After twenty-five years of ecclesiastical activism, Christians have become like political crusaders, seeking to purge society of its idols rather than pray for its conversion. That's why the Apostle Paul's message in Romans 13 is as relevant to our churches today as it was to the church in Rome all those years ago.
“Staying On Task”
In our last discussion, as we began our discussion through Romans chapter 13, and the believer’s response to government,
I mentioned a number of verses . . . one of which was 1 Timothy 2:2 where Paul told Timothy, to above all, make entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.
I’m convinced that the problem isn’t that we don’t understand this passage, but that we don’t want to obey it.
It certainly isn’t easy . . . any more than it is for a woman who is married to an unbelieving husband to, as Peter exhorted, to win him without a word. (I Peter 3:1)
How hard is that?
How reversed does that logic seem to be – win your unbelieving husband – not by putting tracks in his lunch bag, sermon cassettes in his car radio so that when he turns on the radio he hears me shout, “Repent, sinner.”
Without a word!
Now, in Romans 13, we’re given the same kind of seemingly reversed logic . . . but it’s true.
We’re given the origin of government.
The obligation of the believer to government
And the operation of government
Paul begins . . . READ vv. 1-4
In our last discussion, I delivered 6 general principles of the believers conduct and relationship to government;
Let me state 4 principles as we begin today, using a little different language to clarify the principles:
- The Christian is to obey every ordinance of government, in so far as it does not require him to abandon his conscience, his worship of God, or his obedience to scripture.
But, surely the believer would have every right in a decaying Roman culture to violate the just laws of the state. Surely the believer, who is now part of a new race and belonging to a new kingdom can abandon the city of man and refuse to obey or even participate in his culture.
The Bible says exactly the opposite . . . later on in Romans 13, Paul will clearly tell the believer to pay his taxes, provide honor where it is due and follow the customs of the land, in so far as they do not demand a violation of God’s command.
Daniel is a classic example of this – he was taken to a foreign land and immediately required to eat the kings meat and drink the king’s wine. Since the King’s meat would have included unclean animals, forbidden by God . . . and the wine offered as a libation to the gods before offered to the king, Daniel asked permission to eat vegetables and drink water. In the meantime, Daniel’s name was changed too. It was changed from Daniel to Belteshazzar. Part of the psychological deprogramming that Nebuchadnezzar had strategically planned to turn these sharp Jewish lads into Babylonians, and one of the ways was to eliminate the constant reminder of theological truths in their names by replacing them with pagan names.
Daniel means, God is my judge or ruler. Belteshazzar meant Baal’s prince. Every time his name was called, Daniel had been reminded that God was ruler. Now, every time he would be called or referenced he would be called the prince of Baal.
He never refused that name. Why? No just law of God had been violated.
We, the church, as well obey the ordinances of the city, no matter how expensive and frustrating. When we get ready to build our auditorium one day, the city will tell us how many seats it can have, based on how many parking spaces are outside. They will tell us in the new buildings we’ll begin to build in a couple of months, how many exit doors we have to build, how many sprinkler systems we have to install and how many fire alarms. They already told us a hundred different things, including how tall and how wide the church sign could be.
What right do they have to tell the church of Jesus Christ how tall our sign can be? To this day people don’t even see our sign. They think we’re a college . . . a government building . . . we have people who’ve driven by our site for years and were later told we were a church . . . “no, that’s a church?” And they visited.
Our sign is worthless. Why not fight it?! Because the city isn’t asking us to violate God’s commands by putting up a small sign.
A second principle follows:
- A moral government is not necessary for the church to fulfill it’s mission.
If that were the case, the Apostles would have clearly instructed the church on the importance of solidifying some sort of Christian voting bloc to bring moral parameters to bear in society; the necessity of moral public officials, rulers and magistrates in order for the church to be successful..
Instead, you discover the opposite challenge.
I agree with Erwin Lutzer who wrote, “Our nation needs an antidote that is far more radical than politics could ever be. Our so-called culture war is really a spiritual war. Our problems are not fundamentally abortion, trash television, and homosexual values. The roots of our cultural decay is first and foremost spiritual; we must attack the root of this corrupt tree. Our greatest challenge is theological, not political and cultural.”
Erwin Lutzer, Why the Cross can do What Politics Can’t, (Harvest House, 1999), p. 11
That leads me to my third principle:
- The mission of the church is not moral reformation, but spiritual transformation.
I’m going to say something that will strike you as odd, only because over the last 25 years of ecclesiastical activism we’ve long since forgotten the mission of the believer and his church.
Here it is: It is not the business of the church to keep society from plunging into wickedness.
That’s why our mission is not to make bad people good.
Have we forgotten that good people are not going to be condemned by God, it is condemned already (John 3:18).
Have we forgotten that a policeman can go to hell as quickly as a prostitute. That an upstanding judge is as much condemned as the criminals he sends to jail.
Let me say it another way; the church as a whole, and Christians as individuals were never given the charge from God to halt or even diminish the evil practices in their societies.
Adapted from Kevin Bauder, In The Nick of Time, May 13, 2005
Does this mean we don’t care? Of course not! But it does mean we pursue change in our society, one disciple at a time.
That sounds so old-fashioned doesn’t it? It sounds so slow to suggest that the mission of the church in impacting society is to act like salt and light, so that the world might see our good works, and glorify God.
But that’s just it!
Our mission is spiritual reformation. We strike at the root of the problem, not its symptoms.
Even in the Old Testament, the illustrations of God’s messengers remain the same. Jonah was never told to go to Nineveh and influence the king away from idolatry. He was never told to lobby to have child sacrifices outlawed. He was never told to go and reform the Ninevites.
He went to Nineveh as God’s messenger with the same message we have for our world, that Paul had for his world, “repent . . . God isn’t in a very good mood! Don’t forget, it is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgment . . .”
And guess what Nineveh did? Repented! They fell on their faces before the message of this God of justice and patience who would give them time to repent.
And guess what happened to child sacrifice? It stopped! Guess what happened to idolatry. It ceased!
Move into the ministry of Jesus Christ. He was more concerned with the corruption among the so-called people of God than the governments and civil systems of His day.
I agree with one author’s assessment of Christ’s ministry along these lines when he wrote words that demand contemplation, “Jesus Christ never made calls for political or social reform, even by peaceful means. He never attempted to capture the culture for biblical morality or to gain greater freedom [for his followers]. He did not come to proclaim or establish a new social or moral order but a new spiritual order; His church. he did not seek to make the old creation moral, but to make His new creations holy. There was not effort on His part to eliminate social or political injustice, [although His followers would live such lives of purity and integrity and compassion, that social structures would be affected for the next 2,000 years].”
John MacArthur, Romans, (Moody Press, 1994), p. 210
Ladies and Gentlemen, the most powerful tool of God on planet earth is not a moral government but a godly believer. We pray to have the first . . . but we cannot do without the second.
Our true battle is against the kingdom of darkness who has blinded the minds of the world to believe God is not watching. In fact, God isn’t even around. God who?!
That’s why our true battle is spiritual, and the weapons we use are not the weapons of this world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. (2 Corinthians 10:3-6)
To attempt to vote through, push through, influence and cajole and petition and march to see moral advancement, is to miss the mark as the church.
Erwin Lutzer illustrated it this way; he said that we can argue with our culture that Christian morality is better; we can move to clean up our culture by legislation and boycotts [and anything else that gets their attention]. But our efforts will be like trying to mop up the floor with the faucet running. [Why?] because we are trying to convince citizens of earth to live as though they are citizens of heaven and are not buying it.
Lutzer, p. 47
Listen, this is not the first time in world history that the church has had the responsibility of representing Christian when society as a whole has abandoned God. And when this has happened, the most effective ministry occurred when the church realized it was not an agent of moral confrontation but an agent of spiritual reformation
Adapted from Lutzer, p. 40
Becoming co-belligerents, as Francis Shaeffer defined it, has never resulted in a spiritual reformation. Joining other Christians to take back lost ground in the social and political arena, has only caused the testimony of Christ to suffer and the theology and mission of the church to be diluted and compromised.
There are well-meaning people who are preaching that we must reclaim America for Christ. I know it sounds exciting, and it’s actually the easier message to preach on Sunday mornings – but it presupposes several wrong things.
It implies that Jesus Christ had America at one point but He lost it; it also implies that America was once thoroughly Christian, when it and no nation ever was or is; and it pre-supposes that Jesus Christ now wants America back; it also implies that for Jesus Christ to get America back, we have to get the leaders and citizens of America to behave, whether they believe in Jesus Christ or not. He just wants America back.
What kind of message is that?!
I challenge you to study the preaching and theology of Christ – who never intended his disciples to claim or reclaim nations, but to go into all the nations and preach the gospel to kingdoms that were passing away – whose boundaries and times of existence were already determined by as sovereign Lord.
It might tickle our patriotic ears to hear a call to reach America – but according to scripture, our mission is not to save America – it is to save Americans.
And that is my final point, which I forgot to mention last Lord’s day.
Let me say it again, this way,
- Our mandate on earth is not to save our nation, but to bring individuals from this and every nation to salvation, by faith in Jesus Christ alone.
Our task is the proclamation of the gospel.
That is life-changing . . . society changing . . . nation changing power.
It is the power of God through salvation (Romans 1:16).
To swap our gospel for political activism which seems to expect government to become the ally of the church, or the morals of the Christian, is to imply that the gospel isn’t powerful enough or fast enough or good enough. But more importantly, it neglects our mission and ultimately distorts our gospel.
This is the spiritual equivalent of a heart surgeon abandoning his profession to become a make-up artist, spending his time making people look better rather than saving lives. The mission of the church is not to change our nation – although that is often the benefit and by-product of believers who live faithful lives of ministry and purity – but the mission of our Christianity is to join the Father who seeks those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth.
You know what that implies?
That means that, legislation regarding the rights of homosexuals is not our mission; the eternal destiny of homosexuals is.
The success or failure of legislation regarding abortion is not anywhere nearly as significant as the souls of women who are buried with the guilt of having their unborn killed.
Whether or not prayer returns to the classroom is not the issue for Christian to sign petitions and deluge Washington with emails. Being heard as the voice who explains who God is, and how He must be approached through prayer, is the issue.
I can suggest to you that if prayer returned to the public school system today,
prayer on Monday would be to the Jewish God,
prayer on Tuesday would be to Jesus Christ;
prayer on Wednesday would be to Allah;
prayer on Thursday would be to Krishna and
prayer on Friday would be to the god of your choice.
What the courts decide on euthanasia or evolution, what will be taught in the public arena and what will be allowed in the medical laboratories is not nearly as critical as the eternal destiny of human beings.
We have a message that only we can deliver . . . it must be heard above the din of political posturing and power. We have an agenda that is Divinely inspired . . . it is more important than saving America; it is holding the cross of Jesus Christ high so that God might be pleased to save Americans.”
Lutzer, p. 47.
That was the passion of Paul – to save some, by the gospel.
We are in a lifeboat as it were, on the sea of human history, surrounded at this very moment by people who are dying. We dare not become distracted in our mission – as churches and as individuals. We do not throw the drowning masses books on how to tread water longer; we do not attempt to make the water more comfortable; we do not sell them better swim suits; or exhort them try the backstroke; our message is clear – the kingdom of this world is passing away . . . you are in danger with the Creator of this ocean . . . the wages of sin is death and He has designed it so that you will not be able to avoid death. Your only hope is Jesus Christ.
Many of you remember E. V. Hill, the pastor of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. I was reading the book Two Cities, Two Loves – which was James Montgomery Boice’s exposition on this subject of the Christian and Politics – a fascinating book, by the way; Boice mentioned this story of Hill, who once served as a ward leader for the Democratic party. His assignment was to get out the vote for the Democratic candidates, and his chief strategy for doing this was to have a block captain for each block of his ward. On election day, the block captains were to contact each resident of their blocks to make sure they voted. When Hill came to Los Angeles and began pastoring the church, he was convicted by the thought, that if he did this for the Democrats, why shouldn’t he do it for God. Why not have a Christian block captain for every block of Los Angeles? It was not as absurd as it sounded. IN E. V. Hill’s area of the city, south central Los Angeles, the number of city blocks was 3,100. That became their mission. Boice said when He first heard E. V. talk about this goal, they had already established a Christian presence in 1,900 blocks of their area. People moved into a block for this very purpose. The church adopted an attitude that they existed for the sake of the gospel. Hill tells of a funny thing that happened on one occasion. One man had been so put off by the block captain in which he lived. She was always inviting him to church and other meetings of the church – always friendly . . . but persistent. He decided to move. In fact, he decided to move to the other side of Los Angeles. The truck cam. He loaded up his possessions. His block captain came out to say goodbye. The trust started off. But as soon as he was gone, the block captain went back into her house, got out the directory of the Mount Zion block captains, found the person in charge of the block to which her offended neighbor was moving, and when he got to his new area, there was the new block community captain standing on the street in front of his new home to welcome him and invite him to church. His comment was classic; he said, “My God, they’re everywhere.”
James Montgomery Boice, Two Cities, Two Loves (Intervarsity Press, 1996), p. 168
I read that and I am deeply convicted . . . what could we do if we truly believed that we were called to this city at this time, in this generation, to deliver to every person here and beyond the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps part of our problem was like E. V. Hill’s . . . at one point, he had greater passion getting out the vote for the Democrats, than he had for Jesus Christ.
Now don’t misunderstand . . . we ought to vote. I believe, with Daniel Webster, “that whatever makes good Christians, makes them good citizens.”
But if our passion and hope and energy and focus is on getting in the vote, for even good things . . . but not eternal things. It is then that our passion is in the temporal, transient governments of our world, while our eternal mission stands neglected.
Adapted from Fool’s Gold: Discerning Truth in an Age of Error, (Crossway Books, 2005), p. 147.
In Romans chapter 13, Paul delivers the shocking news to the Roman believers that, first of all,
- Submission to government is the command of God.
The obligation of the believer to government
And the operation of government
He writes in verse 1, Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities.
The word subjection is a military term which means to fall under the rank of another. This word refers to obeying the commands of government as a junior officer obeys a superior officer.
When he orders some new recruit, “give me 40, right now” the soldier doesn’t say, “but why?” . . . “I don’t feel like it;” not hardly, he just drops and does 40 push-ups.
This is simply an issue of authority . . . not a statement of value. The new soldier might be a better, more honest, more upstanding and more committed to the army than his commanding officer. It doesn’t matter – he responds to authority with obedience.
When that authority dressed in gray or blue pulls up behind you with flashing lights – how do you respond.
I don’t know about you, but I automatically say, “yes, sir.”
I was driving home after spending time with my three girls at the state fair a few weeks ago. We were talking, laughing . . . absolutely exhausted. I was in such a good mood, I’d had several deep fried oreos. Life was good.
Suddenly there were flashing lights behind me on Lake Wheeler Road. I wasn’t speeding, didn’t know what I’d done – but evidently, I learned, I’d turned right at the stop sign, but I’d rolled through the stop sign and then didn’t turn sharp enough and I’d crossed the yellow dividing line. It’s hard to turn sharply when you’ve eaten deep fried oreos.
Did I argue with him? Absolutely not! He’s my authority.
He said, “Can I see your driver’s license?”
I said, “Yes, sir . . . sir . . . here you are, sir!”
If he’d have said, “give me 40, I’d have been able to do at least 4.”
For the believer, responding to civil authorities with respect and obedience, unless commanded to violate godly conscience or biblical commands, is the command of God.
- Institution of government is the creation of God
While the first part of verse 1 has to do with the obligation of the believer to government, this next portion of verse 1 reminds the believer of the origin of government. Notice 1b. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.
You might have noticed the many times the word “authority” appears in this paragraph. It’s already appeared twice in verse 1.
In the original language there are two words used of political power that are altogether different.
The word “kratos” refers to “rule” or “the power of ruling.” It’s used of someone who has the power to decide.
Demos means “people”; Kratos means power. Put the two words together demokratos – or democracy, and you have “the power of people – or, “rule by the people”
The other word that is used of political power is exousia – which means “delegated power.” It is power granted by someone more powerful to one less-powerful to act on his behalf.
This is the word used 4 times by Paul in Romans chapter 13.
The authority of the government is delegated power from God. If God didn’t give power to both godly and ungodly governments of the world, they would never rise to power. It is from God that these powers have come and it is to God that these powers are accountable. So here in one word is both the legitimacy and accountability of human government.
Adapted from Boice, Two Cities, p. 182
By the way, if you’re worried that somehow the governments of the world will get away with what they have decided and how they have governed, think again.
The classic encounter between two kings took place in John 19. Jesus Christ stood before Pontius Pilate, accused of treason, because as his accusers put it, he claimed to be a king. (John 19:12). You may remember the encounter where Pilate keep asking Jesus questions, which the Lord refused to answer. Finally, Pilate, in frustration said, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Don’t you realize that I have the authority to either release you or to crucify you?” (John 19:10)
And Jesus answered – and can you imagine how incredibly encouraging this text would be to the persecuted church over these last 2,000 years to grasp the greatness of Christ’s response. Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above.” Same word Paul used in Romans 13 – exousian. Pilate, the power you have to rule, and even to deliver me over to be crucified is power from on high. Delegated authority.
Then Christ goes on to say, “for this reason he who delivered Me up to you has the greater sin.” In other words, Pilate, you’re gonna stand accountable one day for your political decision to deliver me up . . . but in the meantime, think about this – you’re decision happens to be the will of heaven.
What is the authority of government? Is it in the policeman’s badge? Is it in the robe of the judge? Is it in the king’s crown? No. Behind these symbols is the authority of God, for within every agency of law and civil authority is a sense of divine investment.
Roy L. Laurin, Romans: Where Life Begins (Kregel, 1948), p. 435
Perhaps that’s why corrupt judges and cruel governments and crooked officials are especially abhorrent to God. They are violating their ordained purpose by and from God . . . and they will stand accountable one day!
That doesn’t change your mission . . . just know that if they deliver you up, it is only by the permission of heaven!
- Disobedience to government receives consequences from God.
As it relates to submission to just law, the believer has no right to oppose or disobey.
Paul writes in verse 2, Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.
In other words, opposition to government is opposition to God. The word “condemnation” could be rendered, “judgment.”
Alva J. McClain, Romans: The Gospel of God’s Grace (BMH Books, 1973), p. 221
The believer receives two sets of discipline – one from the government for having violated the law and the other discipline from the Lord for having violated His command.
Peter wrote in agreement, “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 such is the will of God . . . honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the emperor. (I Peter 2:13-17)
You gotta be kidding!
Do you know who the emperor is?
The truth is . . . Christians should be model citizens, respectful of governing authority rather than demeaning, demanding, rebuking, and a dozen more tactics employed to have our way and to see our rights resolved.
Imagine this – honor the emperor. How? By recognizing there is a higher, greater eternal divine Emperor, who holds the earthly king in His hand.
- Submission to government is the command of God.
- The institution of government is the creation of God
- Disobedience to government receives consequences from God.
- The justice of government reveals the character of God.
Notice Romans 13:3. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; 4. for it is a minister of God , an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.
Notice the contrasts between good and evil . . .good and evil. Even when government refuses to acknowledge God they unintentionally represent the character of God by punishing evil and rewarding good. The word avenger in verse 4 is a word which means to exact a penalty.
There are penalties for doing wrong. That’s God’s purpose for government.
Even the unbeliever who says he doesn’t believe in absolute moral truth inherently knows right from wrong.
Experiment with your atheist neighbor sometime . . . steal his car. Drive over the bushes he just planted between your yard and his . . . back into his mailbox and knock it over.
“Hey” he’ll say . . . you can’t do that!”
“Because it’s against . . . the law. The law says you can’t do those mean things to me!”
Who said they’re mean . . . they don’t bother me any!
You get the point.
Listen, the only valid basis for moral law is a previously existing morality.
No matter where you go in the world, stealing or damaging your neighbor’s possessions is considered wrong.
God ordained government to reflect his attributes of justice and equity and impartiality and righteousness and honesty, etc.
Which means that government must be concerned with moral issues. Because laws are based on the moral perfection of God.
However, this is not the same thing as saying the government can develop morality in its citizens. It can proscribe penalties. It can enforce them and perhaps restrain evil. But it cannot change the people involved.
Adapted from Boice, Two Cities, p. 198
The only thing that ever changes people is the power of God working through the gospel.
The truth is, the solution for an immoral society is not more law. Mankind has already developed thousands of laws to try and uphold 10 commandments.
That’s where we come in . . .
Let me close our discussion with two reminders to help us stay on task:
1) Let’s remember our mission.
Go and make what – disciples! Followers of Jesus Christ! Learners of the Savior!
God hasn’t called us to go and make bad people better; He hasn’t called us to go and make moral people.
He hasn’t commissioned us to go and make monotheists.
Monotheists can die and go to hell, James wrote – you believe there’s only one true God? Great – the demons believe that too and they shudder.
The mission of the church is not to go and make converts – we’re closer . . . but we’re not there yet.
Our mission is to go and make disciples.
A disciple influences his world – whether he’s a lawyer, a politician, a member of the PTA, a computer salesman, a mechanic, a doctor, a housewife.
For all of us, our mission is the same . . .the only difference is our sphere of influence.
Cal Thomas was one of the architects of the failed Moral Majority of the 80’s, an organization who’s methods have been picked up by The Christian Coalition and in more recent years, by Focus on the Family. Cal Thomas since moved on to enter the world of journalism; in fact, he wrote a fascinating book that chronicles the flawed reasoning of the political activist Christian movements. The name of the book is Blinded by Might. In an article he wrote a few years ago, published in Newsweek, he wrote these , “For Christians, the vision of worldly power [and influence] is not a calling, but a distraction. It is a temptation that Jesus Christ Himself rejected, not because it was dangerous, but because it was trivial, compared with his mission.
Newsweek, March 29, 1999 p. 60
Let’s remember our mission.
You shall be my witnesses . . . to Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria and unto the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)
Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything I’ve commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20)
Let’s remember our mission.
2) Let’s reaffirm our message.
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood . . . that you might proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. (I Peter 2:9)
John wrote, “we are proclaiming eternal life.” (I John 1:2)
How many politicians have heard from Christians regarding their views, their disappointment, their frustration, their threats . . . how many hear the gospel.
One author was interviewed by a reporter who was covering Christian leaders and their opinions on various issues. At the end of their interview, he asked this reporter, “Has anyone shared with you the gospel.” She asked with total innocence and honesty, “What is the gospel?”
C. S. Lewis is about to become a household name among our world of unbelievers with the release of the movie based on his book series, “The Chronicles of Narnia.” This brilliant Christian will impact people with the truth of the gospel in this movie . . . unless Disney really messed it up.
C. S. Lewis spoke insightfully, almost prophetically to our day when he wrote – and I close with his words, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this one. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’ Aim at earth and you will get neither.”
Let’s stay on task . . . let’s remember our mission . . . let’s reaffirm our message.
Let’s return to action that made the church great and brought honor and dignity to the cause of Jesus Christ!