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Posted: May 5, 2011 5:53 p.m.

What should a Christian think about capital punishment?

A great sigh of relief swept through our nation on Sunday night as President Barack Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been found and killed in a covert military raid.

The relief came not because we believe that we are "safe" now that bin Laden is dead, but because justice was finally served for the horrible crimes he ordered on Sept. 11, 2001, where nearly 3,000 Americans were ruthlessly murdered.

Despite this justice Americans should remember that the threat of terror persists. We live in a fallen world where evil is ubiquitous.

Bin Laden's death is the one thing that all Americans seem to agree on. President Obama's approval ratings soared on Monday in wake of the news.

I find it interesting that even those who ardently oppose the death penalty were overjoyed to receive the news of Osama Bin Laden's death sentence carried out by our military. All of this caused me to ask a larger question, what should Christians think about the death penalty?

My goal is not to prescribe an answer, whether for or against, but to ask the question: How should a follower of Christ respond to capital punishment?

This is one of those questions where it is difficult to go to the Bible to find a definitive answer. For instance, we see in the Old Testament in the Law of Moses, the death penalty commanded for 16 different crimes, for everything from murder (Exodus 21:12-14; Leviticus 24:17, 21), to adultery (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22), to a false claim of virginity at the time of marriage (Deuteronomy 22:13-21).

In the New Testament, however, we see a woman caught in adultery by a mob that was eager to stone her for her crime in accordance with the Law. The crowd asked Jesus what he thought of the matter, and he simply said to the angry men and women, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8:7).

When considering capital punishment, it is important to note we are not talking about personal vengeance, but rather legal retribution. Vengeance is a personal desire to inflict pain on someone for crimes committed, while retribution is the punishment for which justice calls.

We learn in Scripture that vengeance is the Lord's. The Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord'" (12:19). This does not mean that there is no justice on Earth, administered by people on Earth. In fact, one chapter later the same Apostle Paul writes in Romans 13:4, "The ruler does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer."

For a Christian the question of the death penalty must not be one of vengeance, expense, or any sort of pragmatism, but a question of justice.
The real question is, "Are there such crimes wherein the only appropriate form of just punishment is death?"

By practice, the death penalty in the United States only applies to aggravated murder and occasionally to felony murder. The last execution in the U.S. for a crime other than murder was almost 50 years ago in 1964. So as we think about this question and how it applies to us, the question we need to ask ourselves is, "Is the death penalty an appropriate punishment for murder?"

This is ultimately a question of the value of human life. There is an interesting verse found in Genesis 9:6, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image." Notice the reason for capital punishment in this case is that man is made in the image of God. In other words, the text is saying that human life is so valuable that the only proper retribution for the taking of human life is the giving of human life.

Considering the value and sanctity of human life, it is interesting that many Americans who hold to a pro-life position on the issue of abortion are also heavily in favor of the death penalty as a punishment for murder. These positions seem to be contradictory, but actually both point to the value of human life. The individual who is "Pro Life," or who does not believe that abortion should be legal, believes such because he or she values unborn life and desires to protect it. In the same way, a person in favor of the death penalty as punishment for murder should be in favor of such a punishment only because he values human life so much that he sees death of the perpetrator as the only just punishment.

There have been and will continue to be many questions swirling around this issue, but for a Christian the death penalty ultimately comes down to these two questions: How valuable is human life? And, what is the just punishment for the intentional murder of human life?

On Sunday night and Monday morning at Ground Zero, outside the White House, in small town court squares, in office buildings, and in living rooms across the nation, we saw that most Americans believe capital punishment for heinous crimes is just and right.
What do you think?

Keep the conversation going by responding to me at www.twitter.com/jasonedwindees or by writing the Director of Communication at First Baptist at jhorstmann@fbctoday.com.

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