A Catechism on God’s Law (Part 25)

Based on Greg Bahnsen’s “By This Standard,” (1991).

  1. What about punishments for crime?

Civil rule is a ministry of justice, aiming to punish criminals in accord with revealed will of God. When we combine this connection with the Biblically based belief that God’s law is binding in every detail until and unless the Lawgiver reveals otherwise, we come to the conclusion that the civil magistrate today ought to apply the penal sanctions of the Old Testament law to criminals in our society, once they have been duly tried and convicted by adequate evidence. Thieves should be made to offer restitution, rapists should be executed, perjurers should suffer the penalty they would have inflicted on the accused, etc.

Quite simply, civil magistrates ought to mete out the punishment which God has prescribed in His Word.  When one stops to reflect on this proposition, it has an all-to-obvious truthfulness and justice about it. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen.18:25).

If civil magistrates are indeed “ministers of God” who avenge His wrath against evildoers, who better would know what kind and degree of punishment is appropriate for every crime than the Lord? And where would He make this standard of justice known but in His Word? The penal sanctions for crime should be those revealed in the law of the Lord. That makes perfectly good sense.

Where God has prescribed it in His Word, such civil punishments for crime are quite necessary. Indeed, Paul can say that the law of God was enacted precisely for dealing with public criminals- murderers, perjurers, homosexuals, and the like (I Tim.1:8-10). The destruction of the wicked is a proper goal of a godly magistrate (Ps.101:8) so he may root out evil (for example, Deut.17:12; 19:19) and protect the righteous of the land (Ps.125:3; Prov.12:21).

Such penalties against crime are to be executed without mercy or pity to the criminal (Deut.19:13; 25:12; Heb.10:28), lest judges become respecters of persons, looking upon the face of criminals and deciding according to some standard other than strict justice who should pay for his wrongdoing. Besides, when judges let proven criminals go unpunished, they in effect punish those who been wronged by the criminal in the first place. As Luther once wrote: “If God will have wrath, what business do you have being merciful?” (p.270-272)

  1. How must punishments be determined?

Not only are penal sanctions necessary in society, they must be equitable. The measure of punishment according to the just Judge of all the earth is to be an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life- no less, but no more (for example, Ex.21:23-25; Deut.19:21). The punishment must be commensurate with the crime, for it is to express retribution against the offender.

Especially when one compares the Biblical code of penal sanctions with those in other ancient civilisations does it become apparent how just and wise God’s laws are; they are never overweighted, lenient, cruel or unusual. Far from being arbitrary, they are laid down with a view to perfect justice in social affairs. Indirectly, these penal sanctions will become a deterrent to crime in others (for example, Deut.17:13; 9:20), but they are designed to punish a person retributively, “according to his fault” (Deut.25:2). That is why, for instance, those who commit capital crimes are said in the Bible to have “committed a sin worthy of death” (Deut.21:22). God always prescribes exactly what a crime deserves; the stringency of the penalty is proportioned to the heinousness of the deed. His punishments are thus always equitable.

The agency which God enlists for executing His just and necessary penalties in society for crimes is the civil magistrate. The reason why, by men, the blood of offenders may be shed is given in Genesis 9:5-6, namely because man was created in the image of God. Men can reflect the judgements of God against criminals because men-those appointed to this task-are the image of God, able to understand and apply His standards of civic rectitude.

Paul described the civil magistrate as ordained by God, one who “bears not the sword in vain” because he is “a minister of God, an avenger for wrath against evildoers” (Ro.13:1-4). Without such authorisation, the punishment of one man by another would be pure presumption, the perpetration by one group of a misdeed against another individual or group. The very notion of public justice (“the right” surpassing considerations of “might”) is rooted in the assumption that God’s direction stands behind the function of the civil magistrate in society. Given that fact, it is only natural that the standard by which the magistrate should mete out penalties to criminals ought to be the revealed law of God (p.273-274).

  1. What about Antinomianism?

…Those advocating criminal penalties apart from God’s revealed law hardly ever show a willingness to stand behind or defend the fairness and justice of their specific proposals. In short, those who demur at the idea of having current day magistrates follow the penal sanctions of God’s law usually leave us with the position that there are no permanently just standards of punishments, for magistrates are left to themselves to devise their own penal codes autonomously… Their failure to produce a God-glorifying, Scripturally anchored, method of knowing what justice demands in particular cases of criminal activity would in principle leave us at the mercy of magistrate-despots.

When there is no law above the civil law, restraining and guiding its dictates, then human will becomes absolute and fearsome… In many cases those who criticise the use of God’s penal sanctions objectively known from Scriptures have either no alternative or arbitrary tyranny to offer in its place….Jesus warned that anyone who taught the breaking of even the least commandment of the Old Testament (and the penal commandments are surely commandments found among the Law and the Prophets) would be called least in the kingdom of heaven (Mat.5:18-19).

Unless those who advocate the abolition of these penal sanctions can offer justification for their attitude from the word of God, then their position comes under the heavy sanction of Christ Himself. Moreover, Paul taught that the law of God was lawfully used to restrain criminals today, being the standard God expected His ministers in the state to use when they wielded their swords (I Tim.1:8-10; Ro.13:4). To reject those standards would appear on the face of it to be speaking against the word of the Lord Himself on the subject (p.274-276).