April 06, 2008 Q & A

Capital Punishment


I would like to know: What are the Presbyterian Church's views on capital punishment?


Thanks for the question. I would preface my remarks by explaining that there probably is more than one Presbyterian view on capital punishment. The liberal denomination (the Presbyterian Church in the USA) is probably opposed to capital punishment. There may be some who individually favor it, but officially that denomination doesn't hesitate to depart from the teachings of the Bible if modern culture urges them in that direction. Since I am not speaking for them, you'd have to present your question directly to authorities in that denomination. Unfortunately, I can't supply you with a name or an address. Perhaps they, like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, have a website.

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), along with two or three other Presbyterian denominations, strongly believes in capital punishment because the Bible (which we hold to as the inspired, infallible Word of God) teaches it - both Old and New Testaments (OT, NT).

In the OT, Genesis 9:6, the language is clear: "Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man." Of course, this was not intended to apply to accidental killing. In the ceremonial law given to Israel through Moses, in Numbers 35, anyone who killed another accidentally fled to the nearest city of refuge (12 cities in all scattered throughout Israel). If the one guilty of involuntary manslaughter arrived safely at a city of refuge, the case was heard by the elders of that city.

If the person who had killed someone had hated the man beforehand, or had lain in wait for him, the person who did the killing would be put to death. If the death had been accidental, he must remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest, after which he could return home in safety.

In earlier years, our laws distinguishing between murder and manslaughter were based on this distinction, but in later years, with the secularization of our criminal codes, the influence of the Bible on those codes has been eroded. It is worthy of note that verses 33 & 34 of Numbers 35 say that the shedding of innocent blood pollutes the land. Because it was God's land and He dwelt between the wings of the cherubim over the mercy seat of the holy of holies, innocent blood defiled the land. Again and again throughout the Mosaic law, especially in Leviticus through Deuteronomy, this phrase recurs: "The murderer shall surely be put to death."

In the NT the same principle prevails, though Roman law was in force throughout that period. The Apostle Paul in Romans 13:1-7 lays down the apostolic principles for civic governments. Christians are to submit to the laws of civil rulers, except when these rulers command what God forbids or forbid what God commands. The latter is illustrated in Acts 4:16-20 where Peter and John refused obedience to the Jewish rulers, who held a measure of civil authority from the Romans and commanded that Peter and John no longer teach or perform miracles in the name of Jesus, but the two disciples openly refused because the Lordship of Jesus superceded the rule of Rome. This principle still holds among evangelical Christians to this day.

In Romans 13:1-7, civil rulers are the ministers of God, and the sword is the symbol of their authority (v. 4). Why the sword? Because that was the Roman form of execution at that time. Thus both OT and NT say plainly that murder calls for the death of the murderer IF it is truly murder--killing another human being with "knowledge aforethought."

Going back to Genesis 9:6, we see that the reason for the sacredness of all human life is that man, alone of all God's earthly creatures, was created in the image of God. That's why man alone lives by reason rather than instinct. That's why man alone has an inborn sense of right and wrong. That's why man alone has a compulsive desire to worship some god! The Bible also teaches that man alone can never cease to exist. He has an eternal destiny which will eventuate in heaven or hell! (See John 3:16 & 17 and Mark 9:48; Jude 12 & 13; Revelation 20:11-15.) That is why Jesus Christ had to die--to save His people from their sins. It's because man's eternal destiny is fixed at the moment of his death that murder is so vile a crime. God alone has the right to terminate the length of anyone's days, and murder brings one of God's image-bearers to the end of his opportunity to turn to Jesus Christ, which he can only do in this life!

I must add that the corruption of civil justice in our times raises a question whether all who are convicted of "murder one" should be executed. I am personally persuaded that only those whose guilt is proved beyond the shadow of doubt should receive a death sentence, but the biblical principle still holds. Capital punishment IS taught in the Bible. Ordinary citizens, however, are not allowed to take the life of a murderer except in the case of self defense. "'Vengeance is mine. I will repay,' says the Lord" (Hebrews 10:30; cf. Deuteronomy 32:35).

This may be a lengthy answer to your question, but I give biblical citations for this reason: it is not because we are Presbyterians that we adhere to these doctrines, but because we are Bible-believing Christians. Scripture is our supreme authority.



+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church