“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” (Romans 13:1-4).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The IRS. CDC. FBI. DHS. City Hall. County Courthouse. The Mayor. The Governor. The President. Your Congressman or Congresswoman. Your Senator. Make America Great Again. Black Lives Matter. De-fund the Police. Words like these can stir up a beehive of feelings—frustration, disappointment, betrayal, distrust, oppression. With the flames of Minneapolis, Portland, and many other cities flickering on our screens, after months of living under executive orders and mandates, it’s remarkable to us today that St. Paul wrote this little paragraph about being subject to the ruling authorities. Many today take it for granted that government officials of any level are not to be trusted.
Many Christians—on both sides of the political aisle—take it for granted that governments are corrupt and dehumanizing and that it is part of our marching orders as followers of King Jesus that we should offer serious criticism and opposition even, if necessary, at any cost to our personal prospects.
Sadly, this paragraph has been used—and abused—by many people in power as a way of telling their subjects to keep their mouths shut and step in line even in the face of flagrant abuse. But when we put these verses back into their context, right here in the letter, we start to see what Paul is getting at. He has just said, strongly and repeatedly, that private vengeance is forbidden for Christians.
This does not mean, on the one hand, that God does not care about evil or, on the other, that God wants society to collapse into chaos where the bullies do what they like and get away with it. In fact, even in places where people hate the authorities and fear the police, when someone commits a serious crime, everyone affected by it wants the authorities to find the culprit and administer justice. That is a basic, and correct, human instinct. We do not want to live by the law of the jungle. We want to live in an ordered, properly functioning society.
This is almost all Paul is saying, making the point as he does so that the Christians, who were regarded as the scum of the earth, might not get an additional reputation as troublemakers. No good will come to the cause of the Gospel by followers of Jesus being regarded as crazy dissidents who will not cooperate with the most basic social mechanisms. Paul believes Jesus really is the true Lord of the world and His followers should not pick unnecessary quarrels with the lesser lords in His name and in the name of His bride, the Church.
If we followers of Christ become known as lawless rebels concerning the authorities, then what will a watching world think of us with respect to obedience to Christ Himself? True, we are indeed a revolutionary community, but if we go for the normal violent and lawless revolution, then we will be playing the Empire game on Empire terms and that is always a losing proposition for the Gospel.
But, while making this point, Paul is making one or two others of great interest. To begin with, he declares that the civic rulers and authorities have been put in place by God Himself. This would be news to Nero and the other emperors, who believed (or claimed to believe) in their own divinity, certainly that they held power in their own right rather than as a gift from the One Creator God, who was, in fact, their sovereign. They would have laughed at such a suggestion.
Christians are called to believe, though, that the civic authorities are there because the one true Lord wants His world to be ordered, not chaotic. This does not validate particular actions or governments. We retain the right to make bad decisions and vote for bad officials and pass bad laws which we enforce badly. God is not at fault for our faults. Rather, it is merely to say that some government is always necessary in a world where evil flourishes when unchecked.
Of course, Paul knew that quite often one might do the right thing and find the rulers doing the wrong thing. You only have to read the stories of his exploits in Acts to see that. But notice in those stories that, precisely when the authorities are getting it all wrong and acting illegally or unjustly, Paul has no hesitation in telling them their proper business and insisting they should follow it. Hardly the way to become popular, but completely consistent with what he says here.
In saying this, Paul was standing within the Jewish tradition and developing it in light of the Gospel. The Old Testament had denounced pagan nations and their rulers, but some of the prophets whose rebukes were fiercest also told Israel that God was working through the pagan nations and rulers for Israel’s long-term good. God, the only true and living Lord, was, in fact, sovereign over all the nations, even as the pagan nations and their rulers, were wicked, idolatrous, immoral, and dangerous for Israel. It was precisely this tension that came to its head when Jesus stood before the Roman governor and declared that, even though Pilate was about execute Him, the power by which he did it had come from God in the first place.
It is a profound truth: there is no authority except that which God has established. God’s overriding concern in establishing governments is to bless us with an orderly and peaceful existence, hence it is the duty of God’s agents to encourage and commend those who do right. But when the peace is jeopardized by lawbreakers, God’s representatives need to step in to restore order and punish evildoers. Earthly leaders are God’s servants for good, His avengers of wrath.
Now, I think it’s valuable to explain this text—and it’s fitting as we’re just a couple of months away from another election. At the same time, though, a sermon is to preach Law and Gospel. My task, as a preacher, is not to give you a civics or history lesson, but to show you your sin, call you to repentance, and then declare that Christ has died for your sin.
The Law for this day may seem mundane, only because it is broken so often and so easily. We live in angry, cynical times. We are troubled as a nation by upheaval. News reports detail scandal after scandal among politicians, substituting rumor and “unnamed sources” when the news day is slow. There’s little trust in elected officials, and lots of calls to “drain the swamp” or “burn the whole thing down.” Political debate is reduced to name-calling and mudslinging.
Now, I’m not naïve. I’m aware of corruption and trouble in the government. I know about immorality among politicians, both in their personal lives and in legislation proffered. As a citizen, I’ve got a few opinions. But I’m not in the pulpit as a citizen; rather, I’m here as a called and ordained servant of the Word. And the Word says, “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, says the Word, exercise Christian care in how you treat those placed in authority. You’ll be tempted to be angry that the officer is pointing the radar gun in your direction when you’re in a school zone, running late. You’ll find that glee comes easy when a politician you don’t care for gets his or her comeuppance. These are the times in which we live.
But this is not just about human contests for power. To be angry at one in authority is to be angry at one whom God has placed there for your wellbeing. To wish ill on one in authority is to wish ill on God’s servant for your good. To hold them in contempt or be gleeful at their downfall is to rejoice in the downfall of God’s instrument. For such sins, repent.
Furthermore, pray for these authorities, whether you agree with them or not. Pray that they might resist temptation and act with integrity. Pray that they might repent of positions which contradict Scripture and that they would act in love for those they serve. Pray that they and their families might be spared trouble and trial. And remember: Their failures no excuse for you to disobey God’s Word. Where you fail to pray for authorities, and instead choose contempt and scorn, repent. And where you find the laws of the land to be disagreeable to you, keep them anyway. For such sins, even sins of thought, repent. They are sins against those whom God has appointed for your good; and thus, they are sins against God.
That may sound crazy, because we set high standards for God’s representatives in the Church, in the kingdom of the right hand. If pastors are guilty of the same actions as many politicians, we rightly remove them. But we are speaking of the kingdom of the left, for governing this world; and God, in His wisdom, appoints an interesting collection, many of whom choose to abuse the office. In fact, who ruled the Roman Empire at the time Paul wrote this epistle? That would be Nero, an evil tyrant if ever there was one—and one who martyred Christians in all sorts of gruesome ways. Yet, what did Paul write? Be subject, pay taxes, accord honor. Nero was placed there by God, though his evil was his own doing—not the Lord’s. Yet Paul, by inspiration of God, commanded honor.
And who issued the death sentence on no less than Jesus? A weaselly Roman ruler named Pontius Pilate; yet Jesus, the all-powerful Son of God, acknowledged that Pilate was put in that office by God and submitted Himself to Pilate’s authority (John 19:11). And what did Pilate do with his authority? He unjustly put the Son of God to death on the cross. But rather than draw His sword, the Son of God willingly suffered and died. And yet, that death is your salvation. Despite the evil of man, God used this for your redemption. Christ Jesus bore your sins to the cross and died with them there, so that you might have everlasting life.
In this Gospel, you rejoice. The authorities of this world are fallen sinners, subject to failure and unable to keep even the promises they mean to. Jesus Christ, your eternal king, is without sin. He promises to you that He will deliver you, and He keeps His promises. While the criticism of many authorities today is that they are out of touch, it is not so with your Savior. He promises, “where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). He is in the midst of you today by His Word and by His Supper.
Jesus does not come into your midst to take from you, but to give—to give you grace by His Word of Holy Absolution, to give you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. He does not come to you with power and sword to give orders and say, “If you obey these laws, then you can be My people.” He comes in grace and says, “I have obeyed the laws for you where you could not; and by My obedience and My death I have made you My people.”
And where many rulers fall prey to the temptation of believing that they exert power over others for personal gain, the Son of Man—the King of Kings!—continues to serve you with grace and mercy, even as He came in the flesh not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. He gave Himself into death to appease God’s wrath for sin. He truly is the Servant for good!
Because Jesus has given His life as a ransom for you, your sins are forgiven and the kingdom of heaven is yours. As long as you are on this earth, He appoints rulers to keep order and punish evil, some of whom will do better than others. For these you pray, and to these you accord the honor due. But no matter what happens in this world, you know this world is not the end. The kingdom of heaven is yours forever because you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.