This is the second sermon I preached recently from Romans 13:1-7. Again, I want to point you to Jonathan Leeman’s book, How the Nations Rage…
Last week we took some time to think about authority. Looking at Romans 13, we see that God is sovereign over all authority. It doesn’t matter if you’re in North Korea or North Dakota, God rules over all rulers. God rules over the kingdoms of men and gives authority to whomever he wills. Authority was a part of God’s good creation, so authority is not inherently evil. Government does not have to be bad. Authority was put into creation by God to provide structure and order. Government is called by God to uphold justice and provide safety so that the gospel can advance quickly. Safe streets aid the spread of the gospel.
What we want from government, what we labor to realize in our government, is for the authorities to commend those who do good and punish those who do evil. So, yes, government is inherently moral upholding what is good and prohibiting what is evil. The question is who determines what is good and what is evil? Either we will look to God to define good and evil or we will attempt to define good and evil for ourselves. The basic goods of life, marriage, work, and property rights should be honored by government. If you abuse or kill one of God’s image bearers, you should be punished. Marriage is one man and one woman for the flourishing of families. If you take someone else’s things you should be judged. If you expect others to work so you don’t have to, you should not receive honor. Governments should protect these good things while seeking to punish what opposes them.
So, the big picture is that God establishes authority and government for the good of the citizens. We are going to develop that point just a little more and then look at how to engage with government, both good and evil.
Read Romans 13:1-7
- See government as a servant and minister
We should seek to do what is good and receive the praise of the one in authority because, verse 4, he is God’s servant for your good. The phrase is repeated in the middle of verse 4, the one in authority is the servant of God. The proper use of authority, commending good and condemning evil, causes governments to function like a servant to its citizens. Think about hunting regulations. It is unjust to cause citizens to starve by refusing them access to animals for meat. It is also unwise to allow citizens to kill as many animals as they want and thereby destroy a food source. A good government will serve its citizens by making and enforcing regulations that allow people to eat while refusing to let its citizens take too much. The government serves the people. But notice the one in authority is not just a servant, he is also a minister.
Verse 6 calls the authorities ministers of God. The one in authority is established by God, a servant, and a minister of God. God is ruling over all authority and good governments are like a faithful steward ministering to the needs of the people. A faithful steward labors to use the resources at his disposal for the good of others. Evil governments are like evil stewards who exploit and abuse the people. The mentality we want in our authorities is one of a steward or servant. The authority given to these men and women does not belong to them or originate from the consent of the people. Authority is given by God and must be stewarded faithfully. When a government uses its authority properly, serving its people and keeping them safe for gospel advance, there can be great blessings.
But, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the government is all praise and service. We should see government as servant and minister, but we should also
- See government as executioner
Look back at verse 4. “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 wrong-doer.” This takes us back to Noah and Genesis 9. After the flood, the creation mandate is repeated, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. What is added is the requirement of life for life, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Murder is an attack on the image of God and is to be punished with the sword.
One of the purposes of the government is to protect citizens by rightly punishing evil, namely, the evil of murder. God has ordained government to serve its citizens and protect the peace by the just use of capital punishment. In this sense, government becomes God’s instrument of vengeance. Capital punishment is not the victim’s wrath, or the governor’s wrath, but God’s wrath. Here we see that the church must influence the government. The proper and careful use of capital punishment should be our concern.
At this point it is helpful to compare the civil government and the church. The civil government has the sword and the church has the keys. The civil government upholds justice and executes those who destroy the image of God. The church upholds righteousness and excommunicates those who claim to be Christians but refuse to follow the Son of God. Awful, wicked, and terrible things happen when the church tries to use the sword and when the civil government tries to use the keys. Awful, wicked, and terrible things happen when the civil government refuses to use the sword justly and when the church refuses to use the keys faithfully.
Let’s apply these principles. Imagine a church member is being abused by her non-Christian husband. What do we do? We pray, call the police, and we provide a safe place for her to stay. We seek to do good. We pray for him to be saved. We love her and protect her and provide for her. We visit him in prison and share the gospel with him. We encourage her and hold her up and help with the kids and love them well.
Now, imagine two church members, husband and wife, no one knows abuse is happening until the police show up and she has been killed. You might want to kill him, but you don’t have the authority. The government should punish the evil doer with the sword of execution. This act honors the image of God in woman and warns other husbands who would abuse their wives. We, the church, do not bear the sword but we do bear the keys. In grief and sober-mindedness we would call a members’ meeting and use the keys to remove him from church membership.
Two weeks ago I told you that one of the ways we overcome evil is by calling the police. In a just government, the authorities uphold justice and provide safety so it’s citizens can flourish physically and spiritually. Government provides the safe roads for the gospel to travel on. Or at least governments should provide safe roads where the gospel can advance.
Let’s summarize with verse 5, “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
- There are two good reasons to submit to government
- To avoid God’s wrath
God instituted government. To go against government is to go against God and invite his wrath. Every act commanded by a government that is not sinful should be done. God will hold the disobedient accountable. The first reason to submit is to avoid God’s wrath. The second reason to submit is
- For the sake of your conscience
It is an awful existence to constantly fear getting caught or being punished. Is today the day I get caught? Is today the day I get punished? Well, what’s the answer? Obey God and wherever possible obey those in authority. I hope by now you are growing in your biblical appreciation for government. What we want to do now is move
II. Toward a Christian engagement with authority
Read Romans 13:6
- Fulfill your financial responsibility to government
We have already seen that government comes from God. Governments should be servants and ministers to the needs of the people. Its citizens should pay taxes in order to support the work of the government. For the sake of conscience, pay taxes. We want to finance the work of servants and ministers. We want to support what God institutes. And we want clear consciences. So, pay your taxes. They need taxes, they have the authority to collect taxes, so pay taxes.
But God’s expectation doesn’t stop with giving Caesar’s coins to Caesar. Look at verse 7 (read it)
- Give appropriate respect and honor
Pay to all what is owed. Pay up. Pay your debts. Pay your tax debt. Pay your revenue debt. Pay your debt of fear or respect. Pay your debt of honor. We should not be surprised by income tax, property tax, or sales tax. Knowing the extent of our fall into sin, we should not be surprised by the misuse of tax money. Where we can, we should labor for the just and fair use of tax money. Concerning taxes, if you owe it, pay it. If you don’t owe it, don’t pay it. Pay taxes to whom taxes are owed.
Things get a little more uncomfortable when we move past paying taxes and revenue to paying respect and honor. Respect is literally fear and points us back to fearing the government that carries the sword in order to punish wrong doers. When citizens no longer fear the consequences of murder, that city, state, or nation has rejected God’s purposes and is in a terrifying position. We should give respect or fear to those authorities to whom we owe respect or fear.
We are also called to give honor. 1 Peter 2:17 says, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” We are called to honor that which is honorable and we honor someone when we rightly understand and appreciate that person’s value or status. Government has been instituted by God and is therefore worthy of honor. We should appreciate the value or status of governing authority. How do we do that?
- How do we show respect?
The most basic ways we respect or fear the government is by paying taxes and obeying its laws. Give Caesar his coins and be worried that you’ll get punished for doing evil. Pay your taxes and drive the speed limit. Buckle your seat belt, buy a fishing license, and don’t kill people. Respect.
- How do we show honor?
How should we recognize the value or status of those who govern us and are instituted by God? Some might say, “We should never honor or value government because all authority is evil.” But this is not the Christian worldview. One of the most basic ways we honor the government is by not thinking ourselves above the law. You might think a law is foolish, wasteful, or even down right dumb but as long as obeying that law does not cause you to sin, you should show honor and obey. It is right for us to do things that demonstrate respect and honor toward government.
I believe one way we can show respect and honor is by the placement of the flags in this room. Now, it has to be said up front that we are not required to have flags in this room. It would certainly be simpler not to have them. But they are here. How should be think about them?
Occasionally someone will ask about the placement of flags in this room. Flag etiquette says the flag of highest honor should be on the preacher’s right hand. Our government states that the flag of the United States of America should hold the place of highest honor. But I ask you, “Whose kingdom holds our greatest respect? Whose authority do we fear over all? Is it the temporary kingdom of the USA or the unending kingdom of Christ? Ultimate fear, honor, and allegiance belong to Christ. We can show honor and respect. We are on US soil and most of us are US citizens. We are not anarchists. But our ultimate allegiance is to King Jesus not President Trump. When we must choose between God’s definition of good and the Supreme Court’s definition of good we side with God. Should we have flags in the worship gathering of the church? It would be simpler not to. If we do, the flag of the kingdom of Christ will stand in the place of honor over the flag of the kingdom of men. We can show honor, but we will never give to man what belongs to God.
Now, last week I said we would try to tackle the question of evil governments. What should we do about wicked governments that terrorize good and commend evil? Here is the simple answer from Romans 12:21, when evil governments rise
- Do not be overcome by evil
To be overcome by evil means to retaliate and repay evil with evil. To be overcome by evil means to give in to or capitulate to evil. When the government is evil don’t be overcome by evil. Don’t give in and go along. It is helpful here to remember the book of Daniel. Last week I reminded you that Daniel was written when the people of God were exiled from Jerusalem and ruled by wicked pagan kings. God reminded them repeatedly that all authority, all rule, is established by God and given by God to whomever he wills. At the same time Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to follow the evil command to bow down to the idol. Daniel refused to follow the evil command to pray only to the King. The three young men would not bow down and Daniel kept praying.
In Acts 4, the council of Jewish priests and Sadducees ordered Peter and John not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. Here is their answer, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Peter and John disobeyed, went out, and kept speaking and teaching in Jesus’ name. Peter and John understood the consequences, they told the rulers to do what they had to do. Nevertheless, Peter and John knew what God had told them and they chose to obey God (Acts 4:18-20).
The same thing happens in Acts 5. You guys better stop preaching and teaching in Jesus’ name. Listen to their answer, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). When I was talking with Pastor Aaron about this he made a great point. There is a distinction between submission and subjection. Submission means we place ourselves under the authority of the government and do our best to obey what God would have us obey. Subjection means the government places us under it’s authority and we cannot do anything but obey. Christians are in submission not in subjection, come what may. Do not be overcome by evil. Do not give in. Instead,
- Overcome evil with good
We need to be consistent and thoughtful concerning God’s call to redeem all of creation. The curse of sin has not just infected our souls, minds, and bodies. No, the curse of sin has infected government. Part of our work of redemption is the work to redeem authority.
1 Peter 2:15-16 says, “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover up for evil, but living as servants of God.” Live as servants of God. Live as people who seek to establish just and fair government. We have not been given freedom for our own self-preservation. We have been given freedom to do good. So, get involved in government in order to overcome evil with good. Vote in ways that seek to overcome evil with good. May God see fit to raise up and empower pastors and politicians from our number. May each one of us seek to do good, however that looks.
We must break through the walls of pride. The love and justice of our God should not be locked inside. We humbly take the good out in to the public square. Doing good means creating new ways to share God’s love with every race and land. Doing good means being aware when our neighbors are grieved by injustice. Weep with them and seek redemption. Until Jesus returns we will be blessed by or persecuted by government. At his return let us be found faithful submitting to government and overcoming evil with good.