Good and Bad Pro-Life Incremental Legislation

Feb 7, 2020 by David Fowler

baby with 2020 on his or her diaper
Most likely the Tennessee Legislature will approve some pro-life legislation this session. For the Christian, the issue underlying every proposal will be whether incrementalism—not enacting legislation that directly attacks Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood—is, biblically-speaking, a good or bad approach.

Four years ago, I gave a series of remarks to Christian state legislators from around the country designed to encourage them not to give up in their defense of biblical righteousness and justice because they could not do all the good that was needed at one time.

Toward that end, I showed how incrementalism was not unbiblical, grounded in the fact that God gave Adam and, thus, mankind a pattern of progress over time in the six days of creation and that following that pattern, Adam was to fill the earth and subdue it. I showed how God did the same thing in regard to salvation—re-creation—what one theologian called the work of God in creation performed in the “field of human catastrophe.”1 

But my remarks were not properly balanced; they were not complete or sufficiently comprehensive. God is not incremental in respect to certain matters. So, here is the question: Can the people of God be incremental where being incremental denies what Scripture says is true, particularly about who God is? Let me give you a biblical example.

Bad Incrementalism in the Bible

We find a form of incrementalism that is not acceptable to God in Matthew 19:16–222, a story about “one who came and said unto [Jesus], ‘Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?’”

Jesus responded by telling him to “keep the [ten] commandments.”

The man then asked him, “Which ones?”

And Jesus said, “’You shall not murder,’ ’You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ’You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

In response, “The young man said to him, ‘All these things have I kept from my youth. What do I still lack?’”

Then Jesus went to the heart of the issue by asking him to keep a certain application of the first commandment. “Jesus said to him, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’”

“But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

When it came to the holiness of God and the perfection required of human beings to have eternal life in God’s presence, incrementalism was not acceptable. One either loves God with all of his or her heart, mind, soul, and strength, or one does not. Jesus lets those whose hearts are not fully His turn away. (See Numbers 32:11–12.) Jesus didn’t try to compromise with him once he turned away.

Incrementalism toward the perfection (holiness) required to see God (Hebrews 12:14) was never going to be sufficient; it would never get the job of perfection done. Incrementalism in regard to justification doesn’t work because dead men never become alive no matter how much time you give them.

That’s the bad news of the gospel that precedes the good news of the gospel and makes it good.

Good Incrementalism in the Bible

The good news of the gospel is that once the dead in God’s sight are brought to life, they mature and grow in holiness, or what we commonly refer to as sanctification. We make progress. Incrementalism here is to be expected. As Paul said of himself, he had not “already attained” and was not “already perfected,” even years after Jesus had “laid hold” of him (Philippians 3:12).

Good and Bad Incrementalism in General

In the field of human catastrophe and as it relates to civil law, making progress from bad or evil to good or righteous is good incrementalism. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed—it grows over time (Matthew 13:31–32). Isaiah 9:7 tells us, “Of the increase of His government there shall be no end,” but there is increase.

On the other hand, compromising with what is bad, evil, or unrighteous—a form of incrementalism in the wrong direction—is never good for a Christian. Sin is an always-dangerous thing, not to be trifled with. Its nature is deceitful, always promising “just this far, and that’s all. I promise.”

As pastor, author, and theologian Dr. George Grant has said in several different ways at different times, Christians need to recognize the difference between reform in light of our principles and compromising our principles.

Pro-life Incrementalism

With that as context, I broach this topic under protest, because the extent to which civil law should protect the lives of human beings and ascribe to human beings legal rights under civil law should be a policy matter3 not a judicial matter, unless the issue is whether a human being is being deprived of life without due process of law.

But given that legislators must deal with what has been and may still be a renegade U.S. Supreme Court on these issues, how should the pro-life community look at legislation that attacks Roe and Casey incrementally?

Good Pro-life Incrementalism

When we see what happened with Dr. Kermit Gosnell in Pennsylvania when abortion clinics and abortionists were largely left out of the other health-related laws that would normally apply in the “field of human catastrophe,” a legislative attempt to regulate abortion clinics and doctors is worthwhile. And to the extent that women lack information to give truly informed consent to the abortion procedure, informed consent laws are good.

Now, “personhood” folks, hold on before praying for my soul and claiming I’m not really pro-life. 

In regard to these matters, there are two ways to act incrementally. First, the legislature can go for what it really wants and see if the Court will hold it constitutional. Alternatively, the legislature can pass what it thinks the Court might live with and hope it is upheld. That’s the approach of the pro-life lawyers who testified against the House’s heartbeat bill.

Regardless of the approach, the legislature, based on the victory it presumably gets, can then try to build and expand on that.

Bad Pro-life Incrementalism

But, say those in the personhood crowd, by supporting this legislation, aren’t you saying you are okay with the state allowing unborn babies to be killed in the womb?

No. Not so fast. Has not God "endured with much longsuffering" (Romans 9:22) the continuing existence of sin and sinners and been willing to administer His eternal justice during His still ongoing work of re-creation? Obviously, the answer to all but universalists is yes.

But here is where I draw the line on incrementalism: It is one thing to be incremental when the law is directed at abortion clinics and doctors in terms of health and safety practices and ensuring informed consent—narrow issues—and quite another to agree to legislation that says human life or a person has only potentiality as a “real” life or person based on some point other than conception and then to additionally concede that this “real” existence as a life or person is assigned, not by God, but by a majority of lawyers on the U.S. Supreme Court.

I personally cannot in good conscience ascribe to either of these positions, because they are biblically false and untrue about who God is.

God is the Source of all being and existence and, He, not the Supreme Court, determines or establishes being or existence. Since all law has an educative effect, I cannot in good conscience support a law that teaches something that contradicts this. 

There may be increments in clinic health regulations and in the amount and type of information given to women about abortion, but there is no increment by which anyone other than God can say that a life, a human being, or a person comes into being.

Incrementalism, Pro-life Legislation, and Saving More Unborn Babies is not the Goal

I have come to believe that there is only one end to or purpose for my existence as a Christian, the glory of God. It’s why we were made in God’s image. We were created to see, enjoy, and experience His glory and reflexively give Him praise for His glory and thanks for the revelation of that glory to us, and then live in light of it.

Now, in the field of human catastrophe, those who have “beheld His glory” (John 1:14) want others to see, enjoy, and experience what they experience by faith so that when our mortal bodies are laid aside, faith might become sight and our experience and joy will be made full in His presence (Psalm 16:11).

However, for the reasons that follow, I have come to believe that when incrementalism itself is made the guiding principle by which all pro-life legislation is viewed, when simply passing abortion legislation is made the end of the pro-life movement, and when pragmatically saving as many temporal lives as possible is the goal, I have missed my chief end—the glory of God.

Who lives and who dies is God’s business. As Deuteronomy 32:39 explains, “Now see that I [God], even I, am He, and there is no God besides Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; Nor is there any who can deliver from My hand.”

My “business” as a Christian is to testify and speak to the truth that God has revealed about the Author of our being and life, the One who has being and life in Himself, and to recognize that in the long run, a culture of life cannot be created if this fundamental truth is left out.

I would argue that any other so-called culture of life is a man-made structure built on sand, and I believe that is why unborn life slipped like sand through the hands of our culture and courts in the first place.


1. Albert Wolters, Creation Regained, p. 70.
2. All quotations are from the New King James Version.
3. I am not saying the civil ruler should leave human life unprotected, but only that, as between the judicial and legislative branches, it is a matter reserved to the legislative branch, and legislative bodies can and often do fail to conform civil law to God's archetypal law.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. He was the original Senate sponsor of the amendment added to Tennessee’s Constitution eliminating the “right to abortion” purportedly “found” in it by the Tennessee Supreme Court. The amendment was itself an incremental step toward the legislature being able to protect unborn persons.

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