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Bible Commentaries
Romans 13

Haldane's Exposition on the Epistle to the Romans and HebrewsHaldane on Romans and Hebrews

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CHRISTIANS having become the subjects of a kingdom which is not of this world, might be led to suppose that they were released from the ties of obedience to human authorities, especially such as were not Christians. Far different is the doctrine here taught by the Apostle. He commands ‘every soul,’ both Jew and Gentile, to be subject to the existing powers. He makes no exception as to the nature or constitution of any government. He speaks neither of monarchies, nor of republics, nor of mixed constitutions. But he applies all his precepts to every form that government may assume. As there is nothing from which political partisans in the present day more widely differ than from the apostolic doctrine laid down in this chapter, Christians ought to give to it the more earnest heed, lest they be led away on this subject by the opinions of the world, or of those who ‘despise government.’ They ought to examine carefully what is here taught by the Apostle, without attempting to accommodate it to their preconceived views of civil liberty. This is the more necessary, as many have lately embarked in politics with a keenness that will be of no service to their spiritual life, and will rather tend to make them cleave more closely to the dust.

In considering the duties enjoined in the apostolic Epistles, it is constantly to be kept in view that, while written on particular occasions, and addressed to particular churches, they are equally adapted, in the wisdom of God, to all times and circumstances. They are intended for the instruction and guidance of Christians in every country and every age, just as the Decalogue, though delivered to only one nation, and that only once, is binding on every nation under heaven, in every period, till the end of time. Christians learn at present from this passage the will of God respecting their duty to evil government, just as those to whom this Epistle was addressed. It is true that there is an innumerable variety of differences in circumstances; but this is nothing to the purpose. The things taught in these Epistles are in all circumstances duty. The Roman Christians were under a despotism, and those who read this Epistle may live under a free government. But the duty of obedience is in both cases the same. The powers are under both equally to be obeyed.

It is of the utmost moment that Christians, under all forms of government, should have a rule concerning their duty to civil government clear and precise. Such a rule we have here laid down. No practical subject is more fully or more explicitly treated in the word of God. The weakest Christian cannot be at a loss to discover the will of his Lord with respect to obedience to civil government. It is presented to us in the Scriptures in two different aspects, — the one as the ordinance of God, the other as the ordinance of man; and in both these characters obedience is enjoined by the same authority.

Connected with a warning to believers to act in such a manner as not to be spoken against, the Holy Ghost, by the instrumentality of the Apostle Peter, utters this commands, ‘Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by Him for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well-doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king,’ 1 Peter 2:13-17. Paul writes to Titus 3:1, ‘Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates.’ By the same authority, and with more extension, the Apostle enforces this duty in the passage before us.

In the most solemn manner, subjection to the existing powers is here enjoined. This is contrary to the wisdom of the world, which takes offense at such subjection, and contrary to the proud heart of man, that would make religion a pretense to cover its secret reluctance to submit to disagreeable restraints. How natural the opposite doctrine is to the carnal heart, may be seen from the general sentiments entertained on the subject by rulers and ruled — by infidels and professed Christians — by statesmen and people of all ranks. With one consent, the generality of men, even in this country, which is comparatively so much enlightened by the Scriptures, proclaim that subjection to rulers is, even in things civil, limited and conditional — that in case of the breach of the supposed compact between the rulers and the ruled, rebellion is lawful, and resistance a duty. Even in the houses of Parliament is this doctrine boldly maintained. It is much to be desired that among those who thus trample on the commandments of God, aside set aside the Scripture doctrine on this subject, there were no real Christians. It is lamentable to reflect that, to justify resistance to the civil powers, many of the people of God have resorted to the same false rules of interpretation which Neologians and other perverters of the Divine word have invented to banish the doctrines of grace from the Bible. No expedients to explain away the meaning of any part of Scripture were ever more forced than those adopted to make this chapter accord with the right of resisting the powers that be.

Verse 1

“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God.”

In this verse the Apostle first states the duty he enjoins on Christians towards civil rulers. Next he states the ground on which the command rests as the reason why he gives the injunction: every government is to be obeyed, because there is no government but of God. Lastly, he brings it home to the existing government under which the servants of God are placed.

“Let every soul” — This most comprehensive expression shows that to every Christian, in every country, in all variety of situations, and on all occasions, the doctrine which the Apostle is about to teach is applicable.

“Be subject unto the higher powers” — By this expression is meant the persons who possess the supreme authority, who are in the 3rd verse denominated rulers. Government, in our language, is a term of similar import. No phrase could more clearly and definitely express the duty of subjection to the civil rulers whom God has placed over us, than that which the Apostle here employs. This passage expressly enjoins obedience to all governments equally. The word rendered ‘powers’ wants the article, and has not an exclusive reference to the Roman government. It comprehends governments universally. Had any of the Roman Christians gone beyond the bounds of the empire, their duty of obedience to the government of the country is here as expressly enjoined as it is to the powers of the empire itself. And the foreigners who may have belonged to countries beyond the limits of the empire, are here taught obedience to the powers of Rome while in the country, and obedience to the powers of their own country when they should have returned home. The Apostle speaks of ‘powers’ without peculiar reference. Every one, without exception, is, by the command of God, to be subject to the existing powers, whatever were the means by which they became possessed of the situation in which they stand. Caesar subverted the laws of his country, Jeroboam established idolatry, and Nebuchadnezzar carried Judah captive. Yet the successors of Caesar were recognized by Jesus, and were the rulers of the Roman empire when the Apostle wrote; Jeroboam was expressly appointed by God as king over the ten tribes; and the oppressed Jews were commanded to pray for the peace of Babylon.

“For there is no power but of God” — The meaning of the first clause, ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers,’ is clear as noonday; this second gives the reason why subjection is demanded, — for there is no power but of God; not ‘by Divine permission,’ according to Mr. Stuart, but by Divine appointment. The expression of or from God, cannot mean Divine permission. What we permit is not in any sense of us. There is no power but of God; because it is God in His providence who confers power on every man who holds it. No tyrant ever seized power till God gave it him. The words ‘no power’ referred neither to kinds of powers nor order in government, but necessarily apply to every civil ruler under heaven. Were there any doubt with respect to the sense in which the power is of God, it would be entirely removed by the next clause of the verse, in which the existing powers are said to be ordained of God. The power, then, is ‘of God,’ in the sense, as is there declared, of being ‘ordained of God.’ The 4th verse also decides this to be the meaning of the phrase, where the ruler is twice said to be the minister of God. Civil rulers, then, are the ministers of God; if so, they must be of God’s own appointment. The worst government in any country is of God, and is calculated to effect His purposes and promote His glory. Wicked rulers are necessary in God’s plans to punish wicked nations. It is not merely the form of civil government that is from God, but the governors. Dr. Macknight says that God ‘has left it to the people to choose what form is most agreeable to themselves, and to commit the exercise of the supreme power to what persons they think fit. And, therefore, whatever form of government hath been chosen, or is established in any country, hath the Divine sanction.’ This is neither consonant to fact nor to Scripture. In most countries the people have had nothing to do with the choice of their governors. The powers are of God not on this account, but they are of God because they are of His setting up. Whatever may have been the means of their exaltation, it is God who has exalted them either for a blessing or a curse to the people. They who enjoin obedience to civil government on the supposition of implied compacts or conventions, overturn the ground on which it is rested by the word of God.

“The powers that be are ordained of God” — Here every evasion is taken away from the ingenuity of sophistry. It will not be of any avail to attempt to limit allegiance according to the conduct of rulers, or the means by which they have acquired their authority. The existing powers in every country, and in every age, are ordained(F1) of God. Nero was as truly a ruler ordained of God as Titus or Antoninus. The Divine appointment of the government that is over us, is the ground on which the duty of our submission rests; and the powers that be that exist in any country — are appointed by God. ‘The Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever He wills and setteth up over it the basest of men,’ Daniel 4:17 ‘I have made the earth, the man and the beast that are upon the ground, by My great power, and by My outstretched arm, and have given it unto whom it seemed meet unto Me,’ Jeremiah 27:5. Here we see how God disposes of kingdoms, and appoints their rulers according to His sovereign pleasure. It was God who set up Pharaoh, the cruel and tyrannical oppressor of Israel. ‘And in very deed for this cause have I raised thee up, for to show in thee My power; and that My name may be declared throughout all the earth,’ Exodus 9:16. ‘He putteth down one, and setteth up another,’ Psalms 75:7.

Verse 2

“Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”

“Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God” — Literally, ‘So that he that setteth himself in opposition to the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.’ Resistance to the government, then, is resistance to God; because government is God’s ordinance or appointment. If God has appointed every government that exists in the world, His people are bound to submit to every government under which their lot has been cast There is but one exception, and that is when anything is required contrary to the law of God. Then duty is plain. We are to obey God rather than men. The people of God, then, ought to consider resistance to the government under which they live as a very awful crime — even as resistance to God Himself. They are bound to obey, not good rulers only, as Dr. Macknight unwarrantably limits the words, but oppressive rulers also, if they do not command what God forbids.

“And they that resist shall receive unto themselves damnation” — Here is declared the fearful consequence of resisting the ordinance of God. It is of no importance whether we understand the original word translated damnation to mean condemnation or punishment, because the former implies the latter as its consequence. If, however, we understand it of punishment, we must keep in mind that it is punishment proceeding from condemnation. And the condemnation here is not, as Mr. Stuart seems to understand it, of punishment exclusively from the hand of man. The punishment meant, whoever may be the executioner, is a judgment from God, as in 1 Corinthians 11:29, where the same word refers to those punishments with which God visited His people for the abuse of His ordinance. ‘We ought, therefore,’ says Calvin, ‘to act with great caution, that we may not rush upon this Divine threatening Nor do I confine this meaning of the word damnation to that punishment only which is inflicted by magistrates, as if the design of the Apostle was to show that rebels against authority will be punished according to law, but every kind of Divine vengeance, in whatever manner it may be exacted; for he, in general, teaches us what end awaits those who enter into a contest with God.’ When the ignorance of God’s people is punished for any offense against the government of their country, their chastisement should be looked on as a chastisement from God.

It ought to be observed, that God’s people may be in ignorance on this subject as well as on any other, and that we are not to suppose that all who have resisted the governments under which they were placed are enemies to God. Like Peter, when he drew his sword to defend his Master, they may sometimes be ignorant of their duty. But their ignorance is sinful. If they mistake their duty on this subject, they are more inexcusable than when they are ignorant on almost any other subject, for it is taught with a plainness that nothing but strong prejudice can resist.

Verse 3

“For rulers are not a terror to good works but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same.”

“For rulers are not a terror to good works but to the evil” — This is not a mere illustration of the last clause of the second verse. It extends to more than the punishment of resistance or disobedience. The negative assertion, that rulers are not a terror to good works, is different from the positive one, that they are a terror to evil works, and an assertion equally important; and the assertion that they who do good shall have praise is still different from both the others. This verse is often supposed to limit the obedience inculcated in the preceding verses to rulers who are of a proper character, and actuated by right motives. Nothing can be more unfounded. It is not introduced as the ground of obedience to civil government. The grounds obedience is stated in the first verse, immediately subjoined to the command. The higher powers are to be obeyed, because there is not one amongst them, not even the worst on earth, which is not of God. When the government is wicked, cruel, and oppressive, in the inscrutable ways of His sovereign providence, it is overruled by God so as to forward the object He has in view. Without exception, it is true in every age, and in every country, that the existing civil powers are ordained of God. It follows, then, that whosoever resisteth the powers, resisteth the ordinance of God. This verse, as has just been remarked, does not state the reason of submission according to the first ground, but it assigns the reason why God has appointed civil government, and is another reason for the subjection before inculcated. Here there is no limitation of anything previously spoken. It is a characteristic of civil government which is universally applicable. It is true of the worst government, that it is not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Good works and bad works are not here spoken of with reference to Christianity. The reference is to the works generally accounted good or bad in society, and the worst government will not punish such good works. No man was ever punished because he would not injure his neighbors. It is a general declaration with respect to all governments. The very worst of them is a blessing. The conduct of Christians with respect to obedience to Christ, as it is offensive to civil rulers, and has often been punished by them, is not here in the Apostle’s view. The persecutions they have endured on accounts of their religion, have arisen from the enmity of the carnal mind against God, which is not more characteristic of every government than of every individual.

“Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good and thou shalt have praise of the same” — This is a truth which experience will prove to every Christian. If he obeys the laws of the country, and does the things that are good, he will have no reason to be afraid of the government. If called to suffer for Christ’s sake, he has no need to fear.

Verse 4

“For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”

“For he is the minister of God to thee for good” — In this verse the civil ruler is twice denominated ‘the minister of God,’ first for good to His people, and next for the punishment of evil-doers. Civil rulers, then, as the ministers of God, ought not only to be obeyed without resistance, but with alacrity. They are not only ministers of God, but ministers for good. This is the characteristic of magistracy in all countries. In spite of all the evils that derogate from its proper character, it promotes the good of society. But none are so much indebted to it as Christians, to each of whom it may indeed be emphatically said, it is the minister to thee for good. Were the restraints of government removed, Christians would be attacked, persecuted, or destroyed in any country. Even the persecution of the worst government would not be so bad as the persecution of the world, if freed from the restraint of law. Notwithstanding the numerous persecutions endured by Christians under the Roman emperors, they were still to them the ministers of God for good, without whose government they would probably have been exterminated. ‘The Christians to the lions!’ was the common cry of the multitude among the pagans. The Roman government afforded protection to Paul for a long period, and saved him on different occasions from suffering death by his countrymen. Let Christians, then, in every country, instead of joining with the enemies of its established order, be thankful for the Divine ordinance of civil government, and exert themselves to maintain obedience and peace. It is of the utmost importance for them in every country to understand their duty to civil government. In this way they will most effectually commend the Gospel to the world, and remove some of the most powerful obstacles to its progress. While they show that they fear not man, where he ordains what is contrary to the commandments of God, they ought likewise to show that obedience to God, and gratitude to Him who appoints civil government for their protection, obliges them to submit to the rulers in all things temporal.

The institution of civil government is a dispensation of mercy, and its existence is so indispensable, that the moment it ceases under one form it re-establishes itself in another. The world, ever since the fall, when the dominion of one part of the human race over another was immediately introduced, Genesis 3:16, has been in such a state of corruption and depravity, that without the powerful obstacle presented by civil government to the selfish and malignant passions of men, it would be better to live among the beasts of the forest than in human society. As soon as its restraints are removed, man shows himself in his real character. When there was no king in Israel, and every man did that which was right in his own eyes, we see in the last three chapters of the Book of Judges what were the dreadful consequences.

Some have inferred from this passage that the Apostle’s injunctions refer solely to such governors as are truly good and altogether what they ought to be. Nothing can be further from the truth. From this it would follow that the Apostle while professing to furnish an explicit rule of conduct in this matter for those whom he addressed, in reality gave them none, and that he has here laid down no clear and precise direction which could apply to Christians from that time to the present. Human governments, like everything administered by men, must always be imperfect; and as it is easy to form exaggerated ideas on this subject, no administration of any form that has ever existed would appear to come up to the imaginary standard. It would, besides, be impossible for the great body of Christians to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion as to their duty in this respect. This is one of those traditions by which the Scriptures are as completely made void, as by the Pharisees of old, or by modern Neologians. The rule which is here given is clear to all. It was dictated to Paul by God under one of the worst governments that ever existed, and under which the blood of the Apostle himself was shed, as if he had been a malefactor.

When the Jews were carried captive to Babylon, God by His Prophet commanded them to seek and to pray for the peace of the city. ‘Seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it; for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace,’ Jeremiah 29:7. The most awful maledictions were pronounced against Babylon by the same Prophet on account of her manner of treating the Jews; but it was God Himself who, in the course of His wise and holy providence, was to execute them, by means of those instruments which He should choose. ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.’ In the meantime, God made the tyrannical rulers of Babylon, whom He purposed to punish for their wickedness, His ministers for the good of His people.

“But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid” — If men will transgress the laws under which they are placed, they have reason to be afraid; and God here warns His own people, that, in such a case, they must not count upon His protection or interference to deliver them from the punishment due to those who rise up against His institution. This ought to caution Christians against identifying themselves with political associations to oppose or subvert the government of their country. When they do so they are likely to suffer for it, — even more likely to suffer than the wicked themselves. God may in the meantime pass over the sin of the latter, while He visits that of His people with chastisement.

“For he beareth not the sword in vain” — This implies that civil government is not a mere pageant arrayed with all the ensigns of power and vengeance against the opposer, but it also shows that the providence of God so orders it that rulers will in general be successful against the disturbers of the peace, so that evil-doers will be discovered and their plots defeated. The most secret and solemnly sanctioned conspiracies are generally defeated and frustrated. Indeed, were not civil government an ordinance of God, it would be impossible for it to answer the end of its appointment.

This passage sanctions the use of the sword, or punishment by death, with respect to the transgressors of the fundamental laws of society. The sword is put for punishment by death of any kind. This refutes the opinion of those who think that it is sinful, nay, that it is murder, to put criminals to death. God here sanctions the practice. And if it is right in the civil magistrate to punish with death the violators of the fundamental laws of society, it is right in Christians to countenance and co-operate with the magistrate in effecting such punishments. The same truth is taught by our Lord when He says, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then would My servants fight that I should not be delivered to the Jews.’ This intimates that worldly power may be maintained by arms, and that it is lawful to use them for this purpose. ‘If I have been an offender,’ said Paul, ‘or have committed anything worthy of death, I refuse not to die,’ Acts 25:11. Would the Apostle have in this way sanctioned this punishment, allowing its justice, if it had been contrary to the law of God?

“For he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” — Vengeance belongeth to God. He hath, however, delegated this right, so far as concerns the affairs of this world, to the civil magistrate, who ought to punish evil-doers. For this purpose God has put the sword into his hand, and has armed him with legal authority. To suffer crime, therefore, to pass unpunished, is a dereliction of duty in the magistrate. Instead of being a duty, it is a sin to neglect avenging the laws when they are transgressed. The magistrate is here called a revenger, and is said to execute wrath. This refutes the notion that the infliction of punishment by the civil power is only for example; yet this false maxim is now very generally adopted. The Apostle here considers the sufferings inflicted as punishments, and brings not example into the account. Example is no doubt one object of punishment, but instead of being the sole, it is not its primary object.

Dr. Carson, in his review of Dr. John Brown, gives the following division of the above four verses. ‘The first clause of the first verse contains the law of Christ, enjoining obedience to civil rulers. The rest of the verse, in two clauses, gives the ground of this injunction, or shows why God enjoins obedience. He enjoins obedience to rulers because rulers are His own appointment. An observation naturally resulting from this follows. If rulers are God’s appointment, to oppose them is to oppose the appointment of God. This enforces the duty by the guilt of disobedience. He that opposes civil rulers, not only opposes them, but also opposes God’s ordinance. Another observation appended to this shows the consequence of disobeying this ordinance of God. They who resist shall receive to themselves damnation. The third verse commences with an observation, exhibiting a fact that proves that rulers are of God, and which anticipates an objection that was likely to occur: Rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. The assertion that civil rulers, without any exception, are appointed by God, would appear strange, when it was considered that they were heathens, and tyrants, and persecutors. But heathens, and tyrants, and persecutors as they were, they are proved to be of God, by their being a terror not to good works, but to the evil. With all their wickedness, they uphold the great principles on which society is founded, and on which only it can subsist. The Christian, then, has no reason to dread them; for he does not practice the evil works which they punish, and he does the good works which they approve. This verse shows the reasonableness of the command of submission to government. As if the Apostle had said, “Do not think this command a hard saying; for rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. If you wish to avoid incurring the displeasure of rulers, do that which is good, and then, instead of being punished, you will have commendation from them.”

‘The fourth verse gives an additional reason why Christians should not think civil government a grievance, but a blessing: To the Christian he is the minister of God for good. Instead, then, of submitting with reluctance, he ought to submit with pleasure and gratitude. Indeed, civil government is more for the advantage of Christians than for that of others. They need its protection more than any other class of men. Were it not for the protection of government, Christians could not live even in the countries where there are the proudest boasts of enlargement of mind with respect to civil liberty.

‘The remainder of this verse warns the Christian what he may expect from civil rulers if he does what is evil: The minister of God bears not the sword in vain. Not only have rulers power to punish what is evil, but the providence of God takes care to make this power effectual. It is wonderful to consider how the providence of God defeats the best concerted plans of rebellion; and brings the disturbers of society under the grasp of the magistrate. Were it not that civil government is an ordinance of God, it is not possible that it could subsist.’

Verse 5

“Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.”

Men in general obey the laws from fear of the punishment of transgression; and if there was no punishment they would transgress every law which thwarted their inclinations. But this must not be the case with Christians. They must respect the laws of the countries in which they live, not merely from dread of the punishment of transgression to be inflicted by the magistrate in exercise of the power with which God has armed him, but also from a higher motive. Even were they assured of impunity from the magistrate, they must not violate the law, for conscience’ sake. Here a necessity far more imperative than the former is added. Christians are to obey from a conscientious regard to the authority of God thus interposed. This is the motive which, above every other, ought to actuate them; and it is exhibited by the Apostle as the grand consideration by which he terminates his injunctions of obedience to civil government. This is the foundation of true loyalty. If in operation, it will not only insure the obedience of the Christian to the government under which he is placed, but prevent him from defrauding it by smuggling, evasion of taxes, or any illegal transaction. ‘I have set the Lord always before me,’ ought to be the motto of every Christian.

‘To carnal wisdom,’ says Dr. Carson, ‘the doctrine of unlimited submission to civil government in temporal things appears a hard saying. Who can hear it? If this sentiment prevails, it may be said, rulers may tyrannize as they please. They who speak thus do greatly err, not knowing the Scriptures, neither the power of God in the ruling of the world. It would be a hard thing indeed if God did not rule the rulers. But the Christian has nothing to fear, when he considers that every plan and proceeding of government is overruled and directed by his God. If He puts His children into the hands of men, He retains these men in His own hand, and they can injure them in nothing without His permission. ‘The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: He turneth it whither so ever He will,’ Proverbs 21:1. So far, then, from being a doctrine that fills the mind with discomfort, it is the only view that gives peace. Have not Christians more security for their safety in the care of their Almighty Father, than in a permission given by Him to defend themselves against the oppression of rulers? They have peace whatever party gets into power, because they know that in everything God fulfills His purposes by them. God rules on earth, even in the councils of His enemies, as completely as He rules in heaven. When God chooses to overturn the empire of tyrants, He is at no loss for instruments. He is not obliged to employ the heirs of glory in such scenes of blood: He uses the wicked to overturn the wicked.’

In the preceding five verses the Apostle makes no provision, in matters of civil submission, for any case of resistance or rebellion, under any circumstances. He makes no exceptions, no modifications; he discusses no hazardous cases of conscience upon emergencies not existing; but in language which none can mistake, and with an authority the commanding solemnity of which defies opposition, he proclaims to the Greek and to the Roman, to the barbarian and the civilized, Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. The powers that be are ordained of God.(F2)

Verse 6

“For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.”

“For this cause pay ye tribute also” — Some, instead of ‘pay ye,’ translate the words ‘ye pay.’ But it cannot be supposed that the Apostle first alleges, as a reason for rendering personal obedience, that they were already in the habit of conscientiously paying tribute, when, in the subsequent verse, he enjoins the duty of tribute as specifically as he did the duty of obedience. Besides, ‘for this cause ye pay tribute also,’ takes it for granted that they were already in the habit of rendering both tribute and obedience for the same reason, instead of urging obedience on the foundation that they already for that reason pay tribute. If even is chosen as the translation of the Greek particle instead of also, this supposes that tribute is much worse as a grievance than is personal obedience, the contrary of which is quite obvious.

“For this cause”, or on this account — For what cause? Is it on account of conscience or on account of civil government being an appointment of God? The latter is the true answer. The reason why the thing is a matter of conscience is, because government is a Divine appointment. Taxes are to be paid to government for its support, because God has appointed government for the good of society; and this is the argument that is immediately added.

“For they are God’s ministers” — They are public officers whom God Himself, as the ruler of the world, has appointed to this business. Here, in order to impress the truth that ‘the powers that be are ordained of God,’ and that they are ‘of God,’ it is for the third time repeated that they are ‘God’s ministers attending continually upon this very thing,’ that is, civil governors are devoted to the affairs of the public. They give their time to the public, and they should be adequately remunerated. It is necessary that what is requisite for the support of the government and its dignity should be supplied. God, then, has enjoined on His people to acquiesce in this reasonable appointment of His providence. ‘This very thing,’ then, does not refer to the gathering of taxes. The ‘ministers of God’ are the ‘powers’ of whom the Apostle was treating. The ‘very thing’ to which they constantly attend, is not the collection of the taxes, but the ministry of God in the things of government. ‘The very thing’ must be something either mentioned or necessarily implied in the text. But this can be no other than the ministry of the ministers mentioned. The collection of taxes, then, is not the very thing to which civil rulers attend. They are called the ministers of God, and after this they are said to be attending continually on this very thing.(F3) The thing to which they attend is their duty as ministers of God in civil things.

Verse 7

“Render therefore to all their duties: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.”

“Render therefore to all their dues” — Here the Apostle enjoins a general precept, applying not only to the particular instances which he had mentioned, but to everything due by equity or love from one man to another. Here, also, it ought to be particularly remarked that he calls taxes and customs ‘dues’ or debts. A tax is a debt in the true sense of the word. The Apostle here says, Render to all their dues, and in exemplification adds, ‘tribute to whom tribute, custom to whom custom.’(F4) Men sometimes act on the principle that taxes are not debts, and that they may evade their payment, although clearly liable by law. Such persons are condemned by the Apostle. It is here explicitly taught that taxes stand by the law of God on the same footing as private debts, which every man is therefore under an equal obligation to discharge. The same truth is taught by our Lord, when, on the tribute-money, bearing the image of Caesar, being presented to Him, He said; ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.’ The produce of taxes is here determined by the Lord to be the property of the government. By the laws, too, of every country, taxes are debts, to be paid as such to the government, and even preferable in order of payment to private debts. Christians have much reason to be thankful that they are thus, by the authority of God, freed from all responsibility respecting the application of every tax, and that this responsibility rests entirely with the government. Were it otherwise, they would be in constant perplexity on the subject, and almost in every case unable to determine whether it was their duty to pay or to withhold payment. They would thus be exposed every moment to be placed in opposition to the rulers, while at all times it would be actually impossible for them to live, in a heathen or a Mohammedan country.

Some persons make a distinction between general and particular taxes, and refuse to pay taxes levied for particular purposes, when these purposes are believed to be bad. But there is nothing that will render it unlawful to pay a particular or specific tax, that will not equally apply to a general tax, any part of which it is believed is to be applied to a bad use. Why are we not accountable for the application of every part of a general tax? Because we have no control over it, and our approbation of it when we pay it is not implied. The same consideration exempts us from any share of responsibility respecting the sinful application of a specific tax. If taxes are debts, then the payment of them no more implies approbation of their object, than the payment of any other debt involves approbation of the purpose to which it is applied.

“Tribute to whom tribute, custom to whom custom” — Tribute refers to what are now called taxes, and custom to revenue raised from merchandise. These are particular instances of the dues or debts included in the previous precept.

“Fear to whom fear” — The Christian is not to brave the authorities whom God has set over him, nor to set them at defiance, on pretense that he is a servant of God. On the contrary, he is to fear them as God’s institution for the good of society.

“Honor to whom honor” — Not only are all pecuniary exactions of government to be paid, but all customary civil honor and respect are to be cheerfully given to those in power. Christians are not to decline paying the customary respect to the civil powers, on pretense that they are Christ’s servants, or that all men are naturally on a level. Difference of rank in society is God’s appointment for the ordinary government of men in society. That stubborn spirit which refuses to uncover to the king, or give the customary mark of respect to men in power, is pride and rebellion against God’s appointment.

On this verse, Dr. Carson, in his Review of Dr. Brown, observes, ‘The substantive to all is evidently men . Render then to all men their dues.’ After this, he gives a specification of such dues as would be least likely to be considered as dues, or to be conscientiously paid as such, namely, taxes, fear, honor. Many Christians, to this hour, who would put away with abhorrence the thought of evading an ordinary debt, think it no evil to evade the taxes, and to withhold that honor and fear that is due to men in authority. ‘To him to whom you owe tribute give tribute: to him to whom you owe custom give custom: to him to whom you owe fear give fear: to him to whom you owe honor give honor.’ As if he had said, ‘Not only pay your ordinary debts, but those debts also that in general are not conscientiously paid as debts.’ This is the only view that can give meaning to the particle then or therefore. The spirit of the passage is to this purpose. Obedience and taxes are due to civil rulers: pay these dues, then, as well as others. It is quite obvious that the Apostle specifies only such debts as would be most likely to be overlooked.

Verse 8

“Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.”

“Owe no man anything” — In the beginning of the former verse the Apostle commands Christians to render to all their dues, which includes debts of money as well as of respect. Here he forbids them to owe any man anything, that is, to withhold from any man what is his due. This duty is imperative, and requires to be particularly specified; and in this way the Apostle follows out the precept he had given in the preceding verse. Christians ought to attend most scrupulously to this injunction. It is a great injury to men, and a reproach to Christianity, when the servants of God neglect this duty. It is a virtual breach of the eighth commandment, although it may not bring on them the same obloquy.

“But to love one another” — Love is here beautifully represented as a debt that is never paid. It is a debt that ever remains due. Christians ought not only to love one another continually, but to abound in love more and more. The more they pay of this debt, the richer will they be in the thing that is paid.

“For he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law" — Here love is urged, on the ground that it is fulfillment of the law in all its precepts. The whole law is grounded on love to God and love to man. This cannot be violated without the breach of law; and if there is love, it will influence to the observance of all God’s commandments. If there were perfect love, there would be a perfect observance of the law. But no man loveth another in the perfection that the law requires; therefore no man perfectly keeps the law. Love, then, is the fulfillment of the law, being the thing which it demands, and all that it demands in respect to both God and man.

Verse 9

“For this, Thou shalt rot commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Paul here cites several of the precepts of the second table of the law, and observes with respect to each of them, that they are comprehended in the law that enjoins us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Nothing can be more evident than that if we loved our neighbor perfectly, we would commit none of the things here specified. The law of the Lord is admirable, both in its simplicity and comprehensives. It is also most reasonable and just. It requires nothing but what is implied in love. Its prohibitions, then, are not unreasonable restraints upon our liberty, but the just requirements of love.

Verse 10

“Love worketh no ill to his neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

“Love worketh no ill to his neighbor” — Love never injures our neighbor in any respect, but, on the contrary, as far as in its power, does him service. All disputes, then, among neighbors and among nations proceed from a want of love. What, then, shall we say of the morality of men in general, who live in strife and contention, as often as their interests in the smallest degree interfere? What is the origin of all the disputes in the world but a want of love?

“Therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” — As love will prevent everything which the law forbids, love must consequently be what fulfills the law. Love, for instance, will prevent murder, and even the smallest degree of hatred to another. Love, then, will keep the sixth commandment; and so of each of the commandments of the second table of the law.

Verse 11

“And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.”

‘The most appropriate meaning that can be given to the word translated that in this occurrence seems to be especially. The duties recommended were the rather to be attended to, from the alleged consideration that follows. Dr. Macknight translates by supplying the phrase, ‘I command,’ by ellipsis, ‘Also this I command.’ And Mr. Stuart supplies the words, ‘Do this’ There is no need for these supplements, and the above gives the most appropriate meaning.

“Knowing the time” — The time is understood by Dr. Macknight and Mr. Stuart as referring to the season of the Gospel. But the ground of the observation, which is subjoined by the Apostle, shows that it refers to the present time, in distinction from the time when those whom he addressed first believed. Why is it time to awake out of sleep? The reason alleged is, for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. It is plain, then, that the times contrasted are the time of their first believing, and the time then present.

Salvation is here understood by Dr. Macknight as signifying the glad tidings of salvation in the Gospel. This meaning is so forced and unnatural,, that it deserves no consideration. In the Scriptures, believers are considered as saved from the moment they are partakers of a Divine life, by the belief of the truth. Salvation is also sometimes used with respect to the complete deliverance from the pollution of sin at death, when believers enter into heavenly happiness. And sometimes it refers to the day of judgment, when their happiness will be more complete, and when the body as well as the soul shall enter into glory. It is obviously in the second acceptation that the word salvation is here used. It was now a considerable time since the church at Rome had been gathered, and the brethren who were first called to the knowledge of the truth were now approaching the period of their entrance into the land of promise. The near prospect of leaving this world, and entering into a state of glory, ought to have a great effect upon Christians, in making them think less of this world, and more of that of which they are about to become the inhabitants.

Verse 12

“The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.”

“The night is far spent, the day is at hand” — Dr. Macknight understands this of ‘the night of heathenish ignorance,’ which he says ‘is drawing to a conclusion;’ and to the same purpose Mr. Stuart says that it ‘is the time of ignorance and darkness in which they had once been.’ But with respect to the time in which the persons here addressed were in ignorance and darkness, if he means heathen ignorance and darkness, this time was already at an end to them; and the day, as contrasted with this, was already present, and could not be represented as near. And as to the night of heathenish ignorance being nearly at an end, this is far from past. Nearly eighteen centuries have passed since this Epistle was written, and the night of heathenish, so far from being at an end, still broods over the greater part of the world. The night here must be the time of the believer’s being on earth; for his earthly state, with all its comparative light, is but night with respect to the light of heaven. The day which was at hand was not the day of judgment, but the day of death, with respect to those addressed. Mr. Stuart notices, and satisfactorily refutes, the opinion of Mr. Tholack and the Germans, which represents the Apostles as believing the near approach of the day of judgment.

“Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light” — In place of the clothing of sin, Christians are to cover themselves with the armor of light. The Christian is a soldier, and as such he is furnished with a complete suit of armor, to fit him for the encounter with his enemies. It consists of faith, and love, and hope. ‘ Let us who are of the day be sober, putting — on the breastplate of faith and love; and for a helmet, the hope of salvation.’

Verse 13

“Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying”

“Let us walk honestly, as in the day” — According to the present use of the language, ‘honestly’ does not adequately represent the original. The word signifies decently, becomingly. We are by this precept required to conduct ourselves before the world in a modest, decent, and becoming manner. The allusion is to persons walking from place to place in transacting their daily business. The conduct of persons thus employed shows, even in people the most immoral, some regard to appearances; and they who riot in the night will place a restraint on their conduct in the day. Christians, then, as in the light of day, ought to conduct themselves in a manner suitable to the day, and not like those who riot in the night. It may be observed that the same figure is here still continued, but varied in its application. When it is said that the night is far spent, and the day is at hand, it is implied that it was still night, and that the day was future. But here the day is present. In one point of view it is night to the Christian, and in another it is day.

“Not in rioting” — The word applies to all meetings for intemperance and debauchery. It denounces all amusements that minister to the impure passions of human nature, whatever may be their name. The fashionable follies of high life, and those practiced by persons in inferior stations, are alike inconsistent with the Christian character and with this precept. It is vain to allege with respect to them that they are not expressly condemned in Scripture. The Scripture does not give out law with a verbose phraseology, like the laws of men, but condemns all the particular and ever-varying follies of mankind in every age and nation on general principles.

“Drunkenness” — This sin is one of the greatest destroyers of mankind. Even were there no hereafter, a wise man would shun it as a pestilence. No other evil has so great a share in bringing ruin on individuals and families. Every approach to it ought to be most carefully avoided. Too much caution cannot be used in order to guard against the formation of habits of intemperance. Many a promising professor of Christianity makes shipwreck of the faith by giving way to this vice. It is a mistaken hospitality that tempts to any approach to intemperance. If we are to eat and drink to the glory of God, we ought to drink no more than is really useful for the health.

“Chambering” — The meaning of this is plain, as well as of wantonness, which refers to all licentiousness, in its most extensive import.

“Strife and envy” — The former applies to every kind of contention; and the latter designates that principle which, more than any other, excites to strife or contention, and tends to make a man an enemy to his kind.

Verse 14

“But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.”

“Put ye on the Lord Jesus” — Having given a specimen of the things that are unbecoming the Christian who walks in the day, the Apostle now shows, summarily, what the conduct is which he enjoins on us to exemplify. Believers were in themselves wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked; like Joshua, clothed with filthy garments; but when they come to Christ, He says, ‘Take away the filthy garments from him: behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment.’ They are then clothed with the garments of salvation, and covered with the robe of righteousness, Isaiah 61:10; and being thus justified, those whom the Apostle addressed had put on Christ. But here it is their progress in sanctification he has in view. In the twelfth verse he had exhorted them to put on the armor of light; now he is enjoining the duty of perfect conformity to His holy image, bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; who gave us an example that we should follow His steps, who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth. Thus we are to cleave to Him with purpose of heart, and, as the Apostle elsewhere exhorts, that as we have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so we should walk in Him. ‘To put on Christ,’ says Calvin, ‘means our being surrounded and protected in every part by the virtue of His Spirit, and thus rendered fit for the performance of every duty of holiness. For the image of God, which is the only ornament of the soul, is thus renewed in us.’

“Provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof”Flesh here means the sinful principles of our nature. We are to make provision for the wants of the body, but we are to make no provision for its lusts. Whatever, then, tends to excite our corrupt propensities ought to be avoided.

Beautiful are the reflections of Archbishop Leighton, in his sermon on the four last verses of this chapter, from which what follows is extracted: — ’These words are as an alarm, or morning watch-bell, of singular use, not only awakening a Christian to his day work, but withal minding him what he is. The former Romans 13:11-12, tell us it is time to rise, and call us to put on our clothes, and, being soldiers, our arms. Romans 13:13 directeth our behavior and employment throughout the day. The last verse doth shortly and clearly fold up both together.

All the days of sinful nature are dark night, in which there is no right discerning of spiritual things: Some light there is of reason to direct natural and civil actions, but no daylight till the sun arise. ‘Tis night still, for all the stars, and the moon to help them: Notwithstanding natural speculation that are more remote, and all prudence and policy for affairs, that come somewhat nearer to actions, yet we are still in the night; and men sleep on in it, and their heads are still full of new dreams that keep them sleeping. They are constantly drunk with cares or desires of sense, and so their sleep continues. Now sleep is brother of death, and so by it not unfitly is the same state resembled.

It is time to awake, salvation is nearer than when ye believed. The bright day you look for is posting forward; it is nearer than when you began to believe: the night is far spent, the gross darkness is already past, some daylight it is, and is every moment growing, and the perfect full morning light of it is very near. O blessed Gospel revealing God in Christ, and calling up sinners to communion with him, dispelling that black night of ignorance and accursed darkness that otherwise had never ended, but passed on to a night of eternal misery.

“Put on the Lord Jesus” — Here we have the proper beauty and ornament of Christians. Him we put on by faith and are clothed with Him as our righteousness. We come unto our Father, in our Elder Brother’s perfumed garment, and so obtain the blessing, which He, in a manner, was stripped of, and did undergo the curse, and was made a curse for our sakes. So the Apostle speaks of Him. We put Him on as the Lord our righteousness, and are made the righteousness of God in Him. This investiture is first, when our persons are made acceptable, and we come into court. But there is another putting of Him on, in the conformity of holiness, which always accompanies the former, and that is it which is here meant. And this I declare unto you, that whosoever does not thus put Him on, shall find themselves deceived in the other, if they imagine it belongs to them. He is the armor of light before spoken of; all our ornament and safety is in Him.

Now follows, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof; and it will follow necessarily. O! to have the heart touched by the Spirit with such a word as is here — it would untie it from all these things. These are the words the very reading of which wrought so with Augustine, that, of a licentious young man, he turned a holy, faithful servant of Jesus Christ. While you were without Christ, you had no higher nor other business to do but to attend and serve the flesh; but once having put Him on, you are other men, and other manners do become you. There is a transcendent sweetness in Christ, that puts the flesh out of credit. Put on Christ, thy royal robe, and make no provision for the flesh. A soul clothed with Christ, stooping to any sinful delight, or an ardent pursuit of anything earthly, though lawful, doth wonderfully indignity itself.

Oh! raise up your spirits, you that pretend to anything in Christ; delight in Him, and let His love satisfy you at all times. What need you go a-begging elsewhere? All you would add makes you the poorer, abates so much of your enjoyment of Him; and what can compensate that? Put on the Lord Jesus, and then view yourselves, and see if you be fit to be slaves to flesh and earth.

These two, put on the Lord Jesus , and make no provision for the flesh, are directly the representation of the Church — a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, needed borrow no beauty from it, or anything under it.’

Bibliographical Information
Haldane, Robert. "Commentary on Romans 13". "Haldane's Exposition on the Epistle to the Romans and Hebrews". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/hal/romans-13.html. 1835.
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