By Pastor Philip Hale
While this seems a political issue, some of the arguments used twist the Scriptures and make God's Word less important than human feelings. The issue for the Church is not whether we should have the death penalty---Christians can disagree on how effective a de-terrent it is against criminal behavior. The actual legal policy and form of capital punishment is not the Church's concern. We sub-mit to the governing authorities and the laws put in place. What should not be questioned is whether the government inherently has the authority to take life, if it is the valid law of the land.
For example, I was recently sent this statement: Does your church "believe it is OK for the government to take a life? Does 'an eye for an eye' override 'thou shalt not kill'? What about Matthew 5:39," But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if any-one slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also? This is pagan nonsense and a very dangerous misreading of Scripture.
Do you have the authority to imprison someone and hold them in a cell for the rest of their lives? Can you take away someone’s driver's license or fine them thousands of dollars? How about shooting at people or dropping bombs? As an individual citizen, you do not have that authority. That would be criminal behavior, and rightfully punished. For an individual to illegally take someone's life is murder. But the government can imprison, punish, fine, and even kill. Murder is killing a person without authority, while killing is a morally neutral taking of life. (Animals are "killed"---only people killed without authority are "murdered.") The govern-ment may kill as punishment and it is not evil or murder. In fact, it serves justice and outward peace among citizens by deterring violent crime.
Someone in the military who shoots at the enemy while obeying orders is not a murderer, even if he kills someone. But as a private person, that would be wrong and unloving. Clearly, the government does not intend to arrest and kill people who are innocent of wrong-doing. People need these deterrents to prevent them from acting out the evil that is in everyone's heart. The government provides order by the threat of punishment. It legislates outward peace by criminalizing evil acts, but it does not address the right-eousness of the heart before God----that is the Church's function. The Gospel changes hearts inwardly by Christ's love, not by work-ing to get prison sentences shortened.
At the heart of this controversy is a wrong understanding of government and the Church. Government is not God, but it was put there by God to keep order and protect us. It works by the sword, that is, the fear of punishment. Romans 13 establishes this: 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. A sword hurts and even kills. Capital punishment is not about personal vengeance (an eye for an eye), but earthly justice and God's wrath.
Man may not take another person's life, but God may kill. He has delegated this authority, not to individuals to exercise as they see fit, but to earthly governments---whether they acknowledge their power is from God or not. Like parents who exercise authority over children, governments have a divine authority over their subjects---one that is apart from the Gospel.
The truth is that we all face a death penalty---you will not live forever, because of your sin. God is not unjust, because we truly de-serve to die. We have broken His legal code and not loved Him as His holy law requires. But He has shown us mercy in Jesus, who died physically for us. If we hope in His death, we have nothing to fear from God the Father. It is the death of hell and eternal pun-ishment that we avoid in Christ. We can speak this gospel of mercy even to someone on death-row who has murdered. God forgives those who repent and believe the promise of the Gospel, but the government's job is to punish and keep order, not to forgive.
True life is not living outside of a cell or being able to do as one pleases. Life in Christ is by faith and is eternal. It includes the promise of the resurrection of the body and being personally with our Creator in heaven forever. So, even if we support life in prison and the death penalty, we are imminently "pro-life," that is, life with Christ in heaven, since Christ died for even the worst criminal. We offer this gift of freedom from sins to be believed to all people, regardless of the government's verdict. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death (Rom. 8:2).
We should forgive all sins, but not do away with all consequences of wrong-doing. We can pray for, visit, and encourage an impris-oned convict, but we should not break them out of prison. Neither does the Gospel demand we let them babysit our children. We must separate earthly consequences and punishment from God's forgiveness. Whether suffering unjustly or not, imprisoned in a cell or free out in nature, we can possess freedom from Christ in the conscience. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Cor. 3:17).
By faith, God forgives your speeding ticket in heaven, but do not expect a police officer to show mercy because you believe in Jesus. His job is not to look at the heart, but to judge your external actions. The Church deals with the heart by God's Word. The govern-ment deals with public actions, regardless of what one believes. While eternal punishments are commuted in Christ's body by a promise, we should not expect a divine pardon for earthly crimes. For he [the government] is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. The threat of punishment without follow-through is actually weak-ness and injustice.
Whether the government should kill those who murder is not the Church's issue. But should it do so legally, it is not wrong, immor-al, unchristian, or pro-death. It is pro-justice and order on earth. What one does as a neighbor is altogether different than what one does as an official arm of the government. The government is to punish only based on outward actions, while the Gospel addresses our standing before God. The Church offers Christ's righteousness to sinners convicted by God's law, bad and good citizens alike.