Consecration and Civil Government
Scripture: Romans 13:1-14
Text: Romans 13:1-7
Sermon by Rev. Benjamin R. Short
Orthodox Christian Reformed Church of Cambridge, Ontario, 1999
© Burlington United Reformed Church; The Preacher, Vol. 17, No. 5
This sermon may be used in worship services for free; please state the author and church above.
Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ:
We are considering consecration and civil government. I don’t suppose that we normally consider consecration unto the Lord as having anything to do with civil government. However, certainly when it comes to civil government, we all stand in need of instruction, do we not. For I am sure that as we look at this passage, we will all find ourselves guilty of the things that the apostle Paul says we should not be guilty of.
This topic is a continuation of the implications of consecration in the believer’s life. The apostle Paul has said that we should not be conformed to this world, but we should be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Consequently, our attitude towards the various affairs of life ought to be different than that of those who know not God and know not Christ. We have seen that Paul has shown the implications of that statement in our behavior and attitude within the church itself and towards our brethren-how we ought to behave, how we ought to use the gifts that God has given to us for the good of His church. We have seen general implications in our relationship to other people, how we ought to behave and how we ought to regard them. We have seen how we ought to behave towards those who persecute us, towards our enemies, and how we ought in fact to regard them not as our enemies. If we boiled down all the instructions, Paul is really telling us we ought to make friends of our enemies by doing them good. And now he refers to the believer’s attitude and behavior within the state.
The reason why the apostle Paul does so probably was necessity. Christians in the city of Rome were in a vulnerable position. In the early days of the church’s history, Rome regarded Christianity as a sect of Judaism. There was a sort of protection that was given to the church because it was associated with Judaism. For there were certain rights that were given to Judaism by the Roman state. The Jews had certain privileges in their worship that others did not have. And so the church had this protection. But it also meant that any attitude that the state might have towards Judaism that was not benevolent would also be the same attitude the state would have towards the church. And so for good or for woe, the church was tied to Judaism, tied both under protection and also under adversity.
The Christians in Rome, then, were in a vulnerable position because they were regarded as a sect of Judaism. The Jews were often seditious, both within Rome and elsewhere. The Jews hated Rome. They regarded Rome as their enemy because they were under subjugation to Rome and had to pay taxes to Rome. In Acts 18 we find that the Jews were expelled from Rome and they could not live in the city of Rome. Priscilla and Aquilla were Jewish Christians who were expelled from Rome. The Jews were regarded as dangerous to Rome, and as seditious. And Christians were regarded from the same viewpoint by the imperial government. The apostle Paul, then, writing to the church in Rome, may indeed have had reason to include this section in this epistle, because of the association of Christians with Jews. And so he writes this instructive passage.
The New Testament seems to indicate another reason that Christians were tempted to be anti-government. There was, in those early days, persecution. And that persecution was often due to the fact that Christians may have had a wrong idea of the kingship of Jesus. Certainly the Roman government had a wrong idea of what Christians meant by the kingship of Jesus. They regarded the kingship of Jesus as dangerous to the state: “If Christ is king, if Christ is the supreme Lord, then the civil government is not to be regarded with respect because it is usurping Christ’s authority.” That very well may have been the attitude of some Christians: “God’s people are under Christ’s authority, not that of the civil government.” And so some may have taken an attitude “We do not need to heed what the government has to say, and we do not need to heed the laws of the state, for Christ is our king and we are subject only unto Christ.” Actually, we find four New Testament passages where there is direct reference to civil authority and Christians are urged to respect the civil government.
At the time of the Reformation, certain Anabaptists took the attitude and line that they did not have to accept the authority of the civil government. They did not have to heed civil law. And so they rejected civil government. Some went so far as to repudiate all civil government and to set themselves up as a government unto themselves. They congregated in the city of Munster, and there they set up their own kingdom which they said was the kingdom of Christ, and there they proceeded to live their own life which soon became very debauched and wicked. Ultimately they were overthrown by the civil authority and crushed in a bloody battle. This was because of a misunderstanding of the lordship of Christ.
Many Christians seem to believe that the freedom of Christ that they have frees them from any authority. They have a sort of lawless attitude towards authority and resent authority. The only authority that they recognize is their own feelings, and that of course is really an anarchistic attitude and mentality.
Certain of the Jesus People back in the sixties felt that way. They were really expressing, of course, the anti-establishment mentality that came about in the sixties and the revolutionary attitude that grew up in the sixties and which affects us even today. It is this whole idea “I am a law unto myself, and I am free to do my own thing.” And that is expressed in the church as well as in society.
Now before considering the text, we must realize that Paul is not giving us a treatise of political philosophy or political theory. This is not a great treatise on what the state is and all that kind of thing. He is not dealing with abstract government. The apostle Paul is speaking to a concrete situation. He is dealing with government that already exists, government that is established and under which Christians live. He is not talking about various forms of government. He is not concerned about whether the government is a monarchy or an oligarchy or a democracy-that isn’t in his mind at all. He is writing to Christians and telling them to obey civil government in whatever form it is, imperfect as it is.
We must see here, then, in this passage certain principles, certain truths, regarding human government. These are truths which the twentieth-century Christians are liable to forget. Certainly the twentieth-century rulers have forgotten them. These are truths which run counter to a great deal of political thinking in this nation and in the world generally-and amongst Christians also, I expect. Paul does not answer some deep-seated questions that might come to mind. The apostle Paul is simply laying down here how Christians are to live under civil government. And we must remember that the government under which they lived in the Roman empire was not an ideal government, just as our government is not an ideal government, for there is no such thing as an ideal government.
Thus in approaching the passage, we must lay aside our own preconceived political notions and viewpoints. We must examine these notions after we have ascertained what Paul is really saying.
First of all, we want to see the general principle here in verses one and two. “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers, for there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God, and they that resist shall receive to themselves judgement”-
condemnation or damnation.
Paul speaks of the “higher powers.” Government is considered to be a higher power. He is really talking about authority that is higher than ourselves. Authority has to do with rightful rule. It has to do with those who sit in the seat of power and who administer that power. So the apostle is speaking here then of those who rightfully hold their office and exercise that office and all the authority that is entailed in that office. And he says that these authorities, these powers, are ordained, or appointed, by God. They are of divine institution. The authority is God-ordained, and they are God’s ordained authority. And then he says there is no authority except it be of God. And that is an interesting statement. All that is truly authority derives its authority from God. Any authority that appears and is not derived from God but is self-appointed is an authority that is invalid. All that is truly authority derives from God. Note that. It is by divine institution. The sovereign God who rules over all has instituted all the authorities that are and function. They derive their origin and their rights from God.
Now, brothers and sisters, this cuts into a very popular notion that first raised its head in England and gained ascendancy in France and resulted in the French Revolution. And that is the idea of a social contract, the idea that the state and the authority of the state derive from a mutual consent between those who are governed and those who govern. It says that way back somewhere in the very dawn of history, at some time or other way back in the hazy mists of pre-history, there was a time when the people gave consent to some people to form government and to rule over them; they made this social contract. That very well underlies most all political theory of our day: the state’s authority is derived from the people, and the rulers rule and have their authority from the people. The first who put forth this idea was Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan. Then was John Locke and his social contract, and then Rousseau, the Frenchman, in his social contract which was restated from a purely humanistic view and the Romanticist naturalism of his day. It resulted in the overthrow of the French monarchy.
Paul says the authority of civil government is not derived by social contract. It isn’t because people have given up their rights and said to some people, “We want you to rule over us.” It is derived from God. It is ordained by God, who is the sovereign Lord of creation and the sovereign Lord over all. And because that is true, because it is derived of God, he says at the very beginning, “Let every person, let every soul be subject to the higher powers. Let them be subject to the civil government. Let them be subject to those who rule.”
Now what does it mean to be subject? Well, it involves more than obedience. It involves more than a sort of grudgingly-given obedience to the state. But rather, you see, it is a willing submission to their authority. Let them be willingly submissive. It recognizes the need to be subordinate, it recognizes our subordination to the civil magistrate and to the authority and the jurisdiction of the civil magistrate. His right to rule, his right to exercise authority must be recognized by us. And we recognize it because it is ordained of God, not because he has some inerrant right in himself but because God has given him this authority. We could render the verse “Let every soul subject himself to the governing authority. Let him actively submit himself.” And so much is the authority derived from God, says the apostle Paul, that if we resist it, if we refuse to give to the government this rightful recognition, if we resist this authority, we resist the ordinance and the appointment of God. If we resist, he says, we shall receive the judgement of God.
Now this was the first point that we have to see here. The second thing we want to see is something of the responsibility of civil authority. First of all he states what our attitude ought to be towards the civil authority, what our responsibility is towards the authority, one of submission and recognition of the fact that its authority is derived of God and therefore we are obedient to it. But then also he turns to the responsibility of those who have this authority and this power.
He says, first of all, that the civil authority is a minister to us for good. That is the responsibility of the civil authority, to exercise authority for the good of those over which it is appointed. Now that statement would be disputed by many in twentieth-century Canada and twentieth-century America. Many of us would kind of think that the government is really a minister of evil. And no doubt there were many Christians in the city of Rome who thought the same about the imperial government. They could cite a great many injustices, no doubt. Nevertheless, the apostle Paul says the government is a minister of God for good, in spite of all those other things. And notice that-a “minister of God.” And it is repeated: “a minister of God to avenge the evildoers.” A minister of God-that is, it has the authority from God. It is God-ordained authority, and it is ordained to be a minister for good. That is the purpose of the ruler. And we are to regard the civil magistrate as a servant of God-God’s deacon, if you will-God’s servant-same word. For good. Ordained of God with authority derived from God. God’s servant in the sphere of rule and government. And because he is God’s servant for good, then we are to be subservient.
Well, what is the good here? What is this good Paul is talking about? I Timothy 2:2 supplies the answer for us: “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” That is the ultimate good: the good that the magistrate promotes is the good which promotes godliness and honesty, that allows us to live in a godly way and honestly. It is in the interests of piety, true piety. So the government promotes in the state a situation and an atmosphere in which piety and righteousness and honesty and godliness can flourish. Calvin has well said, “The Lord has designed it this way to provide for the tranquility of the good and to restrain the waywardness of the wicked by which two things the safety of mankind is secured. For except the fury of the wicked be resisted and the innocent be protected from their violence, all things would come to an entire confusion.” So if that is perverted, then chaos will be the result.
Then Paul says he bears the sword. Here again, you see, he is the minister of God. He bears the sword. And that means more than the insignia of authority. You know that in the ritual of coronation, the queen is given the sword of state which means that she has the authority to rule and to reign. It’s the insignia of authority. The ruler bears the sword in order to exercise power, in order to exercise authority. He wields authority. And that authority is maintained by the sword, by the instrument with which he can punish. He has power, you see, to take life. He has power to inflict punishment.
You and I do not have that power. You and I do not have the authority to take anybody’s life. The law of God says to us, “Thou shalt not kill.” But that law does not have to do with the state; it has to do with our individual lives and the way we act towards one another. And those people who are against capital punishment and talk about “Well, it says ‘Thou shalt not kill’” do not make a distinction that ought to be made. It is true-you and I have no right as private citizens to take anybody’s life. But the sword has been given to the state to punish the evildoer.
And the sword is an instrument to inflict death, if necessary. The ruler bears the sword. He has the power to take life. He has the power to inflict punishment. He is to wield the sword and to inflict fear in the heart of him who would do evil. And certainly, however, the predominant force of the sword is that of death. There’s no thought here of reforming the murderer. There’s no thought here of reforming anybody. The thought here is punishing, restraining, holding back from evil. The civil magistrate has the right-yea, he has the duty-to inflict death where the nature of the crime calls for it. He avenges evil. He restrains the wicked by his authority and by the punishment that he can inflict.
So note, then, the civil authority, a minister of God to promote good and to avenge evil. It is ordained of God to do so. He is an avenger to execute wrath upon the evildoer. What wrath? Well, not, I think, the wrath of the magistrate or the state, but rather to avenge and to execute the wrath of God, for he is the minister of God. And when he inflicts punishment upon the evildoer, he is bringing the wrath of God to bear upon the evildoer. In other words, the civil authority is God’s instrument to execute God’s displeasure and God’s punishment upon the evildoer. We could say that he is the instrument of God’s temporal judgement. He who steals is to be punished by the civil authority. He who murders is to know the power of the sword against him. Crime is to be deterred by the state, and the criminal is to be punished. The state is not to be concerned with the interests of the criminal at the expense of retributive justice. And if it does so consistently, it will bring about its own downfall.
Well then, there is the application of this in verse four. “Would you be free from the terror of this civil authority?” says Paul. “Well, do good. Abide by the law. Recognize that authority and obey it, and you shall have praise of the civil government.” He doesn’t say reward, but you will be allowed to live and to abide in peace. You will not have the government inflicting its power against you.
What is the attitude of the Christian to be then? Subject, for wrath’s sake. There are two things. For wrath’s sake we are to subject ourselves to the state in order to escape the vengeance of the sword. Those Christian free spirits who have no regard for God’s law and who live without any regard for order and responsibility will know the power of the sword directed against them. According to Paul, they deserve to have it so. But rather, because of this wrath, we are to be subject to the state.
Then he says, “For the sake of conscience.” Now this is the most potent statement for the authority of the civil government. Whose conscience? The word conscience is used by the apostle Paul frequently, and he uses it in relationship to God, our conscience toward God. This is not simply my own peculiar feelings about certain things but rather my conscience towards God, that my conscience might be at rest towards God. The apostle is really saying that we subject ourselves to the civil authority out of a sense of obligation towards God.
You see, there is an obligation to God in subjugation to authority, for God’s authority is in the civil authority. In I Peter 2:13, Peter says, “Be subject to every ordinance for the Lord’s sake.” Not merely to escape punishment, but because the authority comes from God, because this authority is His authority that is being exercised. There is the obligation to subjection because the civil authority is an expression of the upholding of God’s will and of upholding order in God’s creation. I obey without any consideration of what evildoing will bring in the way of punishment. Christian motivation, then, is higher than fear of punishment. Christian motivation is a regard of an obligation of obedience to God.
And remember, this has to do with consecration. This attitude on the part of the Christian is very different than the attitude of the world. It’s very different than the attitude that surrounds us. For men despise civil authority. They despise the government. We must always remember that men are against authority. We must remember, brothers and sisters, that there is this tendency in all of us to pull back from authority. There is this tendency to lawlessness because of our own sinful condition. Certainly that is true in the day in which we live: there is a disregard for authority. We live in a society that hates authority, and that mentality and that spirit pervades even the Christian church. There is this rejection of authority, and the only authority that men will have is their own enslaved wills and feelings.
Brothers and sisters, we must examine the anti-government movements of today. And we must be very careful-we must be exceedingly careful-that we are not fighting against God’s ordained authority. For God will punish us if we do. He will punish us by what will happen in the state when that authority is usurped and that authority is brought down.
Then in verse six, Paul goes on and deals with a matter that touches us all. He says, “Pay ye tribute for this cause”-because it is God’s ordained authority. Because God has put the government where it is and because of the reason He has appointed it, therefore we should pay tribute. He exercises authority for the good and for woe. It is God-ordained authority. If the civil authority is to perform its task, if the civil ruler is to function, he must have the means. Therefore, Paul says, “For this cause, pay your taxes.” Every April, pay your taxes.
Taxation as taxation is not a tyrannical imposition. The way taxes may be gotten may indeed be tyrannical. It is possible that taxes might be indeed excessive, but nevertheless, taxation as taxation is not tyrannical. The tribute, as such, is not evil. It is necessary. Government must be supported, and government must have the means whereby to exercise its authority. If we enjoy the benefits that government gives to us, then we should pay our taxes. Subjects are properly to support their government in taxes.
And then Paul gives us the reason: “for they are ministers of God’s service.” Now that is interesting because the word minister here is different than the other word for minister which was deacon. It is a different word. It is the same word used to denote the ministry of the Word. It is the same word used to denote ministry in the worship of God. For example, Zechariah the priest was ministering in the temple. So it is ministering to the need of the church. So here they are the ministers of God’s service. They are God’s ministers and must be supported and upheld. Timothy tells us, or Paul in Timothy tells us, that we first of all must pray for those who are in authority.
So we support them and uphold them by our prayers. And it very well may be, brothers and sisters, that one of the reasons why we see the state doing things that distress us is because we really do not pray for those in authority. We do not call upon God that He would indeed work in them and would guide them and preserve them and keep them from evil but would lead them in the way that is right. We thus shirk our responsibility towards them.
But also we are to support them in taxes. We must not depreciate the civil ruler because of taxation. He is God’s minister. The taxes are to be used for God-given ends. That is, for the promoting of the good and the restraining of the evil.
And finally, Paul says we are to render all that is due, tribute to whom tribute is due, custom, respect, honor to him who is in authority. I don’t know about you, but I certainly know about me, that I find it very difficult to live up to that. Thoughtless and heedless, I must confess that I have difficulty honoring people who hold power. But he is not talking about people; he is talking about the institution. We are to respect the institution. We are to respect those who hold that power because of the institution, and because in the institution they are the ministers of God to hold back, to restrain evil and wickedness, and to protect the good. Thus we must say the Christian is to be law-abiding. The Christian is to respect civil authority. The Christian is to support the authority of the land. The Christian is to respect the office of the civil magistrate because this is God’s way, God’s ordained way, to maintain a state, to maintain order, and to restrain evil, and to protect the righteous, wherein the people of God can flourish in godliness and honesty. It is an expression of God’s common grace for the furthering of God’s purposes. It is the maintaining of order and peace.
Well, you can say, “I look at the government and I don’t see them promoting good and protecting the innocent. I see them doing the opposite.” But we must remember, brothers and sisters, that when Paul wrote this letter to the Romans, the Roman government was not lily-white. The Roman government was a persecuting government. The Roman government in the higher echelons was perverse and perverted, and the emperor himself was wicked and persecuting Christians. Yet Paul says, “Be subject, honor, respect, for this authority is ordained of God and is the minister of God to punish the evildoer and to protect the innocent.”
Men think, at least in the history of the world have thought, “Well, if we could overthrow the government, everything would be fine.” And so we have a history of revolutions. But in history, a revolution has never ever done anything good. It hasn’t changed anything. All it does is change the people who rule. It doesn’t change the human heart, and those who take over are as wicked as those they brought down. If we are under civil authority, says Calvin, wherein a tyrant rules, then we need to examine ourselves and ask ourselves why God has given us a tyrant. And then we should pray that God would remove the tyrant and give us just rulers.