Periodically, I got questions from readers, including a recent query from a college student who had been assigned a paper to express an opinion on capital punishment. Though unsure of their views, the student’s parents had suggested reviewing some of my past sermons on the topic.
Today, I share excerpts from one of those sermons in hopes of sparking reflection among pastors and church leaders. Capital punishment is a “hot button” issue and questions about it are likely to arise in your church.
Now, this is a controversial subject, even among Bible-believing people. Sincere followers of Christ can disagree on this issue. It should not be a test of fellowship, or a source of division. While I have close friends who disagree with me, I am of the opinion that capital punishment is—on occasion—the biblical and just response to heinous crimes.
The biblical view of the sanctity of life is going to influence our position on capital punishment. There’s an ongoing debate about the pros and cons of the death penalty. On January 11, 2003, Governor George Ryan of Illinois commuted the sentences of 167 death-row inmates. One of them had cut open a pregnant woman’s womb and brutally murdered the baby and the mother.
Governor Ryan’s argument for commuting these sentences was that the system is so imperfect that capital punishment is inhumane, and there is no proof that it’s a deterrent to crime. This was the largest such emptying of death row in history.
However, the Bible teaches directly about the government’s responsibility to exercise capital punishment for the purpose of justice. After the Great Flood, God instituted this principle: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:6).
Here are some relevant points about capital punishment.
Since man was created in the image of God, to take the life of another was considered a violation of God’s image. Exodus 21:12-13 commands, “Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However, if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate.”
Deuteronomy 17:6 included the instruction that no one should be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. A case had to be more than circumstantial.
Ecclesiastes 8:11 says, “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong.” While many argue that capital punishment is no deterrent, how can we know? By the time the punishment is carried out there are often two decades separating the crime and the punishment and there is little connection between the two.
Our system has become increasingly corrupt over the years and the scales have been tilted in favor of the wealthier class. Those who can afford skillful lawyers are more likely to get by with heinous crimes.
Some Christian people insist that since Jesus said turn the other cheek, no one has a right to take another’s life. But if Jesus’ words are to be extended beyond personal insults to civil law, then we shouldn’t punish any crime. Romans 13:4 says the government official “does not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
Finally, the primary purpose of capital punishment is not to deter crime but to administer justice. The Bible teaches that the government is to make the criminal pay proportionate to the crime committed.
For example, a person who steals is to make complete restitution plus one-fifth. If a man like Timothy McVeigh senselessly takes scores of lives, then his life is to be taken. Anything else does not satisfy justice.
Proverbs 28:5 reads, “Evildoers do not understand what is right, but those who seek the Lord understand it fully.” A family member of a victim who had been murdered by one of the death row inmates given a reprieve by Governor Ryan was outraged. He said, “Here’s the score: Murderers 167, victims 0!”
The Bible says, “When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers” (Proverbs 21:15). The reverse is true also. When justice isn’t done, it brings frustration to the righteous and license to evildoers.