We have come to the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is an understatement to say this is a chapter that provokes a response from many. Due to its overtly political nature, some of you have long been anticipating our arrival at this chapter while others of you have long been dreading our arrival at this chapter. There are thousands of questions that arise from Romans 13, here are a few. How are Christians to live in this fallen world while we’re still here awaiting glory? What is the Christians relationship to the world and the nations we live in, now that we’ve become citizens of heaven by the grace of God? Are we simply done with this world in every possible way and thus are not subject to anyone under the sun? Or do we have a duty to the state? If so, what does that duty involve? What exactly is the state and its function in society? What is the relationship between church and state? Should they be together, or should they be separate?
Some of these questions are simple to answer. Others are not. While the Bible tells us what the calling of the state is to be, and what the calling of the Church is to be, it doesn’t tell us if these two entities should be separate or not. In fact, most Christians throughout history have lived in cultures where Church and state were united. We must be aware that our current separation of Church and state is somewhat new on the scene of history. Has it worked better? Some have said yes, some have said no. But since our context is present day United States of America, allow me to say this.
That the Bible speaks about government at all is challenging for us. Why? Well, we live in a nation that was founded by a rebellion? ‘We serve no sovereign’ was the motto of the American Revolution. You think a group of people who had that kind of beginning will easily take to Romans 13? Not at all. We also don’t easily take to Romans 13 because we’ve lived underneath the idea put forward in the Bill of Rights that forbids the government from establishing a national religion. This principle of disestablishment has to do with much of what we now call the separation of Church and State, where these two institutions are intentionally distanced and operating in two different spheres of influence without the other interfering in its affairs. I think some have rightly said, ‘The State bears the sword of steel and should never bear the sword of the Spirit, while the Church bears the sword of the Spirit and should never bear the sword of steel.’ This is good, we want to uphold this, and I think our text presents the same argument today.
But, I fear for us for two reasons.
First, we have become so used to the separation of Church and state that it usually morphs into something unbiblical. We usually end up believing not in the separation of Church and state, but in the separation of God and the state, and that’s an option God never gives us. We cannot check out, and live as if government exists for itself and has nothing to do with God. And we cannot check out as if we have absolutely nothing to do with this present world simply because we’re now citizens of heaven. That’s an error many make.
But second, another error many make is giving too much of our hope and heart to political matters, as if this party or that party, this leader or that leader, are going to finally usher in the peace and the kingdom we have always yearned for. Many Christians did this in 2016, and perhaps are still doing this, with Donald Trump, just as many Christians did this in the past with figures such as Ronald Reagan and the like. Church, the hope of the Christian is only Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world that He gave…who? A republican president? No. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Only Christ is our hope, here in this life and in the life to come.
What I’m trying to say here, before we get into the text, is that no political party or system perfectly fits the Christian, so we shouldn’t make a home in any of them. Am I then suggesting that Christians are political orphans? In one sense, I am. We don’t fit and should not try to fit into any worldly political model. But in another sense, a greater sense, we’re not political orphans at all, for we have a true King, and we are His! But, our King does make demands of us regarding the governments we live under. What are these demands?
Let’s turn to Romans 13 for help. We’ll take two weeks to mine these seven verses, this week looking into 13:1-4 and next week looking into 13:5-7.
Follow along as I read the whole passage, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
The Command (v1a)
Right at the beginning of v1 we hear the main concern and main command of God in our engagement with our governing authorities. Submission. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” This word ‘subject’ in Greek indicates an honest willingness to submit to or to be brought under the influence of an authority. So when Paul tells us to be subject he is telling us to willingly place ourselves underneath our governing authorities. Paul doesn’t define the governing system in place, nor does he describe the kind of ruler we ought to be subject to. Be subject to the authorities over us, that’s the call. And it’s a call to every person, which also means that no person, believer or unbeliever, is exempt from this command. No person is free to be a law unto themselves. No person is unique enough or has circumstances special enough to free him or her from this call.
Now, that Paul is writing this to the Church is important to notice, because many Christians in Rome and many Christians throughout history have believed it was their God given right to rebel or revolt from or not be subject to governing authorities if/when those authorities wickedly reject God. Were they right to do so? I don’t think so. Why? Because of who was in power in Rome when Paul wrote this to the Romans. Rome was not a friendly place toward Christians at the time. The emperor Nero was in power at the time Paul wrote this, and it was Nero would eventually become famous for his persecution of Christians in gruesome ways. Yet, even to a government as this one, wicked and ungodly as it was, God called His people to be subject. So, question: if the early Church was called to submit to the wicked Roman empire, can’t you and I obey our earthly authorities today, who are by and large far less wicked than Rome? Of course we can. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”
But perhaps you might say, ‘I’m free in Christ, right?’ Yes, we have been saved by the work of Christ and our free in Christ, indeed! But, we can’t justify our disobedience to authorities with our freedom in Christ we now enjoy. It’s precisely in this freedom that God calls us not only to serve the needs of others around us, but to obey those in authority above us.
I ought to be clear here that Paul is not speaking of blind submission, not at all. There is a time when we, as believers, are to disobey our governing authorities. When is this time? When they command sin. When governing authorities tell us to do something God forbids, or to not do something God commands they are commanding us to sin. In these instances, we’re to disobey them in order to obey God. But, Church, in all else…Christians are to submit.
The Explanation (v1b-4)
But perhaps a question comes in here. “Why?” Why am I, why are we, to be subject in this way? Well, we’re given two reasons why in the end of v1, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Two reasons given as to why we should submit to our governing authorities. First, there is no authority except from God. And second, these authorities have been instituted by God. So, the state itself and each specific person in an office of authority within it, was God’s idea. This means we’re to submit to our governing authorities because they get their right to rule from God.
Is that a hard truth to swallow? I think it is for many Christians because too many of us view politics with an eye toward party’s and political agendas rather than a Biblical worldview. Once we remember our political life is to glorify God and be part of our spiritual act of worship we must come to see that the Bible, not partisan politics, is to be the reality determining our political worldview. So for example: one implication of Romans 13:1 is that President Biden is our current President because God put him there. You may have voted, you may have not voted, but above it all stands God who puts the President He wants in office. This is true of every President who’s ever been in office, and every ruler who’s ever ruled in every nation throughout all of history. Or we could simply say, no one comes into a position of governmental authority apart from the sovereign ordination of God.
Because of this there are dreadful consequences to rebelling against these authorities. v2 shows us the consequence of resistance, “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” Whatever type of government is in place: democracy, monarchy, socialism, etc., the calling and duty of Christians towards the state is one of submission, not revolt. The argument v2 is making is this: just as obedience to civil authority implies obedience to God’s authority, resistance to civil authority implies resistance to God’s authority. And those who resist God’s authority incur God’s judgment. What does that judgment look like? God tells us Himself in v3-4, where it says, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
A lot is held within v3-4. We see the governing authorities are called God’s servant (‘deacon’ in Greek) who bear a sword, approving of and encouraging those who do good as well as disapproving of and punishing those who do bad. It’s a two-sided ministry they have from God in which they’re to serve us. On one hand they’re to promote and maintain a good order for their citizens, and on the other hand they’re to be the avenger who carries out God’s wrath on those who disrupt this good order.
What is the good order our rulers are to create and promote? It’s simple. God provides governing authorities to protect and preserve us from sin. The government is therefore a mercy of God to us, in that its very presence discourages us from breaking the law and disrupting the good of society. One can only imagine the horrors of a society where there were no rulers or authorities. Sin and wickedness of all kinds would run rampant. Praise God He gives us authorities to prohibit that kind of society among us. On this good our rulers are to promote we could also go to 1 Tim. 2:2 where Paul instructs Timothy (and us) to pray for our rulers and all who are in authority for one reason, “…that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Interesting isn’t it? It seems that when it comes to politics the last thing in view is peace, quiet, godliness, and dignity. Yet, see it, the good our governing authorities are to promote, maintain, uphold, and defend is precisely the kind of society which allows its citizens to pursue peaceful, quiet, holy, and godly lives.
So Church, see what you’re called to in prayer: were to pray for President Biden and our other leaders, asking God to give them the grace needed to uphold and promote a society where we can live a 1 Tim. 2:2 kind of life. Among all your political beliefs, does this even find a place within it? We sin if 1 Tim. 2:2 is absent from out politics.
Now, let’s turn to the judgment our rulers are to carry out. Many have said government is a necessary evil. I think this text turns this phrase on its head: government isn’t a necessary evil, rather government is necessary because of evil. When anyone disrupts this good order God calls the government to punish them, and what they receive through the State’s judicial verdict, v4 says, is God’s wrath. These punishments include prison, fines, speeding tickets, probation, etc., even severe punishments like the death penalty reserved for the worst of crimes. These judgments executed by the State against wrongdoers in history anticipate the vastly greater judgment to come executed by God at the end of history to all those who do not repent.
v3-4 describe this with twofold ‘fear.’ “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
On the one side these verdicts and punishments ought to awaken us to a kind of fear and sober-mindedness to our governing authorities. Paul says, do you want to not fear them? Then obey them. And on the other side these verdicts and punishments cause a fear in us that frightens us over what our penalty could be when we’ve done wrong. This twofold fear is a bit ironic because in it we see that fear holds a true place in a healthy governmental system. And it’s also ironic because this fear prohibits us from doing wrong, which ultimately leads to having no fear of the State but feeling safe as a citizen.
Of course this should not surprise Christians because God also rules with a twofold fear: to fear Him is the beginning of wisdom, and from fearing Him men depart from sin. So just as fear holds a true place within the Kingdom of God, fear holds a true place in kingdom of man.
Now, this gives us a glimpse here that earthly governments, when seeking to promote, maintain, uphold, and defend a good society, reveal much of the nature and character of God to us. So when the governing authorities work to promote a good order, and when they punish those who disrupt that good order they are acting as God’s servant on earth. What happens when the government stops doing this work, and begins disrupting good order? It is the Church who calls the government back to what it should be doing.
To end I want to point out a few reminders:
Be reminded: Romans 12:1-2 begins this section…which reminds us that worship is at stake here.
Be reminded: God is Lord of the State just as much as He is Lord of the Church.
Be reminded: the gospel is more political than we realize. It declares that Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, that He sits in the ultimate seat of authority. He subdues us to Himself. He rules and defends us. He restrains and conquers all His and our enemies. During His humiliation we see His Kingly authority in His ministry, and right now in His exaltation, He still carries out His Kingly authority by being Lord over all things.
Therefore all governing authorities, though they may be over many, are still under King Jesus, and they will all one day give an account to Him for how they exercised their rule. Just as we will all one day give an account to Him for how we submitted to their rule.