This folly has been derived from the following message:
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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. 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 wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. ― Thomas Jefferson
According to Thomas Jefferson, political rebellion is justifiable and even necessary. Patriots must bleed and tyrants must die in the preservation of precious liberty. It is in our American blood to fight oppression, take what is ours, and forge our own destiny. We live in a great country. However, the United States never has been (and never will be) a Christian nation. When the Lord Jesus Christ returns to rule and reign on this earth as our King, then and only then, we will know what a Christian nation truly looks like.
Until then, the Bible calls us pilgrims, aliens, strangers, and exiles. Christians are in the world, but not of the world. We are called to live quiet and peaceful lives, submitting to whatever government we find ourselves under, because our citizenship is ultimately in Heaven. This is who you are if you are a Christian.
The central command of our text is found at the beginning of Romans 13:1. Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. The first eleven chapters of Romans are all about the Gospel. They tell us how we are saved, why we are saved, and what salvation in Christ looks like. Chapter twelve is where the day-to-day impact of our salvation comes into focus. Our relationships with God (Romans 12:1-2), other believers (Romans 12:3-16), unbelievers and enemies (Romans 12:17-21), and governmental authorities (Romans 13:1-7) have been dramatically altered in light of salvation.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, the world was a scary place. Political corruption, human slavery, and blood-thirsty dictators were everywhere. Taxes were unreasonably high with government sanctioned extortion for the collectors. If you were not a Roman, you were nobody. You had no say in government and no guarantee of a fair trial.
Surprisingly, freedom of religion was alive and well. The Jews were allowed to retain their priesthood and temple sacrifices. The Romans protected the Sabbath with its dietary and ceremonial laws. They even respected the Jewish wish to keep idols out of the temple (including images of the Emperor). Coins were the only exception.
However, the Jews were still a conquered people under the heavy hand of a world superpower. Many of them refused to pay taxes or turned to violence. By the time this letter was written in AD 56, a fanatical group of nationalist called The Zealots were stirring the political pot of Jerusalem. The Romans settled the matter with a Jewish holocaust in AD 70. The temple was destroyed along with 1.1 million men, women, children, and priests. It was a swift bloodbath, but the Romans made their point.
When Jesus arrived, many turned to Him for political hope. They thought their hero had arrived to bring social reform. Surely, He would fight for their rights, lead a rebellion, and put their economy back on track. Instead, He healed the sick, preached the Word, shared the Gospel, and established the church.
Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” This was not a spiritual question, but a political one. He wanted to know if Jesus saw Himself as their political leader. After a little back and forth, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” In response, the frustrated governor asked, “So you are a king?” To which, Jesus replied, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:33-37).
Jesus doesn’t deny His kingship. Instead, He tells Pilate that His kingdom is not composed from the stuff of earth. It will be established on earth in the future, but that was not the purpose of the Messiah’s first coming. He came to do what we are called to do―bear witness to the truth. He was no stranger to political corruption or social injustice. After His birth, Herod the tetrarch issued the order to kill every baby boy under the age of two. Yet, Jesus avoided the world’s politics as the King of another kingdom.
A couple decades later, as Paul writes to the Romans, the Empire has a new ruler named Nero. The Zealots have become assassins and political insurrectionists. The Emperor is demanding worship while persecuting Christians in horrifying and grotesque ways. Rome itself has become a hot-bed of tolerance, acceptance, and open depravity.
It is in this context, Paul writes, let every person be subject to the governing authorities. We find it difficult to submit to our leaders when we disagree with their policies. How much harder would this command be to follow when the authorities were killing Christians? Both Paul and the Holy Spirit realize that we need more than a command, we need motivation. They provide us with five reasons to submit to our governing authorities.
All governing authorities are…
1. Instituted by God
Verse 1: For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. All authorities exist because God has established them personally. This is true for democratic republics, communist countries, tribal groups, and every other form of rule. The word “institute” means “to arrange” or “to put in place.” Paul is saying that the God of ultimate power sets the board by arranging the pieces. He puts every government in place because He is the source of all power and authority. There are no exceptions.
God’s sovereignty over the nations is the theme of the book of Daniel. Concerning the Lord, Daniel 2:21 says, “He changes times and seasons; He removes kings and sets up kings; He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding.” God doesn’t gaze down the corridors of time, cross His fingers, and hope for the best. Nor does He sit powerless in the heavens, waiting for someone to pray His hands free. Rather, He actively participates in the in the affairs of men as the author of all authority.
At Solomon’s coronation, David stood up and prayed the praises of God’s sovereign rule (1 Chronicles 29:10-13). Isaiah 40:22-24 declares that we are like grasshoppers being led by grass (the princes and rulers of the earth) in the eyes of God. When He opens His mouth and breathes, the earth’s mightiest are destroyed. If an authority exists, it is because God has put it in place.
Additionally, all governing authorities are…
2. Appointed by God
Verse 2: Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
The word “appoint” is not the same as the previous word “institute.” It means “to separate in one’s own interests” or “to determine or command.” Those who resist (or rebel against) their authorities are rebelling against God’s appointment. He separates the world’s leaders and sets them in place for His own interests.
God not only creates positions of power, He fills those positions with the people He wants. Verse 2 carries no limiting qualifier for the moral caliber of history’s leadership. Divine appointment extends to all authorities, including: Herod, Nero, Bloody Mary, the Catholic church, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, and your least favorite President. No authority exists apart from God. Likewise, all who sit in positions of authority have been appointed to their high positions by God.
Satan himself has been given a temporary position of authority over the earth (1 John 5:19; Matthew 4:8-9; Ephesians 2:2). Where does his power come from? It comes from God. Satan is not the Lord’s equal. He was created by God, kicked out by God, and appointed by God to roam the earth for a season (1 Peter 5:8). Martin Luther put it well when he said, ”The devil is God’s ape.” Nothing falls outside of God’s sovereignty, even the devils behind the world’s greatest tyrants.
In John 19, it becomes clear that Pilate wanted to help Jesus, but Jesus refused to say anything in His own defense. Pilate asks, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” In response, Jesus says, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.”
In that moment, the Son of God recognized Pilate’s authority as a truly legitimate authority that had been delegated to him by God. Pilate had the right to judge Jesus and render a judgment as he saw fit. However, in the end, he would still be held responsible for his decision before God. The Jews were committing a greater sin because they were sinning against the Scriptures. They rejected their Messiah. Nevertheless, Pilate was still sinning as one of delegated authority because he was condemning an innocent man to death.
Verse 2 begins with the word “therefore.” What follows is the logical byproduct of divine institution. Since God has all authority and establishes all authority, it stands to reason that those in authority have been put there by God. As a result, resistance to these authorities is rebellion against God Himself.
All governing authorities are…
3. Tools of God
Verse 3: For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval. This is a proverbial axiom about the necessity of social order. It describes the proper use of delegated authority and the natural consequences for doing the right thing by submitting to that authority.
How could Paul write, for rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad? If anyone suffered mistreatment for good conduct at the hands of a wicked government, it was Paul. He suffered the sort of abuse most of us have only read about. Eventually, he would be publicly executed for his faith. How could he say that well-behaved citizens have nothing to fear, but those with bad conduct have every reason to be afraid?
All throughout history, God has used even the worst governments to sustain society through the restraint of evil. As terrible as the Roman Empire was (especially under Nero) those who committed the worst crimes received the harshest treatment. In the same way, those who benefited society were rewarded with public honors and civic tributes. It is a known fact that rewards incentivize us to good behavior, while punishments discourage us from deviance. The means do not justify the ends, but totalitarian governments typically have a lower crime rate than the free world. Murder, rape, theft, and other wicked crimes are so severely punished in some countries, they are virtually non-existent.
Paul tells us to keep our heads down, do the right thing, and earn our authority’s favor if we want things to go well for us. We should not attract attention to ourselves by behaving badly. As Christians, we are to obey the law, pay taxes, and contribute to society. Our leaders are simply tools (like a hammer and saw) in the hand of God (Proverbs 21:1).
All governing authorities are…
4. Servants of God
Verse 4: For he is God’s servant for your good. 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 wrongdoer. “Bearing the sword is an idiomatic expression for capital punishment. God has provided institutional government with the power of death to enforce the law. This idea goes all the way back to Genesis 3. God blocked the way back to the garden with an angel and a flaming sword. This was the first use of physical force as a governing restraint over sinful people.
After the worldwide flood, God made a covenant with Noah. Within that covenant, He initiated capital punishment (Genesis 9:5-6). Every so often, someone will say that Christians are inconsistent when they oppose abortion but support the death penalty. According to passages such as these, both positions are incredibly harmonious because they are driven by the same truth―the sanctity of human life. In God’s eyes, human life is so sacred that to unjustly take the life of another image bearer is to lose the rights and privileges to your own life.
When Peter defended Jesus on the night of His betrayal, he cut a servant’s ear off. Jesus rebuked him saying, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). In that moment, Jesus recognized that Peter would rightly deserve the death penalty if he killed an innocent man. This is the power of the sword. It is given by God to His servants, our civil authorities.
All governing authorities are…
5. Tests from God
Verse 5: Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. The conscience involves our sense of what is right and what is wrong. It is that inner mechanism that makes us aware that what we should do is right. At this point, Paul takes the argument to submit as far as he can go. He has already told us to obey the state, because if we don’t we will get in trouble. Now, he says to obey the state because it is the right thing to do and we should want to do the right thing. The stresses of subjection are calibration tests from our Creator. Our hearts reveal themselves when we insist on our own way and refuse to submit.
The God who puts politicians in place is the God who hears your prayers. He is the God who intervenes and closes the mouths of lions. He stands with the faithful in the fiery furnace. He sends plagues and hardens hearts. He turns shepherds into kings and uses political enemies to save His people. More importantly, this God has promised you eternal life in the name of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. If you have been born again and adopted into the family of God, He has already made you a citizen of heaven.
50 million years from now, you will not shake your head and wonder why God allowed this or that to happen. You will remember your responsibility under the sovereignty of God. You will not blame Him for today’s political disappointments. The wisdom behind His arrangement of the board will be revealed. However, you will remember your attitude and your actions as one of God’s players on the earth.
Do you want to be one of those Christians known for their politics? Or do you want to be a good citizen known for your faith? Which is more important? Winning an argument or winning a soul for Christ and His kingdom? You have heard the phrase, “He’s too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” May we never become too politically minded, to be any heavenly good.
Before you pick up the phone, reply to an online comment, or reveal your heart by opening your mouth and unloading your political frustrations, ask this question: Is my attitude Christ honoring, Christ glorifying, and Christ testifying? Am I motivated by what I want right now or by what God has commanded me to do: be subject to the governing authorities? The fact that all authority has been established by God Himself, as part of his plan for fallen mankind, should be enough for us to pause and evaluate our attitude.
R. C. Sproul helps us put God’s sovereign rule into perspective. He wrote…
When we disobey lesser authorities, we are disobeying those whose authority rests on Christ and has come from him and through him. The president of the United States could not exercise his office for five minutes apart from the will of the King of kings. It is the God of providence who raises kingdoms and brings them down. Every king in the history of the world rules and has ruled only by the providential will of God. God casts the final ballot in every election.
Like it or not, the God of authority has put you under authority and He commands you to subject yourself to it. We all struggle with submission. Nobody likes being told what to do. As children, we fall under the authority of our parents. As students, we fall under the authority of our teachers. As U.S. citizens, we fall under the authority of our elected leaders. In every case, we are to subject ourselves to them because all authority has been instituted by God.
According to verse 2, resistance to the authorities is rebellion against God. Robert Halden, a Scottish evangelist from the 1800s, wrote, “The people of God then ought to consider resistance to the government under which they live as a very awful crime, even as resistance to God Himself.” Christian, the last thing you want to do is rebel against your God. He takes rebellion very seriously (read the book of Numbers). We cannot afford to be cavalier in our responses to our authorities. Douglas Moo adds that this is “the attitude of one who will not admit that government has a legitimate right to exercise authority over him or her.”
When Jesus responded to Pilate, He recognized the man’s delegated authority, treated him with respect, and calmly told him the truth―that he was sinning and would one day answer for it (John 19:10-11). This is exactly what we are called to do. We do not deny someone’s God-appointed authority or disrespect them. Instead, we tell them the truth because we are the ones who have it.
We have an obligation to speak out against the sins of our authorities. We should remind them that they are ultimately accountable to the One who gave them their position of power. Only, we address them with respect and the cool confidence of knowing that they have been appointed by God. According to verse 4, their weapon is the sword. Our weapon is the truth. When bad leaders get their way, we must not fight like other men. To do so would be to resist what God has instituted and appointed. Rather, we subject ourselves to their leadership while swinging the powerful sword of truth.
As we seek to earn our authority’s favor, we must also concern ourselves with the perceptions of outsiders (1 Peter 2:11-17). Early Christians had a lot stacked against them. It was rumored that they were cannibals. Eventually, Nero would blame them for destroying much of Rome. They did nothing to earn their awful reputation, so they had to go above and beyond to prove they were good citizens.
Unfortunately, our society has flipped us around to a point where we don’t feel like we owe anyone anything. We believe we made the government and that the government is here to serve us. When, in reality, God made the government and it is here to serve Him. When we act as our judge’s judge, we set ourselves up for failure. When we die on political hills that are not related to the Gospel, it doesn’t just make us look bad, it actually invites persecution. Or, perhaps, a better word is “retribution.”
At the same time, earthly authority is not absolute. Scripture has provided one exception to this air-tight worldview of submission. We are obligated to disobey our leaders if they require us to do something that God forbids or forbid us from doing something that God requires.
We are not commanded to sin in the name of submission. When called to violate Scripture, we yield to the higher power by obeying God rather than men. For everything else, we have our orders. This includes: poor legislation, high taxes, city ordinances, parking laws, and even outlandish orders issued during a worldwide pandemic. We follow the command to submit, especially when don’t like it.
How do we do this? How do we submit for the sake of conscience when all we see are injustices and wrongs in need of righting? You know the answer. We don’t turn to Jiminy Cricket for advice or consult the rebelliousness of our own hearts. Instead, we turn to the Word of God. Someone has pointed out that the conscience is like a sundial. It is only valuable when the sun is shining upon it. In the same way, the conscience must be illuminated by God’s Word if it is going to tell the right time.
One of the greatest dangers to the Christian heart is pride. It is far too easy for us to assume that we alone have all the right answers. We don’t. Apart from the clear teachings of Scripture, selfish ambition rules. When Paul says to submit for the sake of conscience, he is speaking to you, Christian, as you submit to the Word of God.
R. C. Sproul adds…
If magistrates are oppressive, if we disagree radically with them, we are still to render obedience because our consciences are held captive by the Word of God.
Our money carries the slogan, “In God We Trust.” Let’s be honest, our country doesn’t trust God… we do. He is above all authorities. If a civil magistrate picks up the sword to promote evil, they will be judged by God. It is the Lord who raises up nations and tears them down. He appoints kings and uses the wickedness of men’s hearts to His advantage. According to God’s Word, His patriots are the ones who live quiet and godly lives and His greatest nationalists have their citizenship in perspective.
One final question: What will we do if religious persecution ever comes to the United States? The answer if found in the verses preceding our text.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. ― Romans 12:14-21
The next sentence reads…
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.
We are pilgrims, aliens, strangers, and exiles. Let us never forget who pulls the strings. With eternity in mind, let’s check our attitudes at the door and do everything our King has called us to do. After all, in God we trust.
On a dark and foggy night, the captain of a ship peered into the gloom to see faint lights flickering in the distance. Quickly, he told his signalman to send the message: “Alter your course 10 degrees south.” Almost immediately, a return message was received: “Alter your course 10 degrees north.” The captain was furious. How dare they ignore his command and tell him what to do! So he sent a second message: “Alter your course 10 degrees south—I am the captain.” Soon, another message came back: “Alter your course 10 degrees north—I am seaman third class Jones.” By now, the captain was completely beside himself with rage. So he sent a third and final message, knowing it would carry a fearful punch. He said, “Alter your course 10 degrees south—I am a battleship.” To which, the reply came back, “Alter your course 10 degrees north—I am a lighthouse.”
As those with the truth in this dark world, it might seem absurd for us to alter our course or subject ourselves to governing authorities. We can tell them “10 degrees south” all we want, but they are firmly planted on the rock of God’s authority. When we rebel against them, we are fighting against what God has established.
Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996).
F. F. Bruce, Romans: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 6, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985).
James Montgomery Boice, Romans: The New Humanity, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991–).
Johannes Behm, “Διατίθημι, Διαθήκη,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–).
John F. MacArthur Jr., Romans, vol. 2, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991).
Kenneth Boa and William Kruidenier, Romans, vol. 6, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000).
R. C. Sproul, Romans, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009).
Robert H. Mounce, Romans, vol. 27, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995).
William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).