The Death Penalty — Redemptive Purpose

A diminished view of God’s justice inevitably impacts our love for Him. 

We come now to what I’ll call the redemptive purpose of the death penalty.  It is an often overlooked truth which should cause every Christian to support capital punishment in principle, even if we oppose unbiblical implementations.  The death penalty teaches the lost their need of the Saviour, and teaches believers the greatness of God’s mercy.

Previous posts on capital punishment:
Commanded by God (Old and New Testaments)
Supported, not undermined, by the account of the woman taken in adultery
Not abolished in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5)
Safeguards to Prevent Injustice
Civic Purposes for the Death Penalty

There IS a Death Penalty

Romans 6:23

For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Hebrews 9:22

And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.

I Corinthians 15:3

For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;

It is inescapable.  There is a death penalty for sin.  Without the shedding of blood there is no solution to our sin problem.  Either we pay that penalty for ourselves, or we receive the free gift of God, paid by Christ’s willing sacrifice of Himself, taking the death penalty for our sins.  Those who do not receive that gift will die, not just physical death, but eternal separation from God and suffering in Hell.  The person who has not received Christ will pay that eternal death penalty himself.

God’s justice is unchanging.  He did not discard the full penalty for our sin, He paid it.   It has to be paid.  Christ’s death was legitimate capital punishment — the price had to be paid.  His Roman and Jewish “trials” were a travesty, but His death was not an injustice.  It was fully just that sin would bring death.  It was grace that He died, rather than me, but the penalty was just.

Rehabilitation or Justice?

We live in a society where “rehabilitation” replaces the Biblical purposes of a penal code (justice for victims and punishment for wrongdoers).  A rehabilitative approach, inevitably “tilts” the balance of justice towards the offender.  The focus shifts from principled justice based on the crime’s severity to human theories on rehabilitating the offender.

Justice and punishment focus on the crime, finding a penalty that fits the wrongdoing, but rehabilitation focuses on the offender.  Psychological assessments of him, his record of past crimes (and even his good deeds), the judge’s impression of his real remorse, and even the needs of the criminal’s family become factors in a “just” sentence.  The judge must read the mind of the offender and crystal-ball-gaze his future to decide how to rehabilitate him.  Two people commit the same crime but receive vastly different sentences, because the sentence is not based on the crime but the perpetrator, and how (in the judge’s view) he can be rehabilitated.  Victim impact is only one factor, and often not the greatest one.

With a “rehab” focus, the death penalty is not a significant part of the penal system (you can’t rehabilitate someone after the death penalty).  “Justice” is never really about the severity of the crime, but about the criminal.  This lessens our sense of the enormity of crime, and of the need for punishment.  The concept that justice demands a full penalty, because the crime demands it, is lost — and with it, the fear of justice.

The Need for Fear

Romans 3:10-18

10 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one:
11 There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.
12 They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.
13 Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips:
14 Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness:
15 Their feet are swift to shed blood:
16 Destruction and misery are in their ways:
17 And the way of peace have they not known:
18 There is no fear of God before their eyes.

This passage gives the horrible condition of fallen mankind apart from God, and sums it up with the terrible condemnation that they have no fear of God.

Proverbs 16:6

By mercy and truth iniquity is purged: and by the fear of the LORD men depart from evil.

The fear of the Lord causes people to “depart from evil.”  But we live in a society where people are encouraged to fear nothing, to respect no one.

When there is no fear of justice, the Gospel does not make sense to people, it loses its urgency.   People feel no need to flee wrath and turn to the Saviour.  They think the Cross was only about mercy — but it was also about justice.

John Newton wrote, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”  Society tries to banish fear — it doesn’t want the grace that relieves fear, but it doesn’t want to live with fear, either.  So the fear of punishment, of consequences, of justice, must go.  The focus on “rehabilitation” serves the purpose of its masters who don’t fear God — and don’t want to teach others to fear Him, either.

Institutions are Illustrative Teachers

God intended institutions to teach, to be models of spiritual truths to help us understand them.  Marriage pictures His love for His people.  Fatherhood illustrates His loving protection and guidance.  The church demonstrates many aspects of our salvation and our restored relationship with God.

Government is also intended to illustrate spiritual truth, particularly in the punishment of wrongdoers.  We’ll go back to the verse with which we started this study:

Genesis 9:5-6

5 And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man.
6 Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.

Man is in the image of God.  God punishes evil, including the death penalty.  God intended man to illustrate His justice, as bearing His image, by properly carrying out the death penalty.  It is an illustrative teaching of His justice.

Good government illustrates God’s ultimate spiritual justice by exercising earthly justice.  In doing so, a good government would train its people to understand punishment and justice — thus preparing them to understand the need for a Saviour, and the tremendous grace of the work of Christ on the Cross.

Governments, in fostering a “no consequences” or “reduced consequences” attitude in their citizenry, have undermined respect for justice, the fear of sin, and ultimately, the fear of God and His holiness.  (Abuses of capital punishment also reduce respect for justice, which is why God established important safeguards, as discussed in an earlier post.)

The “reduced consequences” philosophy has not only hindered the spread of the Gospel, it gives even believers a lesser understanding of just how much God has done for them.  As Jesus told Simon, “To whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little” (Luke 7:47).  Too often Christians have a reduced view of God’s love because they do not fully understand how great was their crime, how great is God’s justice, and thus, how great is His mercy and forgiveness.  A diminished view of His love diminishes our love for Him.  We need to stop minimising true justice.

I started this post by saying, “A diminished view of God’s justice inevitably impacts our love for Him.”  Too often, we have taught ourselves and others to downplay His justice by our view of the penal code.  Those who have been delivered by the Saviour’s death on the cross from the final death penalty should be the first to want others to understand His justice, so we can tell them of His great mercy to us.

Still to come:  Why Christians Often Don’t Like the Death Penalty

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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2 Responses to The Death Penalty — Redemptive Purpose

  1. Fraser Munro says:

    The offended law-giver takes the place and faces the penalty for the law-breaker! Such is the wonder of the Gospel.

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