In continuing our series of editorials on what the Bible says about government, we now turn to the issue of capital punishment. God inspired Paul to command us to bless our persecutors, repay no one evil for evil, live peaceably as much as possible with all and not avenge ourselves when wrongs are done to us (Rom. 12:14, 17-21). Since we live in a sin-filled world, it’s likely that Christians will suffer wrongdoing at the hands of others at times, despite doing everything we can to live peaceably with others and treat them benevolently. When persecution and hardship enters our lives in these ways, we can easily focus on the bad things which happen to use as Job did (Job 3, 7, 9-10, 14, 16-17, 19, 21, 23-24, 29-31). Satan can then easily tempt us to seek personal vengeance against the ones who harm us, rather than waiting on the Lord’s vengeance upon evildoers when he returns in glory (2 Thess. 1:7-9).
This is why God then inspired Paul to mention the role of governmental authorities as his instrument to execute wrath upon the evildoer (Rom. 13:1-7). Christians harmed at the hands of evildoers who were given the promise, “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19) can therefore look to the governmental authorities of their countries as “God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4). It is for this reason that government “does not bear the sword in vain” (Rom. 13:4).
Consider the ramifications of this biblical principle. We should remember that swords are weapons. Weapons are used to take people’s lives. By saying governmental authorities do not bear these weapons “in vain” within the context of being an avenger of God to execute wrath upon those who practice evil (Rom. 13:4), God shows that governmental authorities have the right to take the lives of those who are wicked without it being held against them as sin, since sin is ultimately the most vain and meaningless act in which one can involve themselves (Rom. 6:23; Rev. 21:8). Thus, we must not consider capital punishment to be inherently sinful. The likelihood of one’s life being forfeit at the hands of the government as a direct result of doing wrong can be a powerful motivator to do right (Rom. 13:3-4).
We see this when we notice that God did not allow anyone to take the life of the first murderer, Cain (Gen. 4:8-15). This may have been a factor in the increasing wickedness of Cain’s descendants (Gen. 4:16-24), culminating in the universal evil of mankind which brought on the global flood (Gen. 6:5-7). Perhaps the Lord allowed this and recorded it in Scripture to show us the value of capital punishment (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11), especially when one considers that ever since the completion of the flood God has either directly commanded capital punishment or allowed it to take place.
After the flood, the Lord gave to Noah and his descendants a directive which was directly the opposite of what he had said to Cain. Whereas God had said, “…If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” and had “put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him” (Gen. 4:15), to Noah God now said, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6).
This directive of capital punishment for the crime of willful murder was carried over into Mosaic law, and it was the punishment for various other sins as well (Ex. 21:12-17, 20-25, 28-32; Lev. 24:10-23; Num. 35:15-34). It is likely for this reason Jesus restrained Peter from using violence to prevent his arrest by saying, “…Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52; cf. Lk. 22:49-51). Christ wanted his prophecy, “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one” to be fulfilled (John 18:8-9). Peter’s use of the sword to attempt to kill Malchus and the others arresting Jesus put him in danger of both committing the sin of murder and being killed himself within the parameters of Mosaic law; thus, Jesus restrained him (John 18:10-11).
With the establishment of the new covenant after Jesus’ death and resurrection, we come back to Romans and see that under Christ’s law governmental authorities are allowed by God to use capital punishment as a deterrent and punishment for crimes committed by wicked people (Rom. 13:4). While under arrest himself and making his defense, Paul acknowledged to the governor Festus the inherent legitimacy of capital punishment by stating, “If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death…” (Acts 25:11a). This shows us that while God outlaws murder, he does not outlaw the taking of the lives of evildoers by governmental authorities as punishment for their crimes and thus differentiates between murder and capital punishment.
Granted governmental rulers can misuse their right to exercise capital punishment. Herod unjustly killed John (Mk. 6:14-29). Another Herod killed James (Acts 12:1-3). Saul attempted to kill David (1 Sam. 19:11-17). Jezebel tried to kill Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-2) and did succeed in killing Naboth (1 Kings 21:1-16). Today reports exist of lives taken by the death penalty who were later proven innocent, as well as executions of those who were enemies of a tyrannical state rather than convicted criminals. Yet these misuses of power do not change the fact that God authorized government to exercise capital punishment as ways to avenge wrongs done by evildoers (Rom. 13:4).