In our previous blogs in this series we have established two main points.
- That God instituted civil government in Genesis 9:6, it was not created by human ingenuity.
- That God continues to approve of civil government and calls the civil ruler(s) “the servant of God” in Romans 13:4.
Now let’s conclude theses introductory topics of “On Being A Christian Statesman” by putting some legs to these two doctrines. Let’s posit them in the real world and describe their actions.
First let’s pretend that a crime has been committed against you. A person known to you has broken into your house and stolen all of your valuables. You now have a choice. Either you can go to the person’s home, and using force take your goods back. Or, you can call the local authorities and report it to them. Most people reading this are going to choose the latter. But why? Likely, it is because this is how it has always worked in the society in which you have lived. So it is a custom or a tradition for you. It is what you have been taught to do by your parents and society. But where does the idea originate? Where is it written that we as individuals are not to take the law into our own hands, but instead forego immediate personal justice (vigilantism), and wait for the police and the courts to meet out justice to our offender?
18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
So we, as private citizens, are to do everything within our power to live peaceably with all. We are not to avenge ourselves, but we are to wait and allow God to take vengeance and repay those who have wronged us. Let’s lay particular stress on verse 19, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves.” We are to leave the avenging of wrongs committed against us to God. Does that mean we are to wait until God causes them to stump their toe for a minor wrongs, or get really sick for more egregious acts, or maybe even permanent bodily harm in the case of really, really bad crimes? That is often the way we read this passage. As Christians we say we don’t believe in karma, but that is nothing more than sanctified karma. It is also not what the apostle is proposing.
Others interpret leaving the repayment of wrongs “to the wrath of God” as meaning the final judgment upon sinners at the end of time. That Christians are to just suffer wrongs done against them and to continue to love and serve their enemies. Christians are not to respond in kind, “repaying evil for evil” (Romans 12:17) but are to wait for God to suddenly destroy the wicked at the day of judgment. While this sounds “technically right”, it is actually not at all what the Apostle has in mind. Most people misinterpret this passage because of the pesky chapter heading. We have a terrible habit of resetting our mind every time we see a new chapter number, but often the chapter changes are arbitrary. The transition from Romans 12 to Romans 13 (along with Colossians 3 to Colossians 4) is one of the worst chapter break insertions in the Scriptures in my opinion. So, if the Apostle is not referring to some cosmic punishment by God, nor the final punishment of wrongdoers at the end of the age, what is he saying?
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves leave it to the wrath of God (12:19) and remain subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1). If we relate this back to our earlier pretend crime we could say it this way, “friend, don’t go to the man’s house and do harm to him to get your stuff back, instead report the crime to those who have the authority to reclaim it.” And who are those who have the authority to reclaim your stolen goods?
3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
So there is someone, a civil ruler, with a power given to them by God (for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God). The power that they have is to be used to be a “terror” to bad conduct. The power that they have is coercive in nature. It is called the “power of the sword”, meaning that the civil ruler can use force in carrying out their duty. Since they have this power and all power comes from God, when they use this power properly they are “the servant of God.” So while you are not to use force to reclaim your valuables, there is someone whom God has empowered that can. And when he does this, he is an “avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” Connecting Romans 12:19 to Romans 13:4 then, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves“, but leave it to the civil ruler who is the “servant of God“, an “avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
The idea that has been drilled into your mind, that you should not become a vigilante, but instead you are to wait and allow the police and courts to carry out justice on your behalf is not from the mind of man. It is from the mind of God. It was God who developed, in His Word, the basic formula for a peaceful, stable, and just society. He revealed and instituted a layer of authority above the personal and familial, the civil ruler, not only as a protection against the crimes of violent men, but also as a means for the working out of justice in a society. And it is from this arrangement that we recognize other biblical principles such as:
- Fixed Laws
- What constitutes good evidence
- The need for a judiciary
- The need for juries
- The need for armed local constables
- Fixed punishments
- and many, many other things besides
The West is not an accident of history, neither is it based on human ingenuity. It is uniquely Judeo-Christian. It was developed by looking intently at how God designed a society in the Old Covenant. And, using the principles found there, Western civil rulers under the influence of Christianity constructed societies based on the Law of Moses infused with the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Gospel. The result was the safest, most stable, most peaceful societies that the world has ever known. The reason the West so far outpaced the East since the coming of Christ, is simply because Christ, working through His Holy Spirit, has been ruling in many Western nations since before the Fall of the Roman Empire through His Word. Though the work has been imperfect because of human imperfections, nevertheless its effect was to bring a level of longterm safety, stability, and peace that was never before seen in the World. Let me translate that for you. You call the police because God told the fathers and mothers of your society in the Scriptures that vigilantism was wrong, and that instead they should erect a police force and a court system. And they passed this on to you. This civil tradition has unmistakeable Judeo-Christian roots.
Next up we’ll delve into what constitutes “good and bad conduct.”