The Death Penalty: Then
The Law of God: Questions and Answers
How shall we understand and apply God’s Law today?
The Law of God endorses the death penalty under certain conditions.
“A man shall not take his father’s wife, so that he does not uncover his father’s nakedness.” Deuteronomy 22:30
“If a man lies with his father’s wife, he has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” Leviticus 20:11
We’re looking at the ancient Law of God, as originally given to Israel, in order to learn how it should be applied in our time. In many cases, a one-to-one correspondence exists between the civil laws of Israel and our practice today. But in many situations, that’s not the case. So we have to learn how to discover the Spirit of the Law in order to understand its use and application for our day.
Let’s take a look at another situation.
The death penalty actually pre-dates the Law of God, having been instituted by God Himself with the renewing of His covenant following the flood (Gen. 9:5, 6). The rationale for the death penalty seems to be twofold. First, violence against men is a form of violence against God, Who is life itself. Men are made in the image of God and thus anyone who would assault that image, which represents life itself, must be prepared to forfeit his own.
Second, however, is the fact that violence against men must be checked by the most severe measures, to put the fear of death into the hearts of those who might be thinking about doing violence to their neighbors.
Because throughout the period of the Old Testament men did not have the Spirit of God within them to restrain and retrain their sinful impulses, external measures were required to bridle their passions by fear. All who, in our day, possess the Spirit of God continue to fear the Lord and His justice, but they are also able to love their neighbors and discipline their affections in ways people without the Spirit simply cannot.
The death penalty could be invoked for various transgressions under the Law of God, including: murder, rape, false teaching, wizardry, idolatry, whoredom, sexual perversion (including adultery, as in our texts), and in the case of a recalcitrant adult child. To be sure, the death penalty is an extreme measure, and it was in the Old Testament as well. God intended the death penalty as a means of purging hardened or dangerous individuals from the community of His people and of teaching His people to fear Him and His wrath against their sins.
New Testament writers acknowledge the legitimacy of the use of the sword—a symbol both of capital punishment and warfare—by civil authorities (cf. Rom. 13:1-4). The kingdoms of men, still subject to the corruption and ravages of sin—in spite of the widespread common grace of God—sometimes require extreme measures to ensure order and justice, including the death penalty.
Within the Kingdom of God, however, the Old Testament laws about capital punishment must be understood in the light of grace, forgiveness, and hope, as we shall see.
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In the Gates is a devotional series on the Law of God by Rev. T. M. Moore, editor of the Worldview Church. He serves as dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of twenty books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are The Ailbe Psalter and The Ground for Christian Ethics (Waxed Tablet).
Scripture quotations in this article are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, (c) copyright 2001, 2007 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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