If you pick up your Bible and open to the Old Testament, you’ll read things like:
- “For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:9)
- “That [false] prophet or dreamer must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the Lord your God” (Deut. 13:5)
And so forth. Definitely not light reading.
I do hold that such verses are truly God’s word, and so should any who claim to follow Christ (for He taught that the whole Bible, including such passages, are part of God’s word).
What I see is this in such Old Testament passages:
- Someone offends God (i.e. sins)
- They must be fairly judged
- If charged as guilty, they were killed
Now open your Bibles to the New Testament (the part that was written after Jesus died on the cross, taking on God’s judgment for sins [hint, hint]). And go to Romans 1 (or similar passages). What do you read?
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness…they are full of…deceit…they disobey their parents…Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death…Romans 1:18-32
This passage lists a litany of sins (and, sadly, every human can identify with at least one of them, and likely many more than one). However, I just pulled out 2 sins: (1) deceit, (2) disobeying parents. Simply because those are the 2 Old Testament verses listed above as deserving of death.
But if you look at the Old Testament passages deserving death, I’m pretty sure you can find it listed in Romans 1.
And, in fact, at the end of Romans 1 we read that, indeed, these sins do deserve death.
This passage tells us:
- people offend God for such things as dishonoring parents and deceiving others
- they will be judged by God
- When found guilty, they will be killed [and, even more alarming, die eternally in their sins]
So far, there is no difference between what the Old Testament says and the New Testament.
However, something happens between God’s wrath bringing death to sinners in Romans 1, and God saying: “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” (in Romans 8:1).
Between the wrath of God on sinners in Romans 1 and the forgiveness to sinners later in Romans, we have the sacrifice of Christ spelled out. Namely, Jesus as righteous died in place of us sinners. So God’s decree was fulfilled: our sins deserved death (as shown in O.T. and N.T.) and Christ paid that death. Everything spelled out in the Old Testament as deserving of death was paid at the cross by Christ.
However, for those who refuse to repent and believe Christ and his sacrifice as paying for their sins, they will (in the future) receive death and eternal death (suffering in hell) for their disobedience (as the Old Testament spells out should happen).
Essentially, you get to choose:
- Repent and trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection as paying for your sins
- Face God on your own and receive eternal death for your sins
Let’s illustrate this in another way. In Exodus 12 we read about the Passover feast. In this feast, all those in Egypt would be judged at midnight for sin. If you killed a spotless lamb, then presented the blood of this lamb at your door, the judgment was finished for your house. However, sadly, if you were not covered by the death of the spotless lamb, then your firstborn would die instead. So come midnight, every house had death in it. Sin always ends in death, and every house had death. Either you had:
- A dead lamb
- A dead human
As you may already realize, Jesus is the conclusion and fulfillment of that spotless lamb (see 1 Cor. 5:7). He died for our sins, so on judgment day, if we plead His death on our behalf, God won’t kill us for our sins. The death penalty was already paid. If we don’t, we must incur the judgment of death we deserve.
The point of all this is that God has never changed his mind on what our sins deserve. In the Old Testament they deserve death. And in the New Testament they deserve death.
The main difference in the New Testament is:
Jesus paid the full penalty of death for our sins, so we now point people to Jesus’ sacrifice to bring sinners to death; we don’t kill them with our hands.
What if they don’t repent and believe the gospel?
So far, this is all well and good for the sinner who repents and believes the gospel. But what about those who don’t? Is there a place for Old Testament type of judgment where there is unrepentance this side of Jesus’ cross?
There are a couple other differences this side of the cross in thinking through this:
- Some of the prescribed judgment in the Old Testament is meant for Israel-as-government, and not for individuals to take on themselves. In Romans 13 (and 1 Peter 2), similarly, we are told the government is a delegated authority of God and they don’t bear the sword in vain. In other words, there may be arguments for capital punishment in gross delinquencies, but this is at the discretion of the government, not the church or individual Christian.
- Further, Christians are told in 1 Cor. 5 that they are “not to judge” the unbeliever – God Himself will judge them. We preach Christ to the unbeliever and lovingly explain God’s judgment to come, but we are not to mete out any judgment to them who continue resisting Christ in this life. This is no different than the Old Testament where Israel was to judge the sins of fellow Israelites, and not those of other nations.
- For professing Christians who persist in disobedience, however, the church is commanded to “judge” in the sense of confront the sin. In fact, one passage that spells this out is 1 Corinthians 5. And at the very end of that chapter, in making the case that the church is to judge Christians who live in sin (i.e. deal with and discipline the offender), Paul writes: “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?…’Purge the evil person from among you.'” (1 Cor. 5:12-13). Here he is quoting from the Old Testament. If you take your Bibles and go to Deuteronomy 17:6-7 you’ll see that it uses the same phrase in reference to judging and killing offenders in the Old Testament. Paul is clearly showing that the principle of judging unrighteousness remains, but the application of actually killing them is no longer active in light of Christ’s sacrifice. Instead, in 1 Peter 2, Christians are called “living stones”, so there is a different sort of stoning that happens when Christians confront sin in their midst. This sort of confrontation is meant to put to death the sinful self (i.e. the “flesh” and “old nature”), and certainly not bring the physical death prescribed in the Old Testament. As it says in 1 Cor. 15, “first the natural, then the spiritual”. In other words, God set forth a natural example of killing sin in the Old Testament that is ultimately fulfilled spiritually by Christians confronting (and putting to death) sin (but not the sinner) today.
Christ already took care of putting the sinner to death when He was crucified. And that includes all of us being spared that penalty.
Glory be to God!