The Purpose of Government
There are certain things that don’t go together. Over the past few years, axe-throwing has become popular. It’s apparently like darts, but with axes…and it usually takes place at a bar. It seems to me that alcohol and axe-throwing are a bad combination. They really don’t go together. Over dinner the other night, I asked some of my family about other things that don’t go together. Hygiene and middle school boys was one. They should go together, but normally don’t. Another was NC State football and championships. Another was bacon and…actually we couldn’t think of anything. Bacon makes everything better.
This morning we start a sermon series on politics. The church and politics: two words that often don’t go together. Two words that many people don’t think should go together, right? The separation of church and state. Why are we taking time in church to talk about politics? Should we spend time in church thinking about politics? Those are fair questions. Obviously, I and the other elders, think it’s not only appropriate, but wise for us to do so. To help you understand why we’re doing it and how we’re going to do it, let me start this series with four assurances.
Assurance #1: This sermon series is not about who or what to vote for in the coming election. We don’t believe the pulpit should be the place to practice politics, and so we won’t be practicing politics. We’re not going to be talking about candidates or policy positions. No statements we make will be explicit or implicit endorsements. If you’re hoping to learn from us how to vote or even discern how we plan to vote, you’ll be disappointed. I encourage you not to take what we’re teaching and identify it with a certain candidate, platform, or party.
Assurance #2: This sermon series is about discipleship. The role of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. A disciple of Jesus learns from Jesus and commits to follows Jesus every day in every way. How does Jesus want His disciples to think about politics? How does He want His disciples to engage in a highly-politicized climate? This is what we will consider. We will think deeply about how to be distinctly Christian in our understanding of politics. Listen, all of us are being discipled about politics. The only question is who is doing the discipling. Is it cable news, Facebook, family members or the Bible? Who tells you how to think about being both a Christian and an American? How to understand earthly and heavenly citizenship?
Assurance #3: This sermon series recognizes that good desires drive political engagement. The Bible is clear that genuine faith produces good works. We are saved by faith alone, but faith never remains alone. The evidence of faith on an individual level is a life of good works. These good works on a larger scale we call “justice.”
What does justice look like in a society? What is the most just way to organize the different communities—local, state, and national—that we belong to? Because we care about doing good works, we care about justice. We want just laws, just judges, just police officers, and just community servants. A longing for justice to be done drives political engagement. It’s why people get so passionate about politics. They see injustice, and they want someone to do something about it.
Assurance #4: This sermon series also recognizes that good desires often become idols. The way the Bible portrays idolatry is a good desire made ultimate. We rarely make idols out of bad things. But we take good things and turn them into gods, and we give these gods are time, effort, and money. We take gifts from God, like family, security, money, sex, influence, work, approval, acceptance, and we order our lives in such a way that we focus everything on attaining them. We live for them. We worship them. Politics is one of those good things that often becomes an idol. One author described it well:
“The story of politics is the story of how you and I arrange our days, arrange our relationships, and arrange our neighborhoods and nations to get what we most want—to get what we worship. Every one of us employs whatever power we possess, including the mechanisms of the state, to gain whatever we find most worthy of worship.”
Since politics often becomes an idol, one of our goals in this series is to expose that idolatry in your life. Like the OT judges, I want to knock over the idol of politics, to destroy the high place politics holds in your heart. That could be painful, and you may not like it. If you get angry or frustrated over something we say, take it as an invitation to self-examination. Ask yourself if your annoyance is because one of your idols was knocked over.
Now that you understand what we’re doing the next few weeks, let’s jump into our text for this morning. In Romans 13, the apostle Paul explains the purpose of government and the responsibility of Christians to government. This morning we’re going to focus exclusively on the role of government. Next Sunday we’ll look at how we should respond.
(Romans 13:1–7 ESV) 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.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  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,  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.  Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.  For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.  Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
1. The Origin of Government
In verse 1, Paul mentions the “governing authorities.” He’s talking about human beings in positions of power within local and national governments. Where does their power come from? Where do governments come from? To answer that question, we need to understand what government is. Government is a word you use, but is it a word you can define? I’m not sure I could have before this week. A simple and clear definition of government is the “collective ordering of society.”
Let me illustrate what that means. When Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway washed up on a desert island, he had no need for government. He was the only person on the island (Wilson, the volleyball, doesn’t count). He could develop his own set of rules—like when and what to eat, how to use supplies that washed ashore—but he was free to change them if he wanted. But what if another castaway had survived? There are two of them on the island. Tom Hanks wants to eat every day, but the other castaway wants to eat every other day. How do they decide to order their society? In order to function well and not kill each other, they make rules or laws to help them operate justly. What if more castaways made it to the island? Now you not only need more laws, but some fair way to make, interpret, and enforce the laws. That’s government—collectively ordering a society.
So, government is about authority. Who has the authority to order a society? Who has the authority to make laws and enforce them? Clearly that’s the issue in Romans 13. The word authority is used 5x in these 7 verses.
Now how do rulers normally gain authority? Historically there are three main ways.
• First is birthright. A king passes authority down to one of his children.
• Second is strength. A tribal leader amasses followers and rises up to overthrow the current leader and take his place.
• Third is social contract. Laws are agreed upon, elections happen, and the governed consent to the duly appointed leaders.
To our human eyes, we think authority is something granted by the king or citizens or gained through power. But that’s not the case. Authority belongs to God, and He gives it to governments as He sees fit. This is what God said to Adam and Eve in the Garden. He told them to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. God was investing them with authority as His representatives to bring order to society.
In verse 1, Paul says all authority belongs to God, and governing authorities exist only because God has instituted them. Authority belongs to God. He loans it to governments, and He takes it from them.
• When Jesus stood before Pilate, a representative of the mighty Roman empire, He told Pilate: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). Above was not the Roman emperor, but God Himself.
• Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (an early world power), learned this lesson in a painful way, not long after Daniel told him, “the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom He will” (Dan. 4:17).
Here’s what we need to understand, brothers and sisters. The state is not God, but God’s servant (v.4). The mightiest government is nothing more than a foot-washing, table-waiting servant of the Most High. Though a nation may have an impressive nuclear arsenal, they exist only as long as God allows. Putting your hope in an earthly government is like falling in love with a ventriloquist’s dummy. They cannot exist apart from their master. At any moment, they can be packed up and shoved in a suitcase. If you were in danger, you wouldn’t cry out to the puppet to save you. Governments cannot save a person. That authority doesn’t belong to them. Let’s not act like it does.
Where do governments come from? Ultimately, they come from God. God governs the world through His representatives, and He arranges governments to serve His purposes.
2. The Duty of Government
God invested government with authority for a specific purpose, a particular duty. Though none do it perfectly and many fail completely, government has a job description from God. What we find in this chapter is a description of how government is supposed to function, but no government completely matches this description. The apostle Paul was a citizen of Rome and also an Israelite—he had been falsely accused, beaten, and imprisoned by both governments. He understands governments are imperfect, but he describes the duty of government in these verses.
Just because governments often fail doesn’t mean we get rid of them completely and embrace anarchy. Spouses fail, but marriage is still good. Parents fail, but families are worth it. Governments fail, but they are a necessary part of God’s world. We can describe their duty with two phrases: Justice through judgment, and prosperity through peace.
• Justice through Judgment
God gives governments authority to judge those who break the law, so that justice can be maintained. This is what Paul is saying in verses 3—4. Rulers are a terror to those who would hurt and harm other people. They have been given the power of the sword—the power of judgment—so that people will be protected.
When Noah got off the ark after God had judged the world through a flood, he received the same blessing and instruction that God gave Adam in the Garden. He was to be fruitful, multiply, subdue and fill the earth (Gen. 9:1—7). He was to govern God’s creation as God’s representative. But there was one additional instruction God gave to Noah. He said: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his image” (Gen. 9:6 ESV). God was giving the governing authorities the duty of preserving justice through judgment. Governments affirm the value of every life, every image bearer, by judging those who would take advantage of other people.
One author described government as “a sort of umpire that maintains order, makes judgments…and protects the people.” The role of umpire, the duty to judge is not given to individual citizens but to governments. At the end of chapter 12, Paul tells the Christians not to avenge themselves, but leave it to the Lord to bring vengeance (Rom. 12:19). The Lord brings vengeance on the violent through government. Good governments protect all citizens—especially the weak and vulnerable—by executing judgment on those who violate the law.
The other part of a government’s duty is:
• Prosperity through Peace
When a government is able to keep the peace and provide order and stability, it produces an atmosphere for its citizens to prosper. In verses 6—7, Paul tells the Christians to pay their taxes and tolls. Taxes and tolls are necessary instruments of the government to ensure justice and peace. As much as we hate paying a toll to drive on a road, we like well-maintained roads. Well-maintained roads allow vehicles to move goods easily to stores, so we can buy and sell at affordable prices. Taxes pay for police to make sure those same roads are safe. A well-ordered government is a blessing to the people it serves.
The book of Proverbs says it like this: (Proverbs 29:4 ESV) By justice a king builds up the land, but he who exacts gifts tears it down.
When the nation of Israel was living in exile in Babylon, God told them to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7 ESV). A peaceful city, a peaceful country allows its citizens to prosper.
We see this if we look back to our island filled with castaways. As they organize a basic government with laws and leaders, they do so to protect each citizen from harm, to protect the weak from being taken advantage of by the strong. The laws and leaders make sure they all get enough food to survive, and that no one steals food from anyone else. But that’s not all the government does. It also organizes the castaways to build shelter and plant crops, level trees and make paths. It schedules a rotation of people manning the signal fire to alert passing ships. It keeps everything running peacefully so that together everyone prospers.
God instituted government to bring about justice and prosperity for its citizens.
Let me end with an encouragement and a caution.
First, an encouragement to the overly pessimistic. The English writer G.K. Chesteron said, “Seemingly from the dawn of man all nations have had governments, and all nations have been ashamed of them.” Maybe you’re ashamed of our country’s government, disillusioned by politics, and tempted to withdraw entirely from the social square. You’re on the verge or have become a political agnostic—you believe it’s pointless and a waste of time, nobody knows what they are doing. I understand why you feel this way—it’s my natural bent as well.
We have to be careful about ignoring what God says about government—why He instituted it and what good it can accomplish. At its best, government serves God by serving people. Mark Dever writes: “Government does good by maintaining civil order and peace and providing a stage for us to obey God’s commands to fill the earth and subdue it.” God uses good government to make sharing the gospel easier (1 Tim. 2:1-4), by protecting freedom for us to worship without danger. One pastor said:
“We don’t want a government that thinks it can offer redemption, but a government that..builds the streets so that you can drive to church, protects the womb so that you can live and hear the gospel, insists on fair-lending and housing practices so that you can own a home and offer hospitality to non-Christians, works for education so that you can read and teach your children the Bible, protects marriage and the family so that husbands and wives can model Christ’s love for the church, polices the streets so that you are free to assemble as churches unmolested and to make an honest living so that you can give money to the work of God.”
Fight your pessimism by thanking God for the good you see in governments, praying for evil governments to turn from injustice and begin doing what God has instituted them to do, and when possible working to ensure local governments are laboring for justice and peace.
Second, a caution to the overly optimistic. This year will be the 11th presidential election of my life. As far as I know, every single one has been “the most important election of my lifetime.” I’m not sure how that’s possible. As much as we would love to see a government operating as God intends, our hope is not in government. Government cannot save, it can only serve.
When we think government can save, then we start to view political leaders as messiahs, coming to deliver God’s people. There is only one Messiah, and He has already delivered God’s people. Jesus was the king who died in order to rescue us from death. Those saved by Him, who bear His name should be the last people to long for a political savior. In no way is Christianity dependent on the government. Our King sits in heaven and the nations are His footstool. Taxes may belong to Caesar, but everything, including Caesar, belongs to Jesus.
Though a good government is a blessing to people and can provide a peaceful environment for Christians to share the Gospel, the Gospel cannot be hindered by any human institution. Since salvation came when a corrupt government unjustly executed Jesus, we should be confident the gospel will move forward unhindered by the quality of government. I urge you not to put your confidence in the results of an election, the ruling of a judge, or the passing of a law. As one pastor wrote, “Christians are like cockroaches. We can survive anything by the grace of God. We are not dependent on just governments for the gospel going forward.”
Jesus encouraged His disciples that His church will advance in spite of opposition. Not even the gates—the very government—of hell can stop us. We are a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:5—6) with a mission to cross borders and rescue men and women from destruction. The governments of this world cannot do that, nor can they stop pit. Governments are temporary, while the church is eternal.
So, Christian, be a good citizen. Pray for good leadership. Participate locally in works of justice and peace. But don’t trust put your trust in government. Remember, a Christian is one who trusts God, not man. This is true in every area, including politics. Let me end with a helpful reminder from Bruce Ashford, professor at Southeastern Seminary: “Good politics will not save us from what ails us most; neither will bad politics take away what matters most.” What matters most is the Gospel of Jesus Christ going out to all the nations. This, in every season, even election season, is our priority.
 Jonathan Leeman, How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 2018), 25.  Bruce Ashford and Chris Pappalardo, One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2015), 8.  Bruce Ashford and Chris Pappalardo, One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2015), 38—39.  Quoted in Bruce Ashford and Chris Pappalardo, One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2015), 1.  Mark Dever, God and Politics: Jesus’ Vision for Society, State, and Government (Great Britain: 10Publishing, 2016), 20.  Jonathan Leeman, How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 2018), 126.  Mark Dever, God and Politics: Jesus’ Vision for Society, State, and Government (Great Britain: 10Publishing, 2016), 28.  Bruce Ashford and Chris Pappalardo, One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2015), 57.