Our Relationship to the State (preaching resource for 9/10/23, 15th Sunday after Pentecost)

This post exegetes Romans 13:1-14, providing context for the 9/10/23 RCL Epistles reading drawing on "The Expositor’s Bible Commentary" and John Stott's "The Message of Romans." 

"Triumph of Faith" by Thirion (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)


Paul was writing to believers at the very heart of the Roman Empire. Christianity was still considered a Jewish sect, and the Jewish religion was approved by Rome. The great persecution of Christians by the Roman government had not yet begun, yet some Christians were refusing to obey Roman law. In Romans 13 Paul presents four reasons Christians are to be in subjection to the laws of the State. 

1. For wrath’s sake 

Romans 13:1-4. It is God who has established the governments of the world (see Acts 17:24–28). This does not mean that He is responsible for the sins of tyrants, but only that the authority to rule comes originally from God. It was this lesson that Nebuchadnezzar had to learn the hard way (Dan. 4:17, 25, 32). To resist the law is to resist the God who established government in the world, and this means inviting punishment. 

God established human government because man is a sinner and must have some kind of authority over him. God has given the sword to rulers, and with it the authority to punish and even to execute. Even though we cannot always respect the man in office, we must respect the office, for government was ordained by God. 

On more than one occasion in his ministry, Paul used the Roman law to protect his life and to extend his work. The centurions mentioned in the Book of Acts appear to be men of character and high ideals. Even though government officials are not believers, they are still the “ministers of God” because He established the authority of the State. 

2. For conscience’s sake 

Romans 13:5–7. We move a bit higher in our motivation now. Any citizen can obey the law because of fear of punishment, but a Christian ought to obey because of conscience. Of course, if the government interferes with conscience, then the Christian must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). But when the law is right, the Christian must obey it if he is to maintain a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:5, 19; 3:9; 4:2; Acts 24:16). 

Romans 13:7 commands us to pay what we owe: taxes, revenue, respect, honor. If we do not pay our taxes, we show disrespect to the law, the officials, and the Lord. And this cannot but affect the conscience of the believer. We may not agree with all that is done with the money we pay in taxes, but we dare not violate our conscience by refusing to pay. 

3. For love’s sake 

Romans 13:8–10. Paul enlarged the circle of responsibility by including other people besides government officials. Paul writes “Let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another* (8a). We are to pay our taxes and not incur debt in that way. But there is one debt which we can never ‘pay off’—our duty to love. We can never say 'I have loved enough.' 

 “Love one another (as I have loved you)” is the basic principle of the Christian life. It is the “new commandment” that Christ gave to us (John 13:34). When we love others with Jesus’ self-sacrificial love, our behavior is being directed by Christ through the indwelling Spirit and we have no need of an external law code. If we love others, we will not sin against them. 

As believers, we do not live under the Law of Moses; our ‘law’ is the love of Christ which is ‘shed abroad’ in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. What the Law was to the old covenant, Jesus and his love through the Holy Spirit are in the new covenant. After all, the Law can not change a human heart—only the Spirit can do that.  But because the heart of unregenerate man is sinful, God established government as his agent to maintain some degree of stability.  

4. For Jesus’ sake 

Romans 13:11-14. We are also to relate rightly to the State (and to all others in the full breadth of our relationships) because Jesus’ is coming back. As His servants who are saved by grace, we desire to be found faithful every day, including on the day of his return in glory. Paul gives three admonitions in the light of the Lord’s return: 

a. Wake up! (11): Relate this with 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11, and Matthew 25:1–13. 

b. “Clean up! (12): We want to be found living in the light, not expressing the deeds of darkness. 

c. “Grow up! (14): To “put on” the Lord Jesus means to receive by faith all that He is for our daily living—to become more like him in every aspect of our being. We grow on the basis of the food we eat. This is why God warns us not to make provisions for the flesh. If we feed the flesh, we reap its ‘fruit’; but if we feed our spirit the nourishing things of the Holy Spirit, we will reap His glorious fruit.


Thank God that we are saved by grace apart from the Law. Let us, therefore, in gratitude present our bodies and our whole beings to him as living sacrifices—consecrated to the master’s service, for his glory.  By the same grace that saved us, he will also transform us. Let us yield ourselves daily to his work in our lives.