The Powers that Be

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What should a Christian’s attitude to politics and government be? What does the Bible have to say about governments?

This morning we’re picking up again our long-running Spring-time series going through the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. We’ve reached chapter 13. You can find all the sermons on chapters 1 to 12 on the JPC website. Today my title is ‘The Powers That Be’, which is most appropriate for this General Election season. We’re looking at Romans 13.1-7, so it will be helpful if you have that open in front of you. You will find it on p1140 in the bibles in the pews. My two simple headings are: first, We should submit to our government for the sake of God; and , We should submit to God for the sake of our government.


Take a look at Romans 13:1:

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.

Then three times Paul describes government as the servant of God. In verse 4 he says that the one in authority “is God’s servant to do you good...” And again, “He is God’s servant, and agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrong-doer.” And then in verse 6: “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants ...”

Not only are we approaching May 6th, we’ve also just passed April 6th – the start of a new tax year. What’s our reaction, I wonder, if we’re one of those who gets a delightful brown envelope on the doormat any time now reminding us that we need to complete another tax return? Do we think to ourselves, “Well, well – here’s another message from God via his servant!” Maybe our attitude to government needs some revision.

So what are the implications of this teaching about government?
For a start, government is God’s creation. God established it.

Then as well as being made by God, government is God’s agent. It governs for God. It serves his purposes of ordering our life together, for our welfare. So, verse 4 again:

[the one in authority] is God’s servant, to do you good.

To put it another way, God rules humanity through secular authorities.

He doesn’t only rule through them. Above all, he rules through the Scriptures. So the Reformer Martin Luther, for instance, often spoke of God as ruling by Word and sword, the sword being the symbol of secular power and authority. Paul speaks in that way in verse 4, where he describes governments as those who carry the sword. I quote:

For [the one in authority] 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.

God rules our earthly existence partly, then, by the agency of governments and the power that they wield. They keep the peace. They organise our common life. As far as is within their power, they make sure that everything is as it should be, and when it isn’t they are agents of God to put things right.

So when a vast cloud of volcanic ash is spewed up into our airspace, it is the government’s responsibility to make the appropriate decision about whether people should be allowed to go on their holidays – or come back from them – and to act on it. What that decision should be is another matter. But the principle is right.

It is the Word of God alone that can put us right with God. Only the Word can change us from within. But God’s Word itself, in the form of Paul’s letter to the Romans, makes it clear, as we have seen, that God also exercises his rule through governing authorities, which are his servants.

There are clear consequences of that for us. We should submit to the authority of governments. They have legitimate authority that should be accepted. They should not be rebelled against. Verse 2:

... he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgement on themselves.

And verse 5:

... it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

Which is to say that when we recognise that government is God-given, our submission will not simply be a self-centred concern to avoid sanctions, but a genuine recognition of the blessings that we receive from God’s hand through it.

So, to return, for instance to that ominous brown envelope marked ‘HMRC’: if we have a right understanding of the role played by government in ruling for God for the common good, our basic attitude to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will not be one of resentment. It will be one of gratitude to God. Temptation to evade paying tax will be seen for what it is: temptation to rebel against the rule of God, otherwise known as sin. Verse 7:

Give everyone what you owe him: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.

As well as accepting the executive authority of governments to govern, we should also obey the laws that they enact.

If Government is God’s servant, then it should of course exercise its authority in accordance with God’s will. Verse 3 of Romans 13:

For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.

Rulers should be ruling according to what is right. How do we know what is right? That’s where we come back again to the Word of God. God has given us his law in the Scriptures. The Ten Commandments are its fundamental principles. And this law of God has three main purposes.

One of them is to show us how deep the sinfulness runs within us, and how worthy we are of condemnation. That sight will cause us to despair of self-reliance and resort to the only Saviour, Jesus.

But along with that purpose of God’s law there are two others. For one thing, it sets before us the goal of perfection. In that way it inspires and directs the behaviour and attitudes of those who are wanting to be obedient, as a result of the work of God’s Spirit within them. God’s law shows us the way to live.

For another thing, God’s law serves to order society for its welfare or, put another way, it restrains the evil that would otherwise be rampant among us. Those who experience anarchy yearn for law and order to be imposed. God’s law restrains wickedness.

So what the state requires should be in line with what is ‘right’ according to the Word of God. Of course, where the Word of God is not known, that is not possible. But even then, there is ultimately no excuse, because as Paul says earlier in Romans, in 3:15, “the requirements of the law are written on [the Gentiles’] hearts...” Laws should be framed according to what is known to be right.

In our own nation, there can certainly be no excuse. We have had the Bible for centuries. If we think we can throw out the Bible and rely instead on our innate sense of fair play, we are disastrously deluding ourselves. Our moral sense will become increasingly corrupt. If our laws are contrary to the Word of God, it is the result of disobedience and rejection of God’s Law, not ignorance. The righteousness that exalts a nation comes through the application of God’s law in our own situation.

So, where have we got to?

We should submit to our government for the sake of God. Its authority derives from him. It is God’s servant and agent.

And the laws that a state enacts and which create the framework within which government works should be grounded in God’s law, which he has given us in the pages of the Bible.

So government should promote what is right and punish wrong doing. Romans 13:3-4:

3For 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. 4For 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.

I have a copy of a leaflet that the police give to people caught speeding. I won’t tell you how I came by it. Let me quote from it. It says:

So how do you feel right now? Frustrated? Persecuted? Angry? Or all of these feelings? That’s pretty normal. After all, you’re only reading this leaflet because you’ve been caught breaking the law. No matter how you try to justify it, or convince yourself you’re ‘the victim’, the fact is that you’ve gone beyond what’s considered legal in the UK and you’re about to be prosecuted. Did you really do that much wrong though? Yes you did – you broke the law! Nobody gets in to a car intending to kill someone but the fact is it’s normally something seemingly as innocuous as this that causes the serious or fatal accidents we hear about.

It quotes the mother of a child whose father was killed by a speeding driver:

“Could you look my son in the eye and tell him speeding doesn’t matter?”

And then it asks:

Starting to see where we’re coming from?

That is conviciting stuff, in more ways than one. The fact is, the punishment that governing authorities inflict is an aspect of the outworking of the wrath of God on sinners. It is partial. It anticipates the full outpouring of God’s utterly just wrath at the Day of Judgement. It is inevitably provisional and imprecise. No governing authorities, however godly in intention, will ever get it 100% right. But as far as possible justice should be in accordance with the principles that are to be found in God’s law.

We should submit to our government for the sake of God. He requires it. That’s point one. But a right understanding of that has to be balanced by point two, which is this:


There is an unspoken question that all this inevitably raises. Is God teaching us through his Word that this obedience to secular authority should be absolute and without exception?

The answer to that has to be a clear ‘No!’ The fact that governments rule for God does not give them carte blanche to do what they like, or to demand what they like. The submission and obedience required of us is not absolute. It is conditional. There are exceptions.

Governments themselves are under authority – the authority of their maker. Psalm 22.28:

for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations.

God rules over governments.

Before we breathe a sigh of relief, though, and think that we can despise all governments and as far as serves our own interests ignore all that they say, remember the context within which the apostle Paul is writing this. The government under which Paul lived and wrote was the Roman Empire: the empire which brutally executed his Lord and Master Jesus; the empire which in the end put Paul himself to death. So it is not just governments that suit us to which we owe obedience.

What, then, is the condition of our obedience to be? It is this: if our obedience to secular authority would require us to disobey the Word of God, then we should obey the Word of God rather than the authorities. Such disobedience is not rebellion. It is submission to the higher authority of God. So for instance, when the apostles Peter and John are required by their own Jewish authorities to stop telling people about the risen Jesus and persuading them to become Christians, Peter replies to them:

“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.”

That’s Acts 4.19-20. But aren’t the authorities God’s servants? How does that square up? The fact of the matter is that servants don’t always do what their master requires of them. When governments act contrary to God’s Word, it doesn’t mean that they’re no longer God’s servants. It means that they’re disobedient servants. And when they rebel against God, there’s no neutral ground. They begin to serve Satan instead.

That’s what is happening, for example, when they begin to persecute the church. So in Revelation 13 godless, Satan inspired powers are described as the beast which “...opened his mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling-place and those who live in heaven.”

The time may come when in godly ways the state must be disobeyed. That kind of disobedience will not be and must not be an act of rebellion, but an act of submission to God which seeks to put things right again.

So, for instance, the Westminster 2010 Declaration of Christian Conscience puts it like this:

As UK citizens we affirm our Christian commitment … to be subject to all governing authorities and obey them except when they require us to act unjustly.

And then this:

We will not be intimidated by any cultural or political power into silence or acquiescence and we will reject measures that seek to over-rule our Christian consciences or to restrict our freedoms to express Christian beliefs, or to worship and obey God.

Governments can perpetrate terrible evil which reverberates down the generations. When they do, we must resist – and obey God rather than men.

Government is God’s servant. Sometimes it is a rebellious servant. But all governments will be brought to account. Because we owe God our obedience, we owe governments our obedience. But our primary allegiance is always to God. We should submit to our government for the sake of God. But we should submit to God for the sake of our government.

So, in conclusion, God requires just and God-honouring executive government. He requires just laws. But he also requires that those laws are justly applied and enforced.

All of that means that if we are seeking to live in submission to God’s will and Word, four things should be true of us.

First, we will obey the law – whether that’s being rigorously honest as we fill in our tax returns, or keeping to the speed limits.

Secondly, we will make godly and vigorous use of the rights that are granted to us by the authorities under whom we live. That’s what the apostle Paul did when he protested at his treatment and put the wind up the authorities on the grounds that he was a Roman Citizen. That’s what Paul did, too, when he appealed to Caesar and thereby secured for himself free transport to Rome – one of his key strategic destinations. Read about that in Acts 16 and 25.

So we should rejoice in and use our democratic rights to debate and disagree and lobby and campaign for change. In this country we shouldn’t take for granted the blessings of the heritage that we have. We even have an official opposition, so disagreeing with the government, far from being forbidden, is built into the system. We should make the most of our rights.
If we have the right to vote, we should use it. We should find out about the candidates and the policies of the parties. The Christian Institute Election Briefing is one valuable resource among others. We should use Godly discernment. And we shouldn’t forget that postal vote under a pile of papers or busy ourselves on Election Day until the polls close and it’s too late for us to mark our cross.

Thirdly, we will disobey the law of the land if – and only if – we are required to do so by obedience to the law of God. For instance, the Westminster 2010 Declaration is being thoroughly Biblical when it says:

We pledge to work to protect the life of every human being from conception to its natural end and we refuse to comply with any directive that compels us to participate in or facilitate abortion, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide, euthanasia, or any other act that involves intentionally taking innocent human life.

And then:

We call on government to honour, promote and protect marriage and we refuse to submit to any edict forcing us to equate any other form of sexual partnership with marriage.

And fourthly, we will pray for and work for good and godly government. That will mean praying for and working for godly executive government, godly legislation, and a godly judiciary.

We need to ask ourselves whether we are doing those four things. Do we habitually obey the law – or are there ways in which we need to change our habits? Are we using our rights – or are we complacent, timid, or negligent? Will we disobey the law when obedience to God requires it – or do we value a quiet life above faithfulness to God? Are we praying for and working for good government – or are we just content to look after number one?

May God have mercy on this nation as we go through this General Election and a new government is established in the wake of it. And may God use us all to strengthen good government, to the glory of Christ our King who will one day judge us all.

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