Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ. You might be able to imagine a discussion about civil authority. One person states that we must obey the civil authority and honor the king and that person may cite Romans 13 and I Peter 2. The next person tells you that you must obey God and not man and will cite Acts 5:29. One person may point to the fine that Jason and the brothers paid for the Apostle Paul in Acts 17. Another person will point out that the Apostle Paul himself fled from the authorities by night, John the Baptist rebuked Herod, the High Priest rebuked Uzziah, and Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego all obeyed God against the king’s orders.
So who is right? Does the Bible hold contradictory commands? Often when we read through Scripture, we look at a text and we forget to consider the immediate context and the broader context of all of Scripture. In the original manuscripts of the Bible, there are no chapters and verses, which forces you to consider the overall argument that is being presented to you. I don’t plan to preach on the entire Bible in one sermon. I do want you to see that Romans 13 makes sense within and is not contradictory to other commands of Scripture.
I declare the Word of the Lord to you under this theme: there is no authority except from God.
- In 1st century Rome (Rom. 13)
- In 16th century Europe (BC Art 36)
- In 21st century North America.
- In 1st century Rome (Rom. 13)
I must begin with two points.
First, in Romans 13, the Apostle Paul is not specifically addressing democracy, tyranny, or monarchy. He is not addressing the Trump government, the Trudeau government, or the dictatorship in China. He does not have a specific political party in mind. The Apostle Paul’s first allegiance is to the Son of God, the son of King David, that is King Jesus (that is what we read about in Romans 1:1-5). His primary audience is a Christian community living in a world that is not Christian. Second, the Apostle Paul is addressing the matter of legal issues as they were arising among Christians. If you read 12:14-21 or 13:8-10, he is encouraging you to think about how you respond to injustice. Think about a contract that has been broken, for example. He does not forbid Christians from seeking justice. But he lays out ground rules for how to do that. He wants you to seek justice as Christians and not as rioters and rabble-rousers.
There are three matters that Paul addresses in Romans 13: (1) you; (2) God; (3) civil authority.
First he addresses Christian responsibility, you. If you read through vs. 14-21 of ch. 12, he calls you not to repay evil for evil, to show kindness to an enemy, to overcome evil with good. This passage begins with an emphasis on you. It begins with self-government under God. This is also emphasized throughout Romans 13:1-7. Look at vs. 3b: “Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval.” Look at vs. 4b: “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.” Look at vs. 5: “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” It is far better to endure wrong than to do wrong. If you join in on wrong-doing you may incur the wrath of the authority, but you will endure the wrath of God. He also promises in chapter 12:19 that if the approved authorities will not judge, then God Himself will one day judge. So the passage begins with this call to personal responsibility: do good.
Why do we do good? Well, because God is God. In Romans 13, the Apostle Paul addresses God’s authority over all authority. There is no authority on earth that we can consider without understanding God’s authority over all. You may know the famous quote from the Dutch Preacher and statesman Abraham Kuyper: ““There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” We just read in chapter 12, vs. 19, that you must not return evil for evil, because God will repay. God is God and you are not, so don’t play God. In fact, He has set court systems into place to respond to evil in the world. This is important. The court systems have been set in place by God. When the courts systems do wrong, they also are held accountable to God. You are still called to do good. When the court systems do not praise what is right, you are still called to do good.
What is the responsibility or role of the civil authority? God gives the civil authority the task to punish evil and reward good. God has ordained them, but He has also given them a specific task. You might even call it a narrow task. He has given the civil authority the sword to punish evil and reward good. Their duty is not to keep us safe or to take care of us. Their duty is to punish evil and reward good. What is important here is that they have a very specific task which is set within a very specific sphere of authority or responsibility. They do not have unlimited authority or authority with no boundaries at any time. Their authority stands under the authority of God Himself. They are called to act as servants of God, to respect Him.
How does this apply today? Look at the rioting throughout the States and in Toronto and Montreal over the death of George Floyd. A police officer acted unjustly in killing this man. Justice against this civil authority should have been pursued in the civil courts. Instead, large mobs returned evil for evil. They did this through the destruction of private property. In some cases, they killed people. The Apostle Paul knows the nature of sin. There is sin in the heart of the mob. There is sin in the Church. There is sin among civil authorities. He knows that Christians can also get caught up in the mobs of the day and join them in doing evil. And so you are called to take the appropriate routes of justice through the God-ordained means.
The Apostle Paul does not approve of the unjust use of authority. He does not call for blind submission to abusive authority. The Apostle Paul also calls for the submission of a wife to her husband (Eph. 5), he calls for the submission of members to their church authorities (Heb. 13), he calls for the submission of the Christian to the civil authority (Rom. 13). But no authority is absolute. Husbands do not have unfettered authority. Pastors do not have unfettered authority. Politicians do not have unfettered authority. There is no authority except that which is from God. That means you are set free to do what is right and good and noble and lovely, not using your freedom to mask evil, but fearing God and serving God in all things.
Let us turn to our reading from the Belgic Confession:
- In 16th century Europe (BC Art 36)
Throughout history, Christians have struggled with how to live godly lives when the civil authority will punish them for doing good, when unjust authorities rise up and say that evil is good and that good is evil, when they enter into areas of life that do not belong to them. These are not easy answers. We live in a sinful world. Sin doesn’t make sense.
This is why this article of the Belgic Confession was written and edited and debated over. In the 1500s there was a group called the anabaptists who denied any civil authority whatsoever. Meanwhile the civil authorities were persecuting Reformed pastors and elders, by forbidding them to preach and teach and practice God’s Word. The Reformers did not want to deny that the authority had been ordained by God, but they knew that they had to obey Jesus Christ in their teaching and their practice as a church. These pastors and elders struggled in regions where oppressive governments ganged up with the Roman Catholic Church to attack them and restrict their activities. Many Dutch, Polish and French Christians fled to England where they were allowed to worship and shepherd their congregations with greater freedom. Their court systems would not defend what was good as the Apostle Paul teaches that they must in Romans 13. Many were forced to flee. Others were imprisoned. Others were killed.
Like Romans 13, the Belgic Confession focuses on three parties: (1) God; (2) you; (3) the courts.
Consider the sovereignty of God. God has ordained kings, princes, civil officers because of the depravity of the human race. God has placed the sword in the hands of the government. The goal is a society pleasing to God. The civil authority is placed in subjection to God’s Law.
Consider your responsibility: all must be subject, pay taxes, honor and respect, pray for them. But notice that there is an important clause that is in here: be subject in all things that are not in conflict with God’s Word. In other words, do good, that is, good as defined by the Holy Bible.
And what about the civil courts? There have been some debates on this article over the last 500 years. These debates were not over the civil courts being given to little power or a narrow task, instead the article started off with too broad and too wide a mandate for the civil courts, giving them too much authority in the life of the Church. Their primary task is to punish evil and reward good. The glory of God is the goal of their work. It is also specifically stated that they should do this while completely refraining from every tendency to exercise absolute authority. Why is that added? The 1800s and 1900s saw the rise of a number of tyrants and Romans 13 teaches that there is no authority but from God.
Think about where both Romans 13 and the Belgic Confession directs your attention: to God. One reason that constitutions have bound western civil authorities is due to the influence of Romans 13 and the pattern of authority throughout Scripture. Secularism says that Christianity is one of many religions and this means that civil authority is ultimately a law in and of itself as society determines its own truth. The Holy Spirit says that there is no authority but from God and that all authority must stand under His truth. Husbands are not a law in and of themselves. Pastors and elders are not a law in and of themselves. Police officers and politicians are not a law in and of themselves. Jesus Christ is the one who has been given authority over all things.
- In 21st Century North America
These are Biblical principles for how you can think about authority today. I am focusing on what Belgic Confession Article 36 focuses on: the sovereignty of God.
This is important. No human authority is absolute or unlimited. The authority of a father, a husband, a pastor, an elder, or a civil servant is not absolute or unlimited.
There is only One whose authority is absolute and unlimited. This is the One who had the authority to lay down His life for His people and take it up again. This is the One who before ascending into heaven blessed His people and said to them: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20).
If He is the one with all authority, then all authority on earth flows from Him. The bureaucrats in the Roman Empire wouldn’t have agreed with the task and God-centered calling that the Apostle Paul laid out for the civil authority in Romans 13. They would have liked the part where Christians were called to submit, but not the part where they were held accountable to God. They thought that their authority flowed from the emperor. The Apostle Paul said that their authority flowed from God.
There is no authority but from God. When you look at the entirety of Scripture, you will see that God has ordained civil courts, church courts, parental courts, etc. You will see that at many times in history Christians have spoken out for the vulnerable. Paul calls a wife to submit to her husband, but both Jesus and Paul made provision for a wife to appeal to the church and/or civil courts against a truly abusive husband. Paul calls Christians to submit to their leaders, but church leaders began to realize that the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church was making statements and wielding authority that did not belong to them, and so they appealed to Acts 6 and I Tim 3 for a consistorial form of church government. Some might argue that the very idea of binding a king to a constitution arose from a Christian framework. Sin exists wherever people are. And so it is the aim to hold all forms of government accountable and transparent to God.
You might be punished by the civil authority for doing what is good. You might be told not to do what is good. As Christians, you are permitted to protest and appeal decisions made by the civil authority in respectful and honorable ways. The Apostle Paul made full use of the Roman court system in order to bring the gospel right to Caesar. He could have been set free in Jerusalem, but he chose instead to appeal to Caesar, and to use his rights as a Roman citizen. This is part of living as a Christian citizen. That is what the courts have been ordained by God for. Christians are not allowed to join riots and destroy private property or human life or reputations by taking the law into their own hands. If those who commit such evil are not judged in the present day, they will receive the wrath of God on the last day. Unless they repent. But you are called to obey God in all things and do good.
Consider the glorious authority of Jesus Christ. There is no authority but from God and He has set His Son to reign. Jesus is not a tyrant. He is a king who is exalted to be king by serving and laying down His life. God showed His love for You and me in that while we were still rebel sinners, He sent Christ to die for us. Even though we rose up and militated against God’s good order, and made our own lives and society a complete mess, Jesus laid down His life on a cross. He did this so that we might be set free from that life of rebellion and sorrow. The reason that it is such a delight to call Jesus King, is because He is Savior and He has come to save His people from their sins and from the power of sin and slavery. He gives this freely. It is a free gospel. A free gospel makes you free men and women. When the Son sets you free you will be free indeed. Amen.