By: Jack Hayford
We pastors can’t be relevant without coming to terms with some tough themes. Recently, in preparing a message, my text ran smack-dab into the issue of capital punishment. Contemporary society is soaked with arguments against it, and many Christians feel Jesus altered the Old Testament position. What to do?
My concern was that in seeking to lead people to an all-loving, all-merciful God, I was bumping up against Genesis 9:6-7: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man. And as for you, be fruitful and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth and multiply in it” (NKJV).How could I contend for and balance the call of God’s timeless law and His changeless love?
I was released by an insight new to me: I suddenly saw this passage in its “two-edged sword” duality. One edge establishes and secures the value of life; the other advances the blessing of life. Even though society debates the issue and many reject capital punishment, there is no valid argument against it.
Some Christians think themselves “advanced” and dismiss this text as part of the outdated Mosaic code. But it is neither outdated nor Mosaic. The text addresses the post-deluge era – a time of history that extends its moral code right up until today.
Consider the context. The flood came because human violence was so widespread that decisive judgment was the only solution (Gen. 6:11). Following this event, God established a new order: “Hence-forth-capitalpunishment!”
Before the flood, God Himself hadn’t exacted that standard. When Cain killed Abel (Gen. 4:10-15), the Lord drove him from home and family and marked him, but his life was spared. A few generations later, however, Lamech committed murder – claiming self defense. Demonstrating the confusion of the fallen human mind, Lamech twisted and misapplied God’s mercies to Cain and justified his action-indeed, commended it (Gen. 4:23-24). From there, it’s but two chapters until humankind deteriorated from Lamech’s self-justifying arrogance to an orgy of violence filling the whole earth (Gen. 6).
Thus, God’s reasons for following the flood with a new “life-for-life” policy is clear. To administrate a fallen planet, capital punishment is necessary – not in retaliation for a victim, but for the preservation of values. Humankind has proven its vulnerability to losing perspective on value of life. Without exacting a life for one taken, unmitigated violence will again take over the earth.
Jesus does indeed forbid the lex talionis – “an eye for an eye” (Matt. 5:38-48). Still, in doing so He is not rescinding God’s directive to Noah. His message in Matthew 5-7 is directed to those who have come to live in His kingdom, not to unredeemed society in general (Matt. 5:1-2). Genesis 9:6-7 is a principle for applied justice in a fallen society, a culture whose spirit is not submitted to God’s ways.
So God’s law still calls for capital punishment, a legal guideline He established to preserve humans from what inevitably occurs when this “value reminder” is removed.
To seal the case by negative culture. As Western nations have rescinded capital punishment, violence has erupted. The streets of our cities are filled with it. In the United States, our murders-per-capita exceed all other nations. In refusing capital punishment, our society may smugly feel itself to be more humane. But, ironically, while proclaiming our humanity to the criminal, we’ve unleashed a holocaust on the innocent-completely blinded to the horror of our casualty scraping from the womb tens of millions of children. Lamech lives again!
But beyond this, perhaps we should look at God’s heart revealed in His dealing with the ultimate capital punishment the eternal death due all persons who violate His laws. In the environment of Calvary, the issue of God’s motives in commanding temporal capital punishment is set at rest. God’s non-vengeful, entirely merciful ways shine in Him coming to earth and to the cross to bear the ultimate capital punishment on our behalf.
Capital punishment? Temporally speaking, it’s a mercy-filled directive, not a vindictive fiat.
(The above material appeared in the September/October 1991 issue of Ministries Today.)
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