Call To Die

Then [Jesus] said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, HCSB)

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Follower of Christ, husband of Abby, member of Kosmosdale Baptist Church, and tutor/staff member at Sayers Classical Academy.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Death Penalty and the Cross of Christ

[The following contains some thoughts on the death penalty that came as a result of a recent conversation with my Dad. Both my Dad and I believe that the death penalty is a practice in keeping with biblical teaching; but, as will be clear from reading this post, I believe there are underlying issues that are of far greater importance than the conclusion a Christian may reach on this particular matter.]

A Christian's beliefs concerning the death penalty are, of course, no test of orthodoxy. This is, at most, a tertiary issue on which Christians may disagree according to conscience. Though important when electing candidates to office, this issue is crucial only to Christians who actually hold certain governmental positions. Christians who do believe that death for murderers is biblically mandated must also be willing to consider that the actual practice of the death penalty may be unjust. As of 2002, 12 death row inmates in the U.S. had been exonerated due to DNA testing, and this certainly points to a grave travesty of justice. Christians should be willing to examine principles laid down for sentencing someone to death in the OT- in which two independent, fairly impartial eyewitnesses had to witness the capital offense- against the way that someone may be sentenced to death in the U.S.- in which circumstantial evidence is allowed. Christians who believe that the death penalty in general is legitimate are no more obligated to support the current form of the death penalty in the U.S. than antebellum Christians who believed that the Bible allows for some form of slavery or servitude should have felt required to support the grossly unjust practice of chattel slavery that took place in the U.S. Christians in the U.S. should be open to the possibility that the death penalty is being unjustly administered on a routine basis, and if convinced that it is, we should be at the forefront of those calling for a moratorium on the death penalty until the systematic problems can be rectified.

Having indicated above that the issue of the death penalty is not a gospel issue, I must add that my concern for those who would deny the overall validity of the death penalty does relate to the gospel. For those who can envision no situation in which justice would demand an individual's life be required, it is hard to see how an orthodox view of God's just, eternal wrath against sinners can be sustained. The ultimate death penalty is delivered by God against the wicked, as seen in Revelation 20:14-15. The only way that a person may avoid this death penalty is if Christ has taken the penalty upon Himself on the Cross. To deny any valid death penalty- even the concept of a divine death penalty- is to deny the gospel and the Christian faith. To argue that the people of God at this time, due to a certain understanding of the commands of Christ, should oppose the death penalty is, as already mentioned, a much less serious issue.

A final consideration involves the hermeneutic one uses in determining his or her view of the death penalty and other ethical or moral issues. Many moderate or liberal scholars assert that, "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ" (as in the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message), and proceed to judge the rest of Scripture based upon their understanding of certain words of Christ, usually statements taken from the Sermon on the Mount. Certainly, we should strive for a Christ-centered interpretation of Scripture, as Jesus Himself taught that He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matt 5:17; Luke 24:44), He taught about Himself using "all the Scriptures" (Luke 24:27), and He asserted that the Scriptures testify about Himself (John 5:39). But why the constant appeal to the Sermon on the Mount that we find in moderate or liberal scholarship? Why don't these scholars focus on the Olivet Discourse, as end-times enthusiasts may be tempted to do? Why don't they focus on the "Keys of the Kingdom" passage in Matthew 16:18-19, as Roman Catholic apologists tend to do? Moreover, when moderate or liberal scholars speak of the Sermon on the Mount, they only focus on a few verses of the Sermon. The emphasis is certainly not on the verses that speak of being thrown into hell; the emphasis is not on Jesus' conclusion to the sermon, which speaks of the broad path to destruction, those false prophets who will be rejected at the final judgment, and those who don't follow Jesus and will be destroyed. These considerations lead to the conclusion that it is an outside philosophy, and not the teaching of Scripture itself, is providing the framework by which the Bible is interpreted.

A better method to arrive at a Christ-centered interpretation of Scripture is to look at the purpose for which Christ came, as revealed in His Words recorded in Scripture. Jesus said, "The Son of Man came to seek and save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10) and "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28). Jesus' work of seeking, saving service, giving His life as a ransom for many on the Cross is the focus of the four gospel accounts. The Cross is also the focus of the epistles to the extent that Paul can declare to the Corinthians, "I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2). The Cross has everlasting significance as in Revelation, Jesus is depicted as the lamb that was slain (5:6) and is praised as the one who was slaughtered and redeemed people for God by His blood (5:9).

The Cross is the perfect demonstration of God's attributes: of His providence (Acts 4:27-28), of His justice (Rom 3:26), and of His love for sinners (Rom 5:8), to give but three examples. The Cross is determinative in our understanding of how the New Testament is related to the Old and why, for example, we no longer practice the sacrificial system, as we see in the book of Hebrews.

The work of Christ on the Cross provides the hermeneutic from which we derive our ethics and morals as well. The Cross teaches us to be self-sacrificial and humble in service to others (Phil 2:1-11); the Cross teaches us how to act toward one another in marriage (Eph 5:22-33); the Cross teaches us how to submit to those in authority (1 Pet 2:18-25).

In determining one's stance on the issue of the death penalty, as in all areas of life, the Christian must first and foremost consider how Christ's work on the Cross impacts this issue, whatever conclusion is eventually decided.

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3 Comments:

Blogger blbartlett said...

Hi,

These are some excellent thoughts on the death penalty.

If I might make one small contribution, it seems to me that there is a clear distinction between the right of the state and the actions of the Christian. I don't see how a Christian could deny the right of the state to execute... that right is clearly given to government in the OT and supported (by way of submission to authority) in the NT.

At the same time, can a Christian in good conscience demand retributive justice, especailly of someone almost certainly not a believer? It seems to me that at least one aspect of turning the other cheek is the willingness to forgive and not respond in kind (in other words, imprisonment for the safety of society but not killing someone who hasn't recieved the gospel).

So then, I would probably argue (with Augustine) that the state has a right to retributive punishment as an extension of their calling to administer justice, but the individual Christian has a calling to display the gospel by offering forgiveness, a turning of the cheek, and a desire to give the criminal every opportunity to receive the gospel.

What do you think? I guess it turns on the question of whether Scripture gives different roles to government as opposed to individuals, but I would definitely argue that it does. Thanks for the thoughful post!

Ben Bartlett

12:45 PM  
Blogger dudleysharp said...

thoughtful essay.

Regarding the innocent:

The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, contact info below
 
Often, the death penalty dialogue gravitates to the subject of innocents at risk of execution. Seldom is a more common problem reviewed. That is, how innocents are more at risk without the death penalty.
 
To state the blatantly clear, living murderers, in prison, after release or escape, are much more likely to harm and murder, again, than are executed murderers.
 
Although an obvious truism, it is surprising how often  folks overlook the enhanced incapacitation benefits of the death penalty over incarceration.
 
No knowledgeable and honest party questions that the death penalty has the most extensive due process protections in US criminal law.
 
Therefore, actual innocents are more likely to be sentenced to life imprisonment and more likely to die in prison serving under that sentence, that it is that an actual innocent will be executed.
 
That is. logically, conclusive.
 
16 recent studies, inclusive of their defenses, find for death penalty deterrence.
 
A surprise? No.
 
Life is preferred over death. Death is feared more than life.
 
Some believe that all studies with contrary findings negate those 16 studies. They don't. Studies which don't find for deterrence don't say no one is deterred, but that they couldn't measure those deterred.
 
What prospect of a negative outcome doesn't deter some? There isn't one . . . although committed anti death penalty folk may say the death penalty is the only one.
 
However, the premier anti death penalty scholar accepts it as a given that the death penalty is a deterrent, but does not believe it to be a greater deterrent than a life sentence. Yet, the evidence is compelling and un refuted that death is feared more than life.
 
Some death penalty opponents argue against death penalty deterrence, stating that it's a harsher penalty to be locked up without any possibility of getting out.
 
Reality paints a very different picture.
 
What percentage of capital murderers seek a plea bargain to a death sentence? Zero or close to it. They prefer long term imprisonment.
 
What percentage of convicted capital murderers argue for execution in the penalty phase of their capital trial? Zero or close to it. They prefer long term imprisonment.
 
What percentage of death row inmates waive their appeals and speed up the execution process? Nearly zero. They prefer long term imprisonment.
 
This is not, even remotely, in dispute.
 
Life is preferred over death. Death is feared more than life.
 
Furthermore, history tells us that lifers have many ways to get out: Pardon, commutation, escape, clerical error, change in the law, etc.
 
In choosing to end the death penalty, or in choosing not implement it, some have chosen to spare murderers at the cost of sacrificing more innocent lives.
 
Furthermore, possibly we have sentenced 20-25 actually innocent people to death since 1973, or 0.3% of those so sentenced. Those have all been released upon post conviction review. The anti death penalty claims, that the numbers are significantly higher, are a fraud, easily discoverable by fact checking.
 
6 inmates have been released from death row because of DNA evidence. An additional 9 were released from prison, because of DNA exclusion, who had previously been sentenced to death.
 
The innocents deception of death penalty opponents has been getting exposure for many years. Even the behemoth of anti death penalty newspapers, The New York Times,  has recognized that deception.
 
To be sure, 30 or 40 categorically innocent people have been released from death row . . . (1) This when death penalty opponents were claiming the release of 119 "innocents" from death row. Death penalty opponents never required actual innocence in order for cases to be added to their "exonerated" or "innocents" list. They simply invented their own definitions for exonerated and innocent and deceptively shoe horned large numbers of inmates into those definitions - something easily discovered with fact checking.
 
There is no proof of an innocent executed in the US, at least since 1900.
 
If we accept that the best predictor of future performance is past performance, we can reasonable conclude that the DNA cases will be excluded prior to trial, and that for the next 8000 death sentences, that we will experience a 99.8% accuracy rate in actual guilt convictions. This improved accuracy rate does not include the many additional safeguards that have been added to the system, over and above DNA testing.
 
Of all the government programs in the world, that put innocents at risk, is there one with a safer record and with greater protections than the US death penalty?
 
Unlikely.
 
Full report -All Innocence Issues: The Death Penalty, upon request.
 
Full report - The Death Penalty as a Deterrent, upon request
 
(1) The Death of Innocents: A Reasonable Doubt,
New York Times Book Review, p 29, 1/23/05, Adam Liptak,
national legal correspondent for The NY Times

copyright 2007-2008, Dudley Sharp
Permission for distribution of this document, in whole or in part,  is approved with proper attribution.
 
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail sharpjfa@aol.com 713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas
 
Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS, VOA and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.
 
A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.

8:48 PM  
Blogger dudleysharp said...

This recent, clear review by
Andrew Tallman
http://andrewtallmanshowarticles.blogspot.com/2008/04/why-i-support-capital-punishment-part-8.html

"If Jesus elsewhere opposes capital punishment, then He is not only contradicting the Father but even His own words. "

"Typically, (the anti death penalty) view is that the harsh and mean God the Father of the Old Testament established execution, but the loving and kind God the Son of the New Testament abolished it."

"I’m pretty sure such people don’t realize they’re denying the Trinity when they say this."

"The doctrine of the Trinity affirms the eternal unity of all three persons of the Godhead, but such a fundamental disagreement between the Son and the Father would rupture this unity. In fact, if Jesus had contradicted any of the Father’s principles, let alone such a well-established one, that very disagreement would have immediately disproved His claims to be the divine Son."

"This was exactly the heresy the Pharisees were hoping to trap Him into when they brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus. Even His enemies knew that He absolutely had to affirm capital punishment in order to prove Himself not a false prophet. "

"How truly strange, then, that those who claim to love Him assert that He did exactly what His enemies failed to trick Him into doing! Far from opposing capital punishment, Jesus actually advocated it, as His unity with the Father required."

"Matthew 5:17-18“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished.”

"Just a few verses later, He extends the prohibition against murder to hatred and condemns haters to “the hell of fire” in verse 22, which is very strange talk for someone who opposes capital punishment. It’s very hard to dismiss these verses because they occur smack in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, which is so often mistakenly offered as the repudiation of Old Testament justice."

"Later, Jesus scolds the Pharisees and scribes for teaching leniency toward rebellious children by quoting the Old Testament, “For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.’” (Matthew 15:4)"

"Subsequently, when the Romans come to arrest Jesus, Peter rather ineptly tries to defend Him by killing Malchus, but only succeeds in slicing off his ear. Jesus rebukes him with the warning, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Far from advocating pacifism, as this passage is often misused to do, Jesus here teaches Peter that using the sword (for murder) will only get the sword used against him (for execution)."

"Shortly thereafter, Jesus tells Pilate in John 19:11, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above…” This authority to put Jesus to death would be odd if it didn’t entail the general power to execute criminals."

"Finally, when He is dying of crucifixion, Jesus accepts the repentance of the thief on the cross, who says to his reviling companion, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds….” (Luke 23:40-41)"

"Had Jesus disagreed with this statement, responding to it with the promise of eternal salvation was a rather obtuse way to express the correction."

"Beyond all this evidence that Jesus affirms the consistent Biblical principle of capital punishment, there is yet one more vital concept to grasp. Christians believe that Christ died on the cross to pay for the sins of us all."

"Although His sinlessness merited eternal life, He endured the death we deserved to extend that gift to us. As Prof. Michael Pakaluk so perfectly expressed the point, “If no crime deserves the death penalty, then it is hard to see why it was fitting that Christ be put to death for our sins….” If we didn’t deserve the death penalty ourselves, then why would Christ need to suffer it on our behalf in order to satisfy the justice of God? Denying the death penalty directly assaults the justice of the Father, Who required His own Son to pay precisely that price in our stead."

"What about the rest of the New Testament?"

"Since both Jesus’s teaching and His death affirm the capital punishment, it should come as no surprise that the rest of the New Testament reinforces this view."

"When confronting Governor Festus, Paul says in Acts 25:11, “If I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of these things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them. He both affirms capital statutes and accepts them as binding on him if he has broken one."

"Later, in the New Testament’s most famous passage on the nature of government, Paul explains, “But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for [the government] does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.” (Romans 13:4)"

"Finally, the same Bible which begins in Genesis 9:6 with the establishment of capital punishment, then carries the theme consistently throughout the text, and ends by reiterating it in Revelation 13:10, “If any one is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if any one kills with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints.”

"Literally from beginning to end, the Bible teaches that capital punishment is authorized and required by God."

8:49 PM  

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