Purging the Evil from Our Midst—A Case for Capital Punishment from a Christian Perspective (II)
The Word of God vs. the word of man
In our last installment I promised to focus on three pivotal texts for the entire discussion and debate surrounding capital punishment: Genesis 9:6, Exodus 20:13 [Deuteronomy 5:17], which is the 6th commandment, and Romans 13:1-7. Before we enter into our discussion of these various biblical texts and how they apply to the subject of capital punishment, I want to take a few moments and set the record straight about my conception of Old Testament laws.
Often, to our modern mind and mind-set, the edicts and commands of the Old Testament appear more to fit the description of “cruel and unusual punishment” than they do just laws. This is merely an appearance, however, for nothing could be farther from the truth. The Bible presents us with the description of God as he has chosen to reveal himself to us. Part of that revelation speaks to us about the Lord God Almighty as loving, compassionate, gracious, and merciful. The Bible also—and equally—describes God as just, righteous, and holy. These are not contradictory attributes of God, but comprise his divine Being. All too often we tend play off, for example, mercy and justice against each other. I use this comparison specifically to make the following point:
A few years ago, Dr. Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral fame (a monument to Dale Carnegie and otherwise bad theology) appeared on FOX News with Bill O’Reilly (The O’Reilly Factor). O’Reilly, bad theologian that he is, listened quietly while Dr. Schuller said, “mercy and justice are contradictions.” I turned to my wife and said, matter-of-factly, “There are contradictions in God.” She smiled, nodded, and went back to knitting her “diversity quilt.” We just knew that what we had just heard had to be true because it was on TV. Right.
Dr. Schuller is supposedly a theologian; in actuality he is a theologian and an miserably bad one at that. He should know better than to make such a silly and ridiculous statement. O’Reilly, who is a decent journalist but a lousy theologian, didn’t object. Here’s the point: Mercy is one of God’s perfections just as is his justice. If mercy and justice contradict one another, then there are contradictions within the Godhead. On this issue Schuller and O’Reilly typify much of the muddleheaded thinking that permeates society today.
Nevertheless, old notions die hard and are notoriously difficult to eradicate. Some people today—both pagans as well as many who call themselves evangelicals—still think that the God of the Old Testament is mean, mean-spirited, vindictive, and wrathful. Some Christians—not many, but the numbers are rising—go so far as to posit a different God in the Old Testament from Jesus in the New. That is certainly not the case. There are still those who think that the Old Testament notion of “an eye for an eye” is harsh, cruel, and primitive. Wrong. The “eye-for-an-eye” concept is divinely devised to prevent escalation. This truth is completely lost on far too many people today who cut their teeth on political correctness and pacifism. As a passing note, the words “political correctness” first appear in Marxist theory. I thought you might like to know that.
In this installment we’re going to examine primarily Genesis 9:6 and leave our discussion of the Romans 13 text until next time. I’ll begin, however, with a statement I used in the last issue about the distinctions between killing and murder.
Not All Killing is Murder
All murder is killing, but not all killing is murder. It seems that every time the issue of the death penalty is raised there are inevitably those who insist that capital punishment is therefore wrong because the Bible says, “You shall not murder.” We’ll examine the essence of the 6th commandment later, but it’s important to make the case now that when the civil magistrate executes a convicted murderer they are not committing murder themselves. They are simply carrying out the justice that is commanded of them by God. Romans 13:1-4 makes it very clear that they, like soldiers and policemen, are not guilty of murder in the normal functions of their duties. The murderer is to be put to death by those entities God has ordained for that purpose.
The Westminster Larger Catechism (Q/A 136) explains the sins forbidden in the 6th commandment this way: “The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves, or of others, except in case of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defense; the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life…” (Italics mine.) The Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 40, Q/A 105) reminds us that “…the magistrate is armed with the sword to prevent murder,” and cites Genesis 9:6, Exodus 21:14, Matthew 26:52, and Romans 13:4 as proof texts.
In addition to this as should be clear from the above, it is not considered murder if a burglar is in your home and you respond by shooting him and killing him. I know that there are a number of pacifists that would disagree with that. Unfortunately, a great deal of “Pacifism” has its ideological head in the sand. They talk a lot of theory that has very little resemblance to reality. The theory and the practice need to dovetail. Modern Christians need to reflect on the truth that if I decide to call 911 my wife, children and I could very well be dead by the time the police arrive.
If someone breaks into your home, you don’t have time to try and decide why he did that. You also probably don’t have the time to sit down with him and find out why he’s such a victim of our rotten Western culture. You won’t be able to understand all the “ins and outs” of his character. Do that and your wife could get raped and you and your children murdered. It is not saying too much to say that there is something seriously wrong if you do not respond intensely to that kind of terrorism in your home. Not to respond is not a sign of intelligence but of both cowardice and stupidity. All the talk remains just that—talk.
Killing someone who is terrorizing your home by breaking and entering is not murder. It is self-defense pure and simple. Any able-bodied man that would stand by and allow his home to be terrorized without making any effort to retaliate is hardly a man. But let’s move on now to Genesis 9:6 and see what we can learn from it about the hanging of Saddam Hussein and about capital punishment generally.
This is one of the “foundation” texts in the Old Testament that speaks about the matter of capital punishment. There are those Christians today that would question the validity of the Old Testament for the New Testament Church. Eric and Walter Hobbs have posed the following questions: “How much, if anything, of ancient Israel’s law is operative here, and what is set aside? On what authority?”
In this installment, I’m going to proceed on the premise that whatever is valid in the Old Testament remains in effect in the New, unless the New Testament specifically alters or abrogates that command. John Davis is correct when he says, “The abrogation of the specifics of the Mosaic covenant (e.g., circumcision, dietary laws, animal sacrifice) for the New Testament church does not necessarily affect the moral and legal principles given through Noah.”
One person stated it this way: “The entire Bible is our ethical yardstick for every part of it is the word of the eternal, unchanging God; none of the Bible offers fallible or mistaken direction to us today.” This means that none of the Old Testament became ethically irrelevant to the Apostle Paul, which should lead us to conclude that we should speak not of “New Testament Ethics,” but rather “Biblical Ethics.” This is an important distinction for a number of reasons. First, advocates of the Social Gospel (the Emergent Church, by and large, and Jim Wallis) are returning to the phenomenon of the Social Gospel, which was dismal failure in the past and will continue to be. Second, a number of Christians today just don’t get it when it comes to the unity between the Old and New Testaments. Just in passing I would comment that the New Testament (2 Tim. 3:16-17) requires that we take the Old Testament as ethically normative for us today. Other texts such as Matthew 4:4, Deuteronomy 8:1, 3, James 2:10, Psalm 119:160, and Deuteronomy 12:32 speak to the same thing. Therefore, the entire Bible is our ethical standard today, from cover to cover. If we’re prepared to jettison the Old Testament or a large majority of it, we must admit that we’re dismissing seventy-five percent of God’s revelation to man, without any substantial reason for doing so. Having said all of this to lay the groundwork, let’s move on to a discussion of Genesis 9:6.
This text is part of what has come to be known as the “Noahic Covenant,” or simply God’s covenant with Noah and his family after the Flood. Much has been written on this subject, but John Murray provides us with a succinct summary of the main points of this covenant. First, “It is God’s covenant in that it is conceived, devised, determined, established, confirmed, and dispensed by God Himself.”
Second, God’s covenant with Noah “is universal in its scope, a covenant not only with Noah but with his seed after him and with every living creature (verses 9, 10).” This is somewhat different from other administration of God’s covenant of grace. What Murray wants to communicate effectively is that this covenant “operates on behalf of, and dispenses its blessings to, those who are wholly unaware of its existence. It is a covenant with all flesh.”
Third, the Noahic covenant is unconditional. One of the essential implications of this covenant with Noah is that “there is not the slightest suggestion to the effect that the covenant could be annulled by human unfaithfulness or its blessing forfeited by unbelief; the thought of breaking the covenant is inconceivable.” Man may do his worst, but God will never undo this covenant with all creation.
Fourth, the “covenant is intensely and pervasively monergistic.” Murray is very “seeker-hostile” at this point. Let me see if I can put it into English for you. God doesn’t come to Noah (and man) and ask if they’d like to have this covenant. God pronounces and administers this covenant by His good pleasure. The rainbow “is the constant reminder that God will not prove unfaithful to His promise.”
Finally, the covenant with Noah “is an everlasting covenant.” Murray reiterates the truth that this covenant “is not conditioned by or dependent upon faith or obedience on the part of men.” He summarizes his thoughts on God’s covenant with Noah in this way. “It is a covenant characterized by divinity in a way unsurpassed by any other covenant and yet it draws men within the scope of its operation as surely as any other covenant does. Here we have covenant in the purity of its conception as a dispensation of grace to men, wholly divine in its origin, fulfillment, and confirmation.”
We’ll begin by refreshing our memories concerning the content of Genesis 9:6. Since the verses 5 and 6 should be taken together, we’ll look at both of them “And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”
John Calvin gives us an excellent introduction to the fifth verse when he says, “In these words the Lord more explicitly declares that he does not forbid the use of blood out of regard to animals themselves, but because he accounts the life of men precious; and because the sole end of his law is, to promote the exercise of common humanity between them.”
But Calvin isn’t the only one who speaks in this vein. Even the German scholar, Claus Westermann points out that verses 5 and 6 speak to us about the prohibition of shedding man’s blood and the punishment attached to it.
These two verses stipulate that the shed blood of man requires an accounting from beast and man. Beasts that kill men must be put to death. This presents a very unique concept to us: beasts can incur guilt for taking man’s life. In addition, God will require an “accounting” from each man for the life of his fellow man. Moreover, what God does in these verses is to place “in the hand of man His own judicial power.” Martin Luther, in his commentary on Genesis, believes that temporal government is established by these verses and the sword placed in its hand by God.”
It’s important for us to pause and reflect on an important principle at this point in our investigation. The command given in Genesis 9:5-6 does not sanction revenge, but lays the foundation for the judicial rights of the divinely appointed civil magistrates. God also appends a key reason why this is to be the case. God’s reason is a concept where we will part company with our secular counterparts: man is made in the image of God.
Even though secularists try to attach some kind of “dignity” to man and his life, it’s next to impossible to do so without absolutes. Any time secularists begin to speak of “oughts” or “obligations” with regard to moral conduct, they don’t have a leg to stand on. That’s one of the primary reasons the laws on the books are so important to them. There is no God and no reason higher than the State and man. In order for the non-theist to have any cohesive moral code at all, he must “borrow capital” from the Christian. That is to say, he must come up with some semblance of morality that “sticks.” But you can’t make morals “stick” unless you’ve got some “stickum.” Non-theists have none even though they’d like to convince us that they’re working with industrial strength super-glue. How can you possibly require someone to act in a certain moral way if there is no absolute to back you up? The short answer is that you can’t. The long-winded, protracted answer is all the books on how to lead an ethical life even though there’s no foundation. The secularist is left with both feet firmly planted in mid-air.
Christians have a rock-solid foundation and they deal with absolutes. When it comes to discussing why people should be put to death for murder, they have a reply. That reply is provided by God Himself. And God’s answer is that man is made in the image of God. As such, this image of God in man gives him intrinsic value that can never be eradicated. Therefore, “If murder was to be punished with death because it destroyed the image of God in man, it is evident that the infliction of the punishment was not to be left to the caprice of individuals, but belonged to those alone who represent the authority and majesty of God, i.e. the divinely appointed rulers, who for that very reason are called Elohim in Ps. lxxxii.6.”
Verses 5-6 of Genesis 9 speak the clear language of the sanctity of human life. The reason for the higher value upon man than any other of God’s creatures has to do with the fact that man is created in the image of God. Victor Hamilton, in his commentary on Genesis also uses the “image of God in man” motif to make his points. Regarding verse 5 he writes, “This verse deals with the second post-Flood prohibition—the taking of another’s life. This includes people killing people and animals killing people.” With reference to the sixth verse Hamilton has this to say. “The theme of the taking of human life continues in this verse, with some special emphases. Murder is placed in the orbit of sacral law. To kill another human being is to destroy one who is a bearer of the divine image. Thus man’s divine creation should be a deterrent to criminal behavior.” Notice that Hamilton does not say that it will be a deterrent, but that it ought to be.
Whenever the value of life is downplayed and denigrated, we ought to expect there to be a blatant lack of respect for human life. Thus, in our country when babies are murdered—wholesale—in the womb, we ought not to be shocked when there are drive-by, random shootings. All of these things are merely some of the consequences of a depreciation of human life. We will always be saddened by such events, just not surprised. Hamilton is also convinced that Genesis 9:6 informs us that, “A life taken demands the taking of another life.”
Striking at the image-bearer is tantamount to striking at the image-Giver. Calvin rightly says, “Men are indeed unworthy of God’s care, if respect be had only to themselves; but since they bear the image of God engraven on them, He deems himself violated in their person.” His argument does not revolve around man’s intrinsic value, but his God-given and God-ordained value. God’s continued gracious dealings with means that “although they have nothing of their own by which they obtain the favour of God, he looks upon his own gifts in them, and is thereby excited to love and to care for them.”
What is required here is precisely what society has lost or is in danger of rapidly losing: the careful observance of the value of man made in the image of God. Calvin continues, “This doctrine, however, is to be carefully observed, that no one can be injurious to his brother without wounding God himself. Were this doctrine deeply fixed in our minds, we should be much more reluctant than we are to inflict injuries.”
There’s a sense in which God’s command in Genesis 9:6 lays the foundation for all civil government and forms an unalterable command to protect the life of man, who is created in God’s image. This command has been given to insure the continuance and protection of the human race without fear that wanton murderers will be excused from a punishment that is commensurate with the attack on the image of God in man.
Keil and Delitzsch give us an interesting summary in the following words:
If God on account of the innate sinfulness of man would no more bring an exterminating judgment upon the earthly creation, it was necessary that by commands and authorities He should erect a barrier against the supremacy of evil, and thus lay the foundation for a well-ordered civil development of humanity, in accordance with the words of the blessing, which are repeated in ver. 7, as showing the intention and goal of this new historical beginning.
It’s really too bad that our society is not willing to listen to this truth. Our country is being torn apart by the “supremacy of evil” thereby rendering our society the opposite of a well-ordered and civil one. The indigenous philosophy of America is pragmatism, that says, “if it works, do it.” Ours is rapidly becoming a political system of corruption, disingenuous actions, and injustice, in the strict sense of the word.
Since, by and large, Americans have bought off the lie of relativism they no longer have a standard of right and wrong expect personal preference. We no longer have a clue what actually will “work.” So with every new proposal that claims to be the panacea to fix and cure all our ills, we become more and more mired in the “tar baby” of pragmatism. Each “quick fix” only makes matters worse and entangles us in a more complex web of degeneracy and lack of respect for human life.In our next issue, we’ll delve more deeply into what the 6th commandment teaches and how that applies to life. From there we’ll move on to a discussion and exegetical study of Romans 13:1-7 and its application for us today.
 Ex. 21:24ff.; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21.
 Carl Henry (ed.), Baker’s Dictionary of Christian Ethics, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 84.
 Eric E. Hobbs & Walter C. Hobbs, “Contemporary Capital Punishment: Biblical Difficulties with the Biblically Permissible,” Christian Scholar’s Review, 11 (1981-1982), p. 260.
 John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1985), p. 199.
 John Murray, The Covenant of Grace. A Biblico-Theological Study, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1953), p. 12. Hereafter CG.
 Murray, CG, 13.
 John Calvin, Genesis, John King (trans.), (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 19792), p. 294.
 Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11, in the series Biblischer Kommentar Altes Testament, (Neukirchen-Vluyn, Neukirchener Verlag, 19762), p. 625, “Nachdem in V. 4 und 5 die beiden Einschränkungen zu der Freigabe V. 3 gemacht sind, tritt in V. 6 nichts Neues mehr hinzu. Der Satz ist nur eine Unterstreichung des in V. 5 Gesagten. Das in V. 5 vorausgesetzte Verbot des Tötens von Menschen wird jetzt ausgesproechen; aber nich im Prohibitiv, wie nach V. 4 zu erwarten wäre, sondern in einer zweigliedrigen Bestimmung, einer Strafbestimmung für den, der Menschenblut vergießt.”
 C.F. Keil & F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. I, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), pp. 152-153.
 Ibid., 153.
 Quoted in Keil & Delitzsch, COT, 153.
 Ibid., 153. The Hebrew word Elohim means, among other things, “gods.” In Psalm 82:6, which Jesus quotes in John 10:35, it is used of the judges of Israel.
 John Skinner, Genesis, in the series, The International Critical Commentary, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 19302), p. 171. On page 170, Skinner points out that the vv. 5-6 emphasize the sanctity of life, where “life” is expressed alternately in these verses by specific Hebrew words that convey the precise meaning intended by God.
 Victor P. Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, in the series, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), p. 314.
 Ibid., 315.
 Ibid. Emphasis mine—RG.
 Calvin, Genesis, 295. Compare W.H. Gispen, Genesis 1-11, in the series, Commentaar op het Oude Testament, (Kampen: Kok, 1974), p. 296, where he writes, “De hier door God aan Noach en zijn zonen geopenbaarde (cf. vs. 1) rechtsregel wordt gegrond op het feit, dat Hij (God) de mens gemaakt heeft naar het beeld van God.”
 Gispen, Genesis, 296.
 Calvin, Genesis, 295-296.
 Keil & Delitzsch, COT, 153.