In various places, James Jordan makes the point that the death penalty depends on a theological view of law and punishment. This is true in the sense that human rulers can kill only if the Lord of life and death has delegated His authority. Christians who defend the death penalty believe that He has done just this.

But the death penalty depends on theology in another way too. If God is not judge, then a human court that imposes the death penalty renders a final decision about the accused. But if God is Judge, then a human court that imposes the death penalty sends the case on to the Supreme Court. The death penalty doesn’t take God’s prerogatives into its own hands; it leaves the final judgment to the Judge of heaven and earth.

Jordan has also pointed out the relative weightiness of civil and church sanctions. Civil authorities have limited authority to kill, but they make no decision about the person’s eternal destiny. In declaring excommunication, church authorities are saying that in their judgment the person is destined for hell. Church decisions are not infallible, and the verdict may be reversed in the Supreme Court of heaven; but the church’s decision is still weightier than the civil authority’s, supported by Jesus’ promises about binding on earth and in heaven.

“Don’t fear him who destroys the body” - that is, don’t be afraid of civil rulers and their puny swords. God is the one to be feared because He “destroys both body and soul in hell” refers to God, but God has delegated even that authority, in a limited way to be sure, to human beings, to the church.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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