The Law and Life (6)
“Whoever kills any man shall surely be put to death.” Leviticus 24.17
Murder was not the only sin for which capital punishment could be applied under the Law of God.
Capital punishment was also called for, among other situations, in cases of adultery, rape, recalcitrance, idolatry, and homosexual practice. In ancient Israel all these offenses were seen as being hostile to the divine economy of love for God and neighbors and thus subversive of the institutions created by God to ensure a just society. Those accused of such offenses were brought to trial, convicted (by the testimony of 2 or more witnesses), and put to death by the members of the community. It was harsh and brutal justice, to be sure.
But let’s remember that the people of Israel did not have a heart for God, no, not even after all they had seen Him do throughout the course of their deliverance from Egypt and wandering through the wilderness (Deut. 5.29). The Spirit of God had not yet been given so that they could learn, love, and obey the Law of God from the heart (cf. Deut. 30.1-10; Ezek. 36.26, 27).
Moreover, the surrounding cultures, where such sins as those mentioned above were more common, and were frequently associated with pagan deities and worship, offered a continual threat to Israel’s wellbeing. Thus, while these penalties seem harsh to us, they were altogether appropriate in their place and time.
In their place and time.
Space for grace
But we must not seek in every case a one-to-one application of the death penalty for our day. The sins for which it was the punishment in ancient Israel are still sins today. But we live now in a time when the power of grace to transform even the worst of sinners is closer and more readily available than it was to the people of Israel. While government still has the right to bear the sword against evildoers (Rom. 13.1-4), Christians must work to create space and allow time for grace to work in the lives of anyone whose offense has been judged as deserving capital punishment.
This is what we see Paul doing in 1 Corinthians 5, where a situation which, according to the Law of God, required the death penalty was, through the mediation of grace, resolved by excommunication and the restoration of the offender.
We must also observe that there are certain sins for which the Old Testament required capital punishment which would not seem to merit that punishment today, due to differences in historical and cultural settings. In the New Testament many who became believers had at one time hated their parents, practiced idolatry and homosexuality, or committed adultery and fornication—all of which remain sins in the minds of New Testament writers. But the coming of God’s Kingdom of grace required not a change in God’s Law but a change in the way we apply it. Those who formerly lived in abominable sin but were converted and transformed by the Gospel were living testimony to the power of God’s Spirit to create new beginnings for even the worst sinners (1 Cor. 6.11)..
Christians today should support public policies that make room and allow time for God’s grace to work in the lives of those who have offended against His Law. We do not deny the sinful nature of such practices as we have mentioned; nor do we try to redefine them in a manner more in line with the spiritus mundi. Yet we do not believe that capital punishment is, in this age of grace, the proper application of justice for all such sins, since we believe all sins can be remediated by repentance and faith in Christ.
At the same time, we do not deny that capital punishment is a valid form of justice in certain situations. We long for grace to do its work in the criminal justice arena, and we pray and work so that sinners might repent and turn from their ways to enter the life of grace.
We create room for such repentance by giving sinners, and especially those condemned to die, access to the Word of God through the ministries of churches and other Christian agencies. We create time for them to repent through the lengthy appeals process of our judicial system. We do not “downgrade” the sinful state of the sinful practices they have committed. Nor do we remove from government the right to enact such judgments and penalties as can be shown to be consistent with Biblical practice and rationale.
So while we accept that there is a proper use for capital punishment in the case of certain crimes, we long for the grace of God to reach even those who are condemned to die.
Life and love
Over all, however, Christians must contend for the preciousness of life and the priority of love, even as we rest in the authority of the State to administer just policies and ultimate judgments.
We do not deny the validity of capital punishment, but we do not support the use without the opportunity for grace to do its life-changing work in even the worst offenders, even though their judgment continues in force.
The times in which we live, being an age of grace and the Kingdom of God, are of a different nature than the times in which Israel lived. But the sins that Israel knew are yet sins today, and for justice to prevail and for us to know a good society, the use of capital punishment remains an option for governments as they grope toward justice case by case. The more we as believers can influence public policy with the grace and truth of God, the greater will be the likelihood that such terrible options as capital punishment, when necessary, will be justly applied.
1. Civil justice works on the outer person, while grace works on the soul. Are these mutually exclusive? Explain.
2. Why should we seek grace and forgiveness for those condemned to death?
3. Why do you think public policy in our day allows for prison ministries of various sorts? How should this encourage us in other areas of public policy?
Next steps—Transformation: Do you know someone involved in prison ministry? Pray for and encourage them as you are able.
T. M. Moore
What is the place of the Law of God in the Christian’s life? Our book, The Ground for Christian Ethics, answers this question and shows us again why Jesus taught us that keeping the Law is an indispensable part of our calling in God’s Kingdom. Order your copy of The Ground for Christian Ethics by clicking here. To gain a better understanding of how the Law of God applies in daily life, order a copy of our book, A Kingdom Catechism, by clicking here.
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Except as indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.