A friend of mine asked me to give her some thoughts about the death penalty from a pastor’s point of view for a paper she was writing. It asked me to specifically consider Old Testament law. So here we go…
Using passages from the Old Testament to determine how we should make law under the new covenant is difficult, because the old covenant was so different and only ever pointed the way to how we should live as children of God. The laws from the time of Moses existed to show us how much we need God, and how, because of sin, we aren’t fully able to make good decisions on our own and therefore need God to step in and help us out.
When Jesus came he offered a way of life that was freedom from the law but was actually more work. He said if a person asks for your cloak, give them your tunic too. If a person slaps one of your cheeks, turn the other way and let them slap the other. The Christian life is not just about following a set of laws anymore, it’s about following an example of a Man who was God – Jesus. Now we don’t follow a law set in stone, but the law of grace.
Grace tells us that we live lives that are poured out for others. Everything about our lives is given to others and is focussed on others.
So the question is should we have the death penalty for murderers. Actually the real question should be, how should we treat people if they let us down. You see people make mistakes all the time, but the law of grace says we can ‘cover over’ those mistakes because we don’t focus any more on how you let us down, but on how much we can give to you DESPITE the fact that you let us down and probably will again. Then the next questions is, Well how much is too much? Surely there is a line that people can cross when the grace-life can’t cover it anymore. Actually the Bible tells us that Grace is “sufficient” – in every circumstance. It also tells us in Romans 8 that NOTHING can separate you from the love (grace) of God.
OK then, so if we are to live lives that are focussed on others and defined by grace then what should we do about murderers? Well, is grace enough in every situation? Yes. Can any sin (e.g. murder) be too much for grace? No. And if we are truly focussed on others, would we ‘want’ that person to be killed to satisfy our own selfish need for revenge, or our own sense of justice? No.
What makes it difficult of course is that we still all have to live together in society in a fallen world. Of course there must be penalties to discourage people from doing wrong. But when we focus first on them, we realise that if we are truly wanting them to repent (which means turn their life around) then killing them too isn’t going to help us do that.
It’s really hard to live this life. Like I said – the law was hard, but the way of grace is harder. Especially if you’re the family of the person who was killed. The truth is, our sin nature wants us to be the judge, but God says that only he can truly judge. Where does that leave us then? Only to love, and show grace. It’s not easy – but God empowers and enables us to do it.