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Charles Hodge’s Commentary on Romans: Romans 13

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The Chapter Treats Mainly Of Our Political Duties. From Ver. 1 To Ver. 7 Inclusive, The Apostle Enforces The Duties Which We Owe To Civil Magistrates. From Ver. 8 To Ver. 10, He Refers To The More General Obligations Under Which Christians Are Placed, But Still With Special Reference To Their Civil And Social Relations. From Ver. 11 To The End Of The Chapter, He Enjoins An Exemplary And Holy Deportment.

Romans 13:1-14


The duty of obedience to those in authority is enforced,

1. By the consideration that civil government is a divine institution, and, therefore, resistance to magistrates in the exercise of their lawful authority is disobedience to God, vers. 1, 2.

2. From the end or design of their appointment, which is to promote the good of society, to be a terror to evil doers, and a praise to them that do well, vers. 3, 4.

3. Because such subjection is a moral as well as civil duty, ver. 5. On these grounds the payment of tribute or taxes, and general deference, are to be cheerfully rendered, vers. 6, 7.

Christians are bound not only to be obedient to those in authority, but also to perform all social and relative duties, especially that of love, which includes and secures the observance of all others, vers. 8-10. A pure and exemplary life as members of society is enforced by the consideration that the night is far spent and that the day is at hand, that the time of suffering and trial is nearly over, and that of deliverance approaching, vers. 11-14.

—Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans


VERSE 1. Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. The expression every soul is often used as equivalent to every one; it is at times, however, emphatic, and such is probably the case in this passage. By higher powers are most commonly and naturally understood those in authority, without reference to their grade of office, or their character. We are to be subject not only to the supreme magistrates, but to all who have authority over us. The abstract word powers or authorities (ἐξουσίαι) is used for those who are invested with power, Luke 12:11; Ephesians 1:21; 3:10, etc. etc. The word (ὑπερέχων) rendered higher, is applied to any one who, in dignity and authority, excels us. In 1 Peter 2:13, it is applied to the king as supreme, i.e. superior to all other magistrates. But here one class of magistrates is not brought into comparison with another, but they are spoken of as being over other men who are not in office. It is a very unnatural interpretation which makes this word refer to the character of the magistrates, as though the sense were, 'Be subject to good magistrates.' This is contrary to the usage of the term, and inconsistent with the context. Obedience is not enjoined on the ground of the personal merit of those in authority, but on the ground of their official station.

There was peculiar necessity, during the apostolic age, for inculcating the duty of obedience to civil magistrates. This necessity arose in part from the fact that a large portion of the converts to Christianity had been Jews, and were peculiarly indisposed to submit to the heathen authorities. This indisposition (as far as it was peculiar) arose from the prevailing impression among them, that this subjection was unlawful, or at least highly derogatory to their character as the people of God, who had so long lived under a theocracy. In Deuteronomy 17:15 it is said, "Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose; one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee; thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother." It was a question, therefore, constantly agitated among them, "Is it lawful to pay tribute unto Caesar, or not?" A question which the great majority were at least secretly inclined to answer in the negative. Another source of the restlessness of the Jews under a foreign yoke, was the idea which they entertained of the nature of the Messiah's kingdom. As they expected a temporal Prince, whose kingdom should be of this world, they were ready to rise in rebellion at the call of every one who cried, "I am Christ." The history of the Jews at this period shows how great was the effect produced by these and similar causes on their feelings towards the Roman government. They were continually breaking out into tumults, which led to their expulsion from Rome, and, finally, to the utter destruction of Jerusalem. It is therefore not a matter of surprise, that converts from among such a people should need the injunction, "Be subject to the higher powers." Besides the effect of their previous opinions and feelings, there is something in the character of Christianity itself, and in the incidental results of the excitement which it occasions, to account for the repugnance of many of the early Christians to submit to their civil rulers. They wrested, no doubt, the doctrine of Christian liberty, as they did other doctrines, to suit their own inclinations. This result, however, is to be attributed not to religion, but to the improper feelings of those into whose minds the form of truth, without its full power, had been received.

For there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God. Οὐ γάρ ἐστιν ἐξουσία εἰ μὴ ἀπὸ θεοῦ. This is a very comprehensive proposition. All authority is of God. No man has any rightful power over other men, which is not derived from God. All human power is delegated and ministerial. This is true of parents, of magistrates, and of church officers. This, however, is not all the passage means. It not only asserts that all government (ἐξουσία authority) is (ἀπὸ θεοῦ) derived from God, but that every magistrate is of God; that is, his authority is jure divino. The word ἐξουσία is evidently, in this connection, used in a concrete sense. This is plain from the use of the word in the other clauses of the verse. "The higher powers," and "the powers that be," are concrete terms, meaning those invested with power. Compare vers. 3, 4, where "rulers" and "ministers" are substituted for the abstract "powers." The doctrine here taught is the ground of the injunction contained in the first clause of the verse. We are to obey magistrates, because they derive their authority from God. Not only is human government a divine institution, but the form in which that government exists, and the persons by whom its functions are exercised, are determined by his providence. All magistrates of whatever grade are to be regarded as acting by divine appointment; not that God designates the individuals, but it being his will that there should be magistrates, every person, who is in point of fact clothed with authority, is to be regarded as having a claim to obedience, founded on the will of God. In like manner, the authority of parents over their children, of husbands over their wives, of masters over their servants, is of God's ordination. There is no limitation to the injunction in this verse, so far as the objects of obedience are concerned, although there is as to the extent of the obedience itself. That is, we are to obey all that is in actual authority over us, whether their authority be legitimate or usurped, whether they are just or unjust. The actual reigning emperor was to be obeyed by the Roman Christians, whatever they might think as to his title to the sceptre. But if he transcended his authority, and required them to worship idols, they were to obey God rather than man. This is the limitation to all human authority. Whenever obedience to man is inconsistent with obedience to God, then disobedience becomes a duty.

VERSE 2. Whoso, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God. This is an obvious inference from the doctrine of the preceding verse. If it is the will of God that there should be civil government, and persons appointed to exercise authority over others, it is plain that to resist such persons in the exercise of their lawful authority is an act of disobedience to God.

And they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. This also is an obvious conclusion from the preceding. If disobedience is a sin it will be punished. The word (κρίμα) rendered damnation, means simply sentence, judicial decision; whether favorable or adverse, depends on the context. Here it is plain it means a sentence of condemnation. He shall be condemned, and, by implication, punished. As the word damnation is by modern usage restricted to the final and eternal condemnation of the wicked, it is unsuited to this passage and some others in which it occurs in our version; see 1 Corinthians 11:29. Paul does not refer to the punishment which the civil magistrate may inflict; for he is speaking of disobedience to those in authority as a sin against God, which he will punish.

It is clear that this passage (vers. 1, 2) is applicable to men living under every form of government, monarchical, aristocratical, or democratical, in all their various modifications. Those who are in authority are to be obeyed within their sphere, no matter how or by whom appointed. It is the οὖσαι ἐξουσίαι, the powers that be, the de facto government, that is to be regarded as, for the time being, ordained of God. It was to Paul a matter of little importance whether the Roman emperor was appointed by the senate, the army, or the people; whether the assumption of the imperial authority by Caesar was just or unjust, or whether his successors had a legitimate claim to the throne or not. It was his object to lay down the simple principle, that magistrates are to be obeyed. The extent of this obedience is to be determined from the nature of the case. They are to be obeyed as magistrates, in the exercise of their lawful authority. When Paul commands wives to obey their husbands, they are required to obey them as husbands, not as masters, nor as kings; children are to obey their parents as parents, not as sovereigns; and so in every other case. This passage, therefore, affords a very slight foundation for the doctrine of passive obedience.

VERSE 3. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. This verse is not to be connected with the second, but with the first, as it assigns an additional reason for the duty there enjoined. Magistrates are to be obeyed, for such is the will of God, and because they are appointed to repress evil and promote good. There is a ground, therefore, in the very nature of their office, why they should not be resisted.

Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shall have praise of the same. That is, government is not an evil to be feared, except by evil doers. As the magistrates are appointed for the punishment of evil, the way to avoid suffering from their authority is not to resist it, but to do that which is good. Paul is speaking of the legitimate design of government, not of the abuse of power by wicked men.

VERSE 4. For he is the minister of God to thee for good, etc. This whole verse is but an amplification of the preceding. 'Government is a benevolent institution of God, designed for the benefit of men; and, therefore, should be respected and obeyed. As it has, however, the rightful authority to punish, it is to be feared by those that do evil.'

For good, i.e. to secure or promote your welfare. Magistrates or rulers are not appointed for their own honor or advantage, but for the benefit of society, and, therefore, while those in subjection are on this account to obey them, they themselves are taught, what those in power are so apt to forget, that they are the servants of the people as well as the servants of God, and that the welfare of society is the only legitimate object which they as rulers are at liberty to pursue.

But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath (εἰς ὀργήν, i.e. for the purpose of punishment) upon him that doeth evil. As one part of the design of government is to protect the good, so the other is to punish the wicked. The existence of this delegated authority is, therefore, a reason why men should abstain from the commission of evil.

He beareth not the sword in vain, i.e. it is not in vain that he is in vested with authority to punish. The reference is not to the dagger worn by the Roman emperors as a sign of office, μάχαιρα in the New Testament always means sword, which of old was the symbol of authority, and specially of the right of life and death. As the common method of inflicting capital punishment was by decapitation with a sword, that instrument is mentioned as the symbol of the right of punishment, and, as many infer from this passage, of the right of capital punishment.

"Insignis locus ad jus gladii comprobandum; nam si Dominus magistratum armando gladii quoque usum illi mandavit, quoties sontes capitali poena vindicat, exercendo Dei ultionem, ejus mandatis obsequitur. Contendunt igitur cum Deo qui sanguinem nocentium hominum effundi nefas esse putant."—Calvin.

VERSE 5. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience' sake. That is, subjection to magistrates is not only a civil duty enforced by penal statutes, but also a religious duty, and part of our obedience to God.

For wrath, i.e. from fear of punishment.

For conscience' sake, i.e. out of regard to God, from conscientious motives. In like manner, Paul enforces all relative and social duties on religious grounds. Children are to obey their parents, because it is right in the sight of God; and servants are to be obedient to their masters, as unto Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, Ephesians 6:1, 5, 6.

VERSE 6. For, for this cause, pay ye tribute also. This verse may be connected, by the words (διὰ τοῦτο) rendered for this cause, with the preceding, thus, 'Wherefore (i.e., for conscience' sake) ye should pay tribute also.' But it is better to consider this clause as containing an inference from the foregoing exhibition of the nature and design of civil government: 'Since civil government is constituted for the benefit of society, for the punishment of evil doers and for the praise of those that do well, ye should cheerfully pay the contributions requisite for its support.'

For they are the ministers of God, attending continually on this very thing. This clause introduces another reason for the payment of tribute.

They, not the tax-gatherers, but οἱ ἄρχοντες, the rulers, to whom the tribute is due. Magistrates are not only appointed for the public good, but they are the ministers of God, and consequently it is his will that we should contribute whatever is necessary to enable them to discharge their duty. The word (λειτουργοί) rendered ministers, means public servants, men appointed for any public work, civil or religious. Among the Greek democratical states, especially at Athens, those persons were particularly so called, who were required to perform some public service at their own expense. It is used in Scripture in a general sense, for Servants or ministers, Romans 15:16; Hebrews 1:7; 8:2. The words εἰς αὐτὸ τοῦτο, to this very thing, may refer to tax-gathering. The magistrates are divinely commissioned, or authorized to collect tribute. This is necessary to the support of government; and government being a divine institution, God, in ordaining the end, has thereby ordained the means. It is because magistrates, in the collection of taxes, act as the λειτουργοὶ θεοῦ, the executive officers of God, that we are bound to pay them. Others make the αὐτὸ τοῦτο refer to the λειτουργία, or service of God, which is implied in magistrates being called λειτουργοί. 'They are the ministers of God attending constantly to their ministry.' The former interpretation is the more consistent with the context.

VERSE 7. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. 'Such being the will of God, and such the benevolent design of civil government, render to magistrates (and to all others) what properly belongs to them, whether pecuniary contribution, reverence, or honor.' The word all seems, from the context, to have special reference to all in authority, though it is not necessary to confine it to such persons exclusively. The word (φόρος) tribute is applied properly to land and capitation tax; and (τέλος) to the imposts levied on merchandise. The words (φόβος) fear, and (τιμή) honor, are generally considered in this connection as differing only in degree; the former expressing the reverence to superiors, the latter the respect to equals.

VERSE 8. Owe no man any thing, but to love one another, etc. That is, acquit yourselves of all obligations, except love, which is a debt that must remain ever due. This is the common, and considering the context, which abounds with commands, the most natural interpretation of this passage. Others, however, take the verb (ὀφείλετε) as in the indicative, instead of the imperative mood, and understand the passage thus: 'Ye owe no man any thing but love, (which includes all other duties,) for he that loves another fulfills the law.' This gives a good sense, when this verse is taken by itself; but viewed in connection with those which precede and follow, the common interpretation is much more natural. Besides,

"the indicative would require οὐδενὶ οὐδέν, and not μηδενὶ μηδέν. The use of the subjective negative shows that a command is intended." Meyer.

The idea which a cursory reader might be disposed to attach to these words, in considering them as a direction not to contract pecuniary debts, is not properly expressed by them; although the prohibition, in its spirit, includes the incurring of such obligations, when we have not the certain prospect of discharging them. The command, however, is, 'Acquit yourselves of all obligations, tribute, custom, fear, honor, or whatever else you may owe, but remember that the debt of love is still unpaid, and always must remain so; for love includes all duty, since he that loves another fulfills the law.' He that loveth another hath fulfilled (πεπλήρωκε) the law. It is already done. That is, all the law contemplated, in its specific commands relating to our social duties, is attained when we love our neighbor as ourselves.

VERSE 9. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. This verse is evidently a confirmation of the declaration at the close of the preceding one, that love includes all our social duties. This is further confirmed in the following verse.

VERSE 10. Love worketh no ill to his neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. That is, as love delights in the happiness of its object, it effectually prevents us from injuring those we love, and, consequently, leads us to fulfill all the law requires, because the law requires nothing which is not conducive to the best interests of our fellow men. He, therefore, who loves his neighbor with the same sincerity that he loves himself, and consequently treats him as he would wish, under similar circumstances, to be treated by him, will fulfill all that the law enjoins; hence the whole law is comprehended in this one command, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

VERSE 11. And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now is our salvation nearer than then we believed. From this verse to the end of the chapter, Paul exhorts his readers to discharge the duties already enjoined, and urges on them to live a holy and exemplary life. The consideration by which this exhortation is enforced, is, that the night is far spent, and that the day is at hand, the time of deliverance is fast approaching. The words (καὶ τοῦτο) rendered and that, are by many considered as elliptical, and the word (ποιεῖτε) do is supplied; 'And this do.' The demonstrative pronoun, however, is frequently used to mark the importance of the connection between two circumstances for the case in hand, (Passow, Vol. 2., p. 319,) and is, therefore, often equivalent to the phrases, and indeed, the more, etc. So in this case, 'We must discharge our various duties, and that knowing,' etc., i.e., 'the rather, because we know,' etc.; compare Hebrews 11:12; 1 Corinthians 6:6; Ephesians 2:8.

Knowing the time, i.e. considering the nature and character of the period in which we now live. The original word (καιρός) does not mean time in the general sense, but a portion of time considered as appropriate, as fixed, as short, etc. Paul immediately explains himself by adding, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; it was the proper time to arouse themselves from their slumbers, and, shaking off all slothfulness, to address themselves earnestly to work.

For now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. This is the reason why it is time to be up and active, salvation is at hand. There are three leading interpretations of this clause. The first is, that it means that the time of salvation, or special favor to the Gentiles, and of the destruction of the Jews, was fast approaching. So Hammond, Whitby, and many others. But for this there is no foundation in the simple meaning of the words, nor in the context. Paul evidently refers to something of more general and permanent interest than the overthrow of the Jewish nation, and the consequent freedom of the Gentile converts from their persecutions. The night that was far spent, was not the night of sorrow arising from Jewish bigotry; and the day that was at hand was something brighter and better than deliverance from its power. A second interpretation very generally received of late is, that the reference is to the second advent of Christ. It is assumed that the early Christians, and even the inspired apostles, were under the constant impression that Christ was to appear in person for the establishment of his kingdom, before that generation passed away. This assumption is founded on such passages as the following: Philippians 4:5, "The Lord is at hand;" 1 Thessalonians 4:17, "We that are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air;" 1 Corinthians 15:51, "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed," etc. With regard to this point, we may remark —

1. That neither the early Christians nor the apostles knew when the second advent of Christ was to take place. "But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, nor the angels of heaven, but my Father only. But as the days of Noe were, so shall the coming of the Son of man be," Matthew 24:36, 37. "They (the apostles) asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons which the Father hath put in his own power," Acts 1:6, 7. But of the times and seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you, for ye yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night," 1 Thessalonians 5:1, 2.

2. Though they knew not when it was to be, they knew that it was not to happen immediately, nor until a great apostasy had occurred. "Now we beseech you, brethren, by (or concerning) the coming of the Lord Jesus, and our gathering together to him, that ye be not soon shaken in mind... as that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed," etc., 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3; and ver. 5, "Remember ye not, that when I was yet with you, I told you these things?" Besides this distinct assertion, that the second advent of Christ was not to occur before the revelation of the man of sin, there are several other predictions in the writings of Paul, which necessarily imply his knowledge of the fact, that the day of judgment was not immediately at hand, 1 Timothy 4:1-3; Romans 11:25. The numerous prophecies of the Old Testament relating to the future conversion of the Jews, and various other events, were known to the apostles and precluded the possibility of their believing that the world was to come to an end before those prophecies were fulfilled.

3. We are not to understand the expressions, day of the Lord, the appearing of Christ, the coming of the Son of man, in all cases in the same way. The day of the Lord is a very familiar expression in the Scriptures to designate any time of the special manifestation of the divine presence, either for judgment or mercy; see Ezekiel 13:5; Joel 1:15; Isaiah 2:12; 13:6, 9. So also God or Christ is said to come to any person or place, when he makes any remarkable exhibition of his power or grace. Hence the Son of man was to come for the destruction of Jerusalem, before the people of that generation all perished; and the summons of death is sometimes represented as the coming of Christ to judge the soul. What is the meaning of such expressions must be determined by the context, in each particular case.

4. It cannot, therefore, be inferred from such declarations as "the day of the Lord is at hand;" "the coming of the Lord draweth nigh;" "the judge is at the door," etc., that those who made them supposed that the second advent and final judgment were to take place immediately. They expressly assert the contrary, as has just been shown.

5. The situation of the early Christians was, in this respect, similar to ours. They believed that Christ was to appear the second time without sin unto salvation; but when this advent was to take place, they did not know. They looked and longed for the appearing of the great God their Savior, as we do now; and the prospect of this event operated upon them as it should do upon us, as a constant motive to watchfulness and diligence, that we may be found of him in peace.

There is nothing, therefore, in the Scriptures, nor in this immediate context, which requires us to suppose that Paul intended to say that the time of the second advent was at hand, when he tells his readers that their salvation was nearer than when they believed.

The third and most common, as well as the most natural interpretation of this passage is, that Paul meant simply to remind them that the time of deliverance was near; that the difficulties and sins with which they had to contend, would soon be dispersed as the shades and mists of night before the rising day. The salvation, therefore, here intended, is the consummation of the work of Christ in their deliverance from this present evil world, and introduction into the purity and blessedness of heaven. Eternity is just at hand, is the solemn consideration that Paul urges on his readers as a motive for devotion and diligence.

VERSE 12. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast of the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. The general sentiment of this verse is very obvious. Night or darkness is the common emblem of sin and sorrow; day or light, that of knowledge, purity, and happiness. The meaning of the first clause therefore is, that the time of sin and sorrow is nearly over, that of holiness and happiness is at hand. The particular form and application of this general sentiment depends, however, on the interpretation given to the preceding verse. If that verse refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, then Paul means to say, that the night of persecution was nearly gone, and the day of peace and prosperity to the Gentile churches was at hand. But if ver. 11 refers to final salvation, then this verse means, that the sins and sorrows of this life will soon be over, and the day of eternal blessedness is about to dawn. The latter view is to be preferred.

Paul continues this beautiful figure through the verse. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. That is, let us renounce those things which need to be concealed, and clothe ourselves with those which are suited to the light.

The works of darkness are those works which men are accustomed to commit in the dark, or which suit the dark; and armor of light means those virtues and good deeds which men are not ashamed of, because they will bear to be seen. Paul probably used the word (ὅπλα) armor, instead of works, because these virtues constitute the offensive and defensive weapons with which we are here to contend against sin and evil; see Ephesians 6:11. The words ἀποτίθεσθαι and ἐνδύεσθαι suggest the idea of clothing. We are to cast off one set of garments and to put on another. The clothes which belong to the night are to be cast aside, and we are to array ourselves in those suited to the day.

VERSE 13. Let us walk honestly as in the day: not in rioting and darkenness; not in chambering and wantonness; not in strife and envying. This verse is an amplification of the preceding, stating some of those works of darkness which we are to put off; as ver. 14 states what is the armor of light which we are to put on. The word (εὐσχημόνως) rendered honestly, means becomingly, properly. There are three classes of sins specified in this verse, to each of which two words are appropriated, viz., intemperance, impurity, and discord.

Rioting and drunkenness belong to the first. The word (κῶμος) appropriately rendered rioting, is used both in reference to the disorderly religious festivals kept in honor of Bacchus, and to the common boisterous carousing of intemperate young men, (see Passow, Vol. 1, p. 924.) The words chambering and wantonness, include all kinds of uncleanness; and strife and envying, all kinds of unholy emulation and discord.

VERSE 14. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, i.e. be as he was. To put on Christ, signifies to be intituately united to him, so that he, and not we, may appear, Galatians 3:27: 'Let not your own evil deeds be seen, (i.e., do not commit such,) but let what Christ was appear in all your conduct, as effectually as if clothed with the garment of his virtues.'

And make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof. That is, let it not be your care to gratify the flesh. By flesh, in this passage, is perhaps generally understood the body; so that the prohibition is confined to the vicious indulgence of the sensual appetites. But there seems to be no sufficient reason for this restriction. As the word is constantly used by Paul for whatever is corrupt, and in the preceding verse the sins of envy and contention are specially mentioned, it may be understood more generally, 'Do not indulge the desires of your corrupt nature.'

—Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans


1. Civil government is a divine institution, i.e. it is the will of God that it should exist, and be respected and obeyed, ver. 2.

2. While 'government is of God, the form is of men.' God has never enjoined any one form obligatory on all communities; but has simply laid down certain principles, applicable to rulers and subjects, under every form in which governments exist, vers. 1-7.

3. The obedience which the Scriptures command us to render to our rulers is not unlimited; there are cases in which disobedience is a duty. This is evident, first, from the very nature of the case. The command to obey magistrates is, from its nature, a command to obey them as magistrates in the exercise of their rightful authority. They are not to be obeyed as priests or as parents, but as civil rulers. No one doubts that the precept, "Children, obey your parents in all things," is a command to obey them in the exercise of their rightful parental authority, and imposes no obligation to implicit and passive obedience. A parent who should claim the power of a sovereign over his children, would have no right to their obedience. The case is still plainer with regard to the command, "Wives, submit to your own husbands." Secondly, from the fact that the same inspired men who enjoin, in such general terms, obedience to rulers, themselves uniformly and openly disobeyed them whenever their commands were inconsistent with other and higher obligations. "We ought to obey God rather than men," was the principle which the early Christians avowed, and on which they acted. They disobeyed the Jewish and heathen authorities, whenever they required them to do anything contrary to the will of God. There are cases, therefore, in which disobedience is a duty. How far the rightful authority of rulers extends, the precise point at which the obligation to obedience ceases, must often be a difficult question; and each case must be decided on its own merits. The same difficulty exists in fixing the limits of the authority of parents over their children, husbands over their wives, masters over their servants. This, however, is a theoretical rather than a practical difficulty. The general principles on which the question in regard to any given case is to be decided are sufficiently plain. No command to do anything morally wrong can be binding; nor can any which transcends the rightful authority of the power whence it emanates. What that rightful authority is, must be determined by the institutions and laws of the land, or from prescription and usage, or from the nature and design of the office with which the magistrate is invested. The right of deciding on all these points, and determining where the obligation to obedience ceases, and the duty of resistance begins, must, from the nature of the case, rest with the subject, and not with the ruler. The apostles and early Christians decided this point for themselves, and did not leave the decision with the Jewish or Roman authorities. Like all other questions of duty, it is to be decided on our responsibility to God and our fellow men, vers. 1-7.

4. The design of civil government is not to promote the advantage of rulers, but of the ruled. They are ordained and invested with authority, to be a terror to evil doers, and a praise to them that do well. They are the ministers of God for this end, and are appointed for "this very thing." On this ground our obligation to obedience rests, and the obligation ceases when this design is systematically, constantly, and notoriously disregarded. Where unfaithfulness on the part of the government exists, or where the form of it is incompatible with the design of its institution, the governed must have a right to remedy the evil. But they cannot have the moral right to remedy one evil, by the production of a greater. And, therefore, as there are few greater evils than instability and uncertainty in governments, the cases in which revolutions are justifiable must be exceedingly rare, vers. 3-7.

5. The proper sphere of civil government is the civil and social relations of men, and their temporal welfare; conscience, and of course religion, are beyond its jurisdiction, except so far as the best interests of civil society are necessarily connected with them. What extent of ground this exception covers, ever has been, and probably will ever remain a matter of dispute. Still it is to be remembered, that it is an exception; religion and morality, as such, are not within the legitimate sphere of the civil authority. To justify the interference of the civil government, therefore, in any given case, with these important subjects, an exception must be made out. It must be shown that an opinion or a religion is not only false, but that its prevalence is incompatible with the rights of those members of the community who are not embraced within its communion, before the civil authority can be authorized to interfere for its suppression. It is then to be suppressed, not as a religion, but as a public nuisance. God has ordained civil government for the promotion of the welfare of men as members of the same civil society; and parental government, and the instruction and discipline of the church, for their moral and religious improvement. And the less interference there is between these two great institutions, in the promotion of their respective objects, the better. We do not find in the New Testament any commands addressed to magistrates with regard to the suppression of heresies or the support of the truth; nor, on the other hand, do we meet with any directions to the church to interfere with matters pertaining to the civil government, vers. 3-6.

6. The discharge of all the social and civil duties of life is to the Christian a matter of religious obligation, vers. 5-7.

—Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans


1. The Christian religion is adapted to all states of society and all forms of civil government. As the Spirit of God, when it enters any human heart, leaves unmolested what is peculiar to its individual character, as far as it is innocent, and effects the reformation of what is evil, not by violence, but by a sweetly constraining influence; so the religion of Christ, when it enters any community of men, does not assail their form of government, whether despotic or free; and if there is anything in their institutions inconsistent with its spirit, it is changed by its silent operation on the heart and conscience, rather than by direct denunciation. It has thus, without rebellion or violent convulsions, curbed the exercise of despotic power, and wrought the abolition of slavery throughout the greater part of Christendom, vers. 1-14.

2. The gospel is equally hostile to tyranny and anarchy. It teaches rulers that they are ministers of God for the public good; and it teaches subjects to be obedient to magistrates, not only for fear, but also for conscience' sake, ver. 5.

3. God is to be recognized as ordering the affairs of civil society: "He removeth kings, and he setteth up kings;" by him "kings reign, and princes decree justice." It is enough, therefore, to secure the obedience of the Christian, that, in the providence of God, he finds the power of government lodged in certain hands. The early Christians would have been in constant perplexity, had it been incumbent on them, amidst the frequent poisonings and assassinations of the imperial palace, the tumults of the pretorian guards, and the proclamation by contending armies of rival candidates, to decide on the individual who had de jure the power of the sword, before they could conscientiously obey, vers. 1-6.

4. When rulers become a terror to the good, and a praise to them that do evil, they may still be tolerated and obeyed, not however, of right, but because the remedy may be worse than the disease, vers. 3, 4.

5. Did genuine Christian love prevail, it would secure the right discharge, not only of the duties of rulers towards their subjects, and of subjects towards their rulers, but of all the relative social duties of life; for he that loveth another fulfilleth the law, vers. 7, 8.

6. The nearness of eternity should operate on all Christians as a motive to purity and devotedness to God. The night is far spent, the day is at hand; now is our salvation nearer than when we believed, vers. 13, 14.

7. All Christian duty is included in putting on the Lord Jesus; in being like him, having that similarity of temper and conduct which results from being intimately united to him by the Holy Spirit, ver. 14.

—Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans