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Romans chapter 13, verses 1 and 2
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
Paul utters a profound truth when, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he makes the observation that there is no authority except that which God has established. In the final analysis, everyone and everything belongs to God. He is the Creator; we are his creatures. He holds all authority. It is he and he alone who divides out authority to his representatives on earth as he sees fit. Because God made the world and everything in it, he could rightly say to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis chapter 1, verse 28). In reality, God was simply delegating his own authority to Adam and Eve when he put them in charge of his lower creatures.
In the same way, God has delegated certain aspects of his authority at various levels and in various areas to provide an ordered structure in human society. At its base, the Fourth Commandment deals with the authority God has given to those who represent him here on earth.
Obviously, not everyone has the same area of responsibility. For example, parents have a different area of responsibility regarding their children than do their children’s teachers in school, but both are God’s representatives and therefore deserve honor and respect as such in their areas of responsibility.
Paul, however, is not directing his remarks only, or even primarily, to children. Respect for authority is required of all. “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities,” he says, “for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”
In the context in which Paul is writing, his directives to the Romans especially include respect for secular government. That is perhaps the more remarkable when we realize that in Paul’s day the civil government of Rome was undoubtedly totally pagan. In fact, if we were right in assuming, as we did in the introduction to this commentary, that this letter to the Romans was written from Corinth in the winter of A.D. 58, then Nero would have been the Roman emperor—hardly a model of kind and benevolent leadership! And yet Paul says, “He who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
The “judgment” he is speaking of no doubt refers primarily to the punishment the courts would mete out to a criminal or lawbreaker. But the rebel against secular authority is, in a very real sense, on a collision course with God himself, the author and designator of all authority.
Paul pulls no punches. He bases his demand for obedience to government squarely on God’s right to put authority figures over us. But the apostle employs yet another approach, and that is to invite willing and cheerful obedience by calling attention to God’s good and gracious purpose for placing authorities over us.
Romans chapter 13, verses 3 and 4
For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good.
We live in an age when there is considerable fear and distrust of government. Some of that, to be sure, is traceable to the fact that God’s representatives are weak and sinful human beings who at times may not represent God properly. But by far the greater basis for fear and anxiety in the presence of authority figures is the guilt factor. People who know they are not in compliance with the law recognize that they properly should be punished for their disobedience. Hence they fear those to whom they are answerable, whether that be their workplace supervisor or a traffic officer or the Internal Revenue Service.
“Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority?” Paul asks. “Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good.” Government and civil authority are gifts from a good and gracious God. Through them he wishes to bless us, and surely he has done so! In spite of flaws and defects in our leaders at the local, state, and national levels, we have been tremendously blessed. We are allowed to live our Christian lives without harassment and to proclaim our faith without hindrance. These are priceless blessings—ones for which we need to credit God’s representatives and for which we daily ought to thank our gracious God.
God’s overriding concern in providing government rule is to bless us with an orderly and peaceful existence. Hence it is the duty of God’s representatives to encourage and commend those who do right. But when the peace is jeopardized by lawbreakers, God’s representatives need to step in to restore order and punish evildoers. And when they do so, they do it not merely with God’s permission but also in accordance with his command. Government is God’s servant.
Romans chapter 13, verses 4 and 5
But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.
Government has been set up to represent God. When the citizenry of a city or country disobeys its government, in the final analysis it is God himself who is being dishonored and whose righteous anger is aroused. Hence when Paul says that government is “an agent of wrath,” he is not talking about personal anger on the part of the civil authorities. Rather, God’s wrath against sin and disobedience is the basis for inflicting the punishment that is meted out.
Note the double negative: government “does not bear the sword for nothing.” In other words, God has entrusted government with the task of punishing wrongdoers. He expects disciplinary action against them, even to the point of using the “sword.” A sword is not used for simply reprimanding people or attempting to rehabilitate them. The sword kills. Paul clearly teaches that government has been vested with the right to inflict capital punishment. That does not mean the state must necessarily use capital punishment. But it does indicate that those who say that government may never inflict capital punishment are in the wrong.
Use of the “sword” is certainly calculated to instill fear of punishment in people. But fear is not to be the only check against disobedience, or even the main one. Rather, Paul says, it is necessary to submit “not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.”
Christians regard civil government as God’s representatives, carrying out God’s will for him. Hence Christians will honor these representatives as they honor God, to maintain a good conscience.*
* [Paul’s assumption, of course, is that the government properly represents the God from whom its assignment has come. If the civil authorities should require things that are in opposition to God’s will, then Christians will have to follow their consciences and “obey God rather than men” (Acts chapter 5, verse 29).]
Romans chapter 13, verses 6 and 7
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
It is often said that nothing is sure except death and taxes. These two certainties were known also in Paul’s day. He uses the latter, payment of taxes, to illustrate compliance to government. Paying taxes is generally viewed as an irksome civic duty. But even that becomes tolerable when viewed as being done out of respect for God’s servants who are giving “their full time to governing.” Their sole purpose, the apostle says, is the God-given task of serving and benefiting society.
Obedience to government, however, isn’t restricted just to paying taxes. Paul generalizes, “Give everyone what you owe him.” Paying our various kinds of taxes (income tax, property tax, sales tax, gas tax) is a tangible and measurable activity. But there’s an even more important activity—an intangible one—that involves not just our hands (and pocketbooks) but also, and especially, our hearts. Paul calls for not just outward and formal obedience but for the even greater tribute of a grateful and willing heart. Such a heart genuinely honors and respects the leaders and authorities who represent God in the many positions of service through which they daily serve us.
Love, the Christian’s response
Romans chapter 13, verses 8-10
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
There is a play on words in the opening verse here that reflects Paul’s progression from the previous section to the current subject of love. What the NIV nicely translates as “Let no debt remain outstanding, except . . . to love” in the original literally says, “Do not owe anybody anything, except . . . to love.”
Recall that in the previous section Paul urged his readers, “Give everyone what you owe him: . . . taxes . . . revenue . . . respect . . . honor.” Those are obligations that can and must be fulfilled. But now he adds one obligation that should never be considered as completed, one bill that dare never be marked “Paid in Full.” And that is the “continuing debt to love one another.” Paul indicates the basis for that when he says, “He who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.” One could paraphrase his logic by saying, “Love, because that’s what God wants you to do.”
As he goes on to point out, all of God’s Commandments urge love. Paul cites four of them and summarizes the rest with a quotation from Leviticus: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (chapter 19, verse 18). Every Commandment requires love for God or for our neighbor. Hence Paul can say, “Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
When we hear Paul speaking of fulfilling the law, let’s not forget that we are in the section of his letter where he is speaking of the Christian’s response to what God has done for us. Back in chapters 3 to 5, Paul clearly explained how the sinner obtains the righteousness that avails before God. It is not by keeping the law, but rather by accepting in faith the perfect obedience that Christ has rendered. Christ’s merit alone makes a person acceptable to God.
In appreciation for having been accepted by God, the Christian now wants to show appreciation by living a new life that conforms to God’s Commandments. Such a life reflects the life of love toward God and our neighbor that Paul urges here.
Love for God and our neighbor is a powerful motivation toward a life of holiness. There is, however, another consideration that also shapes the Christian’s life. That consideration is a concern for our own spiritual welfare.
Romans chapter 13, verses 11-14
And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
For Christians of every generation, “the present time” is no time for spiritual slumber. In fact, the window of opportunity to lead a life of love and service to God and our neighbor becomes smaller with each passing day. The hymnwriter James Montgomery has it right when he says that the passing of each day brings us “a day’s march nearer home” (Christian Worship, Hymn 213, stanza 2).
Along the same lines, the apostle observes that “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” The full realization of our salvation, either at our death or at the second coming of Christ, is always imminent. It could be today! Hence in view of the rapid passage of time, the message is clear: seize the opportunity to live a life of righteousness. The apostle states that in a negative/positive combination: let us “put aside the deeds of darkness” and “put on the armor of light.”
Putting aside the deeds of darkness means avoiding the disgusting things that sinful nature is inclined to do when it thinks it is operating under the cover of darkness and no one will see. Paul’s list of such things is representative rather than exhaustive. He urges his readers (and us) to avoid orgies and drunkenness, sexual immorality and debauchery, dissension and jealousy. As indicated, Paul is not listing every possible sin. The apostle would have us tailor the list to include our own special temptations and pet sins.
The counterpart to putting off such “deeds of darkness” is putting on the “armor of light.” Or as the apostle also states it, “Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Again, the hymnwriter Nicolaus L. von Zinzendorf serves us well when with picturesque language he says, “Jesus, your blood and righteousness my beauty are, my glorious dress” (Christian Worship, Hymn 376, stanza 1). Paul used a similar picture when he wrote to the Galatians, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (chapter 3, verses 26 and 27).
Being clothed with Christ means, first and foremost, accepting by faith the righteousness Christ has earned for us. Adorned with that glorious robe, we have the righteousness that avails before God and thus are assured of our eternal salvation. But having Christ’s righteousness by faith involves more. It also enables and empowers us to live a new life marked by true holiness in our daily lives and conduct.
While such life and activity is not what saves us, holiness of living is not simply an optional feature of the Christian life. It is the mark and sign that our faith truly is living and active. That’s important! James states it very clearly: “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (chapter 2, verse 17).
We realize then why Paul devotes almost four chapters of this letter (chapters 12-15) to sanctification, that is, holiness of living on the part of the redeemed children of God. Sanctification is an inseparable part of the Christian’s life. For it to be lacking would be a most distressing sign, even to the point of putting the vitality of our faith into question. Hence we do well to strive earnestly, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to heed the apostle’s double encouragement to put off the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us do so all the more as we see the Lord’s Day approaching. After all, “the night is nearly over; the day is almost here.”
Consideration for the weaker Christian
Throughout this letter the apostle Paul has been speaking of righteousness. His main theme, to be sure, is the righteousness earned by Christ’s perfect redemption and received by faith in the heart of the individual believer. But Paul also speaks of another kind of righteousness, namely, the new life of righteousness practiced by the regenerate believer. Paul has made it very clear that a change to a new life of holiness is the inevitable result of a believer’s having received Christ’s righteousness by faith.
Paul has already given us two examples of such holiness in the Christian’s life. Recall that chapter 12 dealt with an encouragement to Christians to make faithful use of the special gifts given each of them for the benefit of others. Chapter 13 urged righteousness in the form of cheerful obedience rendered to government and to all those in authority. In chapters 14 and 15, Paul now adds a third example of righteousness. Here he illustrates Christian righteousness in the always delicate matter of strong Christians living together peaceably and harmoniously with their weaker brothers and sisters.