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Bible Commentaries
Romans 13

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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C. Conduct within the state ch. 13

This chapter broadens the Christian’s sphere of responsibility by extending it to include the civil government under which he or she lives. Romans 13 is the premier New Testament passage that explains the believer’s civil responsibilities. Paul expounded what it means to render unto Caesar what belongs to him (Matthew 22:21). This subject has bearing on the spread of the gospel, so it is especially appropriate in this epistle. The connection with Romans 12:17-21 should be obvious. This passage also ties in with Romans 12:1-2 as one sphere of application. The church is not a nation among nations as Israel was. Consequently it was important that Paul clarify Christians’ duties to our earthly rulers as well as our duty to our heavenly Ruler. [Note: See John A. Witmer, "The Man with Two Countries," Bibliotheca Sacra 133:532 (October-December 1976):338-49; W. Robert Cook, "Biblical Light on the Christian’s Civil Responsibility," Bibliotheca Sacra 127:505 (January-March 1970):44-47); and Charles C. Ryrie, What You Should Know about Social Responsibility, pp. 77-84; or idem, You Mean the Bible Teaches That . . ., pp. 11-22.]

Verse 1

When Paul said "every person" (Gr. psyche) he probably had every Christian person in mind since he was writing to Christians. Nevertheless what he said about his readers’ conduct toward their civil government also applies to the unsaved. He was not legislating Christian behavior for unbelievers, but when unbelievers behave this way the best conditions prevail.

Subjection or submission involves placing oneself under the authority of another and doing or not doing what the authority requires. Paul did not say "obey." Submission includes obedience, but it also includes an attitude from which the obedience springs. Submission involves an attitude of compliance and deference that is not necessarily present in obedience. Submission is essentially support. The Christian may have to disobey his government (Acts 5:29). Still in those cases he or she must still be submissive and bear the consequences of his or her disobedience (cf. Daniel 4:17; Daniel 4:25; Daniel 4:32). "Governing authorities" is a term that embraces all the rulers who govern the citizen.

Every ruler exercises his or her authority because God has allowed him or her to occupy his or her position, even Satan (Luke 4:6). The Christian should acknowledge that the government under which he or she lives has received authority from God to govern regardless of whether it governs well or poorly.

God has established three institutions to control life in our dispensation: the family (Genesis 2:18-25), the civil government (Genesis 9:1-7), and the church (Acts 2). In each institution there are authorities to whom we need to submit for God’s will to go forward. Women are not the only people God commands to be submissive or supportive (Ephesians 5:22). Male and female children, citizens, and church members also need to demonstrate a submissive spirit.

Verses 1-7

1. Conduct towards the government 13:1-7

Paul passed from a loosely connected series of exhortations in Romans 12:9-21 to a well-organized argument about a single subject in Romans 13:1-7 (cf. Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26; 1 Peter 2:13-14).

"Forbidding the Christian from taking vengeance and allowing God to exercise this right in the last judgment [cf. Romans 12:19-21] might lead one to think that God was letting evildoers have their way in this world. Not so, says Paul in Romans 13:1-7: for God, through governing authorities, is even now inflicting wrath on evildoers (Romans 13:3-4)." [Note: Moo, p. 792.]

Verse 2

Refusal to submit to one’s government is tantamount to refusing to submit to God. Those who resist God’s ordained authority can expect to suffer condemnation by the government. This is really the indirect judgment of God (cf. Matthew 26:52).

"Capital punishment was ordained in Genesis 9:5-6, and it has not been abolished [by God]." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:557. See Newell, pp. 497-98, for a brief excursus on capital punishment.]

Verse 3

There are two possible ways to explain this verse that on the surface seems very naive. Each of these interpretations will have very different results for those who hold them. The problem, of course, is that rulers are sometimes, perhaps often, a cause of fear for those who do right. Government authorities sometimes abuse their powers for selfish ends. If they do not but serve the welfare of the people as they should, we have no fear of them and can submit to them fairly easily. What if they are evil?

The first way some people have interpreted this verse is to assume that Paul was speaking only of the norm. The normal situation would be a good government that punishes evil and rewards good. Obviously rebellion and revolution would be wrong in such a situation. However those actions might not be wrong if the state ceased to serve its God-given function and began denying the rights and removing the liberties of its citizens. Moderate advocates of this interpretation usually do not suggest that the church as an institution should lead a revolution. Most of them would say, however, that Christians as individuals could justifiably participate in a revolution against such a government. Christians should speak out against such abuses at least. We must be careful not to confuse submission with silence. Silence can express approval.

The second way of interpreting this verse is to take Paul’s words at face value and trust in the fact expressed in Romans 8:28. The Christian who takes this view would not participate in a revolution though he might speak out against a government’s evils. He should prepare himself to accept the consequences of his actions. Such was the position of some pastors in Nazi Germany during World War II, for example, who went to prison not for revolting against the government but for speaking out against it. Another alternative might be to flee from the persecution of a hostile government (cf. Matthew 10:23). This is what the Huguenots, who fled from France to England, and the Puritans, who fled from England to America, did.

I tend to prefer the second option mainly because I am uncomfortable if I assume that Paul meant something that he did not state. I prefer to accept what he said at face value. In this case the rulers would be a cause of fear for the Christian neither if the rulers were just nor unjust. The Christian would be obedient to God by submitting in either case. The problem with this view is that evil governments do not praise those who oppose them. But in a sense they do. For example, a German pastor whom the Nazis jailed for disobeying the law received the commendation of the rest of the world. The martyrdom of Christians by Nero shortly after Paul wrote Romans was an indirect praise of them for their fidelity to Christ. The evil government may not issue a certificate of commendation to the faithful Christian, but his or her submissive conduct can be the cause of his praise. Even if no other human being ever learned of the martyr’s conduct, God would know about it and would praise him or her.

Verse 4

God will use government, good and bad, to bring the submissive Christian what is good from His perspective (cf. Romans 8:28). Christians who are not submissive should fear because government has received its power to punish evildoers from God.

Verse 5

There are two reasons a Christian needs to be submissive to his government. One is that the government may punish him if he is not submissive. The other is that God may punish him. God’s punishment may be during the Christian’s lifetime or after that at the judgment seat of Christ. In this case the punishment might involve the loss of some reward that the believer would have received had he or she been submissive. "Conscience" refers to the believer’s knowledge of God’s will and purposes. [Note: Moo, p. 803.]

"The United States Government maintains a ’Conscience Fund’ for people who want to pay their debts to the Government and yet remain anonymous. Some city governments have a similar fund. I read about a city that had investigated some tax frauds and announced that several citizens were going to be indicted. They did not release the names of the culprits. That week, a number of people visited the City Hall to ’straighten out their taxes’-and many of them were not on the indictment list. When conscience begins to work, we cannot live with ourselves until we have made things right." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:557.]

Verse 6

This double duty to government and God should also make the Christian submissive when the bill for his taxes falls due. Government workers are indirectly God’s servants, and we should support God’s servants (Luke 10:7). Individual rulers may be unworthy, but the institution is not. Governments cannot function without incomes. This is the third time Paul referred to government (twice in Romans 13:4).

Verse 7

Paul, as Jesus, commanded believers to give back (Gr. apodote) to the government what we owe for services it renders (cf. Mark 12:14; Mark 12:17). Paying taxes has always been repugnant to people, including Christians. Some Christians argue this way. Since the government uses my tax money for purposes that are contrary to God’s will, I do not want to support evil by paying taxes. Jesus came out flatly in favor of paying taxes and led his disciples in doing so even though the Roman government to which He paid them crucified Him. Likewise Paul here urged Christians to pay tribute ("taxes") to a foreign ruler: revenue tax ("custom," as in the "Internal Revenue Service"). He commanded his readers to respect ("fear") those in positions of high authority because of their office if not for personal reasons. He called us to "honor" all who serve the public in civil service positions.

Peter practiced and taught submission to governmental rulers as Paul did (Acts 4:1-3; Acts 12:3-5; 1 Peter 2:13-17). Peter did disobey his rulers but willingly suffered the consequences for his disobedience. He only disobeyed the law under which he lived as a citizen of Israel when it conflicted with the law under which he lived as a citizen of heaven (Acts 4:19-20; Acts 5:29). In the Great Tribulation believers must not give allegiance to the Beast who will rule over the whole earth but remain loyal to Christ. I believe Paul’s emphasis on submission rather than obedience allows room for civil disobedience when the civil government requires, but not permits, the Christian to disobey God (cf. Exodus 1:17-21). When the will of man conflicts with the will of God, the Christian must choose to do the will of God (Acts 5:29). [Note: See Charles C. Ryrie, "The Christian and Civil Disobedience," Bibliotheca Sacra 127:506 (April-June 1970):153-62; and Denny Burk, "Is Paul’s Gospel Counterimperial? Evaluating the Prospects of the ’Fresh Perspective’ for Evangelical Theology," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 51:2 (June 2008):309-37.]

For example, the Christian’s obligation to submit to a government that requires abortions would be different from his or her duty to one that only permits them. I believe a Christian should disobey a government when it requires him or her to practice abortion but not if it only permits abortions (cf. Exodus 1:15-22). I do not believe a Christian should break the law to protest an ungodly practice that his or her government only permits. If he or she disagrees with a law, that Christian should pursue whatever options exist to change the law short of breaking the law. I believe that those who choose to break the law simply to make a statement, even though they are willing to suffer the consequences (e.g., go to jail), violate New Testament teaching on this subject.

Verse 8

The NASB translation "Owe nothing to anyone" is misleading because it contradicts Jesus’ teaching to loan to those who want to borrow from you (Matthew 5:42). He implied that borrowing is not always wrong. The New Testament does not forbid borrowing, only the practice of charging exorbitant interest on loans and failing to pay debts (Matthew 25:27; Luke 19:23). There are two kinds of debts: those with the lender’s consent and those without his consent. It is the second type to which Paul apparently referred here. The NIV’s "Let no debt remain outstanding" avoids the problem and gives the correct interpretation.

"Christians are to leave no debts, no obligations to their fellowmen, undischarged." [Note: Cranfield, 2:673.]

Some Christians who have trouble controlling their indebtedness have found motivation for cutting up their credit cards in this verse, but Paul did not say that all borrowing is wrong.

We do have a debt that continues forever. It is our obligation to seek the welfare of our fellow human beings (cf. Romans 8:4). The Mosaic Law required the same thing (Leviticus 19:18, cf. Matthew 22:39), but it provided no internal power to love. In Christ we have the indwelling Holy Spirit who produces love within us as a fruit of His life (Galatians 5:22-23).

"This is not a prohibition against a proper use of credit; it is an underscoring of a Christian’s obligation to express divine love in all interpersonal relationships." [Note: Witmer, "Romans," p. 491.]

Verses 8-10

2. Conduct toward unbelievers 13:8-10

Paul had previously glorified the importance of love among believers (Romans 12:9-10; cf. 1 Corinthians 13). Now he urged this attitude toward all people, though unbelievers are primarily in view in this chapter. The connecting link in the argument is our obligations to government (Romans 13:7) and to our fellow citizens (Romans 13:8; cf. Galatians 5:13-15).

Verses 9-10

Paul again appealed to the Law to show that what he had written in Romans 13:8 was in harmony with what God had commanded earlier. Whereas the Mosaic Law specified numerous situations in which the Israelites were to practice love, the Law of Christ contains comparatively few. The simple principle is enough. This is another excellent example of the essentially legal character of the Mosaic Law and the gracious character of Christ’s teachings. Jesus Christ gave us a model to follow in loving (John 13:34). Love promotes obedience.

"The Christian, who belongs to the New Covenant people of God, is no longer ’under the [Mosaic] law,’ the law for the Old Covenant people of God; he is under a ’new law,’ ’the law of Christ’ (see Galatians 6:2 and 1 Corinthians 9:19-21). And central to this new law is a command that Christ himself took from the Mosaic law and made central to his new demand: the command to love our neighbors as ourselves (cf. Galatians 6:2 with Romans 5:13-14)." [Note: Moo, pp. 816-17.]

"What is commanded is that we are to have the same loving regard for others that we have instinctively for ourselves." [Note: Mounce, p. 246.]

Verse 11

"This" refers to the duties urged earlier, not only in this chapter but in chapter 12 also. It is important that we follow God’s will carefully because the final phase of our salvation will take place very soon (i.e., glorification, cf. 1 Peter 1:9). We must be ready to meet the Lord and to give an account of our stewardship to Him (cf. Romans 14:10; Philippians 3:20; 1 Thessalonians 5:6; 1 Corinthians 15:34). It is possible for us to go through our lives as believers lethargic and insensible, but such a condition is not wise in view of what lies ahead of us.

Verses 11-14

3. Conduct in view of our hope 13:11-14

Paul’s thought moved from identifying responsibilities to urging their practice. What lies before us as Christians provides essential motivation for doing so.

Verse 12

Here Paul was thinking similarly to the way he thought when he wrote 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11. The night represents our earthly life plagued as it is with spiritual darkness and danger. When the Lord Jesus calls us to Himself at the Rapture, a new day will begin for us in which we will walk and live in sinless light. In view of this prospect we need to prepare for it by laying aside evil deeds as a garment and putting on deeds of holiness. Paul called these new clothes armor because we are still at war with sin and the forces of evil (cf. Ephesians 6:11).

"Christ’s return is the next event in God’s plan; Paul knew it could take place at any time and sought to prepare Christians-both in his generation and in ours-for that ’blessed hope.’" [Note: Moo, p. 822.]

Verse 13

Our behavior, and specially those things Paul called on his readers to do in Romans 13:1-10, should be distinctively Christian since we live among unbelievers. The practices he urged us to avoid here were common in Corinth where Paul wrote this epistle. He observed them constantly. Intemperance often leads to sexual sin that frequently results in contention and quarreling. [Note: See López, "A Study . . ."]

Verse 14

In one sense every believer puts on Jesus Christ when he or she trusts Him as Savior (Galatians 3:27). However in another sense we put Him on when we dedicate ourselves to Him as our lord (Romans 12:1). [Note: See Cranfield, 2:688-89.] The first step in putting on the armor of light (Romans 13:12) is committing ourselves to follow Jesus Christ wholeheartedly.

"A literary parallel to this use of ’put on’ is quoted from Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 11.5, where ’to put on Tarquin’ means to play the part of Tarquin." [Note: Bruce, p. 229.]

However dedicating is not all that is necessary. There must also be a deliberate turning away from desires to indulge the flesh (cf. ch. 6; 2 Timothy 2:22; 1 Peter 2:11).

Chapter 13 deals with living in the world as a Christian. Paul counseled submission to human government and love for all people while we actively wait for our Lord to appear.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Romans 13". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/romans-13.html. 2012.
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