“Governing Authorities: God’s Servants for Your Good” (Romans 13:1-10)

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 6, 2020

“Governing Authorities: God’s Servants for Your Good” (Romans 13:1-10)

Our text today is the Epistle reading from Romans 13. And as soon as I say “Romans 13,” most people who know the Bible will instantly say, “Oh, that’s the chapter about government.” And that’s right. Romans 13 is the classic passage in the Bible about the role of government, about how God instituted governmental authority, and about our relationship to the governing authorities, especially as Christians. So those are the things we’re going to explore now, under the theme: “Governing Authorities: God’s Servants for Your Good.”

“For our good? Really, Pastor, are you kidding me? I thought government was the problem, not for our good.” Well, hold your horses there, partner. We’ll get to how government can be a problem. But we also want to see how God instituted governmental authority for our good. Because that’s what God’s Word is telling us here in Romans 13.

The apostle Paul begins this section by saying: “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.” Now keep in mind, Paul is writing here to the Romans, that is, to the Christians in Rome. And Rome was the home of the Roman emperor, and those pagan Roman emperors were certainly no friends of the Christian religion. In fact, Paul himself will be executed by the Roman emperor Nero about ten years after he writes this letter. Nevertheless, Paul instructs the Christians to be subject to the governing authorities, even if they are hostile, and he affirms government as an authority instituted by God.

And it is an authority God instituted for your good. That’s why we subject ourselves to the governing authorities. Paul continues: “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.”

“Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” Well, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. It doesn’t always play out that way in our world. Sometimes the rulers terrorize good conduct. And sometimes they fail to terrorize and curb bad conduct, which is what they are supposed to do. We’ve seen examples going both ways recently in our country. Some governors and mayors have punished good conduct, imposing penalties on churches, for example, restricting their First Amendment right–and Third Commandment duty–to peaceably assemble and freely exercise their religion. Meanwhile, those same governors and mayors have not acted to stop mass riots in their cities, where the rioters have burned down buildings, looted businesses, and assaulted innocent citizens. Those governors and mayors have allowed this bad conduct to continue, telling the police to stand down. And even those rioters who have been arrested, the prosecuting attorneys have chosen not to prosecute. These are monumental and egregious failures of governmental authorities to do their duty. God has instituted government to protect you, to defend you, from bad conduct. Not to allow it. Not to condone it. Not to encourage or excuse it.

Paul continues: “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.” Notice that: The governmental authority “does not bear the sword in vain.” That means he does bear the sword for a purpose. And the sword is an instrument that can kill. Government, therefore, has been authorized by God to use deadly force, if necessary and called for, to protect the innocent and to prevent the wrongdoer from doing wrong and to punish the wrongdoer when he has done wrong. This is why police officers can carry weapons. The same for soldiers. This is why the government has the authority to carry out capital punishment. These legitimate authorities do not bear the sword in vain. God has a good purpose in giving them that authority. He does that for your good: to defend you and your family, to protect your home and your livelihood, to preserve your freedom and your ability to live in peace.

Now, just because government has been authorized to use deadly force, does that mean that all uses of deadly force are necessary and called for? No, it does not. That authority should be used judiciously and with restraint. Those entrusted with that authority can misuse it. And that needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

At the same time, though, if you don’t want to put the cop in the life-or-death situation of having to make a split-second decision of whether or not to use his gun, then it’s generally wise 1) to not engage in criminal activity in the first place, 2) to comply with the policeman’s orders, and 3) to not resist arrest. As Romans 13 says: “Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good.”

Paul goes on: “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”

You and I may like to complain about our politicians. We may grouse about government regulations. We may resent all the taxes we have to pay. Those are all worthy topics for discussion. And that is why we have elections, to choose officials who better represent our views. But the fact remains: We need government. We’d be way worse off without it.

In the Large Catechism, Martin Luther says that through the civil authorities, “God gives to us food, house and home, protection and security. Therefore, since they bear such name and title with all honor as their highest dignity, it is our duty to honor them and to esteem them great as the dearest treasure and the most precious jewel upon earth.” This is why Luther lists “devout and faithful rulers” and “good government” as part of our daily bread. Because we wouldn’t have, or get to keep, our daily bread otherwise. Luther writes: “There is, indeed, the greatest need to pray for earthly authority and government. By them, most of all, God preserves for us our daily bread and all the comforts of this life. Though we have received from God all good things in abundance, we are not able to keep any of them or use them in security and happiness if he did not give us a permanent and peaceful government. For where there are dissension, strife, and war, there daily bread is already taken away or is at least hindered.”

So this is why we are to regard governing authorities as God’s servants for our good. They are his gifts to us to help us to live in peace and orderliness in this world. But out of his same grace and mercy toward us, God has provided us with an even greater gift. And that is the gift of our Savior Jesus Christ. If the governing authority is God’s servant for our temporal good, Jesus Christ is God’s servant for our eternal good.

We definitely need God’s help for that. Otherwise, we’d be lost, lost forever. For there stand those commandments of God, and they would stand against us, condemning us. Paul lists some of them in our text: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Oh, we may not be as outwardly bad violators as the rioters, say. But still, we have not kept God’s commandments as we should, either. I know I don’t always love my neighbor as much as I love myself. I may not have looted a store, but have I taken advantage of my neighbor in some other way? Have I taken something from the office that doesn’t belong to me? Have I paid my employees a fair wage? Have I given my employer an honest day’s work for my paycheck? There are many ways we break God’s commandments, even if we lead an outwardly respectable life.

And so we need help. We need a Savior. And that is what God has provided us in our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one who fulfills God’s law for us. I haven’t. You haven’t, either. But Jesus has. He is the only one who has ever loved God and loved neighbor perfectly, without sin. But even though he was innocent, he took the rap for our law-breaking. Jesus suffered shame and ignominy and death on the cross–an unjust death, by the way, authorized by a ruler who failed to do the right thing. Jesus took this death willingly, in order to bear God’s judgment for you, so you would not have to bear it. No greater love has anyone than this, that Christ suffered and died for sinners the likes of us. Jesus is God’s Suffering Servant for our eternal good.

Jesus’ blood sacrifice covers all the sinners of the world: law-abiding citizens and the lawless, rioters and police officers, governors, mayors, the high and mighty and the poor and lowly. Whatever category you find yourself in, Jesus has got you covered. His life matters! It matters for you! His life gives you life–and forgiveness, and righteousness before God.

Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth. And he exercises his authority for you. His Word and sacraments have the power to give you eternal life. And with that great gift in our pocket, we can endure anything we face in this life. Because we have this hope to hold onto.

God is good all the time, isn’t he? He gives us governing authorities as his servants for our temporal good in this life. And he gives us Jesus Christ as his Suffering and Risen Servant for our eternal good in his kingdom which will have no end.

Published in: on September 5, 2020 at 9:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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