The Christian and Civil Government

Being a sermon preached on July 4, 1976.

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. 

Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 

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: 

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. 

Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. 

For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. 

Romans 13:1-6

Most, if not all, of the area churches are participating in a “Bicentennial Service,” later tonight. It will be a religious meeting; men speak of it as a “service.” They intend to observe the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. This is the date of the beginning of the independence of the united colonies and, thus, of our country. 

Although our church was invited to be a participant and although I was invited to sit with all the pastors on the platform, we are not participating and I will not be sitting, with the others. These are our reasons. We are opposed to uniting, as a church, in a religious meeting with all kinds of other churches, with whom we differ sharply over fundamental truths of Scripture. The fact is that we are not one, and we may not leave the impression, either with our own members or with others, that we are one. If we would participate, we would become responsible for un-Biblical ideas expressed there—by those who speak, by those who sing, and by those who pray. Also, there is reason to believe that this and similar meetings arise from an erroneous notion concerning the United States and from faulty ideas concerning the relationship between the Church and the government of our country. Men suppose that the U.S. is a Christian country and government; that the Church must ask God to bless America; and that it is the Church’s duty to call America back to God. 

An unholy alliance is struck between Church and State. 

It is likely that our refusal to participate will be misunderstood and misrepresented. We are made out to be anabaptists, engaging in world-flight. Or men charge that we do not honor our government, but despise it. Therefore, it is proper to give account of the Reformed view of the relation between the Christian and the civil government, as I intend to do tonight. 

It is profitable that we be reminded of the truth about the State, because much confusion is evident amidst the hoopla of the bicentennial year. We hear that the American Revolution was a good Christian activity; that the founding fathers were Christians, even Calvinists; and that the country was originally a Christian country, established on solid, Christian principles. We hear that the U.S. is, or can be, God’s Kingdom. This is the idea behind “God bless America.” This is expressed when people apply to our nation the Old Testament scripture, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord”—a scripture that applies, now, to the Church. But we also hear the clamor for revolution. Since the country has proved to be so corrupt, so unjust, so oppressive to the liberties of many, say the budding Patrick Henrys, we ought to work to overthrow the present government. This also, a Christian repudiates. 

Amidst this Babel, we turn to the Word of God. It is clear. It sets forth the truth about government—our government—and about the calling of the Christian towards government. We look at the classic passage: Romans 13


The believer has a calling towards the State; he has a political calling. It is not Reformed to deny this. InRomans 13, Scripture tells us the duty of every soul to “the higher powers.” As the following verses make plain, “the higher powers” are the civil rulers, the government of a country. They are those who have the responsibility of praising well-doers and punishing evil-doers; those who wield the sword; and those to whom we are to pay taxes. For us today, they are the U.S. government as it functions through President, Congress, judges, and police. 

Every soul has a duty towards the government. But the apostle’s concern is to set forth the calling of every child of God. The last part of Romans teaches the life of gratitude of the redeemed. In Romans 13, we discover that a holy life includes a calling towards government. 

What this calling is, God’s Word, and only God’s Word, prescribes. No man will bind our consciences here with some human commandment. The Word does not tell us to worship the State; to make a Christian political party to influence the State; or to make our government Christian. 

But the Word does tell us, here and elsewhere, to be in subjection to the State. Positively, we honor the government by recognizing it as being over us—the “higher power.” Accordingly, we honor the men who occupy official positions in the government, because of their official capacity. We obey the government in every law that does not require us to disobey God. Negatively, we do not rebel; the Word forbids the believer to engage in revolution. Such is the explicit prohibition of verse 2: it forbids resistance to the power and warns that the revolutionary will be damned. This prohibition is unconditional. It is possible that the State fails to carry out its God-given task. Our government is failing, today. Nevertheless, we may not revolt. It is possible that the State becomes the antichristian beast of Revelation 13. The very State about which Paul was writing in Romans 13, Rome, was this beast typically. Still, no revolution! Even when we cannot and must not obey, e.g., when the State says, “Do not preach the gospel,” or when the State says, “Worship me,” we may not resist, i.e., revolt. 

In light of this, we cannot possibly join in the praise of the Declaration of Independence as a Christian document, or of the American Revolution as a Christian act. It is a mistake to view the founding fathers as Christians, much less as Calvinists. Two of the framers of the Declaration of Independence were Jefferson and Franklin. Both were notorious Deists—unbelievers—and immoral men besides. Franklin later went to France to encourage the French Revolution, and his fornication in his old age surprised even the French. 

It is an error to regard the Declaration of Independence as a Christian document. It declares resistance to the power to be legitimate and even one’s duty: “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends (namely, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—DE), it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government.” Again: “When a long train of abuses and usurpations . . . evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government.” This is what the American Revolution was: the throwing off of the government of Great Britain. 

We are also the avowed foes of the consequences of this revolutionary beginning of our country. The chickens are coming home to roost, in our day. Every group with a real, or imaginary, grievance, rebels, with an appeal to the principle embodied in the Declaration of Independence—blacks, Indians, workingmen, wives, and children. A certain black revolutionary paused, a few years ago, in his bombing and shooting to declare: “Revolution is as American as apple pie.” 

There is ground, or basis, for our calling to be submissive (how contrary is this word to the spirit of our age and to the strident call on every hand that everyone shall stand up for his rights—”submissive”!), submissive to the government. This ground is given in the last part of verse 1: “For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” The government has authority, the right to impose its will on us, the right to rule, and it has this authority from God Himself. This is the basic teaching of the passage. Throughout the passage, the Holy Spirit uses the word, “power,” the Greek word that means ‘authority.’ Authority is the right to rule others, which right has been received from God, the Possessor of all authority. 

Government has been ordained of God. It is, as such, an institution of God in the world, like marriage. It is not a man-made thing; it is not the product of a social contract. God instituted government in creation, when He made Adam Head of his family and of the human race. He vested government with the vital sword-power after the flood, in Genesis 9. Whoever resists the government resists “the ordinance of God, ” verse 2 states. 

Still more, each particular government has been put in its authoritative place by God, as well as each official of the government. Many different means may be used: birth, in a hereditary monarchy; election, in a democracy; even revolution, as in our country. Whatever the means, “there is no power but of God.” Many different kinds of government may exist. Romans 13 does not put the Divine stamp of approval on any one particular form of government. The form of government at the time of the writing of Romans 13 was the dictatorship of Rome. Whatever government exists is given authority by God to rule its citizens as regards their life in society. 

For this reason, since government is ordained of God, it is necessary to be submissive to the State. “Wherefore ye must needs be subject,” verse 5 says. It is not only advisable to be subject “on account of wrath,” but it is also necessary, “on account of conscience.” Wrath refers to the punishment that the State inflicts on rebels. To submit for this reason is to submit out of fear of punishment; it is to go 55 because you do not want to pay a fine. Such a motive is not enough. It does not take into account the Divine ordination of government. We must be subject also “for conscience sake.” Conscience takes into account right and wrong before the face of God. The believer submits because he reverences God’s authority in the State and has respect for the State as God’s servant. 

For this reason also, the revolutionary receives damnation (vs. 2). He rebels, not merely against a group of human rulers, but against the authority of God. 

It is plain, then, that we Reformed people have a high view of government, a high view of our government, a high view of the specific government that is over us. With the Belgic Confession, we hold it “the bounden duty of every one, of what state, quality, or condition soever he may be, to subject himself to the magistrates; to pay tribute, to show due honor and respect to them, and to obey them in all things which are not repugnant to the Word of God; to supplicate for them in their prayers, that God may rule and guide them in all their ways, and that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” We Reformed believers “detest the Anabaptists and other seditious people, and in general all those who reject the higher powers and magistrates, and would subvert justice, introduce community of goods, and confound that decency and good order, which God hath established among men.” 

We honor the officials of the State at the same time that we are disgusted with the vile behavior of these persons and deplore their abuse of the power God has given them. 

We instruct our children so, at home and in school. At school, we fly the flag of our country and teach them what this symbol stands for. We warn our children against revolution. 

The State has good citizens in us, its best citizens. That government is ordained of God—the basic teaching of Romans 13—was the truth that was challenged at the time of the founding of our country and that was expressly denied in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration states: “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”—”deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”! This was the teaching of the philosophers of the “enlightenment” in Europe. From this follows the right of revolution, as surely as morning follows evening. There are two alternatives for man’s life in the political realm. The one is: “All governments are set up by man; wherefore, revolt.” The other is: ‘”All governments are ordained of God; wherefore, submit.” The principle of the right of revolution in government is the seed of the right of revolution in every area of human life. It is the age-old cry of man’s rebel-heart: No God! No master! No authority! 

This godless, lawless philosophy, a Reformed man opposes with might and main. We believers are an anti-revolutionary party. 


Implied in the fact that government is instituted by God is the equally valid fact that government has acalling, a duty, a work to do. God is not like the United States Congress which creates committees at great expense for no reason whatever, save to play the bigshots and live high off the hog on the workingman’s toil. There is a purpose in the ordaining of the “higher power,” and that purpose is a certain task. 

This task, prescribed by the Word of God, is the praise of the well-doer and the punishment of the evil-doer in society. This is the teaching of the text: “do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same,” says verse 3, indicating that the State’s duty is the protection and praise of the citizen who does the good. On the other hand, the State is the “revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (vs. 4). 

The State has a limited calling! It does not have power over everything, but is given a certain sphere of authority. It must govern the outward behavior (doing good, or practicing evil) of the citizens. in the area of society-life. A totalitarian state is a rebel against God. This is what the Communist governments are. This is what Antichrist will be. We see this developing in our own country: government encroaches on territory where it has no business to be and lords it over every aspect of life. It is busy in welfare—the State has no calling to support me; it is involved in rehabilitation of criminals—the State has no calling to reform evil-doers; it is educating the children—the State has no calling to rear my children. Meanwhile, it is neglecting, more and more, its one, great task. 

This task is to administer justice, to maintain order in society, restraining the dissoluteness of men, as the Belgic Confession puts it. For this, it has—and ought to use!—the sword, i.e., the power to punish, including capital punishment. In view of the performance of this task, the State must be given the taxes that it demands. 

Thus, government is the servant of God. Three times, the apostle calls civil government “the minister (or servant) of God”—in verses 4 and 6. This is how the government, and every official of government, ought to regard itself. It ought not view itself as lord and god over all, to be enriched and served by the people; but it ought to view itself as servant. It ought not view itself as servant of the people—”of the people, by the people, and for the people”; but it ought to view itself as God’s servant. Its task is to serve God by serving the citizens, in the administration of justice and the maintenance of outward order. 

Rare indeed is the government official who seeks office for this reason and who, once in office, labors with this motive. There will be judgment for them, too. Whosoever is a disobedient “minister of God” shall receive to himself damnation. 

But even though government does not consciously regard itself as a servant of God and even though the officials of government are Godless men who seek themselves, their power and pleasure, the State is the servant of God. Paul does not say that the Stateshould be the servant of God, but that it is; and he is speaking, not of an ideal Christian State—which in the New Dispensation has never been and never will be, but of Rome—corrupt, Godless Rome. The State is a servant of God, even though it knows nothing of this and cares less. Indeed, it is servant of God in spite of itself. It is servant of God in the interests of the Church and of the saint! “For he is. the minister of God to thee for good,” we read in verse 4, i.e., to thechild of God and to the Church. The relative order kept by the State in society enables the Church to preach the gospel of Jesus, thus gathering the elect and carrying the witness to all nations. This same order enables the believer to worship, raise his children in the Lord’s fear, and live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness. This is the purpose of God with civil government, and this is the task which God sees to it the State carries out, also. 

Our government, therefore, is a servant of God. It is not a Christian government, anymore than Rome was; but God has used it and does still use it to bless us, His people. For this blessing, we are thankful to God. In our gratitude, we submit to His authority in the State, shun revolution, and pay our taxes.