What does God say about the death penalty and capital punishment? By Jack Kettler
As in previous studies, we will look at definitions, scriptures, lexical, and commentary evidence for the purpose to glorify God in how we live.
What does the Bible say about the death penalty / capital punishment?
Answer: The Old Testament law commanded the death penalty for various acts: murder (Exodus 21:12), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), bestiality (Exodus 22:19), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13), being a false prophet (Deuteronomy 13:5), prostitution and rape (Deuteronomy 22:24), and several other crimes. *
A crime, such as murder or betrayal of God or one’s country, which is so severe that death is a fitting sentence.
The first institution of the death penalty is in the book of Genesis.
“Whoever sheds the blood of man; by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” (Genesis 9:6 ESV)
A list of capital offenses listed in the Old Testament Covenant:
False religious activities
· Sacrificing to gods other than YAHWEH – Exodus 22:20
· Passing children through the fire – Leviticus 18:21; 2Chronicles 33:6
· False prophecy – Deuteronomy 13:9
· Necromancy using magic that involves communication with the dead – Leviticus 20:27
· Blasphemy – Leviticus 24:13–16
· Sabbath-breaking – Numbers 15:35-36
Forbidden sexual activities
· Rape by a man of an engaged woman – Deuteronomy 22:25
· Adultery – Leviticus 20:10
· Incest – Leviticus 18:9; Leviticus 20:11
· Homosexuality – Leviticus 20:13
· Bestiality – Leviticus 20:15–16
· A woman who has been engaged to a man and he discovers that she is not a virgin, she may be stoned to death for prostituting herself – Deuteronomy 22:13-21
· Prostitution by the daughter of a priest – Leviticus 21:9
Ten Commandments and case law violations
· Witchcraft, sorcery – Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:27
· Idolatry – Deuteronomy 17:1-7
· Murder – Exodus 21:12
· Smiting a parent – Exodus 21:15
· Cursing a parent – Exodus 21:17
· A son who is incorrigible and habitually disobeys his parents – Deuteronomy 21:18-21
· Kidnapping – Exodus 21:16
· Contempt for God’s court – Deuteronomy 17:8-12
· Bearing false witness to a capital crime – Proverbs 19:5; Deuteronomy 19:19
In the New Covenant era, many capital crimes have still mandated the death penalty. For example:
Kidnapping resulting in death, bearing false witness to a capital crime, murder, rape of children, terrorism and mass murder, treason, espionage, and incorrigible sinners, i.e. third-time felons have historically mandated the death penalty.
There is a debate on other capital crimes from the Old Testament listed above and the abiding demands of God’s law. Were the above capital crimes part of the ceremonial or part of the moral law or judicial law? The ceremonial aspects of the law, i.e., the temple and priestly activities passed away in Christ. Did the moral and judicial law pass away in Christ?
How does a society develop a law system that involves retribution for specific crimes?
The reader should consult the magisterial 3-volume work by John Eidsmoe titled Historical and Theological Foundations of Law. After reading this work by Eidsmoe, it is hard to dispute that American constitutional law is undergirded with the Ten Commandments and Old Testament case laws found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.
King Alfred the Great of England (849-899) used the Ten Commandments and accompanying case laws in his Book of Laws for England. Today almost universally, the Ten Commandments inspire and continue in the form of modern laws against murder, adultery, and theft. Where did these laws come from if not the Old Testament?
Did Jesus repudiate the Old Testament law?
Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17-18).
This seems quite clear that the law is still valid. The only question that arises is what is meant by fulfill. Whatever “fulfil” means it cannot contradict the fact that “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or tittle shall in no wise pass from the law…” as Jesus said.
Additionally, Jesus says “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19)
Jesus goes on, “For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death” (Matthew 15:4). What death? Jesus is quoting, “And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 21:17). Jesus is not repudiating the law. His teaching in Matthew 15:4 is consistent his previous teaching “Think not that I am come to destroy the law… in Matthew 5:17.”
Consider Greg L. Bahnsen’s exegesis on Matthew 5:17-19:
“Matthew 5:17 -19. Nothing could be clearer than that Christ here denies twice (for the sake of emphasis) that His coming has abrogated the Old Testament law: “Do not think that I came to abolish the law or the prophets; I did not come to abolish.” Again, nothing could be clearer than this: not even the least significant aspect of the Old Testament law will lose its validity until the end of the world: “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the slightest letter or stroke shall pass away from the law.” And if there could remain any doubt in our minds as to the meaning of the Lord’s teaching here, He immediately removes it by applying His attitude toward the law to our behavior: “Therefore whoever annuls one of the least of these commandments and teaches others so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” Christ’s coming did not abrogate anything in the Old Testament law, for every single stroke of the law will abide until the passing away of this world; consequently, the follower of Christ is not to teach that even the least Old Testament requirement has been invalidated by Christ and His work. As the Psalmist declared, “Every one of Thy righteous ordinances is everlasting” (Psalm 119:160).
So then, all of life is ethical, and ethics requires a standard of right and wrong. For the Christian that yardstick is found in the Bible – the entire Bible, from beginning to end. The New Testament believer repudiates the teaching of the law itself, of the Psalms, of James, of Paul and of Jesus Himself when the Old Testament commandments of God are ignored or treated as a mere antiquated standard of justice and righteousness. “The word of our God shall stand forever” (Isa. 40: 8), and the Old Testament law is part of every word from God’s mouth by which we must live (Matt. 4: 4).” (1)
More on the Matthew text from Bahnsen and Kenneth Gentry:
“Jesus and the Law The decisive word on this point is that of our Lord Himself as found in Matthew 5:17-19. Since the moral demands of God’s law continue to be deemed good and holy and right in the New Testament, and since those demands were from the beginning obligatory upon Jews and Gentiles alike, it would be senseless to think that Christ came in order to cancel mankind’s responsibility to keep them. It is theologically incredible that the mission of Christ was to make it morally acceptable now for men to blaspheme, murder, rape, steal, gossip, or envy! Christ did not come to change our evaluation of God’s laws from that of holy to unholy, obligatory to optional, or perfect to flawed.
Listen to His own testimony:
Do not begin to think that I came to abrogate the Law or the Prophets; I came not to abrogate but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, until all things have happened, not one jot or tittle shall by any means pass away from the law. Therefore, whoever shall break one of these least commandments and teach men so shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:17-19).
Several points about the interpretation of this passage should be rather clear. (1) Christ twice denied that His advent had the purpose of abrogating the Old Testament commandments. (2) Until the expiration of the physical universe, not even a letter or stroke of the law will pass away. And (3) therefore God’s disapprobation rests upon anyone who teaches that even the least of the Old Testament laws may be broken. The underlying ethical principles or duties which are communicated in the minute details (jot and tittle) of the law of God, down to its least significant provision, should be reckoned to have an abiding validity — until and unless the Lawgiver reveals otherwise.” (2)
We can conclude that “fulfill” in Matthew does not mean to abrogate!
How do the principles of God’s law find application in the modern world?
Consulting Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XIX of the Law of God, we find:
“IV. To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”
How do we understand this?
Of course, something has changed between the Old and New Covenants. In Point IV, the Westminster Confession says that the judicial laws of Israel have EXPIRED. The confession then qualifies this with “not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” In modern parlance, it means that there may be reasons to retain some parts of a particular law by way of keeping a principle contained within the law along with a contemporary application.
What is the confession getting at when it says, “may require?” Are there are binding principles that in some cases are relevant to modern society. Understanding this continuation of biblical principles will open up a completely new way of looking at God’s law.
“You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Who would argue that this law has passed away and has no relevance today? Modern juries still try to determine first-degree or second-degree murder convictions that come right out of the Old Covenant case law. See Numbers 35:22-24 for cases involving unintentional death.
In addition, prohibitions against lying, murder, adultery, stealing are still valid today.
Similarly, consider this passage:
“When you build a new house, you must build a railing around the edge of its flat roof. That way you will not be considered guilty of murder if someone falls from the roof.” (Deuteronomy 22:8)
Modern applications of Deuteronomy 22:8:
Having a fence around your swimming pool. Having your yard fenced in if, you have a potentially vicious dog. Some buildings and apartments have rooftop recreational areas. Of course, you would want some type of barrier or railing for protection of your houseguests.
Bottom line, it is about protecting your neighbor and limiting your responsibility. This passage from Deuteronomy has incredible applications today.
The general equity of the law demands the protection of your neighbor as Jesus taught:
“The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:31)
Therefore, judicial law cannot be altogether invalid since the New Testament sustains its abiding usage by Paul. “All Scripture is useful” (2Timothy 3:16-17), which must include Old Testament case laws regarding capital crimes.
If no part of the Old Testament law continues, then the death penalty for murder must go too.
The death penalty in history from two notable theologians:
St. Augustine writes in The City of God:
“However, there are some exceptions made by the divine authority to its own law, that men may not be put to death. These exceptions are of two kinds, being justified either by a general law, or by a special commission granted for a time to some individual. And in this latter case, he to whom authority is delegated, and who is but the sword in the hand of him who uses it, is not himself responsible for the death he deals. And, accordingly, they who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Abraham indeed was not merely deemed guiltless of cruelty, but was even applauded for his piety, because he was ready to slay his son in obedience to God, not to his own passion. And it is reasonably enough made a question, whether we are to esteem it to have been in compliance with a command of God that Jephthah killed his daughter, because she met him when he had vowed that he would sacrifice to God whatever first met him as he returned victorious from battle. Samson, too, who drew down the house on himself and his foes together, is justified only on this ground, that the Spirit who wrought wonders by him had given him secret instructions to do this. With the exception, then, of these two classes of cases, which are justified either by a just law that applies generally or by a special intimation from God Himself, the fountain of all justice, whoever kills a man, either himself or another, is implicated in the guilt of murder.” (3)
In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas asserts:
“Our Lord commanded them to forbear from uprooting the cockle in order to spare the wheat, i.e. the good. This occurs when the wicked cannot be slain without the good being killed with them, either because the wicked lie hidden among the good or because they have many followers, so that they cannot be killed without danger to the good, as Augustine says (Contra Parmen. iii, 2). Wherefore our Lord teaches that we should rather allow the wicked to live, and that vengeance is to be delayed until the last judgment, rather than that the good be put to death together with the wicked. When, however, the good incur no danger, but rather are protected and saved by the slaying of the wicked, then the latter may be lawfully put to death.
According to the order of His wisdom, God sometimes slays sinners forthwith in order to deliver the good, whereas sometimes He allows them time to repent, according as He knows what is expedient for His elect. This also does human justice imitate according to its powers; for it puts to death those who are dangerous to others, while it allows time for repentance to those who sin without grievously harming others.” (4)
A contemporary analysis:
Capital Punishment by John M. Frame:
“Is there a place for capital punishment in a humane, civilized society? Or is it a relic of our barbarous past, best left far behind us?
It is not hard to develop a case against capital punishment. Perhaps the gut-level argument is the strongest: emotionally, we hate to see anyone die, even a vicious criminal. No one, certainly no Christian, can take lightly the death of another person. And the media have encouraged this understandable — and good — revulsion. When Jimmy Cagney goes to the chair, we identify with him, not with the wardens or even the priest. We are the ones going to the end of the line. We want to save Jimmy because we would like to save ourselves. It is a case of the golden rule. And we sympathize, not only with appealing murderers like the one Cagney played, but even with the heartless characters of In Cold Blood. We don’t want to see anyone die.
The more “rational” arguments often push us in the same direction. What good does capital punishment accomplish? Statistics seem to indicate that capital punishment does not deter crime: where capital punishment applies to a particular crime, it does not appear that the rate of that crime is less than in places where lesser penalties obtain. So why should we do such a hideous thing? Is it finally a simple matter of revenge? And can there be any place for revenge in the laws of a compassionate people?
Thus, for about ten years, there were no executions in the United States. To many, it must have seemed that our society had outgrown its vengeful spirit. Toward the end of that period, indeed, it did seem impossible that we would ever return to capital punishment. When Gary Gilmore begged the courts to let him die, it seemed too many of us that it would never happen; there would always be another legal loophole. And yet it happened! Gilmore did die for his crime. And suddenly, a return to capital punishment as a general procedure is not so hard to conceive. State laws, in fact, have been moving in precisely that direction.
What is this all about? A failure of love? A national frustration over crime, leading to judicial vindictiveness?
Not entirely. There are some persuasive arguments in favor of capital punishment. If capital punishment has not been shown to deter crime, this fact may be due to the inconsistent, capricious way in which this penalty has been applied in the past. To many criminals, the death penalty has not been perceived as the certain consequence of their crimes. Further, there are some crimes for which it is hard to imagine any deterrent other than capital punishment: killing by someone already serving a life sentence, killing of witnesses to a crime, etc. And many have found this consideration to be a powerful one: even if executing a criminal does not deter others from committing the crime in question, it certainly deters him. An executed murderer will never kill again.
But is the emotional point that is hardest to overcome. How can we bring ourselves to tolerate a procedure which we really hate — without at the same time dulling that moral sensitivity which has led us to care for the murderer? Many have overcome that emotional objection by an equally valid emotional point on the other side: sympathy for the victim, and sympathy for possible future victims. Charles Bronson in “Death Wish” played a liberal who turned vigilante when his wife and daughter were attacked. And there is that old political crack: “A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.”
There is something to that. But we must be careful that our “sympathy for the victim” does not degenerate into the kind of autonomous vengeance so strikingly portrayed in “Death Wish.” We need firmer ground to stand on.
Most of us have learned the ethic of love, directly or indirectly, from the Bible. Yet the Bible, remarkably enough, endorses capital punishment quite regularly. God himself prescribed the shedding of blood as a punishment for violent crimes (Gen. 9:6), and during the time of Moses God gave to Israel a long list of capital offenses. There is no tension in Scripture, either, between an Old Testament law of vengeance and a New Testament law of love. The Old Testament teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19:18) and specifically forbids illegal killing (Ex. 20:13), while the New Testament accepts gratefully the power of the sword exercised by the civil ruler (Rom. 13:1-6; Acts 25:11; Luke 23:41) — when used justly. Scripture knows no opposition between love and capital punishment, or between “Thou shalt not kill” and the legal “shedding of blood.” And that is where the argument must end. The God of love, who taught us all we know about love, has also told us that in a sinful world a compassionate society must take strong measures to protect the safety of innocent people, to prevent the violent from ruling by terror.
What is too often missing from our moral emotions today is the biblical hatred of sin, the realization of its horror, its utter ugliness in the sight of God. Scripture tells us that a sin, not just murder, deserves death (Rom. 6:23); we all deserve to die. It is only God’s great compassion, which permits any of us to go on living. When God ordains the capital punishment of murderers, this is not some extraordinary cruelty against them; it is merely a picture of what we all deserve in God’s sight. God’s full compassion is seen, not in any sentimental easing of laws against murder, but in sending his Son Jesus Christ to die for all of us who deserve death. To Jesus, even a dying criminal may cry for mercy (Luke 23:42f.) and receive forgiveness, with remission of that eternal punishment which is far worse than anything known on earth. The compassion of society is seen as it recognizes the reality of sin and the need to curb sin’s violent expressions, and as it holds out the gospel of Christ in love, even to those who have despised it. Thus, it will love the victim and the criminal, and it will have a firm foundation in divine justice for making the hard choices that our own sin has made necessary.” (5)
At this point, some dictionary and encyclopedia entries will be profitable for general biblical knowledge:
Easton’s Bible Dictionary – Law a rule of action:
“The Law of Nature is the will of God as to human conduct, founded on the moral difference of things, and discoverable by natural light (Romans 1:20; Romans 2:14 Romans 2:15). This law binds all men at all times. It is generally designated by the term conscience or the capacity of being influenced by the moral relations of things.
The Ceremonial Law prescribes under the Old Testament the rites and ceremonies of worship. This law was obligatory only until Christ, of whom these rites were typical, had finished his work (Hebrews 7:9 Hebrews 7:11; 10:1; Ephesians 2:16.
The Judicial Law, the law, which directed the civil policy of the Hebrew nation.
The Moral Law is the revealed will of God as to human conduct, binding on all men to the end of time. It was promulgated at Sinai. It is perfect (Psalms 19:7), perpetual (Matthew 5:17 Matthew 5:18), holy (Romans 7:12), good, spiritual (14), and exceeding broad (Psalms 119:96). Although binding on all, we are not under it as a covenant of works (Galatians 3:17).
Positive Laws are precepts founded only on the will of God. They are right because God commands them.
Moral positive laws are commanded by God because they are right.” (6)
Surely, much wisdom can be learned from Israel’s judicial courts that were established by God.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia – Courts, Judicial:
1. Their Organization:
At the advice of Jethro, Moses appointed judges (Exodus 18). In Egypt, it appears that the Hebrews did not have their own judges, which, of course, was a source of many wrongs. Leaving Egypt, Moses took the judicial functions upon himself, but it was impossible that he should be equal to the task of administering justice to two and one-half million people; hence, he proceeded to organize a system of jurisprudence. He appointed judges over tens, fifties, hundreds, thousands–in all 78,600 judges. This system was adequate for the occasion, and these courts respectively corresponded practically to our Justices of the Peace, Mayor’s Court, District Court, Circuit Court. Finally, there was a Supreme Court under Moses and his successors. These courts, though graded, did not afford an opportunity of appeal. The lower courts turned their difficult cases over to the next higher. If the case was simple, the judge over tens would take it, but if the question was too intricate for him, he would refer it to the next higher court, and so on until it finally reached Moses. There were certain kinds of questions which the tens, fifties, and hundreds would not take at all, and the people understood it and would bring them to the higher courts for original jurisdiction. When any court decided it, that was the end of that case, for it could not be appealed (Exodus 18:25, 26). On taking possession in Palestine, the judges were to be appointed for every city and vicinity (Deuteronomy 16:18), thus giving to all Israel a speedy and cheap method of adjudication. Though not so prescribed by the constitution, the judges at length were generally chosen from among the Levites, as the learned class. The office was elective. Josephus states this plainly, and various passages of the Scriptures express it positively by inference (see Deuteronomy 1:13). Jephthah’s election by vote of the people is clearly set forth (Judges 11:5-11).
2. Character of the Judges:
Among the Hebrews, the law was held very sacred; for God Himself had given it. Hence, those who administered the law were God’s special representatives, and their person was held correspondingly sacred. These circumstances placed upon them the duty of administering justice without respect to persons (Deuteronomy 1:17; 16:18). They were to be guided by the inalienable rights granted to every citizen by the Hebrew constitution:
(1) No man was to be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law (Numbers 35:9-34).
(2) Two or three witnesses were required to convict anyone of crime (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:2-13).
(3) Punishment for crime was not to be transferred or entailed (Deuteronomy 24:16).
(4) A man’s home was inviolate (Deuteronomy 24:10, 11).
(5) One held to bondage but having acquired liberty through his own effort should be protected (Deuteronomy 23:15, 16).
(6) One’s homestead was inalienable (Leviticus 25:23-28, 34).
(7) Slavery could not be made perpetual without the person’s own consent (Exodus 21:2-6).
3. Their Work:
Gradually a legal profession developed among the Hebrews, the members of which were designated as “Lawyers” or “Scribes” also known as “Doctors of the Law” (Luke 2:46). Their business was threefold:
(1) to study and interpret the law;
(2) to instruct the Hebrew youth in the law; and
(3) to decide questions of the law. The first two they did as scholars and teachers; the last either as judges or as advisers in some court, as, for instance, the Senate of Jerusalem or some inferior tribunal. No code can go into such details as to eliminate the necessity of subsequent legislation, and this usually, to a great extent, takes the form of judicial decisions founded on the code, rather than of separate enactment; and so it was among the Hebrews. The provisions of their code were for the most part quite general, thus affording large scope for casuistic interpretation. Regarding the points not explicitly covered by the written law, a substitute must be found either in the form of established custom or in the form of an inference drawn from the statute.
As a result of the industry with which this line of legal development was pursued during the centuries immediately preceding our era, Hebrew law became a most complicated science. For the disputed points, the judgments of the individual lawyers could not be taken as the standard; hence, the several disciples of the law must frequently meet for a discussion, and the opinion of the majority then prevailed. These were the meetings of the “Doctors.” Whenever a case arose concerning which there had been no clear legal decision, the question was referred to the nearest lawyer; by him, to the nearest company of lawyers, perhaps the Sanhedrin, and the resultant decision was henceforth authority.
Before the destruction of Jerusalem, technical knowledge of the law was not a condition of eligibility to the office of judge. Anyone who could command the confidence of his fellow-citizens might be elected, and many of the rural courts undoubtedly were conducted, as among us, by men of sterling quality, but limited knowledge. Such men would avail themselves of the legal advice of any “doctor” who might be within reach; and in the more dignified courts of a large municipality it was a standing custom to have a company of lawyers present to discuss and decide any new law points that might arise. Of course, frequently these men were themselves elected to the office of judge, so that practically the entire system of jurisprudence was in their hands.
4. Limitations under Roman Rule:
Though Judea at this time was a subject commonwealth, yet the Sanhedrin, which was the body of supreme legislative and judicial authority, exercised autonomous authority to such an extent that it not only administered civil cases in accordance with Jewish law–for without such a right a Jewish court would be impossible–but it also took part to a great extent in the punishment of crime. It exercised an independent police power, hence, could send out its own officers to make arrests (Matthew 26:47; Mark 14:43; Acts 4:3; 5:17, 18). In cases that did not involve capital punishment, its judgments were final and untrammeled (Acts 4:2-23; 5:21-40). Only in capital punishment cases must the consent of the procurator be secured, which is not only clearly stated in John 18:31, but is also evident in the entire course of Christ’s trial, as reported by the Synoptic Gospels. In granting or withholding his consent in such cases, the procurator could follow his pleasure absolutely, applying either the Jewish or Roman law, as his guide. In one class of cases the right to inflict capital punishment even on Roman citizens was granted the Sanhedrin, namely, when a non-Jewish person overstepped the bounds and entered the interior holy place of the temple. Even in this case the consent of the procurator must be secured, but it appears that the Roman rulers were inclined to let the law take its course against such wanton outrage of the Jews’ feelings. Criminal cases not involving capital punishment need not be referred to the procurator.
5. Time and Place of Sessions:
The city in which the Sanhedrin met was Jerusalem. To determine the particular building, and the spot on which the building stood, is interesting to the archaeologist, not to the student of law. The local courts usually held their sessions on the second and fifth day (Monday and Thursday) of the week, but we do not know whether the same custom was observed by the Great Sanhedrin. On feast days no court was held, much less on the Sabbath. Since the death penalty was not to be pronounced until the day after the trial, such cases were avoided also on the day preceding a Sabbath or other sacred day. The emphasis placed on this observance may be seen from the edicts issued by Augustus, absolving the Jews from the duty of attending court on the Sabbath.”
Frank E. Hirsch (7)
In closing, the influence of the Ten Commandments on Western legal systems:
“Our nation has a rich national tradition of depicting the Ten Commandments on government property. The history of official acknowledgment of the role of the Ten Commandments in American law and culture merely mirrors the “unbroken history of official acknowledgment by all three branches of government of the role of religion in American life.” Presidents, Congress, and the courts have acknowledged the Ten Commandments’ secular impact. The history of the Ten Commandments in the common law dates back to the Ninth Century when Alfred the Great placed them at the beginning of his Book of Dooms. Seven hundred years later, the most prominent jurists of the Protestant Reformation produced systematic legal treatises “basing the various branches of the law on the Ten Commandments. World in the seventeenth century, they deliberately enacted many, and sometimes all, of the Ten Commandments into their legal codes.” Three hundred years later, at the dawn of the twentieth century, “it continued to be widely believed, at least in the United States… [that] divine law, especially the Ten Commandments,” was one of “the ultimate sources of positive law.” Thus, for over a millennium, the Ten Commandments have influenced Western legal codes. Courts have routinely recognized the importance of the Ten Commandments as a source for American legal rules.
At the time of our Nation’s founding, the Ten Commandments were widely understood to have three distinct uses or dimensions -religious, moral, and civic. In fact, “two philosophers of Anglican connection, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, used the Commandments almost exclusively for their civic and moral significance.” setting forth rules governing relations between God and His people and the “second table” as setting forth rules governing relations between the people and each other. At the time of the founding, however, the idea of the moral and civic dimension in the Decalogue was not confined to the so-called “second table.” In his seminal work, The Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes interpreted the “first table” as laying out an entirely secular “law of sovereignty.” Thus, even secular philosophers found a secular significance in those commandments commonly viewed as defining man’s relation-ship to God. The Ten Commandments had widespread influence in early America.” (8)
As noted, the death penalty for murder is right or correct as seen in Genesis 9:6. This law against murder predates the Mosaic covenant. “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Romans 2:15). From the beginning, God’s law has been stamped upon the human conscious. This testimony of God is what man tries to defeat “…and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” (Romans 1:18)
If you are prejudiced against the Ten Commandments and the accompanying case laws, what do you purpose as an objective standard to put in its place? A majority consensus? Roman law, Greek law, Islamic law? The Judeo/Christian worldview has a solid legal tradition.
As seen from Christ’s teaching in Matthew, God’s moral law and specific binding principles from the judicial law are still in force.
1. Greg L. Bahnsen, By This Standard, (Tyler, Texas, Institute for Christian Economics), p. 27-28.
2. Greg L. Bahnsen and Kenneth L. Gentry HOUSE DIVIDED THE BREAK-UP OF DISPENSATIONAL THEOLOGY, (Tyler, Texas, Institute for Christian Economics), p. 40-41.
3. Saint Augustine, The City of God, (New York, Random House), Book 1 Chap. 21, p. 27.
4. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, Unabridged, 1Vol, (Stief Books, 2017), p. 473.
5. John M. Frame, Capital Punishment, Originally published in The New Community, a publication of Community Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Blue Bell, PA, Sept. 1977.
6. Smith’s Bible Dictionary is in the public domain and may be freely used and distributed.
7. Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, reprinted 1986), pp. 725-727.
8. Greg Abbott, current Governor of Texas, Upholding the Unbroken Tradition: Constitutional Acknowledgment of the Ten Commandments in the Public Square, (William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal 2005), p. 63-65.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: http://www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more study:
* Got Questions https://www.gotquestions.org/
See God and Politics: Four Views On The Reformation Of Civil Government Theonomy, Principled Pluralism, Christian America, National Confessionalism by Gary Scott Smith