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Bible Commentaries
Romans 13

The Church Pulpit CommentaryChurch Pulpit Commentary

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Verse 1


‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher power. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.’

Romans 13:1

St. Paul is enforcing obedience to authority as a duty owed to God, and doubtless he realised the deep importance of the advice he was giving.

He lays stress upon it for many reasons.

I. Because the Jews in Rome were, as a race, antagonistic to the authority under which they were living. Obedience to it seemed to them to be directly opposed to all the teaching they had inherited. Already once they had been expelled from the city on account of their turbulence and disaffection. And St. Paul would have the Jewish Christians show no sympathy with such a rebellious attitude, but be above suspicion, standing aloof in this respect from their kinsfolk after the flesh.

II. Because Christians belong to another Kingdom, the Divine Kingdom, and there was a danger lest they should suppose that they were thereby released from earthly obligations. Hence it was all-important that they should bear in mind that inheritors though they were of the Kingdom of Heaven, their duty to earthly rulers remained unchanged. Nay, they must place it on a higher level, for they must accept their authority as ordained of God. It was for them to conduct themselves as good and loyal citizens under whatever rule they might find themselves.

III. How wise and far-reaching is this advice as we look into it!

( a) It has to do with rulers. We lose much of the force of the words if we do not perceive in them a protest against the tyranny of rulers. ‘There is no power but of God.’ He is speaking of the powers, not of the men who wield them.

( b) It has to do with the ruled. Obedience always brings its own reward. The man who obeys for conscience sake is doing a work which can never be thrown on one side or overthrown.

Bishop C. J. Ridgeway.


‘Nero is Emperor at the time when this letter is written, a monster of cruelty, the incarnation of wickedness, even in days when cruelty, profligacy, abuse of power are rampant in high places. And yet it is Christians dwelling there the Apostle enjoins to be in subjection to “the powers that be.” It is important to bear in mind that this duty of obedience to authority is no new thing, demanded for the first time by the religion of Christ. What Christianity does is to place this, like other duties that have been in the past, upon a higher ground than before.’

Verse 4


‘He is a minister of God to thee for good.’

Romans 13:4

So speaks the Apostle of the empire-monarchy of his own time, of its head, and of its officers. Minister of God: that name makes sacred the office and the authority to which it is given. If it could dignify in St. Paul’s eyes the person and officer of Claudius and Nero, under whose tyranny, pass a few years, he was to die, how much more can we ascribe it to the rule of our own Sovereign, anointed before God with Christian consecration and blessing, presiding over a system of government which draws its very substance and spirit from the Christian principles of liberty, justice and accountableness.

I. God uses the human instrument.—He takes the man, the woman, not different from their fellows, of the same flesh and blood, affected by the same joys and sorrows, pains, sicknesses, and death, and sets that one on a throne; and through such an one does His own work. That is His method, that is His way. The more visibly and undisguisedly and frankly human the ruler is, the better, then, will it be.

II. But let us go on a step.—Thank God the fashion of flattery, at least flattery of sovereigns, is largely past. But in the day of fierce light and plain speech, no thought is more widely shared, and more strongly held to-day in England, than that of the debt which England owes to the King for the high example of purity of life and court, of conscientious devotion to duty, of strong self-control and self-suppression for duty’s sake, of considerate and merciful remembrance of poverty and suffering, of strict observance of law and right. By being nobly and rightly, as well as frankly and familiarly, human, our King has been true to that method of God which makes a human life its minister.

III. Or take again the character of our King’s rule.—You will find cynics (though, thanks to the King, far fewer than there were), to carp and scoff at loyalty to the throne, and say that the Crown is a name and the people rule. In truth it is the King’s glory to show how, through him, a great people can rule itself. That is constitutional monarchy.

—Bishop E. S. Talbot.


‘It is not the King alone who is called to be the minister of God for good, but the nation whose is the power, and all of us who make up the nation. “There is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God”; and the nation is to-day such a power. For it we should pray, as we do for our King, that knowing whose minister it is, it may above all things seek God’s honour and glory.’

Verse 6


‘For they are God’s ministers.’

Romans 13:6

St. Paul gives the Roman Christians the very highest, the most overwhelming views of their spiritual position, the greatness of their present inward elevation, and of their glory to come—such a glory, he says, that the whole created universe sighs and struggles in the expectation of its bliss.

I. Then he comes to common life.—And what has he to say? All he does is to lay it upon them to be loyal to every relative duty; to be cordially amenable to order; to pay their every debt; to meet half-way the demands of the State for tax and toll; and to do all this—not in the spirit of the fanatic, who flings his money, so to speak, to the agent of a God-forsaken world of wickedness, but in the spirit of the dutiful child of God, who sees in civil order God’s will, in civil authority God’s stern but sacred instrument of right, in the civil magistrate the minister of the heavenly Father.

II. It was the precise contrary to the parody of Christianity which a frightened and dissolute paganism had created for itself. But it was precisely Christianity, in its pure essence. For it is of the essence of Christianity, the Christianity of the apostles and of their Lord, that it blesses both worlds; that it has a promise for both lives, the present and the future; that it lifts, with its right hand, the curtain of eternity, and lets in all the powers of the coming world upon the awakened and believing soul, at the foot of the cross of Christ, and by His empty grave; and meanwhile, with its left hand, smoothes the human path, and adjusts human relations, and points out perpetually to man how the eternal hope before him, the eternal life within him, is meant to influence, and to assure, his whole being’s attention to the common duties of the hour.

III. Christians may fail thus to put in contact eternity and time. But Christianity does not do so.—It hath a promise for the life that now is, as well as for that which is to come.

IV. So, in the very name of its mysteries of salvation and of glory, the Faith of Christ cries to its followers to be good citizens, in whatever place or state they find themselves, leading or led, governing or governed, or, as so often, both together. It lays it upon the private citizen to take the gravest account not only of his rights, which are important, but of his responsibilities, his duties, which for him are immeasurably more so. Not in the name only of propriety and bien-être, but in the name of Christ and of eternity, it calls on him to pay his debts, to pay his dues, to regard himself as a responsible member of the body civic, of the body politic. It calls him to live, not in the spiritual order only, but in the national, and in the urban, ‘ not unto himself’; to seek the good of his neighbour; if need be, to sacrifice for it.

Bishop H. C. G. Moule.

Verse 10


‘Therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.’

Romans 13:10

We must be careful to understand the real meaning of the text. It is the assertion of a fact. We must not read it to mean that if a man has this principle of love firmly embedded in his nature, it will help him to keep the law, but that it is tantamount to the actual fulfilment of the law. ‘Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.’

Now, the law referred to by the Apostle is primarily the Law of Moses. Let us, however, speak of the law implied rather than expressed in the text. We mean the spiritual law of the Gospel. This law is to some extent undefined, but it is unmistakable. The Gospel speaks to the conscience. It does not say, ‘Thou shalt’ or ‘Thou shalt not,’ so much as it appeals to man’s better nature.

I. It postulates that man, however degraded, has something in common with God.—It is true it cannot ignore the fact that this Divine principle in man may be either alive or dead, awake or asleep, just as he obeys or resists the power and influence of the Holy Spirit. ‘The Spirit is given to every man to profit withal,’ and when the Spirit of God is neither resisted nor quenched, He reveals the eternal law of right and wrong, of true and false worship, of heart service and lip service, of self-sacrifice and service exacted from a mere sense of duty. The Spirit of God, working in man, through the principle of love, makes it possible for him to choose the better part; to mould and purify his character, even as Christ Himself is pure, so that when He shall appear again with ‘power and great glory’ we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

II. In the painful consciousness of our sin and weakness we are tempted to ask, ‘Who is sufficient for these things?’—We turn to the Divine Man, Christ Jesus. Under the temporal law of Moses He was the ‘Lamb of God Which taketh away the sin of the world.’ Under the eternal law of the Gospel He was the perfect example of a godly life. And His promise was, ‘And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto Me.’ And in Christ we see, not a cold, lifeless model, which repels rather than attracts, but a heart filled with love and sympathy for suffering and sinful humanity. And when man’s spirit reunites with God’s, He is ready to rouse and kindle into a flame that principle in the creature, that existed, and always will exist, in the bosom of the Creator—a love which ‘worketh no ill to his neighbour.’

III. And let us not forget that love begets love.—If we are not loved by those around us, more than often the fault lies in ourselves.

—Rev. C. Rhodes Hall.


‘If a man neglects his children he cannot look for protection from them in old age. If a master is absorbed in self-interest, he must be content with mere duty and routine, instead of cheerful and grateful service. Unless a government is actuated by the purest and wisest motives towards the people it governs, legislating for their temporal and spiritual welfare, it cannot and must not expect them to be and to remain law-abiding citizens.’

Verse 12


‘Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.’

Romans 13:12

That is the strength of the Apostle’s image—

I. Cast away the works of darkness.—The things you have been doing in the dark, the things you have been revelling in, the nameless acts of shameless horror, cast them away! I do not say put on the clothes you had before, they are defiled and polluted beyond redemption. Cast away the works of darkness, there is nothing left for you but to get new clothes, your own are smurred and defiled, leave them, they are only fit for the burning. Cast away the works of darkness and put on something new, something quite new.

II. If man is to do so he wants an armour of light which is not his own, an armour of light that comes from above, a power and a strength and a capacity which it is beyond himself to obtain. The armour of light, you know what it is. The Apostle goes on to tell us, ‘Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ.’ There are our clothes provided for us, if only we leave these old sin-stained vestments on one side; there is an armour of light awaiting us that we may put on and clothe ourselves with, a righteousness not our own, winning for ourself all the beauty and all the grace that belong to the one true light that lightens every man that is born into the world who will allow that light to shine upon him, and will take that light into the feeble lantern of his individual soul—the light of the Lord Jesus Christ. Ah! how we need it, and what difficulties we put in our way towards getting it, and how we try to stand aloof from Him.

—Bishop Creighton.


‘St. Augustine, the great Bishop of Hippo, in Carthage, tells us in his Confessions the story of the way in which he was led to seek the Lord Jesus. This he said: “Thus was I, soul-sick and tormented, accusing myself, rolling and turning me in my chair. And Thou, O Lord, didst press upon me in my inward parts by a severe mercy, for I said within myself, ‘Be it done, be it done now,’ and as I spoke I all but did it; but I did it not, and I sunk back to my former state, but kept Him standing hard by, and took breath, and I tried again and wanted somewhat less of it; and have only touched and laid hold of it, and yet I came not at it, nor touched it, nor laid hold of it. I hesitated to die to death and to live to life; and the worst within me whereto I was accustomed prevailed more with me than the better, whereto I was unused. And the very moment wherein I was to become other than I am, the nearer it approached to me, the greater horror did it strike into me, yet did it not strike my being nor turn me away, but held me in suspense, and the very toys of toys and vanities of vanities. The ancient mysteries of my flesh still held me, they plucked my fleshly garments and whispered softly, ‘Dost thou cast us off? and from this moment shall we no more be with thee for ever? and from this moment shall not this or that be lawful for thee for ever?’ And what was it which they suggested to me that I said this or that—what did they suggest of my God? What defilements, what shame did they suggest? And now I less than half heard them, and not openly showing themselves and contradicting me, as I was departing but to look back on them. Yet they did retard me so that I hesitated to burst and shake myself free from them, and to spring over whereto I was called. A violent habit said to me, ‘Thinkest thou that thou canst live without me?’ But that habit spake faintly and yet more faintly. And it came to pass one day that solitude suggested to me, and I retired so far that I could not be seen, and I cast myself down, I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving vent to my tears, and the floods of mine eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to Thee, and not in these words, but yet to this purpose, spake I unto Thee, and said, ‘O Lord, how long, how long? O Lord! wilt Thou be angry for ever? Remember not my former iniquities’; for I felt that I was held by them. And I offered up these sorrowful words, ‘How long, how long! to-morrow and to-morrow.’ Why not now? Why not in this hour an end to my uncleanness? So was I speaking and weeping in a most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of a boy or girl, I know not, singing and oft repeating, ‘Take up and read, take up and read.’ And instantly my countenance altered, and I began to think intensely, interpreting it to be no other than a hand from God to open the book and read the first chapter I could find. Then I retired to the place where I had laid the volume of the Apostle. Then I caught it up, opened it, and read in silence the place on which my eye first fell, ‘Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and in wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof.’ And no further would I read, nor needed I further. Instantly, at the end of this sentence, a light, as it were, of confidence and security had streamed into my heart, and all the darkness of my doubts vanished.” ’

Bibliographical Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Romans 13". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cpc/romans-13.html. 1876.
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