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Bible Commentaries
Romans 13

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New TestamentSchaff's NT Commentary

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The theme of this part of the Epistle is given in chap. Romans 12:1: The believer saved by Christ through faith is to present himself a thank-offering to God; all Christian duty is praise for deliverance. For convenience we may divide this portion as follows:

I. GENERAL EXHORTATIONS; based directly upon the theme; chaps, 12, 13 (Strictly speaking, chap. Romans 13:1-7 forms a special discussion, see the Romans Book Comments and in loco.)

II. SPECIAL DISCUSSION regarding the scruples of certain weak brethren, who abstain from eating meat, etc.: Romans 14:1 to Romans 15:13.

III. CONCLUDING PORTION; personal explanations, greetings to and from various persons, with a closing doxology: chaps, Romans 15:14 to Romans 16:27.


In these two chapters the Apostle gives exhortations respecting Christian duties, based upon the controlling obligation to present ourselves a living thank-offering to God. Godet distinguishes these precepts as pertaining respectively to the religious (chap. 12) and to the civil sphere (chap. 13). We prefer to divide into sections as follows: (1.) Practical theme: duties according to special gifts; chap. Romans 12:1-8. (2.) Duties for all Christians in personal relations, springing from brotherly love and extending to returning good for evil; chap. Romans 12:8-21. (3.) The Christian’s duty to earthly rulers; chap. Romans 13:1-7. (4.) General exhortation to love, and to a Christian walk; chap. Romans 13:8-14. The thoughts are linked to each other rather than arranged by a formal method. Other divisions readily suggest themselves, but this will prove as convenient as any other.

Verse 1

Romans 13:1. Let every soul; every human being, but with reference to the life of the ‘soul,’ rather than of the ‘spirit,’ the former being the common life of the subject of a state.

Submit himself. This rendering suggests that the obedience is of a voluntary and rational character, not a servile and blind subjection.

To the authorities which are ever him. We substitute ‘authorities’ for powers,’ both because it is a more exact rendering and accords better with the use of the singular in the next clause. Political rulers are undoubtedly meant, and most probably all such, of every rank; the exclusive reference to the higher class of rulers being very doubtful.

For there is no authority (of any kind, the proposition being universal) but of God. The preposition, according to the received reading is more exactly ‘from;’ according to the better established text, ‘by.’ The former indicates that there is no authority apart from Him as the source; the latter that authority is established by Him. This general proposition is applied in the next clause, which gives the motive for obedience to the preceding exhortation.

They that exist. The word ‘authorities’ (E. V., ‘powers’) is not found in the best manuscripts and is rejected by modern editors. The reference here is to existing civil authorities, de facto governments, which the Apostle asserts, have been ordained of God. The simple, pellucid meaning of the Apostle, is that civil government is necessary, and of divine appointment. We infer that anarchy is as godless as it is inhuman; magistrates derive their authority from God, even when chosen by the people. This principle, moreover, respects the office, not the character of the ruler. But as the obedience is demanded because of God’s appointment, there inheres this limitation, that obedience is not demanded in matters contrary to God’s appointment. When the civil power is most directly under the control of the popular will, the personal responsibility of Christian citizens is greatest: to the duty of obedience are added those of political knowledge and prudence. Unfortunately the ‘rights’ are too frequently recognized more clearly than the duties; and history proves plainly enough that popular government, when, and only when the people are permeated by Christian principle contains in itself the preventive of revolutionary excess.

Verses 1-7

3. The Christian’s Duty to Rulers.

This exhortation has seemed to many out of place, since in Romans 13:8 the precepts resume their general character, and the connection with what precedes is not obvious. Some have found this connection in the persecuting character of the state; others discover an apologetical design; others again find reasons for the exhortation in the special circumstances of the church, while Godet thinks that the Apostle ‘after having shown the Christian consecrating his body to the service of God, places him successively in the two domains in which he should realize the sacrifice of himself: that of spiritual life properly so termed, and that of civil life.’ He includes Romans 13:8-10 in this section. But admitting this, we may yet find an occasion for the exhortation, and one, moreover, which serves to connect it with the closing thought of the last chapter. The Jews in Rome had been banished from the city for a time by the Emperor Claudius (A.D. 51) on account of their turbulent spirit. This turbulence was doubtless the result of the political character of their Messianic expectations. Nowhere would such a result be more pronounced than at Rome, and the Christians there, though not Jewish, could scarcely fail to be more or less affected in the same way. It is no reproach to them to assume that they had not yet understood what many, even now, do not recognize, namely, that the freedom of the gospel is primarily spiritual, out of which, by degrees, in the appointed way, a reformation and transformation of civil relations should proceed. Moreover, the character of the imperial rulers was such (Nero was then emperor) that the exhortation was only a specific application to the precept: ‘overcome evil with good’ (chap. Romans 12:21). By obedience to this exhortation, under such rulers, the Church of Christ won her moral victory over the Roman empire and heathendom. When she exalted herself to rule, instead of humbling herself to obedience, her weakness began.

The course of thought is simple: The duty of obedience to rulers and its motive in the divine appointment (Romans 13:1-2); another motive, from the salutary design of government (Romans 13:3-4); the two thoughts combined (Romans 13:5), and the principle illustrated from the universal paying of taxes (Romans 13:6), then applied in a detailed exhortation (Romans 13:7).

Verse 2

Romans 13:2. So that (as a result of the principle just stated) he who resisteth (or, ‘setteth himself against’) the authority, that particular existing authority, to which he should submit himself. (There is a play upon the words in the Greek which cannot be reproduced in English.

With-standeth, or, ‘opposeth;’ not the same word as before, though the E. V. renders both ‘resisteth.’

The ordinance of God. The word ‘ordinance’ corresponds with ‘ordained’ (Romans 13:1).

They that withstand shall receive to themselves judgment, or, ‘condemnation.’ The former is more literal, but the latter sense is evidently implied. ‘Damnation’ is incorrect, since it suggests future eternal punishment, which is not meant here. But the ‘judgment’ is from God, since it is His ‘ordinance’ which is withstood. That the rulers are instruments in inflicting the divine punishment is indicated in Romans 13:3-4, but the punishment may come in other ways. ‘Paul reproduces here in a certain sense, but in another form, the saying of Jesus (Matthew 26:52): “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”‘ (Godet)

Verse 3

Romans 13:3. For rulers (lit, ‘the rulers,’ as a class), etc. Some connect this with Romans 13:1, as an additional reason for obedience, namely, the salutary design of government; others find here the ground for the last clause of Romans 13:2. The former accords better with the fuller statements of Romans 13:3-4.

Not a terror to the good work, etc. ‘The good work’ and ‘the evil’ are personified. ‘Beyond the work, and to the intention, the prerogative of the magistrate does not extend’ (Meyer). If this verse gives a reason for the last clause of Romans 13:2, then ‘good work’ and ‘evil’ must be limited to obedience and resistance; which seems objectionable.

Dost thou then wish, etc. The clause may be taken as hypothetical: ‘Thou dost not wish,’ etc.

Thou shalt have praise from the same. In thus presenting an ideal of civil government, the Apostle gives the reason for obedience to rightful authority, and establishes a principle of general validity. But the ideal itself suggests that when rulers become a terror to the good work, another maxim can have place, that of the Apostles (Acts 5:29): ‘We must obey God rather than man.’ Nero had not yet shown his true character, when this Epistle was written. Even he persecuted the Christians as alleged evil-doers.

Verse 4

Romans 13:4. For he is God’s minister to thee for good. This is a purpose for which civil government was ordained of God (the word ‘God’s’ is in emphatic position). By the fulfilment of this purpose the relative excellence of forms of government may be determined. It is an empirical test, and does not assume that there is a jure divino form. The verse presents a confirmation of Romans 13:3: Dost thou then wish,’ etc.

Be afraid; for he weareth not the sword in vain. ‘Weareth’ points to the habitual bearing; ‘the sword;’ is not the dagger of the emperor and his prefect but the curved sword of the provincial Roman magistrates, which moreover was borne before them in public processions as a symbol of their right to punish with death.

An avenger for wrath, etc. The magistrate is God’s minister, not only for good, but in this respect also; he is ‘an avenger for wrath,’ it is his office to punish evil, to vindicate those who have been wronged (comp. Luke 18:3-8), for the execution of the Divine wrath, which is here named to strengthen the force of the argument. The theory of civil penalty here involved includes more than efforts to restrain and reform the criminal. The Apostle undoubtedly here asserts the right of capital punishment. He is describing an ideal of civil government, and this right has been and will be abused, to the extent that the state falls below this ideal. But the right remains; fully justified by the theory of punishment here advanced, and by the necessities of self-preservation on the part of society represented by the punishing power. Moreover, the right to punish also implies the right to pardon; and the measure of the right ( i.e., the conformity to the ideal here presented) will be also the measure of the sense of responsibility, both as to the punishing and pardoning power. The usual objections to capital punishment misapprehend both the nature of punishment in general, and the divine authority in civil government.

Verse 5

Romans 13:5. Wherefore ye must needs, etc. In accordance with what has been stated (‘wherefore’), the necessity of obedience rests, not only on grounds of prudence, because of the wrath, but on moral grounds, but also for conscience’ sake; obedience is a religious duty.

Verse 6

Romans 13:6. For, for this cause ye pay tribute also. This clause is indicative, not imperative (though the form in the Greek admits of either sense). The fact of tribute paying was universal, and ‘for’ seems to introduce a reason for this fact, rather than a motive for an exhortation. The connection is more doubtful. Some join ‘for this cause also’ with Romans 13:1-4, making this verse parallel with Romans 13:5 as the statement of smother result of the divine appointment. Meyer connects it immediately with Romans 13:5, finding here a result of the necessity there stated, as well as a confirmation of it. But, as that verse is an inference from what precedes, this view implies a reference to the entire discussion. ‘For’ introduces the fact of paying tribute as a proof that obedience is due for the reasons assigned in Romans 13:5. ‘Also,’ suggests the correspondence with other acts of obedience. The two views may be thus paraphrased: ‘Besides the necessity of obedience as just set forth (Romans 13:5), the authority of the magistrates is manifested in the fact of universal payment of tribute.’ The other view would be: ‘As a proof that it is necessary to obey for these two reasons (Romans 13:5), I adduce from among the duties prompted by these reasons (“for this cause”) one (“also”) universally performed, namely the paying of tribute.’

For they ( i.e., the magistrates) are the ministering servants of God. The emphasis rests on the word rendered ‘ministering servants,’ which is a stronger one than that used in Romans 13:4. It belongs to a class of words applied to the temple service of the Jewish priests (see marginal references). Our word ‘liturgy’ is derived from the same term. ‘According, those who rule, in so far as they serve the divine counsel and will, and employ their strength and activity to this end, are to be regarded as persons whose administration has the character of a divinely consecrated sacrificial service, a priestly nature’ (Meyer).

Attending continually upon (lit, ‘for’) this very thing. Godet joins ‘for this very thing’ with the preceding clause, but this seems forced. ‘This very thing’ may refer either to the payment of taxes, or to the entire ‘ministry’ of the magistrates. The wider thought of Romans 13:7 favors the latter view, which is preferable for the further reason that the participle, ‘attending continually,’ suggests a moral idea. ‘You pay taxes because they are necessary to maintain rulers, and it is necessary to maintain rulers because of the nature of the office, as ministering servants of God, whose constant duty it is to be a terror to evildoers and a praise to those who do what is beneficial.’

Verse 7

Romans 13:7. Render to all their dues. The weight of evidence is against the word ‘therefore,’ which would readily be inserted, since we have here an inferential exhortation. Some connect this verse with the next section, in view of its general statements; but it is a summing up of what precedes, and at the same time a transition to the more general admonitions which follow. ‘All,’ in this view, refers to all kinds of rulers, though the principle is applied in the next section to all persons.

Tribute, etc. ‘Is due’ is properly supplied in English, the Greek construction being elliptical. ‘Tribute’ is a direct tax on person or property.

Custom is a toll, or duty, on goods.

Fear .... honor. If the reference is to rulers, the former is to be applied to the proper sentiment and conduct toward the higher magistrates, especially judges, the latter to magistrates in general. Alford applies honor ‘to all on whom the State has conferred distinction.’ If the wider reference is accepted, ‘fear’ means the reverence paid to superiors; honor, the courtesy due to equals. This is a fair inference, but the more limited application seems preferable.

As regards the present application of the section a variety of opinion obtains.

Views: (1.) That the Apostle’s exhortation has no application to our time when Christianity is the governing principle of the civilized world. Here the premise is only partially true, and the conclusion not warranted by the premise, if true. (2.) That passive obedience to civil power is the invariable rule for Christians. This is a mechanical conception of the Apostle’s position, and opposed by considerations drawn from the New Testament itself. Moreover, where any branch of the government represents the people, the duty of opposing the rulers by constitutional means is a virtual denial of the theory of non-resistance. (3.) The correct view seems to be that the principles here laid down are of universal application, but that such application has of necessity its limitations and variations. The ideal of civil government here presented affords on the one hand abundant reason for obedience to rightful authority, and yet on the other makes room for Christian resistance to rulers who utterly and entirely depart from this ideal. But the Christian’s duty is to obey, until the duty of resistance is clearly proven. Such obedience has led to civil freedom, and consists with the highest spiritual freedom. When rendered as the principle here laid down, it continually asserts that the higher law is the basis of the lower authority, and thus tends to elevate the State toward the Apostolic ideal.

This ideal of the Apostle neither confounds Church and State, nor places them in antagonism, but properly coordinates them in Christian ethics. Romanism subordinates the State to the Church, usually placing them in antagonism. Erastianism subordinates the Church to the State, usually confounding them. Puritanism also confounded them, but with more of acknowledged theocratic principle. Godet well says: ‘The essence and origin of the two societies are different, their administration should remain distinct.’

Verse 8

Romans 13:8. Owe no man anything. On the connection of thought, see above. The clause is undoubtedly imperative, and the meaning is very wide, including all possible obligations to every human being, and not to be limited to a caution against pecuniary indebtedness.

Save to love one another. This is an exception which is not an exception. ‘Owe’ in the first clause refers to external obligations, but from the nature of the case the obligation referred to in the second clause is a moral one, the apprehension of which will grow with exercise. The more we love, the more we will feel the claims of love. This obligation can never be paid; hence here we must ‘owe,’ but we must here most faithfully attempt to discharge our obligations.

For he that loveth. This clause shows that the previous one was a command to love, irrespective of our inability to discharge the growing sense of obligation.

Another, lit, ‘the other,’ the other one who is loved, in the given case.

Hath fulfilled the law. ‘In and with the loving there has taken place what the Mosaic law prescribes, namely, in respect of duties towards one’s neighbor’ (Meyer). Love is more than a performance of the single precepts of the law, it is the essence of the law itself. ‘It reaches those lesser courtesies and sympathies which cannot be digested into a code and reduced to rule, it adds the flesh which fills it, and the life which actuates it’ (Webster and Wilkinson). The context (Romans 13:9-10) plainly shows that the Mosaic law is meant, while the whole Epistle excludes any idea of justification as based on this fulfilment. The Apostle is writing to those who love because they are justified.

Verses 8-14

4. General Exhortation to Love, and to a Christian Walk.

The more general exhortation of Romans 13:8 seems to have been suggested by the thought of obligation which underlies Romans 13:7: fulfil all obligations; but the universal one, which can never be fully discharged, is that of love to one another. The ground of this obligation, as the fulfilment of the law, is then discussed (Romans 13:9-10). A motive is introduced, drawn from the approaching day of the Lord (Romans 13:11-12 a), which is made the basis of further exhortations to a corresponding Christian wall, (Romans 13:12-14).

Verse 9

Romans 13:9. For this, etc. Four out of the five commandments in the second table of the law are cited: The received text inserts the ninth commandment also, but on insufficient authority. The seventh commandment here precedes the sixth, as elsewhere in the New Testament (Mark 10:19, received text; Luke 18:20; James 2:11). The same order occurs in some MSS. of the LXX; and Paul may have followed these. The tenth commandment is given in brief form. It forbids the most frequent cause of a violation of the rights of others. Only the second table is recalled, because duties to our neighbor are under discussion.

If there be, etc. This includes the omitted commandment, whether Paul had this in mind or not

Summed up again. The Greek word answers exactly to our word ‘recapitulate,’ to bring together again under one head. Comp. Ephesians 1:10.

This saying, lit, ‘word,’ a term applied to the commandment.

Thou shalt love, etc. The commandments were more than prohibitory, as this recapitulation by Moses plainly showed; see marginal references also.

Verse 10

Romans 13:10. Love worketh no ill to his neighbor, lit, ‘the neighbor.’ Alford: ‘All the commandments of the law above cited are negative: the formal fulfilment of them is therefore attained, by working no ill to one’s neighbor. What greater things love works he does not now say.’ Paul’s further comments on this thought may be found in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (Meyer).

Love therefore is the fulfilment of the law. A repetition of the proposition of Romans 13:8 after its truth has been demonstrated (Romans 13:9-10). ‘Fulfilment’ is a more accurate rendering than ‘fulfilling’ (E. V.).

Verse 11

Romans 13:11. And this. It is not necessary to supply anything; the sense is: and ye should the rather do this, i.e., Move one another’ (Romans 13:8), as afterwards expanded.

Knowing the season; since ye know the season. What this means is then explained: that it is already time, etc. We prefer this rendering as more exact

For you. The received text has ‘us.’ which does not appear in the E. V., but the oldest authorities support ‘you,’ which is the subject of the following infinitive. We therefore supply ‘you’ in our explanation of the preceding part of the verse, the whole being hortatory in its tone.

To awake out of sleep; it is already time that you should awake out of sleep. Meyer joins ‘already’ with the infinitive clause, which seems unnecessary. Since this exhortation is addressed to Christians, ‘sleep’ must be taken in a relative sense, and explained of ‘the state of worldly carelessness and indifference to sin, which allows and practices the works of darkness. The imagery seems to be taken originally from our Lord’s discourse concerning his coming: see Matthew 24:42; Mark 13:33, and Luke 21:28-38, where several points of similarity to our Romans 13:11-14 occur’ (Alford).

For now (not the same word as ‘already’) is salvation nearer to us (or, ‘is our salvation nearer’) than whom we first believed. This is the motive for the preceding exhortation. Of the renderings we give, the former is favored by the order of words in the original. ‘First believed’ is a correct paraphrase, indicating the single act of faith with which the Christian life began. ‘Salvation’ is regarded by most of the recent commentators as referring to the second coming of Christ. Others object to this view on the ground that it implies a mistaken expectation on the part of the Apostle, as well as because either the word ‘coming,’ or, ‘appearing,’ would be used, if that were the sense. The latter objection is not of much weight, since the word ‘salvation’ often has a future reference, and in the Apostle’s mind the blessedness of the future was intimately associated with the coming of the Lord. Further, even if Paul had a personal hope that the Lord would soon return, that did not interfere with his so writing that his teaching corrected the errors of others, because it was itself inspired. He himself knew that he could not know the time; and therefore he could not, and did not, teach any error on this point. Indeed, the very statements which are used to prove that he had this expectation prove even more clearly their own adaptation to the needs of the waiting church. They have been literally true in their application to Christians for centuries. On this great subject the Apostle taught the truth, as well as rebuked error. But Stuart, Hodge, and others maintain quite strongly the exclusive reference to the deliverance from present evil, the consummation of salvation for the individual believer in eternity. Undoubtedly we must accept such an application and press it as a motive, but the other view seems to be the correct one.

Verse 12

Romans 13:12. The night is far spent, etc. The figure here must be interpreted in accordance with the view taken of ‘salvation (Romans 13:11). ‘The night’ is primarily the period up to the Advent, the approach of which is indicated: the day is at hand. Of course there are other applications; ‘the day will break a hundred times, in ever greater potencies, between the first and the second coming of Christ’ (Lange). But it is fanciful to refer ‘the night’ to the spiritual condition of heathen Rome, and ‘the day’ to Christian Rome.

Let us therefore cast off, as one casts off his clothing, the works of darkness, works done in darkness, as their characteristic moral element; comp. Ephesians 5:11.

Let us put on the armor of light. Spiritual light is the possession of the believer; he is exhorted to put on the armor which properly be longs thereto. His clothing is not for luxury, or show, but for a conflict (comp. Ephesians 6:13). The ‘armor’ represents principles, modes of action, rather than the resulting good deeds.

Verse 13

Romans 13:13. Let us walk seemly, as in the day. Both ‘honestly’ (E. V.) and ‘decently’ (E. V. margin) are too limited, the reference being to decorum, such as befits the day when conduct is open to observation.

Not in rioting and drunkenness. The former refers to nocturnal revels, and was probably suggested by the figures of ‘night’ and ‘day;’ the latter means drunken carousals; both are plural in the original.

Not in chambering and wantonness. Various forms of secret vice are here indicated by the plural. These sins are closely connected with the preceding, often caused by them. In Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 4:19 and elsewhere, the word rendered ‘wanton ness’ occurs, but is translated ‘lasciviousness.’ It points to an abandoned sensuality.

Not in strife and jealousy. These follow in the train of sensuality, as Roman life was then testifying most sadly. (‘Envying’ is inexact.) The entire family of vices is well-known, and the relationship obvious.

Verse 14

Romans 13:14. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ. Comp. marginal references. In Galatians 3:27 the putting on of Christ is represented as a finished fact (in principle), but here the exhortation is to a continuous duty. In both cases vital fellowship is meant, but each step in the growing conformity to Christ is a new putting on of Him, so that we present Him, not ourselves, in our conduct.

And make not provision for the flesh, etc. There are two views of this passage. (1.) Flesh is taken in the strictly ethical sense; the meaning will then be: make no provision whatever for the flesh (the depraved nature), so as to fulfil its lusts, and also because such provision would fulfil them. In favor of this may be urged, the emphatic position of ‘flesh’ in the original; its usual sense in this Epistle, and the contrast with putting on Christ Jesus. (2.) Flesh is understood in its physiological sense, the material of the body, which is the source and seat of sensual desires. The sense then is, make such provision for the flesh, as shall not fulfil its lusts. The position of the word ‘not’ in the original favors this view, but it is otherwise objectionable.

Bibliographical Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Romans 13". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/scn/romans-13.html. 1879-90.
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