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Augustine took the view that the Church should advocate in the secular realm on behalf of the wicked, that governments might not punish the wicked for what they deserve. This inspired a letter from someone claiming that to do so would, in effect, give approval to the actions of the wicked. Augustine responds in a long letter (pp. 71-88 in Augustine: Political Writings), and I found this point intriguing:

In my view, the only reason that a harsher legal code of retribution was energetically put into effect in the Old Testament, in the time of the ancient prophets, was to show that it is right to establish penalties for the wicked. Consequently, when the New Testament, in its forgiveness, warns us to spare them, it must either be as a saving cure which might lead to our own sins being spared; or else in order to set an example of gentleness, so that by sparing them, Christians might allow the truth that is preached to be loved as well as feared. (80-81)

I’m thinking of this in the context of whether or not the death penalty is lawful toward those who have murdered. I have typically favored the death penalty before (under the correct circumstances), but Augustine gives me a bit of pause here.

I think that I have often heard those against capital punishment articulating something to the effect of grace without justice, much the same as those who speak of salvation in Christ apart from the wrath of God. There is no gospel without first making known the wrath of God–Jesus Christ is not a great savior unless we are in great need because we justly deserve the wrath and displeasure of God for our sins.

Augustine seems to position himself against the death penalty not because it would be undeserved–indeed it would, he would say–but rather because the gospel should move us to behave like our heavenly father. We should absolutely uphold the idea of justice, noting that murderers deserve the death penalty; however, Augustine suggests that, parallel to the gospel itself, we should also advocate waiving the just requirements of the law in order that grace might abound.

Rather than either justice or grace, Augustine suggests full justice and full grace. Our kindness, then, should (hopefully) lead murderers to repentance. Even if it doesn’t, however, Augustine points out that God nevertheless makes his sun to rise and his rain to fall on the just as well as the unjust (Matt. 5:43-48)–that is, sometimes mercy does not have to be results-based.

Hmmm…I’ll have to consider this.

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