Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Martin Luther makes the point that even if ungodly rulers do not desire to obey God, He still directs everything in such a way that whatever good they may have in them will still end up serving God’s cause. That’s why even though the King of Babylon was an idolater, he is still called by God through the prophets as “my servant.12 John Calvin advises his readers that magistrates soon come to realize that they are not in authority to rule for their own interest, but for the public good. Furthermore, they are not empowered with unbridled authority but are commissioned to do only that which promotes the well-being of their subjects. In other words, they are responsible to God and to the community in the exercise of their power. For as they are deputized by God to do His business, they must one day give an account to Him. At that time, the permission God granted them to serve will be assessed as to how it benefited their subjects. After all, they are not only debtors to them but also to God.3

John Bengel points out that here in verse 4 there is what is called an “Anaphora” [repetition of the same word at the beginning of different clauses]. In this case, it is the repetition of the term “For he.” (KJV) There is a trace of Divine providence in the fact that even the wicked are appointed to govern, support what is good, and punish evil. Also, Paul uses the same words for magistracy as he uses elsewhere for the ministry of the Gospel.4

Adam Clarke sees the same thing. Paul is putting the character of the ruler in the strongest possible light. He is a minister of God – the office is by Divine appointment: the person who is worthy of the office will act in conformity to the will of God. Also, as the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and His ears open to their cry,5 consequently the ruler will be a minister of God to them for their good. Their authority is delegated to them for the defense and encouragement of those who are good, and punishment for those who are bad. They have the authorization to recommend the death penalty when the Law so requires. For they are God‘s disciplinarians, to chastise and punish those who break the law. This is what laws are for. God‘s civil ministers are never allowed to pronounce or inflict punishment according to their own minds or feelings, but according to the express declarations of the Law.6

Robert Haldane makes the point that twice in this verse the civil official is called “the minister of God.” First, doing what is right for law-abiding citizens, and next, to see that lawbreakers are punished. Civil officials, then, as the ministers of God, should not be obeyed reluctantly, but with common sense. They are not only ministers of God, but ministers for what is good. This is the characteristic of magistrates in all countries. In spite of all the bad things that are done by some, it was meant for the good of society. But none are more obliged to follow the law than Christians. Were the restraints of government removed, Christians would be attacked, persecuted, or destroyed in most any country. Even the mistreatment by the worst government would not be as bad as the persecution of the world if freed from the restraint of the Law.7

Charles Ellicott has an interesting comment on what Paul says about “using of the sword” to inflict punishment on those who deserve such a sentence. He concludes that Paul is sanctioning the death penalty here. But he also notes that Paul says nothing about putting an end to slavery. If the gradual development of Christian principles should want to include it, that would be a decision of the majority. However, the question of whether or not the death penalty should be abolished is a question for lawyers, judges, and politicians. Theologians, on the other hand, should support it one way or the other.8

F. F. Bruce has something to say about this function of the government in carrying out the will of God. He points back to what Paul said in Romans 12:17a and 19. The government is charged here in this verse with a function which has been explicitly forbidden to the Christian. Namely, they are not in the business of applying discipline and punishment to lawbreakers. Although some judges may be Christians, any action they take or sentence they pronounce must be based on their position as a member of the judiciary according to the laws of the state. Paul gives no express direction on how a Christian ruler or judge may reconcile their duty as a Christian to follow the Scripture and leave the infliction of punishment up to the wrath of God when their official duty is to execute God’s wrath as one of His ministers. That’s why any judge must do what is necessary according to the principles of the law given to him or her by the state.9 Here is an excerpt on this subject by Bible scholar A. R. Vidler:

The sanction that the Bible, here and elsewhere, gives to the forcible restraint of evil puzzles many modern Christians, because of its apparent contradiction to Christ’s way of love and His precept of non-resistance to evil. But this comes from failing to distinguish the preservation of the world from the salvation of the world. The truth is that the Bible affirms both the Law “which worketh wrath” (Rom. 4:15) and the “faith which worketh by love” (Gal. 5:6): both Christ’s strange work and His proper work.10

John Stott offers his opinion on this subject by saying that if we seek to develop a balanced Biblical understanding of the state, the state’s authority and ministry are both given to it by God and are central to its function. Moreover, in writing about the ministry of the state, Paul twice uses the very same word which he has used elsewhere of the ministers of the church, namely diakonoi (although the third time he uses leitourgoi, a term which usually meant “priests” but could mean “public servants.” We have already had an occasion to note, when considering the gifts of the Spirit, that diakonia is a generic term which can embrace a wide variety of ministries. Those who serve the state as legislators, civil servants, magistrates, police, social workers or tax-collectors are just as much “ministers of God” as those who serve the church as pastors, teachers, evangelists or administrators. But as Vider says above, one is involved in the preservation of the state and the other in the salvation of the world.

Stott then notes what are the complementary ministries of the state and its accredited representatives. “They are God’s servants to do what is good” (verse 4a) and “They are God’s servants… to bring punishment on the evildoer” (verse 4b). The same dual role is expressed in Peter’s first letter, that “governors are appointed by the head of state to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.11 Thus the state’s functions are to promote and reward the good and to restrain and punish the bad.12

Verse 5: So you must obey those in authority, not just because you might be punished, but because you know it is the right thing to do.

But Paul doesn’t want the brethren in Rome to fear those in power because of what may happen if they break the Law, but to have respect for them by being good citizens and doing what is right. Back in the 1960’s and 70’s when I visited our brothers and sisters in Christ behind the Iron Curtain in Europe, they told me what a horrible mistake communist leaders were making by persecuting and disenfranchising Christians because they were the most Law-abiding and loyal people in the country.

We see this illustrated so graphically when David and his men were hiding in the inner recesses of a cave that King Saul chose to go in and relieve himself. As Saul laid aside his sword, David was not only given a chance to assassinate him but was encouraged to do so by his men. But here is what happened: “David got up and secretly cut off a piece of Saul’s clothing. After this, David felt guilty in his heart because he had cut off a piece of Saul’s clothing. So he said to his men, ‘May the Lord not let me put out my hand against my leader, for he is the Lord’s chosen one.’13 David was certainly being respectful of his God-appointed leader. He was willing to wait until God Himself removed Saul so that David could become king.

Paul has raised the subject here of doing things for the sake of one’s conscience. So Chrysostom asks: “What is the meaning of ‘not only because of wrath?‘” (KJV). It means not only because you resist God by not obeying the law, nor because you are bringing shame on yourself both from God and from the government, but also because the magistrate is a benefactor to you in things of the utmost importance. He was appointed by God to bring you peace and the blessings through civil institutions. States receive countless blessings through these authorities, and if they were taken away, everything would fall to pieces.14

Augustine also speaks to this subject by laying out the fact that it is helpful for us to understand that in this life here on earth, we must be subject and not offer resistance to anyone who is in a position of authority, who acting in accordance to the law may legally take something away from us. Remember, authority has been given to them over earthly things, which will one day pass away. They have no control over heavenly things, so that means they have no power or authority to take heavenly things away from us. They can take our lives, but they cannot take our souls. We are not to be subject to them when it comes to the good things that will last forever, only the needs of this age. But when they ask for cooperation we must give it to them without hesitation, not halfheartedly, but out of love. That’s why Paul says that we must be submissive to the law, not simply to keep from being punished for lawbreaking, but because our conscience tells us it’s the right thing to do.15

1 Cf. Jeremiah 25:9; 27:6

2 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 181-182

3 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

4 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit. p. 347

5 Psalm 34:15, cf. 1 Peter 3:12

6 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 257-258

7 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 581

8 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

9 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc cit. Vol. 6, pp. 236–237

10 A. R. Vidler, Christ’s Strange Work, Longmans Green and Co., 1944., p. 28

11 1 Peter 2:14

12 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

13 1 Samuel 24:4-6

14 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 23

15 Augustine: op. cit., loc. cit., On Romans 74

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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