“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:1-7).
This is the main passage in the New Testament on the believer’s relationship with government in this present world. It has a wealth of lessons. “The Christian, by virtue of divine revelation, can have a clearer understanding of the position of the governing authority than an official of the government is likely to have. Let that knowledge guide him in his attitudes and decisions” (Charles Hodge).
1. This is a forceful exhortation to “be subject to the higher powers.”
This is the main teaching. Observe how the exhortation is emphasized. First, the verb in verse 1 (“be subject”) is present tense, indicating continuous, repeated action, and it is imperative mood, which, when used of God speaking to His people, is a command, an order, a charge. “Christian soldiers, attention! Do this! Be subject to the higher powers!” Second, “subject” is the Greek hupotasso, which is translated “submit” (Ro. 10:3), “be under” (1 Co. 14:34; 15:27), and “obey” (Tit. 2:5, 9). It is used for children submitting to parents (Lu. 2:51), wives submitting to husbands (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; Tit. 2:5; 1 Pe. 3:3), servants to their masters (Tit. 2:9; 1 Pe. 2:18), the younger to the elder (1 Pe. 5:5), the church to Christ (Eph. 5:24). Third, the command is addressed to “every soul.” All of God’s people are to be subject to the higher powers. Fourth, there is a sharp warning about resisting the authority. “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation” (Ro. 13:2). Fifth, it is a lengthy exhortation. It is unrelenting for seven verses. Sixth, the higher powers are called God’s ministers (Ro. 13:4, 6). They are to be treated as such, even though most of them do not personally know God and are not consciously serving God. We are to submit unto the higher powers “as unto God.”
Thus, to be subject to the higher powers is what God enjoins in a strong, emphasized manner. Though there are exceptions when God’s people must not submit to earthly powers, as we will see, the rule is to submit. Words could not be plainer. God’s people are to be humble, peaceable, well-ordered, law-abiding citizens. They are not to be rebels. Even when they are forced, for conscience sake, to obey God rather than man, they are not rebels but law-keepers. They are a people who are under authority.
Observe exactly what God’s people owe to earthly governments: First, we owe subjection (Ro. 13:1-5). As we have seen, this is the Greek hupotasso, which is translated “submit” (Ro. 10:3), “be under” (1 Co. 14:34; 15:27), and “obey” (Tit. 2:5, 9). Subjection, obedience, submission is what God commands. Submission is to consciously, willingly place myself under the authority of another. It is an act of the will. To be subject unto authorities doesn’t mean I can’t exercise my civil rights. To obey those that have the rule over me means that I am at liberty to operate within the civil laws that I am granted according to my citizenship. In America, there are magnificent rights that have been won at great cost, and American citizens are at liberty before God to exercise those rights, such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. It is not unscriptural for churches to sue civil governments that are invading their constitutional rights and for Christians to join in with protests against abuse of power and for Christians to exercise their right to vote and to participate in the political system, as they are so led of God. But Bible-believing Christians are taught by God to be good citizens and not to be rebels and rabble-rousers. Second, we owe subjection for conscience sake (Ro. 13:5). The subjection is not to consist of external obedience only, but it is to be obedience from the heart as unto God. “For conscience sake” refers to conscience toward God. This is the key to godly obedience toward authorities in this world, which are often ungodly and unreasonable. It is the key for the child to submit to the parent (“for this is well pleasing unto the Lord,” Col. 3:20), for the wife to submit to the husband (“as unto the Lord,” Eph. 5:22), for the servant to the master (“as unto Christ,” Eph. 6:5). This is repeated and emphasized in Peter’s first epistle, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God” (1 Pe. 2:18-20). Third, we owe tribute and custom (Ro. 13:6-7). Tributes and customs refer to various kinds of taxes, tolls, duties. Both are mentioned in Mt. 17:25. See also Lu. 5:27 (“the seat of custom”). “Render” is apodidomi, “to give or to do something necessary in fulfillment of an obligation” (Complete Word Study Bible). “The word apodote is full of meaning, for literally it is ‘give back.’ When Jesus was interrogated on the subject of taxes, his questioners used the word ‘give’ [didomi], but in his reply he used ‘give back’ [apodidomi] (Mark 12:14, 17), suggesting that what is paid to the government in the form of taxes presupposes value received or to be received” (Charles Hodge). Jesus taught the people to pay tribute to Caesar (Lu. 20:22-25). On another occasion, Jesus Himself paid the tribute, even though as the Son of the great King, He should have been exempt of taxes. (This is true whether the tribute in that situation was the temple tax or Caesar’s tax.) Christ paid the tribute “lest we should offend them” (Mt. 17:24-27). The principle for God’s people is that they should pay taxes even if they consider them unjust so as not to cause offense. Again, this is done “for conscience toward God.” It is better to keep a good testimony for Christ and not offend the unsaved than be a tax rebel even for the best of reasons. That the Bible teaches the payment of taxes unjustly raised is evident from the fact that in that time the taxes were taken by the publicans and they were so unjust in that office that they were universally hated. Instead of exacting the exact tax required by the Roman government, the publicans abused their office to rob the people (Lu. 19:8). Yet Jesus taught the people to pay tribute to Caesar even in such a corrupt context. “Both these taxes were collected in Paul’s day by the publicans. There were flagrant abuses in the tax system, so much so that the publicans were the worst hated men in the nation. Paul does not enter into the rights and wrongs of the taxation system. He simply tells Christians that a nation’s leaders have a right to monetary support; therefore they must pay their taxes” (John Phillips). “The man in authority may be unworthy, but the institution is not, since God wills it. Without financial undergirding, government cannot function” (Hodge). Fourth, we owe fear (Ro. 13:7). This is the Greek phobos, which is used 47 times in the New Testament and always refers to fear and never to “reverence.” To fear the authority is to fear the power that the authority has for the exercise of his authority. It is obvious that fear is not a wrong motive in such things. Proper fear of God and king keeps one from being “given to change” (Pr. 24:21), meaning given to disobedience and rebellion. In this day of democracy and “people’s” rights, God’s people must be careful to follow God’s Word rather than the mood of the times. We are to have the attitude of “meekness and fear” (1 Pe. 3:15), which is despised by the spirit of these times, but is valued by God. “Fear is a conscientious regard for and awe of those in authority—an attitude certainly not generally conspicuous today” (Phillips). On the other hand, “the fear of man bringeth a snare” (Pr. 29:25). This refers to fearing man more than God, trusting man rather than God. “The fear of man bringeth a snare: but whoso putteth his trust in the LORD shall be safe” (Pr. 29:25). “How many have gone to hell because they were afraid of what their friends would say if they trusted Christ! ‘We fear man so much,’ wrote William Gurnall, ‘because we fear God so little’” (Believer’s Bible Commentary). That is not the fear that Paul is talking about in Romans 13:7. Fifth, we owe honor (Ro. 13:7). This is the Greek time, referring to honor, respect, esteem. Honor is to be shown toward the elderly (Le. 19:32), parents (Eph. 6:2), elders (1 Ti. 5:17; 1 Th. 5:13), masters (1 Ti. 6:1), wives (1 Pe. 3:7), and all the brethren (Ro. 12:10). In Romans 13:7, the honor, respect, esteem is to be shown toward all those who are in authority. Again, the honor God’s people show toward the authorities of this world is honor that is given for the Lord’s sake, so it can be given even to the dishonorable. The redeemed must be extremely careful of their attitude toward authorities. We are naturally rebels and complainers and we must walk in the new man and not in the old man in these matters. It is apostates who despise dominion and speak evil of dignities (Jude 1:8), so if we find ourselves despising dominion and speaking evil of dignities, we need to check our spirits and put a halt to that ungodly attitude before it gets out of hand and leads to some evil action.
2. God is the Author of all authority.
The Greek is exousia, which is permission, right, “the power of authority, the power of one who wills and commands” (Vine). God has ordained the authorities that exist. “For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Ro. 13:1). Even Satan has no authority except that which has been given him, as even he said, “All this authority will I give thee ... for that is given unto me” (Lu. 4:6). God has all authority and is in complete, ultimate control. All authority is from God and it has been delivered to the Son. Jesus Christ has all authority in heaven and in earth (Mt. 28:18), which leaves out nothing. God is the great King over all of man’s affairs. This shows the greatness of our God. No matter how bad or unreasonable the government appears, we can know that God is in control. The fundamental statement of this is in the revelations given to the prophet Daniel. “Blessed be the name of God for ever and ever: for wisdom and might are his: And he changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up king” ( Da. 2:10-21). Daniel was captive in wicked Babylon when he penned that revelation. The arrogant, cruel Nebuchadnezzar was on the throne, but Daniel was saying, “God sits on the only throne that really matters, and Nebuchadnezzar rules at God’s pleasure.” God uses human government to accomplish His eternal purposes, and they are raised up and put down according to His plan and by His pleasure. Throughout the prophets, we are told that the nations are in God’s hands and are His instruments. “For, lo, I raise up the Chaldeans...” (Hab. 1:6). “O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger...” (Isa. 10:5). “the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia” (Ezr. 1:1). “I am God ... calling a ravenous bird from the east, the man [Cyrus king of Persia] that executeth my counsel” (Isa. 46:9-11). This can be said of every nation, every ruler.
That God is the Author of all power and authority is the biblical view of human history, and it is liberating for the child of God who truly believes it and lives according to it. It is peace in the midst of the storm. As he faces local, regional, national, and world events, the one who believes this does not fear as the world fears, is not troubled as the world is troubled, does not act as the world acts. He knows the times overall are in God’s hand (Da. 2:20), and his time in particular is in God’s hand (Ps. 31:15), and he himself is in God’s hand (Joh. 10:27-29). This is true in times of peace and times of turmoil, times of small trouble and times of great trouble, such as the great war of the 1910s, the Great Depression of the 1930s, the world war of the 1940s, the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 and the draconian global lockdown with its economic devastation. All such things are in God’s hand. The redeemed can dwell in the secret place of the most High and abide under His shadow and can say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust (Ps. 91:1-2; see entire Psalm).
3. The emphasis of Romans 13:1-7 is on the government as the instrument of law and order, as the rewarder of good and the punisher of evil (Ro. 13:3-4).
This is the proper purpose of human government under God. The men of this world are sinners; all are rebels by nature; and without government, there is anarchy. Government is a blessing, even though there is no perfect and truly godly government in this present world. Even a corrupt government is better than no government. I have spent a large part of my life living in nations where the governments are deeply corrupt. There was no government before the Flood, and “the earth was filled with violence” (Ge. 6:11).
God has put His laws in man’s conscience, and even pagan governments that do not have the Scripture understand righteousness. The law of God in man’s heart has been corrupted by the fall, but it is very much alive in each man’s conscience. “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another” (Ro. 2:15). For this reason, governments the world over, in all times, have typically had laws against murder, theft, rape, etc. The first known law code was that of Hammurabi, who was king of Babylon from about 1792-1750 BC. A pillar inscribed with this law was found in the ancient palace at Susa and resides in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Many of Hammurabi’s laws were righteous and just, though he was a pagan king.
4. The authorities in this world are “the ministers of God” (Ro. 13:4).
There are great lessons in this truth, and these lessons should be taught to God’s people, to teach them their responsibilities, but they also should be taught to the authorities themselves whenever possible, so that the authorities can understand their position in light of God’s Word and can exercise their authority in wisdom before God.
First, that the authorities are the ministers of God means they are appointed by God. Regardless of how they come to the position of authority--whether by election, by appointment of another authority, by birth--ultimately they are raised up by God.
Second, that the authorities are the ministers of God means they are not God. They must not think of themselves as God. They are not at liberty to do whatsoever they please. They are under authority.
Third, that the authorities are the ministers of God means they are responsible to do God’s will and will give account to God. Men of this world typically think of positions of authority as opportunities for self-advancement and self-enrichment, but they will learn, either now or later, that the position of authority is a position of awesome responsibility and that they are stewards of God.
“While ‘God's servant’ is an honorable title, it contains a reminder that the state is not God and that its function is to administer justice for him in areas where it is competent to do so. Even as God’s servant in the spiritual realm can err, so the state is not to be thought of as infallible in its decisions. Yet this does not entitle the individual to flout the state's authority when the decision is not to his liking” (Charles Hodge).
5. The government bears God’s sword (Ro. 13:4).
A sword is an instrument of death. The government bears a rod for beating, but it also bears a sword for killing. This refers to capital punishment.
Observe that the one wielding the sword is “the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Ro. 13:4). Therefore, Scripture is not giving authority to governments to wield the sword against those who do good. This is not God’s will. The killing of murderers has been God’s law from the time of Noah, long before the law of Moses. “And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man” (Ge. 9:5-6).
The sword can be used lawfully against rebels who are trying to overthrow right order in this world, such as the Hitlers and their minions.
6. Paul is not addressing the issue of the government as the rewarder of evil and the punisher of good.
This issue is addressed in other passages of Scripture. Paul says in verse 3, “for rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.” So obviously he is not addressing rulers who are a terror to good works, which so often happens. In Romans 13 we are dealing with government that is not acting in rebellion to God and His laws. In the context, the government in question was the Roman. The epistle is addressed to the believers at Rome, Caesar’s seat. Paul lived under the authority of Caesar and his governors. Caesar had both good and evil laws by God’s standard. Paul was not saying that we should submit to Caesar when he exercises authority against the good.
When the government requires God’s people to do evil and forbids them to do good, it is not acting in accordance with Romans 13, and it should not be obeyed. When the government tells me to lie, cheat, steal, murder, stop preaching the gospel, stop having church, acclaim homosexuality, or anything else that is unlawful by the clear teaching of God’s infallible Word, I must obey the higher law and trust God to help me and be willing pay whatever temporal consequences are required.
Likewise, when the government gives people permission to do evil, such as drink liquor and use marijuana and commit adultery and abort my child and watch pornography and live on a government subsidy instead of working, God’s people must live by the higher law, which is God’s Word.
Consider some examples of how God’s people have resisted authority when it tried to force them to do evil. The Jewish midwives refused to obey Pharaoh’s law to kill the infant boys; they feared God rather than the king, and God rewarded them (Ex. 1:15-21). Moses’ parents, too, did not obey Pharaoh’s law to kill the male babies (Heb. 11:23). David refused to submit himself to the king’s death sentence and fled from him instead (1 Sa. 18-27). Jehosheba and Jehoiada refused to submit to Athaliah (2 Ki. 11:1-20). Daniel refused to obey the Persian law forbidding prayer to anyone other than the emperor (Da. 6). Obadiah refused to obey the royal order against the prophets of the Lord (1 Ki. 16:3-4). Amos refused to obey the order to stop preaching (Am. 7:12-17). Jeremiah did not obey the king’s order to stop prophesying, and when the king cut up the prophecy, he wrote it again (Jer. 36:23-32). Ebedmelech the Ethiopian refused to obey the princes that put Jeremiah in the pit (Jer. 38:7-13). Peter and the apostles in Jerusalem refused to stop preaching the gospel even though they were threatened by the authorities. “Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men” (Ac. 5:29). Christ had commanded them to preach the gospel, so they had to obey the higher law. Paul, the author of Romans 13:1-7, did not meekly submit to magistrates who were acting unlawfully; he resisted these magistrates and instructed them in their own laws (Ac. 16:35-40). Those who refuse to submit to the antichrist’s evil laws will be rewarded by God (Re. 14:9-12).
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