Abortion and Death Penalty

Scott wrote a while back (9/22/05 post) on being consistently pro-life: against abortion AND the death penalty. Here were some of my thoughts:

There is a very simple answer to how a Christian against abortion can be for the death penalty.

There is this thing called guilt and innocence.

When a man murders a baby, the baby is not guilty of any crime justifying this. It is injustice.

When a man murders another man, he is guilty and God tells the state to execute him (Gen 9:6; Rom 13:4). This is justice, by God's standards, not ours. Will we do what we think feels right by allowing life, or will we follow God's Word?

Given the Bible, I think there is a serious parting of the ways between being completely pro-life, and being completely pro-God's-will...

[Some objection was raised about the flawed legal system, and too much uncertainty sometimes over actual guilt/murder to execute.]

Whether the system is flawed or not does not touch upon the legitimacy of the death penalty.

I partially agree with you as to legal system flaws, though I would also say part of the truth could include racially disproportionate executable crimes committed. I don't we need to assume one way or another, and I don't think this has any bearing on whether one is for the death penalty or not.

If God gives civil gov't the right to execute, as I believe he does in Rom 13:4 (see next paragraph), who are we to be wiser than God, claiming our fallibility as an excuse to not do what God gives us the authority to do? This is like the husband who won't lead his family, because, he reasons, he's no better or less fallible than his wife. That's not the point. The point is, God has established society this way, with these roles and functions. There is a difference (I think) between actually obeying God's Word out there in the world and theonomy.

The phrase "bear the sword" in Rom 13:4 had a specific historical context within Paul's Roman Empire, referring to the right of a city mayor, regional governor or whatever subordinate ruler, to take life on behalf of the state/emperor, as civil punishment for crimes. It is precisely this that the Jews did NOT have when they brought Jesus to Pilate. Pilate bore the sword. Sound historical exegesis does not allow this phrase to be watered down to exclude the death penalty.


  1. So much...so little time.... Where to start?! How about here... We do not believe infants (or fetuses) are innocent. They, too are, outside of grace, damned like the rest of us.

    Grace and Peace,

  2. I've struggled for years over what it means to be "consistently" pro-life. Many on the pro-life left argue for the anti abortion/anti death penalty parallel, whereas those on the pro-life right argue that the unborn are "innocent" while adult murderers, etc. are guilty because of their "active" behaviors. The previous poster brought up the issue of even the undorn being "in sin". While that's true (Scripture clearly affirms that), I don't believe it really has any bearing on the issue at hand. It has to do with what God has clearly revealed in His word. Human life is valued because we are all created in God's image, however you may define that, yet that value is not absolute. The exception to that value is when someone has intentionally taken another life or some other heinous crime proscribed in Scripture. When a person has committed such a crime they "must" pay with their life precisely because human life is valuable. The language of Scripture is substitutionary throughout. And of course it sees it's apex in the issue of a "life for a life", and this no more clearly than in God working through Christ on the cross. Christ, our great Substitute, simply had to die in order to make us right before God. God is righteous. He ordained that Christ should die. The means that came about to bring His death to pass were unjust as far as the human participants were concerned, yet God used these imperfect, actually evil, means and motives, to bring about His perfect justice. Death was the immediate consequence of Adam's sin, not of him and Eve, but of the animal that provided their covering. While I admit the text doesn't explicitly communicate a sacrificial intent in that description, the fact that blood sacrifice permeates the rest of Scripture makes it clear that it is, has been, and always will be (until the fulness of the eschaton of course) the required method for "balancing" the scales if you will. So while the civil death penalty doesn't atone for sin in any way, it nonetheless does point towards the truth of the necessity of full payment for a life taken, which is of course central to the gospel shown in the cross of Christ.

  3. I agree Tim, but they are innocent with regard to the state. There is a difference between sin and crime.

    It is a sin to lust in your heart, but not a crime (and shouldn't be).

  4. Great post, Irenicum, good to hear from you.

    We had an interesting flags-in-church discussion on our RCA email list lately - you'd probably be very interested. If so, email, and I'll get the comments to you, somehow...

  5. Continuing the substitutionary discussion...

    It seems to me that great care should be taken when we begin drawing a line between what is attoned for (i.e. sins) and what we must, then, personally pay for (i.e. the "civil penalties). Distinctions like that do two things:
    1) move grace and forgiveness into the realm of "spiritual" reality
    2) seek to hold back some kind of authority to punish.

    Neither are appropriate. Vengance is God's and God's alone. It is not our job to pretend we are God's punishers.

    As for governmental authority to wield control (even over life and death), while I agree such authority exists, it is limited to that which promotes peace and justice. (Regarding "justice," see the last paragraph. Regarding "peace" see the next.)

    I have never, yet, seen a study that gives any decent proof that the death penalty actually prevents any kind of crime. It simply doesn't.

    So, although the government may have the authority to "wield the sword," it is not appropriate to do in vengence (that's God's perogitive), and only appropriate in order to bring about peace (i.e. when "the sword" acts preventatively - which the death penalty does not.)

    That leaves "the sword" with two basic uses (as I see it, without having done any more thought or research on it) :-)
    1) war (when appropriate -- and I do beleive there are some appropriate wars)
    2) law enforcement (i.e. prevention of illegal activities)

    For what it's worth, I grew very pro-death penalty. The more I've learned about God's justice, the more I've studied the concept of gospel, and the more I've grown to understand grace and it's immense rammifications, the less I can accept it as appropriate.

    Grace and Peace,

  6. Thanks for your thoughts, Tim, I appreciate your discussion.

    God deals with Israel throughout the Bible using this distinction you reject. God provides covering for Adam and Eve's shame, but also banishes them from the Garden. God punishes David's adultery with the death of the child, but forgives and restores Him. God punishes Israel with Assyrian conquest, for their sins; but then He provides a remnant and saves them. I see a connection, distinguishing between being ultimately forgiven of a sin and yet experiencing natural consequences of a sin.

    The vengeance is Mine claim that God makes is in the context of personal strife, and I agree there - we have no business punishing our personal enemies.

    But Rom 13:1-4 clearly contradicts what you say ("It's not our job to pretend we are God's punishers") in the civil/state/magistrate realm. In fact, I just noticed that the "vengeance is mine" is Rom 12, right before this! Paul is basically saying, don't try to get even with people, let God and His agent, the state, give justice.

    Tim, let's keep talking, but I don't appreciate the implication that pro-death penalty people don't understand grace as well as you do.

    I rely less on the deterrent stuff lately, because at root, that argument also second-guesses God's commands, trying to find earthly justification for a politically incorrect commandment.

  7. Romans 13:1-4 doesn't, at all, contridict what I've said as long as we look at the grander context. There are, of course, several verses after verse 4 that continue to relate to the topic.

    The purpose of punishment, if you'll look just a couple of words past the end of verse 4, is to bring aobut obedience and right behavior, not to exact vengence, which I still believe is only God's perogative.

    As for earthly consequences, of course the continue - but while we may (and must) allow consequences to run their course, it is not our job to create consequences.

    As for the implication that pro-death penalty people understand grace better. I didn't imply that they understood it better. I will imply, however, that they are more pro-active about promoting it.

    Grace and Peace,

    PS. I've moved my blog to: www.tenclay.org/blog

  8. Tim,

    Help me out; I can't find your reference to bringing about obedience and right behavior in Rom 13. And verse 4 is quite clear that the state is there to "avenge wrath" (NKJV) or as an "agent of wrath to bring punishment" (NIV) or to "execute wrath" (NRSV). The whole point is to be in fear of the state's exacting a penalty for past wrongdoing; retribution and corrective is not in view at all. Indeed, it's not the state's role. (I think it's a joke to call modern jails correctional facilities; CS Lewis had some good stuff on this - can't remember where).

    God's perogative is to exact punishment for wrong through the state. It IS the state's job to create those consequences in those situations.

    And where does this end? If we're going to talk about the state administering grace in a legal context, what about all these rules about sex offender lists and where they can and can't live?Isn't that a little ungracious, unforgiving? Where do we draw the state's judgment line, if not upon the Bible's clearest statements regarding the state?

  9. What is the point of Romans 13? To instruct believers that they should be respecting and submitting themselves to the civil authorities.

    That is the context. It's clearly the purpose.

    It's not to cause people to fear the state's authority - as a matter of fact, Paul points out that the well-behaved individual need not do that at all. He recognizes that "naughty" people will have reason to fear, but that's really a side point. The point is that believers are expected to respect authority - even secular authority.

    To say that this passage, then, legitimizes the death penalty is using the passage out of context.

    Incidently, I agree, the concept of modern jails truly being "correctional facilities" is laughable (especially in our current context.)

    I would still argue that there is a major difference between an offender list and the death penalty. An offender list is protectionary. It prevents further wrong-doing. The death penalty doesn't. Indeed there are far more gracious ways to protect the public and prevent wrong-doing.

    I don't expect the government to be the source of grace in society (obviously that's God!) There's no reason that it can't be a source of it, however.

    Amazing issue, isn't it!? :-)

    Grace and Peace