The Beginnings of Christian Reform (10)

When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes. Then the king commanded Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam the son of Shaphan, Achbor the son of Micaiah, Shaphan the scribe, and Asaiah the king’s servant saying, “Go, enquire of the Lord for me and the people and all Judah concerning the words of this book that has been found, for great is the wrath of the Lord that burns against us, because our fathers have not listened to the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us”(II Kings 22:11-13).

For a king of Judah to hear a portion of scripture read to him, and to respond by tearing his clothes, seems a bit odd to us, especially if our Christian experience has essentially been one dominated by limited New Testament readings. But King Josiah took this reading from the law very seriously, understanding the implications for his nation.


Whatever the portion of law was that was read to Josiah, it predicted judgement on Judah for her sins of rebellion against the Lord. And Josiah knew exactly what had been happening in his nation, and why it was now ripe for God’s judgement.

What passage was read to him? We don’t know, but it may have been Leviticus 26 or Deuteronomy 28, for these both predict national, painful consequences for Israel for her disobedience to God’s law.

Many of the sins of Judah of Josiah’s era, are found in every western nation today, with one standing out: “the shedding of innocent blood,” the practice today of government sanctioned abortion on demand.

Abortion may not have been practiced in that era, but Josiah’s grandfather Manasseh had, over some 50 years, “…shed very much innocent blood until he had filled Jerusalem from one end to the other; besides his sin with which he made Judah sin, in doing evil in the sight of the Lord” (II Kings 21:16).

There are many in the church today who would immediately quote the scripture, which says “…we are not under law but under grace” (Ro.6:14). Indeed as redeemed believers we are, but there still must be painful, national consequences when a nation turns its back in rebellion against God, just as there were in the Josiah’s time.

Hundreds of years earlier in Israel’s history, Solomon wrote that

There are six things that the Lord hates, yes, seven that are an abomination to Him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood… (Prov.6:16-17).

This very issue of national consequences for sin was acknowledged and played out at Jesus’ trial.

When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to that yourselves.” And all the people said, “His blood shall be upon us and on our children!” (Mat.27:24-25).

True Christian reform will require that the church properly examine the matter of the relevance of law of God today, remembering that Jesus said

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the law until all is accomplished (Mat.5:17-18).

The implications of this are both stunning and far-reaching, for people in and out of the church. The law of God (such as the Ten Commandments) is actually an evangelistic document, revealing the individual’s sin, driving him to seek a Saviour.

But there is more, much more.

The foundations of criminal law are found in Exodus 20-23, and are extrapolated in other passages of the Pentateuch. Exodus 20 lays out the Ten Commandments. The term “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Ex.21:24), does not mean that the criminal shall lose his eye or his tooth, his hand or his foot. It must be seen in the context of financial compensation, which is clear from v.22: “…he shall pay as the judges decide.”

The “eye for an eye” principle is known by the Latin phrase, lex talionis, or “law of retaliation.” The English word, “retaliate,” is derived from the same Roman word as “talionis.” Today, “retaliate” means to inflict injury, but earlier English usage conveyed a broader meaning: to pay back or return in kind, including good will…[1]

What is the goal of God’s justice? Rushdoony points out that, “emphatically, in Biblical law the goal is not punishment but restoration, not the infliction of certain penalties on criminals but the restoration of godly order. The centre of attention is thus not the criminal but the righteous man and the total godly order.” [2] As Boecker observed, “the intention of the talion was not, therefore, to inflict injury-as it might sound to us today-but to limit injury.”[3]

The Bible teaches that the victim must have his goods restored two-fold (Ex.22:4, 7), four-fold (for stealing a sheep), or five-fold (for stealing an ox) (Ex.22:1). The passage on restitution in Leviticus 6 indicates that if the thief turns himself in before the authorities identify him as a thief, he must restore the principal (6:4), and must also add a 20% payment-a double tithe-presumably because of the false oath (6:5). The restitution is equal to the value of the item stolen, and the penalty is one-fifth of this.[4]

This has significant implications for how the State collects fines. Because the modern State has decided there are many legitimate demands on its budget, fines for traffic infringements and crimes become a convenient means of raising revenue. The maintenance of the State’s budget takes priority over restitution for the victims of crime.

The State is not to use fines to increase its operating budget or increase its control over the lives of innocent citizens. The State is to be supported by tax levies, so that no conflict of interest should occur between honest judgment and the desire to increase the State’s budget. The proper use of fines is the establishment of a restitution fund for victims whose perpetrators cannot be located or convicted… such a fund is a valid use of the civil law.[5]

When God gave the law to Moses and the children of Israel, He expanded on the revelation given to Noah in Genesis.  Thus murder as He defines it is never an accidental event; it is deliberate and pre-meditated: “lying in wait” to harm someone (Ex.21:14). Capital punishment is always required for murder, including abortion. This has been God’s standard of justice from the beginning.

The law of God clearly includes capital punishment for capital crimes. The role of the State in “bearing the sword” (Ro.13:4) is to render capital punishment where necessary. After listing a number of sins/crimes in Romans 1:26-31, such as homosexuality and murder, Paul indicated that the perpetrators were “… worthy of death” (Ro.1:32).

Capital punishment was to be utilised for a number of other crimes, such as child sacrifice (Lev.20:1-2), kidnapping (Ex.21:16; Deut.24:7), a child striking or cursing their father or mother (Ex.21:15,17), incorrigible sons or criminals (Deut.21:18-21), some cases of manslaughter (Ex.21:28-31), some cases of perjury when the intention was to intentionally convict an innocent person of a capital crime (Deut.19:16-21), unconfessed fornication before marriage (Deut.22:13-21), adultery (Lev.20:10), rape of an betrothed or married woman (Deut.22:25), incest[6] (Lev.20:11-12), homosexuality (Lev.20:13), sorcery (Ex.22:18), bestiality (Ex.22:19),  sacrificing to another god (Ex.22:20), false prophecy and promoting rebellion against the Lord (Deut.13; Luke 19:27), and blasphemy (Lev.24:16).

Conviction for capital punishment always required evidence to be brought by more than one witness (Deut.17:6). This was why Jesus refused to participate in the conviction of the woman caught in adultery: there were no witnesses willing to testify against her (Jn.8:1-11). Thus for any accused there must always be a presumption of innocence, till proven guilty.

The death penalty is final. Its beneficial effects for society are twofold: it restrains the judgment of God on society, and it provides a deterrence effect-deterring the criminal from future crime (he dies), deterring other criminals from committing similar crimes (fear of death), and deterring God from bringing His covenant judgments on the community for its failure to uphold covenant law (fear of God’s wrath). Capital punishment is God’s way of telling criminals, whether convicted criminals or potential criminals, that they have gone too far in committing certain crimes. It also warns the community that God’s law is to be respected. Obviously, there is no element of rehabilitation for the convicted criminal in the imposition of the death penalty. The State speeds the convicted criminal’s march towards final judgment.[7]

God’s law made no exclusions from justice for people who were mentally ill, or for minors. Everyone was subject to the same law. Pleading “insanity” for criminal behaviour was no excuse, and would help no one. When a group of “young lads” mocked Elisha at Bethel, saying “Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!” (II Kings 2:23), he cursed them in the name of the Lord, and forty-two of them perished. They received the Biblical punishment for blasphemy (Lev.24:16).

What is the role of the Church in this? To teach and encourage that the law of God is enforced in society, and to preach the gospel to all, including convicted criminals preparing to die.

Executions should be in public, and carried out by authorised members of the community. Why? If the community determines capital punishment is appropriate, it should then be responsible to complete the process, not leave it to a professional executioner, who could then be identified and targeted by family or friends of the executed.

The Biblical community was responsible to stone offenders in cases requiring capital punishment, such as Achan (Joshua 7:25). Execution could easily be done today by a State sanctioned, legally constituted community firing squad. If a capital crime takes place at or near a town, the inhabitants of that town, after an appropriate trial and conviction,[8] should carry out the execution.

All of this would require the whole process of social and public debate, electoral endorsement by the community, followed by changes to legislation. This means that publically expressed desire for true change, accompanied by social and political debate, will be essential. Furthermore, justice should be executed speedily (Eccles.8:11). The notion that criminal cases or legal disputes should drag on for months or years has no support in the Bible.


The Biblical principle of an eye for an eye protects society from a lawless State which recognises no limitations on its power. This law establishes the fundamental judicial principle that the punishment should fit the crime. This principle, sometimes called lex talionis, requires that the criminal pay back to the victim whatever was stolen, and in some cases an additional penalty payment is required…

The fundamental goal of Biblical law is restoration. Evil people are to be restored to God by righteousness…restitution by the criminal to the victim is an effective way of restoring wholeness to both parties. It upholds a basic principle of civil law: the punishment should benefit the victim…[9]

It is incumbent on Christians to begin to rethink their presently collapsing social order, and this alternative must be self-consciously judicial. Christians must become judicial revolutionaries, not simply defenders of the present social order.[10]

[1] Gary North, “Tools of Dominion,” 1990, p.387.

[2] Rousas Rushdoony, “The Institutes of Biblical Law,” 1973, p.515.

[3] Boecker, “Law and the Administration of Justice,” p.174. Quoted in North, p.394.

[4] North, p.393-4.

[5] North, p.396.

[6] Incest is noted in scripture as deserving capital punishment. The sexual abuse of children is not specifically identified, but it would appear that this too is worthy of capital punishment (see Ex.22:22-24; Prov.23:10-11; Mat.18:1-10).

[7] North, p.324.

[8] The mistreatment or torture of anyone (criminal or otherwise), has no place in a Christian community. To attempt to extract information by sleep-deprivation, “water-boarding” or other forms of abuse, is torture.

[9] North, p.412.

[10] North, p.1062.

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