Capital punishment is one of the hottest issues of our day. Many sincere people believe the death penalty should be abolished. Christians are often confused about what their attitude should be towards the execution of convicted criminals. Let us look at what God has said about the death penalty in His word.
In view of the disrespect that some people have for the death penalty, one might be led to believe the practice originated among the pagans. The Bible teaches God is the originator of capital punishment. In Genesis 9:6 we find out why the penalty of death was enacted, "Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man." When a murderer's life is taken, it is not because his life is worthless, but because his victim's life was precious -- he had been created in the image of the living God.
Some have contended that the sixth commandment prohibits the government from taking the life of felons. Exodus 20:13 says, "You shall not murder." This does not prohibit civil authorities from carrying out the death penalty. The man guilty of murder under the Mosaic law had forfeited his right to live. In Exodus 21:12 we read, "He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death." Under the Mosaic Law, many crimes resulted in the death penalty. Here are a few:
We are no longer under the law of Moses (Col. 2:14; Heb. 10:9). The passages used above were to demonstrate that it is not contrary to the nature of God to execute criminals.
Paul was very plain when he explained the purpose of civil governments and our relationship to them. "Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same. For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil" (Romans 13:14).
How is the government to "bear the sword"? The sword of Romans 13:4 was not the dagger which Roman emperors and governors often wore as a symbol of their office. This was the executioners sword. Marvin Vincent said it was "Borne as the symbol of the magistrate's right to inflict capital punishment" (Word Studies in the New Testament, Vol. III, p. 164). Thayer discusses the word for "sword" in detail, then adds, it "is used of him to whom the sword has been committed, viz. to use when a malefactor is to be punished; hence i.q. to have the power of life and death, Ro. xiii.4" (Greek-English Lexicon, p. 393).
Albert Barnes wrote, "When a magistrate inflicts punishment on the guilty, it is to be regarded as the act of God taking vengeance on him; and on this principle only is it right for a judge to condemn a man to death. It is not because one man has by nature the right over the life of another, or because society has any right collectively which it does not as individuals; but because God gave life, and because he has chosen to take it away when a crime is committed, by the appointment of magistrates, and not by coming forth himself visibly to execute the laws" (Barnes Notes, Vol. IV, p. 294)
What is my responsibility to the civil government today? Let me suggest four things:
1. We must realize that God ordained civil government (Romans 13:1). The civil state would have no right to exist if it were not for God. As Pilate questioned Christ during His trial, Jesus said, "You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above" (John 19:11).
2. We must pay our taxes and tariffs (Romans 13:6-7).
3. We must pray for our leaders. "Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence" (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
4. We must obey our rulers unless the laws of man violate the laws of God (Acts 5:29).
Man is still made in the image of God and when one man takes the life of another, he has forfeited his right to live. "Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil" (Ecclesiastes 8:11).