By now, you’ve probably heard the news about the ‘botched’ execution of an Oklahoma inmate. On Tuesday of this week, two days after I referenced Genesis 9:6 as a proof-text for capital punishment, Clayton Lockett, a man convicted of rape and murder died 43 minutes after his lethal injection failed to produce the effect of a sedated death. This kind of gruesome execution leads ethicists, politicians, humanitarians, indeed all of us to question the use of capital punishment.
As Christians, such incidents should grieve us, but as always we must turn to Scripture to find God’s perspective. And on this issue, like so many, God is not silent.
What Does the Bible Say?
Throughout the Bible, God is presented as sovereign over life: “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god besides me; I kill and make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none who can deliver out of my hand” (Deut 32:39). “The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Sam 2:6).
As the Sovereign Creator and Just Potter, he has the right to give life and take it away. In Adam, we deserve death, not life (Rom 5:18-19), but such a sentence of death does not permit man to take the life of another. Just the reverse, only God has that right.
Still while God alone has authority over life, there are two primary texts that describe God giving humanity a right to execute a murderer: Genesis 9:6 and Romans 13:4. In other words, while men in and of themselves have no right to take life, God has ordered a world that endows states the right to take the life of renegade life-takers.(If I had more space I would consider how the Law of Moses applies. Perhaps on another day).
The first relates to us directly because the Noahic covenant continues today (see Gen 8–9). Therefore, what God says in that context has application to us all: “And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning . . . From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man: ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.’” (Gen 9:5–6)
In light of this severe truth, capital punishment does not follow from a low view of humanity, but from a high view: the one who takes the life of an image-bearer forfeits his own. So long as God’s ‘war-bow’ (i.e., rainbow) hangs in the heavens and men continue to kill one another, God’s first instruction to Noah continue. God has sought to mercifully preserve his planet by giving human society’s the right to execute those who take the life of others. When judges who hand down just verdicts, they are doing God’s work in God’s place under God’s rule.
The second text reiterates God’s ancient words to Noah. Positioned in the New Testament, on the other side of the cross, Paul reaffirms what God’s law said many millennia ago:
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. (Rom 13:3-5)
While the all the laws concerning capital punishment in the Law of Moses are tied to the theocracy of ancient Israel, Paul’s reaffirmation of Genesis 9:5–6 stands in the very same redemptive epoch (i.e., place in the redemptive story) that we do. In other words, the new covenant does not change God’s mind on capital punishment; rather, it asserts that nations who fail to wield the sword justly fail as ministers of justice.
For this reason, in our country where all of our hands are on the sword, it is vital to understand what God has commanded capital punishment. And what he has commanded is simple: “the servant of God” is “an avenger” of evil “who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” And in the case of murder, he was the authorization to use the sword justly.
The Complicating Factor
With all that said, we can pray and hope that such punishment is rare and that when it is administered it is right (e.g., punishing the guilty and protecting the innocent). On this point, Albert Mohler made a very helpful statement concerning the injustice of execution in our country. He writes,
American society is quickly conforming to a secular worldview, and the clear sense of right and wrong that was Christianity’s gift to Western civilization is being replaced with a much more ambiguous morality.
We have lost the cultural ability to declare murder – even mass murder – to be deserving of the death penalty.
We have also robbed the death penalty of its deterrent power by allowing death penalty cases to languish for years in the legal system, often based on irrational and irrelevant appeals.
While most Americans claim to believe that the death penalty should be supported, there is a wide disparity in how Americans of different states and regions think about the issue.
Furthermore, Christians should be outraged at the economic and racial injustice in how the death penalty is applied. While the law itself is not prejudiced, the application of the death penalty often is.
As always, when we look to Scripture for our ethics, we can always find contemporary examples that seem contradict God’s wisdom and his Word. The case in Oklahoma is one example, and the response by Jonathan Merritt on the subject is common. Merritt pits Jesus against the Old Testament Scriptures. He opts for Jesus on the basis of John 8, a passage that is hardly as an example of Jesus voting against capital punishment (as he says) and a passage that should be a footnote in the Bible, not the go to passage for Jesus’s view on the death penalty. All in all, Merritt’s scant reflections on Scripture show that he likes his version of Jesus more than the one who Matthew says came to fulfill all the Law and the Prophets (5:17–20).
Nevertheless, Merritt’s example of elevating practical matters above Scriptural exegesis is exactly why so many Christians have mixed feelings about capital punishment. Coupled with events like Clayton Lockett’s terrible execution, we should be little surprised that their is confusion on the matter. However, when we look at the biblical testimony, clarity re-emerges. God gave the command to take the life of life-takers in order to preserve the value of human life (Gen 9:5–6) and he gave the sword to the state in order to rightly carry out his will (Rom 13:1–7).
As always, we must ask ourselves if the state is properly exercising their authority, all Christians should care about how the state handles death row inmates, and some Christians should work towards improving the system. But on the whole, what Bible-believing Christians must not do is deny Scripture’s teaching on the subject because of current events.
Applying Biblical Truth
In the end, we can affirm that not all judicial systems are equally good, just, or fair, and to be quite honest America’s system is pretty bad, injust, and unfair. But let us not forget that incidents like this one do not change God’s holy wisdom for how human societies preserve human dignity and punish murderers.
While this horrible event reminds us of how fallible human justice is and why we need a greater judge who will judge the thoughts and actions of every man. This same Just Judge who will come on the clouds has already given us in his word the command to appoint magistrates who will uphold the sword rightly and exercise justice to punish the wicked and protect the innocent. Indeed, the biblical affirmation of capital punishment does not go against Christ’s command, it foreshadows his righteous judgment when he comes.
Until that Day, let us strive to honor all of God’s Word and affirm with Paul that God’s servant of justice is for our good. And for those who do wrong there is justice, “for he does not bear the sword in vain . . . He is . . . an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4).
While the world continues to evade or improve God’s justice, let us be those who champion his wisdom. Capital punishment is a biblical doctrine, one that humbles us before a holy God, and moves sinners to cry out for his heavenly mercy.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds