Sermon on Romans 13:1-10, for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost 2020 (A), "Under God"
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Today I want speak to you from Romans 13, our epistle reading, because it’s that time of year again where politics loom close in many people’s minds, election battles heat up, and everyone gets “hot and bothered.” Romans 13 is that passage that clearly lays out a Christian’s duty toward the government, and the government’s duty before God.
I need to preface my sermon with several “boundary line” statements (in no particular order), so I’m not misunderstood. Number 1: I am your pastor, not a politician, and my role is to preach God’s Truth and the Good News of Jesus Christ, not to advance anyone’s politics or party from the pulpit. Number 2: In it’s proper place, God’s Word is “upstream” from politics and culture, meaning that it should influence your life and your values and morals, before the river of politics and society branches “downstream” from God’s Word. God’s Word critiques a lot of society and life, and so hits all of us, not just one group of people. Unfortunately, we often allow more influence from media and culture in our lives, than God’s Word, reversing the place of God’s influence from what it should be. Number 3: God’s Word clearly teaches right from wrong on issues that people may call “political”—like life issues, racism and human dignity, marriage and sexuality, justice in the courts and society, care for the poor, and other issues. The fact that God’s Word has implications for many different things doesn’t—Number 4—tell us what the “best” form of government is or the best policy solutions are for all these issues, provided that we attend to what is right and wrong, just and unjust. Number 5: In the New Testament era of our faith, the government plays a distinct role under God, over all society, and the church plays a distinct role under God over all believers.
I encourage you then, not to listen with a political mindset on, but to hear how the principles of God’s Word judge and examine all men, and establish His design for a peaceful society. Romans 13:1, “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.” There’s no room for anarchy. That should be beyond debate. But we are witnessing attempts at anarchy around the country, and this is ungodly and destructive to society. All authority is established by God. Lutherans have long taught that God builds authority structure from the basic unit of society: the family and goes upward from there. The Constitution of the United States begins with the phrase: “We the People…” meaning that we agree to delegate the responsibility of law and order to the government. With God out of the picture and “We the People” out of the picture—it doesn’t matter what kind of government you have—the government and politicians would be answerable only to themselves. But Romans here teaches that all authorities are established by God. Therefore, they’re answerable to God for any corruption, abuse of power, or neglect of responsibility to the people.
The Constitution and Declaration of Independence get this right. All nations, whether they acknowledge it or not are “under God”. If they ignore it, a major guardrail is missing that guards against the total control of the lives of citizens and abusing that power. If they ignore that they are answerable to God, it doesn’t change the fact that God will hold them accountable. If they acknowledge it, there’s at least the chance that they will grant greater respect to their responsibilities and the good of those whom they govern.
Romans 13:2, “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” Disobeying the authorities is disobedience to what God has established, and you run the risk of judgment. Break the laws and do wrong, and the consequences of your actions—arrest, trial, imprisonment, or penalties—are on your own head. Now many Scriptural examples show that often people are held by the government unjustly when they have not broken the law of the land. Or even breaking man’s law by obeying God. Faced with the choice, we must obey God rather than man. The apostles had to speak in the name of Jesus, even though their rulers forbade it. They incurred prison and judgment. They suffered unjustly at the hands of the law. Daniel suffered for worshipping the true God, instead of fake idols, commanded by the king. Jesus also suffered unjustly at the hands of the law when He died on the cross. But there is a spiritual blessing and honor for those who suffer unjustly. In such circumstances we appeal to God’s higher justice and holding them accountable. God is the one who brings down the mighty from their thrones. God has often through history used evil nations to punish each other, and eventually to be toppled themselves.
Romans 13:3–4, “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, 4 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.” God gives this responsibility to the government: punish evildoers, reward those who do good. However, when they reverse good and evil, or punish those who do good, they’re answerable to God. People may get away with things on earth, but God’s judgment is inescapable. We’re urged to be good citizens, obeying the laws and doing right. Then we should have nothing to fear from the government. Our rulers have difficult jobs, as this current crisis shows. We may have strong opinions about how well they’re doing, but it doesn’t change our God-given duty to do what is good, obey (when it’s not against God’s Word), and to pray for their wisdom and leadership.
Did you notice the verse calls the ruling authorities “servants” or “ministers of God?” It’s the same word “deacon”, here, often used in church to describe ministers of God. Is it strange for you to think of our rulers as God’s ministers? That’s precisely what Romans is teaching us. They are God-given servants to us. Remember Nero was Caesar when Paul wrote this. You could write a book on the examples of governing rulers that God used for the good of His people—sometimes because they believed and obeyed Him, and others who pointedly did not believe or obey God. But God’s sovereignty ruled all these: King Melchizedek of Salem; Pharoah of Egypt; Saul, David and all the kings of Israel and Judah; Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon; Cyrus and Darius, King Xerxes and Queen Esther of Persia; Caesar Augustus of Rome; King Herod of Israel; Pontius Pilate of Judea—and many others who were “ministers of God” used by Him for the good of His people. Many of them set out to do evil against God’s people, and were marvelously humbled by God, and used by God despite themselves.
Romans 13:5, “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” Paul is clear that both the wrath of government and God’s wrath falls on the disobedient and the evildoer. God desires justice, order, and peace. For this He established government. Even a poorly functioning government is better than the chaos of “every man for himself”. Many countries that have struggled with decades of internal instability and violence can testify to this. But God’s reason for our obedience is to have a clear conscience. That our heart would not troubled by secret dishonesty and disobedience; a guilty heart before the law and God.
Finally, in an echo of Jesus’ famous “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s”; Paul says this: Romans 13:6–7, “For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 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.” God commands us to pay our taxes because the government serves God’s purposes among us. We have a duty to fund the government, even if we resent certain policies or how they spend our money. As American citizens, we have privileges not mentioned in the Bible, that did not even exist then. Nevertheless, we’re free to use those democratic privileges. To freely write and appeal to our representatives, to vote according to our conscience and our morals, led by God’s Word, to run for and hold political office, or work in other capacities in the government to bring about good for others. In so doing we also can be “ministers of God”, if that’s what God is calling you to do. We can do them all with respect and conviction, under the command to be good citizens.
All of this, so far, has been in the way of the Law. Just God’s commands and our duty. The duty of our government and leaders also before God. But what about the Gospel? Ideally, a peaceful and stable government gives safety for the Church to freely exercise our religion and to live out our lives. Government must not tell us what we can teach or how we must worship but should protect religious believers from outside harm or interference. Otherwise the government is trying to rule over our consciences, which is not it’s duty. We know the record of governments through human history is very inconsistent. We should give thanks, however, that it’s been vastly better in our country than elsewhere, because at least in principle, our country acknowledges that it is under God and answerable to Him.
So here is Good News: Jesus is Lord of lords, King of kings, Prince of Peace. His authority is above all earthly powers and all created things. He put governments in place for our good. His kingdom is not like kingdoms of men that will rise and fall. We have no promise from God that the USA or any other nation will last forever. Only God’s throne and kingdom endures forever. And the Good News is that Jesus’ kingdom on earth, His church, will stand and grow, regardless of whatever politicians or powers exist in this or any other country on earth. Christ’s church, His kingdom on earth is unstoppable, because it does not grow by the government’s power, force, or any human power, but by God’s grace and His Holy Spirit. God’s Word fuels the life of the church, and God’s Word gives us all the spiritual gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation, that no earthly powers can take from us. The church is a separate kingdom or realm from the government, even while existing in and around it. But the Gospel and God’s grace rules in the church alone, and empowers believers.
While earthly governments are “under God” by His design, whether they admit it or not, the church is “under God” willingly and knowingly. We openly praise and worship Him who gives us all things, who sustains our life and all we have. We praise God from whom all blessings flow. In His church we are ever supplied with His goodness, mercy, and love, in such generous measure that it overflows from us to others. The gifts of Christ in the church never run dry and are never diminished when they’re poured out to others. To belong to the church is to have free access to God’s forgiveness, life, salvation, and all of His spiritual gifts for our growth before God as citizens of a higher and everlasting kingdom. We celebrate that we are “under God”, because we know “under God” is where receive all that is good and necessary for life now and into eternity. In Jesus’ Name we praise Him, Amen.