Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.
Through this text this morning God has something to say to us about calling our president "Slick Willy." He has something to say about Rush Limbaugh. He has something to say about a spirit of anti-authoritarian rebellion prevalent in our society and in the church. He has something to say about the moral foundations of civil law. And, most importantly he has something to say about the way God relates to all these things and what it means to be a God-centered Christian in a pagan or neo-pagan culture. It is full and overflowing with relevance for us. So let's start with the most important—the central—and then work our way out to these other practical matters of Christian living today.
Live to God
The most important thing this text does is put all of our social and political life into relation to God. The Bible is not a book about how to get along in the world. It is a book inspired by God about how to live to God. I love that phrase "live to God." It's not mine. It's Paul's. He said in Galatians 2:19, "Through the law I died to the law that I might live to God." The aim of life—including our social and political life—is to live to God. To live with God in view. To live under his authority. To live on him like we live on air and food and water. To live for his good reputation.
So the most important thing these five verses do is put our social and political life into relation to God, so we can live to God even in this seemingly secular part of our lives.
Let me simply take each verse just as each comes and point at this Godwardness in Peter's dealing with these social matters. Each verse mentions God explicitly except one (v. 14) and that one implies God's work and purpose.
"For the Lord's Sake"
We start with verse 13:
Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, (14a) or to governors.
What Grounds Our Submission
The key phrase in this verse is "for the Lord's sake." If you miss that, you miss the most important thing. There is a kind of allegiance to human institutions that is not for the Lord's sake, and that is not what Peter is interested in. It may resemble Christian submission on the outside, but it is radically different.
Christians do not submit to human institutions simply because they feel like it, or because they have compliant personalities or because the institutions have coercive powers. We do not look first at ourselves to see what we feel like doing, nor do we look first at the institution (like government) to see if it there are consequences for not submitting. We look first to God. We consult God about the institution. And we submit for his sake.
Why This Issue Is Necessary to Address Here
What makes this issue so urgent for Peter that he brings it up right here is what he has said in the previous four verses. In verse 9 he said that Christians are "a chosen race, a holy nation, and a people of God's own possession." In verse 10 he said that we are "the people of God." In verse 11 he said that we are therefore aliens and strangers here among the social and political institutions of this world.
All that raises the question whether we have any allegiance to the institutions of this world at all. If we are a separate "holy nation" and if we are "God's people" and if we are "aliens and strangers," perhaps then we should withdraw into our own Christian ghettos and communities and enclaves and have nothing to do with the powers and institutions of the world. Peter's answer to that is NO.
While you are in this world, you are (in different senses) citizens of two orders, two systems. This world with its necessary institutions, and the order of the kingdom of God with its necessary values. This is not because the two orders have equal authority, but because God is the ruler and owner of both, and when you belong first to him and his kingdom, you can be sent by him, for his sake, for his purposes, for his glory into the kingdom of this world.
An Act of Tribute to God's Supreme Authority
In this way Christian submission to the institutions of this world becomes an act of tribute to God's authority over the institutions of the world. You look a king or a governor in the eye and say, "I submit to you, I honor you—but not for your sake. I honor you for God's sake. I honor you because God owns you and rules over you and has sovereignly raised you up for a limited season and given you the leadership that you have. For his sake and for his glory and because of his rightful authority over you, I honor you."
So verse 13 subordinates all submission on earth to a higher submission to God when it says, "Submit for the Lord's sake." We keep the speed limit for God's sake, not because we might get a ticket. And all our driving becomes an act of worship.
God's Design for Government
Next . . . verse 14:
[Submit to kings and governors] as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.
This is the one verse in the text that does not mention God. But he is here. When Peter tells us that the purpose of kings and governors is to punish evil and praise good, he is giving God's purpose for them. We know this from Romans 13:4 where Paul says, that civil authority "is a minister of God to you for good . . . [and] it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil."
So what verse 14 expresses is not necessarily what Nero and his provincial governors aimed to do. It expresses what God designed government for. Nero, in fact, beheaded Paul and crucified Peter upside down. The proper aim of government is to dam up the river of evil that flows from the heart of man so that it does not flood the world with anarchy (as, for example, in Rwanda and Somalia). Governments do not save; they are to maintain external order in a world seething with evil so the saving message of the gospel can run and triumph on its own power. That is why Paul urged us in 1 Timothy 2:1–4 to pray for kings and those in authority—because he desires that the gospel not be hindered by upheaval, so that more people can be saved.
The Will of God
Next . . . verse 15:
For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.
We are to get our bearings in a pagan culture from the will of God (1 Peter 4:2). We are aliens and strangers. We consult our true Sovereign how to live. He tells us what is right and what is wrong through his book—our ultimate charter and constitution.
His aim for us—just like it was last week in verse 12—is that we live out such a joyful, sacrificial, humble, fearless life of goodness to others that their slander of Christianity will finally be silenced. "By doing good you may silence the ignorance of foolish men."
We get this strategy and the strength and guidance to live it from God.
Bondslaves of God
Next . . . verse 16:
Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.
What this verse teaches is that we belong to God and not the American government. We are slaves of God and not man (1 Corinthians 7:22–23). We do not submit to human institutions as slaves to those institutions but as God's free people. We submit in freedom for his sake. Not in bondage for the king's sake.
God has transferred us in one profound sense from this age to the kingdom of his Son. We have passed from death to life. But then for a season he sends us back into this age, as it were, not as we were once—as slaves to sin and guilt and the whims of this age and its institutions—but as free people, as aliens who live by other values and other standards and goals and priorities. We do submit. But we submit freely, not cowering before human authorities, but gladly obeying our one true King—God.
Our whole disposition of freedom and joy and fearlessness and radical otherness from this world is rooted in our belonging to God—which in one sense is slavery (because his authority over us is absolute) but in another sense is glorious freedom (because he changes our hearts so that we love doing what he gives us to do).
As Martin Luther said in his wonderful little treatise called "The Freedom of a Christian":
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
The key to that paradox is God. Freed by God from slavery to all human institutions; and sent by God freely and submissively into those institutions—for his sake!
The Progression of Honor
Finally . . .verse 17:
Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.
There is a progression here I think. First, give to all human beings (good and bad) a basic respect and honor. The way you respect a scoundrel like Judas and the way you respect a saint like John will be different. But there is a way. And we are to look for it and find it. It probably will not mean that the word scoundrel should drop out of existence. But how you use it will be profoundly changed.
Then, beyond that common respect and honor of all humanity, there is a special love that is to be given to "the brotherhood," that is, to fellow Christians.
Then beyond that common respect for all and that special love for Christians, there is a special fear appropriate to God, and no one else. We are not slaves of men, and so we do not fear men. We give them honor freely. And we love Christians freely. And we bow to God's absolute authority reverently.
"Honor all, love the brotherhood, fear God . . . "
Then, back to the basic honor—"Honor the king." Include him in the honor and respect given to all. He is not to be feared and he need not be loved as Christians are loved. But he must be honored. First comes our absolute allegiance to God. Next comes our affectionate love for other believers. Then comes our honor to the king and other unbelievers. The king is not God. Only God is God.
That is the main message of this text. But now look at a few of the implications for our life today. I mentioned four at the beginning of this message.
1. Honoring the President
First, I said it has something to say about calling the President of the United States "Slick Willy." Now it almost goes without saying that I find myself more out of tune with this president than any president in my lifetime. The month he was inaugurated I preached a sermon asking, "How do pro-life Christians honor a pro-choice president?" It wasn't easy then and it has gotten harder since.
But the fact is we must find a way to express our dismay at some of his views and some of his behavior while also communicating a basic respect for him has a person and a respect for his office which is ordained by God. "Honor all men . . . honor the king."
One way to do this is to let sorrow temper indignation. This doesn't mean you will only talk when you agree with him. It means that when you disagree with him, you will let the moral and social seriousness of the issue guard you from cheap, careless, insolent cynicism.
2. Rush Limbaugh
This relates directly to the second implication I mentioned at the beginning. The text has something to say about Rush Limbaugh.
I have no comment on Limbaugh's politics. But I can't help but think this text has a bearing on the spirit he exudes. I only want to ask you if you believe his prevailing attitude and spirit and tone (and the key word here is prevailing, since there may be times when satire has a place in the rough and tumble public forum) is one that you hope will be more prevalent in our social discourse or in the life of our church? Is it the spirit of one who honors all men and honors in a special way the king—the president? From show to show does sorrow balance indignation and disdain? Are there tears for terrible consequences? Is there a heartfelt earnestness and concern that goes beyond cynicism? I'm not sure about the answer since I have not heard or watched enough. But be alert that these questions matter, not just his political views.
3. Anti-Authoritarian Rebellion
Third, I said that this text has something to say about a spirit of anti-authoritarian rebellion prevalent in our society and in the church.
There is an inborn dislike for authority in all human beings. We are rebels by nature. Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit in order that they might be like God and determine for themselves what is good and evil. That has been our nature ever since. It's what we need to be saved from by the cross of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Some cultures foster this rebellious spirit more than others. Ours fosters it profoundly. Driving through Chicago I saw a huge billboard that said on the one side: "Image is everything," and on the other side in huge red letters, "Rebel!" The two go hand in hand. The one says that truth and inner reality do not matter. In fact they may not even exist. What matters is what you can get by the image you project. So it follows: "Rebel!" against anyone who tries to limit you by saying there is some standard for your inner life—anyone who says that image is not everything. Especially rebel against God because in God's eyes image is not anything—except a micro-thin cellophane wrapping around nothing—or around a pouting adult child stuck at the immature stage of the "terrible twos."
This text, with the whole Bible, calls us to humble ourselves first before God, who has absolute authority and absolute rights over us, as the potter over the clay, and then, for his sake, to humble ourselves before any institution that God tells us to. In short, the one remedy to rebellion is the grace of God making us submissive to the authority of God so that we can enjoy the all-satisfying fellowship of God and submit in freedom to institutions designed by God.
4. Moral Foundations of Civil Law
Finally, I said that this text has something to say about the moral foundations of civil law.
Verse 14 says that civil authority exists for the punishing of wrong and the praising of good. I can't do justice to a huge issue. But I can point. And what this points to is that the realities of wrong and right are foundations of law. If the civil authorities are to punish wrong and reward right, then there must be wrong and right.
I suggest that one of our tasks as Christians—not the only one, or even the main one—is to keep saying that. Laws (and their proper enforcement) rest on the reality of right and wrong. If we do away with right and wrong, laws will be without foundation and will crumble and all that will be left is anarchy.
It is not our job to save America from anarchy. Our job is to live to God in all of life—including the social and political parts of life—so that others may turn to him and be saved and give him glory. But in that process, leaders are honored, and civil discourse is purged of cynicism, and the rebellious spirit is humbled, and the moral foundation of law is strengthened. And this in turn reveals, for those who have eyes to see, that living unto God is good for the world.