Drinking Deeply

Saturday, December 17, 2005 at 8:34 PM

Death Penalty (3)

The Death Penalty in the NT.

I was going to mention Matthew 26:52, but then I decided that while it does lend possible support for the death penalty, it is by no means conclusive.

I will instead focus upon the well used passage Romans 13:1-4)

1Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For 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, 4for 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.

1) Romans 13 rests upon chapters 1-11. After detailing God's sovereign authority governing and active in everything that happens, Paul points out that one application of this is that we are to submit to authorities for it is God who instituted them.

2) verse 4 reads, "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."

Tied directly to God's sovereignty in appointing authority we see that this authority acts on God's behalf. He (the authorities) is God's servant for your good (keeping order, restraining disobedience, organizing national defense, protecting environment and so on).

3) But he is also one who "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."

I'm going to look at this verse in reverse order.

A) God's servant (the authorities) "carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer." Notice this dramatic contrast between this passage in Romans 12:19

19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."

Is Paul contradicting himself? Of course not! How do we understand this then? Simply that the authorities are given a privilege and power that individuals are not. Examine the ties to verse 4b) For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.

"Carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer” Doesn’t that remind us of "leave it to the wrath of God”? The servant of God carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer, which we as individual Christians are never allowed to do. Thus the authorities are not under the same command as individuals are given in Romans 12. They are able to repay evil for evil, to take vengeance, because they are not doing so for themselves, but rather they are acting on God's behalf.

B) "Does not bear the sword in vain" - What does the "sword" mean? For this question we are going to do an "exegesis by biblegateway" (I just came up with that, I'm going to copyright it). What we are going to do is to type in "sword" in Biblegateway and do a search on it. (It is closely related to the "exegesis by blueletterbible") What do we learn? 1) The sword has the connotation of defending. 2) The sword has the connotation of attacking. 3) The sword is closely related to death.

From the text, I think all three inferences are valid here in Romans 13, and in order for us to eliminate one (that the sword does not bear the connotation of death), it is necessary for Paul to actually speak up about it. He does not.

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Anonymous Puritan Belief said...

Spot on, very well chosen New Testament verses.  


Anonymous unity said...

I disagree, first of all the word "sword" is not generally followed by some clarifying phrase. We must take it in the context in which it is written. In Acts12:2 "He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword." Do you think you can apply these other contexts? There was no qualifying statement there either.

Yet here:
"4for 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." The most logical interpretation of the word sword is the use of force (your first two inferences collectively)to punish, (carry out God's wrath). To make it the sword mean killing someone is redundant, for death is wrath enough, wrath would not need to be addressed afterward.  


Blogger mxu said...

unity -

Thank you for your comment.

I must admit though,that I do not understand your response.

My argument is essentially -

1) Government bears the sword to carry out God's wrath.

2) One aspect of God's wrath is physical death.

3) Therefore, a government can legitimately execute lawbreakers.

How are you agreeing with my two points without also allowing the third?  


Anonymous unity said...


While there were many sins where God gave mankind the authority to execute someone for committing them, the context was different in the Old Testament.

I've heard it in debate that this context was "a theocracy coming out of bondage" and perhaps this fits. I also see a religion itself coming out of bondage so to speak, but irrespective of the label, things were definitely different.

I doubt I'd need to justify my claim that there was a change of context in light of the extensive list of the sins which were punishable by death (and some by downright cruel means) in the Old Testament...unless you still agree with those laws, in which case ignore me and delete this. I'm barking up the wrong tree.

So anyway, the context changed because we changed and God created Jesus Christ to guide us through this transition. He revised the Mosaic law in words (Matthew 5 for example), and in action (too many to mention).

With respect to the death penalty itself, it is important to note that with the possible exception of learning things through study and the fact that it's a little cheaper to imprison someone than it it to execute him (expensive appeals process), it makes no difference to society if we kill a criminal immediatey or wait until God does it for us. He is separated from the public.

Jesus taught us to forgive each other and show mercy. Jesus showed that he was willing to forgive even up to those who murdered him. If he wanted to advocate vengeance he could have...especially at the end, IMO.

And last (sorry 'bout that didn't mean to make this so long) you likely believe in the mercy of God. If that is the case, and society is not affected either way, then wouldn't it be his wish that we choose the most merciful route for a given context?

Those are the main reasons, I believe the sword simply means the use of force, not that death is implied.

OK, so that's it. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to say my piece here. Could I have your permission to publish (at least parts) of your original post over at Debate Nation? I'm in the mood for a rumble ;)  


Blogger mxu said...

Let me see if I can sum up what you're saying. Please correct me if I'm not doing this well.

You accept my premises that I laid out earlier, but disagree with the conclusion because of a couple reasons.

1) Things were different
1a) There are many laws in the OT that are no longer in effect
1b) Christ revised the Mosaic law

2) There's no difference between killing someone immediately or waiting for God to do it.

3) Christ gave us an example of forgiveness and mercy.

4) God would want us to choose the most merciful route. (This also goes along with 2)

So here's my response.

1) I will concede that the New Covenant is different from the old, but why is it so similar that Paul says that the government has the power of the sword still (implying there still is a vengeance that is acceptable), but no death? Can you give a biblical basis for drawing the line between imprisonment and death? Why do we punish offenders at all if we ought to "take the merciful route"? You need to biblically establish that we can (and must) draw the line there.

1b) We disagree here, and I will just state my position and move on, so you understand where I'm coming from. I don't believe Jesus revised the OT laws at all, but rather clarified them and interpreted them as they ought to have been interpreted from the beginning.

2) As to difference to society, even if we grant that (and I think it might be possible that it does make a difference, but for the sake of arguments say it makes absolutely no difference to society), it's irrelevant to the discussion. It's a question of obedience. Does the government obey the commands of God to wield the sword in a manner that glorifies the Lord, punishing evil and rewarding good? The question of "does it make a difference" is not relevant to this discussion.

3) Christ gave us an example of personal action, but I don't see how we can consistently apply his example to the government's power of the sword without also contradicting Paul's words in Romans 13. If we ought to show mercy, then why do we even jail them, possibly removing them from friends and family? Rather, we ought to punish evildoers because evil ought to be punished. That is the nature of a just God, and a just government ought to reflect that nature.

4) See above

To sum it up - I find your arguments to be unconvincing because I don't believe you can consistently exclude the death penalty and include lesser forms of punishment.

Regarding quoting, you are welcome to quote my blog as much as you like, but please link the source.  


Anonymous unity said...

Fair enough, this is your blog and from where we stand, your point of view is as valid as mine.

Thanks for giving me permission to throw your post up. I think it'll generate some sparks. Of course if you feel like joining in, feel free...I could use the competition ;)  


Blogger mxu said...

I'm sorry, but I don't think (even if it is my blog), that your point is as good as mine.

I've laid down my scriptural reasons for why I believe, as well as posed objections to your reasons (which were more assertion argument, which is understandable given the space constraints of a comment). You have not dealt from the scriptures any of my questions or arguments, and yet you claim that "your point of view is as good as mine."

I must admit I am a little disappointed that you would take that route.  


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