A Gospel Response to Government - Part 4

Romans 13:1-7

Tom Pennington  •  June 7, 2020
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So, I invite you to turn with me to Romans 13 as we continue our study of Paul's letter to the Romans. By last count there are approximately 195 nations that exist in our world today. Of course, that seems to change to some degree rather frequently. But all 195 of those nations have governments. Where did these concepts of nation and government come from? In political theory this is called the origin of the state. It answers the question, "Where did the state originate?" Now there are a number of theories out there, far more than I can recount to you in just a couple of minutes here. But let me just give you sort of the leading contenders in today's world. Here are the theories of the origin of the state.

First of all, there is the Evolutionary or Patriarchal Theory. This theory goes like this. Originally, the head of each family was the government. And eventually those families evolved into a network of families and related clans. They lived on one piece of land. And one person or family dominated the leadership of that clan. And this created the state. That is one theory of the origin of the state.

A second theory is the Force Theory. That is that one person or one group claimed control over an area, and then forced everyone living in that area to submit to their rule. And that is how the concept of government originated.

A third view is the Divine Right Theory. This was popular in the 15th to 18th centuries. And there is a measure of truth to it, as we will see. But I think it goes beyond what Scripture teaches. And that is that God created the state, which I will argue is exactly what Romans 13 says. But they go on to say, in addition God chose individuals for royal birth. And in choosing those individuals for royal birth, he granted them the divine right to rule.

A fourth theory is the Social Contract Theory. This was the prevailing theory in the formation of our own country. It was championed by Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau. The Social Contract theory says that people collectively agree on a contract, in our case the constitution, to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all of those who collectively joined themselves. In this view, government's authority originates with the consent of the governed.

A fifth view that is gaining in popularity is the Marxist Theory. Now it is not gaining popularity under that label. You will instead hear it discussed in leading institutions – in fact I read just this week of one of the nation's leading institutions whose major emphasis in their doctrinal program is this Marxist Theory – under the name the Critical Theory. Or, it's sometimes even called the Critical Race Theory. This theory says that here's how governments came to be: There was one class who controlled the economics, who controlled the mode of production, and they established the state. They established government to guarantee their continued power over the other classes. The state then, in this theory, is merely an instrument of domination and oppression by one class over the other classes.

Those are the prevailing theories of the origin of the state, of government, that are alive in our institutions of higher education today.

Today in Romans 13 we will discover that in one brief sentence Paul tells us the origin of the state. Now let me remind you that we are looking at chapter 13:1-7 which is a gospel response to government. As Paul ends his letter, he is dealing with how we ought to respond to the gospel that we have come to believe. And in very practical ways he is helping us learn the implications of that gospel in our lives. And one implication has to do with our response to government. Let's read it together Romans 13:1-7:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience' sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.

The theme of this paragraph is the very first sentence. "Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities." Now as I noted for you last time the reason this paragraph is here, is back in chapter 12 verse 19, Paul says that we should never respond to the evil done against us with personal vengeance. In chapter 13 he tells us instead, we are to trust God to bring about justice. And often, not always – God will always bring about justice in His time and way, it may be in this life, it may be in eternity – but often, God brings about justice and punishes those who do evil through the governing authorities.

Now this paragraph begins as I noted for you last time with a universal command to submit to government. Last week you will remember we began by stepping away from Romans 13 and considering what the Bible teaches elsewhere about the biblical exceptions to this submission. Let me just remind you those exceptions fall into two categories. Frist of all, there is the legitimate response by individuals to government abuses. We can acknowledge and graciously speak against the sins and legal abuse of leaders. We can request, as Daniel did, a personal exception from the law. We can use all legal means provided within the law. That is, as I noted for you, we can lawfully protest unjust or illegal treatment. We can use the judicial system. We can use the legislature to change unjust laws. We can use the voting box to replace politicians who are responsible for unjust or illegitimate laws. We are also allowed by Scripture to flee unlawful and unjust arrest and punishment, as Jesus did and as Paul did. And the big one, the one that is the prevailing point here, is: we must disobey the government, but only when they require you to break God's law. And we looked at those passages at length.

We also looked last week at the legitimate response by subordinate authorities. That is those who are in positions of authority in government: how they should respond to government abuses. And I am not going to go through those again. If you weren't here last week you can go back and listen online and catch up.

But those are the biblical exceptions to our required submission to government. But as I warned you last time, we have to be so careful with these exceptions. Because our sinful hearts don't like to submit to any authority. And therefore, we could easily try to justify our lack of submission with a reason that is really just an excuse. Even if you use a legitimate exception, I noted for you last time, make sure that you display godly and respectful attitudes in the process of that. And that you don't so over emphasize the exceptions that you fail to focus on the clear-cut biblical rule of submission and respect.

So those are the exceptions. We looked then at the first line in this paragraph, the biblical rule. "Every person [verse 1 says] is to be in subjection to the governing authorities." Every person is literally every soul. It means every person without exception, believers and unbelievers. The Greek word be in subjection means to willing submit to another, to recognize their authority over you. It is a military word often used in the context of those who respond to those who are higher in the command structure. That is how we are to respond to government officials at all levels, federal, state, and local, from president to law enforcement officers.

Now that brings us today then, from the universal command to the reasons: the reasons to submit to government. Paul begins – having made the command, the first part of verse 1 – he begins then down through verse 6 to lay out a series of reasons. Notice he begins there in verse 1 after the command with the word for. Because. Here are the reasons that you ought to be in subjection to your government.

So, let's look at these reasons together. The first reason is this: God established the principle and structures of all human authority. Look at verse 1, "Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God,…" Now notice a change. In the first sentence of chapter 13 there is the plural, authorities. In the second sentence he changes to the singular noun, authority. Now that could mean one of two things. It could mean he is saying there is not an individual ruler whose authority does not come from God. That is possible and is what some commentators believe. And that is true, by the way, as we are going to see in the very next clause. But this approach makes the last clause in verse 1 a tautology, that is a pointless repetition of the second clause. More likely that center sentence in verse 1 is making its own separate point. If so, here's what Paul is saying, and this is what I believe he is saying: authority itself, that is, the basic principle of human authority, and all of its various structures come from God. God has established all human authority.

Now to help us understand this, let me break it down a bit into its constituent parts. So first of all, when we say this, when it comes to this principle of authority, we are saying first of all that God is the only true and ultimate authority. God alone inherently possesses the right and power to command the thoughts, opinions, and behavior of His creatures. 2 Chronicles 20:6 says "O Lord, the God of our fathers, are You not God in the heavens? And are You not ruler over all the kingdoms of the nations? Power and might are in Your hand so that no one can stand against You." God's universal authority flows from creation.

Think of it this way, if you create something, unless you intentionally sign away your rights, it is yours. And you can do with it whatever you choose. When Sheila and I wrote our first hymn, "Our Sovereign God," we chose to partner with LifeWay Music and to sign away our rights to that song to them. So, we no longer have control of it, ultimately, they do. There are certain things they allow us to do with it. But ultimately, they have control of it. The subsequent songs we have written, we have not signed such an agreement. We have retained control of them. Why? Because we created them, and it is our right to do with them as we please, unless we sign those rights away.

Because God created all things, He owns all things. Psalm 24:1, "The earth is the Lord's, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it." In other words, not only the stuff that's in the world but the people that are in the world are His. Why? By virtue of the fact that He created them. And as owner, He has the right or power over all He made, including the nations and their rulers. You heard just a moment ago in 2 Chronicles 20:6, "Are you not ruler over all the kingdoms of the nations?" Or look at Psalm 47:7-8 "…God is the King of all the earth…God reigns over the nations…" And sweeping in its scope is Psalm 103:19 "The Lord has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all." Because God created all things, He owns all things. Because He owns all things, God can do what he chooses with what He has made. This is a clear point in Scripture. Psalm 135:6 "Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps." Don't misunderstand, that's not teaching that God is capricious, that God just sort of on a whim does things. No; God has a great eternal, all wise and good plan. The point is, He has the right to do that. Because he created it, He owns it. Daniel 4:35, "…'He does according to His will in the host of heaven, and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, "What have You done?"'" So, God is the only true, ultimate authority over all things.

A second biblical proposition about this principle of authority is that God has delegated limited authority to people; limited authority. We saw that even last week with the exceptions when it comes to government. God has delegated limited authority to people. And why has he done this? Well, because our God is a God of order. In fact, throughout His creation God has ordained that there be order and structure. Have you ever thought about this? Even among the holy angels, and they're perfect, it's not like they need to be brought into line, but there is order and structure. There are angels who are over other angels. There is a command structure. Why? Because that is a reflection of the character of God Himself.

God is also determined to establish different levels of authority among humans; submission and authority among mankind. He did so for our benefit, as an expression of His goodness. Why are there these structures of human authority? Well, there are several purposes. As we will see even in Romans 13 they serve the purpose to restrain and to punish sin. Can you imagine a world in which there is no authority? I mean frankly, if you are a parent imagine a home in which there is no authority, where the two-year-old reigns. To restrain and punish sin.

Secondly, to encourage righteousness. To promote good and wellbeing. God is good to all of His creatures and He desires their good. And so God has put these structures of human authority in place to promote our good and wellbeing, our Shalom as the Old Testament would say it. And God has put these structures of human authoritiy in place to serve as a reminder, a constant reminder, of His own authority and our accountability to Him. I can't tell you how many times I have said to our kids as they were growing up, "Listen I'm not telling you this because I'm bigger, stronger, or smarter than you are. I am telling you this because God created parents and He created children. And He established the structure and put me over you. And so, this isn't about you and me; this is about you and God. In obeying me you're choosing whether or not you are going to obey God, who has every right to tell you what to do." So, authority reminds us of God's authority and our accountability to Him.

Now to accomplish those ends, God has established several kinds of human authority. In fact, it's interesting. This word in verse 1, be in subjection to, it's used, and I'm not going to take you to every passage, but it's used of each of these kinds or structures of authority I am about to share with you.

God has delegated limited authority to human beings primarily in four areas. First of all, God gave husbands authority within marriage. I'm not going to look at all those texts, you're familiar with this. But Ephesians 5:22 says "Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord." The word that's used in that context is the same word that's used in Romans 13.

God, secondly, gave parents authority over their children. God delegated limited authority to parents over their children. Ephesians 6:1-3, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor you father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise)…" This is by God's design.

Thirdly, God gave elders authority over the function and membership of the local church. Acts 20:28. Paul is talking here to the elders of the church of Ephesus and he says, "Be on guard for yourselves [now listen to this] and for all the flock, among [whom] the Holy Spirit has made you overseers,…" He's made you overseers. In 1 Thessalonians 5:12 he says, "…appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction." Hebrews 13:17, "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you." And so, God has given limited authority in each of those contexts.

Now there is a fourth and this is really the focus this morning. God gave human government authority over its citizens. Clearly, you understand, that Paul's primary focus in Romans 13 is this authority that God has delegated to civil government. So, look again at verse 1. When Paul says, "there is no authority except form God," he really isn't primarily talking about all of those other structures of human authority, he's primarily talking about this fourth one. He's saying, there is no governmental authority – governmental authority doesn't exist except from God. Scripture clearly teaches that God ordained human government. And He established it, in basic principle, after the flood. You see, get this in your mind, God created nations.

Let me show you this. Go back to Genesis 9. After the flood God says this to Noah and his family, to his sons. He says, this is Genesis 9:5, "Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it…from every man, from every man's brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man." God says, listen the life of man is so precious and it's such a reflection of my image, that to attack the image is to attack me and I will not tolerate it. Therefore, anyone who commits an act of murder is to face the ultimate penalty of the taking of his own life. The question is, by whom? Who is to carry out this command? Well in the very next chapter, Genesis 10, you have the table of nations. In fact, in Genesis 10 you have the first use in the Bible of the word nation. Look at chapter 10:5, "From these the coastlands of the nations [there's the first mention] were separated into their lands, everyone according to his language, according to their families, into their nations." Go down to verse 20 as he talks about the different sons of Noah. He says, and "These are the sons of Ham, according to their families, according to their languages, by their lands, by their nations." Go down to verse 31, "These are the sons of Shem, according to their families, according to their languages, by their lands, according to their nations. These are the families of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, by their nations; and out of these [notice this] the nations were separated on the earth after the flood."

Now the change that we just read about in chapter 10 was brought about by the events that happened in chapter 11. You see it's not chronological here. Chapter 11 and the events of the tower of Babel happened before this dividing of the nations. It was brought about by what happened in chapter 11. In fact, look at 11:8-9. After what happened at the tower of Babel, "…the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; …they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth." So, understand then, that God is the one who created the concept of the nation state. And He did so deliberately for His own purposes. This is stated elsewhere, for example Deuteronomy 32:8, Moses writes, "When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples…" Do you hear what Moses is saying? He is saying not only did God create nations, dwelling in their own lands, but He even established their physical boundaries. I don't have time to take you to Acts 17 but you remember in his sermon at Mars Hill in Acts 17:24-26 Paul says, not only has God established nations, and not only has He established the physical boundaries that they would have throughout their history, but He also established the very time of their existence: when they would begin and when they would end. So, God created nations.

More importantly for our study in Romans 13, God gave the government of nations their authority or their right to rule. I want you to turn back with me to Daniel, to Daniel's prophecy. And if you haven't worked your way through Daniel with us, it's been one of the richest studies of my own life and I think of those who have been a part of our Sunday nights together. You can go online and catch up. But walking through Daniel has been so important to understanding these basic principles. But look at Daniel 4:17. Here is what Nebuchadnezzar was told, "This sentence is by the decree of the angelic watchers and the decision is a command of the holy ones, [and here's why God was going to do what He was saying He was going to do to Nebuchadnezzar] in order that the living may know that the Most High [I love that expression, El Elyon, the Highest One, the One above whom there is nobody else. The Most High] is ruler over the realm of mankind, and [He] bestows it on whom He wishes and [He] sets over it the lowliest of men." God at times puts over nations not those who are worthy of that role, but those who are the least worthy. Go over to chapter 5:18, and let's start in verse 17 and get a running start here. Daniel you remember is brought in to that feast of Belshazzar after it's interrupted by the hand writing on the wall telling him that something terribly supernatural is going to happen to him and his kingdom. And he wants to understand it, so he brings Daniel in. And Daniel, before he explains the writing, preaches him a sermon and he says to him in Daniel 5:17,

Then Daniel answered and said before [Belshazzar], "Keep you gifts for yourself or give your rewards to someone else; however, I will read the inscription to the king and make the interpretation known… O king, the Most High God granted [notice this, El Elyon, the Most High, granted] sovereignty, grandeur, [power] and majesty to Nebuchadnezzar your father. Because of the grandeur which He bestowed on him, all the peoples, nations and men of every language feared and trembled before him; whom[ever] he wished he killed and whomever he wished he spared alive; …whomever he wished he elevated and whomever he wished he humbled. But when his heart was lifted up and his spirit became so proud that he behaved arrogantly, [by the way that's why I was praying this morning for the humility of our leaders, God hates pride anywhere it's found, including in our leaders. And he says when his heart was lifted up he behaved arrogantly] he was deposed from his royal throne and his glory was taken away from him. He was also driven away form mankind, and his heart was made like that of beasts, and his dwelling place was with the wild donkeys. He was given grass to eat like cattle, … his body … drenched with the dew of heaven [notice this] until he recognized that the Most High God is ruler over the realm of mankind and that He sets over it whomever He wishes."

Douglas Moo writes in his commentary on Romans 13, commenting on passages like these and others and specifically Romans 13, "From a human perspective rulers come to power through force, or heredity, or popular choice. But the transformed mind recognizes behind every such process is the hand of God." Jesus affirmed this, didn't He? He affirmed the God-given authority of both Caesar and Pilate. In Matthew 22:21 regarding paying Roman taxes, Jesus said, "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; [I am acknowledging, He said, that Caesar has rightful authority. And therefore, you ought to submit to him as that rightful authority] and to God the things that are God's." In John 19:11 you remember, Jesus stood before Pilate at his trial and Pilate says, 'Don't you realize – why aren't you talking to me? Why aren't you telling me what your thoughts are? I have the authority to do away with you; take your life.' And Jesus said this to him, this is to Pilate, ''You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above…'"

In Romans 13:3-8, twice Paul calls rulers ministers of God. And once he calls them servants of God. So, folks, understand this: there is absolutely no question that God in eternity past decided to institute human government. Government, again please listen to me, government does not exist, it did not originate by evolutionary process, by force, by social contract, or by a human desire to oppress others. It was ordained by God. John Murray writes, "This passage expressly excludes, from the outset, every notion to the effect that authority in the state rests upon agreement on the part of the governed, or upon the consent of the governed. Authority to govern and the subjection demanded of the governed reside wholly in the fact of the divine institution."

All government – whether it is totalitarian, like that of Nebuchadnezzar, or whether it is democratic, whether it is monarchy or oligarchy – all government is established by God. That doesn't mean, as we will discover next time, that God approves of all government or all governmental rulers. But the principle of governmental authority is established by God. The principle of human authority over other humans and the structures of that authority – in the family, in the church, in the state – they are not human inventions to be tolerated. They are divine blessings to be embraced. Of course, some governments are better than others. Some governmental leaders are more respectable and carry out their duties more capably than others. But government, our government, with all of its flaws, is divinely created for our wellbeing and safety. Because even bad government is better than no government.

Look again at chapter 13:1. Here's the command, "Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. [And what's the first reason?] For there is no authority except from God." God established the principle and structures of all human authority, including government.

My question to you this morning, and I want you to answer this honestly in your heart, is: Do you believe that? And if you believe that, are you thinking and acting like you believe that. That is what Paul is calling us to do here.

Let's pray together. Our Father, we thank You for Your great truth. We praise You that You are the King of the nations. We thank You that you established the principle of authority built on Your own authority. And You delegated limited authority to human beings, not for our detriment but for our blessing. Lord, we recognize that in a fallen world there are many who don't manage their authority well, who even abuse their authority. And yet, Father, we thank You for the blessing that it is to us as we live on this planet. Help us to think and speak and act like those who have a transformed mind. Who have been transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. So that this, what we are learning in Romans 13, is our response to government. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.