Understanding Romans 13 without the Hyper-Calvinist Spin

[The title and idea for this essay come from and compliment the essay “Understanding Romans 9 Without the Calvinist Spin,” which I highly recommend for reasons unrelated to this post].


1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,
4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.
7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

This passage is the main scriptural text on governance in the New Testament. As John Piper pointed out 35 years ago, this text has “often been used to justify an unseemly conformity to the status quo in this country and in others” (link). This passage is often thrown around in Evangelical circles, from my experience, with the weight of divine authority. Justly so, since the passage was divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Yet not so. The words themselves are divinely inspired, but the misunderstanding of the twin doctrines of Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility is not inspired by the Holy Spirit. So then, before fully explaining Romans 13, I must dissect the entire debate over free will and determinism.

But first, go read this.

D.A. Carson here articulates a position called Compatibilism. This is the argument that the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man are, in some way, compatible.

The Sovereignty of God

People who believe in this doctrine will point to areas of scripture like Ephesians 1 and Romans 9, and several stray verses here and there that imply man is powerless to choose.

For example, the deafening mention in John 6 that “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,” is explicit that salvation cannot ever come without God’s expressed permission (if not more). In John 17 the same idea appears again: “None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction,” and, well, does this require more convincing?

If you do need more convincing, in Ephesians 1 Paul writes that God “chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world” and that “in love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,” oh and also that believers have “been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” This really doesn’t cover it, but the prooftexting can relent for now.

The sovereignty of God is another way of saying that God is omnipotent — all powerful. He can do anything he wants, with no restrictions. David Platt has this to say on the sovereign power of God:

“Worthy are You, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for You created all things and by Your will they existed and were created.” By Your will. God is sovereign over it all. He is sovereign over all nature — the wind blows at the bidding of God. The sun’s heat radiates according to His commands. Every star in the sky comes out at night because He calls them each by name. There is not a speck of dust on the planet that exists apart from the sovereignty of our God.

He is sovereign over all nature, and He is sovereign over all nations, our God charts the course of countries. And he holds the rulers of the Earth in the palm of His hand and this is good news. It is good news to know that Ahmadinejad in Iran is not sovereign over all, and neither is Hamid Karzai or Hu Jintao or Kim Jong Un or Benjamin Netanyahu or Barack Obama. Our God is sovereign over every single one of them and He holds them in his hands. He is sovereign over them, sovereign over you, sovereign over me, sovereign over everything.

He creates all things, sustains all things, knows all things, He ordains all things. He owns all things. The author of Creation has authority over all creation. He has all the rights. American Christians: you don’t have rights. God alone has rights. He has the right to save sinners, and He has the right to damn sinners. People say well what about man’s responsibility? Doesn’t man have anything to do with his destiny? Well sure he does, man is certainly responsible in human history, but God is sovereign over human history. (cool video link).

(If this doesn’t clear it up, here are at least 3 dozen more resources from Desiring God, here are more from Ligonier, the Gospel Coalition search results, a wiki article on the omnipotence of God, and after that a good book to read would be this book or this book)

The Responsibility of Man

There was a great debate 1700 years ago between the writings of Augustine and Pelagius, the former believing in original sin and the latter rejecting it. Pelagius’s idea was that God only holds us responsible for sins we had the option to commit. So, we must have the ability to do good.

This was roundly rejected by Augustine, who argued that man’s default position of sin as nature (original sin) meant that we actually are “dead” in sin as Ephesians 2:1 teaches. But this is besides the point. Wayne Grudem observes the real issue at hand:

“If our responsibility before God were limited by our ability, then extremely hardened sinners, who are in great bondage to sin, could be less guilty before God than mature Christians who were striving daily to obey him. . . The true measure of our responsibility and guilt is not our own ability to obey God, but rather the absolute perfection of God’s moral law and his own holiness (which is reflected in that law). “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). (Systematic Theology, 499).

In quoting this verse from Matthew, Grudem notes a powerful logical dynamic: we have been commanded to obey, and by issuing a command, God has placed the responsibility outside of himself to achieve its completion.

In fact, if we reject Pelagius’s argument, there is no way to avoid the conclusion that man bears the responsibility for all his actions. God has created man with this inherent responsibility. Grudem, elsewhere in his book, writes this:

If we do right and obey God, he will reward us and things will go well with us both in this age and in eternity. If we do wrong and disobey God, he will discipline and perhaps punish us, and things will go ill with us. The realization of these facts will help us have pastoral wisdom in talking to others and in encouraging them to avoid laziness and disobedience.

The fact that we are responsible for our actions means that we should never begin to think, “God made me do evil, and therefore I am not responsible for it.” Significantly, Adam began to make excuses for the very first sin. . . Unlike Adam, Scripture never blames God for sin. . . Now we may object that it is not right for God to hold us responsible if he has in fact ordained all things that happen, but Paul corrects us: “You will say to me, then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, a man, to answer back to God?” (Rom. 9:19-20). (334).

Really, every commandment given in scripture could be cited here as further proof of human responsibility, because a command itself implies that the recipient must obey, because if there is no “must” (to be replaced by “could”) then it is just another option, and do remember that “options” also indicate human free will. So, then, either way, the burden of responsibility falls on man.

Compatibility

The argument from the initial D.A. Carson link is that, despite the complete contradiction, both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man are found in abundance in scripture.

These should be mutually exclusive because if humans are passive recipients of someone else’s decisions, they would not be considered morally responsible for their actions, since they didn’t act freely. Conversely, if humans act from their own will, how could their actions be retroscribed upon God? Would that make him a God-of-the-retrospect, like the Mandate of Heaven from ancient China, where anything that happened was retrospectively declared the will of God? This was in spite of the fact that every action along the way came from humans.

Yet, we have both. There isn’t, to the best of my knowledge, a logical synthesis other than to suspend logic and act like the problem isn’t there.

John MacArthur, with his usual clarity of theology, writes this:

Scripture affirms both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. We must accept both sides of the truth, though we may not understand how they correspond to one another. People are responsible for what they do with the gospel—or with whatever light they have (Romans 2:19, 20), so that punishment is just if they reject the light. And those who reject do so voluntarily. Jesus lamented, “You are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life” (John 5:40). He told unbelievers, “Unless you believe that I am [God], you shall die in your sins” (John 8:24). In John chapter 6, our Lord combined both divine sovereignty and human responsibility when He said, “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37); “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life” (John 6:40); “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44); “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life” (John 6:47); and, “No one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father” (John 6:65). How both of those two realities can be true simultaneously cannot be understood by the human mind—only by God.

And recall again D.A. Carson’s statement from the bottom of the first link:

at the end of the day, what the Bible does do is insist that those two propositions I gave you stand at the very heart of any faithful Christian understanding of the mystery of providence. God is sovereign, but his sovereignty doesn’t mitigate human responsibility. We human beings are morally responsible creatures but that doesn’t mean God is contingent. And we live with those tensions and all the mysteries of how God in his eternity relates to us in our time. We live with those tensions until the very end.

Returning now to Romans 13

Forgive me for the above longwindedness, but this topic of the sovereignty of God is directly implicated in this passage when Paul writes “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” So we see that God has acted in His omnipotence to appoint someone as king.

But how, practically speaking, did that person become king? Did the Roman Senate hold an emergency meeting and elect a new king at the death of the last? Did the existing king have two sons, and the younger killed the older so that he could ascend to the throne? Did the property-owning citizens of Athens gather together and write names on stones to cast their vote?

In the first example, the Senators are the ones directly responsible for the King coming to power. In the second, the younger brother is responsible for his own coming to power, and sinned in the process. In the third, the citizens of Athens are responsible for their actions.

All rulers, besides the direct ascendancy of a first-born son, come to power because of some actual choice made by a human. (Even in the first-born son case, the Father decided to have a child, or decided not to have the child killed, or decided not to have the throne filled otherwise, or what-have-you).

This is especially true in democracies (read: systems that hold a vote), where the responsibility actually falls upon everyone in the country. This is part of the argument (though not consistently followed) by conservatives who decried President Obama as a sign of God’s judgement against the nation. It could also be true of President Trump, though only time will tell.

My argument in interpreting Romans 13 is this: Paul is giving the sovereignty of God position, but like other texts that depend upon the sovereignty of God, we must look elsewhere in scripture to receive the whole message.

You wouldn’t read Ephesians 1 and think “well, since God is sovereign, man has absolutely no responsibility for his actions,” yet this is exactly what people do with Romans 13 all the time.

So what would it look like to apply the Compatibilist model of the will of God to something like Government?

In this model, when discussing salvation, the following things are true:

  1. we do not know the future
  2. we are held responsible for our choices
  3. God commands a response

And I would say that, when applying this Compatibilist model to Government, those translate roughly into these three principles:

  1. we do not know who will win an election, and therefore God’s will can only be acted upon in retrospect (which means it can’t be acted upon).
  2. we must act according to conscience, which I venture to say should be informed by Scripture, by history, and by political science (though blending these can be difficult work).
  3. we must participate in the decision making process, and if not, we implicitly still are, much like a person who makes no decision about salvation is actually just deciding to reject God.

So then, let us return to the original passage. Romans 13, with some commentary.

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,
4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.
7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

“Those that exist have been instituted by God” is true in the same way that the color socks you wore today were instituted by God, or that you took 31ml of Nyquil last night rather than 30ml was instituted by God. In no way does this abrogate the responsibility of the people doing the tangible action of choosing the authorities. This is especially obvious today, when hundreds of millions of people cast votes, rather than 30 in the Senate or some other less-than-obvious system. So then, while God can be credited when a good ruler comes to power, man must take the blame when the ruler turns out to be sour.

This type of theological minutia may seem nitpicky, or irrelevant. “What difference does it make?” someone may ask.

The difference is that, as a result of human responsibility, we must treat governance like any other choice. We are responsible! We must take action when things go wrong! Now this action must occur within the confines of the system, and violent revolution is never prescribed in scripture to overthrow existing evil governments (except in the entire book of Joshua where the Israelites are commanded to overthrow the existing governments in the land of Caanan … though this does not translate to today)

This lays out the foundation of my belief in Christian political activism. I must take seriously the notion that God can and does act through humans to change governments, to elect leaders, to restructure society. I can safely push against the system, in one sense because God will override my actions if they are outside his will, in another sense because my actions themselves are determined by his will (?) and therefore they cannot happen unless they are allowed by him, and in one final sense because I have been commanded to love justice and hate evil, and this includes any institution for which I am responsible.

Notice that Paul gives the function of government: the authority must be an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. But notice also that Paul says nothing about the proper Christian response to authorities who themselves are wrongdoers. Who is the King above all Kings? God, yet what if in his silence he is commanding humans to act on his behalf? This seems to be exactly what he does with kings themselves.

My main takeaway point from this pedantic essay should be: to read Romans 13 without the hyper-Calvinist spin, simply add in the recognition that humans are responsible for their actions, and suddenly the all-too-familiar blurry line between His sovereignty and our responsibility has reappeared. What do we do? This is just as difficult a question to answer on government as it is on anything else.

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