Today's Broadcast

Civil Obedience

A Message by R.C. Sproul

In a certain sense, Christians are citizens of two worlds. We belong to the Kingdom of God, which is supreme and eternal. We also live in a world with manifold nations and kingdoms. Since Christians serve the King of kings, why should we be subject to the authorities of this world? Why should we obey governors, presidents, and kings who do not recognize the Lordship of Christ? Dr. Sproul explains why Christians ought to obey the civil magistrate, as he talks about “Civil Obedience.”

From the series: Church and State

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    Civil Obedience

  2. blog-post

    Submit to Governing Authorities

  3. devotional

    Civil Obedience

Civil Obedience

Any attempt to summarize the biblical theology of the state must include a study of Romans 13:1–7, one of the most important passages on the relationship of the Christian to the civil government. Paul’s reasoned presentation of the nature and function of the “governing authorities” (v. 1) helps us understand that obeying the civil magistrate is part and parcel of obeying God Himself.

We noted yesterday that all human authority is grounded in the Creator’s authority, and this is the basis for our submission to earthly rulers. When we consider how God has established the governance of creation, we see that ultimate authority belongs to our triune Creator and is exercised first by God the Father (John 8:28). Following Jesus’ resurrection, the Father entrusted Christ, the God-man, with all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18–20). Christ subsequently appointed authorities under Him — husbands, rulers, teachers, parents, and so on (Rom. 13:1; 1 Cor. 11:3; Col. 2:9–10).

If all authorities are ultimately answerable to Jesus and operate on the basis of His mediated authority, we obey our Savior when we obey human rulers. This is the basis for Paul’s admonition to us in Romans 13:1–2, which warns us to submit to the civil government lest we incur divine judgment. Note that Paul does not tell us to obey only those rulers who favor us. In fact, the Roman government to which he orders the Roman believers to submit is the same government that later put the apostle to death! Christians are to be model citizens even when they do not occupy a privileged place in society, blamelessly obedient to all laws, wise or foolish, that do not command what God forbids or forbid what God commands. We may not agree with everything the government requires of us, but we must submit graciously if doing so will not make us violate God’s Word (1 Peter 2:18).

Certainly, the Almighty does not endorse the unjust actions of human rulers, and His call for us to obey even corrupt governors does not mean that evil officials are pleasing to Him. But the book of Habakkuk indicates that it is the Lord’s prerogative to repay their corruption, not ours. We must submit even to ungodly men until that day they call us to disobey our Redeemer.


Submit to Governing Authorities

R.C. Sproul

Both Peter and Paul call us to submit to governing authorities. In light of that, is revolution ever possible for a Christian, and if so, under what circumstances?

It certainly is clear that the New Testament puts an emphasis on the Christian’s responsibility to be a model of civil obedience. In Romans 13, Paul tells us that the powers that be are ordained by God. That doesn’t mean that they are sanctioned by God or that God endorses everything that civil governments do; we know better than that. But Paul is saying that it is God who brings government to pass, and we are called to submit to the rulers of the government out of respect for Christ.

Peter says that we ought to obey the civil magistrates “for the Lord’s sake” (1 Pet. 2:13-17). How is Christ glorified by my submitting to the governor of the state of Florida or to the Congress of the United States of America? I think the broad issue here is the ultimate biblical struggle between competing voices of authority, the principles of Satan and of God. The issue is, Does the human person manifest a spirit of obedience to the law of God, or do we participate in a spirit of lawlessness? It’s interesting that the Antichrist in the New Testament is identified with the man of lawlessness.

I think that when we are called to obey the civil magistrates, it’s because the New Testament sees a hierarchical structure of authority, and that the ultimate authority in heaven and earth is God. God delegates authority to his only begotten Son: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18). Yet underneath the authority of the Son, who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, are levels of earthly authority, such as government at its various levels down to the authority of employers over employees and parents over children. We see that ultimately authority finds its sanction in God’s authority and sovereignty. The principle is not difficult to understand: If I am willy-nilly and careless in my obedience to authority at the lower levels, I am therefore implicitly placing myself in a posture of disobedience to the ultimate authority that stands above and behind the earthly. It is the law of God that we disobey. We apply this principle when we say that a child who doesn’t learn to respect his parents will have trouble respecting anything or anyone else. By my being scrupulous in my civil obedience, bending over backwards to obey my teachers, my employers, my governors, and my police officers, I am honoring Christ, who is the ultimate model of authority and of obedience to the law.

Is it is ever justifiable to engage in revolt? Many Christians would say no. This was a crucial question at the time of the American Revolution, and Christian theologians fell on both sides of that issue. I believe that those who did justify the Revolution said the only time it’s justifiable to revolt is when the government itself becomes lawless and functions in an illegal or unlawful manner. In colonial America the revolt was against the unlawful taxation that was taking place. That requires a longer history lesson than we have time for here.

Taken from Now, That’s a Good Question!
©1996 by R.C. Sproul. Used by permission of Tyndale.

Civil Obedience

As with most doctrines, the biblical doctrine of the state rests on passages where the teaching on the subject is incidental as well as texts where the doctrine is the focus. Romans 13:1–7 represents one of these latter type of texts. The Apostle Paul's extensive presentation on the "governing authorities" and their duties tells us that obeying our civil rulers is required if we want to obey the Lord Himself.

God's authority establishes all human authorities, so submitting to earthly leaders means that we are following divine authority. Scripture tells us that ultimate authority belongs to the Holy Trinity, and this authority is exercised in the first instance by God the Father (John 8:28). Following Jesus' resurrection, the Father entrusted Christ, the incarnate Son of God with all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18–20). Jesus then appointed authorities under Him — husbands, rulers, teachers, parents, employers and so on (Rom. 13:1; 1 Cor. 11:3; Col. 2:9–10). Having earned the right to exercise full authority according to His humanity, an authority He possessed from all eternity according to His deity, Jesus delegated authority to others in the church and in the world.

Since all rulers and leaders operate on the basis of Christ's mediated authority, we cannot fully obey Jesus without obeying the civil authorities. Paul makes this point in 13:1–2, warning that the consequences for not obeying the civil magistrate include divine judgment. Importantly, we are not told to obey only those rulers who are Christians or who otherwise have a benevolent approach to the church. In fact, the Roman government to which Paul orders the Roman believers to submit is the same government that later put the Apostle to death. This indicates that believers must be model citizens even when we do not have a position of privilege. Christians must blamelessly obey all laws, even the foolish ones, that do not command what God forbids or forbid what God commands. We do not have to agree with the government's policies, but we must submit graciously when doing so will not make us violate God's Word (1 Peter 2:18).

By commanding submission, God does not mean that evil rulers please Him, or that we should be silent about corrupt governance. Yet we are not to operate outside the law to deal with corrupt leaders, for vengeance is the Lord's prerogative (Rom. 12:9). Unless evil rulers call us to disobey the Word of God, even they deserve our submission.

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