It’s Always Right to Do What’s Right

Romans 13:2-7

January 10, 2010 | Brian Bill

I’ve had the privilege of teaching three of our daughters how to drive, starting each one out in the parking lot right here at church.  Over the years I’ve seen other aspiring drivers doing the same thing.  How many of you have used the parking lot like I have?  That explains the damage to the light poles in the middle of the lot.

Beth would rather that I handle the driving detail and I’m happy to do so.  But I do tell our daughters to do what I say not what I did when I was their age.  They’ve all heard the story about when I lost my license in high school for getting caught speeding twice…in the same week.  No matter how much I pleaded for mercy, the policeman said that he had to write me a ticket because I was going 55 in a 25-mile-an-hour zone.  Can you believe that?   I made my next mistake when I decided to not tell me parents, only to find out that they read all about it in the newspaper the next day.

A couple weeks ago I took Becca out so she could get some driving hours in.  We worked on signal lights, looking in the mirrors, speed, placement on the road, and the importance of always paying attention.  I found myself pushing on the floor of the car a couple times when I wanted her to brake.  While we were driving north on Route 66, Becca turned to me and asked, “Daddy, when will you teach me to drive with my knees like you do?” I acted like I didn’t hear her and when she repeated the question; I told her that that lesson would come much later.  I was busted because there have been many times that I have had my PDA in one hand and my phone in the other while my knees handled the steering.

Have you ever slowed down when you’ve seen a police car following you?  I had that experience just this week when I noticed I was being followed.  When I thought I was in the clear after making several turns, I looked in my rear view mirror and saw that I was still being followed.  My heart started racing a bit but I knew that I wasn’t doing anything wrong.  I breathed a sigh of relief when Officer Friendly turned and went in a different direction.

Imagine what would happen if we lived in a society with no local police, no state troopers, no Sheriff’s Department, or without any law enforcement at all.  When you call 911 there would be no response.  Imagine life without the National Guard or our military protecting our country.  What if there were no speed limits (that was actually the case when we lived in Mexico) and no traffic lights.  What if it didn’t matter what side of the street you drove on?  Imagine no fire department, no sidewalks, no street signs, no public schools, no snow plows, no public housing, no parks and no library.  Or what would we do without interstates or any roads for that matter?  Imagine no courthouse in the center of our town and no judges or juries to exact justice.  What would happen if there was no Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid?  

It’s All About ‘Who’

In the message last week called, “God, Government and You,” we learned that it’s not about what, it’s all about who.  While many say that God and government don’t mix very well, we saw from Romans 13:1 that government can only be understood to the degree to which we understand God.  We looked at two primary principles from this verse: 

  • Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities.  
  • All authority is established by God.   

Romans 13:2 helps us see who is behind the authorities: “Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”  The word “rebel” means “to take one’s stand against.”  It’s actually a military term to describe “getting in line, to arrange yourself to take action against.”  Paul is addressing people who have a tendency to get carried away with their opinions and demonstrations.

We see this in 2 Peter 2:10 when referring to the unrighteous who “despise authority” and in Jude 8 when describing false teachers: “…these dreamers…reject authority…” These are sobering words for us because not only is rebellion against authority really rebellion against the Almighty Himself; it will also bring judgment or punishment on those who do so.  An evangelist from a previous century had this to say: “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.”

Here’s where we’re headed this morning.  We’re going to keep the who in mind as we take a look at why it’s always right to do what’s right.  We’ll then focus on how we can do what’s right and finally we’ll conclude with when a believer may need to disobey an earthly authority.

Why It’s Always Right to Do What’s Right

I see three reasons why it’s always right to do what’s right in verses 3-4: “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.  Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority?  Then do what is right and he will commend you.  For he is God’s servant to do you good.  But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing.  He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” 

1. Because those in government are God’s servants. 

Two different times in verse 4 we see that rulers are referred to as “God’s servants.”  This word in the Greek is diakonis, from where we get the word “deacon.”  This may seem surprising to you but hold on because there’s another word to describe the authorities that is even more startling in verse 6.  There we read that authorities are “God’s servants” again but the Greek word here is lietourgus, or in our language “liturgist.”  This word was used to describe those involved in leading worship.  Most of us don’t think of government workers as liturgists for the Lord in the halls of ordained government.  When Jehoshaphat appointed judges in 2 Chronicles 19:6-7, he said this: “Consider carefully what you do, because you are not judging for man but for the Lord, who is with you whenever you give a verdict.  Now let the fear of the Lord be upon you. Judge carefully, for with the Lord our God there is no injustice or partiality or bribery.” 

2. Because governments are to preserve what is right.  

Look at verse 3: “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right…then do what is right and he will commend you.”  Drop down to verse 4: “For he is God’s servant to do you good.”  This is much better than the situation described in the very last verse in the Book of Judges: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25).  A tidal wave of evil would crash over the world if there were no civil authorities restraining rebellion.

When rulers function as God’s servants, then they are in a position to do good and to commend those who do good

When rulers function as God’s servants, then they are in a position to do good and to commend those who do good.  Admittedly, Paul is speaking of an ideal situation.  There’s no reason to be afraid of the authorities if you’re not doing anything wrong.  A police car in your rear view mirror should not cause terror, unless you’re steering with your knees.  I’ve always loved Proverbs 28:1: “The wicked man flees though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.” 

Governments make laws, but sometimes those laws leave us scratching our heads.  Here are some actual laws that are still on the books in Illinois.

  • It is against the law to make faces at dogs (Normal).
  • Spitting on the sidewalk is a criminal offense (Ottawa).
  • Ice skating at the Riverside pond during the months of June and August is prohibited (Moline).
  • No person may keep a smelly dog (Galesburg).  I guess we can’t ever live there.

And it wouldn’t be fair to not include some from Wisconsin.

  • As people used to smuggle it in from Illinois, all yellow butter substitute is banned.
  • State Law made it illegal to serve apple pie in public restaurants without cheese.
  • It is strictly forbidden to cheer for any team from the flatlands of Illinois.

I’m not making any of these up…except for that last one…but it should be a law if it isn’t.

3. Because governments are to punish wrongdoers. 

The first part of verse 3 says that rulers hold terror “for those who do wrong.”  And in verse 4 we read: “But if you do wrong, be afraid for he does not bear the sword for nothing.  He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”  We don’t use the phrase, “to bear the sword” today but it basically means that government has the right to severely punish those who do wrong.  Swords back then were used for beheading.  In fact, according to tradition, Paul himself experienced the cruelty of the Romans sword when Nero beheaded him.

Proverbs 20:2 says, “A king’s wrath is like the roar of a lion; he who angers him forfeits his life.”  That’s why it’s never a good thing to “talk smack” to a police officer or get lippy with a judge.  Here’s the deal.  Government is ordained by God for the protection and preservation of social order and for the punishment of those who do evil.

How to Do What’s Always Right

We need to keep the who in mind as we focus on the what and the why.  Because God is behind all authority and He has put them in place, we must submit to them – that’s the what.  We’ve been given the why behind the what – because those in government are servants of God, they’re to preserve what is right and they’re to punish wrongdoers.  And now we’ll see how we’re to respond.

1. Keep your conscience clear. 

Verse 5 tells us to submit to authorities so we avoid punishment “but also because of conscience.”  It’s not just so that we don’t get caught; it’s so that our conscience stays clear.  Or to say it this way: We’re to submit to authorities because it’s the right thing to do.  Many people submit to avoid wrath but don’t do so for the sake of conscience.  They reason, “As long as I can get away with it and avoid the punishment then I have no problem breaking the law.”  It means that when you’re taking a test at school and you have the opportunity to cheat and nobody’s going to find out, it’s not just a matter of getting caught or not.  It’s a matter of conscience because to cheat on a test is to really cheat on God.

I’m drawn to the Apostle Paul’s purposeful living in Acts 23:1: “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day” and in Acts 24:16: “So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.” And we read this in Hebrews 13:18: “Pray for us.  We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way.”

Most of us need to do a better job of keeping our conscience clear by speaking up for Christ when we should.  I was delighted to hear how Brit Hume responded to a question about what Tiger Woods should do during his Sunday show on “Fox News Sunday.”  Here’s part of what he said: “He’s said to be a Buddhist; I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger would be, ‘Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.’”  

One Monday night, Bill O’Reilly asked Brit Hume to elaborate some more.  Here’s what Brit said: “He needs something that Christianity especially provides and gives and offers, and that is redemption and forgiveness…think of what the message of Christ and Christianity is. It is that the God of the universe sent His only begotten Son, who died a hideous death on the cross, to atone for all of our sins…Jesus Christ is something that Tiger Woods greatly needs.”  Near the end of his interview he said that the name of Jesus has always been explosive. May we have the courage to speak up as well.

2. Pay your taxes. 

Check out verse 6: “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.”  None of us like paying taxes but we should do so because the Bible tells us to.  I heard someone say that in light of the volatility in the stock market we should put all our money into taxes because that’s the only thing that’s sure to go up!

Perhaps you can relate to what Pastor Ray Stedman did when he had to pay a lot of taxes to a government that in his opinion wasted most of the money.  So one year he wrote a check to the “Infernal Revenue Service.”  It made him feel better, until they cashed the check.  The next year he changed it to the “Eternal Revenue Service” but they still took his money.  Finally, he said “I repented of all my sins and I now hope to pay my taxes cheerfully. The largest amount I have had to pay is due this year, but I want to send it off with thanksgiving to God for the government that we have—bad as it is in many ways.”

Jesus believed in paying taxes and led his disciples to do the same, even though the Roman government to which He paid them crucified Him.  Turn to Matthew 17:24-27: “After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma (two-days wages) tax came to Peter and asked, ‘Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?’  ‘Yes, he does,’ he replied.  When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. (I love how Jesus already knew that Peter had been asked this question) ‘What do you think, Simon?’ he asked. ‘From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes – from their own sons or from others?’ ‘From others,’ Peter answered.  ‘Then the sons are exempt,’ Jesus said to him.  ‘But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. (Even though a miracle was about to take place, Peter still had to do something) Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin.  Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.’” 

There’s a lot that can be said about this encounter but I want to just point out that Jesus demonstrated his submission to the ruling authority by paying the tax.

3. Be a good citizen. 

Of all the citizens in the world, followers of Christ should be the best

Of all the citizens in the world, followers of Christ should be the best.  We see this in verse 7: “Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue, if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”  This verse is so clear it needs very little comment.  Because government authorities are “ministers of God,” they deserve four things from us: Taxes, revenue, respect and honor.  By the way, we may think we are heavily taxed, and we are, but hardly more so than the first century.  Rome had an income tax, a head tax, a poll tax, a road tax, a wagon tax, a crop tax, an import tax, an export tax, a harbor tax, and a bridge tax, just to name a few.

We can learn a lot about respect and honor from the example of the Apostle Paul when he was brought before a governmental authority in Acts 26:2-3: “King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defense…I beg you to listen to me patiently.”  Because Paul was polite and respectful, he gained a hearing to share the gospel.

I’d like us to give respect and honor to all those who gain their living in some way through our tax dollars.  Would you please stand if you work for the city, the county, the state or our federal government?  I know that we have police officers, state police troopers, sheriff’s deputies, correctional officers, parole officers, city officials and administrators, public school administrators, staff and teachers.  Would you please stand so we can honor you right now?   Have I missed anyone?  If so, can you shout out what you do so we can include you?

When to Do What’s Always Right

I mentioned last week that I would attempt to answer a question that goes something like this: “Is there ever a time when a Christian should not obey the government?” There are some related questions that go with this one.  How do you explain the American Revolution in light of Romans 13?  What about the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement?   What about the Tea Party movement?  Did you hear this past week about the homeschooling parents in New York who were arrested on child endangerment charges for not registering with their local school district?  Recognizing that Christians come down on both sides of these issues, allow me to share some guiding principles.

1. God is the ultimate authority over all other authorities. 

I love the reminder found in Isaiah 40:22: “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers.”  

2. Submission does not equal silence. 

There are times when believers must speak up about moral matters, but we must do so respectfully.  

3. Submission does not necessarily equal absolute obedience. 

Several commentators have pointed out that Paul urges us to submit to the governing authorities, but not necessarily to obey them.  Some believe that this allows room for civil disobedience.  We could say it this way: We’re to submit to God’s delegated authorities in the home, church and state right up to the point where obedience to them would entail disobedience to the absolute sovereignty of God.”

4. The Bible allows for civil disobedience when the government forbids us from doing something that God commands. 

Here are some Biblical examples.

  • In Daniel 6:10, after the king had issued an edict that no one could pray to anyone but him, we read this: “Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem.  Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.” 
  • In Acts 4:19-20, after being commanded by the religious authorities to not speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus, Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.  For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
  • Just one chapter later, after being put in jail and then miraculously set free, the apostles began teaching and preaching about Jesus again and the authorities are really upset now and so the chief priest lets them have it.  Look at Acts 5:28: “‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,’ he said. ‘Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching…’” I love the short but profound answer the apostles give in verse 29: “We must obey God rather than men!”

5. The Bible allows for civil obedience when the government commands us to do something that God forbids. 

Let’s look at these examples from the Bible.

  • In Exodus 1:17, after being ordered by the king of Egypt to kill all new-born baby boys, “The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.”  
  • In Daniel 3, after King Nebuchadnezzar demanded that everyone fall down and worship his image of gold or else be thrown into the fiery furnace, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to do so.  When the king gave them a second chance, we read these words in verses 16-18: “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter.  If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king.  But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.’” 

John Stott summarizes this issue succinctly: “The principle is clear: We are to submit right up to the point where obedience to the state would entail disobedience to God.  But if the state commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands, then our plain Christian duty is to resist, not to submit, to disobey the state in order to obey God.”

6. What fires you up might not fire me up. 

Follow God and your conscience but don’t expect everybody to feel as passionate as you are about something.  The problem often is discerning whether a given law clearly and absolutely “contradicts” God’s law.  It’s therefore difficult to set down hard and fast rules covering every situation because one person’s Christian conscience may lead in one direction while another person may choose to do something else or not participate at all.  Some faithful people chose to get away from their governments, like the Huguenots who fled from France to England and the Puritans who exited England to practice their faith in America.  Let’s make sure we exhibit Christian liberty and charity.

7. If you must disobey, do so respectfully and be willing to accept the consequences. 

When the three Hebrew boys disobeyed the king’s direct orders, they spoke respectfully to him.  We can say that they disobeyed with a respectful heart. Proverbs 24:21says: “Fear the Lord and the king, my son, and do not join with the rebellious.”

Submission must be our first impulse.  That wasn’t Peter’s default setting, was it?  When Jesus was arrested in the Garden, Peter grabbed a sword and whacked off the ear of the high priest’s servant.  After Jesus put the guy’s ear back on (which is pretty cool, by the way), He turned to Peter and said these words in Matthew 26:52, “‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’”  John MacArthur adds this: “Apart from the most difficult circumstances, in all other circumstances we are called to submit to the government which is over us.”

Ray Pritchard offers these helpful words: “It’s sometimes better to keep quiet than to speak out in anger.  But if you choose the course of civil disobedience, it seems to me that it must be over an issue of clear biblical teaching, it must be done publicly so that others can draw the right lesson, it ought to be done in concert with other believers, it must be accompanied by prayer and repentance, and finally, if you do break a law as a form of protest, you must then face the fact that you may be punished for your actions.”

I think of Esther, who after weighing what might happen to her for going into the king to advocate for her people, said these famous words in Esther 4:16: “…I will go to the king, even though it is against the law.  And if I perish, I perish.”  That reminds me of the pastors who lived during the time of Nazi Germany who went to prison not for revolting but for speaking out against the government.

8. Keep the main thing the main thing. 

1 Peter 2:13-17 captures what can happen when Christians practice good citizenship: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.  For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.  Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.  Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.”

Paul writes in absolute terms about submission because he is more concerned that we live out our faith, that we practice kindness and give to the poor and that we look after widows and orphans.  This is all more important than our civil liberties.  One preacher said this: “I cannot imagine Paul writing this way if he thought that the ultimate thing in life was being treated fairly by the government.  But I can imagine him writing this way if faith and humility and self-denial and readiness to suffer for Christ and our joy in God are the main thing.”  

Pastor James Lincoln hits it on the head: “Beloved, if we suffer the loss of rights, we have only become more like Christ. That’s not to say we shouldn’t advocate and defend God-given rights. We should do this.  It means not finding in them our greatest or final hope, joy or ambition. Knowing Christ, loving God and being satisfied in Him is our greatest hope and joy. Beloved, if success is your God then God isn’t.  If wealth is your God then God isn’t.  If health is your God then God isn’t. If power and honor is your God then God isn’t. Governments can take these things away.  However, only one is worthy to be your God.  Only one is able to hold the heavy weight of your joy, hope and faith and that is God himself through His Son Jesus.  And no one can ever take the blessings of His love and mercy away from us.  So, beloved, Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.  He is God’s servant…And give unto God what is God’s, for He is your God. And as you do, may the joy of the Lord be your strength.” 

Practicing What Is Preached

We’re all going to have to wrestle with this teaching in submission to the Scriptures, in obedience to the Holy Spirit and in sensitivity to our conscience.  Here are some application ideas that you can flesh out on your own.

  1. Evaluate whether or not you have an attitude of submission to God and to government.
  2. Pray for those in authority (see 1 Timothy 2:1-6).
  3. Look for ways to encourage those in authority.
  4. Vote your values.  In 2002, only 43% of evangelical believers even bothered to vote, and that’s higher than in other years.
  5. Get involved in government as you are led.
  6. Consider your witness.
  7. Determine whether you are leading a life of worship (see Romans 12:1-2).

In his Epistle to Diognetus, an anonymous second-century Christian wrote the following beautiful description of believers who genuinely obey the commands of Romans 13:1-7: “For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.“They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and yet suffer all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their babies. They share their table with all, but not their bed with all. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. “They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their exemplary lives. They love all men and yet are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonored and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good yet are punished as evildoers.  “When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum it all up in one word—what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.”

Whether you’re driving with your knees, or you’re on your knees, it’s always right to do what’s right.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?