 1:27-28) These first pages of Scripture provide the grounding for human dignity and our unique position in the created order. It is our status as image bearers that makes it generally wrong to participate in the taking of human life. (Exodus 20:13) We image bearers were formed and “knitted together” in the womb, being “fearfully and wonderfully made” by Him. (Psalm 139:13-14) This is why the evil of abortion is a sinful scourge on our culture. Embryonic humans are no less human, bearing God’s image and deserving protection and love irrespective of their location or dependence. Of course, as we call out abortion as sinful evil we must proclaim that Jesus died for those sins, too. God’s grace is sufficient to cover any and every sin and sinner. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

While God gives saving grace and sanctifying grace to His people (Ephesians 2:1-10; Romans 8:29-30), he also gives another, broader type of grace to all humanity. This is common grace: gifts from God that are given to believers and unbelievers alike. “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45b) The Lord cares not only about believers, but “is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.” (Psalm 145:9) One special part of common grace are the gifts of technology and medical advancement. As Covid researcher and theologian Keith Kauffman has said:

Technology and medicine are good things, insofar as they are used unto the glory of God and the benefit of others. And saving lives with medicine and technology is certainly God-honoring, since the Bible upholds the sanctity of every human life.

Read his helpful article here. Seen that way, vaccines that curtail a global pandemic are good gifts from our God to His image-bearing world. They sit alongside artistic beauty, crop science, rapid transportation, diagnostic machinery, antibiotics and countless other technologies borne out of human ingenuity. God cares for His world through the labors of those who bear His image, whether they call Him their Lord or not. So, do Covid vaccines serve “the glory of God and the benefit of others” as a work of common grace? Two issues must be considered.

Issue #1: Covid Vaccine Functionality

One of the new issues raised by some of the Covid vaccines involves how they function. Both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines contain no weakened version of the virus as traditional vaccines do. They utilize what is called mRNA, which acts like a guidebook to instruct our cells to produce the “spike protein” unique to Covid. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a different delivery method called a viral vector to bring this same guidebook into our bodies and start the spike protein reproduction. At that point, our immune system produces antibodies to the spike protein that provide immunity to potential Covid infection in the future. This miraculous work of science enables faster production of vaccines with astonishing efficacy. So, is there really a problem here?

There have been a number of misconceptions about this process. If we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by our Creator, doesn’t this mess with our God-given genetic material—our human DNA stamped with His image? By all accounts, the answer is no. This theory has set internet message boards ablaze and caused skepticism toward this new vaccine technology and its rapid development. According to the CDC, the genetic guidebook does not enter the nucleus of our cells so our DNA remains unchanged. Our bodies do not make “non-human” cells as a result of mRNA or viral vector gene-carrying vaccinations. In simple terms, the Covid vaccines do not interfere with God’s design, even at the genetic coding level. There is no ethical issue to be answered regarding Covid vaccine functionality.

Issue #2: Covid Vaccine Development, Testing & Production

Another common question involves the use of fetal tissue cells during the development, testing or production of medical treatments or vaccines. Fetal tissue refers to the body tissue (cells) of a baby who died while still inside the mother’s womb. The death could have been natural or caused by abortion. The tissue is then used to create “immortalized” cell lines, which continue to multiply indefinitely in a lab setting. The original cells die off as the lines continue so that the existing lines soon contain no actual fetal tissue from the original unborn child.

A commonly used fetal tissue cell line known as HEK293T originates from a deceased unborn baby in the Netherlands in the 1970s. The records are unclear as to whether the child died from miscarriage or abortion. Another fetal tissue cell line, PER.C6, originates from a baby aborted in 1985. Both Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech used no fetal tissue cell lines in the development or production of their respective vaccines, but did use HEK293T in the testing phase. Johnson & Johnson used PER.C6 in all phases. All of this takes us to the crucial ethical question: Should the use of immortal cell lines originating from aborted babies prevent Christians from taking a Covid vaccine with a clear conscience?

To answer this, bioethicists have traditionally considered the type of cooperation involved in the evil action. Cooperation can be “formal” (sharing in the evil intention of the abortion) or “material” (sharing a connection to the abortion, but without evil intention). “Formal” cooperation is always sinful, but “material” cooperation requires further thought. Pastor and ethicist Joe Carter helpfully considers another situation to help with the analysis: organ donation following murder. If a person’s organs were donated following their murder (a violation of the Sixth Commandment), no one would suggest that a Christian who receives a vital organ would have “formally” cooperated with the evil intent of the murder. There is “material” cooperation, but at a seemingly insignificant level. Receiving the transplanted organ follows the murder and creates no incentive for future murders. If anything, it is similar to God using the evil deeds of Joseph’s brothers to place him atop the power structure of Egypt in order that he might save them and their families, despite their previous betrayal. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:20)

Let’s apply this reasoning to the case of taking a vaccine developed, tested and/or produced using fetal tissue cell lines. If the lines were created from tissue of a child that died of natural causes, there is no cooperation of any kind because there was no evil act. If the vaccine made use of lines created from an abortion, taking the vaccine involves “material” cooperation only, and also at a nominal level. No abortions were performed for the purpose of creating and using fetal cell lines and the tissue was donated after the abortion had already occurred. Both the HEK293T and PER.C6 lines no longer contain actual fetal tissue. Further, this does not create any incentive for more abortions because the existing lines are continually multiplying.

For most (but not all) Christian ethicists, this represents such an attenuated “material” cooperation that they support and even encourage Christians to take vaccines developed, tested and/or produced using the HEK293T and PER.C6 cell lines. Common grace is extended and human dignity is upheld. Some, like renowned Christian ethicist Gilbert Meilaender, even argue that the whole inquiry of cooperation is not helpful given the various evils that we unwittingly cooperate with every day (consider buying anything from China while the persecution and genocide of the Uyghurs continues).

The Conclusion: Forward in Unity

Three Covid vaccine candidates have now been approved by the FDA for emergency use. The testing has shown all of them create a strong immune response and we should praise the Lord for that. Christians can and will reach different conclusions on taking vaccines—Covid or otherwise. Some of us may feel the urge to judge those who reach different conclusions. Those who take a vaccine might view those who don’t to be reckless and endangering of their brothers and sisters. On the other side, those who hold Biblical convictions in opposition to taking a vaccine might be inclined to think that those who do are sinning. “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:10) We are to prioritize unity, especially when we find ourselves in disagreement over nonessential matters, such as the Covid vaccines. Keith Kauffman gives a series of helpful reminders:

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, whatever you decide, our Christian witness is often borne out in how we continue to love those who don’t hold the exact same positions we do. We all serve a sovereign God who decides where every viral particle floats when it’s expelled from an infected person.

Our Christian unity isn’t built on a set of common attitudes, pursuits, convictions, experiences, or political beliefs, but wholly on the shed blood of Jesus Christ, to whom we are united by faith and thus united to one another.

We are not the Lions Club, the VA, the Red Cross, or the Salvation Army. We are the body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Vaccines offer temporal solutions; the gospel brings eternal ones.

Whatever the issue, make your decision based on real information and the wisdom of God’s Word as illuminated by the Holy Spirit. God’s gifts of common grace (whether vaccines or otherwise) aid to preserve and protect His world, but we must not expect from them what only the Gospel can do. Instead then, let us always remember to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3) And as we do, let us look forward with great anticipation to the day when this pandemic loosens its hold on all those whom we love, especially our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

Ready to hug you all at the end of this, vaccinated or not.
– Pastor Ken