In our previous blog we discussed the civil ruler’s role as the servant of God who carries out God’s wrath on the wrong doer. The civil ruler, according to the Apostle Paul is not to be “a terror to good conduct, but to bad.“(Romans 13:3a) Those that do good are to receive “his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good.” (Romans 13:3b-4a) But this language creates a quandary for us to resolve. You see, we are using moral language. Civil magistrates are to approve what is good and punish what is wrong. The question then is this, “Who gets to decide what is good and what is wrong?”
Is good and evil something that can be decided by one person? The answer to that question is no. Human beings do not have the authority to establish moral dictatorships. In the real world dictators do often create their own moral rules. And humans have suffered incalculable grief under such regimes. So then if good and evil cannot be decided by single individuals, can it be decided by a group. The answer here is also no. Morality is not an action or agreement arrived at democratically by a majority vote. I once heard the statement that “democracies are as bloody coming in as they are going out” in the political realm. The reason being is that if 51% of a population say that a cat is a dog, it doesn’t make it a dog. Cats are cats and dogs are dogs. God created them and God also created good and evil. Morality is not a matter of force, nor is it a matter of agreement, it is the sovereign prerogative of the Creator himself. Morality is created, not decided.
Where then do we find what good is? What wrong is? Let’s go to our Great Shepherd and learn how he defines “the good.”
16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
When the young man approaches Jesus he asks, “what good deed must I do to enter eternal life?” Jesus response to him is interesting. “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” Being an educated Jewish man, knowing that the Law of Moses was full of many commandments, the young ruler wants Jesus to be more specific, so he asks, “Which ones?” Jesus then quotes every commandment from the second table of the Ten Commandments except one, “you shall not covet.” Which of course is Jesus setting the trap to bring the man to a full understanding of the depths of his covetousness by instructing him afterwards to sell all that he has, give it to the poor, and come and follow Jesus. The man is offered apostleship if only he’ll divest himself of his earthly goods. He goes away sad. Our Lord is also made sad as he watches the man walk away. But onward to our point, which is this. When asked,”what good deed must I do?”, Jesus quotes from the Moral Law of God, more popularly known as the Ten Commandments. When Jesus thinks of doing good, He thinks of the Ten Commandments. Thus when the Apostles define sin, they also think of violating the Law.
1 John 3:4
“Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.”
So, when the Bible uses the moral language of good and evil, the touchstone for the discovery of good and evil is the Law of God. When we say then that civil rulers are to be a terror to “bad conduct“, we mean that they are to punish conduct that is contrary to God’s Law. And when we say that the civil ruler is to approve of those that do “good”, we mean that they are to reward actions that are consistent with the Law of God. If the civil ruler rewards evil, they are not being the servant of God, and thus they are acting contrary to their calling. Likewise if they are punishing good, they are also not being the servant of God, and are acting contrary to their calling as well. So the Bible places civil rulers squarely under God’s rule. They do not stand independent from Him. God instituted civil government. He is the creator of all things, visible and invisible. The rule or authority that He has given to the civil ruler is to be carried out in accordance with His Holy Law. Civil rulers are not free to make up law and do as they wish. Remember Paul’s point in Romans 13:1b, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
But what about nations that have never owned Christ? Are their civil rulers to do as they wish? Or are they also supposed to rule according to God’s Law? We’ll pick up that question next time.