Thursday, February 1, 2018

Why Capital Punishment?

"For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer"
(Romans 13:4).

Capital punishment is a controversial issue in our society, and occasionally in the church as well. In recent years, the debates have focused on its deterrent value. Advocates of capital punishment asserted that the death penalty puts fear into the hearts of would-be criminals and prevents crime. Others argued that statistically there is no significant decrease in crime when the death penalty is used.

We have to say, though, that there is no statistic that can tell us what a person would do in different circumstances. Statistics cannot read the hearts of people. The Bible explicitly says that the threat of capital punishment causes fear, and surely deters some crime: “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong” (Romans 13:3).

Restraining crime, thus, is indeed one of the purposes for which God has given the sword to the magistrate. But there is a deeper reason as well, having to do with justice. The basic biblical support for the death penalty does not rest on deterrence, but on justice—retributive justice.

We see this in Genesis 9:6, where God commanded Noah to institute capital punishment: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” Man is made in God’s image, and when one man kills another with malice aforethought, he is trying to kill God Himself.

God punished Israel when they failed to put murderers to death. He told them, “Do not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer, who deserves to die. He must surely be put to death” (Numbers 35:31). There is nothing in the New Testament that changes this principle. Private Christians may not take vengeance, but the magistrate must function as God’s “agent of wrath.”

Applying God’s principles in our complex society requires sensitivity and wisdom. I am continually impressed by the wisdom, fairness, and simple justice of the Mosaic law. There is no better place to start acquiring wisdom than to study it. Read the following today: Exodus 20–21; Exodus 22:16–23:9; Deuteronomy 11:1–15