“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. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing” (Romans 13:1–6 ESV).
Why Submit to Government Authorities?
All human authority is from God
A Christian understanding of government authority begins with a higher authority that endows the lesser with authority. Human government is a lower throne. A much, much lesser authority than God but with a delegated and derived authority from God.
A Christian is called to submit to the lesser authority as an act of obedience to the higher authority, God himself. This doesn’t mean our hope is in government any more than a wife’s ultimate hope is in her husband, or church members’ ultimate hope is in church leaders. The same Greek for submit is used for those relationships. It will be a disappointed wife and a disappointed church that puts their ultimate hope in any human authority.
We do it for Jesus’ sake. Peter’s admonition says, “For the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13). In other words, how we relate to earthly authorities is an act of worship to God’s authority. Paying taxes shows as much who we truly worship as going to church on Sunday. “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). Along with paying taxes, we can include a host of civic obligations which Caesars in some countries require: including serving in the military, or meeting educational standards for our kids, or wearing a seatbelt.
How absolute is this? Even Jesus submitted to earthly authorities. Hear that, even the Son of God submitted to earthly authorities. How? Look at John 19. It is in the early morning hours of the day Jesus is to be crucified. The Roman governor Pilate is interrogating Jesus. Jesus is remaining quiet. This prompts Pilate to point out that he has authority to release Jesus or kill Jesus.
“When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, ‘You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above’” (John 19:8–11).
See that Jesus affirms that Pilate has real authority over him. Really? Jesus is the Son of God, how can Pilate have authority over him? In this moment, in Jesus’ humanity, Pilate had governing provisional authority over Jesus given him by God the Father. Jesus doesn’t pull rank and Jesus doesn’t remain silent. Rather, he affirms Pilate’s authority, but points out to Pilate that this has nothing to do with him, but what has been given him by God.
This truth should keep our governing leaders humble. When a politician allows that power to go to their head or heart, they feel entitled to it or think their positional power is an indication of their own greatness. Remember Nebuchadnezzar failed to acknowledge God had given him the Babylonian kingdom (Daniel 4:28-33). God caused him to lose his mind for seven years to remind him where his greatness came from.
God powerfully used the example of Jesus during a difficult time in my life. Many, many years ago in my pre-Bethel days, I had a boss who had it out for me. And he didn’t hide it. He wanted to take me down or take me out. Can you relate to ever having a boss like that?
I resisted him. I would do what he said but my attitude was awful. I wasn’t used to an employer not liking me. I resisted him until one day I read John 19. God deeply convicted me about my lack of submission and my angry attitude. I thought, if Jesus submitted to crazy Pilate, who do I think I am thinking I don’t have to submit to this guy? Through tears I confessed to him and told him from that day forward I was going to be the best employee he ever had.
I suspect we all can relate in some way to this. Why is it when the boss shows up at the worksite, everyone suddenly works harder? When the gym teacher says, “Do sit-ups till I get back,” do PE students suddenly start when he returns? This is what it looks like when submitting to authority is NOT an act of worship. This is why Paul gives a second and devastating reason to obey authorities.
For the sake of conscience
“Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing” (Romans 13:5-6).
Why should we obey the law? We don’t want to get caught and punished. Yes, that’s certainly a deterrent. But for the Christian who wants to please God, not getting caught and punished is only the surface reason. For us, it’s a matter of the heart and the conscience.
“They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Romans 2:15).
The conscience. What is it? The inward moral compass which God places in every image bearer. It is what inwardly tells us what we did was right or what we did was wrong.
So, what Paul does here regarding obedience to authorities is take it from the outward and the known to the inward and what is only known by us. This is a question of integrity. Integrity is who you are in the dark. How we act when no one is watching or when there is no chance of being caught.
If the IRS declared a year with no agents and no audits, would you pay your proper taxes? The Romans 13 Christian would because it’s not just a question of getting caught or punishment; we care what God thinks.
Does paying my taxes make me a Christian? Does respecting the authority of the police officer or county commissioner or middle school principal or my boss or church elder make me a Christian? No. Romans 13 comes after Romans 12. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). What does that look like?
It looks like obeying the laws of the land you live in. It looks like Christian citizenship that seeks to do good in society. It looks like paying taxes and praying for whomever is Caesar over us. Christians get authority. We are OK with it because we love and worship the one who is the source of all human authority. We submit to the one because we reverence and love the other.
Are you struggling with this in some way? Work? School? Society? Submit as an act of worship. We don’t have to agree with it. We could think it’s stupid. There’s a lot in the tax law I personally think is pretty stupid. Pay it anyway. Why? For Jesus’ sake.
Wait. Aren’t there some exceptions to this? Yes, there are some exceptions, yet they are rare exceptions. What are they? You’re going to have to keep coming back to find out.
Finally, government can organize, oversee, and govern, but it can’t save anyone. Salvation isn’t by government, so don’t put your hope in it. Salvation is only by faith in Jesus “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
© 2020 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
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