As the Supreme Court considers the concept of the death penalty, and as Christians find reason to contemplate the issue afresh, I find helpful these words from God's Word. Romans 13:4 asserts the relevance of this passage to the issue—Roman soldiers did not employ their swords to spank people with the flat of the blade; the sword was a tool of death. The government "does not bear the sword for nothing." John Wesley's notes on this verse state the matter plainly: "The sword - The instrument of capital punishment, which God authorizes him to inflict." Here Bro. Wesley is right-on-the-money.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord."But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head."Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.
(Romans 12:14-13:4, NASB)
Furthermore, the government wields the sword as a "minister of God." The executioner as someone "called to ministry"?! Not in the sense that we employ the phrase "called to ministry" these days, but literally, according to the Bible, yes, the executioner is a minister of God in a limited sense. Some will assert that the death penalty is contrary to the will of God. One cannot possess this view without contradicting Romans 13, where we read not only that God is not opposed to capital punishment, but that the state performs this action as an agent of God and in His stead.
Perhaps something of the rationale behind government-sanctioned capital punishment is revealed in this passage as well. There is a reason that I have included in the quotation those verses from Romans 12. Immediately prior to Paul's discourse on governmental punishment, he reminded the Roman believers of Christ's calling upon them to renounce vengeance. We are to "never pay back evil for evil to anyone." This statement is understandable, universal, and absolute. Yet, God does not call upon believers to abandon the hope for justice. Indeed, when we cease to care about justice, we have stepped away from the holiness of God. Vengeance is part of justice. We are not told that vengeance isn't right; we are told that vengeance isn't ours. Rather than taking our own vengeance, we are instructed to "leave room for the wrath of God," knowing that God has promised in His Word, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay."
Summarizing up to this point: We are to get out of the vengeance business entirely, confident not that vengeance is unnecessary, but that God will deal out vengeance served in helpings of His own wrath."
Then, in the very next paragraph, Romans 13:4 tells us that this sword-wielding government is "a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath." God, who has promised to avenge evil in our place, has committed some portion of that task to government. This is the sense in which government is God's minister—God, through the agency of human government, metes out reward to those who do what is right and vengeance to those who do what is wrong. Of course, the ultimate reward and the ultimate retribution occur directly from God's hand in eternity, but some partial measure of justice God has chosen to dispense here and now.
- Vigilante justice is not justice at all. Earthly justice ought only to be rendered by duly authorized institutions of God (parents, government, etc.). Part of the function of penal systems in general and capital punishment in particular is to forestall vigilanteism.
- To the degree that government punishes those who do right or fails to punish those who do wrong, it has deviated from its Divine design. To the degree that it does more than establish justice (within its borders through the policing forces and beyond its borders through the military), it reaches beyond its primary purpose.
- In a democracy, we find ourselves in a situation unaddressed by the book of Romans and the New Testament—Christian believers who also are the government. The Old Testament does, however, address the idea of God's children in the magistracy. In the Old Testament, God expected governmental leaders to punish wrongdoers through the force of the state, including capital punishment.
- Capital punishment is a positive biblical ordinance in both testaments.
- The difference between criminal actions ("The State of Texas v John Doe") and civil actions ("Bart Barber v John Doe") is the difference between Romans 13 and 1 Corinthians 6, between Romans 13 and Romans 12, between the state seeking vengeance for the sake of justice and me seeking vengeance for the sake of myself.