Romans 13

The apostle next enters on the relation to worldly authority of the saints, after treating of their attitude toward all men as the witnesses of the good they had learnt in Christ, where God overcame all evil with His good, and privileges us as partakers of it both to be active in it and to suffer for it.

“Let every soul be subject to authorities in power. For there is no authority save from God, and those that exist are ordered by God: so that he that setteth himself against the authority resisteth the ordinance of God, and those that resist shall receive judgment for themselves. For rulers are not a fear for the good work but for the evil.65 Dost thou wish then not to be afraid of the authority? Do good, and thou shalt have praise from it; for it is God’s servant to thee for good; but if thou do evil, fear; for not in vain doth it wear the sword; for it is God’s servant, an avenger for wrath to him that doeth evil. Wherefore [it is] needful to be subject not only on account of wrath but also on account of conscience. For on this account ye pay tribute also; for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing.” (Ver. 1-6.)

The holy wisdom of the exhortation is as worthy of God, as the suitability of all that is taught is apparent for those who, though not of the world, yet have relative duties in it, as they wait for the Lord and are called to do the will of God meanwhile. By a gradual transition we are brought from not avenging ourselves, and overcoming evil with good, as becomes the children of God, to our relation to the authorities in the world whose office it is to avenge evil, punishing evil-doers, and praising those that do well. It was pre-eminently in place from the apostle writing to the saints in the great metropolis of the Gentile world, imperial Rome. No otherwise had the apostle of the circumcision exhorted the christian Jews scattered over the East. The falsehood, the folly, the impurity, the abominations of the Gentiles would naturally expose those who mingled their idolatries with the civil power to find the latter jeoparded when souls discerned and rejected the former in the light of Christ. Hence the exceeding moment of pressing the place which worldly authority should have in the conscience of the saints from among either Jews or Gentiles as of God, spite of the heathenism of those who were in possession of it. “Let every soul” is more comprehensive (and I cannot doubt so intended of the Spirit) than every saint. No position exempts. The household too ought to feel it, children or other dependent relations and servants, as well as believers. It is laid down purposely in the broadest terms: compare Romans 2:9. If the verb be regarded as in the middle voice, it would express the willingness of the subjection so much the more strongly: just as the other side, “he that sets himself against,” is seen in verse 3.

Again, “authorities in power” ( ἐξουσίαις ὑπερεχούσαις) is an expression that embraces every form of governing power, monarchical, aristocratic, or republican. All cavil on this score is therefore foreclosed. The Spirit insists not merely on the divine right of kings but that “there is no authority except from God.” Nor is there an excuse on this plea for change; yet if a revolution should overthrow one form and set up another, the Christian’s duty is plain: “those that exist are ordained by God.” His interests are elsewhere, are heavenly, are in Christ; his responsibility is to acknowledge what is in power as a fact, trusting God as to the consequences and in no case behaving as a partisan. Never is he warranted in setting himself up against the authority as such; for this were to resist the ordinances of God, and those that resist shall receive judgment for themselves. For it is by no means “damnation,” but “sentence,” or the charge for which he is condemned. Scripture is ever sober, as the apostle said he was, for our sakes: if he were ecstatic, it was for God, as it might well be. Other scriptures show that, where the authority demands that which is offensive to Him, as for instance that an apostle should speak no more of Jesus or that a Christian should sacrifice to an idol or an emperor, we must obey God rather than man, but suffering, not resisting, if we cannot quietly leave the scene of persecution. For it is evident that it is impossible to plead God’s authority for obeying a command which dishonours and denies Him. Every relation has its limits in conduct which virtually nullifies it; and that is a requirement which undermines its own authority by antagonism to Him who set it up. But Calvin seems to speak unwarrantably when he goes so far as to say that tyrannies are not an ordained government;66 and those who listened to him or shared his thoughts have proved that they did not count it beneath Christians to take an active part in overthrowing what they considered tyrannical.

It is a wholly inadequate apprehension to regard the magistrate on the side of man only. Not that he may not be chosen in ever so various a form by man, but that he is God’s servant, as here repeatedly said. He is His servant for good, not for evil. but if you practise evil, what then? Fear; for not in vain does he wear the sword; for he is God’s servant, an avenger for wrath to him that does evil. To see God in the magistrate brings in conscience. Wherefore one must need be subject not only on account of wrath (this would be merely a question of consequences from man), but also on account of conscience. “For on this account also ye pay tribute.” This is connected with the foregoing exhortation as to magistrates, and prepares the way for more general relationships in the world. “For they are God’s ministers [or officers], attending diligently unto this very thing,.” Thus they are designated God’s διάκονοι and also His λειτουργοί, the one as doing the work prescribed to them in keeping the order of the world in obedience to the laws, the other as public functionaries or officially appointed to it. The payment of φόρος was for the administation of government, a tribute or tax on persons or property or both, as τέλος was on merchandize and therefore fairly translated “custom.” Hence the apostle (ver. 7) exhorts, “Render to all their dues, tribute to whom tribute, custom to whom custom, fear to whom fear, honour to whom honour.” The greater and the lesser are thus taken in, each in its just measure; which the Christian can heartily say, inasmuch as he is entitled to acknowledge God in all without seeking anything for himself. For we are here occupied with what is of God in the repression of evil, and hence external to the proper sphere of christian life, save as honouring God in every respect,

But next we enlarge yet more. “Owe no one anything except to love one another; for he that loveth the brother [i.e. his neighbour] hath fulfilled law. For Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not covet, and if [there be] any other commandment, it is summed up in this word, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to the neighbour: love therefore [is] law’s fulfilment.” (Ver. 8-10.) Thus the debt of love is the only one which is legitimate and in honour, good among men and acceptable to the Lord; the debt we should ever be paying, but never can pay off. Grace alone gives the power, but law is fulfilled thereby and indeed only thus. Law had continually claimed but never found it. Those under the law were under obligation but were wholly unable to make it good. Grace revealing Christ not only shows us His perfection and fulness but forms the heart accordingly. The commandments manwards are comprehended in loving one’s neighbour; so are those Godward in loving God. Thus, what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of flesh of sin and for sin condemned sin in the flesh; in order that the righteous demand of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit. (Rom. 8:3, 4.)

There is another powerful motive for the believer, the nearness of that day when all that is not of Christ must be detected and pass away. “And this, knowing the meet time, that already [it is] time for you to be aroused out of sleep; for now [is] our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, and the day is drawn nigh.67 Let us cast away therefore the works of darkness and put on the armour of light. As in daylight let us walk becomingly, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in chambering and lasciviousness, not in strife and envy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and take no forethought for the flesh for lusts.” (Ver. 11-14.) For the earth the Sun of righteousness is not yet risen; for it the believer, though he has Christ the true light for himself, knows that it is night still. Yet daylight has dawned and the morning star arisen in his heart. Hence he sleeps not as do others; or, if he should, judges it as sin, for he is in the secret of the Lord and is charged with the gravest mission of love and holiness in the witnessing of His name as he passes through the world. Man slumbers heedless of danger, spite of solemn and reiterated warning. His evil conscience forbids his crediting the grace which is in God; his self-complacency blinds him to the moral beauty of the dependent and obedient Man, as well as to his own need of such a Saviour and such a salvation as God urges on him; and so he sleeps on till he perishes, waking up too late to the truth he has rejected and the grace he has slighted irreparably then. The believer with his soul saved already looks for a salvation worthy of Christ and of His redemption at His coming; and, though the interval may seem long sometimes, he knows that it is ever growing nearer. The works of darkness are therefore wholly incongruous and must be cast away. In such alas! the Gentiles used to walk when they lived in them; even as the Jews under the law occupied themselves with dead works. But now, dead to them, Christians would put on the armour of light; and though the day be not yet, they as children of it would walk comelily as in its light. What have such to do with revels and drinking bouts, with ways of lewdness and lasciviousness, with strife and envy? Are they not the blessed saints of God in full view of the speedy coming and day of the Lord? How suitable the call to put on the Lord Jesus Christ! As we have Him inwardly our life, may we wear Him outwardly, cherishing Him as our all, and make no provision for the flesh with a view to lusts. This were to revive the old man already crucified, to have believed and to hope in vain.

65 So it is in A B D F G P, and other authorities, instead of the common τῶν ἀγ. ἔπ. ἀ. τ. κ.

66 Nam etsi tyrannides ac dominationes inustae, quum plenae sint ἀταξίας, non sunt ex ordinata gubernatione: ipsum tamen ius imperii in humani generis salutem a Deo ordinatum est. Itaque quum et bella arcere et caeteris noxiis remedia quaerere liceat, Apostolus magistratuum ius et imperium tanquam humano generi utile, sponte et libenter a nobis suspici et coli iubet. Quas enim Deus infligit poenas hominum peccatis, non proprie ordinationes vocabimus, sed quae consulto media statuit ad legitimum ordinem servandum.” (Comment. in loco, i. 173.)

67 Calvin (in loco) understands by “night” ignorance of God, in which lie the unbelieving, insensible to His truth and will; by “light” the revelation of divine truth by which Christ rises like the sun on us “Porro quoniam hic allegorica est, notare operae pretium est quid singulae partes significent. Noctem vocat ignorationem Dei, qua quicunque detinentur, veluti in nocte errant ac dormiunt. Duobus enim istis malis laborant infideles, quia caeci sunt ac stupidi stuporem vero istum paulo post per somnum designat qui est (ut ille dicit) imago mortis. Lucem nominat divinas veritatis revelationem, per quam sol iustitiae Christus nobis exoritur:” but the context proves that “night” here means the dark condition of the world while Christ is absent, “day” when He shall appear the second time for salvation. For the believer it is no longer night in the sense of ignorance of God, for him the light of day already shines: so it is seen in the sense of realizing the heavenly hope. 2 Peter 1:19.