Capital Punishment and Biblical Covenants

Genesis 9:6 - Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.

Is there a biblical basis for capital punishment today, or was the death penalty only to be practiced in Old Testament times? Since Romans 10:4 says that "Christ is the end of the Law," is there any possible ground on which to justify capital punishment in the 20th century? Don't the "love your enemy" teachings of Jesus remove the "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life" requirements of the Mosaic Law? Isn't restorative justice more in line with the teaching of the New Testament?

Christians differ on the answers to these questions. Some Christians maintain that to deliberately take the life of another person is never justified, no matter how serious the crime. Capital punishment, they would say, applied in ancient Israel when the nation was a theocracy--ruled directly by God. Since God doesn't directly call the shots for the government of any nation now, there is no longer any basis for the death penalty.

It's unthinkable, according to this position, that God would put the power over life and death into the hands of imperfect man. Think of the injustices that would inevitably develop. The poor and the minorities wouldn't get fair treatment. The lives of innocent people would be snuffed out because a corrupt judicial system would pervert the truth. The rich and the powerful would "buy" their way out of capital punishment. And the crime of murder could never be completely eliminated, even if capital punishment were strictly enforced. Such is the reasoning of Christians who are against the death penalty.

Christians who advocate the death penalty readily acknowledge that wherever capital punishment has been practiced there have been mistakes and perversions of justice, innocent people have been put to death, and murder has never been eliminated. However, they maintain that wherever capital punishment has been in force, the threat of the death penalty has helped to protect the public from violent crime and it has reduced the number of wanton killings. In Islamic countries, for example, where "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life" laws tend to be carried out in a literal way, the crime rate is definitely lower than the crime rate of western nations where the death sentence is only carried out infrequently.

While capital punishment as a deterrent to crime may be discussed and debated with all kinds of statistics, that particular aspect of the debate does not settle the case. The "bottom line" is that in spite of the regrettable cases of perverted justice and mistakes and ineffectiveness, the biblical basis for capital punishment has never been removed or changed.

One of the principles for understanding and properly applying the "laws of the Bible" is to properly comprehend and distinguish between the biblical covenants. Throughout human history God has made covenants--or "contracts"--with mankind. Beginning with the Edenic Covenant before the Fall, God proceeded to guide the human race with the Adamic Covenant after the Fall and the Noahic Covenant after the Flood. And then the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant and the Davidic Covenant were all specially made with the Jewish people. And finally, of course, God brought in the New Covenant, which is based on the death of Christ. In order to apply each biblical covenant correctly it is very important to know whether the covenant was made with all of the human race or with only a select group of people. It is also extremely important to know whether the covenant was to be permanent and unconditional, or whether it was limited in time because certain conditions were placed upon it.

For an obvious example, Leviticus 19:19, contains laws which were probably given to distinguish the practices of God's people Israel from the pagan practices of the surrounding nations. As Christians we don't believe we have to keep these laws concerning cattle, seed and cloth because they were part of the Mosaic Covenant. This was a limited covenant, made by God with the Jewish people before the coming of Christ. In fact, the term "old testament" means "old covenant," and refers to the "old" Mosaic Covenant which ended with Christ. The Mosaic Covenant was limited to Old Testament times because it was conditional on Israel's obedience. Notice the "if you will obey" clause preceding the covenant benefits in this contract between God and Israel (Deuteronomy 28:1). Because the nation of Israel did not obey, this covenant was set aside when God formed the New Covenant, based on the death of Jesus Christ.

So we see that because the regulations of Leviticus 19:19 concerning cattle and crops and clothing were part of the Mosaic Covenant, they are not binding for the Christian today. On the other hand, the verse which immediately precedes Leviticus 19:19 contains the moral law to "love your neighbor as yourself," and it is just as binding today as when it was given in the Mosaic Covenant! In other words, as Christians living in the 20th century, we should definitely feel guilty if we snub or wrong our neighbors, but we don't have to feel guilty if we wear a tee shirt made of cotton/polyester blend!

Does this mean that we can pick and choose which biblical laws we want to obey and forget about the rest? No, of course not! Leviticus 19:18 is a moral law and God has never done away with, or changed any of His moral standards and principles that are contained in the Mosaic Covenant. God'smoral standards never change! It was the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Covenant that ended with Christ. In order to obey God's command to "rightly divide the Word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15), we must always distinguish between God's moral laws based on eternal principles and the civil and ceremonial laws associated with conditional covenants. This is all part of properly comprehending the biblical covenants.

All of God's moral laws contained in the Mosaic Covenant, by the way, are repeated in the New Testament. So it's not really all that difficult for us to determine what's moral law and still good for us today, and what's civil or ceremonial law and therefore limited to Israel as a theocracy in Old Testament times. Of the Ten Commandments of the Mosaic Covenant, for example, all are moral laws, with the exception of one--the keeping of the Sabbath. Thus all of the "Big Ten"--except the Sabbath--are found in the New Testament. They were not "thrown out" with the coming of Christ.

As a further example, no Christian believes that the biblical law of Leviticus 5:5-7, which requires an animal sacrifice after a sin is committed is a law for Christians to obey today. Why not? Again, it was a ceremonial part of the Mosaic Covenant, and therefore not to be practiced by Christians today. In that day the sacrificing of animals was one indication that the people were keeping their side of the covenantal agreement. However, we know that even then these sacrifices did not take away sins. (See Hebrews 10:1-18.)

We also know that all of these animal sacrifices pointed forward as spiritual pictures to the coming great sacrifice of the Lamb of God. In this way, Christ is the designed and purposed goal or "end of the Law for righteousness."This is the essential meaning of Romans 10:4. In other words, the Law with all its sacrifices could not provide the righteousness we needed, but Christ provides that righteousness to every one who believes. The animal sacrifices were to be literally carried out until the Mosaic Covenant was "officially" terminated with the sacrifice of Christ. If we were to obey Leviticus 5:5-7 today by bringing animal sacrifices to church, it would be pretty obvious that we didn't have a good comprehension of the biblical covenants!

Now what does all this talk about the moral, civil and ceremonial laws of the Mosaic Covenant have to do with capital punishment? Actually, it's very important background information! The fact that capital punishment was a civil law under the Mosaic Covenant is one of the arguments used by Christians who are against capital punishment. As a theocracy, Israel had the responsibility to maintain civil law and order, and capital punishment was part of that responsibility. But the civil requirements of the Mosaic Covenant have ended, so how then can there still be a biblical basis for capital punishment? Good point! It could be argued that the civil law of capital punishment was to enforce the moral law of "thou shalt not murder," and therefore it still applies today even though the Mosaic Covenant has ended.

However, this reasoning presents a serious problem to those capital punishment advocates who would use the Mosaic Law as a basis for the death penalty. Under the Mosaic Covenant the death penalty was to be carried out for more than just the crime of murder. Under the Law, the sins of adultery, incest, homosexuality, beastiality, witchcraft and idolatry were also punishable by death. (See Leviticus 20.) Even a rebellious teenager who would not submit to the authority of his parents was to be put to death! (See Deuteronomy 21:18-21.) Although there might be some Christians who would favor the death penalty for some of these additional offenses, few Christians would go that far, and would limit capital punishment to the crime of murder. But isn't it biblically inconsistent, then, to support the death penalty only for the crime of murder? No! Why not? Because the biblical basis for capital punishment is not the Mosaic Covenant!

The original biblical basis for capital punishment is found in Genesis 9, in theNoahic Covenant. This covenant was not limited to the nation of Israel--Israel did not exist at that time. God made the Noahic Covenant with the descendants of Noah (Genesis 9:9), and therefore it included all mankind. Furthermore, the Noahic Covenant was neither conditional nor limited in time. According to Genesis 9:12, it was for "all generations to come." The sign of the Noahic Covenant was, and still is, the rainbow (Genesis 9:13). As long as there are rainbows in the sky, the Noahic Covenant is still in effect (Genesis 9:14-17).

One of the stipulations of the Noahic Covenant was capital punishment. We see from Genesis 9:6 that death was the penalty for the crime of murder only--not for all the other sins listed in the Mosaic Covenant. The stated reason for the death penalty was because God made man "in the image of God." Capital punishment was instituted because God places a very high value on human life! In fact, God views human life as so valuable that He decreed that those who take human life must suffer the ultimate punishment--the death penalty. Thus a Christian who would do away with capital punishment not only exhibits an ignorance of the biblical covenants, but in actuality takes a lower view of the value of human life than God Himself.

The basis for capital punishment which was established in the Noahic Covenant was not removed by Christ and the coming of New Testament times. In fact, a sovereign government's authority to use "the sword" to maintain law and order is confirmed in no uncertain terms in Romans 13:1-7. And when the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write this Scripture, the Roman Empire with Nero on the throne was no theocracy--by any stretch of the imagination! That certainly eliminates the argument that America is too ungodly a nation to practice capital punishment. The Noahic Covenant establishes the right and responsibility of every sovereign nation to use capital punishment.

There is no biblical basis for a government to use the death penalty for any crime other than murder. Furthermore, the execution of a murderer should be accompanied with a sense of awe, and ought never to be done in a spirit of revenge. It should never be "pleasant" to execute a murderer and great effort must be made to clearly establish the guilt of the offender beyond any shadow of doubt. But to abolish capital punishment--and not rightly take the life of one who has deliberately taken human life--would be to break a biblical covenant that the Creator made with the human race.

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