Romans 13

Living by Law and Light


Tom J. Nettles


I. Just as God takes perfect vengeance in the end according to his perfect knowledge of all things, so he has established government for vengeance in the present. 13:1-7

A. Verse one institutes our subjection to governmental power, affirms that God is the one behind every manifestation of power, and therefore the government that now rules is, in fact, ordained of God. Paul was not unaware that many governments are evil; he himself would die under the authority of this government. But he knew his Bible well enough to see how God controlled even the heathen powers of the Old Testament to accomplish his will. They might not have known it, but Assyria and Babylon were God’s instruments to accomplish his own purpose. Read Nahum 3 and Habakkuk 1 and 2 to show God’s utter control of nations. Read Psalm 2 also and reflect on Christ’s lordship over all the nations.

B. verse two: Resistance, therefore to the ordained power is tantamount to resistance to God. Those that resist will incur judgment. This means that the government has a right to judge those that resist its laws and that God himself will hold responsible those that take their own authority to be superior to that of God’s ordained power. In times of great oppression and injustice arising from government, some systems might have within them other magisterial powers that can seek a redress of grievances and lead to a correction of wrong government. This verse, however, seems to leave no room for individual refusal to obey laws.

C. verses three and four: Rulers are established to strike fear and conformity into evil-doers. If one does evil he should fear the government for its task is to maintain order and punish or eliminate those elements of a society that perpetrate evil. According to Paul in 1 Timothy 2, we are to pray for governmental officials, “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” If we do wrong, we should expect the government to take action and punish us. He bears the sword, and he is a servant of God as an avenger carrying out the wrath of God on wrong-doers. In the last chapter we saw how God has reserved wrath to himself. He alone will administer this wrath at the final day of the judgment of all nations. Before that, Paul is crystal clear that government carries out the wrath of God for temporal evil.

D. Verse five – We want to obey the law not only to stay out of trouble, but the principle of obedience to law is reflective of the authority of God over his creatures, and is therefore consistent with righteousness. Conscience leads us to obedience, not just the fear of wrath.

E.  Verses six and seven: Since the maintenance of order in a fallen world calls for intense observation and pervasive presence, some must give themselves to this full time “attending to this very thing.” Means of support are therefore necessary and so tribute and taxes are paid in order to support a system that is designed to encourage the good and restrain the evil. In addition, since the status of their position is not determined by their individual worth, but by the worth of safety, stability, and integrity of the whole society over which they govern. As holding these positions of responsibility they are worthy of respect and honor. If we refuse this, or teach others to do so, we encourage a spirit of rebellion against God himself. We establish our own preferences as the final standard of judgment and of value and dishonor God himself. That officials represent the power of god means that our honor of them is a high duty undiminished by an reservations we might have about the personal capability of any specific individual.

II.  The law that never ends and the debt that can never be diminished is love of neighbor. 13:8-10.

A. Paul now gives a command related specifically to Christians but that shows how gracious and benign and universally applicable God’s law is.  While taxes may be paid when due and then not due again for a year, one can never discharge the debt of love for each other. There is never a moment when it does not apply, never a person to whom it does not apply, never a situation in which it does not apply; it is natural and unassailable for it extends from the very nature of God having created us as one race, descended from one man, bound up with each other as persons made in the image of God. To love one’s neighbor is to love the power, wisdom, excellence and sovereignty of God in creation. Refusal to love our neighbor in preference for our own ascendancy is to put ourselves above God and his purpose in creation.

B. Just think of how orderly and undisturbed a society if we never considered breaking God’s law. The table of the ten commandments that leads to social stability and goodness and joy is the second table. The perpetuity is seen in Paul’s reference to it as still operative for righteousness in human society. If we loved our neighbors as ourselves, never did anything to our neighbor that we would consider an outrage or a violation of personal rights if done to us, and at the same time tried to promote the good and well-being of our neighbors, would there be crime? No, because, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.”

C. Obeying the commandments, therefore, (in particular the commandment to love one’s neighbor) not only is an expectation within the framework of God’s government over us, but is foundational to the laws that give human governments stability and allow us to live fruitful and peaceful lives.

III. Another factor in the Christians life should inspire him to live with integrity, honor and righteousness as a means of encouraging goodness in society. We are children of light. Now that Christ has ascended, we are in the dawn of the Day that is to come and thus the traits of that day should overtake our lives.. 13:11-14

A. Before conversion we were, as it were, asleep. We had no awareness of the moral light of God and were blind to the principles of righteousness that sustain a relationship between God and man.. Now that the gospel has appeared, “the time has come for you to awake from sleep.” (11) Each day is an advance toward the full dawn of Christ’s return to institute his own personal rule and to bring in the new heaven and the new earth where in dwelleth righteousness. That final deliverance from the rule of darkness and the continued presence of sin as a complicating factor in his kingdom will soon come and is nearer every day.

B. As children of light therefore, we should pursue the righteousness that will reign in the day of Christ, so we will not be caught unaware. (cf. 2 Peter 3:13, 14) Those works of darkness that characterized our unregenerate state and that makes necessary the continued operation of a government whose function is to take vengeance on the evil-doer should be cast aside. Our clothing and our battle vestments are all light. “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus Christ his son cleanses us from all sin.” Also compare Ephesians 5:11-14. Light makes all things visible, exposes all things, reproves and removes the darkness. It is used metaphorically for the knowledge of revelation and the beauty of divine holiness. Paul tells us therefore, to live in the conscious presence of the knowledge of God and with the firm confidence that he will appear in the brightness of his holiness.

C. Putting on such a garment of knowledge and expectation will have a governing power in itself. Walking in the light of daytime, that is with the growing consciousness that the day of the Lord speeds toward us with amazing velocity, pushes aside the works of darkness, that is, the violations of his law. We do not abandon ourselves to the selfish and destructive pursuit of immediate sensual pleasure; nor do we seek personal ascendancy over others.

D. Instead, in putting on the armor of light, we put on the Lord Jesus Christ. We embrace his righteousness as our only ground of right standing before God. We put on his death as the only means of forgiveness of sins. We follow his life as the only example of perfect righteousness and supreme love to God. We desire that the Spirit will hasten his work of conforming us to the image of Christ. We are eager that Christ soon be the first-born among many brethren. If such is the case, then we will not make provision for the works of the flesh to control us. The flesh drives us toward the kind of corruption and destructiveness that will make God himself take vengeance on us and will reject us as inheritors of the kingdom (Galatians 5:19-21)

God graciously places around us hedges that warn us of judgment to come. He places laws before us that inform us of the way of peace and stability and give us standard which if violated will being judgment. The law of the state, the law of love, and the law of the new life all function to discipline us for good from here into eternity.