The law we are to obey - Romans 13:1-14
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Meet Joe and Bill. They are enthusiastic Christians. Joe says to Bill, 'I had a great time in church yesterday. The worship was out of this world. New Wine had never sounded so good, why, at one point I thought I had actually died and gone straight to heaven, it was as if the archangel Gabriel himself were leading the praise. I am sure at one point I even saw the curate straining to raise his arms, but, not to worry, he managed to resist it.' Bill likes to shock. He is a radical Christian. He looks at his friend knowingly and with a twinkle in his eye says, 'I had a great time of worship myself today. I have been busy filling in my tax form- not exactly Graham Kendrick but I am sure the apostle Paul would have approved. In fact the worship went on as I popped into the voting booth to vote in the local government election and reached a fantastic climax when I called around on Mrs Smith, our elderly neighbour, to dig her garden.' At this point, Joe begins to wonder if Bill is a few vouchers short of a pop up toaster or is just deliberately being mischievous. In fact, Bill is much nearer to what the New Testament understands by the word 'worship' than Joe, because worship is not just something we do few a few hours each week on a Sunday, but what we are meant to be doing every day throughout the week. Bill is right, I am sure, the apostle Paul would have approved of describing the completion of his tax return as 'worship.' Because that, in effect, is what he is saying in the chapter we are looking at together tonight in Romans 13.
You see, back in chapter 12 Paul has already described his understanding of worship as offering the whole of our bodies as 'living sacrifices to God' which comes about as our minds are transformed by the Word with the result that they are not conformed to the World. And because Christians are people who are now rightly related to God through faith in Jesus Christ, they want to know what God's will is in their lives so that they can be rightly related to other Christians on the one hand and non- Christians on the other. Well, it is the latter question that Paul grapples with in chapter 13 how we are to relate in a non-Christian setting. And you can summarise what he says under three commands: Be submissive, be loving, and be expectant.
First of all, be submissive vv 1-7. Now it is sad to say that many Christians lead what in effect are schizophrenic lives. So there is the 'God things' like church, family, evangelism, reading the Bible, praying, and the 'non-God things', politics, finance, building a house, watching telly. But Paul will not allow for that rigid compartmentalisation to go on because everything belongs to God- Romans 11: 36 'For from him and through him and to him are all things.' And the fact that God cares about every area of our existence shows itself in the way God orders the two communities in which we find ourselves as believers- the church and the state. In chapter 12 Paul has shown how God has given gifts to everyone who is a Christian so that the Christian community can work together for our mutual benefit. Now he is saying that God has done the same in the country in which we happen to find ourselves. And the fact that God is equally the Lord of both comes out in the language he uses to describe politicians and civil servants, he speaks of them as being God's 'ministers' or servants in v 4 and indeed God's 'priests' in v 6-the leiturgoi, from which we get our word 'liturgy'. So as people like Matthew, Nathan and myself can rightly be described as God's ministers, as we minister the Word of God to the people of God, then even pagans like John Prescott and Sir Humphrey Appleby are just as much God's 'servants' as they minister law and order in the nation. Now there is a thought, politicians are God's gift! The trouble comes when some think they are 'God's gift' in the wrong sense, as we shall see. But notice that Paul does not limit this to just good rulers, the government we happen like, but even bad rulers, one's we don't like. In the case of the people living in Rome that was Nero who was not exactly Mother Theresa. Now, Paul spells out for us three things about all governments, whether we like them or not.
First, the basis of government vv 1- 2, 'Everyone 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. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.' Paul is saying that government is God given and not man made. And just in case we miss the point or don't like it, Paul says it twice and draws the logical inference, that to rebel against government is to rebel against God. Rulers have a delegated and derived authority. It is not absolute, it is given on trust. Jesus made the same point when he appeared before Pilate in John 19 'You would have no authority over me if it were not given to you from above.' Now Pilate misused that authority to condemn Jesus, but it was still God given. You see, man's original role as we see in Genesis 1 and 2 was to exercise authority over the world, and as numbers increased with people living in communities then some form of rule of law would be required to enable people to live together. But with the fall and the entry of sin into the world, government is even more necessary to curb our wicked tendencies. All you have to do is read the book of Judges to see what happens when a people decide to do their own thing- you end up with anarchy and people living in fear. No, God prefers order over chaos anytime, for this not only reflects his own character, but ultimately what is for people's good.
Which brings us on to the purpose of government vv 3- 4, 'For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong? Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.'
At its most basic, the role of government is to restrain evil and promote good. A justice system is needed so that wrongdoing is punished. This links back to what we read last week in Romans 12 where Paul says that we are not to engage in acts of revenge 'Vengeance is mine says the Lord.' So if we are not to take the law into our own hands how then is God going to administer justice? Well, he does it through the state; the magistrate is an 'agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.' That is what should be happening. In a society we surrender some of our basic rights on the understanding that they will be taken up by government on our behalf. So I surrender the right to protect my person or property by the use of force on the understanding that the government does it for me instead. Also I expect that if a crime has been committed against me, then that person is punished for it. And notice that Paul does say punishment. This carries the idea that certain acts having corresponding deserts. It is not just a matter of deterrence, nor simply correction, but justice. So rightly those who do wrong should be terrified and fear punishment. On the other hand, those who do good in the community should be commended. I guess to some extent the honors system in this country was an attempt to do that. I say 'was' because there seems to have been a move away from that to some degree, so that some are now rewarded not so much for what they have done for society but for how much they have given to a particular party or what their standing is as a celebrity. But a crisis begins to occur when these two primary functions of a government begin to break down or are reversed. It is dispiriting to say the least when sentences are given out which are far too lenient or when evil seems to be promoted and good is penalized. That is when the temptation will be for people to take the law into their own hands and you have the formation of vigilante groups and the like, then the first step has been made towards societal breakdown.
Which leads us on to the limits of government vv 5- 7 'Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience? This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.'
The role of the state is to order life in such a way that people are free to go about their lawful business unmolested. So we are to submit to rulers because our consciences tell us that it is the right thing to do. Accordingly we should pay taxes to enable the government to function in this way, not to be hampered by lack of cash to do what will be good for the citizens of that country. And so we are to show due respect to those who have to carry out these tasks on God's behalf.
Now as we have been looking at this it will no doubt have crossed your mind that it is patently obvious that not all governments behave in this way. There are some rulers who far from being God's agents for good are Satan's agents for evil. Let's just think about those for a moment.
In the first place ungodly expectations are made of a government which goes way beyond what God has in mind. Let me give you an example which comes from an American junior school textbook but which could easily have been found in an English one. It says that over time 'people were no longer content to live as their forefathers had lived. They wanted richer and fuller lives. They wanted the government to help make their lives rich and full.' And is that not what we hear from our politicians all the time? Vote for this party and you will have a better deal under us, usually couched in terms of personal peace and affluence. But this goes way beyond the concept of limited government whose job it is to ensure the smooth running of society. In fact the name for this is idolatry making claims which are reserved for God alone. The rich life, the full life, is one which we have when we come to know God in Jesus Christ and is to be found nowhere else. This is not just the stuff of totalitarian regimes like Germany under the Nazis or Russia under the communists; it is also the stuff of so called democratic societies like ours- making claims and promises they cannot fulfill.
In the second place we have the problem of governments intruding into aspects of life in which they have no right to intrude-the family for example. My understanding of what Paul says here and elsewhere is that government is to so order society that the family can be free to function properly as its own little society within a bigger society. That is a concept which is increasingly coming under threat. We rightly baulked at the practice carried out in soviet Russia and in parts of China where children of Christians were taken from their homes in order to be re-educated for the sake of an ideology. Now in this country we are in danger of the very same thing happening in reverse with Christian parents being taken away for exercising godly discipline if the anti-smacking lobby gets its way with the new Children Bill which is going through Parliament. Parents are liable to be treated as criminals simply for exercising godly discipline. It was C.S Lewis who said that one of the primary benefits of living in a democracy is 'the simple freedom to enjoy a cup of tea by the fireside with one's family.' But with the rise of the politically correct thought police and well organized pressure groups, we are now being told which drink, if any, we can have with our family. This needs to be opposed.
But thirdly, we have cases when governments instead of acting as servants under God, they starting acting tyrannically as god. What then? To some extent Paul has hinted at the way ahead when in v 5 he refers to the conscience. This is another area in which no government has a right to interfere a person's conscience. Remember what happened to Peter and John after they had been arrested and flogged in Acts 4 for preaching forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus. They were told by the authorities to stop. This is how they replied: Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.' When it comes to a clear choice between obeying God or man then God must come first and we must be willing to pay the price. Of course this was what these Christians had to do a few years after Paul wrote this letter. The tragedy of living in this world is that Romans 13 can so easily become twisted into the horror of Revelation 13 whereby the government becomes not a servant of God but a slave of Satan, it becomes the beast.
So what are we to do as a church and as Christians when we face governments who have overstepped the mark? Well, one person who gave this a great deal of thought was the 17th century minister, Samuel Rutherford in his book 'Lex Rex' the Law is King. He argued that we have to make a distinction between the office of a civil servant and the person who is the civil servant. Christians are commanded to respect the office, say of Prime Minister, but if the person who occupies that office acts contrary to God's law, it is our duty to challenge him. More recently the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr drew a similar distinction. On the one hand, he says, Christians are called to honour the ruling authority as a reflection of divine authority. One the other hand the Bible is full of examples with prophetic judgments on particular rulers for oppressing the poor and defying divine law. So whether it is a government minister or a Bishop, if what they are saying and doing is contrary to what God has said in Scripture, whatever their office, they as people stand under God's judgment and it is our duty to draw their attention to that fact and in some cases seek their removal. And the motivation behind this should not be our own personal preferences, but other people's good- the principle of love.
And so we come to the call to be loving vv 8-10 'Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.'
As well as obeying civil laws, Christians are to obey the great law, the law of love. Christians are not to be scroungers- debts should be paid, says Paul. But there is one debt that can never be paid- love. Whilst there can come a time when we say 'I have paid enough' the mortgage has been settled, there never comes a point when the Christian says 'I have loved enough', it just goes on and on. Here Paul takes the second table of the 10 commandments which are all to do with human relations and says they are summed up in one command, 'Love your neighbour as yourself. Love doesn't harm people by stealing their property, their spouse or their life. Love does the exact opposite it gives. Do you see what Paul is saying? He is saying that Christians are to be the best citizens around. They should be the sort of people everyone would want to have living next door to them, teaching them, in school, caring for them in hospital. This is not to say that only Christians can behave in this way, but that Christians should behave in this way is a given. This is where the link between belief and behaviour is so vital. The fact is, many people in our country who are say, over the age of 50 still retain a vestige of Christian values even if they are not themselves Christian. They grew up within a cultural climate which took such virtues as honesty, integrity, hard work, and curtsey for granted. All of that was the result of hundreds of years of Christian influence. Now much of that has been destroyed. The Christian belief system which gave rise to these things has been discarded as oppressive and out of date and has been replaced with a free for all individualism with its focus on personal pleasure. The result is the, 'what is in it for me and tough on the rest', culture. But you cannot have it both ways. You cannot declare transcendent values and God's law as non-existent and yet demand the sort of behaviour which flows from those laws. People will turn around and say 'so what? Why shouldn't I do what I want to do?' And you have no moral answer you can give. And of course in such a deteriorating culture like ours, Christians are going to stand out all the more as belonging to a different world living under a different King. Their children, if raised properly will be different too, because they will really believe that it is right to love your neighbour as yourself simply because God says so. And they will also do this because they know this world is not the be all and end all, for there is a world to come. Hence the final point- be expectant vv 11- 14. 'And 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. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature'
Paul is saying that since we are now living in the last days, we have to do three things: wake up, get up and dress up. Christians need to be alert to what is going on. This is not the time for dozing, we need to wake up to what is happening all around us and not simply go with the flow. Neither should we be lying around like folk do at night, dawn is about to break with the coming of Jesus, so get up. We also need a change of clothing, putting off activities which people do under the cover of darkness- drinking too much, having sex outside marriage, back biting and being riddled with jealousy. Instead, Christians are to dress up, so they are ready for battle, clothing themselves with the character of Jesus, using their time not to indulge their fantasies but to express their faith.
In short Paul is saying: be different.
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