Capital Punishment

In light of the Fifth Commandment; “Thou shalt not murder,” why does the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and, our Catechism [endnote 1] teach that Capital Punishment is a legitimate form of punishment should society and the government chose to enact it? The problematic section of the Catechism is as follows:

 53. Does anyone have authority to take another person’s life?

Yes, lawful government, as God’s servant, may execute criminal and fight just wars.

165 Rom 13:4 He is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, and agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. [endnote 2]

Part of the bewilderment has to do with the translation of Exodus 20:13. Older Bibles worked off a misunderstanding of the Hebrew which has been corrected in later Bible translations. See the dates these were initially published and notice it is the older Bibles which have, “thou that not kill”, while the more recent translations have; “thou shalt not murder”. Some translations came out in stages so the later translation date is listed.



King James Version
Revised Standard Version   
KJV – 1611      
RSV – 1952      

Beck Bible
New American Standard Bible
New International Version
New King James Version
New Revised Standard Version    
English Standard Version
– 1966
NASB – 1971
NIV – 1978
NKJV – 1982
NRSV – 1989
ESV – 2001


If you don’t know Hebrew don’t let that intimidate you. Using the Reformation principle of Scripture interpreting Scripture we learn where God says Capital Punishment, i.e., putting to death the murderer is acceptable. Though killing and murder both end a life the context and motives are entirely different. On the battlefield a soldier who eyes the enemy combatant and pulls the trigger has “killed” the enemy. However, should the enemy drop his rifle, raise his arms while holding a white flag, and then a soldier squeezes the trigger; that is murder.

Scriptures teaches the murderer shall receive Capital Punishment: “But if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die” (Ex 21:14), “… the avenger of blood may kill the accused without being guilty of murder” (Num 35:17 NIV). Some contend this part of Scripture is found in the ceremonial law which has been abolished and therefore the injunction for capital punishment has been abolished.

There are three classifications of law: moral, ceremonial, and political. So let us look at where God established the moral law which is well before he established the ceremonial law. The ninth chapter of Genesis predates the giving the ceremonial law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Here God establishes moral law which is written into the hearts of all people where it says:

“And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image’” (Gen 9:5-6).

Capital Punishment is also endorsed in the political law as our Catechism cites in Romans 13:4 (see above). Therefore we see that all three kinds of law found in the Old Testament teach and approve of Capital Punishment.

The Catechism teaches “… lawful government, as God’s servant, may execute criminal and fight just wars.” The executing of criminals and the fighting of just wars by lawful government is society or government’s form of self-defense. The executing of criminals is society’s self-defense on an individual level while the fighting of just wars is self-defense on a larger scale. Capital Punishment seeks to uphold the connection between moral action and its consequences for the most grievous crimes. [endnote 3] We must also remember that the abuse of anything does not deny its proper use. Think of: cars, education, drugs, guns, etc.

At times people reason that if you are pro-life you ought necessarily be anti-Capital Punishment. But this reasoning is all muddled as it teaches there is no difference between murder and killing—and nothing could be further from the truth.  The great Anglican Apologist C. S. Lewis says it well:

It is no good quoting “Thou shalt not kill.” There are two Greek words: the ordinary word to kill and the word to murder. And when Christ quotes that commandment He uses the murder one in all three accounts, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And I am told there is the same distinction in Hebrew. All killing is not murder any more than all sexual intercourse is adultery. When soldiers came to St. John the Baptist asking what to do, he never remotely suggested that they ought to leave the army: nor did Christ when he met a Roman sergeant-major—what they called a centurion. The idea of the knight—the Christian in arms for a the defense of a good cause—is one of the great Christian ideas.

I imagine somebody will say, “Well, if one is allowed to condemn the enemy’s acts, and punish him, and kill him, what difference is left between Christian morality and the ordinary view? All the difference in the world. Remember, we Christians think man lives forever. Therefore, what really matters is those little marks or twists on the central, inside part of the soul which are going to turn it, in the long run, into a heavenly or a hellish creature. We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it. In other words, something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one’s own back, must be simply killed. [endnote 4]

When pastors in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod are ordained they make vows before God to teach what is right and true from Sacred Scripture. What defines Lutheranism is not Martin Luther, or the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod but the Book of Concord which claims to faithfully represent or repeat what Scripture reveals. Pastors swear at their Ordination to teach according to this standard and norm, which among other things confesses:

It is taught among us that all government in the world and all established rule and laws were instituted and ordained by God for the sake of good order, and that Christians may without sin occupy civil offices or serve as princes and judges, render decisions and pass sentence according to imperial and other existing laws, punish evildoers with the sword, engage in just wars, serve as soldiers, …

Condemned here are the Anabaptists who teach that none of the things indicated above is Christian. [AC XVI endnote 5]

… the spiritual kingdom does not change the civil government. [Apology, XVI, 59 endnote 6]

The Gospel has as its business the saving and protecting of souls from the unholy axis of sin, death, and the power of the devil. The Government is responsible for protecting our physical welfare. The laws of Government are to be derived from natural law and not Scripture for natural law is accessible to all people—Christian and non-Christian alike. This is seen in the opening of our country’s Declaration of Independence which states: “… the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” For example; were abortion illegal in our nation the State would be responsible for the “crime” nature of abortion and the Church would deal with the “sin” of abortion. Were things to be the other-way-around great harm would result in society and with souls.

In closing I would be remiss if I did not say the governed may in Christian freedom chose to not have Capital Punishment. In Christian freedom that is perfectly fine. But Christian freedom also allows society to implement—from natural law which is accessible to all people—Capital Punishment and such a choice is not to be looked upon as any less Christian.

In Christ,

Pastor Weber



Endnotes —

[1] Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005).

[2] Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005): 79, q. 53.

[3] John R. Stephenson, “Eschatology,” in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, vol., XIII, Robert Preus, ed. (Dearborn, MI: The Luther Academy, 1993), 38.

[4] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillan, 1952), 106-108.

[5] Augsburg Confession, XVI, “Civil Government,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. and ed. Theodore Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 37:1-3.

[6] Apology, XVI, “Political Order,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. and ed. Theodore Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 223:7.

About Pastor Karl Weber

Karl has been serving St. Paul’s Richville LC and St. John’s, Ottertail, MN since Labor Day, 2004. He was raised in the Roman Church receiving his BA from Fordham University. Before going to seminary he was a computer programmer in Minneapolis. He served as a short term missionary in Guatemala and Kenya, East Africa. He spent time as a member of the ELCA and studied two years at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN pursing his M. Div. before transferring to the LCMS for theological reasons and continuing his studies at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne. He was ordained in 1991 and earned his D. Min. in May 2002 from the same institution. He has contributed study notes to The Lutheran Study Bible. He enjoys deer hunting, going to the gym, swimming, and reading. He is married to Mary and has five wonderful children.


Capital Punishment — 15 Comments

  1. I think the stepping point from your good coverage of this subject ought to be within the realm and exercise of this “freedom.” My concern is not whether or not the Government has the authority to execute Capital Punishment, but rather the prudence and justice of it as it is carried out.

    From the perspective of prudence there are decent arguments against it: namely that unlike ancient times, we are capable of securely housing inmates for the remainder of their lives. This was a bit of a problem, especially in small countries that did not have an island to ship the criminals off to. In addition, it actually costs less to incarcerate an inmate for life than to go through the process that leads to the death penalty. Prudence, however, is my penultimate concern.

    My main concern with our actual execution of Capital Punishment is the realm of justice. All too often we are finding that this final and irreversible punishment is not evenly given. Our justice system disproportionally applies this punishment to those who are of minority ethnic background and those who are of lower socio-economic status (and yes, it is still disproportional when adjusting for the fact that crime rates amongst certain of these groups are also disproportional). Surely innocent people have been put to death throughout history. I would not deny that. However, I would contend that until our justice system is able to hand down punishments without respect to ethnicity or socio-economic status, that it would be wise to use our freedom in this society and not apply such an irreversible punishment.

  2. “However, I would contend that until our justice system is able to hand down punishments without respect to ethnicity or socio-economic status, that it would be wise to use our freedom in this society and not apply such an irreversible punishment.”

    Such sophistry leaves unanswered the questions of how perfect with respect to ethnicity or socio-economic status would our justice system have to be before capital punishment would be acceptable to some to apply to criminals who have committed treason or murder (or rape, or kidnapping, or other crimes) that result, or should, in the death penalty? Whose standard of “without respect” would be used? Who would decide?

    The fact is that some culturally ethnic and socio-economic groups, on the whole, do commit more murders or other capital crimes than people in other groups, and so there will be more executions within these groups than in others.

    Also, while no one wants innocent people executed for a crime they didn’t commit, by the misguided notion of banning capital punishment, one actually increase the risk of innocent people being killed by criminals who no longer face a threat of execution. It would be unjust to allow the latter risk to exceed the former risk (as I think it currently does), when there is a net and unjustified loss of innocent life.

    In addition, when the Catechism states, “lawful government, as God’s servant, may execute criminal and fight just wars,” one must also realize that within the U.S., the people are the government, operating through their form of governemnt. Thus the use of deadly force also includes such things as the Constitution’s Letters of Marque and Reprisal, the Second Amendment, various state laws on concealed carry and open carry, “Stand Your Ground” laws, and the use of deadly force in self and home defense, as in the Sanford, Florida, example earlier this year.

  3. In a society that often celebrates and encourages official lying and withholding of evidence and at best punishes it lightly it is certainly not prudent to enforce capital punishment. Scripture certainly allows for capital punishment as well as this from Deut. 19:18-21:

    “The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite, then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

    I think the two go together. The first time an assistant DA ends up with a needle in his arm for withholding evidence in a capital trial will likely be the last. Then I will be OK with enforcing capital punishment. As it stands now, not so much.

  4. Good reading on this topic is found in Luther’s Large Catechism, The Fifth Commandment. One of many points that Luther makes is that the authority that the Lord gives to the government to punish, in whatever way, is a protection for the individual against the temptation of taking revenge. One other point that some might make about not using capital punishment, although it is Lawful, is that life imprisonment offers the opportunity that the offender might have time to hear the gospel and receive the gift of faith. It is good to struggle with how God’s Word informs the practice of our faith.

  5. Richard # 4
    You state that life imprisonment may be used of God to bring a person to repentance. While this is true is is also true that knowing the time and date of your punishment can also be used of God to bring a person to repentance. I don’t claim to know how the Spirit of Christ works on a person in the inner recesses of their heart, however, I have attempted, following the Catechism and Lutheran theology, to show what God says from and through the Word.

  6. @James Sarver #3: “I think the two go together.”

    One can certainly argue for the OT view that perjury in a capital murder trial, even in today’s courts by a DA (or judge) withholding evidence, should also be punished with the death penalty.

    However, to claim that unless capital punishment occurs as directed in such an OT Jewish law one would not favor enforcing any capital punishment is a “bait and switch” argument. It is also a false dilemma fallacy because it argues that either the death penalty must be applied correctly to all appropriate crimes or it cannot be applied correctly to any appropriate crimes.

  7. Pastor Weber #5 I do not disagree that the Lord has given the authority to the state to execute capital punishment. I also do not know how the Holy Spirit would work in the heart of such a person other than working through the Word and Sacraments. I pray for all those who minister with God’s Word to those in prison and for those to whom they proclaim God’s Law and Gospel so that repentance and absolution might come by God’s grace.

  8. @Rev. Richard Habrecht #4: “One other point that some might make about not using capital punishment, although it is Lawful, is that life imprisonment offers the opportunity that the offender might have time to hear the gospel and receive the gift of faith.”

    God has given His Church the Great Commission and that applies to telling the Good News even to those in prison awaiting execution. However we also know that it is the Holy Spirit who brings faith. Given God’s promise, as in John 10:28 and in Romans 8:28-31, we should not be troubled by the false worry that capital punishment might rob God of one of His elect.

  9. @Rev. Richard Habrecht #4: “One other point that some might make about not using capital punishment, although it is Lawful, is that life imprisonment offers the opportunity that the offender might have time to hear the gospel and receive the gift of faith.”

    I thought we Lutherans were supposed to be Predestinarian?
    Quick nobody snap their fingers!

  10. Arguments against capital punishment could be applied to any penalty. As an individual, I also do not have the authority to imprison another, fine him, force him to work in community service etc. All of these would be contrary to the Fifth Commandment if undertaken as a individual outside of an office where they are permissable (e.g. a father protecting his home). But critically, even where they are a part of the office, say of policeman, soldier, hangman, judge etc., they are expressions of love in accord with the faithful carrying out of the office for the defense of the weak or the betterment of society. It is also important, in this light, to consider that a lack of perfect justice in human courts is not *less* egregious (or even less permanent) if the result is imprisonment for life, say, or complete loss of all property. So just as one cannot argue against life imprisonment because it is so egregious when unjustly carried out, so also with capital punishment which many (like me) would prefer to life imprisonment. The entire question is thus about authority as opposed to likely impossibiity of perfect justice.

  11. The argument of how many innocent people would die as a result of “the elimination of the threat of capital punishment” (Quote #2) is nonsense. It has been proven time and again, that capital punishment is ineffective as a deterrent. Do we have more crime today in Illinois because the death penalty isn’t used? No. Is crime down in Texas where more executions are conducted? Absolutely not. So lets not try to make that argument.

    And what of the innocent lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan? None combatants. Women, children. Are our soldiers guilty of murder? If so, what then? Im not suggesting they are but there will always be great inconsistencies in the application of this law.

    There are larger and more impactful discussions to have where capital punishment is the possible outcome. If disproportionately applied to minority groups (no question it is) because minority groups commit higher % of crimes (also true), the real question isn’t about the role of capital punishment but rather – what is happening in our society that creates people that do not fear capital punishment or life in prison? Life is bad for them to a point that they expect to life a large portion of their life in jail and if they are executed, well thats part of the deal too. We shouldn’t be putting our $$ and effort into making sure we can execute people, but rather how to we break the cycle that leads people NOT to fear it.

  12. The concept of “capital punishment” and the “death penalty” involve, to no surprise, “punishment” and “penalty.” While it is not called “capital deterrence,” capital punishment also deters the executed person from murdering again. Whether, additionally, the threat of capital punishment deters other people from committing murder has been investigated.

    @Paul #13: It has been proven time and again, that capital punishment is ineffective as a deterrent.

    To the contrary, there is evidence indicating just the opposite. Statistical analysis of data on the death penalty has shown that capital punishment does deter murders.

    In his paper, “The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: A Question of Life and Death” (The American Economic Review, Vol. 65, No. 3. (Jun., 1975), pp. 397-417), Isaac Ehrlich, using a statistical analysis model, concluded:

    “Although in principle the negative effect of capital punishment on the incentive to commit murder may be partly offset, for example, by an added incentive to eliminate witnesses, the results of the empirical investigation are not inconsistent with the hypothesis that, on balance, capital punishment reduces the murder rate.”

    In their article, “The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: Evidence from a ‘Judicial Experiment’” (Economic Inquiry, Oxford University Press, Vol. 44(3), July, 2006, pages 512-535), Hashem Dezhbakhsh and Joanna M. Shepherd conclude:

    “We perform before-and-aftermoratorium comparisons and regressions using both national time-series data and state-level panel data for 1960-2000. The results are boldly clear: executions deter murders and murder rates increase substantially during moratoriums. The results are consistent across before-and-after comparisons and regressions regardless of the data’s aggregation level, the time period, or the specific variable used to measure executions.

    Of course, those who are deranged or religiously motivated to commit murder will not likely be deterred by capital punishment, except after it is carried out.

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