GOD AND GOVERNMENT
Written by Doug Ponder on September 11, 2016
God and Government
I’ve often heard it said that it’s impolite to talk about religion or politics. However, Jesus talked about God and government all the time. (And he wasn’t rude.)
The same goes for the authors who were inspired to write the Scriptures. They did this because they knew the gospel is not just a message about ‘how to get to heaven’; rather, it is a triumphal declaration of Jesus’ lordship and a glorious announcement of the saving victory that he has won over sin and death for all who trust in him. It’s the good news that God is the world’s Creator, its only Savior, and its true Lord. And when he finally rights every wrong—as his resurrection guarantees—then all of creation will shout for joy at the return of the King (Psalm 98).
In other words, the gospel is the kind of message that is ripe with implications for religion and politics, especially how the two relate to one another. One of the most common applications of the gospel to the subject of God and government is how we should relate to the governing authorities over us. What the Bible says about this topic is difficult—not because it’s hard to understand, but because it’s hard for sinful hearts to obey.
What God Asks Us to Do
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom 13:1).
That verse means exactly what it sounds like it means. Christians (and all people, actually) are called by God to submit themselves to the authority of whichever rulers or governments are over them.
The reason we are to do this, Paul reminds us, is because all authority ultimately comes from God. He gave humanity the first laws ever laid down, and he included in our commission the call to have dominion—or rule responsibly—over all creation. Government was—and is—God’s idea. He invented it, and he did ‘for our good’ (Rom 13:4).
To see how government is good, try imagining a world where no answers when you call 911. Imagine living in a land with virtually no laws whatsoever. Or imagine removing every threat of punishment from crimes like stealing or vandalism or rape or murder. If these crimes are committed even in a world that punishes such actions, how much more common might they be in a world where there was no government to “bear the sword” as “God’s servants” and “agents of wrath who bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4).
This means we should submit to the laws of the land, giving to everyone what is owed (Rom 13:7). Speed limits to whom speed limits are due, building codes to whom building codes are due, homework to whom homework is due, rent payments to whom rent payments are due, student loan repayment to whom student loans are due, yard maintenance to whom yard maintenance is due, appropriate noise levels to whom appropriate noise levels are due, etc.
Even when we don’t like the rules—maybe especially in those cases!—we are called to obey them (1 Pet 2:13). For “whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted” (Rom 13:2). The only exception ever given in the Bible is when the government commands us to do what God forbids, or forbids us to do what God commands. In those instances, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Why It’s Hard to Obey
The difficulty of obeying God’s call to submit ourselves to governing authorities is not mainly because governments are made up of people who are sinners; it is mainly because we ourselves are sinners.
We are plagued by pride. We don’t like to submit to any authority because we all believe that we should be the authority. We think we should be mayor or president or king or even God himself. That’s what sin fundamentally is. It’s a rejection of God’s rule and an attempt to establish our own. It’s a way of saying to God, “Not thy will be done, but my will be done.”
The second reason we struggle to submit ourselves to every governing authority is fear. We worry deeply about what will happen if certain people come into power. So we delve deep into politics, hoping that we can control the future—it isn’t too strong a word—by controlling who gets into public office. Fear creates the frenzy.
The final reason it is hard to obey what God says about our relationship to governing authorities is because we are selfish. It is natural to love ourselves above all, to put our needs first, and to seek the interests of ourselves before those of others. “You gotta look out for number one,” people say. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world.”
How the Gospel Changes Everything
The gospel changes our heart toward God’s commands, including the command to submit to governing authorities. The gospel does this by removing our pride, fear, and selfishness and replacing them with a new Lord we can trust (instead of ourselves), a new life we can hope in (that can’t be taken away) and a new love to live for (which is better by far).
Simply put, the gospel reminds us that Jesus is Lord—and nobody else, thank God—it challenges our prideful self-confidence and replaces it with humble trust in Jesus. The gospel reminds us that Jesus is a merciful Lord, withholding what we deserve; he is a gracious Lord, giving what we have not earned; and he is a trustworthy Lord who went to hell and back for our sake. Therefore, we can trust him and submit to governing authorities for his sake (1 Pet 2:13), as a live for him and witness to his goodness and wisdom and beauty and power.
The gospel also shows us that we have nothing to fear. The worst that even the evilest of governments can do is take away our earthly life, but they can’t touch the new life given us to by Jesus. They can’t remove our forgiveness of sins. They can’t put Jesus back in the tomb. And they can’t undo his unshakeable kingdom of justice and peace for all eternity. That is where we are headed, and to the degree that we believe this, we will find it easier to submit to governing authorities without fear even as we shift our hope from politics to the polis, the city with sure foundations, whose builder and architect is God.
Finally, the gospel gives us a new love, replacing our selfishness with a selflessness that mirrors Jesus’ own love. This is why Paul concludes his discussion on God and government by talking about love (Rom 13:8-10). It’s because the gospel reminds us that “Christ died for all so that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for their sake” (2 Cor 5:15). And it’s the love of Jesus himself that drives us to this sacrificial selflessness, as we learn to see how he has loved us and others, we long to show that love to everyone we meet. Even the governing authorities who sometimes make our lives difficult.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is a regular contributor to RE|SOURCE. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.