Capital Punishment?

[A follow-up piece to the sermon on Genesis 9.]

After the flood, God renewed the covenant of grace with Noah and his sons and the rest of creation. One principle established by God in this covenant is the sanctity of human life.

We have seen that man, as God’s image-bearer, must promote life and protect it.

One way God expects man to do that is by punishing manslayers, murderers, and life-destroyers. How? By putting them to death.

It is written: whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed. 

What is God’s rationale for this? For God made man in his own image.

With these words, God established capital punishment as a means to dignify life and and deter murder.

Murder is cosmic theft. To take the life an image-bearer is to take something from God that does not belong to you. That is one reason Jesus said, Give to Caesar whatever bears his likeness and image; and give to God whatever bears his likeness and image. Silver coins belong to Caesar; man, male and female, belong to God.

Someone might ask: Why is it wrong and evil for one image-bearer to murder another, and yet right and good for image-bearers to put to death image-destroyers?

The short answer is because God said so. God sets the standard for right and wrong, not man.

The longer answer is this: There is a fundamental difference between taking the life of an innocent person who desires life and taking away the life of a guilty person who despises life by committing murder.

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Tom Riddle asks Professor Horace Slughorn about the relationship of the soul and murder. Slughorn tells his pupil, “Killing rips the soul apart. It is a violation against nature.” That’s true. But it much worse than than. Murder is a violent assault on man and the image of God in man. It is iconoclastic. As RC Sproul explains in the Promises of God:

God’s rationale for requiring the death of the murderer is that, in a very real sense, the person who raises his hand to slay a human being is making an assault not just against a fellow human but against God, because every human being bears God’s image. When someone kills a human being, he kills someone who is bearing the image of God. God is saying that to be made in His image is so sacred and so holy, if someone wantonly destroys an image-bearer of God, that person forfeits his right to life and is to be executed. So, God established the death penalty.

Does that mean that we get to act like vigilantes, take the law into our own hands, and execute the death penalty by our own authority? No!

God established governing authorities to maintain his law and order. As Paul says in Romans 13, some image-bearers act as God’s public servants. They wield the sword of justice to defend and protect citizens. They are God’s avengers who carry out his wrath on those who do evil things like murder (Rom. 13:1-5).

Now, we must point out that capital punishment is only effective when the sentence is carried out justly and swiftly. 

As the Preacher in Ecclesiastes warned, “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.” (8:11)

So, the longer we wait to carry out the sentence, the more calloused and careless our hearts grow towards evil.  

This how we ended up with so many murderers serving life-sentences on death-row — or no sentence at all.

This is how we end up with so many city streets stained with the blood of violent crimes.

This is how we ended up with so many “clinics” soaked with the blood of 50 million slaughtered babies.

We live in a crooked and depraved generation. The innocent are executed in the clinic, and the guilty are exonerated in the courts.

This is what happens when man tries to show more grace than God.

Now, remember that one of the major reasons God opened the floodgates of judgment was because the world was filled with violence.

That started with the serpent’s lies in the garden. Not only was he a liar; he was a murderer from the beginning. The violence continued with Cain’s murder of Abel, and Lamech’s killing of another man. One murder led to another and another and next thing you know the world was soaked in blood and shrouded in death.

To prevent that from happening again, God authorized image-bearers put to death image-destroyers.

Suffice it to say for now that the capital punishment for murder described in God’s covenant with Noah and his descendants (including us) is also part of the story of the perpetual conflict between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman, between the serpent and the Savior.

So, when God’s image-bearers punish the devil’s image-destroyers, they are confronting satan and crushing the serpent in small yet significant ways.

In this way, the Lord God actually preserved the human race until the seed of the woman should come.

Now, take notice that when the seed of the woman came into the world, the wicked men of his generation used the death penalty against him. They twisted God’s gracious covenant and perverted justice.

Jesus was an innocent man who was rejected by his people and traded for a murderer (Acts 3:14; Genesis 9:5-6); and he was betrayed and murdered by stiff-necked covenant-breakers. Like the people of Noah’s generation, they always resisted the Holy Spirit. (Acts 7:52; cp Genesis 6:3)

So, Jesus experienced capital punishment unjustly at the hands of wicked men, so that he might also justly execute capital punishment on the serpent and crush his head. (2 Cor. 5:20; Col. 2:15; cp Gen. 3:15)

What man intended for evil, God intended for good.

So, whatever our personal stance on the death penalty might be, we must acknowledge that our redemption was accomplished by means of capital punishment.

God draws straight lines with crooked sticks.