To the Romans who were under the rule of the iniquitous Nero, Paul wrote, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1). While God does not approve of every decision made by human governments, He has ordained them to be a terror to evil works, administering punishment to curb evil (Rom. 13:3; 1 Peter 2:14). Paul went on to write, by inspiration of God, concerning government, “he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Rom. 13:4). The sword was an instrument of death in the first century. Paul is referring to the exercise of capital punishment. As early as Genesis 9:6, when God was explaining to Noah and his descendants the difference between shedding animal blood and human blood, we find the injunction, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” Man is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). God gives humans an eternal spirit. This is what separate man from the animals. God forms the spirit of man within him (Zechariah 12:1). In God we live, move, and have our being (Acts 17:28). What does the giver of life say about taking life? To take innocent life is such an insult to God and man that the perpetrator under these instructions in Genesis was to have his blood shed by man. This seems to be the origin of God-ordained governmental punishment in the biblical record.
For human government to carry out capital punishment on the murderer was not itself murder. The law of Moses likewise showed this distinction in giving the command, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13), while also commanding, “He that that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death” (Exodus 21:12). It is not murder to put murderers to death. This is why the NKJV highlights the distinction by translating Exodus 20:13, “You shall not murder.”
In the teaching of the New Testament, Jesus acknowledged that God gives power to human governments to put evildoers to death (Romans 13:1-4). Pilate asked Jesus, “Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee?” (John 19:10). To this Jesus replied, “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin” (John 19:11). To unjustly put an innocent man to death would be a sin, but Jesus did acknowledge the power of Pilate to crucify criminals was given by God. When he stood before Festus, the apostle Paul declared, “For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar” (Acts 25:11). Instead of arguing against the death penalty under all circumstances, Paul stated that he would take that punishment if he were guilty. Festus found that Paul “had committed nothing worthy of death” (Acts 25:25).
While Paul instructs Christians in Romans 12:19 not to seek personal vengeance, he goes immediately into the role of civil government in exacting vengeance in Romans 13:1-4. A society that promotes the shedding of innocent blood while prohibiting the death penalty on those who have shed innocent blood is diametrically opposed to God’s revealed will.