Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
J. SUBJECTION TO “THE POWERS THAT BE” (Ch. 13)
The following extract from Thomas Scott’s remarks on Romans 13 is full of strong sense and clear statement:—
“Perhaps nothing involves greater difficulties, in very many instances, than to ascertain to whom, either individually or collectively, the authority justly belongs … If then, the most learned and intelligent men find insuperable difficulties … respecting this subject, how shall the bulk of the people be able to decide it? And if Christians are first to determine concerning the right by which their rulers possess and exercise authority, before they think themselves bound to obedience, they must very commonly indeed be engaged in opposition to ‘the existing authorities.’ But the Apostle’s design was to mark out the plain path of duty to Christians, however circumstanced.… Submission in all things lawful [i.e., not forbidden by the Supreme Divine Authority] to ‘the existing authorities’ is our duty at all times and in all cases; though in civil convulsions, and amid great revolutions, or sudden changes in governments, there may frequently, for a season, be a difficulty in determining which are … ‘the existing authorities.’ ”
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.Ch. Romans 13:1-7. Christian practice: civil duties: authority and obedience
1. Let every soul be subject, &c.] A new subject is here treated—Civil Obedience. It is not isolated, however, from the previous context, in which (from Romans 12:19) subjection to individuals in private life was considered. And it passes in turn into a different but kindred context again, in Romans 13:8 below. We offer a few general remarks on the subject.
1. In this passage it is stated, as a primary truth of human society, that civil authority is, as such, a Divine institution. Whatever may be the details of error or of wrong in its exercise, it is nevertheless, even at its worst, so vastly better than anarchy, that it forms a main instrument and ordinance of the will of God.
Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.2. The passage does not touch on the question of forms of government. “The powers that be” is a phrase which, on the whole, accepts authority de facto, irrespective of its theory, or of its circumstances of origin. Just so both human and Divine law, after no long lapse of time, recognize property de facto, irrespective of circumstances of acquisition.
For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:3. The passage distinctly forbids revolutionary action in a Christian. Action within the limits of the existing constitution he may employ; for the constitution is, in fact, the “power that is,” be it good or bad. But he must not plot for its demolition, nor indeed act for its demolition in any way of “violence;” be it violence of deed or word, violence direct or indirect.
3. For rulers, &c.] St Paul enforces the certainty of “judgment” in this case by pointing out its manifest justice. “Rulers” (lit. the rulers, rulers as a class,) are, as a fact, an agency on the side of right and order; it is justly, then, a sin in the sight of God to resist their authority.—No doubt the statement here is never fully realized save where the rulers are personally just and the constitution equitable; (and by no means always, in detail, even then). But the statement is not to be limited to such cases. Civil authority, even in its most distorted forms, never systematically favours wrong as wrong and punishes right as right. Even when a Nero or a Decius persecuted the Church of Christ, the theory of persecution (apart from personal rancour) was the preservation of order; and meantime, in the innumerable details of the common life of the Roman world, the authority of a Nero or a Decius was a necessity and a providential blessing.
Wilt thou then not be afraid] With the fear of an enemy; the feeling of a weaker towards a stronger opponent.—“Then” is lit. but; and so better, perhaps: But wilt thou not, &c. Q. d., “But if, as a fact, they are a terror to thee, and thou willest to shake off that terror—the remedy is simple; be a good citizen and subject.”
praise] That at least of protection and security; the “good” referred to in the next clause.
For he is the minister of God to thee for good. 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 upon him that doeth evil.4. The passage by no means forbids Christians to take full advantage of existing authority and law; as St Paul himself took advantage of his civil rights. But its unmistakable drift is, what is always the drift of Scripture, (as it is not that of human nature), to emphasize the Christian’s duties far more than his rights.
4. he beareth] weareth. The Cæsars appear to have literally worn a sword or dagger as an emblem of imperatorial power. But the phrase here need be no more than figurative.
the sword] A distinct sanction is given by this word here to the ordinance of capital punishment.—Other and lower punishments are implied also, of course, in this mention of the highest and severest.—The word “sword” occurs in this Epistle only here and Romans 8:35, where no doubt the execution of martyrs is in view. The two passages are a suggestive contrast and mutual illustration.
in vain] i.e. without cause, without credentials. The Gr. word may equally mean “without cause” and “without effect;” but the latter meaning is out of place here. See the next clause, where the credentials are given: “he is God’s minister.”
to execute wrath] Lit. unto wrath; to inflict the consequences of the displeasure (of the ruler. See next note).
Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.5. As regards the special question of despotism, it is treated here not by explicit condemnation, but by the statement of principles which will peacefully undermine its own distinctive principles. It is dealt with precisely as elsewhere the ownership of slaves is dealt with. Just as the Gospel bids the slave submit to his master, yet meanwhile (above all by bringing out the value and dignity of every human soul) withers the root of slavery, so it bids the subject obey the despot, yet withers the root of despotism.
5. Wherefore] Because of the ruler’s Divine credentials. The Christian is accordingly a good subject not only on account of the wrath, (so lit.; i.e. the ruler’s wrath in case of crime,) but also on account of the conscience, (so lit.; i.e. the Christian’s knowledge and sense of the ruler’s right to be angry).
For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.6. The passage assumes, of course, that where human law, or its minister, contradicts Divine precepts, (as when a Christian is commanded to do wrong,) then obedience to the Higher Authority must take precedence. Christian officials, for instance, under a despot must not plot against him, but also must not do wrong for him.
6. for this cause] i.e. because of “the conscience” that they are God’s appointed agency, and act in His name when they demand contributions for the public revenues, which are a vital part of the machinery of civil order.
attending continually] persevering in, “devoting themselves to.” Same word as e.g. Romans 12:12, (“continuing instant.”) The word points to government as the life-work of the governor; a thing not of pride or privilege so much as of incessant duty.
upon this very thing] Better, with a view to this very thing; i.e., probably, “with a view to the service of God.” The governor may not consciously “serve God” in his office; but in his office he does a work which is “the ordinance of God,” and must be recognized as such by Christian subjects.—To refer the words “this very thing” to taxes, or tax-gathering, is to limit what is evidently a solemn summary clause, and greatly to lessen its intended weight.
Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.7. This and other considerations combine to assure us that the principles of the Gospel, so far from favouring tyranny, tend ultimately to make it impossible. A perfectly Christian nation under tyrannic authority is an inconceivable thing.
7. to all] To all persons in authority over you. The precept is, of course, of universal application, but plainly bears this special reference here: see the next words.
tribute—custom—fear—honour] Lit. the tribute, the custom, &c.; i.e. the tribute, &c. which is in question in each case.—“Tribute”—tax on person and property. “Custom:”—toll on merchandize. “Fear:”—such as is due to an authorized avenger of wrong. “Honour:”—such as is due to authorized power in general.
Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.8. It is manifest how indispensable to the early growth of the Christian Church these precepts of obedience were. Though their truth is for all generations, whatever may be the phases of political speculation or popular feeling, it was a truth of special and urgent necessity then. But for these principles, humanly speaking, society would have been convulsed, and then left with its evils intensified; and the Church would have perished.
See further, Appendix J.
the higher powers] Lit. supreme (i.e. ruling) authorities. The word rendered “higher” is the same as that rendered “supreme,” 1 Peter 2:13. The context here shews that the idea is not (as in 1 Peter 2:13) supremacy over other authorities, but a more general one, superior position as regards the subject.
there is no power but of God: the powers, &c.] More lit. there is no authority except authority derived from God; but the existing authorities have been appointed by God. The first clause emphasizes the absolute inalienable Supremacy of God; the second emphasizes the fact that this Supreme Ruler actually has constituted subordinate authorities on earth, and that these authorities are to be known in each case by their de facto existence, and to be obeyed by Christians as God’s present order. It is instructive to remember that Roman imperialism, under Nero, was God’s present order for St Paul and his first readers.
Whosoever—resisteth] Same word as James 5:6; where the possible reference is to the non-resistance of the Just One Himself, when, by an awful abuse of authority, He was “condemned and killed.”
resisteth] withstandeth; and so just below, they that withstand. The verb is different from that rendered “resist” just above. The difference is noteworthy only as shewing the special reference of the words “they that withstand,” which thus, plainly, must refer to “the ordinance of God;” and the passage may be thus paraphrased: “those who resist civil authority withstand God’s ordinance; and those who withstand God’s ordinance will (by inevitable consequence) bring on themselves God’s condemnation.”
themselves] Emphatic in the Gr. They will be their own victims.
damnation] judgment. Same word as Romans 2:2-3, Romans 3:8, Romans 5:16; 1 Corinthians 11:29. Here the reference is to the Divine judgment-seat. See last note but one.
8–10. Christian practice: Love the best guarantee for the rights and interests of others, in general
8. Owe no man any thing] The special precept here beautifully expands into the general. Not rulers only but all men, (and here particularly, no doubt, all Christians; see next note;) are to receive “their dues.”
The precept, in its particular application to money-debts, no doubt counsels immediate payment where possible and desirable. Its spirit, however, obliges the Christian only to a watchful avoidance of a state of debt, by careful restriction of expenses within means; and a thoughtful care for the interests of the creditor, to whom deferred payment may be a serious loss. See Proverbs 3:27-28.—But it is obvious that the “owing” here is not of money only but of every kind of “due” from man to man.
but to love one another] This does not mean that “love” is to be an unpaid debt in the sense in which a repudiated or neglected bill is unpaid. It is to be a perpetual payment; one which in the nature of things can never be paid off, and which will therefore be ever recurring as a new demand for the same happy expenditure.—The phrase “love one another” shews that St Paul has the Christian community specially in view here. They were, indeed, quite as truly bound to “love their enemies;” but the love in the two cases was not exactly of the same quality. The love of benevolence is not to be confused with the love of endearment.—For such special entreaties to Christian love see e.g. John 13:34; John 15:12; John 15:17; 1 Thessalonians 4:9; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 Peter 2:17; 1 John 3:14; and particularly, as a strictly parallel passage here, Galatians 5:13-14.
loveth another] Lit. loveth the other; the other of the two parties necessary to intercourse.
hath fulfilled] The perfect tense conveys the thought that such “love” at once attains the fulfilment (as regards principle and will) of the precepts of the “Second Table.” It does not move from one to another by laborious steps, but leaps, as it were, to entire obedience. By its very nature “it has obeyed,” ipso facto, all the demands.
It is obvious that St Paul is not concerned here with the fact of the actual incompleteness of the obedience of even the holiest Christian. He has to state the principle; he takes the ideal, at which all sincere effort will aim.
It is obvious also that by “the Law” here he means only that part of the Divine Law which affects “the neighbour.” The “first and great commandment” (see Matthew 22:37-38,) is not here in view.
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 neighbour as thyself.9. For this] Lit. For the; each precept being a quasi-substantive with the definite article.
Thou shalt not bear false witness] Perhaps to be omitted, on documentary evidence.
and if there be any other commandment, &c.] The Gr. phrase nearly = and whatever other commandments there are, all are summed up, &c.
Thou shalt love, &c.] Leviticus 19:18. See the Lord’s own quotation of the words, Matthew 22:39. Cp. James 2:8.
Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.10. Love worketh, &c.] Such is its very nature,—to avoid the kind of acts which as a fact the Law forbids. Therefore Love (“Charity,” 1 Corinthians 13, &c.), though its action is not, strictly speaking, originated by the Law, but the necessary result of its being Love, is in perfect harmony with the Law—which is the precept of Eternal Love; and so is the surest secret of fulfilling it.
his neighbour] Lit. the neighbour: the neighbour in each case.
the fulfilling] Better, the fulfilment. The Gr. word means not the process of obedience, but the result of the process; obedience as an accomplished fact. For this view of Love, see note on Romans 13:8; “hath fulfilled.”
The doctrine of this passage (that to love one another is the true secret of obedience to the Divine Law,) is in perfect harmony with the doctrine of the “bondservice” of the Christian, as stated in ch. 6; for the true secret of that bondservice is adoring gratitude for emancipation from the slavery of sin; a gratitude which after all does but joyfully recognize the unchangeable fact of the lawful claim of the Creator and Redeemer to the devotion of the whole man. Thus love to God is in fact the full acceptance of His will, His law; and love to others for His sake is therefore the sure way to carry out that law in its special precepts regarding duty to fellow-Christians and fellow-men.—Manifestly the law is to be the authoritative guide of “love.” Love is not “a law unto itself,” but the “fulfilment” of the definite and objective rule of God’s revealed will.
And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.11–14. Christian practice: duty enforced by the prospect of the Lord’s Return
11. And that, &c.] In this last section of the chapter, St Paul enforces all the preceding precepts (of cch. 12, 13) by the solemn assertion of the approach of the eternal Day of Resurrection and Glory. Then all that was painful in effort would be over, and the results of “patient continuance in well-doing” would be realized for ever.
Language such as that of this passage is often taken to prove that St Paul expected an imminent return of the Lord, and taught it as a revealed truth. But the prophetic part of ch. 11 is sufficient to shew that he looked for an extended future. And the expectation here expressed, as a main item of Christian truth, by this great prophet of the Gospel, has been accepted ever since by successive generations of believers as the just expression of their own attitude of hope.
It is plain that the Lord Himself both implied and sometimes distinctly foretold a long interval. See Matthew 25:19.
the time] the occasion; same word as Romans 3:26, where see note. The “occasion” is, in fact, the “last days;” the times of Messiah. (See Acts 2:16-17.)
out of sleep] The sleep of languor and forgetfulness.—The Lord had used this metaphor in connexion with His Return; Matthew 24:42; Matthew 25:13. See elsewhere in St Paul, 1 Thessalonians 5:6. Also Revelation 3:3; Revelation 16:15.
our salvation] See note on “salvation,” Romans 1:16. It is here the “salvation” of resurrection-glory.
The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.12. The night is far spent] Lit. The night was far spent. The Gr. verb is in the aorist; and the time-reference is, very probably, to the First Advent, when the Morning Star (Revelation 22:16) of the final Day appeared.—We have here, clearly, a combination of metaphors. The “sleep” of Romans 13:11 was the sleep of languor; the “night” of this verse is not, as we might thus have thought, the night of ignorance or sin, but that of trial; the “present time” contrasted with the coming glory. But the combination is most natural and instructive: a period of trial is almost sure, if it does not answer its end, to act directly the other way—to bring on the sloth of discouragement.—Cp. on this passage 1 John 2:8; where render “the darkness is passing.”
the day is at hand] Lit. hath drawn near.—“The day:”—“the day of Christ;” with the added idea of the day-light of eternal peace and glory which it will bring in. See 1 Thessalonians 5:5 for the only exact parallel: in the many other passages where “the Day” means the Lord’s Return, there is no trace of the special metaphor of light, the contrast of day with night.
the works of darkness] Lit. of the darkness. (Same phrase as Ephesians 5:11)—Here we recur to the idea of moral darkness; not the darkness of trial or pain; (see last note but one.) Cp. John 3:19; Acts 26:18; 2 Corinthians 6:14; Ephesians 5:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:4-5; 1 Peter 2:9; 1 John 1:6. No doubt the word suggests also the “powers of the darkness,” the personal spiritual “rulers of the darkness,” who tempt the soul and intensify its tendencies to evil. Cp. Luke 22:53; Ephesians 6:12; Colossians 1:13.—The habit resulting from these “deeds” is here figured as a night-robe, which is to be put off as the sleeper rises to conflict. (So Meyer.)
the armour of light] Lit. the weapons of the light. Not clothing merely, but arms and armour, must take the place of the night-robe. The “arms” are Divine grace with its manifold means and workings. See the elaborate picture in a later Epistle, Ephesians 6:11; a passage full of illustration for this context. The earliest use of the metaphor by St Paul is 1 Thessalonians 5:8; another close parallel. See also 2 Corinthians 6:7; 2 Corinthians 10:4; 1 Peter 4:1.—“Of the light:”—here perhaps the ideas of the daylight of sincerity and purity, and the day-light of glory which will end the conflict, are combined.
Observe how the re-animation of the life of grace is here, as often elsewhere, (cp. Ephesians 6:11; 1 Peter 4:1; and perhaps 2 Corinthians 5:20;) spoken of as if it were the beginning of it. The persons here addressed had already (on the Apostle’s hypothesis) truly “believed,” and were “walking after the Spirit.”
Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying.13. honestly] Margin, decently, i.e. becomingly; with the true decorum of a life of obedience to the will of God.
as in the day] Here again the metaphor slightly varies its point. The Gr. is, nearly lit., as by day; “as men walk by day.” The Christian is thus bidden to think of himself as in the daylight; with light on him and around him. This is probably here the “light” of 1 John 1:7; the light of the knowledge of the Holy One, and of His felt presence. (See Psalm 139:12.) Such “light” is the dawning of that Day in which “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is;” and this accords with the imagery of Romans 13:12.
rioting] Cp. Galatians 5:21; 1 Peter 4:3.
drunkenness] The Gr. (as in Gal. and 1 Pet. just quoted) is plural; drinking-bouts.
chambering] Again plural: indulgences of lustful pleasure.
wantonness] Again plural: the varieties of lascivious sin are suggested.
Such warnings as these, addressed to the justified and believing, not to a mass of merely conventional Christians, are indications of the immense force of moral corruption in the heathen world out of which the Christians had lately come, and which everywhere surrounded them. But they also indicate the permanent fact that the most sincere Christian, in the happiest times, is never—in his own strength—invulnerable even by gross temptation.
not in strife and envying] Sins of the temper are here classed with lusts of the flesh; as often. See e.g. Galatians 5:19-20.
But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.14. But put ye on, &c.] For similar language see Galatians 3:27; (where Baptism is to be viewed in its ideal, as involving and sealing the acceptance and confession of Christ.) Cp. also Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10. Here again (see Romans 13:12, last note,) observe how the new effort of the life of grace is spoken of as if it were its beginning.
the Lord Jesus Christ] Here the Saviour is presented as the soul’s armour and arms. Cp. Romans 13:12. By means of Him, beheld by faith, adored, accepted, and welcomed as the Guest of the soul, sin is to be resisted and subdued. Grace is to come, above all other means, by means of personal dealings with Him.
and make not provision, &c.] Lit. make not forethought of the flesh. The clause, of course, means (under a sort of euphemism) “positively deny the flesh;” but it specially suggests the sad thought of the elaborate pains with which so often sin is planned and sought.—See the close of 1 Corinthians 9 for St Paul’s own practical comment on this precept.
to fulfil the lusts thereof] Lit., simply, unto lusts; with a view to (evil) desires.
An instructive parallel is Colossians 2:23, where probably render, “not of any value with a view to [resisting the] gratification of the flesh.” Mere ascetic rules there stand contrasted with the living grace of the personal Saviour here.
This verse is memorable as the turning-point of St Augustine’s conversion. In his Confessions (VIII. 12) he records how, at a time of great moral conflict, he was strangely impelled by a voice, perhaps the cry of children at play, (“Take and read, take and read,”) to open again the Epistles of St Paul (codicem Apostoli) which he had recently been reading. “I read in silence the first place on which my eyes fell; Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts. I neither cared, nor needed, to read further. At the close of the sentence, as if a ray of certainty were poured into my heart, the clouds of hesitation all fled at once.”—The following words, But him that is weak in faith receive ye, were pointed out to him just after by his friend Alypius, to whom Augustine shewed the present verse. Augustine was at the time so slightly read in the Scriptures that he was not aware (he says) of this context till Alypius, with an application to himself, drew his attention to it.