NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER THIRTEEN (Lesson VII)
John Calvin sees Paul repeating himself here with some additional information. He reiterates that we should cooperate with magistrates, but our motive for cooperating is not a reaction of our flesh to the law but of our spirit. In other words, it is our duty not only as an earthly citizen to earthly rules but as a heavenly citizen to heavenly rightness. We are not here just to obey the laws of mankind, but the laws of God. Just being afraid that we will be punished because we break the law is not enough reason for being lawful. It should come from the fact that we want to maintain a clear conscience by not even thinking of breaking the law. For instance, even if an officer of the law is unarmed so that we can physically overwhelm them, it should never cross our mind to do so. This would show that we are being obedient to the law out of respect, not fear. It is not up to us to determine if we should obey the law but to respect the authority the Lord has placed in those over us.1
Robert Haldane notes that people, in general, obey the Laws from fear of the punishment of breaking them because if there was no punishment they would break every Law that did not please them. But Christians should not fall into this category. They must respect the Laws of the countries in which they live, not because they fear getting caught and then punished, but out of respect for the authority, God has ordained in government. This is not an ulterior motive, but a higher motive for obeying the laws. Even if a believer was promised immunity by the court from punishment if they broke the law, they must not violate the Law for conscience’ sake. This should give Christians an even stronger reason for being law-abiding since they obey from a conscientious regard for the authority of God that the magistrate represents. This is the foundation of true loyalty. If in operation, it will not only ensure the obedience of the Christian to the government under which he or she is placed, but prevent them from defrauding it by smuggling, evasion of taxes, or any illegal transaction. Let the words of King David be the motto of every Christian2.3
Frédéric Godet speaks from a 19th Century perspective about Paul’s admonition of obedience to the state. He points out that if a Christian’s positive response to the law was only out of fear of being punished, that would probably be enough. But it is more than that, it represents the authority of God to assert justice here on earth, that’s why a Christian must make it a matter of conscience that submission must be given to it. It is obvious that the Apostle has a much nobler idea of the state than those who have made this an institution to serve their own or their party’s interest. Paul lays down a divine principle and sees in it an essentially moral institution. This teaching was even more necessary as Christians were daily witnesses of the corruption which reigned in Rome and might have felt motivated to become involved in trying to tear it down. But it must not be forgotten that, in assigning conscience as a ground for obedience, the Apostle is at the same time outlining the limits of this obedience. For the very reason that the state governs in God’s name when it comes to ordering something contrary to God’s Law, there is nothing else to be done than to resist the contradiction between its conduct and its commission.4
John Stott focuses on the State’s responsibility not only for enforcing the Law but also in punishing the criminal. As he sees it, the Apostle Paul says nothing about what kind of sanctions and penalties the state may employ, but he would almost certainly have endorsed the principle of using “minimum necessary force” in order to arrest criminals and bring them to justice. He also writes that the judge does not bear the sword for nothing. Since the Greek noun machaira for “sword” has occurred earlier in this letter to indicate death,5 and since it was used for execution,6 it seems clear that Paul means it here as a symbol of the death penalty. The sword was carried habitually and symbolized the power of life and death which the one holding the sword had in their hands. God had justified this to Noah as affirming the unique value of the life of his image-bearers.7
The taking of another human’s life is such a heinous offense that it deserves the forfeiture of the murderer’s life. Yet this does not seem to have been mandatory, since God Himself protected Cain, the first murderer, from being killed.8 Because of its finality, the risk of an innocent person being executed in error, and the termination of the opportunity to respond to the Gospel, many Christians believe that at least whenever there are mitigating circumstances or any uncertainty the death penalty should be commuted to a life sentence. Yet Stott thinks that the state should retain its right to use the death penalty in order to bear witness both to its solemn God-given authority and to the unique sanctity of human life.9
Douglas Moo has an interesting interpretation of the intent of this verse. For him, beginning with verse 5, Paul summarizes the argument of the paragraph thus far. He reiterates the command to submit and then touches on the two reasons for submission: God ordains governing authorities (verses 1b–2), “because of possible punishment.” The authorities punish wrongdoers (verses 3–4), “because of conscience” The Greek noun syneidēsis “conscience,” usually refers to that faculty within us humans that informs us of the morality of our actions after they have taken place.10 But the word can be used more broadly, and this seems to be the case here in verse 5. The Greek noun syneidēsis refers to our consciousness of God and of His will for us. Because we understand that God has appointed secular rulers and we must submit to them.11
Verse 6: And this is why you pay taxes too. Those public officials are working for God, and they give all their time attending to their duties.
Paul continues on the same theme but turns to a different subject. The Jews hated paying taxes to both the Roman government and the Jewish Temple. Most of all, they despised those Jews (like Matthew), who were in the employment by the Roman Empire to collect those taxes from their fellow Jews. But this was not the first time the Jews were forced to pay taxes to a foreign government. We read that when they were in captivity, they had to pay taxes to their captors.12 But Ezra let King Artaxerxes know that he was not the only one.13 So Paul was not telling the Jews in Rome anything new. We also know that the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus on this subject.14 But our Lord’s accusers lied when they tried to use it against Him.15
When it comes to paying taxes, early church scholars were careful in their commentary. For instance, Chrysostom believes that Paul is saying here that one way we can show that we appreciate the government benefits we receive is in paying their salaries. The taxation system may seem to be burdensome and annoying, but Paul turns it into proof that rulers care for their people. Why, after all, do we pay taxes to the government? Is it not because they provide for us? We would not have paid it in the first place if we did not know that we are the ones who benefit from this government. It was for this reason that the men of old agreed that rulers should be financially supported by the people because they neglect their own affairs in order to devote themselves entirely to public service, spending all their energy in order to protect us.16 Then Pelagius also remarks that taxes can also mean taxes used to pay the priests, which were set up for them by God.17 Or this may mean that you pay taxes to rulers because as a citizen of this world you subject yourself to them willingly. Paul calls them “God’s servants,” so that people might render to them what they owe,18 so that they don’t think that Christ taught His followers to be egotistical.19
John Calvin expresses how he saw Paul’s teaching on paying taxes during the Reformer’s ministry during the 1500’s. For Calvin, Paul takes the opportunity to introduce the subject of paying taxes as a way of showing appreciation for the government in their mission to defend and safely preserve the peace for the law-abiding citizens, and to resist the mischievous attempts of lawbreakers, this they cannot do unless they are aided by sufficient backing. Taxes are then justly paid to support such necessary expenses.
But when it comes to the level of taxation, Paul did not speak about it, and Calvin doesn’t think this is the place to discuss the subject, nor does it belong to us either to dictate to the government how much they should spend on projects or social services. Yet it would be wise for government officials to remember, that whatever they receive from the people, is as it were public property, and not to be spent in the gratification of private indulgence. For we see the use for which Paul appoints these taxes which are to be paid – even that the government may be furnished with means to defend their citizens.20
Then, by the late 1700’s, Adam Clarke interprets Paul’s words this way: Because civil government is ordained by God, and the officials of the state must go to considerable expense in providing for the safety and defense of the citizens, it is necessary that those on whose behalf these expenses are incurred should help defray those expenses. Therefore, nothing can be more reasonable than an impartial and moderate taxation, by which the expenses of the state may be defrayed, and the various officers, whether civil or military, who are employed for the service of the public, be adequately paid. While all of this is fair and balanced, there is no hint in what the Apostle Paul says that speaks against excessive and oppressive taxation for the support of irresponsible and unnecessary wars; paying out a pension to officials who were found to be corrupt or dishonest individuals. The taxes are to be paid for the support of those who are God‘s ministers – the necessary civil officers, from the head of state on down who spend their time of law and order and the welfare of their citizens.21
1 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Psalm 16:8
3 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 584
4 Frederic Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Romans 8:35
6 E.g. Acts of the Apostles 12:2; Revelation 13:10
7 Genesis 9:6
8 Genesis 4:13ff
9 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 See C. A. Pierce, Conscience in the Last Covenant, Allenson, Chicago, 1955, pp. 65-71
11 Douglas J. Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Ezra 4:13
13 Ezra 4:20; See 6:8; Nehemiah 5:4
14 Matthew 22:15-21; Mark 12:14-17; Luke 20:21-26
15 Luke 23:1-2
16 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 23
17 See Exodus 30:11-16; Leviticus 7; Numbers 31:25-54; A church tax is a tax imposed on members of some religious congregations in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Sweden, some parts of Switzerland and several other countries. It is used to support religious institutions and the clergy.
18 Matthew 22:21
19 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
20 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
21 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 258-259