Romans 13:4
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.
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(4) The sword.—Not apparently the dagger worn by the Roman emperors, but, in a strict sense, “the sword.” “To bear the sword” seems to be a recognised Greek phrase to express the power of the magistrates. It was carried before them in processions, and on other important occasions.

It is clear from this passage that capital punishment is sanctioned by Scripture. At the same time its abolition is not excluded, as the abolition of slavery was not excluded, if the gradual development of Christian principle should seem to demand it. Whether or not capital punishment ought to be abolished, is a question for jurists, publicists, and statesmen. The theologian, as such, has no decision to give either way.

13:1-7 The grace of the gospel teaches us submission and quiet, where pride and the carnal mind only see causes for murmuring and discontent. Whatever the persons in authority over us themselves may be, yet the just power they have, must be submitted to and obeyed. In the general course of human affairs, rulers are not a terror to honest, quiet, and good subjects, but to evil-doers. Such is the power of sin and corruption, that many will be kept back from crimes only by the fear of punishment. Thou hast the benefit of the government, therefore do what thou canst to preserve it, and nothing to disturb it. This directs private persons to behave quietly and peaceably where God has set them, 1Ti 2:1,2. Christians must not use any trick or fraud. All smuggling, dealing in contraband goods, withholding or evading duties, is rebellion against the express command of God. Thus honest neighbours are robbed, who will have to pay the more; and the crimes of smugglers, and others who join with them, are abetted. It is painful that some professors of the gospel should countenance such dishonest practices. The lesson here taught it becomes all Christians to learn and practise, that the godly in the land will always be found the quiet and the peaceable in the land, whatever others are.The minister of God - The "servant" of God he is appointed by God to do his will, and to execute his purposes. "To thee." For your benefit.

For good - That is, to protect you in your rights; to vindicate your name, person, or property; and to guard your liberty, and secure to you the results of your industry. The magistrate is not appointed directly to "reward" people, but they "practically" furnish a reward by protecting and defending them, and securing to them the interests of justice.

If thou do that ... - That is, if any citizen should do evil.

Be afraid - Fear the just vengeance of the laws.

For he beareth not the sword in vain - The "sword" is an instrument of punishment, as well as an emblem of war. Princes were accustomed to wear a sword as an emblem of their authority; and the "sword" was often used for the purpose of "beheading," or otherwise punishing the guilty. The meaning of the apostle is, that he does not wear this badge of authority as an unmeaningful show, but that it will be used to execute the laws. As this is the design of the power intrusted to him, and as he will "exercise" his authority, people should be influenced "by fear" to keep the law, even if there were no better motive.

A revenger ... - In Romans 12:19, vengeance is said to belong to God. Yet he "executes" his vengeance by means of subordinate agents. It belongs to him to take vengeance by direct judgments, by the plague, famine, sickness, or earthquakes; by the appointment of magistrates; or by letting loose the passions of people to prey upon each other. When a magistrate inflicts punishment on the guilty, it is to be regarded as the act of God taking vengeance "by him;" and on this principle only is it right for a judge to condemn a man to death. It is not because one man has by nature any right over the life of another, or because "society" has any right collectively which it has not as individuals; but because "God" gave life, and because he has chosen to take it away when crime is committed by the appointment of magistrates, and not by coming forth himself visibly to execute the laws. Where "human" laws fail, however, he often takes vengeance into his own hands, and by the plague, or some signal judgments, sweeps the guilty into eternity.

To execute wrath - For an explanation of the word "wrath," see the notes at Romans 1:18. It denotes here "punishment," or the just execution of the laws. It may be remarked that this verse is an "incidental" proof of the propriety of "capital punishment." The sword was undoubtedly an instrument for this purpose, and the apostle mentions its use without any remark of "disapprobation." He enjoins subjection to those who "wear the sword," that is, to those who execute the laws "by that;" and evidently intends to speak of the magistrate "with the sword," or in inflicting capital punishment, as having received the appointment of God. The tendency of society now is "not" to too sanguinary laws. It is rather to forget that God has doomed the murderer to death; and though humanity should be consulted in the execution of the laws, yet there is no humanity in suffering the murderer to live to infest society, and endanger many lives, in the place of his own, which was forfeited to justice. Far better that one murderer should die, than that he should be suffered to live, to imbrue his hands perhaps in the blood of many who are innocent. But the authority of God has settled this question Genesis 9:5-6, and it is neither right nor safe for a community to disregard his solemn decisions; see "Blackstone's Commentaries," vol. iv. p. 8, (9.)

4. he beareth not the sword in vain—that is, the symbol of the magistrate's authority to punish. For he is the minister of God to thee for good: q.d. That is the end of his office, and for this reason God hath invested him with his authority. The Scripture applieth the same title to him that preacheth the word, and to him that beareth the sword; both are God’s ministers, and there is one common end of their ministry, which is the good and welfare of mankind.

But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: this is the reason why he that trangresseth the moral law of God, or the wholesome laws of the country where he lives, should be afraid of the magistrate, because

he beareth not the sword in vain. The sword is figuratively put for power and authority: he alludes to the custom of princes, who had certain officers going before them, bearing the ensigns of their authority: q.d. The magistrate hath not his authority for nothing, or for no purpose; but that he may punish the evil, as well as defend the good.

For he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil: here is another reason why evil-doers (as before) should be afraid of the magistrate; or rather, the same reason in other and plainer words; because he is God’s officer to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil; he is in God’s room upon earth, and doth the work which primarily belongeth unto him: see Romans 12:19. By wrath, here, understand punishment: so in Luke 21:23 Romans 2:8. The word execute is not in the text, but aptly enough supplied by our translators.

For he is the minister of God to thee for good,.... He is a minister of God's appointing and commissioning, that acts under him, and for him, is a kind of a vicegerent of his, and in some, sense represents him; and which is another reason why men ought to be subject to him; and especially since he is appointed for their "good", natural, moral, civil, and spiritual, as Pareus observes: for natural good, for the protection of men's natural lives, which otherwise would be in continual danger from wicked men; for moral good, for the restraining of vice, and encouragement of virtue; profaneness abounds exceedingly, as the case is, but what would it do if there were no laws to forbid it, or civil magistrates to put them in execution? for civil good, for the preservation of men's properties, estates, rights, and liberties, which would be continually invaded, and made a prey of by others; and for spiritual and religious good, as many princes and magistrates have been; a sensible experience of which we have under the present government of these kingdoms, allowing us a liberty to worship God according to our consciences, none making us afraid, and is a reason why we should yield a cheerful subjection to it:

but if thou do that which is evil, be afraid: of the punishment of such evil threatened by law, and to be inflicted by the civil magistrate;

for he beareth not the sword in vain. The "sword" is an emblem of the power of life and death, the civil magistrate is invested with, and includes all sorts of punishment he has a right to inflict; and this power is not lodged in him in vain; he may and ought to make use of it at proper times, and upon proper persons:

for he is the minister of God; as is said before, he has his mission, commission, power and authority from him; and is

a revenge to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil; he is a defender of the laws, a vindicator of divine justice, an avenger of the wrongs of men; and his business is to inflict proper punishment, which is meant by wrath, upon delinquents.

For he is the minister of God to thee for good. {6} 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 {c} revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

(6) God has armed the magistrate even with an avenging sword.

(c) By whom God avenges the wicked.

Romans 13:4. Θεοῦἀγαθόν] Establishment of the preceding thought—that the well-doer has not to fear the magistrate, but to expect praise from him—by indicating the relation of the magistracy to God, whose servant (διάκονος, feminine, as in Romans 16:1; Dem. 762. 4, and frequently) it is, and to the subjects, for whose benefit (defence, protection, blessing) it is so. The σοί is the ethical relation of the Θεοῦ διάκον. ἐστι, and εἰς τὸ ἀγαθόν adds the more precise definition.

οὐ γὰρ εἰκῆ] for not without corresponding reason (frequently so in classical Greek), but in order actually to use it, should the case require.

τὴν μάχαιρ. φορεῖ] What is meant is not the dagger, which the Roman emperors and the governing officials next to them were accustomed to wear as the token of their jus vitae et necis (Aurel. Vict. 13; Grotius and Wetstein in loc.); for μάχαιρα, although denoting dagger = παραξιφός in the classics (see Spitzner on Hom. Il. xviii. 597; Duncan, Lex. ed. Rost, p. 715), means in the N. T. always sword, viii. 35, according to Xen. r. eq. xii. 11 (but comp. Krüger, Xen. Anab. i. 8. 7), differing by its curved form from the straight ξίφος; and also among the Greeks the bearing of the sword (Philostr. Vit. Ap. vii. 16) is expressly used to represent that power of the magistrates. They bore it themselves, and in solemn processions it was borne before them. See Wolf, Cur. On the distinction between φορέω (the continued habit of bearing) and φέρω, see Lobeck, ad Phryn. p. 585.

Θεοῦ γὰρ διάκ. κ.τ.λ.] ground assigned for the assurance οὐκ εἰκῆ τ. μ. φ., in which the previously expressed proposition is repeated with emphasis, and now its penal reference is appended.

ἔκδικος εἰς ὀργὴν κ.τ.λ.] avenging (1 Thessalonians 4:6; Wis 12:12; Sir 30:6; Herodian, vii. 4. 10; Aristaenet. i. 27) in behalf of wrath (for the execution of wrath) for him who does evil. This dative of reference is neither dependent on ἐστίν, the position of which is here different from the previous one (in opposition to Hofmann), nor on εἰς ὀργήν (Flatt); it belongs to ἔκδικος εἰς ὀργ. Εἰς ὀργήν is not “superfluous and cumbrous” (de Wette), but strengthens the idea.

We may add that our passage proves (comp. Acts 25:11) that the abolition of the right of capital punishment deprives the magistracy of a power which is not merely given to it in the O. T., but is also decisively confirmed in the N. T., and which it (herein lies the sacred limitation and responsibility of this power) possesses as God’s minister; on which account its application is to be upheld as a principle with reference to those cases in law, where the actual satisfaction of the divine Nemesis absolutely demands it, while at the same time the right of pardon is still to be kept open for all concrete cases. The character of being unchristian, of barbarism, etc., does not adhere to the right itself, but to its abuse in legislation and practice.

Romans 13:4. θεοῦ γὰρ διάκονός ἐστιν σοὶ εἰς τὸ ἀγαθόν. διάκονός is feminine agreeing with ἐξουσία, which is “almost personified” (Sanday and Headlam). The σοὶ is not immediately dependent on διάκονός, as if the State were conceived as directly serving the person; the State serves God, with good in view as the end to be secured by its ministry, viz., the maintenance of the moral order in society; and this situation is one the benefit of which redounds to the individual. ἐὰν δὲ τὸ κακὸν ποιῇς, φοβοῦ: only when the individual does that which is contrary to the end set before the State by God—commits τὸ κακὸν, which frustrates τὸ ἀγαθὸν—need he fear: but then he must fear. οὐ γὰρ εἰκῇ: for not for nothing, but for serious use, does the ruler wear the sword. For εἰκῇ cf. 1 Corinthians 15:2, Galatians 3:4. φορεῖ is wear, rather than bear: the sword was carried habitually, if not by, then before the higher magistrates, and symbolised the power of life and death which they had in their hands. “The Apostle in this passage,” says Gifford, “expressly vindicates the right of capital punishment as divinely entrusted to the magistrate”. But “expressly” is perhaps too much, and Paul could not deliberately vindicate what no one had assailed. He did, indeed, on a memorable occasion (later than this) express his readiness to die if his life had been forfeited to the law (Acts 25:11); but to know that if an individual sets himself to subvert the moral order of the world, its representatives can proceed to extremities against him (on the ground, apparently, that it, as of God’s institution, is of priceless value to mankind, whereas he in his opposition to it is of no moral worth at all) is not to vindicate capital punishment as it exists in the law or practice of any given society. When the words θεοῦ γὰρ διάκονός ἐστιν are repeated, it is the punitive ministry of the magistrate which is alone in view. ἔκδικος εἰς ὀργὴν: an avenger for wrath. ὀργὴ in the N.T. almost always (as here) means the wrath of God. It occurs eleven times in Romans: always so. The exceptions are Ephesians 4:31, Colossians 3:8, 1 Timothy 2:8, Jam 1:19 f. τῷ τὸ κακὸν πράσσοντι = to him who works at evil. The process is presented in πράσσειν rather than the result. Cf. Romans 1:32.

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).

Romans 13:4. Θεοῦ γὰρ, for of God) There is here an Anaphora or repetition of the same word at the beginning of different clauses. There is a trace of Divine providence in this, that even wicked men, appointed to the magistracy, give their support to what is good, and visit evil with punishment.[136]—σοι, to thee) This to thee is used with great elegance respecting him, that doeth well, but τῷ is used indefinitely respecting the evil-doer.—ΕἸς) so far as concerns what is good, what is for your advantage.—τὸ κακὸν, evil) Good is marked as in direct antithesis to this evil in Romans 13:3, not in Romans 13:4.—φορεῖ, wieldeth [beareth]), not merely φέρει, carries: [gestat, not gerit; wields] according to Divine appointment.

[136] Διάκονος ἐστιν, He is the minister) Paul uses the same words concerning the magistracy, as he uses to express on other occasions the ministry of the Gospel. So also ver. 6.—V. g.

Romans 13:4Beareth (φορεῖ)

Beareth and weareth. A frequentative form of φέρω to bear.

Sword (μάχαιραν)

See on Revelation 6:4. Borne as the symbol of the magistrate's right to inflict capital punishment. Thus Ulpian: "They who rule whole provinces have the right of the sword (jus gladii)." The Emperor Trajan presented to a provincial governor, on starting for his province, a dagger, with the words, "For me. If I deserve it, in me."

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