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.

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