This is the first of two sermons I preached from Romans 13:1-7. The audio differs from the manuscript at some points in application and delivery but not in content. I also want to point you to Jonathan Leeman’s book, The Nations Rage. I found it a great help in sorting out God’s will for the Christian and the government….
It is possible that someone has advised you not to discuss religion or politics in polite company. Now, as Christians, we are called to be polite. We are a people who bless and do not curse. We are a people who refuse to repay evil with evil. Instead, we seek to overcome evil with good. There is no room for meanness or nastiness in a Christian’s conversation. So, of all people we should be polite as we seek the greatest good. We should also be a people who seek to understand and obey all of God’s Word. This means that as polite Christians we are going to look at Romans 13:1-7 and talk about religion and government. We will see that God has a role in government, government has a role in our lives, and we have a role to play in government.
Now, I’ve been saving the following quote from Roger Deeds for over a year. Roger Deeds is the sheriff of Hood County and he said the following in connection with the 2016 crime report. Looking back at 2016 Sheriff Deeds said, “I’m glad to see burglaries down from last year and no murders at all. As for the violent crimes such as assaults, we do our best to make people behave, but we can’t be everywhere.”
What’s the role of the Sheriff’s Department? What are they trying their best to do? They are trying their very best to make people behave and behave is defined as don’t steal from one another, don’t kill one another, don’t assault one another, and don’t abuse one another. The role of the government is to ensure the safety of it’s citizens and punish those who do what is dangerous. When a government upholds justice it’s citizens are free to work and worship.
I will tell you upfront that this is going to be a two-part sermon. Keep those notes and bring them back with you next week. The plan is simple. We are going to work through Romans 13:1-7 and seek to understand what God is saying about himself, government, and citizens. Next week we will finish up our study then talk about different scenarios such as paying taxes and how to respond to an evil government.
Let’s begin. Romans 13:1-7
I. Toward a Christian appreciation for authority
We live in uncertain times (just like every person who has ever lived). Some of us have put too much hope and trust in the government so I’m going to try and move you to a more God-centered understanding of government. You may be in the camp of putting too much stock in government if the first identifier you use for yourself is Republican, Democrat, Conservative, or Liberal. You may be in danger of making Uncle Sam your messiah. Others of us don’t put enough hope or trust in government. I’m going to try to move you to a more God-centered understanding of government. You may be in this camp if the first identifier you use for your self is Revolutionary, Rebel, or Anarchist. You may be in danger of making your autonomy your messiah.
Romans 13:1 addresses the anarchist first, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” To put it simply,
- We are called to submit
- The citizen submits to the government
- The church member submits to the church and its elders (Eph 5:21; Matt 18:15-20; Heb 13:17)
- The elder submits to the other elders (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim 4:16)
- The prophet submits to the prophets (1 Cor 14:32)
- Servants submit to their masters (1 Peter 2:18)
- Children submit to parents (Eph 6:1; Col 3:20)
- Wives submit to husbands (Eph 5:22)
- Husbands submit to Christ (1 Cor 11:3)
- The Son submits to the Father (John 5:30)
Submission is not inherently evil but a part of order; there is a whole lot of submission going on. Where did it come from? Sin and the fall did not introduce authority. God, who made us to bear his image, created with authority built in. Authority, dominion, and rule are built into creation as a reflection of the image of God. So, we might not like it, but we should not be surprised to hear Romans 13:1, “Let every person, let every soul, be subject to the governing authorities.” And Romans 13:1 is not alone.
Titus 3:1, “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work.”
1 Peter 2:13-14, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” Submission is no unusual command.
One of the hardest things to do when reading Romans 13:1-7 is to think like a Christian first and like an American second. Remember, Romans wasn’t written first to Americans. The Letter to the Romans was written to a group of Christians in Rome who had little to no rights. Nero was emperor and, for the time being, he was nice Nero. Nasty Nero is coming, widespread persecution is coming, but for the time being persecution was at the local level. Paul experienced local level persecution when there were riots and beatings and escape plans. Think biblically, Paul is writing these things knowing that it was the Roman government that crucified Jesus. Paul is writing these things with aching scars on his back given by the whip of Roman magistrates. Paul isn’t writing in the wake of a supreme court decision upholding religious freedom.
Think about this verse from a different angle. Romans 13:1 applies in North Korea as much as in North Dakota. Romans 13:1 applies in China as much as in Cleburne. Come back next week when we sort out the differences. Today we need to bring all governments together under God. It’s not one nation under God, it’s all nations under God.
Verse one tells us not only to submit but we are also told why we should submit. “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.” Why do we submit?
This is the place in the sermon where we make taffy with our practical understanding of God’s sovereignty and providence. We try to comfort ourselves by saying God is responsible for just governments; he is behind that. But God is not responsible for unjust governments; he is not behind that. But this is not the case. There are no governing authorities except from God and those that exist have been instituted by God. God is just as responsible for Barak Obama as he is for Donald Trump. God is just as responsible for Abraham Kuyper as he is for Adolph Hitler. If you look at one president and say “God did that” but look at another president and say, “But God didn’t do that” you are wrong. God is in control of all authority.
Let’s do a little biblical survey
Daniel has the most pronounced statements about God’s sovereignty over the rulers on earth. Daniel was written while God’s people are in exile, ruled by an idolatrous king. When God’s people are at one of the lowest points, under one of the worst pagan rulers, we read this, “God changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings” (Dan 2:21). “The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men.” That truth is repeated three times (Daniel 4:17, 25, 32). Look at King David; God did that. Look at King Nebuchadnezzar; God did that.
Psalm 2 asks, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’ He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury saying, ‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.’”
The nations and kings and rulers try to do away with God and go their own way. Governments try to use their God-given authority for their own ends, but God holds them accountable. Africa rages against God. America rages against God. And God rules over the raging nations. Let us be mature in our understanding. God doesn’t always rule the way we want him to rule and he doesn’t terrify evil rulers as quickly as we want him to terrify them, but part of God being God is that he does what he wants, not what we want. God is the authority over all authority.
Think about Jesus’ trial and how he responds to Pilate the Roman authority. After beating Jesus, Pilate says, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Listen to Jesus’ response, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” Where did Pilate’s authority come from? Jesus and Romans 13:1 tell us Pilate’s authority, all governing authority, is from God.
So, whether you are in China or Cleburne, North Korea or North Dakota, look past those governing authorities to the King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev 17:14; 19:16). God rules all rulers.
We submit to governing authority because it is God who has ordained authority. Let’s get back into Romans 13:2, “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” The government will punish you for not submitting. God will punish you for not submitting. Now, some of us do not like what we see in God’s Word. It makes your skin crawl. It makes you fume. It makes you want to vomit or weep or scream or fight. But stay with me. This is no endorsement of Pharaoh’s law to kill all the Hebrew boys or Nebuchadnezzar’s law to worship the idol. Used correctly, Romans 13:1-7 does not endorse evil or endorse the abuse of citizens. This is not an unconditional call to submit and be overcome by evil. I’m asking you to stay with me.
Let’s recap. Authority is not bad in its self. The use of authority determines if it is good or evil. God has ordained authority. Our default is to submit unless the command of man causes us to disobey a command of God. To resist authority is to resist what God has appointed and therefore incur judgment. Throughout history rulers have tried to use these verses to defend submission to evil or unjust commands. But notice,
- God’s intention is good authority
Look with me at Romans 13:3, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” It is a dangerous oversimplification, but I’m going to summarize the purpose of government authority. Governments should exist to establish justice so that all citizens can be safe and the gospel advance. 1 Timothy 2:1-6 directs us to pray for kings and all who are in high positions. We pray for those in authority knowing that God desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. What is the connection between government and people being saved? We pray for those with governing authority, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. We pray for stable governments whose upholding of the good provides smooth paths for the gospel to run on. We want governments to secure safety and enforce justice so that the gospel can advance more rapidly.
It’s sounds simple, but it is important. Roger Deeds working so that you are safe from being killed or abused helps advance the gospel. It is a great blessing that we can sleep at night and invite neighbors over to share a meal without having to post an armed guard. Many Christians, right now, do not have the blessing we enjoy. For the advance of the gospel, we want those with murderous plans to fear the government and not murder. We want those with plans to steal to fear the government and not steal. We want parents who would beat their children to fear the government and not abuse their children. We want husbands to fear the government and wives to fear the government and thereby be encouraged to love one another and not abuse one another. God’s intention is for government to establish order and punish evil such that people who want to do harm are fearful. We should all have a healthy fear of good authority.
Take the highway patrol for example. If you make a habit of speeding, driving at a speed deemed dangerous, and you pass a highway patrol, you should fear. That’s a good thing. Government should cause those who do evil to fear. But what precisely should those who engage in bad conduct fear? Verse 4, government does not bear the sword in vain. God has ordained government to punish the evil doer. And God has ordained government to punish the evil doer in such a way that the punishment rightly reflects the evil and danger of the crime.
Again, I will admit, there has been much evil committed by those in authority. And, we must strive to overcome evil with good. We must listen to victims and seek to punish those who would abuse authority; especially when that abuse is committed by those with authority. But the misuse of authority does not make all authority inherently evil. What we must understand is that all authority is inherently dangerous. Authority is like that really sharp knife in your kitchen drawer. That knife does a lot of good when used properly. But that sharp knife can do a lot of evil when used improperly. Christians must be about the proper use of authority. So, what should the government do?
Instead of supporting evil practices, government should commend what is good. Romans 13:3 asks the question, “Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval.”
Connect this with Romans 12:17, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable/good in the sight of all.” Do your neighbors know you as a person who seeks the good of the neighborhood or do you have a reputation for looking out only for yourself? Do you have a reputation for loving, serving, and caring for others, or do you have a reputation for looking out only for your family? Do you use your strength, your wealth, and your influence to achieve good or to get more for yourself? The police in Granbury, the judges in Hood county, what do they know you for? Are they more likely to commend your good or punish your evil?
Titus 2:7 calls us as Christians to be models; to be models of good works. Titus 2:14 reminds us that Jesus gave himself to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people who are zealous for good works. Titus 3:8 insists that those who believe in God should be careful to devote themselves to good works. Regardless of the good or evil going on in government, we are to be a people passionate about doing good.