The Christian's Responsibility to Government | Romans 13:1-7
Brian Hedges | June 6, 2021
Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles to Romans 13, and this morning we’re going to be looking at verses 1-7. Now, books on preaching tell preachers to always begin their sermons with a hook, and the hook is an interesting story or anecdote that’s intended to grab the attention of the listeners. That’s pretty good advice, and I often try to follow it. But sometimes the topic in and of itself is so interesting that the topic itself is the hook, and I think today is one of those days, because we are talking about the Christian’s relationship to the government. Religion and politics. I mean, is there ever a more potent mix for a controversial sermon?
We have probably all had heated debates, either in person or maybe online, about religion and politics and the intersection of these two things; and the Scriptures actually say something about this, and that’s what we’re going to look at this morning. We’re looking at Romans 13:1-7.
Now, let me say from the start that this is a complex issue, and especially when we start trying to get into application to our current day, it’s very complicated, and I’m not going to do justice to it. I guarantee it right now, I’m not going to do justice in one sermon to the complexities of this issue. I’ve been reading in this last week some of the sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Romans 13, and on these seven verses he preached 11 sermons! Eleven sermons, and his sermons were about twice as long as mine. That means I’m only going to do about one twentieth of what Lloyd-Jones did in this message, and therefore I’m asking you to give me some grace. If I don’t say everything that needs to be said (and I definitely won’t) or if I say something in a way that you wouldn’t (and I probably will), would you extend a little grace this morning and try to receive the word of God, everything that’s true from God’s word, receive it? If you disagree with me in some application, that’s fine; I’m not going to be offended.
Let’s look at the text, first of all, Romans 13:1-7, remember the context. Chapters 12-16 are giving us the application of the gospel, Christianity applied. Paul is calling believers to live lives transformed by the gospel, lives devoted to one another in loving service, loving relationships, and then in relationship to outsiders and especially to persecution, a stance of non-retaliation; and now he’s continuing with his commands on how we are to relate to those outside of us, and he turns to the Christian’s relationship to the state in 13:1-7. It begins like this: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” That’s the basic command.
Here are the reasons. “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.”
This is God’s word.
I want to break this down into four points: the institution of government, the purpose of government, our responsibilities to the government, and a hope greater than government.
1. The Institution of Government
The first thing I want you to see is that government is an institution of God. God has ordained that there be such a thing as human government, and you see this very clearly in verses 1-2. “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 who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed.”
Do you see it? Even the word “instituted by God” shows us that the state, human authority, governing authorities, is a divine institution. Just like marriage, which is instituted in the book of Genesis prior to the Fall, government is also instituted in the book of Genesis, we might say prior to the Fall in the sense that Adam and Eve were meant to reign over creation, but certainly in Genesis 9 you have the foundations of human government, even in a fallen world, where, in the context of the covenant with Noah, God gives this basic mandate for the sanctity of life, that whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed. The whole point of that mandate of capital punishment is to safeguard human life, because human life is so precious. I think that basic point is repeated here.
Certainly throughout the Old Testament we see affirmations again and again of the necessity of government. Now, we could, of course, go to the nation of Israel, but the nation of Israel. They were a theocracy; that is, a state, a nation that was ruled directly by God. There are no theocracies today. The United States of America is not like Israel in that respect. We are not ruled directly by God; our form of government is a democratic republic, not a theocracy.
I think more helpful for our context is to go to the Israelites in exile, and particularly the book of Daniel, where the Babylonians had come through, they had razed Jerusalem to the ground, and they carried off prisoners of war, one of which was this teenage boy named Daniel. Here is Daniel, who is living in a pagan society under a pagan king, and yet, when you read the book of Daniel, there are remarkable affirmations that still human government is instituted by God. Let me give you a couple of examples.
First of all, Daniel 2:20-21. These are the words of Daniel himself. He says, “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might! He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding.”
That’s just amazing. He is a prisoner of war, now in the household of this king, Nebuchadnezzar, a pagan king, an idolater, who has destroyed his homeland; and Daniel says, “God is the one who raises up kings and removes them.” It is a very strong affirmation of the sovereignty of God even over pagan nations.
Then, four times in the book of Daniel we read this sentence: “The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” Daniel 4:17, 25, 32; 5:21.
Isn’t this essentially what the Lord Jesus himself said, when Jesus was standing before a pagan Roman governor who would very shortly condemn him to death by crucifixion? Listen to this exchange between Jesus and Pilate, John 19:10-11. “So Pilate said to him, ‘You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.’”
The very first thing, therefore, for Christians to do when thinking about our relationship to the state, our relationship to government, is to recognize that government is a divine institution—this is true for all peoples of all times—and to recognize God’s absolute, pervasive sovereignty over all the kings and the kingdoms of the world. God ultimately reigns, and he reigns even over pagan nations. The institution of government. Paul recognizes that, and that is foundational to the commands that he will then give.
2. The Purpose of Government
But Paul says more. He also points out the purpose of government in verses 3-4. In these two verses, you have a very simple, very basic twofold purpose of government. Let me state it and then read the verses. The purpose of government is to promote good and to punish evil. Verse 3, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is 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.”
The purpose for which God has instituted human government is to promote good, to approve what is good, to protect moral goodness in a society, and to punish those who do wrong, to punish the wicked, to punish that which is evil.
Now, there is a connection here with everything that’s gone before in Romans 12. In fact, there’s kind of a thread that runs through Romans 12-13, the thread of good contrasted with evil. For example, Romans 12:9 tells us to “abhor what is good, hold fast to what is good.” Verse 17 says, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is [good] in the sight of all,” and verse 21 says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
In fact, in that context, as we saw a few weeks ago, Paul is exhorting Christians to a stance of non-retaliation towards persecutors. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Do good to those who do evil to you. “Overcome evil with good,” he says. One of the reasons he gives for that and one of the motivations is because vengeance belongs to God; therefore, we do not take justice into our own hands. We don’t take vengeance, we don’t try to avenge ourselves; instead, Paul says, “leave it to the wrath of God.”
Well here, in chapter 13, there’s a connection, because he says in verse 4 that the governing authority is “the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” That’s one reason why, when we are wronged in a criminal way, we are not to take personal vengeance, but we are to take recourse to the law, because the law is God’s appointed means of exercising his judgment on human evil and human wickedness.
What we see here is the biblical sanction for the governmental use of force. I don’t know about you, but I’m thankful. I’m thankful that we live in a society where there is such a thing as police officers who risk their lives, put their lives on the line in order to safeguard the wellbeing of law-abiding citizens and in order to deal with crime.
Think about what the alternative would be if we did not have police officers, if we didn’t have a government. What would be the alternative? It would be anarchy. It would be chaos. It would be every man doing what is right in his own eyes, as we see in the book of Judges. Just read the book of Judges some time and you will see what a society is like that does not have centralized leadership, that does not have moral law at the governmental level. In fact, every time in human history when there have been revolutions against law, without there being some standard of moral law in place, what you see is this kind of anarchy and upheaval. So the Scriptures are very clear here on the purpose of government.
However, here’s where the complexity comes in. We have to recognize that there is a distinction to be made between the ideal set forth in this passage of Scripture and the reality of government in a fallen world. Paul himself surely recognized that reality. He knew that Jesus had been crucified by the edict of a Roman governor. In fact, when Paul writes these words he’s writing to the church in Rome, the capital city of the Roman Empire. The emperor at that time was Nero, who just a few short years later will execute the apostle Paul himself by beheading.
What Paul states here is the idea, but we have to understand that governments only function well when the laws of said governments correspond to the moral law of God. When governments begin to promote that which is evil and punish that which is good, things become upside-down, and those governments are far less than ideal, are actually wicked.
Old Testament wisdom literature is very clear on this, the importance of righteousness for governments and for kings. Proverbs 14:34: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” Proverbs 16:12: “It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness.” Proverbs 29:4: “By justice a king gives a country stability, but those who are greedy for bribes tear it down.”
Therefore, in the words of John Stott, we need to “be cautious in our interpretation of Paul’s statements. He cannot be taken to mean that all the Caligulas, Herods, Neros, and Domitians of the New Testament times or all dictators of our times were personally appointed by God, or that God is responsible for their behavior, or that their authority is in no circumstances to be resisted.” He’s stating the divine ideal, not the human reality.
There are many historical examples of governments that become complicit with evil. For example, think about the Roman Empire and the persecution of Christians, or think about the suppression of freedom of worship and of religion and the persecution of Christians in countries today, such as in China. Or you think about, in our own country, the legalization of slavery in the first more than 150 years of our nation’s history; and then you think about Jim Crow laws in the American South even after slavery was made illegal. Or think about the wholesale extermination of Jews during the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, or think about government-sanctioned and funded abortion in our day.
These are painfully clear examples of where the government has used its authority to enact laws and policies that lead not to the flourishing of goodness and the protection of that which is good, but to the sanctioning and even sometimes the promotion of evil.
What this means, brothers and sisters, is that we have to be wise in our application. The best human government is only relatively righteous, never perfectly so, never fully conforming to the moral law of God, to God’s ideal. But sometimes governments turn moral law upside-down, they punish the righteous and protect the wicked, they abuse authority; they use it for evil rather than for good. Understanding that will shape our response to such governments.
3. Our Responsibilities to Government
That leads us to point number three, our responsibilities to the government as Christian citizens. In a phrase, we could say this: Our responsibility to the government is to submit, but with limits to that submission. We are to submit—that’s very clear—yet there are limits to that submission.
Let’s look at both the principle of submission itself and then the limits. The principle is established here in this passage. Again, verse 1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Verse 2, “Whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed.” Verse 5, “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” Verse 7, “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.” Submission; that’s the basic principle.
We could add to that our responsibility as citizens to do that which is good. Verse 3, “Do what is good.” We’ve already seen that in verse 12. We are to give thought to do what is good.
Certainly when you look at some of the parallel passages in the New Testament you have both of these things emphasized. 1 Peter 2:13-17 says, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right.” Almost exactly what Paul is saying here. Then he says in verse 15, “For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil. Live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone; love the family of believers; fear God; honor the emperor.”
That’s the clear emphasis of Scripture: Submit to authority, respect the authority, pay your taxes, give respect where it is due, live a good life, be a good citizen. That should be the basic default response of every Christian to governing authority. Titus 3:1-2 confirms this. “Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities; to be obedient; to be ready to do whatever is good; to slander no one; to be peaceable and consider, and always to be gentle towards everyone.” You will remember that Jesus himself said in Mark 12, “Render to Caesar, therefore, the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” That was in the context of paying taxes. We are to submit.
But there are limits to this submission. We submit to human governments in their ideal and even in their less than ideal situation, but when human governments begin to transgress God’s moral law and veer into wickedness, there are limits to the submission.
We see this very clearly in the book of Acts. The apostles after the Day of Pentecost are preaching the gospel, they are preaching the name of Jesus. The authorities come to them and say, “Stop it. Stop preaching in the name of Jesus. Don’t speak about this man anymore. Stop it.” They don’t stop. They keep preaching.
In Acts 5 they are confronted again. “Didn’t we say quit preaching this name?” Do you remember what the apostles say? They say, “We must obey God rather than men.”
That’s the principle of the limitations to the submission. When government authorities mandate that we do what God forbids, or when they mandate that we cease to do what God commands, that’s when there’s a limit to our submission, and we obey God rather than men.
Let me quote John Stott one more time. This is from his excellent commentary on Romans, which I highly recommend; also John Stott’s work on Christian ethics across some 50 years of ministry, or maybe more. I commend it to you; it’s very, very helpful.
Stott says, “Given that the authority of rulers is derived from God, what happens if they abuse it, if they reverse their God-given duty, commending those who do evil and punishing those who do good? Does the requirement to submit still stand in such a morally perverse situation? No. The principle is clear: we are to submit right up to the point where obedience to the state would entail disobedience to God; but if the state commands what God forbids or forbids what God commands, then our plain Christian duty is to resist, not to submit; to disobey the state in order to obey God.”
Now, again, there are clear examples of this both in the Bible and in history. Think about the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1. Pharaoh has enacted a law, Pharaoh has said, “Kill all of the male Hebrew babies.” The midwives disobey, they save these babies, and they are commended by God.
Once again, think about the book of Daniel. Do you remember Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? The king gives his edict that all are to fall down and worship this golden image that the king has set up, and they refuse to do that. They will not fall down and worship an idol, so they are cast into this furnace of fire, and God miraculously, supernaturally rescues them.
Or think about Daniel himself, who, when forbidden to pray, continues with his practice. Three times a day he opens up his windows, he prays in full view of anyone who wants to look, and he is willing to be thrown into a lions’ den as the price of his civil disobedience.
In history, we can think about the family of Corrie Ten Boom, who hid Jews in their home during the Holocaust. Or we can think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who strengthened the underground church in resistance to Hitler during World War II. Or we can think of Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands of peaceful, nonviolent protesters who marched five days, 54 miles, from Selma, Alabama to the capitol in Montgomery, Alabama in campaigning for voting rights for blacks.
These are all examples of peaceful civil disobedience in the face of state-imposed injustices. I think those examples commend themselves to us.
Now, when we think about our own day, of course probably the thing foremost in everybody’s mind is the whole issue of police brutality. We see the stories in the news. Many of us were shocked when we saw the video of George Floyd last year, and we wonder, how are we as Christians to respond to these issues?
Let me just say that I recognize the complexity of it. There’s complexity partly because we live in a big country and things are different in different regions of the country. I don’t think we can assume that everything is the same in every city or in every part of our country. We also recognize that we live in an age of 24-hour news and very biased media, so news coverage tends to biased on either side of the spectrum, depending on which website you read or which news channel you watch.
We also have to recognize that there are lots of emotions that are very strong, both inside the church and outside of the church, that there are competing ideologies at work, and that people, when they begin to talk about injustice and social justice, they sometimes mean different things than what someone else means when they use the same language. We have to be careful with our definitions.
In relationship to police brutality, I would say several things. I would say, first of all, that we should not assume that every time a white officer kills a black man that it is racially motivated or unprovoked, and neither should we assume that racism or injustice is never at play. Each case has to be looked at on an individual, case-by-case basis.
Certainly every time someone is killed by a police officer, it’s a tragedy. Any time a human life is lost, it’s a tragedy. Certainly when minorities feel threatened, our default posture towards them, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ, should be one of sympathy. Nevertheless, we should withhold judgment on individual cases and we should let the investigations take place and the law, in due process, take its course. We should remember that there are only two courts that ultimately matter, and that is the court of law and the court of divine justice, where justice will always in the end be done. We should care less about the court of public opinion.
Now, that’s my nuanced attempt to speak to the issue. I know that we’re probably in a variety of places, even the folks in this room this morning; but my plea is that we enter into these discussions with humility, with a posture of listening to one another, and slow to speak or make strong statements.
4. A Hope Greater than Government
When we think about the complexities of Christians’ relationship to the government, it actually shows just how great our need is for something more than government, and that leads us to the fourth point: There is a hope that is greater than government.
Listen, brothers and sisters: If you are placing any hope in our political system or in politicians of either party to make any real, lasting, tangible difference in this world, you’re going to be vastly disappointed. If you are placing any hope in political systems to bring about the kingdom of God, then you’ll be more than just disappointed, you’re completely missing the spirit of Scriptures, which tells us that the kingdom of God is established not at the point of the sword and not by human governments, not by kings and kingdoms, but by an utterly unique, different kind of king, a better kind of king, and that is King Jesus.
You remember what Jesus said? These were also his words to Pilate, John 18:36. He said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting that I might not be delivered over the Jews; but my kingdom is not from the world.”
We serve a different and better King! We are citizens of a different and better kingdom! And we are to live by a higher and better law, the law of love. In fact, the very next thing Paul will say in Romans 13 is all about this law of love, and I think it’s interesting how he frames the discussion of the Christian’s relationship to the state by talking about non-retaliation and overcoming evil with good in Romans 12, and then by talking about the law of love in Romans 13:8-10, and then by talking about the light of the coming day. He says, “Our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. We do not belong to the night, we belong to the day; therefore, cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” We are to live a certain kind of way because we are citizens of the age to come, not of this present age. Our hope is in Christ, the King; our hope is in the gospel; our hope is in the Lord Jesus and what he has done, not in human kings or kingdoms.
Let me summarize. When we look at everything Scripture says, it’s very clear that we should submit to governing authorities when they promote good and when they punish evil. We should protest when authority becomes tyranny and when the authority of the state is abused. We should be good citizens, characterized by doing good in our communities and by overcoming evil with good in our personal relationships, especially with those who persecute us. But most importantly, we should remember that we are citizens of another city, a city whose builder and maker is God, and that we are ambassadors of King Jesus.
I think one of the best examples of this outside of Scripture comes from a second-century Christian document called The Epistle to Diognetus, or the letter to Diognetus. If you get any copy of early Christian writings, you’ll probably find this. It’s one of my favorite things from the early church.
In chapter five of The Epistle to Diognetus there is a description of the lifestyle of Christians in the second century. Now, persecution was already on the rise by this point, and I think it’s striking the description of the way in which they lived. I want to read it to you and commend it to you as a model for us to follow. Here’s what it says.
“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country nor language nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own nor employ a peculiar form of speech nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men, but following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.”
Listen to this striking way of life. “They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners.” You see, they have a pilgrim perspective, a pilgrim mentality. “As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others, they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring.” It’s very early evidence for the Christian’s opposition to abortion and infanticide. “They have a common table, but not a common bed.” There’s Christian morality. “They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich. They are lacking in all things, and yet abound in all. They are dishonored and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified. They are reviled and blessed, they are insulted and repay the insults with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life. They are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks, yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.”
What a beautiful way to live. What an impossible way to live! How do we live that way? We live that way only through the power, the Spirit, and the grace of the risen Christ.
Brothers and sisters, be a good citizen in the United States of America, but more importantly, be a good citizen of heaven, be an ambassador for King Jesus, and live by the law of love as you continue your pilgrimage in this world. Let’s pray.
Father, we’ve looked at your word, and I’m very aware of how much there is to say and how little I have been able to say. This is a complex issue, and we need great wisdom for knowing the right application of Scripture to our lives in this present context. I pray that you would give us that wisdom, help us hold fast to what is good, and anything that has been clear from Scripture this morning, may we hold it fast; anything that has been unhelpful and out of accord with your word, may we quickly forget it. I pray that you would strengthen us by your grace, that you would fill us with your Holy Spirit, and help us to live in this way that is commended to us by Scripture and by believers throughout church history who lived by the law of love, who were good citizens, and yet who opposed tyranny and injustice and unrighteousness.
I pray, Lord, that as we worship this morning, as we come to the Lord’s table this morning, that we would come with submissive hearts to you and with believing hearts, trusting in you for your grace to help us live the lives you want us to live. We can’t do it on our own, and we need the grace and the strength and the indwelling presence of Christ. So strengthen us, we pray in Jesus’ name, amen.