PMW 2022-031 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

I was just kidding. But now that you are here, I want to consider the question: Did Jesus repeal capital punishment when he was challenged regarding the woman caught in adultery?

A reader sent me a question: “Many Christians are for capital punishment, but it seems to me that Jesus would be opposed to it, for in John 8:1–11 he told the Jews in that day that they should not capitally punish the woman caught in adultery. He challenged them with the legitimacy of such by stating: ‘Let him who is without guilt cast the first stone.’ How can we as Christians overlook Christ’s challenge against capital punishment?”

Answer: This is an important issue that is very relevant in contemporary culture and criminal jurisprudence. The question arises in regard to Christ’s actions in John 8: Did he forbid capital punishment by laying down the principle: “Let him who is without guilt cast the first stone”? I don’t believe he does; his statement is misinterpreted when used to this end. Consider the following.

by Ken Gentry
Summary for the case for the continuing relevance of God’s Law. A helpful condensation of the argument from Greg L. Bahnsen’s, Theonomy in Christian Ethics.

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First, we must always consider the historical circumstances in which a statement is made. Something is quite peculiar in this situation. Note that the woman was allegedly “caught in the very act of adultery” (John 8:4). But this present a problem: Where is the man? Those who present her to Jesus are notorious for false accusations in attempts to entrap Christ or accuse him of wrongdoing (Mark 14:55-57). This situation has the appearance of a false accusation designed to cause Christ trouble. And if it is a false charge the woman does not deserve capital punishment.

Second, when he demands “he who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (John 8:7) he is not dismantling the law’s principle of capital punishment. Rather he is calling for the careful keeping of God’s Law.

According to God’s law, witnesses in capital cases must not be guilty of the crime themselves: “One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits” (Deut. 19:15a). Christ’s “without sin” reference has to do with this judicial safeguard. It is not a condemnation of capital punishment but a demand that capital punishment law be carefully executed.

Furthermore, in the law the witnesses were to begin the act of execution: “The hands of the witnesses shall be the first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people” (Deut. 17:7). Hence Christ’s statement “let him throw a stone at her first.” The court witness, innocent of the crime, was to begin the process of capital punishment. Apparently this law was a safeguard to deter false accusations. False witnesses would be less apt to testify if his own hand had to begin the process, for his conscience would deter the shedding of innocent blood.

Third, quite significantly we should note that nowhere in the context does Jesus tell the woman’s accusers not to execute her. They themselves drop the charges and turn away (John 8:9-11). Apparently, these men either recognize the baselessness of their false accusation or are themselves guilty of adultery in that “adulterous generation” (Matt. 12:39).

Fourth, if we took your suggested interpretation of Jesus’ action, the whole civil jurisprudence system would grind to a halt. For then Jesus would be saying, “No one who has committed any sin may judge another in court.” No crime could be punished on such a perfectionistic standard.

By Ken Gentry

A defense of theonomic ethics against a leading Reformed critic. Engages many of the leading objections to theonomy.

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  1. mattojrgan April 29, 2022 at 1:53 am

    This was an extremely well thought out response. Thank you.

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