Sermon preached on Romans 13:1-8 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/07/2013 in Novato, CA.
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Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“For They Are God’s Ministers”
As we continue to think about how a Christian lives in light of the gospel, this passage reminds us of our obligations toward the civil government. Last chapter talked about loving others, including our fellow Christians, strangers, and even enemies. Now, Paul turns to express the way we are to relate to the rulers in human governments. Surely this is something that people who lived in Rome, the political capital of the Roman Empire, would have thought about. And it is surely something we as Christians in the United States tend to think a lot about as well. I think it’s especially pertinent to us for at least two reasons. One, because we see how our government has trended more and more away from its Christian heritage and ethics. The growing atheism and increase of wickedness coming forth from some parts of our government causes our hearts to mourn and desire for change. Two, because our government is one where we all get to participate in at least some degree through voting and making our voice heard in the political process. And so we tend to feel a greater sense of obligation and responsibility to not sit by in connivance, that is in passive cooperation or assent. No, we tend to feel a responsibility to seek righteousness in our government. And so most of us here sense at least some concern about how we as Christians relate to our civil governments. Paul too thinks this is something we need to be concerned about. What we have here then is some biblical teaching on how we are to understand the government, it’s role, and our role within it.
And so today we’ll see what this passage says about the nature of civil governments. We will deal first with their institution and authority. Second we’ll deal with their role and purpose. Lastly, we’ll think about our role in relating to these human authorities. So, first, let’s consider the institution of civil governments. What is the basis for their authority. The answer might be surprising to you. God is the basis for their authority! Now to clarify right away: this does not mean that every civil government actually acknowledges this. Nor does it mean that every civil government actually looks to run the government the way described in this passage. The book of Daniel helps us to see this with the story of King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel chapter 4. There we see that King Nebuchadnezzar was taking pride in his position of authority. He was giving the credit to himself for his high position. And God gave him a dream and ultimately had him go mentally insane for a time until he realized the reality. That God
the “Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses” (Daniel 4:25). That was God’s way of telling a pagan king of a pagan kingdom what we find here in Romans 13. That God sets ups earthly rulers and he removes earthly rulers, as he sees fit. That their authority ultimately comes from God.
And so this is what we see here. Let’s do a quick survey. Verse 1 says there is no authority except from God and the authorities that do exist are appointed by God. Verse 2 applies that further by saying that if you then resist the government’s authority, you are actually resisting God’s authority. Why? Because God gave that government it’s authority! As a side note, that’s a principle that’s true in general. God has established lots of authorities in this life: parents over their children, a husband over his wife, church elders in the church, etc. Any time we try to subvert that authority we are actually fighting against God. Of course related to this is what to do when that authority is asking you to do something evil or wrong — well, obviously we need to follow God over man. And yet this passage doesn’t get into that, so we won’t focus on that today either.
Verses 4 and 6 further bring out this point that God is behind their authority by calling them God’s ministers, in other word’s God’s servants. Twice he says this in verse 4 and again in verse 6. The verse 6 word is a slightly different word for minister, arguably it’s a word that carries with it an even stronger sense of accountability to God. This is a very strong way to talk about the rulers of this
world. We talk about Christians being God’s servants. Here the rulers of earthly governments are described in that way too!
And so this passage has a very high view of the institution of civil governments. They are part of God’s revealed will and plan for society. Whether or not these rulers recognize that truth, is beside the point at this point. Keep in mind that Paul’s letter here to the Romans is likely written in the mid to late 50s AD. That would have been during the reign of Emperor Nero. Now, yes, that would have before Emperor Nero started his persecution of Christians in AD 64. But still, Emperor Nero specifically, and the Roman government, as a whole, certainly did not acknowledge themselves as serving the one true God. And yet Paul knows that God is still the one who gave them their authority, even if they did not always use such authority in conformity to God’s standard of righteousness and justice. What we are saying here, by the way, is that God is sovereign. There is not a kingdom or ruler that exists that is above God, or is ruling apart from God. It’s not like God’s kingdom covers so much, and these human kingdoms over here covers different separate realms. No, God’s rule is over all.
And so our first point today is to recognize that God is behind the establishment of civil governments. He ordained the concept and raises up and removes the specific leaders. God is not an anarchist. God is not anti-authority. No, God obviously sees a value in authority. That’s why we have the fifth commandment, for example. It’s why we have other passages like this one that affirm God’s ordination of authority structures. So then, let’s look now at what this passage says about the purpose of this authority. What should the role of the civil government be, according to this passage?
Verses 3 through 4 address this. Let’s read those again. Verse 3, “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.” And so to put it simply, these human governments are to promote and commend good and to oppose and stamp out evil. Notice the idea of terror and fear here. The government rightly doing its job should instill some healthy fear. This is not the fear of a totalitarian dictatorship that abuses its power. No, what Paul is describing is that if you are a bad guy, you should be afraid that the government will catch you and punish you. Verse 4 says it’s an avenger that executes wrath on the evildoer. Here you see how the government is a servant of God. This is one function of God. God doesn’t always immediately punish evildoers for their crimes in this life. Sometimes he stays their punishment until the final day of judgment. And so they won’t actually get away with it. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. If nothing else, that will happen on the final day of judgment. But often that judgment begins in this life, through the government. Whenever a criminal is caught, condemned, and punished, by the government, they do that in service to God. Again, whether they realize it or not.
This is the point about the sword that is mentioned in verse 4. The government, as part of God’s ordination, has some teeth. They have been authorized to use force to do their job. That’s the whole point of the sword. Surely capital punishment is in view here, but by extension whatever force is appropriate to punish a crime equitably. Remember the eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth principle. That’s known as the lex talionis principle in law. It’s all about equitable punishments, and it’s how God instructed the Old Testament nation of Israel to go about its justice. It’s not a principle to be used in personal vengeance as Jesus said, but it’s a principle quite applicable for civil governments. A similar idea is presented back in Genesis 9:6. There it says, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed.” And so the sword reference here in Romans 13 is representative of the power governments wield to enforce punishments. They are to lawfully use this power in their pursuit of justice and righteousness in the land. This should instill a healthy fear of breaking the law, as we mentioned before.
So then, our second point has been to summarize the role and purpose of the civil governments. They are to promote and commend good works. They are to condemn and punish evil works. In other words, they are an authority with regard to advocating justice and righteousness in the dominion for which they govern. Let us now then turn to our third point for today. Let’s consider what our responsibilities are toward these rulers. This passage actually says we have several obligations here. The first obligation mentioned here, of course, is submission. Verses 1 and 5 both mention that. This is saying you are subordinate to their leadership. They are in charge, you are under that charge. Of course, this will work a little differently depending on the type of government you are in. A traditional monarchy will function differently than the democratic republic for which we are in today. We actually have a way in which we are part of the government. We vote for our leaders. In California, we even often are petitioned to vote for things that will become laws of the state. But the overall government, with its laws, and different branches of government, all work out as our head. We are involved in the process, but there are ways in which we are subject to the laws of the land and the government in a more general way. This is why verse 2 says we shouldn’t resist this authority. Some scholars point out that this passage doesn’t use the more general word to obey the rulers. Normally, submission will involve obeying them. But the idea of submission is a little more nuanced. It recognizes that we obey them in the authority for which they have. If they overstep the scope of their authority, then we have cause for redress. This would especially be the case when the government tells us to disobey God, for example. Again, this passage is not really dealing with such subject, and we have to be careful to not abuse that thought so that you submit to the government only when you agree with it. Such is not submission at all.
A second obligation we have to the government is stated in verses 6 and 7. We have the obligation of taxes and customs. The fine distinction is that the taxes here are what would have been paid on people and property. The customs are the kinds of fees charged for the import and export of goods. Verse 6 essentially is saying that we are to pay these taxes because they are attending to this work of God in administering justice. The sense you get here is somewhat similar to the argument made elsewhere by Paul that we pay pastors because the worker deserves his wages. In other words, if the government authorities are going to do their job, they are going to need some money to accomplish it. Now, of course, in our government, we have some say in that too. We will need wisdom to determine what that right amount of taxation is. But once that’s been determined, then that becomes our obligation.
A third obligation given here is that of fear and honor. These are mentioned together in verse 7 and I will address them together because there is some similarity here. In the Scriptures, the concept of fear is used in different ways. but often with regard to authority. We are to respect authority for the power to enforce its scope of authority. Similarly, we are to honor them for their position above us. This honor here is probably not the honor you show someone because they did an exceptional job. (We should especially honor someone for their job performance when its well done.) But here it likely has first in mind that honor we show to people who are in charge of us. In other words, we already said that an authority is positionally over us. That means we should all the more show the honor of that position in both our words and our actions. This means how we talk to such authorities and how we talk about such authorities should come forth in our language. Cultural practices will dictate some of this. For example, with certain kings in Europe, you’d historically address them in the third person, “Your Majesty.” We refer to our leaders by certain titles, such as “Mr. President,” or “Mr. Senator,” or “Your Honor.” But of course it should be more than just titles. For example, if you write a letter to a leader in government, it would generally not be put in a form of a demand, but by way of humble appeal. Sadly this is an area lacking more and more in our country. Parents are surprised at how their children dishonor them too much. But yet we often don’t show them a good example by how we treat the leaders in our government. I’m too often appalled at frankly all the dishonoring language I hear said of our leaders by people today. Often we find that by well known people on the TV, radio, or the Internet, and we think it appropriate to talk that way about our superiors. But the Bible says we have an obligation of fear and honor to show to these authorities.
Well, I’ve used the language of obligation here. I’ve used this language because that’s the language of verses 7 and 8. Render to each their due. Owe no one anything. In other words, we are to leave no debt outstanding, but give to each what their position demands. Two additional motivating reasons are given here for this in verse 5. One, because of wrath. Two, because of conscience. In other words, we give the submission, and the taxes, and the respect and honor, due to our leaders, because of these two things. Because of wrath and because of conscience. The wrath idea is that we know that if we don’t meet our obligations to the civil government, we may get in trouble. If we don’t submit to the laws of the land and get thrown in jail, then we should have let the fear of jail motivate our submission! But even beyond that, we should fulfill our obligations to the government for a more fundamental reason: out of conscience. Because we are Christians, and God calls us to do this. If God calls us to submit, then our hearts should be telling us to submit. A good example of this is California use tax. The CA law requires Californians to report on our tax returns how much we bought of applicable items but didn’t pay state sales tax. This is like for things bought out of state or through the Internet. We then are supposed to pay the equivalent in use tax on these items. I am not a CPA but I imagine it would be very difficult for the state government to catch you on this line item. But even if the fear of possible state wrath is not a motivation here, our conscience should be. Because the law is the law and we are called by God to pay the taxes we owe. Even if we think we won’t get caught. Even if we don’t like the law.
And so these are some of our obligations to the civil governments that we find ourselves under. In our remaining time today I’d like to think about how this relates to the gospel and the message Paul’s been presenting in the book of Romans. Often when you read commentaries on this passage you’ll find people struggle to connect this with the gospel and Paul’s teaching. I mean, sure, we can connect it with the gospel in a very general way; Christ has forgiven us of our sins through the cross and now calls us to pursue godliness by his grace. Obedience to divinely ordained authorities is part of that godliness. Surely we could connect this passage to the gospel as simply as that.
And yet more can be said. Remember that Paul has been talking about the gospel. He said in chapter 1 that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. What all does that salvation entail? Well, Jesus connected the gospel proclamation with the kingdom proclamation. Jesus said in Mark 1:16, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.” The gospel of salvation and God’s kingdom are intimately connected. Of course this connection has been often misunderstood by people. The zealots during Jesus day thought salvation would mean being freed from Roman rule. Many Jews thought that actually, that this is what the Messiah would bring. And yet when Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom, and called people to believe in the gospel, he at that moment did not seek to overthrow the Roman government. Even after his resurrection, this idea of the coming of the kingdom in its fullness was on his disciples’ minds. Acts 1:6 says that when his disciples were with him in Jerusalem after the resurrection, they asked him, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” His answer was essentially that it wasn’t for them to know when that time would be, but instead they were to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit. Then they were to be witnesses to Christ throughout the world.
So, don’t miss that point. Let me summarize again. Jesus’ announced the coming of the kingdom and called people to believe in the gospel. But then we see that the coming of the kingdom, at least in its fullness, was not yet to be realized. We do, by the way, see, that there is an aspect of the kingdom at work in the lives of all true believers. God brings his kingdom rule in the hearts of all those who believe in the gospel. But in terms of the fullness of God’s kingdom reign, that kingdom has not yet come. When asked after the resurrection if now was the time for that fullness to come, Jesus basically says not yet. Instead he says that the church has a mission to do in the meantime. Witness to Christ. Share the gospel. Evangelize.
Well, then, what does all this have to do with Romans 13? I guess I could say it’s all about eschatology and understanding the times. Romans 13 makes sense in the context of the coming of the kingdom. Specifically, that the kingdom has not come in its fullness, so we have Romans 13. After the kingdom comes in its fullness, we will not have Romans 13, per se. Romans 13 is about how we submit to the human civil authorities, even with their shortcomings. Romans 13 is about how we can be okay with pagan governments, but still be about the work of the church. Romans 13 recognizes what Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom was of this world, my servants would fight so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now my kingdom is not from here.” This is related to why Jesus stopped Peter from using the sword to defend Jesus when they came to arrest him. The kingdom of God is not of this world. It is spiritually present on this world through the church. But it has not come in its fullness yet to this world. That is why we submit in the name of Christ to pagan governments, per Romans 13. That is why submit to them in the name of Christ instead of trying to overthrow them in the name of Christ. This is why we can give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s!
It’s our eschatology that makes sense of this. It’s our understanding of the times that makes sense of this. The church is called to witness to Christ and his coming kingdom. Not to take over Rome. Nor to take over the United States government. Now if the advance of the gospel results in government leaders becoming Christian, then praise the Lord. If the advance of the gospel results in some governments more consciously ruling from Christian principles, then praise the Lord. Should we, as we participate in politics through voting, etc, operate out of our Christian principles, of course. But should we see the success of our gospel ministry tied up with the state of our civil government, not necessarily. If our government becomes more secular, more pagan, more immoral, more hostile to the Christian faith, should we think that all is lost? No. In fact, even then, we should try to live out Romans 13 as much as we are able. Think of the examples in Acts. They lived in a political climate that was like that. How did they try to live? They worked hard in society and lived as law abiding citizens. But they also preached the gospel. And when the government leaders asked them to not preach the gospel, they still kept preaching the gospel — because they had to obey God over man. This landed some of them in prison. Paul included. But he still said to otherwise submit to the civil authorities. He could still write Romans 13. Surely there is an application to us today.
The reality is I know that many of us are greatly concerned with our country’s politics and direction of the government. There are many legitimate concerns. As a citizen of the United States, do pursue improvements and reform. But as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, realize that our success as a church ministry is not tied to your ability to reform the US government. Nor is your mission as a kingdom of heaven citizen one to usher in God’s kingdom through government reform. No, God’s kingdom is advanced in two ways: One, through the church’s witness to Christ and the gospel, the kingdom of heaven is spiritually advanced on this earth. But second, the kingdom of heaven is ushered in physically and in glory only at the return of Christ. That is when Romans 13 will have completed its purpose. Then we will submit to the kingdom of heaven on earth. Until then, let us joyfully live out Romans 13 until that great day. Amen.
Copyright © 2013 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.