There’s a phrase in Scripture used for men who “had understanding of the times,” to know what ought to be done, especially in political affairs and intrigue (see 1 Chronicles 12:32, Esther 1:13). I’ve seen it going around the last few weeks, and, while I don’t claim to be one of those guys, I do try to pay attention. I think that it’s timely that we’re here in Romans 13, and we do have application questions that are provoked *by* our current times.
And also, application is third; it comes after observation and interpretation. What does the text say, what does the text mean, then what do we do in light of the text. Our situation might enable us to observe things from different angles, but Paul meant what God moved him to write apart from our problem politics. While it is important to know the times, it is actually of first importance to know what God has revealed for *all times*. The quickest way to become irrelevant is to seek to be relevant, and the easiest way to be useless in our times is to be stuck in them. Before we appeal to the Constitution (which *is* part of the application for us), we need to understand the Bible.
Scripture teaches the good of submission for Joe Christian Citizen. Wives submit, children submit, slaves submit, citizens submit, and there is even a mutual submission. What governs all those is submission to God. So husbands, fathers, masters, and governors must submit to God, so submission to those men can never be absolute. God is the origin of earthly authorities, God determines the purposes for those authorities, and God has established boundaries for those authorities. Paying attention to the boundaries, or pushing them, is a lot of life.
In Romans 13:1-2 we considered God as the origin of civil authorities, and how *every* person—Christian and non—is called to recognize that *every* (civic) authority has been instituted by God. So those who resist face the result of judgment, which is probably judgment through the exercise of power by the human authority. This morning we’ll see the purposes of government (in verses 3-4). That’ll leave us at least one more message about our consciences and paying taxes.
# The Delegated Purposes of Government (verses 3-4)
Ruling is a lawful vocation, as in, God calls some men to wield authority over other men as a job. What is the job description? These verses provide it in *very* broad terms.
> 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. (Romans 13:3–4 ESV)
That first line is *oddly* positioned and *historically* questionable. **For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.** Knowing what we know, a *bunch* of questions come to mind.
Who in the world is Paul talking about? *Actual* people, Gentile/pagan/polytheistic men like Nero?! Before or after Nero blamed the burning of Rome on Christians and used them as human candles, and does that matter? How do these rulers identify good and bad; what is their standard? And what about *all* the times when rulers *are* a terror to good conduct, for one example, when they killed Jesus? And why does Paul feel the need to start with this “comfort”?
It is a surprisingly positive, if not romantic, presentation. It’s easy to imagine, but has it not been more frustrating than factual? Paul’s angle seems to assume that Christians in particular were suspicious of government. We would assume that they had good reason for suspicion, if not for **fear**. But still Paul says here that there is no reason to fear if you do what is good. Let’s keep working with that first.
This gets us to the two broad purposes of government: *approve/praise the good* and *avenge/punish the bad/wrong*. For what it’s worth, Peter makes the same two points in 1 Peter 2:14 while calling believers to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.”
Paul assumes that rulers can know and distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong. Paul does not say how they know. At the least he must have included the conscience, as he described in Romans 2:15. But for all he’s written about the law in Romans (even though we can’t be saved by works of the law) he doesn’t use the word law once in this paragraph. Yet he encourages Christians to keep doing good because the rulers will approve the good, and that implies that good is not subjective, that it can be recognized and agreed upon, even with ungodly authorities.
When the ruler acts according to true good and true bad, **he is God’s servant for your good**. Skip a sentence and Paul repeats: **he is the servant of God**. The word **servant** is *diakonos*, an intermediary, an agent working on behalf of, with an emphasis on ministry. So “public servants.”
So also, Paul doubles-up on the punishment of wrong. **If you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain**, he is **an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer**. To “bear the sword” is a threat of force up to execution and capital punishment, the death penalty. This servant is *armed* and dangerous. However, authorities who truly knew good and wrong would not execute every misdemeanor to death, so this represents the most extreme form of judgment (verse 2), implying that lesser levels such as prison, beating, fines were part of the toolkit.
These are *not* (necessarily) Christian rulers, but they are ruling in a way (mostly) consistent with Christian definitions of good and bad. Christians can explain the origin of the morals and the origin of offices, but they can also be thankful to God for rulers who may not know either, *while* also praying/seeking for the confession of the authorities that Christ is Lord. That would be better blessing, but it is not the only blessing level.
BUT. What if the rulers praise the *wrong* wrongdoer, as in Romans 1:32:
> Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:32 ESV)
Now we’re talking about not just neighbors, but legislators. “Can destructive rulers join You / And by law disorder build?” (Psalm 94:20)? “Those who frame injustice by statute…they band together against the life of the righteous and condemn the innocent to death” (94:20-21, ESV).
Really big question: do we have to obey *those* rulers?
I’m obviously building up some tension, even possible conflict. But the Big E on the eye chart is not hard to see, understand. We already know the answer to this Yes/No question. The answer is obvious. Let’s set it up again.
Verse 1 says every person must be subject to governing authorities because God appointed those authorities, and there are no qualifications. Verse 3 explains the purpose of governing authorities regarding good and bad, and does not offer qualifications either. But I think that’s because the answer is clear.
*We must **not** obey wicked rulers when they prohibit good conduct or require bad conduct*.
It is simple, in principle. You must not obey man rather than God (see Acts 5:29). So you must not obey a governor who requires you to kill your neighbor. No earthly authority has absolute authority, so because we know God and His law is above all, we *must* not violate what we know God says is good/evil. We cannot be in subjection “for the sake of conscience” to God (verse 4) and go against our informed consciences, no matter how Constitutional, how majority voted, how procedurally correct the legislation was written, or how loudly pressured or physically/financially threatened.
So I am arguing that all Christians agree that there are qualifications on being subject to the governing authorities. Of course we disagree about where the line is on the spectrum, from a law requiring us to kill someone (obvious wickedness) to a code prohibiting us from watering our yards more than two days a week (because of climate change concerns)(less obvious).
That said, here is a different challenge: why would be need to submit if we already only wanted to do good and that’s all the government wanted from us? We would be the governments’ favorites, but we’d be *agreeing* more than submitting. It can’t be that we submit only to the things we agree to call good, and yet, our submission cannot be to things we know are not good.
Human authorities/the officers of civil rule are:
- *Delegated by God, not absolute*. To be respected, followed, but not devotionally. Rulers are servants of God, and will give account to God. We cannot submit to a ruler instead of God, but as part of our submission to God.
- *Delimited by God, not unlimited*. To be acknowledged, followed, but not uncritically. Rulers are not infallible, and their power is not unbridled; God has set down boundaries. It is not weak to submit, it is wicked not to. That said, sometimes rulers are the revolutionaries, and must be resisted.
We are in times of trouble. It seems that the majority of our seated authorities are committed to their revolution of good and evil. It is nowhere near the first time men have called evil good and visa versa. But it requires us to be ruthlessly submitted to God, not cowards, wise as serpents, and looking to the LORD as our stronghold, to God as our rock of refuge (Psalm 94:22). More still to come in the paragraph.
Jesus told His disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). Oh, how tempted to be troubled we are, how often we are burdened by anxiety, especially when the wicked exalt and pour out their arrogant words (Psalm 94:3-4). Listen to Jesus, trust the Lord, let His comforts cheer your soul, live in His grace.
> The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (Romans 16:20, ESV)