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Taxes, government and the future - Romans 13

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the Riverside Church service on 8th March 2009.

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Some independent experts estimate that as many as 300,000 people have now been killed in Darfur, directly or indirectly by their own government.    Government soldiers apparently had orders to rape teenage girls and to burn what was left of the villages they attacked.  Totally raise them to the ground in other words, so that if anyone escaped the murder squads, then there’d be nothing to come back to.  And not surprisingly, all this has led to a massive refugee and humanitarian crisis.

It’s not new news.  It’s been going on for years.  But it’s back in the media this week because the ICC has issued an arrest warrant for Sudan’s president, Omar al Bashir.     Of course, he’s not the first head of state to murder his own people.  But it is the first time a serving head of state has been indicted for war crimes. 

Link/  Background

And then we come to Romans 13 where the basic message is:  obey the government.    Obey the government.  Are you serious.  Obey the government even when it’s raping your wife and murdering your children?    Even though we live in a civilised democracy, lots of Christians don’t.  They don’t today, and they haven’t throughout history. 

Like the Roman government that was in power at the time Paul was writing this letter.    The Roman Empire has brought immense economic and social blessing to a considerable proportion of the world’s population.   

Where the Romans conquered and ruled, they replaced anarchy with the rule of law; they put in place effective structures of central and local government;  they eradicated piracy and bandits;  and they built roads and other infrastructure.    Within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, there was what became known as the ‘Pax Romana’ – ‘Roman peace’.  You could travel on Roman motorways and engage in trade and commerce with a low risk of being raped or robbed.  And within such conditions, both commerce and culture can develop.  Civilised society in other words.

But of course there was another side of the Pax Romana.    The pirates and bandits and anyone else who threatened the Roman state were crucified,  a form of execution deliberately invented by the Romans to be as painful and humiliating as possible.    Devolution and real democracy were not on the agenda and local dissent was not tolerated, as the Jews found to their great cost when they tried to rebel against Roman rule a few years after this letter was written..    But Roman rule was not just autocratic and repressive, it was often corrupt.  Despite priding themselves on the rule of law, Roman officials were notoriously corrupt and arbitrary.    And when they received this letter from Paul, the Jews in Rome would have had bitter memories of when the previous Emperor had expelled all Jews from Rome because of their debates about whether Jesus really was the Messiah.

 Governments are God’s agents, so obey them (v1-7)

And it was into this context that Paul was writing Romans 13.    And in v1-7, the startling message is simply this:  Governments, even this Roman Government, are God’s agents, so obey them.  Governments are God’s agents, so obey them.    Look with me at v1:

 1Everyone 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.

5 times in v1-3 we have the word authority or authorities.  And this was a technical term in Roman government for the delegated authority given by the Emperor to local governors like Pontius Pilate.  Pilate had authority to govern Judea as he saw fit.  But that authority had been delegated from Caesar;  and it could be withdrawn, as it was later in Pilate’s career.

But during his trial, Jesus reminded Pilate, that ultimately his authority came from God not Caesar.   And Paul picks up the same point here:  all governments ultimately derive their authority from God.    As v1 puts it:  there is no authority except that which God has established. 

No authority;  no government of whatever persuasion is ultimately independent from the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.  So whatever human authority is backing any particular government, God is the ultimate underlying authority.  And it’s the same whether you have a democratic government like we do, or a monarchy as we used to have, or some from of dictatorship.  Whatever the model, just like Pilate’s delegated authority from Caesar, the government has a delegated authority from God;  and so the government is accountable to God for the way it governs. 

But actually the trust of the passage is aimed at the ordinary Christian citizens, not the rulers.  How should we Christian citizens relate to our government, and especially a government we might not always like or agree with?    Well look at v2:

2Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

We’re to obey the government.  Why?  Well we’ve already seen in v1;  we obey the government because it’s God’s agent.  And that same point is made again in v4:

 4For he is God's servant [or literally minister] to do you good.

And the rest of v4 picks up the arguement from v3: 

But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's [minister], an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

The state has a right to enforce law and order on its citizens.  It has a right to confiscate our property and deprive us of our liberty if we break the law.  It’s a good thing that we fear punishment if we break the law.  That’s the way God has structured society.    And that punishment is a god-ordained punishment.  Because to disobey the Government is to disobey God.  Or as v5 summarises it:

5Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

Governments are God’s agents then, so obey them.  And in v6-7, Paul applies this to his original hearers in 2 main ways:  money and attitude. 

6This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's [ministers], who give their full time to governing.

Governments have a god-given right to raise revenue, whether it’s direct taxes like income tax, or indirect taxes, like the customs revenues mentioned in v7.  Why?  Because they’re God’s agents and servants, and like the full-time servants or ministers within a church, they’ve been set aside from earning living in the commercial world to concentrate on the areas of service God has called them to.    In a democracy, we have the right to debate the level and structure of taxation, and Christians should be involved in those kinds of debate.  If we really object to a certain tax, we can join a peaceful march or rally, like many did in protest again the poll tax if you’re old enough to remember that.  We can use all legitimate means to reduce our tax liabilities, like putting ours savings in an ISA instead do a normal bank account, so the interest is tax free. [not that there’s much interest to tax any more!]    But the one thing we can’t do as Christians, is to break the law by not paying the taxes and duties we owe.  If we fiddle our tax returns, pay cash to avoid the VAT or bring back too much duty free from holiday, we breaking the law and disobeying God. 

But it’s more than just money and taxes.  We could pay all the taxes we owe and still have an ungodly approach to the government.  How?  Well v7 also tells us that we owe honour and respect to the governing authorities.  Yes of course we’re permitted to engage in political debate;  we can write to our MP, sign petitions, go on marches and every few years vote for someone else if we don’t agree with the current government.  But we are to maintain a gracious respect for our governing authorities;   and again, let’s remember the context.  The Roman Government was a long way from our modern democracy. 

And so we need to be careful that we’re not just mindlessly following the world’s values at this point.  You might disagree with some of Gordon Brown’s policies, his economic policies or his stance on Iraq or whatever.   But we must be careful not to jump on the current media bandwagon that seems to ridicule and rubbish everything he does and says.    You might not agree with Gordon Brown at every point, but he’s no Adolf Hitler, any more than Tony Blair, John Major or even Margaret Thatcher were.    

And so as Christians, it’s yes to informed debate and constructive engagement with politics;  but it’s definite no to mindless sarcasm which dismisses politics as an irrelevant joke and writes off politicians as just bad as each other.  If there are genuine issues, like MPs expenses, then these should be addressed, but with the graciousness and respect due to those ordained by God for their leadership roles.  Governments are God’s agents then, so we’re called to obey them.    

But what about Christians living in Darfur?  If the government says let my agents kill your wife and rape your daughters, is the Bible saying we should still obey?  

And the answer’s in the context as always.  Why did Paul start talking about obeying the government in chapter 13.    Well it’s because of what he was talking about at the end of chapter 12.  If you’ve been here for the last 2 weeks, then you’ll remember that in chapter 12, we’ve been urged to live lives worthy of the gospel that’s been outlined for us in the first 11 chapter s.   And so in 12:9-16, we were told to love our fellow Christians.  And in v17-21, we were told to love even our enemies.  As individual Christians, we’re not to take revenue.  We’re to leave justice to God.  And ultimate justice will be on Judgment day;  the second coming that us.  But in the meantime, God’s also appointed agents of interim justice.  God has appointed governments to maintain law and order in this world;  it won’t be a perfect justice and it won’t be the final justice.   And so the whole point of 13:1-7 is to reinforce the point of chapter 12;  as individual Christian citizens we’re not to take the law into our own hands.  We’re to trust in God’s ultimate justice;  but also, we’re to trust in his interim justice;  we’re to trust his delegated agents;  the government the police and the courts.  Do not take revenge my friends but leave room for God’s wrath. 

And so 13:1-7 are not the complete answer to obeying the government, because they were aimed at addressing a more specific point.   Yes both Paul and Jesus taught us to obey the government.  This is the stating point that we should all take seriously. 

The starting point then.   It's like the law that says you shouldn’t break the speed limits.  On Wednesday as I was driving up Spring Bank,  I saw a car speeding along the other way right past a speed camera,  And so the flash went off.  Another fine in the post perhaps.  But actually, it was a police car complete with siren and flashing lights.  The law says don’t break the speed limit.  But there are some exceptions to the law;  like the emergency services answering calls. 

And it’s the same with the Bible’s command to obey the government.  The starting point is that we should obey it, because they are God’s agent.  But in Acts chapter 5, when the authorities commanded the apostles not to speak in J’s name, the apostles replied like this: ‘we must obey God rather than men’.  And so here we have an exception to starting rule about obeying governments.  And the exception is this:  obey the government, unless it commands you to do something, or to engage in something, that God says is wrong.  God commands us to evangelise, so we are to disobey any law that prevents evangelism or otherwise restricts Bible teaching.  God’s word forbids murder and rape, and so we are to resist any government that is promoting such an evil agenda.   The power of the state is not absolute, whatever it might think about itself;  no, the state has delegated authority from God.  We are to obey the government, pay its taxes and give it honour and respect, except when it asks us to disobey God’s clear commands. 

So what about Darfur.  Well in cases where a state has become so wicked that it’s systematically murdering its own citizens, then theologians generally agree that Christians are released from their obligation to obey the state;  indeed, in extreme circumstances, Christians  have a duty to work and pray for the state’s downfall, like Bonheoffer did in Nazi Germany.    But the crucial question is, how bad does a government have to be to trigger the exception clause?   Well it’s a matter of individual conscience, but the Scriptures warn us to exercise extreme caution.  The Romans were far from perfect, and yet based on the teaching of the NT, 1C Christians were model Roman citizens and specifically avoided being subversive.  The exception should not be applied lightly.  Because the starting point in v1-7, is that Governments are God’s agents, and so we should obey them.

Love is the Fulfilment of the Law  (v8-10)

But then in v8-10, Paul returns to the theme of love.  And the point in v8-10, is that Love is the fulfilment of the law.  Love is the fulfilment of the law.   Look with me at v8:

8Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.

The point is that, no matter how much I love my neighbour; I could never love him enough to honour my obligations under the Law.  It’s like if I ran up a billion pound bill on my credit card.  No matter how much I managed to pay off each month, I’d never clear that debt during my lifetime.  No matter how much we love our neighbours, we can never love them as much as God wants us to. 

So how does God want us to love each other?  Well in v9, Paul fleshes out what the Law’s demands on us are.  Love is the fulfilling of the Law.  There’s no gulf between love and law.  We can’t love in a vacuum.  The Law gives us an objective standard of what it means to love my neighbour.    What does it mean to love my neighbour?  Well, v9 is repeating part of the 10 commandments.  I love my neighbour by not murdering him, by not sleeping with his wife and not steeling from him.  Indeed, Paul is simply repeating what Jesus had said.  All the laws that concerned our relationships with each other can be summarised by this one command:  love your neighbour as yourself.  This isn’t a mandate for self-love.  It reflects the reality of sinful human nature that will always love itself.  So loving others as we naturally love ourselves is the high level principle on which all the other relationship laws are based. 

And that’s why, even as Christians, we constantly come back to the cross for mercy, because none of us meet J's perfect standard of love.  And so, just like my billion pound credit card bill, that’s why Paul says that the debt of love we owe each other is unpayable. Because now matter how much better at loving each other we may be than the person next door, it still not enough to fulfil the Law.  We can never be good enough for God.

And so thanks be to God, that He sent His son to fulfil the Law for us.  He was the one in v8 who has loved perfectly and so fulfilled the Law.  The message of the whole of Romans is that Jesus lived a perfect life of righteousness – he loved perfectly and so fulfilled the demands of the Law.  But he also fulfilled the demands for punishment the Law also required if sinners were to be forgiven.  And so if we’re in Jesus, if we’re united to Christ, then His perfect righteousness is ours.  He took away our sin and gave us his perfect righteousness instead.  And so now as forgiven Christians, we’re to be more and more in practice what we are already in status.  We’re to live increasingly loving lives that reflect our righteous status in Christ.  Love is the fulfilment of the law then in v8-10.  

J’s 2nd coming motivates us to live godly loving lives (v11-14)

And then in v11-14, we’re given another motivation for living righteous loving lives.  J’s second coming.  Because in v11-14, we see that J’s second coming motivates us to live godly loving lives.  J’s second coming motivates us to live godly loving lives. 

Look with me at v11:   ‘And do this’.  And do what?  Well of course this means the love we’ve been looking at in v 8-10. But it’s also talking about all the ethical instructions Paul’s been giving in the whole of Romans in chapter s 12 & 13.  Do this.  Love your neighbours and everything else Paul’s been saying.  Why?  Because of the 2nd coming says Paul.   Look at v11 again.   

11And 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. 12The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.

All through the winter, the days are short and many of us are up before dawn aren’t we?  And so maybe you can see the first rays of light through the window when you come down the stairs.  The night it nearly over and the day is almost here.  And this is the picture Paul wants us to have of the Day of the Lord.  The day when the OT prophets said the Lord would visit earth to wind up human history.  The day when the NT says, Jesus will return to usher in the new heaven and the new earth.  The night is nearly over.  The pain of living in the last days is nearly over.  Since the ascension, nothing else has had to happen before Jesus returns.  In God’s diary, the second coming is the next big event in salvation history.

So in the light of X’s return and the dawn of the new age, it’s time to wake up from our moral slumber.  If we’re Christians, then we don’t belong to this dark age. We’re citizens of the light.  So why are we still so prone to live in accordance with this passing age of darkness?  V13 give us a sample list of 3 pairs of dark behaviours:  alcohol abuse, sexual immorality and dysfunctional relationships.  They often go together, but even individually, they’re all the opposite of loving each other aren’t they.  So what are we to do in the light of J’s imminent return:  well Paul says in v12&13, let us cast off the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light.  We’re back to living lives of love shaped by the law. 

In heaven, we will be sinlessly perfect.  And God is working in us towards that end now.  As Christians, we’re strangers and aliens in this dark world.  We live with the tension of the now and the not yet.  As Christians, we know that we’re forgiven and that we’ve got a glorious eternal future to look forward to.  We’ve even got the first fruits of that perfection here and now and the HS lives and works in us.  But we struggle because there’s an ongoing battle with the flesh.  While we wait, there’s a tension between the now and the not yet.   The tension is real, and yet the outcome is certain.  J’s second coming should motivate to live godly loving lives in the present as we wait for that great day. 

Love is the fulfilment of the law.  And so as individuals, we’re not to take vengeance when we’re sinned against.  We’re to leave justice to God and His agents.  And we’re to obey those agents, the governing authorities that is.  And we’re to keep an eternal perspective on all that happens in our lives in this world.  Perfect justice will one day be done and be seen to be done.  And on that day, we too will be perfect, which none of us are now are we?  And that hope should be motivating us to lead godly loving lives in the present.  But as always, it’s hard.  And so we need the power of the HS changing us from the inside out.  So let’s seek that power now as we close in prayer.  Let’s pray.

  Closing Prayer

Dear Heavenly Father, forgive us when we behave just like the pagan world around us; taking the law into our own hands;  disobeying or disrespecting your governing agents.  Forgive us when we’re not as focused as we should be on J's second coming.  Forgive us when we sink back into the deeds of darkness.  So anoint us, we pray with your HS that we might live lives that are more loving, more worthy and more honouring to you and your appointed agents;  for our greater good, but your ultimate praise and glory we pray, Amen.

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