MESSAGE FOR AUGUST 20, 2000 FROM ROMANS 13:1-7
This week, as we begin chapter 13 of Romans, Paul shifts to a new topic. To see the bigger context, we must remember that Romans chapters 12 through the middle of 15 all treat the same broad topic. That is, how the gospel should impact a person/community that has truly accepted it. In 12:1-2, Paul sets the stage for this section when he said, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. 2Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.” This section of Romans spells out how this call of the gospel to be totally committed to God applies to several specific areas of Christian living. Last week, we finished the first area Paul focussed on, Christian community. We saw numerous specific ways in which this transformed, all-out committed life is to impact how we relate to each other as a community of believers and how we relate to the evil present outside the community of Christ. We saw that Paul’s overarching command in this last section of chapter 12 is, “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” As believers we are not to simply ignore evil or avoid evil, we are to overcome it. We are to take the evil in our world and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, conquer it with good. When we see our enemies hungry, feed them—thirsty, give them a drink. That is the Christian life as Paul sees it here. That is how a transformed life is to respond to evil. That is how a renewed mind thinks about evil—as something to be conquered with good.
In chapter 13, Paul turns from how a person transformed by the gospel is to relate to other believers and their enemies to how is a believer to respond to the civil authorities. How is a believer, a member God’s family to relate to civil officials? How are the citizens of heaven to relate to earthly authorities? How does the earlier command to “not be conformed to this world” impact how we are to relate to the civil governments of this world? Let’s read what the Holy Spirit has to say through Paul in 13:1-7 “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. 6This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. 7Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”
When Paul tells us to “not be conformed to this world” in 12:2, he is not calling us to ignore the governing civil authorities of this world. Paul does NOT see state authorities to be inherently evil, an arm of the satanic world system. Just the opposite in fact. He sees the common grace of God in the governing authorities. That is, that aspect of His grace that is given not only the church but to all the world. The authorities are actually an expression of God’s common grace. This text broadly answers two questions. First, what is the origin of civil authority and second, how are believers to respond to that authority?
Let’s address the first question and on this one, Paul is starkly clear. Paul’s answer to the question What is the origin or civil authority is God. The driving motivation behind how we are to relate to the governing authorities is that they are from God. In verse one he says, “…there is no authority except that which God has established.” The NASB is more literal and says, “…there is no authority except from God.” That is a remarkable statement—ALL authority comes from God. God has all the authority there is to have in the universe. He has however not hoarded this authority so that it can only given out directly by Himself. No, he has delegated others to do that so that His authority is actually funneled through various channels.
Paul goes even further. Not only is there no authority except from God, but He has ordained ALL the specific authorities that are in place. God is not wringing His hands wondering how various rulers will handle authority. The only reason they HAVE the authority is because He GAVE it specifically to them. Paul says, “the authorities that exist are established by God.” This is a remarkable statement, but here Paul is only echoing what the Old Testament clearly teaches. There are numerous references we could cite. In Proverbs 8:15-16 God says, “By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just; by me princes govern, and all nobles who rule on earth.” Daniel 2:21 says of God, “…he sets up kings and deposes them.” God’s sovereign hand is the controlling force behind every rise to and fall from power. Later in chapter two Daniel says to Nebuchadnezzar, the king of pagan Babylon, “…The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory.” Nebuchadnezzar had incredible power and authority and every drop of it was established and given to him by God. Jesus told Pontius Pilate when Pilate was reminding Christ of his authority to crucify him, “You would have no authority over me if it were not given to your above.” Do you see the irony there? One scholar has and points out, “Pilate misused his authority to condemn Jesus; nevertheless, the authority he used to do this had been delegated to him by God.”
Twice in verse four and again in verse six Paul calls the ruler of a civil government, “God’s servant.” They in one sense belong to God and work for Him. That does not mean He causes the evil they do, but as those in authority they must of necessity work for Him who has all authority. They serve His sovereign purposes in this world. They do not operate independently from God. For us in the United States that means the President, the legislature, the local authorities, even the IRS are performing a divine service. We may not like the way they are doing it, but they are established as authorities by God.
An appropriate question at this point is, “If God has established all authority then why does He allow corrupt governments to rule here on earth?” There are dozens of answers to that question but here are two. First, this is a corrupt planet, soaked with sin. The necessitates that authorities are going to be in some ways tainted with that corruption. Even the highest, noblest government in the world is and, until Jesus returns, will be, riddled with injustice. So, part of the answer is, it’s the nature of the beast—we have a corrupt planet and we will therefore have varying levels of corruption in our authorities. One of the geniuses of the American form of government is that it has built within it a system of checks and balances because the framers knew that people were corrupt and could not be trusted with anything but limited power.
A second reason why God would allow corrupt governments and corrupt authorities is to highlight His glory. You see, one day, there will be an earthly government wholly and completely under His control—the government of his Son. Isaiah prophecies, “And the government shall be upon his shoulders.” And he shall reign “from that time on and forever.” Revelation 19 says “He will rule…with an iron scepter.” One day, there will be a completely just and wise authority here because the authority will be the King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus Christ. And when He comes and runs this planet in perfect justice and perfect wisdom, all the other governments that came before—even the so comparatively virtuous ones, will pale by comparison. We will see just what an incredibly poor job that even the most moral, most wise, most fair minded authorities have done in comparison to Christ. We must always remember that God writes history from the back to the front and his agenda is always to show forth His glory. What better way to show forth the glory of His Son as the ultimate, eternal King than to give us 6000 plus years of civil authorities that have been temporal and filled with fraud, incompetence and inequity?
This is present, in part, to magnify the glory of the reign of the King of kings and Lord of lords. And I don’t know about you, but that reign, even though it will be radically different than anything we have ever seen, can’t come soon enough for me. One point of application here is this. When we see the foolishness and the down-right godless cruelty human authorities can inflict on people, instead of griping and complaining about it, we ought to use that as a cause to drive us to our knees and cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus.” And then get busy doing our part to bring the gospel to every nation so that His return might be hastened. We ought to overcome the evil of this world’s injustice by turning it into a motivation for us to, by our obedience to the global cause of Christ, bring about Christ’s return to govern this place rightly.
The second question this text answers is What is to be the response of the believer to these authorities and given the fact that all authority is from God, the response is self-evident. Verse one tells us we are called to “submit…to the governing authorities.” Paul repeatedly makes the point that failure to submit to the authorities brings consequences that are consistent with not submitting to God Himself. He tells us in verse three that if we do not submit to the authorities we should be afraid. In the original, it is actually a command. “Be afraid.” If you don’t submit, then be afraid because the government is an arm of God. If you fail to submit to an authority God has put in place, the only appropriate response is to be afraid.
The reason for this fear is that the government has been invested by God with the authority to punish those who fail to submit. In verse four Paul says the ruler, “does not bear the sword for nothing, He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” “The sword” as Paul uses that word here is a broad term for all kinds of punishment. The state is invested with divine authority to punish those who err. Parking and traffic fines, community service, jail time and certainly capital punishment are all included in this word translated “sword.” This idea is also seen in 1 Peter 2:13-14. Peter says, Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the King, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right.” These punishments are meted out by the earthly authorities, but ultimately they come to the offender by God’s will and authority. The state is God’s agent of punishment and discipline. We see this even more powerfully in verse two. Paul says, “…he who rebels against authority…will bring judgment upon themselves.” The word judgment is more literally translated “condemnation.” In the other two uses of this word in Romans, the word entails the eternal judgment of God. Though there is an obvious difference between going to jail or the gas chamber and going to hell, Paul says here that those who unrepentantly rebel against the state go to hell because they are rebelling against God.
In verse five Paul says that we are to submit to the authorities “not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.” In other words, the Christian should not be motivated primarily out of the fear of punishment. If the only reason we refuse to break the law is because we don’t want to face the consequences, we are functioning on the same level as much of the world. We see this all the time. The traffic on Central Entrance typically runs well above the speed limit. If the traffic is moving at the posted speeds, it’s a safe bet there is a police car somewhere up ahead. The people follow the speed limit because they don’t want to pay the fine. They are motivated out of fear of punishment. This should not be the case for the believer. The reason we submit to civil authority is because we know that in doing so we are submitting to God and we want our conscience to steer our path, not simply our fear of punishment.
How do we apply all of this? First, we need to deal with the issue of how all this applies if the authority comes to a person and says to them, (as it does in many parts of the world) you cannot preach the gospel? What was the Christian response, in light of this text, when first and second century Christians were called to proclaim Caesar as Lord? Clearly, this text has limitations in application and those are fairly obvious. Without oversimplification, the principle that is applied in those cases is when the word of God and government officials are in opposition to each other, submit to the highest authority. If the government calls you to do something which would cause you to disobey God’s word, then you submit to the higher authority, God’s word, and refuse to submit to the governing officials. In Acts five, the Sanhedrin told the apostles to stop preaching the gospel and Peter responded with, “we must obey God rather than men!” God had told them to preach, the Sanhedrin told them to stop. The apostles submitted to the higher authority.
Also, there is even something good in oppressive governments. One of my New Testament professors, Bob Stein writes, “Governments, even oppressive governments, by their nature, seek to prevent the evils of indiscriminate murder, riot, thievery, as well as general instability and chaos, and good acts do at times meet with its approval and praise.” Governments will typically work to keep order because they cannot survive in an atmosphere of chaos. This is a good function of a government even with authorities that are in many other ways, bad.
Beyond the ethical question of how to apply this teaching, is how this teaching fits into our daily lives. Most of us have no problem appreciating this teaching in most areas where we interact with governmental authority. We have no objection (and in fact are very grateful) for laws against murder and theft and fraud and trespassing. We are happy to submit to them and are thankful authorities are in place to protect us in those areas. Where we have less enthusiasm is in areas like the one Paul mentions in verse six, paying taxes. This is harder for us because we can easily (and sometimes accurately) point out inequities and foolishness connected with the tax code. We will get no help from Paul in justifying our failure to pay every penny we owe. He echoes Jesus call to “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” and what belongs to Caesar is, according to Paul, whatever he asks through his civil authority.
The American patriots who threw tea into Boston Harbor over the high tea tax may have been very courageous men, but they were NOT acting with any biblical justification. Pay the government whatever you owe them, period. As you do this, you are submitting to God’s established authority.
Other than taxes, there are other governmental authorities that we are less likely to take seriously as being divinely ordained, but they are nonetheless. These would include things like city codes for proper waste disposal, burning ordinances, speed limits, building code regulations and the like. Those are the expressions of authority we are much more likely to ignore. Though those kind of things are not of the same magnitude as laws against murder, if we choose to ignore them, we are sinning against God. When we refuse to comply with them because they are “no big deal” we are telling God that his authority over us is “no big deal” because they are expressions of his authority. We may be able to look at a building code or a speed limit or a regulation on waste disposal and give ten reasons why its stupid, why it makes no sense, why we don’t agree with it, why its unfair and why it’s a pain in the neck.
That is all perfectly irrelevant. Because for the Christian, our motivation for submitting to those authorities is not because we see them as reasonable, or intelligent or agreeable or fair. We are to submit because when we submit to those authorities, we are submitting to the authority ordained by God. And to fail to submit to God’s authority is sin and unrepentant sin brings consequences both in this life and the next. To fail to submit in these areas is to show that you don’t really care about rebelling against His authority. A few years ago, I was informed it was against a city ordinance for the sump pump in my home to drain into the city sewer system even though when we moved into the house, the sump was plumbed right into the city sewer line. Our house has a lot of water around it and this arrangement just worked beautifully. No muss, no fuss. I thought it was just fine and frankly when I heard the justification for the code, I thought it was dumb. I may have been wrong, but I thought it was dumb.
I knew about Romans 13 and how it applied to this situation. I knew that failure to submit to the ordinance meant that I wasn’t submitting to God through the authority He has established. But I deceived myself into thinking that because it was “no big deal” and because redirecting the sump water would be a pain, God didn’t care either. He did. Finally, after a shamefully long period of time, I called our plumber in and made the change and it has been a hassle ever since. We had to buy a long hose to get the water away from the house. When it gets cold, we have to disconnect the hose so it wont freeze. Its not nearly as simple as it was before…when I was breaking the law—when I was not submitting to God—when my indifference toward God’s authority was a clear sign of my rebellion against Him.
Ultimately, it’s not about fixing our sump line or following codes or paying taxes. Its about submitting to God. And in most cases the faithful Christian should not find submitting to the government all that difficult by comparison. A true, growing believer in Jesus has a standard of conduct that is so much higher than any civil authority could require of us, it follows that the authorities or laws of this world will not give us anything that will stress us too much. When you are focussing on how to love those who are treating you like dirt, how hard will keeping the zoning regulations be? When you are seeking every day to live out a standard of conduct that will be respected and admired, using Paul’s phrase in 12:17, “in the eyes of all” then how much more will you be willing to drive the speed limit? If you are taking seriously Paul’s command to overcome evil with good, then will following city codes on waste disposal be any huge chore? If we are seeking to please God in the so-called “radical” ways, as people transformed by the gospel should, then the requirements of our government will be no real burden. The citizens of heaven will certainly be exemplary citizens of earth without any problem.
Romans 13:1-7 tells us what we are to do if we are people who are, in keeping with Romans 12:1-2, living totally committed lives to Christ. If we are not submitting to the authorities, whether it be a speed limit on Central Entrance or Decker Road (two places I, I’m sorry to say, have regularly sinned) or paying every cent we owe to the government, or rerouting our plumbing to meet city code, then we have a spiritual problem with God. We are, in that area, living in rebellion and are anything but a “living sacrifice” to Him. God calls us to repent of our sin and submit to the authorities and do it out of love for Him. May God give us grace to see all our lives as worship before God and to live in submission to His authority.
Page last modified on 1/1/2002
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