Government is defined by Derek Prime as "a public authority with the power of ultimate decision which exacts obedience, and is capable of enforcing its legislative and executive measures for the protection of all, both from internal and external enemies." Thus government is to promote justice, order, and peace for the protection and welfare of its citizens. Christians have much to gain from a good government for it provides an environment that is conducive to Christianity and allows them the freedom to "lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity" (1 Tim. 2:2b).
Government is far more than merely a good idea; it is ordained by God (Rom. 13:2). The Bible is clear on this: "There is no authority except from God"; it is "established by God"; "it is a minister of God to you for good" (Rom. 13:1,4). Therefore the believer is commanded to "be in subjection to the governing authorities" (Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:13). Government should remind us of God's common grace and mercy to mankind as a whole. Government is ordained of God for man's good and thus springs from His common grace and mercy displayed toward mankind. Even bad government is not nearly as much a curse as no government. In other words, even a communist dictatorship is better than anarchy.
Those who rule over men should realize that their position is God-given. "Governments do not exercise their power because of the consent of the governed, or because of the will of the majority, or because of the existence of some social contract. If this were so, to resist the government would merely be to resist human authority" (Stuart Olyott, p.120). By God's decree, government is not only given the power to enforce it's laws; it is under solemn obligation to do no less.
Government's primary task should be to administer justice and thus promote peace and order for it's citizens. "It is a minister of God to you for good" (Rom. 13:4). Thus, government must have the means with which to deal justly and adequately with those who are lawbreakers. The means by which government is empowered to enforce it's laws is through it's ability to satisfy justice for a crime through retributive punishment: even punishment unto death if the crime is so deserving. For this reason Paul writes, "If you do what is evil, be afraid; for it [the governing authority] does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil" (Rom. 13:4). Government must be occupied with the business of exacting the "punishment of evildoers" (1 Pet. 2:14). It is precisely the restraining power of this fear of punishment towards evildoers that inhibits murder and crime. We should not be surprised therefore at the increasing quantity of crimes committed when government becomes neglectful of this God-given responsibility. "Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil" (Ecc. 8:11).
Capitol punishment is one of the means provided by God to promote justice: "it does not bear the sword for nothing" (Rom. 13:4). The state is given the authority to inflict death as a punishment for crime. That "the sword" can mean no less than this is commented on by F.A. Philippi: "The N.T... expressly ratifies the right of governors to inflict the penalty of death... It is therefore perfectly absurd, when the apostle applies to the culminating form of the punitive authority of rulers an expression whose historically and juridicially fixed signification cannot for a moment be called in question, to wish to assert that he denied to authority the right of exercising that which the sword properly symbolizes" (Emphasis his). God has appointed his primary agent for punitive judgment and that agent is the governing authorities. God has appointed agents to execute His wrath at other times as well. He has even used wicked kings as His agents (see Isa. 10:5-14). Therefore, it should not be surprising to us that He has ordained the government as His agent of wrath. Instead, we should thank God for His great grace to man, in providing such an institution to maintain order and justice, no matter how great its shortcomings may be.
The reason that such a high degree of punishment is required in capital punishment is found to have its basis in the sanctity of human life. Murray writes, "It is the sanctity of human life that underlies the sixth commandment. But it is that same sanctity that grounds capital punishment." Human life finds its significance and worth in the fact that we are made in the image of God. Though we have fallen far from what that image encompassed, we still have some last remaining vestiges of it in our person (otherwise we would not be human). In Genesis 9:6 God lays down a perpetual command: "Whoever sheds man's blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man." On the continued relevance of this passage, Murray writes: "When we ask about the perpetuity of this institution, no consideration is more pertinent than this: the reason given for the exacting of such a penalty (or, if we will, the reason for the propriety of execution on the part of man) is one that has permanent relevance and validity. There is no suspension of the fact that man was made in the image of God; it is as true today as it was in the days of Noah." I would likewise add that the covenant that God makes here is of perpetual continuance and is likewise made with all of creation and thus these words of God have constant significance.
The premeditated murder of a man can then be considered an attack on God Himself, for His image resides in all of mankind. As Murray writes, "In no other instance of biblical jurisprudence is the reason for the infliction of a penalty stated to be that man is made in the image of God." Likewise, the crime of murder is an extreme crime in the fact that there is no possible way of reconciliation with the victim. No other penalty is fitting then in the case of murder.
Objection: The Bible requires the death penalty for things such as Sabbath-breaking and blasphemy (see Exo. 21, Lev. 20). If we use the Bible as our basis for promoting capitol punishment, we must kill those who break these laws as well. Response: "The institution of capital punishment for murder is... in a different category from those other provisions of the Pentateuch in which putting to death was required for many other offenses" (John Murray). The Pentateuch required capitol punishment for many other crimes other than murder, but it is only the crime of murder that is stated to be such a gross crime because of its direct link to the image of God in man: "Whoever sheds man's blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man" (Gen. 9:6). Even if we do attempt to compile laws that require the penalty of death in cases other than murder, one thing is certain: The crime that, according to the Bible, most definitely and without question requires capital punishment is the crime of murder!
Objection 2: The Bible says "Thou shalt not kill." Response: The sixth command of the ten commandments should rather be stated "Thou shalt not murder." The command is against violent, willful, malicious assault upon another human being and not the taking of life per se. "It is... an exegetical blunder to take the sixth commandment, 'You shall not kill', as an absolute prohibition of the taking of human life, since it is part of a body of legislation which gives specific instructions about the death penalty and about the conduct of warfare (Exo. 20:13; 21:12ff.; 23:22ff.)" (John Wenham). The cities of refuge were set up entirely upon this fact: that there was a difference between murder and killing. The murderer who struck down his victim with malevolent intent should be put to death (Num. 35:16-21). In the case that someone killed a person unintentionally, he was allowed to flee to a city of refuge, where he would be safe until it was time to stand judgment before the congregation (Num. 35:15,22-28). If he was then found guilty there could be no other punishment for his crime than death: "You shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death" (Num. 35:31; cf. 35:33).
If the sentence of capitol punishment seems too severe and extreme to us, we must come to grips with this one fact: The moral problem lies with us and not with God's revealed truth. "Our troubles arise not from the weakness of the Bible's morals, but from their severity. In fact they are felt to be difficulties by us, not because of our moral sensitivity, but because of our moral obtuseness" (John Wenham).
If we as Christians hold dear the sanctity of human life, we must demand and strive for justice in all matters concerning this precious truth. Are we shocked at abortion? Why aren't we equally shocked when someone is senselessly murdered and their murderer is not punished justly? -- by death! To be against abortion and simultaneously against capitol punishment is inconsistency at its height for both issues rest upon the same foundation -- the image of God in man. As John Murray so aptly states: "Nothing shows the moral bankruptcy of a people or of a generation more than disregard for the sanctity of human life. And it is this same atrophy of moral fibre that appears in the plea for the abolition of the death penalty. It is the sanctity of life that validates the death penalty for the crime of murder. It is the sense of this sanctity that constrains the demand for the infliction of this penalty. The deeper our regard for life the firmer will be our hold upon the penal sanction which the violation of that sanctity merits" (John Murray).
Archer, G. Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982.
Murray, J., Principles of Conduct; Aspects of Biblical Ethics. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957.
Olyott, S. The Gospel As It Really Is. Durham: Evangelical Press, 1979.
Prime, D., Baker's Bible Study Guide. Michigan: Baker Book House, 1982.
Vos, G., Biblical Theology. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948.
Wenham, J., The Enigma of Evil. Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985.
© Richard J. Vincent, November 27, 1997