Sunday’s Sermon Series – Civil Government: Part V

Continuing our series due to all the ballyhoo going on in congress (and around the world for that matter) as a reminder to everyone just whom is in total control of all things including governments. So for the next couple of months of Sunday’s I am going to run a series of sermons from James M. Wilson

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Romans 13:1-7 (ESV) 

Romans 13:1-7 (RVR 1960)

Section II.-General Considerations Enforcing the Duty of Obedience to Civil Rule.

“For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.” Verses 1,2.

Having stated the duty, the apostle now proceeds to show the grounds on which it rests, insisting upon two classes of arguments, and

1. They derive their power from God, or in other words, government is a divine institution, originating in, and, of course, sanctioned by the will of God. For (1.) “There is no power but of God.” This is true, whatever sense we attach to the word “power.” All physical power—all executive energy, in every department of creation, is from God. “In Him we live, and move, and have our being.” (Acts 17:28.) In this sense the power of evil beasts and even of the devil, is from God. “By Him all things consist,” (Col. 1:17.) Again, if we understand by “power,” the possession of the reins of government, it is, certainly, through Him that kings are permitted to occupy their thrones and that, whatever the steps by which they may have succeeded to the seat of authority. Pharaoh was “raised up” in the course of that providence which controls all the affairs of men. God “gave the kingdom” to Jeroboam. The same hand “raised up” Cyrus, and our Lord expressly declares to Pilate, the unholy Roman governor, “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given to thee from above,” (John 19:11.) Even the devil has “power,” in this sense, from God. Does Paul mean no more than this? Assuredly he means something far different. This clause assigns a reason for that hearty subjection which the apostle had just enjoined. But, surely, the mere fact that one possesses “power,” can be no reason why his claims should be acknowledged, and his laws conscientiously obeyed. If so, the slave—ay, the slave who has been stolen from his own land and ignominiously held as a chattel—would be required to admit, as from God, the validity of his master’s claims. To throw off his chains, and make his way to his native home as a freeman, would be rebellion against God. No doctrine could be more agreeable than this to tyrants, and to all the panders to unholy power; for, if this be Paul’s meaning, there is no despot, no usurper, no bloody conqueror, but could plead the divine sanction, and, more than this, the devil himself could lay the teachings of Paul under contribution to enforce his pre-eminently unholy authority. An interpretation which leads to such monstrous conclusions—that would bind the nations to the footstool of power with iron chains, and utterly crush every free aspiration—that would invest with the sanctions of the divine name the most flagrant usurpation and the most unrelenting despotism—stands self-condemned.

But we go further. Providence is not a rule of action. Sin and evil of all kinds exist in the course of the same providential administration, as that which furnishes a place for governments which contemn God and oppress mankind. And yet who claims for sin a divine sanction? who denies to the suffering the right to rid themselves of their trials? Carry out this interpretation, and you furnish the bloody government of the Papal states an impregnable defence against the efforts of the liberators of Italy.

The truth is, the apostle has no reference here at all to any thing but the institution of government;[1] and designs to assert, and does assert, that there is no authority properly exercised over men, but that which God has established. This is true in the largest sense: for man is God’s creature and subject, and he who sets up claims to dominion over him must be prepared to show that he exercises an authority of that sort and of that character which bears the stamp and sanction of divine institution. Had Paul, indeed, said no more, it might have been argued, with greater plausibility, that he designed in this passage to give the tyrants of the earth, what they have always claimed, the sanction of the Most High in their course of monstrous iniquity. Even then, however, we would have endeavoured, and we think successfully, to vindicate the word of God against so abhorrent a conclusion. But Paul did not stop with these general assertions. He proceeds, as will presently appear, to define, with great distinctness and brevity, his own meaning: to designate the sort of “power” to which he alludes: not any and every existing government, but that which answers the end of its institution. In short, the design of this clause: “There is no power but of God,” is merely to assert the general principle that subjection is due to civil government, inasmuch as government is a divine institution. This appears more distinctly from what follows.

(2.) “The powers that be are ordained of God.” The prime fallacy of many commentaries on this entire passage consists in taking for granted that this phrase—”the powers that be”—means all and any existing governments. This cannot be. The considerations already advanced, in setting aside a similar interpretation of the preceding clause, forbid it. Nor are there wanting others, equally conclusive. Of Israel it is said, referring to the establishment of an independent government by the ten tribes under Jeroboam, “They have set up kings, but not by me; they have made princes, and I knew (approved) it not.” (Hos. 8:4.) And the prophet Daniel, and afterwards the apostle John, expressly and frequently denominate the Roman Empire a “beast.” The former, a “beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it.” (Dan. 7:19.) The latter, a “beast having seven heads and ten horns, and on its horns ten crowns, and on its heads the name of blasphemy,” (Rev. 17:3.) Surely such a description was never given of a government that could lay any solid claim to be “ordained of God;” at least, in any other sense than the pestilence is God’s ordinance, existing in his providence, but to be shunned and banished as soon as possible.[2] And, in fact, for this end, among others, the gospel is sent into the world. It is the “stone cut out of the mountain without hands,” which is to “smite the great image (Dan. 2.) and break it in pieces.” One ordinance of God, smiting, and breaking in pieces, another! The term “powers” here denote, as before, the institution of civil rule. This, with all other kinds of power that may be lawfully exercised among men, is “ordained of God.” In other words, the Most High has made provision for the exercise of civil authority. He has not left mankind to be controlled by no other government than that of parents over their children, of masters over their servants, of church rulers over private Christians. He has, also, provided for the setting up and administering of another kind of power, having its own peculiar ends, its rules, its limits, and its administrators—the power of civil government. God has willed the existence of a national organization and polity; and, in so doing, has fixed its ends, which it must subserve; has given it a supreme law, which it must observe; has bound it by limits which it may not pass over. In short, God has “ordained”[3] civil government as Christ has ordained the ministry of reconciliation, not by merely willing its existence, but by prescribing its duties, its functions, its ends, and its limitations.

No other meaning can be affixed to the language of the apostle, consistently with due reverence for Him who is the Holy One and the Just, the rightful and beneficent moral Governor. Can it be, for a moment, believed, that God has made man a social being—placed him in society, and thus necessitated, by the very laws of the human constitution, the establishment of civil rule, and that he has, after all, set no bounds to the authority, no hedge about the claims of civil rulers? That, after all, He has left this whole matter to be lawfully managed, not by law, even His law, not by rule, but merely according to human caprice, or, what is far worse, human ambition, self-seeking, pride, and violence? And, then, as the issue of the matter, that in case a government exist, whatever the principles that guide its administration, whether it be just or unjust, God-fearing or infidel, liberal or despotic, it exists, and He acknowledges it as “ordained” by Him, and as entitled to the regard, homage and obedience of its subjects? This cannot be. God is not so indifferent to His own glory, or to the welfare of man, and particularly of the church. He never intended, we may assert, with entire confidence, to sign, if we may so speak, a blank, and then leave man to fill it up according to his pleasure. Every attribute of God forbids this. Paul teaches no such doctrine.

The terms employed by the apostle, and the connection of the clauses, accord precisely with these views. He first asserts “power is not, except from God:”[4] God alone is the source of legitimate authority. He is sovereign. Man is His. Power, not derived from God, is ever illegitimate. It is mere usurpation; as, for example, the Pope’s claim to reign in the church, and over the nations. The apostle then adds, in vindication of civil government, “the powers that be”—governmental institutions; “are arranged under God,”[5] or if this be preferred, “by God.” There is such a “power” as that of civil rule. It is among the kinds of authority for which the Most High has made provision, and to which he has assigned the requisite laws and functions.

But we rest our interpretation upon no mere verbal criticism. God is the only source of power. And God has in the sense in which we have explained the term, “ordained” civil government. He is the source of power, that power of which Paul speaks, not as He endows with physical strength, or even as He opens the way, in his providence, for its successful employment in subjugating mankind; but as he has authorized the exercise of that particular kind of authority; of course, putting upon it, when measurably conformed to his institution, the impress of His own dignity, and the sanction of His law.[6]

Is it inquired, where this institution is found? The reply has been, in part, anticipated. In the constitution of man, and in the principles of piety, of equity, of beneficence, originally implanted in the human heart, but now, much more clearly, in the written Scriptures, which abound with instruction, addressed to rulers and people, and furnishing all the light mankind need for the organization and administration of the most salutary political regimen. The passage before us is an example. It is proper, however, to add, that instruction is given in the word of God, not so much in regard to the particular form which the government should assume, as in reference to the ends it should see, the principles that should guide the administration, and the character of those into whose hands national affairs should be committed.

This is Paul’s first argument enforcing the duty of obedience, and to demonstrate that it is not beneath the dignity of the Christian to be subject to civil government. So far from offending Christ, such subjection honours him—for it is yielded to a divine institution, and for the same reason, it cannot safely be withheld. Hence Paul argues

2. From the sin and danger of resisting civil authority, and

(1.) The sin. “Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.”—Verse 2d.

The distinction is still kept up between the institution—”the ordinance” of God and the magistrate in whose hands the reigns of government happen to be found. “Whosoever resisteth the power.” A most important distinction. For, in truth, there are occasions when it is not merely lawful, but a matter of high and imperative duty, to resist authority. The case of the high priest, Azariah, and his brethren, who withstood Uzziah, king of Judah, in his attempt to pass over the limits of his power and obtrude into the priest’s office, is well known to every reader of the Bible: “It pertaineth not unto thee, Uzziah, to burn incense unto the Lord; but to the priests, the sons of Aaron, that are consecrated to burn incense: go out of the sanctuary, for thou hast trespassed.” (1 Chron. 26:18.) And still more to the purpose are the cases of Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego, and afterwards of Daniel, who all refused compliance with laws enacted by the then supreme authority in Babylon (Dan. 3:6.) To the same effect is the refusal of Peter and John to obey the command of the Jewish magistracy “not to speak at all, nor teach in the name of Jesus.” They reply, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye,” (Acts 4:18,19.) Indeed, until of late, the duty of refusing to obey the commands of the civil power, when they conflict with duty to God was never, so far as we know, denied by any bearing the name of Christian. It is certain that the advocates of the doctrine of “passive obedience and non-resistance” during the 17th and 18th centuries in England, did not go so far as this. The very terms in which the announced their doctrine make this manifest, “passive obedience, non-resistance.” They acknowledged a higher law than the enactments of human, and, of course, fallible, and often impious power. The first prominent enunciation of the principle of unlimited and unquestioning obedience, was reserved for an atheist—Hobbes of Malmesbury. Denying the existence of any fixed standard of right—and, consequently, of any such things as virtue and vice—this speculative philosopher resolved all the laws of morality into one—the will of the legislature. But who were his disciples? None but the godless, the dissipated, the scorners of all that is sacred. The heart of England was shocked at the daring attempt to dethrone the Almighty. It was reserved for another age and another land to hear and assent to the blasphemous asserting, that the law of the land overrides all other laws, and must be obeyed under penalty of resisting the ordinance of God.

But we may go further, and assert that Paul did not intend, by the language before us, to forbid even the forcible resistance of unjust and tyrannical civil magistrates, not even when that resistance is made with the avowed design of displacing offending rulers, or, it may be, the change of the very form of the government itself. There are few in this land, or in any free country, to deny the right of a nation to rid itself of oppressive power—whether foreign or domestic. The right of revolution, for the purpose of throwing off usurping or tyrannical rule, need not, now and here, be defended. That question was settled in England by the Revolution of 1688, when the nation, rising in its might, expelled James II. as an enemy to the constitutional rights and liberties of the people. The separate national and independent existence of these United States is the fruit of successful revolution. And where is the American—the American Christian—who does not rejoice in the hope that the principles of liberty will spread and prevail, even though they be ultimately established upon the wreck of thrones demolished or overturned?

Does the Spirit of God here condemn these efforts of the nations to rid themselves of the yoke of despots? Does this passage rivet the chains of the oppressed? Certainly not. God denounces the oppressor. “Wo to him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness and his chambers by wrong,” (Jer. 22:13.) “Wo unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness, which they have prescribed.” (Is. 10:1.) And, to say nothing of the threatenings—repeated and awful—against the ungodly and oppressing powers, symbolized by the “beast” of Daniel and of the Revelation, we have the striking inquiry of Psalm 94:20: “Shall the throne of iniquity have fellowship with thee, which frameth iniquity by a law?”

Now is it credible that notwithstanding these denunciations, the Most High does still forbid, under penalty of his high displeasure, all conflicts for liberty? That he so far takes under his patronage ungodly governments which despise his law and his Son—as to regard any opposition to their authority as opposition made to his own holy “ordinance” of magistracy? To persuade us of this, we may first demand the clearest evidence.

It is evident that the proper interpretation of this passage depends upon the meaning of the phrase, “ordinance of God.” What then is its import? Does it mean any and every existing government? Does it mean a Phocas, who “waded to the throne of the Roman Empire through seas of blood?” Does it mean that Joseph of Austria, with his government, is the “ordinance of God” to Hungary? Does it mean the government of the Pope and his cardinals, under which the Papal States groan? In short, is this term applied to any government merely from the fact that it exists? Clearly not; for, then, the powers just mentioned must be also embraced in it—a conclusion equally repulsive to the Christian and to the friend of human liberty. And, besides, if this be its meaning, the very worst government has the very same right to demand an unresisting subjection, as the very best, for both alike exist—exist in the same overruling and all-controlling providence; and both would be armed with the same high sanction: to “resist” either, would be to make the same assault upon the “ordinance of God!”

What, then, is its import? The reply has been already anticipated.[7] It denotes God’s moral ordinance of civil government—it refers to such a government as Paul afterwards describes—a government which is “a terror to evil-doers, and a praise to them that do well”—a government that in due measure answers the ends of the institution of civil rule, a government of law, of equity, possessed of moral attributes, and ruling “under God,” by whom it has been “ordered,” for the execution of high and useful functions.

Who, then, resists? The reply is at hand, and conclusive. He who opposes the rightful exercise of civil rule; he who would attempt the overthrow of just and wholesome authority; he who endeavours to weaken the hands of the “higher powers” in their performance of the trust committed to them: he who rises against the restraints imposed upon the lawless, the profane: he who willfully disturbs the peace, and interferes with the regular administration of justice: for such, and such alone, assail “the ordinance of God.” Indeed, we may well ask how this can possibly apply to any but those who invade the good order of the commonwealth by opposing wholesome rule? The end for which governments were established is, surely, more important than government itself, and much more important than the particular form, or the mere fact of the possession of power by this individual or that. How, then, can any one be regarded as chargeable with the sin and crime of resisting God’s “ordinance,” who refuses to obey an unjust enactment, or who even goes so far as to attempt the overthrow of or remodeling of a government that is, by tyranny, or injustice, or ungodliness, working harm to society, and dishonour to God, and so tends to defeat the very ends for which the “ordinance” of civil rule was established? The commands of a maniac or drunken father may be disregarded—the wife or even the children taking the government into their own hands—much more may institutions and laws be disregarded when these run counter, either in their constitution or administration, to the divine law, and thus tend to the manifest injury of the common weal.[8]

But does not this tend to the enfeebling of the claims of even legitimate authority? By no means. True, all institutions administered by human hands will, necessarily, bear the marks of human imperfection, and it may be difficult, in theory, to draw the line, and say, this much is requisite to constitute a government on which we may inscribe the title “the ordinance of God;” but, in practice, the difficulty will not be often very great—no greater than in many other departments of duty. Surely, we may go so far as to affirm, with confidence, that every “ordinance of God” will acknowledge his claims—the claims of His Son (we speak of governments in enlightened lands,) and the supremacy of His law, and will seek to promote the welfare of all the subjects or citizens.

That this doctrine, moreover, is liable to be abused by the lawless, we admit. The opponents of the slavish principle of “passive obedience” encountered the same objection. Says Bishop Hoadly, “The great objection against this, though it be all founded upon the will of God, who sincerely desires the happiness of public societies, is this, that it may give occasion to subjects to disturb and oppose their superiors. But, certainly, a rule is not therefore bad, because men may mistake in the application of it to particular instances; or because evil men may, under the umbrage of it, satisfy their own passions and unreasonable humours; though these latter, as they are disposed to public disturbance, would certainly find out some other pretence for their behaviour, if they wanted this. The contrary doctrine to what I have been delivering, we know, by an almost fatal experience, may be very much abused; and yet that is not the reason why it ought to be rejected, but because it is not true. Every man is to give an account for his sins; and the guilt of those who, under any pretence whatsoever, disturb the government of such as act the part of good rules, is so great, that there cannot be a stronger motive than this against resistance and opposition to such.”[9] It may be added that every argument on behalf of civil liberty may also be abused, and equally, the doctrines of grace. And yet, after all, we need not much fear any liability to abuse in the application of this principle, provided it be rightly understood; for its very basis and groundwork is that God has ordained civil society and organization, and that existing institutions are only to be resisted when they fail to answer the ends for which government has been established among divine ordinances, while—and this is the apostle’s argument—to “resist” a government which is really an “ordinance of God” is a sin of heinous character. This is plainly taught when Paul proceeds to enforce subjection.

(2.) From the danger of resistance. And they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation, (krima-condemnation,) v. 2. From what quarter? from the government, or from God? That the apostle designed no more than to assert the fact that such as inpugn the authority of government, or resist its commands, or oppose themselves to its authority, will meet with civil punishment, does not appear probable. This would be to assert a fact too well known to require so emphatic and solemn an enunciation. Of course, no government will tamely allow its injunctions to be set at naught, so long as it bears the sword. And, moreover, it seems hardly consistent with the high and religious tone of the entire passage, to understand this clause as having no higher reference than to the infliction of civil punishment upon the disorderly and rebellious. What immediately precedes contains a pretty distinct intimation, as has already been remarked, or the fact that “resistance” to legitimate authority is not only a sin, but a sin of a heinous character. Nor are more express declarations to the same effect wanting elsewhere in the Word of God. We may refer to the case of Korah and the princes of Judah, whom God visited with a most signal token of his wrath for this very sin. “They went down alive into the pit.” (Num. 16.) And all remember the sad story of Absalom, who also died in the same sin in an attempt to overturn a lawful power.[10]

Still, we are not to infer that the sin of resisting civil rule involves necessarily eternal ruin. It deserves “condemnation.” God sees it. It highly offends Him. He will vindicate his own “ordinance.” And why not? If it be, as it certainly is, a most beneficial one—if it promote directly every temporal interest, and, at least, indirectly bears upon the moral and religious welfare of the community—if successful resistance to good government opens the flood-gates to violence, irreligion, vice, and misery—if no interest can flourish when good laws are not well administered—can it be regarded as unworthy of the Divine Spirit to attach this emphatic sanction to the institution of civil rule—to assert, in this explicit form, that God will mark with his evident disapprobation every act of resistance to the righteous exercise of magistratical power?

On these high grounds, then, does Paul enforce subjection to the “higher powers.” Government is from God—to resist, is to resist his “ordinance,” and “he that resists receives a righteous ‘condemnation.’” [Appendix C]


1. That civil government is, as an institution, from God.—National organization is not the mere creature of the voluntary action of the inhabitants of a particular country or district. It is their province, indeed, to establish the particular institutions by which they are to be guided and governed; and in this sense, political arrangements are “the ordinance of man,” (1 Pet. 2:13.) Still, it is not optional with men whether such an institution as civil government exist at all. God has “ordained” it. And it is important to remark, that government once set up, its rights and prerogatives are not wholly determined by the popular will. To some extent they certainly are; but in others they, as certainly, are not. The Most High has fixed the leading ends of all civil rule;[11] and has also defined, to some extent, the means to be employed in effecting these. It is not optional, for example, with any people, whether they shall commit to the magistracy the power of inflicting death upon the murderer—the law of God determines this. It is a subtle question, and one that is some respects possesses a practical importance—whether civil power is, in the aggregate, a collection made up of contributions of right thrown in by individual members of the commonwealth—each resigning a portion of his own. By no means. No man has a right to take his own life, and yet society has the right to inflict capital punishment, and, moreover, such a notion is entirely inadmissible on another ground. Man was made for society, and, hence, so far is he from being necessarily restricted in his rights in the social state, that it is as a member of society alone, that he can enjoy all the privileges and perform all the duties of manhood.

In short, while the people of a country have in their own hands the setting up of their government, and the choice of rulers—when this is once done, and rightly done—the authority by which the government is administered is to be regarded as derived from the divine institution of the ordinance of magistracy. Hence,

2. The principal standard by which this institution is to be measured is the Word of God.—This may be inferred directly from the fact that the scriptures treat so fully on the subject. It appears in each Testament, and in every form of instruction. There are didactic passages—such as that before us. Of this character are the teachings and the precepts of the moral law, which contains a complete exhibition of all that relates to the ends, the principles, the methods of civil rule—and much of the detail respecting magistratical duties, and their correlates, the duties of subjects and citizens. the narratives of the Bible largely illustrate its didactic rules and precepts. It abounds with exemplifications both of good and bad governments, and the issues of the one and of the other. Much of prophecy, both of the Old Testament and of the New, is designed to shed light upon the subject of civil polity, and the divine administrations respecting it.

Where else can this be learned? Not from the light of nature merely. True, the essential principles of social organization, and even of political regimen, are contained in the moral law, and that law is the same that was inscribed upon the heart of man at his creation. But the “law of nature” is not to be confounded with the “light of nature”—the law as a complete rule of human duty is man’s primitive condition—the light that is now in man is too feeble to discern it in any thing like its holiness and perfection. To reject the Word of God in this, as in any other department of duty, is, to use the words of John Brown of Haddington, “an obstinate drawing back to heathenism.”

There is still another reason why we must refer to the Scriptures, and make them the supreme standard. There, and there alone, do we ascertain the now essential principle of right civil rule, the Headship of Jesus Christ: for “He is made head over all things to the church,” (Eph. 1:22.) To Him “all judgment is committed,” (John 6:22.) He is “Prince of the kings of the earth,” (Rom. 1:5.) And not merely do we learn this fact, but having ascertained it, we are led at once to the conclusion that to His own Word must we now address ourselves, if we would become acquainted with that institution itself of which He so plainly claims the supremacy.

3. Disorderly and seditious behaviour is here most signally rebuked.The ordinance of magistracy, rightly set up and administered, ranks among the most important: in some respects, it is first of the institutions with which men have to do. And social order is of itself “of great price.” How wrong to disturb it by disorderly and lawless conduct. It is sometimes, indeed, a matter of no little moment to determine where the guilt lies! We would not style any either disorderly or seditious, who are contending in a right spirit against the corruptions of the State, or of the public administration of affairs. Sometimes the rulers themselves are disturbers of the peace, and upon them falls the threatening of this passage. However, we now speak of the seditious and disorderly, of those who are such in a community where a scriptural magistracy and wholesome rule are in operation. These are to be regarded as chargeable with an offence of no inferior turpitude; as deserving of the most severe reprobation, and as fit subjects for punitive inflictions. And, it may be added, that the spirit of peace and order should, as far as possible, characterize the conduct of those who dissent from unholy and oppressive governments, and attempt their reformation. [next SECTION] 

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