CIVIL RULERS: MINISTERS OF GOD
A Meditation on Romans 13:4
King Jesus has been exalted to the right hand of God for a specific purpose: “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11). And the knees and tongues of politicians, including presidents and prime ministers, are not exempt. They too must submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled” (Ps. 2:10-12a).
Jesus is Lord of all. Thus, we must dispense with the erroneous notion that while the Church is obligated to submit to God’s law, the state is permitted to transgress and trample upon God’s law. Earthly kings (and all political rulers) must “serve the LORD” by embracing the duties laid out for them in Scripture. The following is an extended quote by David Chilton that comes from his book Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators. It’s an exposition of Romans 13:4, which states the role and responsibilities of civil rulers.
The basic outline of the duties of civil government is found in Romans 13:4. Paul tells us that the civil authority “is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.”
Every civil ruler, Paul says, has an obligation to be “God’s minister.” In other words, he must administer the word of God in his sphere of authority. To the extent that he fails to do this, he is an unfaithful minister—just as any pastor would be an unfaithful minister of the gospel if he failed to apply God’s word to his congregation. Jesus Christ is Lord of all rulers, in heaven and in earth (Ephesians 1:20-22), and all rulers are commanded to submit to His Lordship or be destroyed (Ps. 2:10-12).
As God’s minister, the ruler has two responsibilities, both of which are mentioned in Romans 13.
- He must do good. What is “good”? Is God’s minister of justice free to decide that for himself? If so, we cannot condemn anything that rulers have done in the past. Hitler regarded the extermination of Jews as good; Nero thought it was a good idea to tax his citizens in order to fund his private orgies and public slaughter; obviously, we could go on and on. Public health care, minimum wage laws, and state-financed education may all seem “good” to us; but how can we be sure? There is only one way: we must go, as Isaiah said, “to the law and to the testimony.” God’s law is “holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12; Matthew 23:23). If God’s ministers in the state are faithful, they will go to God’s Old Testament laws to find out what they should do. Any standard of goodness which is not based on the law of God is not good; it is mere humanism. A state that departs from God’s standard is engaged in a vain and cursed attempt to deify itself.
- He must punish evildoers. What is an “evildoer”? Again we must ask: Is the ruler free to decide the answer for himself? To answer Yes is to give a despot a blank check for statist absolutism: he may decide that all babies in Bethlehem are “evildoers,” for instance. King Herod was only doing his job, therefore, when he ordered the murder of the infants (Matthew 2:16). Clearly God has given civil rulers the power of the sword: obviously, they are supposed to execute somebody. But whom? If your answer is based on anything but God’s law, I repeat: you’ve just handed the state a blank check—and God’s civil minister just might add you to his hit list.
But that’s not the end of the problem. Once you have decided who is to be punished, another question arises: What is the appropriate penalty for a particular crime? (Should a petty thief be hanged? Should a rapist be forced to stand in a corner? Should the entire Federal Reserve Board be flogged?) Again, the answers to these questions must be sought from God’s law. The rulers must study God’s standard of justice for the exercise of his ministry (Deuteronomy 17:18-20). And, as Jesus pointed out, justice is defined by Old Testament law. If we discard the law, we are left to wander aimlessly, with no basis for justice, no means of recognizing it, and no principles with which to apply it. Without God’s law, we have nothing but the “justice” of autonomous, rebellious humanism—which is to say, injustice. Conservatives and Libertarians are fond of talking about “the rule of law”; but if it is not the rule of God’s law, it is nothing but anarchy, the rule of lawlessness.
God’s commandments state precisely the responsibilities and limits of the state. And built into the law is a “strict constructionist” interpretation: the ruler “may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or to the left” (Deuteronomy 17:20). The ruler is a minister of God, not an advisor or legislator. His responsibility is to do all that God commands, and only what God commands. To do more or less, to turn to the right or to the left, is to deny the crown rights of King Jesus. (David Chilton, Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators, pp. 31-33).
Pastor Wayne Christensen, www.foxlakechurch.org, Nov. 22, 2015