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Paying Taxes Today

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Romans 13:1–7

Government is a God-ordained institution designed to restrain evil and promote good. We are to honor and obey government. And because government is established by God, we honor Him when we pay the taxes we owe. Paul’s message on this topic is very down to earth.


In Romans 13, we find a passage of Scripture that is as controversial today as it was for the believers in the days of the Roman Empire.

How do believers relate to their government? How do we live out the gospel as citizens of our country—especially if the government opposes and even oppresses us? The Wisdom Journey is being followed by people living in 200 countries around the world. Now I do not know what your particular governmental authorities are like; but if we interpret God’s Word correctly, we can apply it correctly in any culture, in any country, at any time.

As we work through this passage, five principles will become apparent in our study. Here is the first principle: Submission to the authority of government is a command from God.

Paul writes in verse 1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” This verb, “be subject,” is actually a military term regarding submission to a ranking officer.

Keep in mind, this is an issue of authority, not virtue. Some low-ranking soldier might be a better person than his superior officer. He might have better character. But Paul is not talking here about character; he is talking about authority. He is simply saying that a lower ranking officer is to obey.

So, for the believer, responding to civil authorities with respectful obedience is the issue. Now keep in mind, the government’s authority is lower than God’s authority; so, if your government commands you to violate God’s Word, you can—and must—disobey that command.

Now here is the second principle: Human government is the creation of God. Paul reveals, not only our obligation to government, but also the origin of government here in verse 1: “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”

In other words, the authority of government is ultimately from God. Behind that policeman’s badge, that judge’s gavel, that king’s scepter is the authority of God.[1]

Perhaps that is why we read in Scripture that corrupt judges and governments and corrupt leaders are especially repulsive to God. They are violating His ordained purpose for placing them in office—to lead with justice and integrity. And let me tell you, they will stand accountable to God one day for how they exercised the authority they received from Him.

This is also an encouragement that when we are unjustly punished, it is only by the permission of heaven—for reasons perhaps known only to God.

The third principle is this: Disobedience to governmental authority brings consequences from God. Paul writes in verse 2, “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” In other words, opposition to government is opposition to God.[2]

We need to be careful here. Believers who disobey their government experience the judgment of both their government and the Lord, for having violated His command. Christians should be model citizens, respectful of governing authority.

But this relates to laws and ordinances that do not violate biblical commands. For instance, if a local church ignores building codes and fire codes, the government will penalize it—and God will be displeased as well.

But if a church is told not to preach the gospel or Christians are told they cannot read the Bible, then we are going to disobey. The apostles were told to stop preaching in the name of Jesus Christ, and they said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Now here is the fourth principle: The justice of good government reveals the character of God. Paul continues:

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. (verses 3-5)

The word “avenger” here in verse 4 refers to one who exacts a penalty. There are penalties for doing wrong. That is one of God’s chief purposes for government—to enforce justice in the community.

Now be careful. Government can deliver penalties for criminals; it can enforce laws and therefore restrain evil; but it cannot change the hearts of the people involved.[3] The only thing that can change people is the power of God through the gospel. That is where we come in.

The church needs to get back to her mission from the Lord, and our mission is not to make bad people better or even to make immoral people moral. And that is because a moral person—a “good” person—without Christ is just as lost and headed for judgment as a bad person.

Our mission is to go after the heart. And beloved, when Jesus changes people’s hearts, they are going to influence their world as godly lawyers, politicians, teachers, salesmen, doctors, mechanics, artists, housewives, musicians, and more. Let us remember that the mission of the church is not temporary improvements; it is eternal transformation.

One more principle is found here in Romans 13: Government is to be given our support. And that means financial support—and yes, beloved, that means paying taxes. Paul writes in verse 6, “For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.”

Every Christian living in Rome wanted to know from Paul the answer to this question: Since our citizenship is now in heaven, do we have to pay taxes on earth? The word Paul uses here for taxes settles the question. It’s the word phoros, and it referred to taxes on houses, land, and property, and even to income tax.[4]

Paul makes it even clearer as he writes in the next verse that we are to pay “taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed.” “Revenue” (telos) refers to a duty, or a toll, or customs paid on transported goods.[5] Paul is referring to any and every kind of tax levied by the government.

For people living in my country today, this includes income tax, sales tax, utility tax, property tax, capital gains tax, inheritance tax, hunting and fishing license fees, automobile taxes, and on and on. The government is really good at creating taxes.

You may know that old saying that there are two certainties in life—death and taxes. Someone said, “I wish they came in that order!”[6] Listen, nobody likes to pay taxes.

But Paul does not say we should pay our taxes just because we are forced to but because God wants us to. We are actually pleasing God when we pay our taxes. Imagine that!

We are also to give “respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (verse 7). That begins with respecting God but also includes our parents, church leaders, political leaders, supervisors, schoolteachers, and others. Everyone in a place of authority over us should receive a measure of our respect.

And, beloved, being respectful and paying our taxes are unique actions and attitudes. They demonstrate a distinctive Christian testimony to our world today.

Justin Martyr, a church leader who lived in the midst of tremendous persecution in the first century, wrote this to the political leaders of his day:

We more readily than all men, endeavor to pay . . . you taxes, both ordinary and extraordinary; we worship only God, but in other things we will gladly serve you . . . praying that, with your kingly power, you [will have] sound judgment.[7]

That is the right attitude, action, and spirit today that will ultimately honor Jesus Christ.

[2] Alva J. McClain, Romans: The Gospel of God’s Grace (BMH Books, 1973), 221.

[3] James Montgomery Boice, Two Cities, Two Loves (Intervarsity Press, 1996), 198.

[4] Woodrow Kroll, Romans: Righteousness in Christ (AMG Publishers, 2002), 212.

[5] Fritz Rienecker, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, ed. Cleon L. Rogers Jr. (Regency, 1980), 378.

[6] Joey Adams, Christian Reader, Vol. 32, no. 3.

[7] Cited in R. Kent Hughes, Romans: Righteousness from Heaven (Crossway, 2013), 238.

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