The gifts of God are varied. He gives us marriage to remind us of the mystery that is the gospel. He gives us children to unlock our fatherly heart. And he gives us government to perceive his restraining control on the world. How we relate to government matters, as all things do, because it shows us how we relate to God. It is not the sum total, but it is a number in the equation. Furthermore, God gives us a new heart. That heart is a gift unlike any other, and with it we can not only submit to the government but can also love others as Christ does. In Romans 13, Paul helps us think through how to approach government and its role in our life, and how love for others and Christ compels our lives to be lived differently.
1 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. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 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, 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. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
In these verses, Paul begins tackling the issue of the Christian and public life. What kind of citizens do Christians make? He’s crystal clear, Christians should be among the best citizens, not causing any unnecessary problems for the government because they recognize that their authorities are God’s appointed rulers. Christians shouldn’t resist governmental authorities. They should submit to them. This has always been a difficult passage for Christians to understand, especially those with bad rulers. The church father, Origen, said, “I am disturbed by Paul’s saying that the authority of this age and the judges of the world are ministers of God.” Leander Keck said that the problem with Romans 13:1-7 is not its opaqueness but its clarity, its plain and unqualified call for submission. So, if this passage is hard to hear, you are not alone.
Here’s the main point Paul is pressing. Christians are not anarchists. They’re basically law-abiding citizens. And government is a good gift from God. Douglas Moo says, “Governments are more than a nuisance to be put up with; it is an institution established by God to accomplish some of his purposes on earth.” We see this truth in the pages of the Bible. Cyrus released the exiles. Nebuchadnezzar promoted Daniel. For many in the ancient world, too much government was not the problem. It was sometimes too little government where anarchy ruled that made life hard.
None of that takes away the difficulty of Paul’s words here in Romans for the Roman Christians. Remember, the Romans are the inventors of the torturous death instrument called the cross. Christianity claims Jesus is Lord, and that poses a problem in the public square, especially when that public square trades in Caesar-faced coins. The Roman authorities were not upset that Christians claimed Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. They were upset that Christians claimed Jesus as Lord of all.
Paul is not ignorant that his letter might go beyond the walls of the church in Rome. He’s a public figure by this point, with a reputation that precedes him. That’s why he’s writing this letter before he arrives. He’s already been imprisoned, and he’s known outside the church. Paul knows this letter would be read by rulers in Rome. Therefore, what he says shows that Christians may proclaim another King over all, but they recognize that their King placed the local king in his place. They’re not against him, because God has appointed him.
But this probably didn’t go over well with the Roman Christians. Paul’s message is one of peace, even to those who crucify Christians and put them in the arenas to be eaten by lions for entertainment. How can this be? John Piper helps us see.
I think he wants to say to Christians, “Being wronged by a government sends nobody to hell, but being rebellious and angry and bitter and spiteful does send people to hell. And so it is a much greater evil for you to be rebellious than of the government to mistreat you. Much greater evil for you, that is.”
Now, you might object. Surely there is an appropriate place for civil disobedience. I think both Paul and Piper would agree that there are cases for that, but for the regular, day in, day out life of a Christian, submission to government is to be the norm.
There is, however, a time when civil disobedience is appropriate. We even have biblical precedent for it. In Acts 5, Peter and the apostles are arrested for preaching the gospel in a public space. During the night, an angel opens the prison doors and tells them to go stand in the temple and preach again. So, they go. And the authorities come and take them back and question them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” Peter then answers, “We must obey God rather than men.” Peter and the apostles disobeyed. Did they go against Paul’s words here in Romans 13? Who should we imitate?
To complicate the matter more, let’s look at two more biblical examples of civil disobedience. In the book of Exodus, Pharaoh sends out a decree to kill all male Hebrew children. But the Hebrew midwives don’t obey. Instead, in just one instance, they take Moses and put him in a basket and send him down the river. They refuse to kill. In another case, Daniel is told by the King not to bow down and worship anyone else. But Daniel doesn’t obey. Instead, he continues bowing before the Lord alone. Are these people sinning against God by not obeying earthly rulers?
What do these three examples show us? I think this: all authorities have superiority and should normally be submitted to, but Jesus has ultimate authority, and in matters where his lordship is at stake, Jesus is to be obeyed above all. That means, when God asks us to spread the gospel, we spread the gospel, even if it means punishment from governments. We do it honestly. We do it carefully. We do it obeying all the laws we can. But if they ask us to shut our mouths, we simply cannot abide. Jesus’ name is at stake. Furthermore, if the government asks us to kill babies, we should be the first in line to save them. If the government asks us to worship someone other than Jesus, we should straighten our back and refuse. Where the name and fame of Jesus is concerned, we disobey if we must. In all other cases, we submit. Submission to government has a limit. Submission to Jesus has none. As John Stott said, “whenever laws are enacted which contradict God’s law, civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty.”
Christians don’t have it easy in this world. Humility is not a virtue. The silent go unnoticed and the meek get trampled. But what the Kingdom of God values is different from the what the world values. And in a world of political outrage where the battle intensifies with every tweet, Christians have a hope that the world cannot see. Christians have Jesus ruling and reigning over all. Therefore, Christians can obey their leaders because in doing so, they are obeying the true Leader. To submit to the government is not outside of Christian orthodoxy. It’s firmly inside it. So, when the left and right go to war, the Christian can be the calm, obedient citizen awaiting his reward not in the next election, but in the ages to come.
After all, while Christians reside in houses on this earth but their citizenship is in heaven, and heaven will never be conquered. Jesus will never lose his crown. It’ll only grow brighter as the days go by. If this is true, then Christians have the only government that will really matter in the end. They’re the ones who will win in the final analysis. Their kingdom will outlast all others. So, obey the government whenever you can. Disobey only when God’s name requires you to.
8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Paul is preparing us here for something he will go on about at length in chapters 14-15. He sets us up now with this talk of love. What kind of love is he talking about? We can call it costly love—love that requires selflessness and sacrifice. It’s love that bears with one another for the sake of Christ. It’s love that gets involved with others for the good of the church.
In his book, The Mark of the Christian, Francis Schaeffer said, “In the midst of the world, in the midst of our present culture, Jesus is giving a right to the world. Upon His authority, He gives the world the right to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians on the basis of our observable love toward all Christians.”
A lack of love toward one another, even in our differences, is how the Christian witness to the watching world is marred. More than that, it is the reason many Christians find it hard to live among other Christians inside the church. How many stories of church injuries have you heard? How have you been wounded yourself by the church? What is the solution? It is not withdrawal or retreat. Leaving the church will not make your or anyone else’s life better. Separating the believer from the family only increases the pain. The only solution is a commitment to loving the way Christ loves—covenantally. That means we love even when we don’t feel it. We can disagree and still love because we have already made a promise with the other person in the future to be there. We can love because it isn’t based on our feelings but on the promise that Christ gives.
Schaeffer goes on to say,
I have observed one thing among true Christians in their differences in many countries—what leaves a bitterness that can last for twenty, thirty or forty years (or for fifty or sixty years in a son’s memory)—is not the issue of doctrine or belief which caused the differences in the first place. Invariably it is lack of love—and the bitter things that are said by true Christians in the midst of differences. These stick in the mind like glue. And after time passes and the differences between the Christians or the groups appear less than they did, there are still those bitter, bitter things we said in the midst of what we thought was a good and sufficient objective discussion. It is these things—these unloving attitudes and words—that cause the stench that the world can smell in the church of Jesus Christ among those who are really true Christians.
We live in an age of differences. If you follow Christian Twitter, for example, you will see disagreement every day over what appears to be a minute detail. I can't keep up with the outrage. I often step back and ask myself, “Where is the love in this discussion? Where is the place for real disagreement with real unity in Christ? Must I choose one side in order to belong?” In those cases, where the disagreement is over a small matter, love must prevail. The strong does not judge the weak and the weak must not judge the strong.
There are sometimes cases where Christians will have disagreements over larger issues. How can we move forward without compromising orthodoxy and yet displaying love? How can we find the exit before the train goes down the tunnel of darkness?
Here, Schaeffer provides valuable insight.
What happens, then, when we must differ with our brothers in Christ because of the need also to show forth God's holiness either in doctrine or in life? In the matter of life, Paul clearly shows us the balance in 1 and 2 Corinthians. The same thing applies in doctrine as well.
First, in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 he scolds the Corinthian church for allowing a man who is an active fornicator to stay in the church without discipline. Because of the holiness of God, because of the need to exhibit this holiness to a watching world, and because such judgment on the basis of God's revealed law is right in God's sight, Paul scolds the church for not disciplining the man.
After they have disciplined him, Paul writes again to them in 2 Corinthians 2:6-8 and scolds them because they are not showing love toward him. These two things must stand together...
A very important question arises at this point: how can we exhibit the oneness Christ commands without sharing in the other people's mistakes? I would suggest a few ways by which we can practice and show this oneness even across the lines where we must differ.
First, we should never come to such difference with true Christians without regret and without tears…The world must observe that when we must differ with each other as true Christians, we do it not because we love the smell of blood, the smell of the arena, the smell of the bullfight, but because we must for God’s sake. If there are tears when we must speak, then something beautiful can be observed.
Second, in proportion to the gravity of what is wrong between true Christians, it is important consciously to exhibit an observable love to the world. Not all differences among Christians are equally serious. There are some that are very minor. Others are overwhelmingly important [Know the difference.]...
Third, we must show a practical demonstration of love in the midst of the dilemma, even when it is costly. The word love should not be just a banner. In other words, we must do whatever must be done, at whatever cost, to show this love. We must not say, “I love you,” and then—bang, bang, bang...
Fourth, approach the problem with a desire to solve it, rather than with a desire to win. We all love to win. In fact, there is nobody who loves to win more than the theologian. The history of theology is all too often a long exhibition of a desire to win. But we should understand that what we are working for in the midst of our difference is a solution—a solution that will give God the glory, that will be true to the Bible, but will exhibit the love of God simultaneously with his holiness...
Fifth...keep consciously before us and help each other to be aware, that it is easy to compromise and to call what is wrong right, but that is equally easy to forget to exhibit our oneness in Christ. This attitude must be constantly and consciously developed--talked about and written about in and among our groups and among ourselves as individuals. In fact, this must be talked about and written about before differences arise between true Christians. We have conferences about everything else. Who has ever heard of a conference to consider how true Christians can exhibit in practice a fidelity to the holiness of God and yet simultaneously exhibit in practice a fidelity to the love of God before the watching world?
Before a watching world, an observable love in the midst of difference will show a difference between Christians’ differences and other men’s differences. The world may not understand what the Christians are disagreeing about, but they will very quickly understand the difference of our differences from the world’s differences if they see us having our differences in an open and observable love on a practical level.
At the end of the day, do you sigh in exasperation or with love? What are we saying to the watching world? Is there unity among us? Is there a seeking of peace? If not, we need to listen to the Apostle Paul's words in Romans 13:8-10.
We should owe no one anything, except love. Paul’s message is otherworldly. He’s actually telling us to go into debt, but only in one case. He tells us to rack up mountains of debt in the category of love. Love doesn't mean approving or accepting all views. It means, for the sake of Christ, loving others as you would love yourself and showing that love in a multitude of ways. One of those ways may be the correction of bad theology. Another may be in the hug after a hard conversation involving discipline. Yet another may be the reception and giving back of that hug with the one who disciplined you.
Is your mountain of love-debt so high that only Christ can pay it?
11 Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Love is the norm for the Christian, and a lack of love can distract us from knowing the time. If we are caught up in our disagreements and disputes, we are failing to understand the times in which we live. Who cares if the strategy on the eastern flank failed on the battlefield when the war has been one? Christ has come and died and been resurrected. In just a little while, he will return. It is time we wake from our sleep and clean up our lives to become fit for his return. Paul wants us to prepare for the victory march.
He’s calling us to a change. We can think of it as a change of clothes, a garment, perhaps. Once upon a time, we wore the garment of darkness, where orgies, drunkenness, sexual immorality, sensuality, quarreling and jealousy were the badges we pinned to our chest. But in Christ, we have been given a new garment—the garment of light. Inside its warm embrace we cannot make any provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires, because we have been taken up into a love greater than any other. The Lord Jesus Christ has lifted us out of the darkness and placed us into his kingdom of light. Who would put mud on that three-piece suit? We live now as in broad daylight, even if the darkness lingers a little while longer in this world. Douglas Moo says, “we are consciously to embrace Christ in such a way that his character is manifested in all we do and say.”
The two garments are polar opposites. The garment of darkness is the negative life. The garment of light is the positive life. Put side by side, the Christian has an easy answer. It’s clear every moment the garment we should pick up and put on. But we know we don’t always put on the right one. Why is that? Because we forget who Jesus is and what he’s done for us.
Losing focus on the gospel leads us not just to apathy but into darkness. Our sinful hearts will cling to fleshly passions if we don’t cling instead to the divine love of God in Christ. If we forget his goodness, we will go look for some goodness on our own. The problem is, we can never find anything truly good. We find sewer water and drink our fill even while Jesus is offering rivers of living water that will never run dry.
Though we still fall, the Christian does have a new power within that makes the darkness taste bad. So we run from it to Jesus. And that’s what Paul is asking us to do here. He’s asking us to run away from the darkness and into the light. The greater your sense of the love of God is, the quicker you’ll be able to run.
We must not be lulled to sleep. If we are, we will fall right back into our old ways. A new, God-given heart is awake. It is not only pursuing Christ but also fleeing sin. As Michael Bird says, “In my experience, you can tell a lot about a person by learning not just what they are willing to fight for, but what they are eager to flee from.” Being a Christian is an either/or life. We either live for Christ or we live for self.
Living for self never results in happiness. You would think by now we would know that, but the human heart is deceptive. What we need among us is a willingness to fight the good fight of faith. We need the Holy Spirit-enabled heart to stand for Christ and against sin. And we can do that by putting on the Lord Jesus Christ. After all, it is his righteousness that saves, not our own.