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A Gospel Response to Government - Part 7

Tom Pennington • Romans 13:1-7

  • 2020-07-19 AM
  • Romans
  • Sermons


This morning we return to Romans 13 and we're going to finish up our study of the paragraph that deals with our response as believers to our government. For two thousand years, the church of Jesus Christ has struggled to define the relationship of church and state. In fact, there has often been and even continues today a great deal of confusion about how the church and state should interrelate.

Now let me just give you a brief history so you understand this. Of course, the first three hundred years of the church's existence it was fairly simple. The church was persecuted by the governments both local and the Roman Empire. And what you need to know about the relationship between the church and state you find in the pages of the New Testament, you find in the paragraph we're studying here in Romans 13. But it all became much more complicated in the year 312 AD when you have the conversion of Constantine. Almost immediately the church and state began to be intertwined as if they were interdependent entities. It was a flawed view of the relationship between church and state. And that flawed view continued long beyond the fall of Rome. In fact, when you look at the thousand years from the fall of Rome to the Reformation, the Middle Ages, that entire period was marked by this flawed view carried on by the marriage of the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire. It thrived for a thousand years in that environment. We are profoundly grateful for the Reformation. We are profoundly grateful for the reformers and their recovery of so many of the truths, the rich truths of the gospel, that had been lost during those dark years.

Sadly, and this is something we have to admit, that while the reformers brought much reform with them, needed reform, in the key gospel doctrines, they also brought along with them some of the remnants of Roman Catholic theology that had marked the church through that period of time. These were not perfect men. Whether you want to talk about Martin Luther's anti-Semitism or whether you want to talk about Calvin and what happened to the heretic under the government of Geneva. They were men who we respect and appreciate for their work's sake, but they were not perfect men. They were flawed men. And one of those flaws was to bring with them into the Reformation some baggage that they inherited from the Roman Catholic Church and the Middle Ages. One of those things was the relationship between church and state. You cannot find the view of the reformers on this issue in the New Testament. In fact, it's interesting when you read the Westminster Confession of Faith and they present this sort of intertwined view of church and state. When they seek to find proof text to make the point, they don't go to the New Testament because there are no texts in the New Testament that would make that argument. They would have to go back to Old Testament Israel and what happened in the nation that God chose. And they try to say that is the standard and model for what all of government and relationship between church and state should be.

The reformers with this flawed view in turn influenced the theology of the Puritans, including their view of church and state. We appreciate and love the Puritans just as we do the reformers. Ironically though the Puritans fled Europe to escape the oppression of a state religion that had been born out of this flawed view of the intermarriage of church and state. But they ended up importing that very same flawed view into their rule of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They inflicted the same religious oppression that they had experienced in Europe and fled on those under their leadership in New England. And it all goes back to this long misunderstanding of the relationship between church and state.

So how did things begin to correct biblically? Well the foundation of the idea of separation of church and state that is written into our founding documents, can be traced to the ministry of a man whose name you need to know. His name is Roger Williams. He was born in England in the year 1603. He was a Puritan pastor and theologian. He ended up founding what became the Colony of Rhode Island. He was a man way ahead of his time. Roger Williams believed that the Native Americans should be treated fairly. In fact, he insisted that it was wrong to take their land without purchasing it and so the land that became Rhode Island was actually purchased from the Native Americans who had previously been there. He had a great relationship with them, they respected him throughout his life. He also was one of the first abolitionists. He advocated religious freedom and the separation of church and state. He called it Liberty of Conscience. Obviously, he was a committed follower of Jesus Christ, committed to the truths of Scripture but he didn't believe that church and state should be intermarried. So, it became the state's role to insist on the Christianizing of the people. He's the one who most clearly articulated the concept of the separation of church and state. Now don't misunderstand not the entire separation of the Church from anything related to the state as is currently held. But rather a balanced separation of two God ordained entities carrying out two different missions. The state, Williams taught, was never to punish those who violated the first four commandments in the Ten Commandments. Rather the state's job, even as we've learned in Romans 13, was to punish those who violated the second table. That is, the commands that had to do with our duty to other people.

Now this separation of church and state that Roger Williams taught and became sort of inbred into the foundation of our own country, it is what the New Testament teaches. In fact, we can say that church and government are distinct in several key ways. Let me just give you this little list. When you think of the relationship of church and state, they are distinct in several ways.

First of all, they have different origins. If you want to find the origin of the state of government, you go back to Genesis 10 and Genesis 11. That's where it begins. On the other hand, if you want to find the origin of the church you go to Acts 2 with obviously thousands of years between them.

They have different realms over which they rule. You remember Christ before Pilate in John 18:36, said to Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this realm." My kingdom is a spiritual kingdom. He was making the distinction that government, the state, represented by Pilate, and the church, His realm in terms of the spiritual kingdom He was establishing were two different realms.

Thirdly, they have different leaders. In 1 Timothy 2 we are told to pray for the authorities over us in government. And then you come to the leaders in the church in 1 Timothy 3 chapter 5 and so forth.

There are different standards for the leaders of these two entities, these two organizations. In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 you have the standards laid down for those who would lead the church. They are not laid down for those who would lead the state.

You have different missions for the state and the church. You want to know what the mission of the state is? Study, as we have been doing, Romans 13:1-7. But if you want to understand the mission of the church then read Ephesians 4 beginning in verse 11 and running down to verse 16. You have spelled out how the church is to function, Christ planned for the church. They have distinct missions. There's a lot of confusion on this today, and I would say this by the way, if you are unclear in your own mind of what role the church should play in state, in politics, and vice versa, there's a great book you need to read. It's called What is the Mission of the Church? by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. Which they very carefully and biblically articulate the mission of the church verses missions that are often hoisted upon the church.

Here's how Carson spells it out in the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia in the article on government, I really like this, listen carefully, "Many contend that the church has a political role and should be ready to exercise its powers in a lobby aimed at influencing government policy. The New Testament reply to this would surely be to stress the respective roles of the church and state. The task of the church as church is to preach the gospel, edify the believers and lead men to worship the living God. Individual Christians may enter the political field, but they do so primarily as citizens not as representatives of the church." And of course, he goes on to say, "That as Christians they imprint just with their characters the leadership that they bring in government." He goes on to say this though, "The church as a body, aims not primarily at improving the social order, but her main objective is the salvation of men. When the church forsakes her primary task, of preaching the gospel, to engage in political enterprises her true mission is lost." By design God has given the state a mission and He's given the church a mission. It doesn't mean we shouldn't seek His individual believers to impact the culture in the state in which we live. It means that it is not the mission of the church to do so.

They also have different futures. In Daniel 2:44, as Daniel got a revelation of how all the kingdoms of this world would unfurl and how they would develop and ultimately be destroyed we read this, "In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people [listen to this that kingdom, the geopolitical future kingdom of Jesus Christ on this planet will]…put an end to all these kingdoms [that is the kingdoms of men] but it will itself will endure forever." So, they have different futures. The kingdoms of men as we know them on this planet will be destroyed someday, but the kingdom of our Lord will continue forever.

Jesus makes this distinction clear, I think, between church and state on two separate occasions. One of them is in Mark 12:17 when He was asked about paying taxes. Remember He said, "Render to Caesar the things that Caesar's." That's his realm, give him what belongs to his realm, but to God the things that are God's, that's His realm. In John 18:36, Jesus was before Pilate, I mentioned it a moment ago, this is what He said, "Jesus answered, 'My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.'" We have two different realms, the church and the state.

Now the Book of Romans then almost entirely addresses life in the spiritual kingdom over which Jesus reigns, life in the church. But Romans 13 in the middle of this instruction about the spiritual kingdom we live in, Romans 13 teaches us who belong to Jesus' spiritual kingdom, how we should relate to the kingdoms of this world. how we should relate to nation states, to our own government.

Romans 13:1-7 then is a gospel response to government. Here is our right relationship as the church to the state. It begins with a universal command to submit to the government, verse 1 "Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities." Then that immediately is followed by a list of reasons why we should submit, and we've looked at those. Beginning verse 1 and running down through verse 6.

Today I want us to consider just the final verse of this paragraph, verse 7. And in that verse, we discover the duties of submission to government. Look at verse 7 "Render to all what is due them; tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor."

Now you'll notice the first part of verse 7 begins with a summary of our duty to government in light of our submission. He says, "Render to all what is due them." Those words are filled with images of debt and obligation. What he's about to command us here is not voluntary, it's not a social contract, it's a debt. In fact, look at how he says it. The word "render" literally means to meet a contractual or other obligation, to pay someone or even to pay something back to someone is the idea of "render." This word is used in making vows to God and paying them back to Him. It's used of an employer's obligation to pay wages to his employee. In the papyri those documents that were written on the papyrus reed made paper and thrown in the ancient trash dumps, and the archeologists dig them out and we can kind of see common ordinary documents and how words were used. I spent a semester in seminary translating papyri. And in the papyri this verb translated render here is often used in financial documents and it's translated, or it's used in this way, "I will repay" and then it's followed by the amount. I will repay, that's what he is saying. Repay, pay back. It's the same verb that Jesus used in Mark 12:17, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's."

In fact, I think here in verse 7 and most commentators agree, Paul is explicitly borrowing from our Lord's statement in the gospels. Render, pay back, and then he adds to all, that is all of those who are in positions of government. In verses 8 to 10, which we'll get to Lord willing, next week he deals with the debt we owe everyone, the debt of love. But here he's talking about the debt that we owe to those who are in authority. Pay back, to all of those who are in authority what is due. Literally the word means your debts. Pay back your debts to those in authority. It starts out as a word that is financial but eventually it begins to refer to what we owe morally or ethically. That which we ought to do. What is our duty is the idea. Pay back what you owe.

So, this summary application then says this. All of you, it's using the plural talking to all the believers in Rome, all of you pay to all of those in government the debts or the duties that you owe them. It's implied that these are owed to them because of both the services they've rendered to us, the services that government gives us, we owe them debts for those services. But also, ultimately this debt is to God. Because He's commanded it.

Now Paul goes on to say that we owe our government several very specific duties. Let's look at them together. That's the summary, pay them your debts. What are our debts? What are our duties?

Number one pay our taxes. Verse 7 says, "Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom." We start out in a very painful place here, taxes. Some of us have just completed that process.

Now Paul divides our taxes here into two categories. Categories that existed in first century Rome and that still exist today. First of all, there are direct, or fixed taxes. That's the word translated tax, tax to whom tax is due. He refers to those taxes that are direct or fixed primarily on people or property. So, the tax per head, like our income tax, and property taxes.

The second expression he uses has to do with indirect taxes or what we call use taxes. That is taxes you pay for the things you use or buy. Verse 7 says, "custom to whom custom." The Latin word for this was "portoria" which you can hear the word "port" in there. When you showed up at a port you owed certain duties, certain customs. That's the idea behind this word, it refers to all taxes on goods and services. It includes toll taxes, customs, duties, sales tax, and all the fees for various services and licenses that government charges.

So, these two words together, tax and custom, are all inclusive of the things government expects from us for us to pay, whether it's income tax, whether it's a toll tax, whether it's customs when we enter the country with goods. Or whether it's sales tax and so forth, vehicle registration fees. All of those sorts of things are included.

So, taken together then these two commands to pay our taxes, have a couple of important implications. I don't need to belabor it, it's pretty clear, pay your taxes. But there are some implications I just want to draw out for you.

First of all, brothers and sisters, take every legitimate deduction and tax advantage that the law allows. You are not commanded to pay the government more than you owe. But don't cheat on your taxes and pay both your direct and indirect taxes. That's what he's saying.

Secondly, don't refuse to pay your taxes as if they were voluntary. As if you are the authority and as if you get to decide well, that's excessive. Or as if you get to decide well, I don't think they are using them for legitimate purposes. Really? You think Nero was using all of the tax dollars they collected for legitimate purposes? Government never uses every dollar it collects for legitimate purposes. Never has, never will. Welcome to the real world. Paul says, that's not your job. Pay your taxes.

A third thing that I would add an implication here, and this is hardest of all I think, hopefully most of us in this room pay our taxes. But this one's the hardest, guard you attitude about taxes. I like the way James Montgomery Boice puts it he says, "Resignation is not the right attitude." Ouch. Been there done that. "Resignation is not the right attitude, rather when we pay our federal taxes, we should be thankful for the armed forces those taxes support. And for the peace and national security we enjoy because of them. Taxes support the courts and numerous federal agencies from which we benefit. We have national parks, federal drug enforcement agencies, food inspectors, the CDC, the FBI, air traffic controllers, other indispensable services. [he goes on] City taxes fund schools, garbage collection, fire fighters and police. [and then I love this, listen to how he ends] without taxes government could not function, civilization would not be possible, and our lives and property would be in jeopardy every moment of every day." So, we need to guard our attitudes, not only do we need to pay our taxes and fees, but we need to understand it is a debt we owe for services that we truly are rendered.

There's a second duty here that we owe government. It's to obey the law. Or to spell that out a little more fully, we are to obey its edicts that is its executive orders. We are to obey its laws, that is those laws that are passed by the official legislature and its verdicts, that is the legal decision of its courts. Obey the law. I think that's included in the expression verse 7, "fear to whom fear" is due.

Now let me just take that apart for you because there are three possibilities of what Paul means here when he says, render fear to whom fear is due. Let me give you each of them just so you know what the landscape is. Some say this means you should fear God, Paul is saying fear God. And they argue like this, they say, well, this could be just like 1 Peter 2:17. where it says, 'Fear God, honor the king.' So maybe Paul is saying fear God, honor the king here at the end of verse 7. Also they point out that Romans 13:3 uses this word fear and says there's no need to fear authority if you keep the law. So, this must be fear of someone else, this must be fear of God. Also, they would argue, that in Luke 12:4 and 5, Luke uses this word and says we should not fear men, but we should fear God. And a final argument that's used of this view is there were a couple of the early church fathers Origen and Tertullian who held this view. It's certainly possible, okay, I'll admit that to you. But I think it's highly unlikely, let me tell you why. Because the other commands in verse 7 have to do with what? Our response to government. If Paul meant that we were to fear God then we would expect him to do exactly what Peter does in 1 Peter 2:17 and that is, insert the name of God. Fear God. In order to show he's interrupting the flow of his thought and he's no longer talking about government now he's talking about God. But he doesn't do that. So, there's no reason to make this refer to God. I think that one's unlikely.

There's a second option. Some people say, when it says "fear to whom fear" it means you are to respect those in authority. I think this is more likely. The arguments for this, it clearly fits the context of what's going on here. It fits the use of the word that's translated fear because it is used for respect for those in authority. In secular Greek it's used that way. And it's even used in the New Testament of respect for other human authorities. In Ephesians 6:5 of employees for employers. 1 Peter 3:2, of wives for husbands.

So, this may be what Paul means. But if he does then it seems to me these last two expressions are redundant because you have respect and respect essentially, back to back. Some would say well there's a nuance of difference, one is greater than the other. But the usage in the New Testament doesn't support that.

So, after studying this passage, I've landed on the third option which I would encourage you to consider, that it means to obey government officials. Now why would I come to that conclusion? The only way the word fear is used here in this context is fearing the government enough that you obey its laws. You go back to verses 3 and 4, that's what he says, you don't want to have any fear, then obey. Verse 4 if you don't obey the government then you need to really fear. But verse 5 to me is the clincher, because there Paul says you need to be in subjection to government, you need to be in subjection for conscience sake, but you also need to be in subjection because of wrath. What does that mean? Because of the fear of being punished for breaking the law.

This is very much what Paul says in Titus 3:1, where he says, "Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient" that's what he's saying here as well I believe. And by the way I'm in good company, John Calvin takes this view as well. But I think that's what he's intending to say here. If so, the point of this command when he says, fear to whom fear, is that we are to fear the government enough that we obey the executive orders that are issues, we obey the laws that are passed by the legislature, and we obey the legal verdicts of our government and its officials, unless they require us to directly disobey the Scripture.

There's a third duty we owe government, not only to pay our taxes and obey the law, but it's to honor its officials and its rulers. Verse 7 you'll notice ends with these words, "honor to whom honor." Honor means to show reverence or respect. It's the same word that's used in Ephesians 6 to describe how children are to respond to parents in the fifth commandment, honor your parents, same word. We are to show honor or respect to those in government, not because they are important or wealthy, or powerful, but because God has made them His ministers. Calvin writes, "We are to obey kings and governors whoever they may be, not because we are constrained, but because it is a service acceptable to God." There's the point we were just making, and then he adds, "For He will have them not only to be feared, [that's obedience] but also honored by voluntary respect."

Now here's a question for you. How do you honor government officials? What does that mean? Well posted on our fridge at home, there's a little card from when our kids were young, that says here's what it means to honor, show respect, for your parents. And it has three points. Essentially the points I want to make with you now because whenever you are honoring an authority these things are true. This word respect or honor includes these. Three primary ways to show honor and respect to those in authority:

  1. Attitude. How do you think about them? In 1 Samuel 24:6 and 10, David you remember refused to raise his hand against Saul, as bad as a king as Saul was, because he said he is the Lord's anointed. I'm not saying that our government are the Lord's anointed the same way that those leading Israel were. I'm simply saying there was a way of thinking about those in authority. The respect that was included. Here in Romans 13, three times in verse 4 and verse 6, three times we are told to think of them as ministers of God. That's respect. In 1 Peter 2:17 it says, "honor the king" the same word. In context it has to do with you attitude. How you think about them. How do you think about the government officials in our country? That's where it starts. Respect and honor starts between your ears.

  2. You show respect and honor in the words you use. How you speak about them and to them. Exodus 22:28 says, "You shall not curse God, nor curse a ruler of your people." Be careful how you speak about those who are in authority. Paul cites that very verse in Acts 23 when he stands before the Sanhedrin you remember, and he was unlawfully struck by someone standing there. And he says, God will strike you too you whitewashed wall. This is hypocritical, you are treating me illegally. And someone says, be careful how you speak to the high priest who had ordered it and Paul responded quoting this verse he says in Acts 23:5, "I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest; for it is written, 'You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.'"

  3. You also show honor and respect by physical gestures. That is cultural gestures that show appropriate respect for authority. These are different depending on the culture and the circumstance. But there are in every culture ways that you indicate your respect. For example in Leviticus 19:32 talking about those who are younger showing respect for those who are older it says, "You shall rise up before the grayheaded and honor the aged, and you shall revere your God; I am the Lord." When I was growing up, I was taught if I'm sitting in a chair and an older person comes over and starts talking to me, I get up. Out of respect for them and their position of age and experience over me. There are in culture ways that we express our respect for those who are in government and we need to use those. In 1 Chronicles 21, you remember David shows up at the threshing floor of Ornan to purchase it and Ornan falls on the ground, he prostrated himself before David with his face to the ground. In that culture that's how respect was shown. It's not how respect is shown in our culture but there are ways we are supposed to express it. And we're not supposed to bypass those because we think the person is despicable.

So those are the three duties we owe government that are outlined in Romans 13. We have a responsibility to pay our taxes, to obey the law, and to honor our leaders.

But there's a fourth duty we need to add that's not here in Romans 13, it's pray for our nation and its leaders. There are two passages, I won't have you turn there because of time but let me just mention them to you. First of all, you need to thank God for our rulers, and you need to pray for their salvation. 1 Timothy 2:1 and 2 says, "First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, [and then he gets specific] for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity."

So, this is a painful topic, but let me just ask you when's the last time you thanked God for those who are in various positions of government in spite of their foibles, their flaws, their weaknesses, their sins. And when is the last time you prayed honestly for their salvation.

Secondly, we are to pray for the prosperity of the nation. In Jeremiah 29:7 you remember God had sent His people off into Babylonian captivity and through Jeremiah He says this to them, "Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare." In other words, we ought to care about the wellbeing of our nation, the flourishing of our nation, I'm not talking about just economically, I mean in every sense, for the sake of God's people who live here.

So that's how we are to respond to government. The question is why? Why should you respond to government like this? Listen to 1 Peter 2:13, "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right." For the Lord's sake. And then he adds, and to "silence the ignorance of foolish men." In other words, to make sure your testimony is untarnished for the gospel because of how you respond to government.

So, let me ask you this, is your response to government like that? Is it noble, gracious, winsome, attractive, does it make the gospel that you proclaim appear attractive? Or does it detract from the gospel you are trying to share. That's the challenge Paul gives us. This is a gospel response to government. May God help us to think like this and not be shaped by the culture in which we live.

Let's pray together. Father thank You for the time we've been able to spend together, thank You for Your word for its truth, for how clearly it addresses these issues. Lord give us a heart of submission to You, first and foremost, and then to our government, to our government leaders. Help us to respond biblically. Lord help us to understand what we have learned in this passage but then to respond in obedience, to pay our taxes, to obey the law, to honor our leaders, and to pray for our leaders and our nation. Lord give us a heart to do those things. And now Father as we turn our hearts to the Lord's Table I pray that You'd prepare us. We pray in Jesus name. Amen.