This past Monday I had the pleasure of having one of my teeth pulled. It was a most enjoyable experience. I cheerfully sat down in the chair, they numbed me up, and gently pulled my tooth right out. Wrong. I had to have a tooth pulled due to a failed attempt at a root canal from the previous week, and because my tooth was cracked it didn’t come out easily, not at all. It came out piece by piece and 3 hours later they still couldn’t get it all out. So half numb I had to drive to an oral surgeon who finished the job. Overall, not an experience I’d recommend to any of you.
Why mention this? Because I think for many, facing up to and hearing what Romans 13 actually says sounds as agreeable as getting a tooth pulled. But why is that so? Do we have a distaste for submitting to our governing authorities because we don’t believe in government? No, I doubt that’s the case. Well then do we have a distaste for submitting to our governing authorities because we believe our leaders are immoral or incompetent? Maybe. Or do we have a distaste for submitting to our governing authorities because we have an issue with authority in general and hate the idea that someone else can truly tell us what to do? That might be closer to the mark.
Church, do we believe Romans 13 is the Word of God, or not? Are we those who boldly claim to live by God’s Word, to love God’s Word, and to treasure God’s Word? Or do our lives display we really just do these things as long as the Bible sits well with us and doesn’t make us too uncomfortable? Perhaps, Romans 13 hits us so hard because we simply don’t understand how to work it out. That’s true for many. But perhaps, this all hits us hard because we do get it, and we just don’t like it. Wherever you are, however it goes with your soul right now, let’s pray for God’s help as we enter in.
Last week in Romans 13:1-4 we said two very important things. First, we are to submit to the governing authorities in place over us. We’re to do this even though our true and eternal citizenship is in heaven. And we’re to do this regardless of what kind of government we’re under. Second, the reason why we’re to submit to these governing authorities is because they’ve all been instituted by God and called by God to promote, maintain, uphold, and defend a good order among society, bearing the sword of God’s wrath as God’s servant, rewarding those who do good and punishing those who do wrong.
Today, we continue where we left off, looking at Romans 13:5-7. But let’s first read all seven verses here so that we keep the whole of it in mind as we narrow in on the end of it.
Romans 13:1-7, “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.”
v5 begins with a ‘Therefore’ which of course means ‘because of all we learned back in v1-4 here is how you and I are to respond.’ So, how are we to respond? In v5, we find a repetition of v1, we must be in subjection to our governing authorities. That’s two times in 5 verses it is stated that Christians are to be people characterized by submission to civil authorities. I think God knows we need this repetition, because what comes naturally to us? Rebellion not submission. We need to be reminded. Well, we know the what, and we know some of the why, but here in v5-7 he lays out more of the why for us. In v5 two reasons are given to us, and in v6 one reason is given to us. Let’s take these one at a time.
Reason 1: Avoiding God’s Wrath (v5a)
We must be in subjection to authorities in order to avoid God’s wrath.
Remember what he’s told us before, the government is God’s servant who bears God’s sword against those who disrupt the good order by breaking the laws of society. When the authorities use this sword to punish wrongdoers they bring judgment, as v2 says. In receiving this judgment or punishment brought down on them through the judicial system, the wrongdoer is really receiving is the wrath of God as v3-4 says. What’s new in v5 for the argument is that Paul uses this line of reasoning to encourage our submission to authorities. He is basically asking us the questions, ‘Do you want to avoid the judicial judgment of the government? Do you want to avoid the sword they bear as God’s avenging servant? Do you want to avoid the wrath of God?’ His answer to us is clear, ‘Submit to your authorities and don’t break their laws. By doing this you will avoid the wrath of God.’
Holly and I often tell our kids that they need to learn obedience now, so they don’t go to jail when they’re older. Good parenting huh? Let me explain. The reason they need to obey us now is because God has given us to them to love them, teach them, guide them, and correct them. If our kids disobey us now, they get a spanking, or some other punishment. If they disobey their authorities when they get older and have moved out, they won’t get spanked, they could go to jail. One of the true motivations for obedience is to avoid God’s wrath.
So, ‘Do you want to avoid the wrath of the state? Submit to the state. Do you want to avoid arrest? Submit to the law. Do you want to avoid a costly ticket? Submit to the speed limit. Do you want to avoid the death penalty? Don’t take another’s life. While most of us would notice that these questions are common sense most of us do not give attention to the underlying principle being taught here. Because governing authorities are called to punish those who disrupt the good order and because they’re called to bear the sword as an avenger of God’s wrath against the wrongdoer…what is illegal for common citizens like you and I is legal for them. Do you see this? The proper use of force is a God-given right and responsibility our authorities have. Unless specific circumstances are in view, it’s not legal for you and I to use force against our neighbor or a group of people regardless how we feel about them. Force is not given into the hands of the citizen, it’s given into the hands of the authorities to uphold and maintain good order among society.
This is all well and good, but the reality is that when these clear principles are put into action in our fallen world, they can get very complex to work out, such that even the most sincere of believers can find themselves in disagreement. On one hand, God didn’t give the right and responsibility of force to citizens, which, I think, means revolution and rebellion are usually sinful because 99% of revolutions encourage citizens to use what God hasn’t given them – force. Yet on the other hand, when the right and responsibility of force is misused or abused by our authorities it creates an environment where revolution and rebellion are bound to happen. So a kind of ‘trickle down’ is effect is in play here. When governing authorities go bad and begin functioning outside of their God-intended role, it pushes the citizens to live outside of their God-intended role as well. All in all, disobedience to God’s commands, whether the governments or our own as citizens, won’t lead to anything good.
We must be in subjection to our governing authorities, reason #1, to avoid God’s wrath.
Reason 2: For The Sake of Conscience (v5b)
We not only must be in subjection to authorities to avoid God’s wrath, we also must be in subjection for the sake of our conscience.
Is this surprising to you that Paul would bring up our conscience here? What comes to mind when you hear the word conscience? Personal opinions or convictions? I think of right and wrong, and I think of guilt. I think this because the conscience functions as our God-given inner sense of morality, our inner sense of right and wrong. So we cannot help but feel at ease when we do what is right and cannot help but feel guilt when we do wrong. The Latin roots of the word conscience even put this on display – ‘con’ means with while ‘science’ means knowledge – thus when we do something good or bad we have an ‘inner knowledge’ that what we’re doing is either right or wrong.
We all know what this feels like don’t we? Let me give you an example, this happened to Holly and I a while ago. I was driving on I-75, going 75 mph when the speed limit is 70 mph. Everything is going smoothly but then a big semi begins doing what big semi’s should never do, driving slow in the fast lane. 5 or 6 cars in front of us moved over a lane and pass the semi quickly so they don’t have to slow down. I did the same and increased my speed to 80 mph. Well just as I was pulling in front of the semi we see a state trooper with his radar gun out aimed directly at us, lights come on, and he pulls us over. Whose fault was this? Was it the truck driver who was driving to slowly? Was it the other 5 or 6 cars that sped up and encouraged me to do the same? No. The fault is mine. It doesn’t matter how slow the semi was going, it doesn’t matter how many cars did the exact same thing I did, I was speeding, and I got caught. Though I hated it at the time, there was something telling me that I really do deserve the speeding ticket. Something that told me of my guilt, my conscience.
Even if we push those feelings way down and deny their existence, that still soft voice always seems to eventually make its way to the surface. And sadly, rather than doing the hard work of having a clear conscience, people usually justify their wrongs done so often that their conscience becomes seared and ceases feeling anything at all. This Greek word translated here as ‘conscience’ is used 32 times in the New Testament. In all these times the word pops us we learn the conscience can be many things: good, weak, pure, defiled, or even evil. When Adam and Eve sinned and ate the fruit they lost many things but they did gain one thing – the curse of an unclear conscience.
All this to say, when it comes to the Christian’s involvement with government, according to the Bible, the clarity of our conscience really matters. It’s in the conscience where we find a sense of responsibility and obligation to our governing authorities, that conforming our lives according to the laws of the state is good while rebelling against the laws of the state is bad. As the proper use of force is a gift of God to the government, the conscience is a gift of God to all. Many a man has been ushered into deep peace from the freedom a clear conscience brings…think of the apostles and early Church martyrs who died knowing they did all they could do to proclaim the gospel. Just as many a man has been driven mad, tortured, and vexed from the terror a guilty conscience brings…think of Judas, who tried to return the silver he received for betraying Christ.
We must be in subjection to our governing authorities, reason #2, for the sake of conscience.
Reason 3: To Pay Taxes (v6)
v6 says, “For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.”
Did it startle you to see what v6 is about? It’s about taxes. God surely knows the human heart better than anyone because out of all the implications He could have communicated to the apostle Paul through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to write down here, when speaking of our submission to our governing authorities and what it really looks like God brings up taxes. Why bring this up at all? Paying taxes is one of the most tangible ways we submit to the government.
If we’re honest, this rubs us the wrong way. History proves this. As long as mankind has been around the number one cause of revolt and rebellion worldwide has been taxation. In fact in the 20th and 21st centuries alone there have been almost 200 large-scale revolutions or uprisings worldwide due to anger over taxation. This reveals that man cares deeply about money, too deeply. Yet throughout the whole of the Bible there are only two groups of people that God commands us to support financially. Government and Ministers of the gospel. Tithes to the Church – taxes to the government. In fact, we could say it like this: ministers of the gospel, and ministers of the state. Did you see that Paul calls our governing authorities ministers? Far too often we conclude the state to be utterly secular, yet here God speaks of its sacred nature.
This is timely for us, because its tax season! We joke about taxes being as sure and certain as death, and we begrudgingly pay them when the time comes. But by bringing up our responsibility to pay taxes, and because that is part of the submission to authorities God calls us to…question: who is ultimately honored when we pay taxes faithfully? God. Who then is ultimately dishonored when we seek to get out of taxes? God. Lesson? Everything in our life has everything to do with God. So, in all of life, we should seek to honor God. And here, in this instance, by paying our taxes as we ought to, we bring honor to God, and we obey this text as well as Jesus’ own command to ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God’s what is God’s.’
To sum all of this up Paul summarizes in v7, “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.”
We must come to a healthy balance. We don’t want to complicate or muddle the clear simple teaching of Romans 13:1-7 by endless qualifications. It is crystal clear that every one of our governing authorities have been ordained by God and because of such truth the Christian attitude toward the state isn’t to be rebellion or revolt, it’s to be submission. We should give thanks to God for the state, we should give thanks to the state for doing this hard work, we should pray for them, and we should submit to them. We could say it like this. Romans 13 teaches that we’re to submit to our governing authorities as they are, not as they ought to be. Yet we must never place the state in a God-like position over us. God alone has our highest allegiance. So, we should be ready to disobey the state if they command us to disobey God.
I’d like to end now by addressing the three possible responses to this chapter.
First, the glad heart. This person sees this chapter, hears the call, and eagerly submits to our governing authorities because to do so is to honor God.
Second, the concerned heart. This person sees this chapter, hears the call, and is concerned. Not concerned by obeying this but concerned with questions this chapter raises. Questions that are good and need answers. But nonetheless, though this brings questions, this person is still eager to obey God in this.
Third, the rebellious heart. This person sees this chapter, hears the call, and flat out says no. If this is you, hear me out. Do you really want to come to this section of God’s Word, hear it, and look God in the face and say ‘no’? Are you prepared to do that? I know there are things to clarify here, questions to ask here, but if you’re prepared to tell God no to this, far bigger issues are at work here. If this is you, repentance is in order.
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.
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.