1

It is evident that capital punishment is still in vogue in a few Catholic countries, despite the Pope having spoken in favour of abolishing of the penalty. I wish to know how the New Testament is interpreted to permit awarding of capital punishment for criminal offences like murder.

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This passage of scripture immediately springs to mind:

1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. - Romans 13:1-4 NIV [emphasis added]

Elicott comments on this latter verse thus:

It is clear from this passage that capital punishment is sanctioned by Scripture.

and Barnes:

It may be remarked that this verse is an "incidental" proof of the propriety of "capital punishment." The sword was undoubtedly an instrument for this purpose, and the apostle mentions its use without any remark of "disapprobation."

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John Frame, in The Doctrine of the Christian Life (page 702), cites two New Testament passages to defend the practice of capital punishment. The first, Romans 13, has already been addressed by bruised reed's answer – the "sword" of verse four is often interpreted to refer to the power to physically kill wrongdoers.

The other passage Frame mentions deals more explicitly with the death penalty, though not in a didactic setting. In Acts 25:11, Paul addresses his accusers, saying:

If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. [ESV]

Admittedly, Paul's focus here is arguing that he has done nothing wrong. But nonetheless he does seem to accept the existence of capital punishment.

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