Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!  Amen.  The Word of God that engages us today is Paul’s letter to the Romans, especially this verse: “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” (Rom. 13:1, ESV).[1]  Today’s epistle lesson from Romans 13 comes to us in turbulent times.  American culture is becoming more hostile to Christianity.  And at all levels of government—Federal, state, and local—our leaders increasingly overreach from the proscribed bounds of law as they seek to control every area of life: commerce, education, parenting, media, and—at times—even worship.  As followers of Jesus, we believe that “our citizenship is in heaven,” as St. Paul writes to the Philippians (3:20).  Our Lord Jesus commands us to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’” (Matt. 22:21).  As Christians living here on earth, we are in the world, but not of the world.  So as Christians how do we navigate the reality that we dwell in two kingdoms: the right-hand kingdom of God and the left-hand kingdom of the law?  We will explore this question today.

St. Paul begins by telling us that we have a moral obligation to obey the law.  “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” (Rom 13:1).  Ultimately, all government derives its charter to rule from God.  He is the one who brings down kings from their thrones and uplifts the lowly.  Kingdoms rise and fall at his command (cf. Dan. 2:21).  Every government rules only by the will of God.  Sometimes he blesses us with good rulers and leaders—something for which we should pray.  Yet at other times, he can use even wicked rulers and pagan princes for his purposes—quite frankly, most often to punish his people for injustice and idolatry.  Nowhere in Romans 13 does Paul provide a caveat for the form or system of government under which we live.  So regardless of whether we live under a monarchy, dictatorship, military junta, or a democratic republic, we are called to obey the law of the land.

Nor does the apostle say anything about the moral character of our leaders being a factor in whether or not we choose to obey them.  Paul likely wrote this letter while Nero was the Roman Emperor.  Like all the Caesars before him, Nero claimed divinity.  He lived a lavish lifestyle and was known for caprice and cruelty.  Towards the end of his reign, Nero burned down a slum section of Rome to make room for his grandiose building campaign.  In order to deflect public outcry, he blamed the fire on local Christians, thus inciting the first widespread persecution of the Church.

Consider this: Paul wrote his letter to the Romans during the reign of a mercuric megalomaniac.  Yet he still told the church to obey the governing authorities.  So does the apostle Peter: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:13-14).

We don’t have to like our rulers in order to obey them.  We don’t have to agree with them.  And they don’t have to be people of upstanding moral courage (although the world is better when they are).  Regardless of who are rulers are, we are called to obey them, regardless of party affiliation, upbringing, personal faith or any other factor.  Throughout history God has used pagan kings to accomplish his purposes for his people Israel and for the Church.  God sent Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, to punish the Jews for worshiping other gods and sacrificing their children.  God used the Persian king Cyrus to free his people and allow the return of the exiles (Cyrus even paid for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, even though he had no love for Israel’s God).  The census of Caesar Augustus provided the framework by which the prophecies about Jesus’ birth would come about in Bethlehem instead of Nazareth.  Today God can still use kings, presidents, prime ministers, generals, and generalissimos for his perfect plans—even if they themselves are not Christians.  So we are called to obey the law.

Any refusal to do otherwise is not only to disobey the government, but also to disobey God.  “Therefore,” Paul writes, “whoever resists authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (13:2).  In Martin Luther’s explanation of the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother,” he writes: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them” (SC, Fourth Commandment).  When we break the law, we break God’s commandments.  There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it—a rather sobering thought.  So even if your offense is minor, such as driving faster than the speed limit or not paying taxes for odd jobs you do on the side, you are breaking God’s Law, not just man’s law.

In the next verses (vv. 3-4), St. Paul tells us the proper role of government: to punish evildoers and rewards those who do good.  “He does not bear the sword in vain…” (v. 4).  This mention of the sword means that God has entrusted to government the power over life and death.  Some Christian sects, such as the Amish and Mennonites, believe that it is immoral to serve in the military or law enforcement.  But God is not a pacifist.  Capital punishment was ordained by God in his covenant with Noah:

“And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:5-6).


Human life is so sacred that anyone who takes the life of another must forfeit their own life.  Not only is the death penalty allowable, but it is required by God for murderers.  This power of the sword has been entrusted to the government.  The armed forces wage war in defense of our freedom and to protect our nation.  Police sometimes have to use deadly force to protect the innocent.  And the courts sometimes need to sentence murderers and traitors to death.  This is not an ungodly enterprise.  This is the government’s God-given responsibility.  Why?

Because “he is the servant of God” (Rom. 13:4).  Not all of our leaders claim to be Christians.  Most are probably not followers of Christ.  Yet whether or not they realize it, the government is God’s servant.  Serving in government is a high office and holy calling.  Those called to serve in government are called to a godly calling—if they do so honorably and for the glory of God.  Christians should not be afraid to run for elected office, work for a government agency, or serve in the military.  These vocations are just as necessary as preachers and teachers.

“Therefore one must remain in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience” (Rom. 13:5).  At the Diet of Worms, Martin Luther famously declared that “it is neither safe nor wise to go against conscience.”  Our conscience convicts us when we do wrong.  Breaking the law of the land makes us feel guilty.  (Technically, when we break the law, we are guilty!).  Our conscience accuses us when we disobey our parents or other authorities.  Instinctively, we know in our hearts that law and order are necessary for us to live peacefully with our neighbors.  So never do anything that injures your conscience—or your neighbor’s.

I know there’s a question knocking around in the back of your brains: what about when the government is evil?  Are there any exceptions to the principles Paul teaches in Romans 13?  Is there ever a time when we should not obey the government?  Yes, there are.  Scripture is quite clear on this.  When the Jewish leaders forbade the apostles to preach anymore in the name of Jesus, they responded, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  When the law of the land comes into conflict with God’s Law, we must obey God rather than men.  When the government commands us to do something wicked or evil, we dare not obey.  We must not become complicit in the wickedness of the world.

Here are just a few examples from Scripture.  When Pharoah told the Hebrew midwives to kill all the baby boys, they refused.  They “feared God,” and so they spared the children’s lives and lied to Pharoah about the reason (Exodus 1).  When Daniel risked his life by praying to God instead of praying to the king, even though the punishment was to be thrown into the lions’ den.  His three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, refused to bow down to the statue constructed by Nebuchadnezzar, so they were thrown into the fiery furnace.  Thanks be to God, Yahweh spared the lives of Daniel and his Jewish friends.  But they didn’t know that would be the outcome.  They were willing to lay their lives on the line for the sake of God’s call upon their lives.  They knew it was more important to obey God rather than men.

Yet I must point out that civil disobedience for the sake of the call of Christ does not mean we get to pick and choose which laws we want to obey.  We cannot refuse to obey a law simply because we believe it to be foolish or inconvenient.  Only when the government goes against God can we go against government.

Nor can we refuse to pay our taxes just because some of the things are government does are wrong.  Listen to what Paul writes in verse 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” (v. 7).  Whether or not I like my leaders or the laws, I still have to pay taxes and owe respect.  Do I like the fact that some of my taxpayer dollars support access to abortion or sex changes for federal workers?  No, of course not!  But I do still have to pay my taxes.  Absolutely, yes, I do.  Is this fair?  No, it’s not, but life isn’t fair.  In a fallen, sinful world, there are often no perfect choices given to us.  The government bears the sword as God’s servant, but that is no guarantee that our leaders will not abuse and misuse the sword.  Sometimes government rewards evildoers and punishes those who do good.  Justice may be perverted.  Judges sometime accept bribes.  Politicians lie.  Governments wage unjust wars against their neighbors.  And sometimes the innocent are sentenced to die.  Nevertheless, as long as the law of the land does not come into conflict with God’s Law, we must obey.  But if the government orders us to act, speak, or believe against God’s commandments, then we must obey God rather than men.

I must point out that Jesus submitted to the governing authorities.  When he died for our sins, he died on a Roman cross as a criminal charged with sedition against the Roman Empire.  Christ accomplished our salvation by dying between two thieves.  For our sake, he was numbered with the transgressors.  When he was arrested, he did not resist or flee.  When the Jewish priests put him on trial in a kangaroo court, he made no word in his own defense.  Like a lamb is silent before the shearers, so he remained silent before his accusers.  When Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king, Jesus admitted that his kingdom was not of this world.  And when the Roman soldiers led him away to die, he did not call upon his followers or heaven’s angels to free him.  All this he did for us.  He died because the rulers of church and state wanted to do away with him because of jealousy and expediency.  But ultimately, he died to forgive our sins so that we might have the hope of eternal life.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Creator of the universe, submitted to earthly authority to save you and me.

And as he died, he prayed for his accusers and executioners: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).  Now he calls us to do the same.  “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:1-2).  We don’t have to like our leaders, but we are called to pray for them and to “honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them” (SC).  This is never an easy thing to do.  Few things in life are easy.  Dying for the sins of the world was not easy for Jesus, yet he did it willingly and gladly out of love for us.  Because, in the end, love is the fulfillment of the Law (Rom. 10:13).  “In the name of the Father and of T the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] All Scripture references, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.