Romans 13 and the Christian
It is noticeable that, in divine wisdom, the injunctions of the early part of this chapter have a wide application. It is right for “every soul” to “be subject to the authorities that are above him”. The believer finds himself in the sphere where divine government is set up, and he has to respect it, but “every soul” is called upon to recognise that authority is from God. This epistle does not leave out of its view any of the relations that subsist between God and men, and one of those relations is that He has set up authorities and rulers. The institution of government after the flood (Genesis 9) was one of the greatest mercies that God has shown to men. Authority may be abused, and often has been in the hands of man as a fallen creature, but its character is to be a terror to what is evil and to favour what is good. The Christian is to recognise that all authority is from God. This delivers him from the lawless spirit which despises authority. We have the personal testimony of the Lord in this matter, as declaring that Pilate’s authority was given to him from above: John 19:11.
“For there is no authority except from God; and those that exist are set up by God”. If one government was overturned, and another set up in its place, faith’s estimate of it would be that it was the act of God. God’s ways in government are retributive. If governments cease to praise what is good, or to be a terror to evil, they no longer serve the purpose for which they were set up, and God’s retributive ways may act in setting them aside. There are moral reasons for what God does in this way. He may scourge a nation by setting up an oppressive rule, or He may use other nations to check wickedness or ambition. And, behind all, God ever has in view His own work and testimony, though often His government works out in unexpected ways. For example, Paul was imprisoned by the authorities, though he was no evil-doer, but he tells us that it turned out rather to the furtherance of the glad tidings. The Lord took a remarkable way to bring out “the most of the brethren” in a fearless and abundant speaking of the word of God. He put the chief preacher in prison! I suppose the courage and confidence of Paul — even as an imprisoned man — stirred up the brethren to be more bold than they otherwise would have been. The action of the authorities was really subservient to the designs of grace. Even persecution has often furthered the testimony of God, so that it came to be a saying that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”. But it may be noted that governments have not persecuted generally save as incited to do so by religious leaders. And God has used the cruelties of persecution to bring about a revulsion of feeling in the minds of men, and to secure in that way greater liberty for His people. God has used things, severe and terrible in themselves, to further His testimony.
The authorities which exist are not viewed in Scripture as having intelligence of a spiritual order. They are represented as “beasts” (Daniel 7); they do not generally perceive what God is doing by their means, though Nebuchadnezzar, and particularly Cyrus, may have been personally conscious that they were directly raised up to do certain things. Cyrus was a very remarkable person, mentioned by name by the prophet Isaiah generations before he was raised up (Isaiah 44:28; chapter 45: 1). God would set up a government favourable to what He had in His mind with regard to Jerusalem and the temple. It is of much interest to note that the four empires of Daniel 7 — the Babylonish, the Medo-Persian, the Greek, and the Roman — have covered that part of the earth where God’s people have been chiefly found, whether the Jews from the time of the captivity, or the Gentiles as visited by grace later. All authority has to be owned as being of God, but the authorities which have a distinct place in prophecy, as seen in Daniel 7, are those which exist in the area where God’s people and testimony are chiefly found. The Greek empire followed the Medo-Persian, and prepared the way by the diffusion of the Greek language over a wide area, for that extension of the divine testimony which was intimated by Greek being the chosen language of inspiration for the New Testament. Then God had in mind to spread His testimony westward, and He allowed the Greek empire to be succeeded by the Roman. The special sphere of His action in government has corresponded with the special sphere of His actings in grace. All has had in view what God was doing, or going to do, in relation to His testimony. God has ordained these things. “So that he that sets himself in opposition to the authority resists the ordinance of God”.
Government is God’s minister to every one of us for good if we practise what is good, but if we practise evil it will make us suffer, So that with all right-minded persons it is not merely on account of wrath that they are subject — that is, as being afraid of the consequences of insubjection — but on account of conscience. Their consciences approve of the objects which government has in view.
So we pay tribute as to God’s officers. In the light of this it is not becoming for a Christian to grumble — as other men often do — about rates and taxes, or put off until the last minute paying what is due. The Christian should not, surely, be amongst the last to render what is due to those whom he has been taught to regard as God’s officers! Indeed he is to “render to all their dues”. This is one great feature of practical righteousness. There is, indeed, one debt which can never be so discharged that we are free from its claim, but all other debts are to be paid as they fall due! “Owe no one anything, unless to love one another”. This is to mark those who are in subjection to God. God is much dishonoured, and His way evil spoken of by men, when these things are neglected. If a brother or sister has had to incur expenses of illness, or the like, and is not able to pay, it is a fine opportunity for verse 13 of the previous chapter to be acted on by the brethren! God does not exempt His people from misfortunes, and sometimes believers may get involved, through no fault of their own, in liabilities which they cannot meet. I have known believers fail in business, but turn to God in real exercise, and get His help so that they have been able to pay all their creditors in full. It is clear from this chapter that God regards His people as competent to render all that is due, and faith would be concerned to answer to this.
“Love works no ill to its neighbour: love therefore is the whole law”. This is a standard of conduct applicable to babes in Christ. It is, as people say, negative; it does not go beyond that we work no ill; but this means a good deal.
We own God’s government through the existing authorities in the world, but we have also to do with God’s direct government as those who are in relation to Him. Peter gives us that side: “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears towards their supplications; but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil”, 1 Peter 3:12. As to men in the world, so far as they do what is right in the sight of God, they get a present recompense in His government, but if they do what is wrong the government of God is retributive.
It is important to observe that there are no instructions to believers as to how they should exercise authority in the world. Their place is to submit themselves to authorities which exist. They have nothing to do with establishing the authorities; they recognise them as set up by God. We are exhorted to subject ourselves to the authorities, and to pray for them (1 Timothy 2), but we have no instructions to vote for them. To vote is to take the place of deciding what the powers shall be; it is really to join with others in ruling the world. But the Christian is here to confess that all the rights of rule pertain to the Lord Jesus Christ, and to wait in patience for Him to come and take up His rights. And in the meantime to be in subjection to the powers that exist in the ordering of God, and to honour them as God’s ministers.
“This also, knowing the time, that it is already time that we should be awaked out of sleep; for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed”. None but believers know the time. We know that the day is just about to dawn. It is time to awake — to rise to greet the dawning day! “We boast in hope of the glory of God” (chapter 5: 2), and “we have been saved in hope”, chapter 8: 24. The whole epistle has in view that “the day is near”; the morning is about to break on this world by the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. Salvation will be completed then, when all the light and power of God come in, and Satan is bruised under the feet of the saints. The prospect here is not of dying and going to be with Christ, or even of being caught up at the rapture according to 1 Thessalonians 4:17. It is rather looking out for the day according to 1 Thessalonians 5:4 – 11. The rapture is in view of our having our part with Christ in the day that is about to dawn. It is time to get up and dress in readiness for the day! The works of darkness are to be cast away; all that belongs morally to the night is to be repudiated, and the armour of light put on. It is a military figure — the church militant in shining armour! All that properly belongs to the day is to be put on as a protective coat of mail.So that the saints, as in that shining armour, are invested with the light of the coming day; they are already “in the day”. They act and move on principles that are suitable to the day; they “walk becomingly”.
Is there not need for much exercise, dear brethren, that we should walk becomingly as in the day? “The day” means complete emancipation from every phase of the power of evil. That is to characterise the saint: as it were, beforehand. But there is more than freedom from what is evil! The Lord Jesus Christ is to be put on! It is a remarkable exhortation, as bringing in His full title. The believer is to be invested with Him, so that he sets forth here that glorious Person who is the Sun of the coming day. He wears the Lord in giving evidence in all his ways that he is in subjection to Him; he puts on Jesus as having those precious qualities of obedience, dependence, meekness, and lowliness which marked that blessed One; and he is invested with Christ as taking character from the Anointed Man of God’s pleasure who is about to bring in publicly all that is for God’s delight. All this is not only to be in the believer, as cherished in his affections, but it is to be seen on him in a practical way for testimony. Paul was a beautiful example of it. Who could help seeing that he was in subjection to the Lord? that the life of Jesus was manifested in his mortal flesh? or that Christ was magnified in his body? It was “no ordinary miracle”, but one can understand that there was something morally suggestive in napkins or aprons being brought from his body and put upon the sick, so that diseases left them; Acts 19:11, 12. One would like to be touched by the garments of one who had put on the Lord Jesus Christ! They would drive away moral diseases and wicked spirits!
“The day is near”. We do not look for outward indications. I am afraid many occupy themselves far too much with things that are going on in the world as signs that the Lord’s coming is near. The great spiritual indication of it is that the day is dawning, and the Day Star arising, in the hearts of the saints. The events seen in the world are, after all, only features of the night. But what is going on in the hearts of the saints stands in immediate and spiritual connection with the day. The fact that the day has been dawning in a remarkable way in the hearts of saints during recent years, and the Morning Star arising there, is a far greater indication that “the day is near” than any events that happen in the world. Do not, look for signs of the times! Keep the eyes of your heart fixed on the right hand of God! The first move will be there! The Spirit has come from there to bring the glory of the Coming One nigh — to cause Him to arise as the Morning Star in our hearts.
In the light of “the day”, how unbecoming and base it is to be taking forethought for the flesh to fulfil its lusts! Let us not be found doing it! It is no time for such things.
Charles A. Coates
Outline of Romans (pp. 209 – 216)