he civil government is expressly charged with the duty of punishing criminals. Paul states that the ruler, the civil magistrate, is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. (Romans 13:4). That job description says a lot. We all recognize that crime is running rampant, and we all see that none of the civil government's promised reforms seem to do anything to stop it. What we fail to recognize is that those we appoint to do the job simply do not understand what that job is. They do not know what they are. It is up to the church to teach them.
First, the ruler belongs to God, and owes his allegiance to God. He derives his authority from Him, and is answerable to Him for how he conducts himself in office. Thomas Jefferson notwithstanding, the magistrate does not derive his authority from the people. He may be elected by the people (who are charged to choose a man who reflects God's character), or appointed by the people's civil representative, but he is accountable first and foremost to God.
The ruler is God's minister. The magistrate on the criminal bench sits as God's representative in the matter. Paul uses the word diakonos to signify that the magistrate is in a position of service to God in performing his duties. It is the word from which we derive "deacon." The civil ruler in the local jurisdiction stands in the same relationship to God and to the people as does the deacon in the local church. He must exercise his duties with the same degree of care that a deacon would have for the brethren whom he serves.
The ruler is God's avenger. Vengeance is Mine, and recompense, says the Lord (Deut. 32:35; Rom. 12:19). God has given that power to the magistrate, and it is his duty to condemn those who do evil, i.e. those who violate God's law. He is to repay them for the folly of their sin, and to demand that they repay those who have been wronged.
Note that the ruler is not exercising revenge on the victim's behalf, or on behalf of the state or of society as a whole. We are commanded to set our own vengeance aside, to give place to wrath, and to let God repay. (Rom. 12:19). We may not repay. We are to feed our enemy when he is hungry, and to give him drink when he is thirsty, for in so doing we will heap coals of fire on his head. (Rom. 12:20). But as soon as a man, though he be a mere man, steps into the role of magistrate, his duty changes. He is no longer a man avenging himself or other men; he is a minister avenging God. And to set God's vengeance aside would be, for him, a gross sin.
The ruler is an avenger to execute wrath. When God's minister is addressing the wrongdoer's sin, he is not sitting down to give a stern lecture, wherein he reasons over the negative consequences of anti-social behavior. Rather, he is communicating to a condemned man the anger of God at what he has done. God's wrath is being poured out on this man, and it is being poured through the magistrate's sentence. Punishment, true punishment, is being meted out.
Meting out punishment requires an understanding of what punishment is. God's Word is not silent on this point. God's law sets forth three basic punishments for crime: death, lashing (essentially, a government-sponsored spanking), and restitution. There is a conspicuous absence of county jails, state penitentiaries, reform schools, and hospitals for the criminally insane. These institutions reflect the unbiblical assumption that criminals are basically good men who just got off on the wrong foot. These forms of "punishment" treat crime as a product of ignorance (like thinking that two and two make five), or as a bad habit (like sucking your thumb), rather than as sin. They do not address the true problem, and it should not come as a surprise that they are ineffective.
The judge who forgets that executing God's wrath is the object of his sentence is on a slippery slope to lawlessness. The goal of the sentence is not reform or rehabilitation, although they are desirable results. No man is capable of making another lose his propensity to sin. The goal of the sentence is not penitence, though it is certainly hoped that true repentance will come. The goal of the sentence is to execute God's wrath so that He may be glorified, and that his righteous law may be upheld.
God's wrath is not to be executed in an arbitrary manner. When the accused is called to give account, he is not subject to the passionate whims of a fellow creature. He is subject to the judgment of God. And the magistrate, as God's representative, is bound to judge the matter as God would have him. He is to go to the Word, or to the judges over him if the matter is too hard for him, and render a righteous decision. He is angry, but his anger is not the fulmination of a man roused to sudden passion by the disturbance of the moment. Instead, it is a reasoned and well-settled response to sin. It is still wrath, but it is not random.
The object of this wrath is he who practices evil. It is not he who merely thinks evil thoughts. It is not he who has an unsaved soul and is still lost in his sin. It is he who practices evil. This is the man who thinks evil thoughts and acts on them, the man who does not have sufficient check on his unsaved soul to keep it from spilling out in an open pool of wickedness. The magistrate's judgment is thus a temporal manifestation of the eternal punishment awaiting sinners.
The existence of a godly magistrate is thus a check on those who, without the fear of certain punishment, might otherwise give
vent to their lusts. He is also an example of God's mercy, in that faithful exercise of his duties warns us of eternal wrath while there is still
time left to repent.