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 the same reason 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 part four in our effort to understand Romans 13:1-7 and it’s implications for historic and contemporary life.
Summary of the Four Messages
First we stressed that all authority is from God and that the existence of civil authority and civil order is good for us. Verse 4: “He [the civil magistrate] is God’s servant for your good.” Anarchy, mob rule, vigilante justice is terrifying not comforting.
Second, we talked about why Paul spoke with such sweeping unqualified terms when he described the goodness of government, especially in verse 3: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” He knows there are exceptions to that. We answered: because he wanted Caesar and all authorities to know what ought to be, and he wanted us to lean hard toward submission and not rebellion.
Third, we looked at biblical examples of civil disobedience and what it should look like if it must be.
In this fourth and final part I believe we should focus on the way Romans 13 relates to our positive engagement with government in a country like ours where in a certain sense the government is us. That is, we should ask: How does submission to civil authority work when the ones submitting have created what they submit to? Or what does Romans 13 teach us about responsible Christian involvement with the processes of government in America?
There are at least two teachings in this passage that prompt the reflections I will share. First, is the teaching of verses 1-2 and the question of submission. And, second, is the teaching of verses 3-4 and the question of bringing the moral law to bear on legislative and judicial action.
Aliens and Exiles Whose Citizenship Is in Heaven
But before I take up those two teachings, I must make explicit that the apostle who wrote Romans 13 also made crystal clear that Christians are not first citizens of any human nation but citizens of the kingdom of God. Philippians 3:20, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Colossians 3:2-3, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” We are not our own, we were bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) by the blood of Christ who rose from the dead and owns us and rules us. Therefore Peter says, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Christians are aliens and exiles in America.
Jesus Christ is our king, and no human authority is above him. That’s why Peter says in 1 Peter 2:13, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” We submit to human authority because a higher authority, Jesus Christ, tells us to submit for his glory. When Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21), he meant at least: Everything is God’s, and when you have surrendered everything to God, then you will be in a position of rendering obedience to Caesar without committing treason against heaven.
So as I unfold the implications of Romans 13, keep the whole picture in mind. We are first citizens of heaven with a mandate to magnify King Jesus on the earth. And part of his mission for us is to enter all the spheres of society and culture with the light and taste and aroma and truth of Christ, including government. But I am getting ahead of myself. I said there were two teachings to focus on in Romans 13.
1. The Question of Our Submission in the American Context (vv. 1-2)
First, let’s ponder verses 1-2 and the question of our submission in the American context.
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.
What is clear from this passage is that it does not matter whether a government exists because a king has appointed his son to rule, or a tribal chief has defeated his rivals, or a people have voted for their candidate—all authority is there because God put it there. Verse 1b: “There is no authority except from God.” And we know that includes bad authority because Pilate, the man who ordered Jesus crucified, was a bad authority, and Jesus said to his face in John 19:11, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.”
So it doesn’t matter what human means brought the authority to power, and it doesn’t matter whether the power itself is just or unjust—this text says that God is behind all authority and that all authority has at least some claim on our submission.
The implication this has for America is that we are to be submissive to the governing authorities even if we ourselves, under God, are the ones who put them in place. And, as you know, there are two senses in which we did put the government in place and two senses in which we submit. First, the people established the constitution which, under God, is the foundation of our nation and governs us profoundly. The Constitution begins:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
So under God, the people ordained and established the constitution which now governs this country. Therefore, in America, submission to “governing authority” is first submission to a constitution. This has significant implications for the way the constitution is interpreted and applied—which is a weighty issue in American life at the present time. One implication is that a constitution (or a contract or a lease or a statute or a Bible) cannot have authority over us if we can make it mean whatever we want it to mean. In other words, if you don’t believe that there are objective, original intentions of the authors of the Constitution that define and control its meaning, then you will give to it your own meaning, and that is the opposite of submission to it. So one great implication of saying that God calls us to submit to the Constitution (including its due process for amendment) is that it implies that the Constitution has a fixed, objective meaning.
In the days to come, as appointments to the Supreme Court are put forward, we will be hearing much about how judges interpret the constitution. I am saying that implied in Romans 13 and in the Bible as a whole is the truth that documents can have authority no further than they have objective unchanging meaning. And the Constitution should have authority and therefore it should be interpreted according to the objective meaning given by the authors, along with all the proper applications of those meanings which the authors may not have foreseen.
I said that there are two senses in which we the people put the government in place and two senses in which we submit. The first was that we put the Constitution in place. The second is that we now put the President and Vice President and Senators and Representatives in place with our vote. These leaders are sworn to uphold the Constitution and so are a secondary authority in America. And then, of course there are state governments and city and county governments, and so on. All of these are “governing authorities” in the sense of Romans 13:1.
The point, then, is that our being the means God uses to put people in office does not make them any less a “governing authority.” Therefore, we should submit to the laws they make. In other words, my first main point from verses 1-2 is that even in a democratic, constitutional republic like ours there is real governing authority and there should be real submission.
2. Bring the Moral Law to Bear on Legislative and Judicial Action (vv. 3-4)
Now the second thing I think we should look at is the teaching of verses 3-4 and the question of bringing the moral law to bear on legislative and judicial action. In referring to the “moral law,” I am picking up on something I tried to show in the previous messages. It is implied in verses 3-4, and it is above the governing authorities (and that would include above the people who vote and the people who rule). Notice the words “good” and “bad” as I read and how the government does not define them but rewards and punishes them—or should!
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.
I conclude from these verses that there is such a thing as good and bad, right and wrong. These are objective realities defined by God, not by government and not by vote. They are what I call the moral law. Paul means that governments should reward what is good and right and should punish what is bad and wrong. The moral law is beneath and above the governing authorities because God is beneath and above the governing authorities.
I will only mention two implications of this fact for our Christian engagement with the processes of government in America.
2.1 One is that the universality of the moral law is what makes it possible for a pluralistic society to agree on enough things to hold the nation together. There is no guarantee it will hold together, because there are always forces at work to obscure the moral law. But it is possible.
The reason it is possible is that in some measure the moral law is written on every human heart. Paul says in Romans 2:15, “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness.” So right and wrong, good and bad, can be seen by non-Christians, but in limited ways. The moral law of God can be seen and understood by unbelievers the way a pirate understands an astronomical telescope that he has never heard of. He only knows the kind of telescopes that are made for seeing ships at a distance. He keeps holding it to his eye and looking out across the sea, but he can’t quite get anything in focus, because the telescope is made to help him see the stars, and it’s the stars that will guide him on the sea. And so unbelievers fail to use their minds and their moral conscience to focus on Christ and, therefore they never grasp the fullness of what the moral law is for—to see Christ and make Christ visible and glorious to the world.
But God, in his great mercy—what we call common grace—has been pleased to make some of his moral law seen by all men, even if imperfectly. This is why it is possible even in a very pluralistic society for citizens and legislators to come to some agreement on what is good for our nation (in a limited and temporal sense)—what is often called the “common good.” We should be glad for this. No pluralistic nation can hold together without it.
So Romans 13 implies that there is a moral law; it is the function of government to protect the good and punish the bad; this moral law is universal and can be known in part by all people; this universality of the moral law makes some agreement possible in a pluralistic society so that a nation can hold together; and Christians should be glad when by God’s common grace the external form of goodness finds its way into law.
That’s one implication of Romans 13:3-4, and the moral law.
2.2 The other is that Christians have access to God’s law in a more clear and authoritative way in the Bible, and we should shape our political convictions and actions by what we read there.
I will mention only two ways that the scriptures shape our involvement in politics.
First, we should use the Bible to guide us in what behaviors we seek to put into law. I would say it like this: Behaviors revealed in Scripture as essential to the common good—essential to the survival of a society—should be aggressively commended by Christians for enactment as law by every means of persuasion possible—with both biblical arguments and natural arguments.
One example. This would be true, I believe, for the present controversy over the nature of marriage and whether it can be redefined as a relationship between two men or two women. Marriage between a man and a woman is so fundamental to the survival of society that Christians should work for its legal protection.
If someone says that we are legislating our morality we should respond: Laws protecting marriage are in the same category with laws protecting life and property and contracts. But no one complains that the prohibition of murder and stealing and perjury is the legislation of morality. So no one should complain that the protection of marriage is the legislation of morality. Marriage between a man and a woman is a moral and natural reality so profoundly woven into fabric of human life and society that to undo it will probably be the undoing of our nation.
Other examples could be given. There are behaviors that destroy children. We call it abortion. There are behaviors that destroy the environment. And Christians should make a case from Scripture that God means for us not to burn the house down that he gave us to live in.
Here is one last way that the Scriptures shape our involvement in politics. One of the most important teachings of the Bible on public life is that Christians do not use physical force to advance the kingdom of Christ. Jesus said to Pilate, when he asked if he was a king, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting” (John 18:36). The kingdom of God in this age is established by one decisive means: faith in Christ. And “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). But faith cannot be coerced or forced by physical means. It is awakened by the word. Therefore preaching and teaching the word of God are the most precious freedoms that Christians have in this world.
Therefore Christians are tolerant of other faiths not because there is no absolute truth or that all faiths are equally valuable, but because the one who is Absolute Truth, Jesus Christ, forbids the spread of his truth by the sword. Christian tolerance is the commitment that keeps lovers of competing faiths from killing each other. Christian tolerance is the principle that puts freedom above forced conversion, because it’s rooted in the conviction that forced conversion is no conversion at all. Freedom to preach, to teach, to publish, to assemble for worship—these convictions flow from the essence of the Christian faith. Therefore we protect it for all.
One day Christ will come and end all tolerance. He will sweep away all unbelievers. But until he comes that is not our right or our desire. Our desire is to preach Christ and in politics to work, more than anything else, for the freedom that secures the rights for all to persuade and preach and teach and publish and assemble.
May the Lord give you great zeal for the glory of his gospel, and great love for the lost, and great wisdom and courage to commend his truth in the public square.