Greetings brothers and sisters! It’s good to join you from afar as you continue your conference on these important matters. I’m pleased to join you and to try (to) reflect with you on issues of government, state, [and] politics; how are we to understand our civil governments; how are we to understand Christian responsibilities politically. These are obviously difficult and controversial questions; and I look forward now to exploring some of these things with you.
As we begin, I wonder if it might be helpful to think back briefly about the experience of Israel under the Old Testament. They had a very different experience politically than we do. You think back to Israel’s history; God made Israel as a nation, his covenant people; He gave them a law, a law which had all sorts of things to tell them (about) politically; and God brought them into their own promised land where they would live as an independent nation; and there they were to follow the law that God gave them; they were to enforce that law in their courts; they were to appoint leaders (including political leaders) according to the standards that God’s law gave them; and in a way, it was simple for Israel in that their community was not to be pluralistic. God’s law made it clear that within their land (in their nation) they were to put up with no false worship. If there were any idolaters found among them, those people should be put to death. And also what should have been rather simple is that God told them in their law that if they were obedient that God would bless them. He would bless them politically; he would give them peace within their borders; there would be no uh no invasions by foreign armies that would afflict them; God would make them economically prosperous.
Well, we don’t have the same experience today do we? God has not entered into a special covenant with any nation in this world today. He has not done it with the United States. He hasn’t done it with the Philippines. There’s no nation, no state, no government today that is in a special covenant relationship with God the way Israel was long ago. God has not given us in the Bible a special law or books of the law to govern our governments today the way he gave to Israel of old (the Mosaic Law), and of course, we live in pluralistic communities. We live alongside those who practice false religions, who are idolaters, or who say that they have no religion at all, and don’t acknowledge any God; and the New Testament tells us that we are not to put these people to death, but we are to love them; we are to try to live in peace with them as far as possible; and of course, to bring the gospel to them; but all of this raises some really difficult questions for us.
How are we to look at the civil governments that are in authority in our own communities? How are we to understand our own responsibilities politically?
As Christians, as we try to make our way in our political communities, as we think about how we are to make a contribution to our governments? (maybe by voting, or by maybe even running for political office, or holding some other kind of political position). Israel under the Mosaic Law is not a model for us today. We cannot simply take what we find with Israel’s experience, and then assume that it works for ours today. We live in much different circumstances, but we can be grateful that Scripture doesn’t leave us in the dark on these things. We find certainly in the New Testament, we do find some important teaching about civil government, about how we (well for one thing how) what civil governments are supposed to be doing? what their function and purpose is in these days?
And also we learned something about how we are to view them and how we might be involved in their life, in their activity. There’s a lot that is left unsaid. Certainly, the New Testament does not give us any kind of detailed public policy or plan for government. There’s a lot that’s left to our own wisdom, to our own judgment in particular circumstances, but the New Testament does give us a kind of a framework for thinking about what our governments have been put in place to do, and how we should relate to them as Christians.
And it’s also important to say that we actually do find important material in the Old Testament that helps us as well. And so I’m not just going to be talking about the New Testament, but I’m also going to look at the Old Testament as far as what it teaches about the Gentile governments back in Old Testament days. Israel under the Mosaic Law is not a model for us because it was a covenanted nation before God, but it is very interesting to see what the Old Testament says about the Gentile governments of those days about Egypt, about Babylon for example. These are actually in many ways like our governments today. They are under God’s authority as we will see they are they were ordained by God for particular good purposes.
But they were not holy governments or holy societies, just as our societies today whether in the United States or Philippines, or somewhere else are not holy societies today. So we’ll be looking back at what the Old Testament says about these Gentile nations, and see what kind of things we can come to understand about God’s intentions for government even in our own day today.
So with that said, I would like to focus my lecture now on four particular characteristics of civil government today, of our political communities today. Now, this is just a summary. It’s not that there aren’t other things that we might say about it. But I think that these four characteristics that I’m going to identify give a good summary of what civil government is all about; and also provide a kind of a framework for us to think about more particular issues, about various concrete challenges that we face in our own communities. I think it’s important that we get all four of these characteristics when Christians get off track in thinking about government. I think it’s because they recognize some but not all of these four characteristics. If we leave any of these characteristics out. I think we’re in danger of making some pretty important mistakes in the way that we think about civil government.
For those of you who would like to hear more about how I work these things out, you might look at my relatively recent book. It was just published in April of 2020. [The] book is entitled, “Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World”. What I’m going to be presenting to you is material that appears in the 1st Chapter of that book. And I think you could say that (a lot of) most of the rest of the book tries to work out some implications of what I’m going to present to you now.
So if you’re interested in following up on that perhaps you’d be interested in that book. So let me move on now and to address these four characteristics. Let me summarize them for you. The four characteristics are these: Our civil governments are legitimate but they are provisional. Our civil governments are common to all peoples, but they are also accountable before God. So [to summarize]: 1) Legitimate; 2) Provisional; 3) Common; and 4) Accountable. So let’s work through those and consider how Scripture teaches all of these four points.
Civil Governments Are Legitimate
So first, legitimate: Our political communities, our civil governments are legitimate. And what I mean by that is that they have a right, and even an obligation to carry out their proper functions. God has ordained our civil governments. However our governments came into power, some governments come into power by warfare; some of them come into power by democratic vote; some through other means of constitutional transfer of power; there are all sorts of ways that a certain government comes into power. However, every single one of them is only in power because God has put them there (at the end of the day); and our governments that are in power that hold authority (at least those who have come into power in some lawful way) are legitimate because they are ordained of God.
So where do we see this in Scripture? Starting in the New Testament, there are some texts that say this very specifically and Romans 13 is certainly the classic example of this. [In] Romans 13:1-7, Paul there tells us that there is no governing authority except from God. And those that exist have been instituted by God. There are some civil governments, some magistrates that have come into power by some pretty bad means, and yet even these, God says ultimately they have been instituted by God. They have not come into power except as God has permitted this.
Now why has God established civil governments? Well, he has established them he says for certain beneficial purposes. So God has put governments in place so that they might do good things for us. What specifically? Well, Paul says in Romans 13 that they should approve of those who do good. Paul says that they bear the sword (which means that they they have authority to use force, to use coercion in order to do their work). They are avengers, Paul says, who carry out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. They are put into place in other words to do justice, to punish wrongdoers, to praise and protect those who are innocent. Paul calls these magistrates God’s servants and ministers.
And so these civil governments are legitimate. They have authority from God but authority to do good work, to do what they’re supposed to do (We’ll come back to that point). You find similar teaching in 1 Peter 2. In 1 Peter 2:14, Peter says that governors are sent by God to punish those who do evil, and to praise those who do good. Very similar to what Paul says in Romans 13.
So God is the one who has raised up civil magistrates; and he’s raised them up to do justice for the people that are under their authority. And what’s the result if they do this work if they do the job that God has appointed them to do well?
It’s interesting 1 Timothy 2:2 says that we ought to pray for our civil magistrates so that we might live lead peaceful and quiet lives. That’s the ultimate (you might say that’s the goal ); that would be the results, if magistrates do their work that our lives might be peaceful and quiet. And you see it’s because of the legitimacy of civil government, because God has ordained our governments that we ought to submit to them. We ought to pay taxes to them; and we also ought to pray for them that God would prosper their work.
We find that these things not only in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 but also Titus 3:1, and the opening of 1 Timothy 2. So we find this explicit teaching in the New testament that civil governments are legitimate. However, we also find some indirect teaching on this, not just these explicit teachings but also if you look at the book of Acts where we find these stories about the apostles work in the early church.
We find a lot of indirect evidence for the same point think about Paul, and how he is described in Acts. Paul we find him being arrested on a couple of occasions, and we find that he is willing to appeal to his rights as a Roman citizen in order to secure better treatment (more just treatment) from the civil authorities. Paul is not afraid. He that doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of the legal rights that the governments of that day acknowledged.
We find also that Paul was willing to defend himself in court. On occasions when Paul was brought before magistrates, when he was accused of things, he did not just remain silent but he was willing to offer a defense. He didn’t treat these courts as inherently illegitimate (even though they may have been perpetrating many injustices) but he made a defense of himself. We also find that Paul actually treated the magistrates that he interacted with a great deal of respect. It’s clear that Paul didn’t think on many occasions that he was being treated justly, but even then he showed a certain deference, a certain honor to those civil magistrates that he was interacting with.
And so we find here further evidence for the legitimacy of civil government, and our civil magistrates I think here we can see one initial implication for us as Christians, as we think about our participation today in civil government. And the basic conclusion is that we Christians are in fact free to participate. In fact, we can say that it is a good thing for Christians to participate in our civil governments, in our broader political system. It’s not that all Christians are going to be equally involved in political things but because our governments are legitimate; they are ordained by God. This is a legitimate calling for us as believers to participate in various ways in our political systems.
Now you don’t find (a whole lot of, I think we could say you don’t really find) any direct command, or even suggestion in the New Testament that believers ought to pursue political jobs for example or political office (things worked certainly differently in the Roman empire of New Testament days than they do either in your situation in the Philippines or ours here in the United States). But it is interesting that when you read the New Testament, you find that there are a number of political officials there are a number of employees of the state who are converted to Christ; and you never find that they are told that they have to leave their political positions (never have to leave their offices). That’s never that itself is never an issue.
Some examples of this, we see Zacchaeus in Luke 19 was a tax collector. That he was a government employee. Cornelius in Acts 10 and 11 was a centurion, in other words he was a military official of Rome. He was converted but was never told that he had to give up his job, or you might consider the example of Sergius Paulus in Acts 13 who was he’s called a proconsul. He was a kind of a civil magistrate. And we read that he believed the message that Paul preached, and yet we have no evidence that he had to give up his position because of his newfound Christian faith.
Now I want to take a moment also to reflect on the fact that we see evidence of the same these same things in the Old Testament. When the godly saints of old were were living in, or interacting with the gentile nations of the world. So this is interesting to us the Roman government of the New Testament days is really the same kind of thing. It’s the same kind of government as the Egyptian government of old, or the Babylonian government of old; and so as we look at how the saints of old interacted with those governments, we get some interesting insight on our own condition today.
And so I would want to point out for example, you see how Pharaoh protected Jacob and his family. Pharaoh, we might say: “You see how God used civil government’s evil to accomplish his good purposes as he does today right”. So just to be to be clear about what I’m saying here, God used the Old [Testament] (as he does in the New Testament or today); He uses civil governments for good purposes. He used Pharaoh of old to protect Jacob and his family during the time of famine. We read in 1 Samuel how the king of Moab protected David and his family when they were under persecution from Saul.
We read, of course, after the exile to Babylon, how God used Cyrus the king of Persia to bring Israel back to the promised land. And it’s not just that we see God using these governments for good purposes, but we also see how God’s people of old were willing to participate in the political life of these gentile nations; when they found themselves living under these governments for one reason or another, or having to interact with them for one reason or another.
You might think of the story of Abraham. Abraham was a wanderer, a sojourner and he lived among a number of different kinds of governments (of gentile or pagan governments you might say) but we find that he would often have very friendly relationships with them. An example is Abimelech the king of Gerar. How we read in Genesis 21 that Abraham actually made a covenant with him, a political treaty with Abimelech; and Isaac did the same thing with Abimelech in Genesis 26.
We see that David and Solomon were willing to have friendly relationships with Hiram the king of Tyre. You see this in 2 Samuel and 1 Kings. And what’s very remarkable is how a number of godly Old Testament saints held high positions in gentile governments. It’s really remarkable isn’t it we read about Joseph in Egypt, or we read about Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Babylon; and [in ]Persia, we read about Nehemiah, and Esther, and Mordechai who held high positions in the Persian government. It’s remarkable the number of godly Old Testament people who were willing to participate in these gentile pagan governments. And so we see further evidence of the legitimacy of civil government.
Civil Governments Are Provisional
Okay so let’s move on to our second of these four ideas. So governments are legitimate, first. Second, our civil governments and our political communities are provisional. What do i mean by that? Well, provisional refers to something that is set into place for a limited time and purpose. Something that’s provisional might be important, it might be beneficial but it’s temporary. It’s only put into place for a time until something better can come about. Our political communities and civil governments are provisional. They are important but they’re not permanent.
They’re important but they’re not of ultimate value. Only the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ is permanent. Only the kingdom of Christ is of lasting and ultimate value. This is a crucial thing to remember alongside legitimate. Yes, they’re legitimate. They’re God ordained our governments, but only in a provisional temporary kind of way. Now it seems to me that the most striking way that Scripture communicates this is in the story that we find in Daniel 2.
You remember that story this is when Nebuchadnezzar see he has a dream, and he sees this vision of this great statue and the statue has a head of gold, and a chest, and arms of silver midsection, and thighs of bronze, then it has legs of iron, and feet of iron mixed with clay. And then all of a sudden, Nebuchadnezzar sees the stone come out of nowhere, a stone not not made with human hands, and it strikes the image and it just breaks it apart, and the statue is carried away without leaving a single trace. So Nebuchadnezzar was he was puzzled, and he wanted to know he called this wise man to try to see if any could tell him what his dream was, and what it meant. No one could and so Daniel comes. And Daniel tells him what his dream was, and then he gives the interpretation (Remember what the interpretation was) Well, Daniel says Nebuchadnezzar God has granted you a great kingdom. He has made you the head of gold, and then he says after your kingdom there will come other kingdoms, other earthly kingdoms, and these kingdoms are going to be weaker than yours, and these were represented by the lower parts of this image the statue that Nebuchadnezzar saw. But Daniel says in the days of the latter kings, he says: “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms then bring them to an end and it shall stand forever (Daniel 2:44)”. The kingdom of God, the kingdom that our Lord Jesus proclaimed when he came to this earth. That is the only everlasting kingdom only that is permanent. Every earthly kingdom is going to be put to an end one day. It will rise up for a time but God is going to bring it low at the end.
Now when we looked at the New Testament we can see evidence of this truth. One way we can see evidence of this is in the fact that the New Testament gives our civil governments modest functions, modest responsibilities. You think about what I was saying earlier. I was noting that say from Romans 13 or 1 Peter 2 that God has ordained civil magistrates to do justice. 1 Timothy 2, God has ordained civil government so that we might lead peaceful and quiet lives.
Now those are important things in the face of all the injustice of this world, we recognize how valuable it is how good it is when you have civil governments that do justice to some degree. In the midst of all the chaos and unrest in this world, we recognize how valuable it is when we have civil magistrates who in some way to some degree promote peace in this world. Those are valuable things and yet they’re not the ultimate things. They’re not the things of the most importance.
I mean think about the things that governments are not supposed to do, responsibilities that God has not given to our governments. God has not given the keys of the kingdom to our civil governments. He’s given them only to the church as we read in Matthew 16. Our civil governments even at their best they do not minister the forgiveness of sins. They don’t minister everlasting life. They don’t reconcile people to God they don’t bring the new creation. Our civil governments have important responsibilities, but they don’t have the most important responsibilities. They are provisional. They will they are not permanent. And they don’t bring in the permanent things.
Another way that Scripture communicates this point in both Old and New testaments is by highlighting how fragile civil governments are, and how fragile political rulers are. Sometimes our governments, our rulers they seem so powerful, they seem so fearsome, and yet Scripture reminds us their state is precarious. They only will hold power for a time and no longer think about the mighty Pharaoh of old, how powerful one, of the most powerful rulers of the ancient world, and yet Pharaoh just like just like the poorest pauper in Egypt, lost his firstborn son to the destroying angel, and then he lost his country, you might say he saw his country destroyed by the ten plagues. Or you might think of king Sennacherib of Assyria in 1 Kings 18 and 19. The mighty Sennacherib who had conquered so much of the known world, and yet you remember what happened to him. God put to death 185,000 of his soldiers on one night. And Sennacherib returned home and he was assassinated by his own sons. Even the mighty are but nothing in God’s sight.
You know what you might think of Nebuchadnezzar, the great the mighty Nebuchadnezzar. You might think about Daniel 4. [In] Daniel 4, he’s walking around on the walls at night admiring Babylon. This great city that he had built and that very night, God condemned him to live like a beast for years out in the fields. How the mighty were humbled. Or Belshazzar, a successor of Nebuchadnezzar on the throne of Babylon, described in Daniel 5 as giving this great banquet for his nobles, bringing out all his best tableware, wearing his finest clothes, and Belshazzar sees a hand writing on the wall, and Belshazzar soils himself, and receives word that he is going to lose power, lose his kingdom that very night.
In the New Testament, we read about Herod, the Great Herod who in Acts 12 executes James (the apostle James, and puts Peter in jail. He seems so powerful; the church seems so weak before Herod, And in that very same chapter, we read that God strikes Herod down, and while Herod is wearing his finest clothes, the worms eat his body. How the mighty fall! I think Isaiah sums it up best in Isaiah 40. Isaiah says, “Behold the nations are like a drop from a bucket and are accounted as the dust on the scales (Isaiah 40:15)”. He says, God “..brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth when God [he] blows on them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble (Isaiah 40:23-24)”. Our governments our rulers are provisional. they’re not permanent. They appear strong at the moment but they are really weak in the sight of God.
Another thing that Scripture says that reminds us of this provisionality is that even though Scripture says that magistrates are (our civil officials are) to promote justice, as we considered a few minutes ago, that so often our civil officials actually perpetrate evil. The worst perpetrators of evil in this world are civil magistrates. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. The greatest wrongs in the world are done by our governments. We see this time and again in Scripture all right, it’s Pharaoh who enslaves Israel in orders, that he ordered the mass murder of of Israel’s baby boys at the beginning of Exodus. Pharaoh is the one who perpetrates this evil. It was Nebuchadnezzar who required people including Israelites to worship this great statue that he had made, and threatened to throw people into the fiery furnace that they refused to do that. King Darius required everyone to pray to him, and then threatened to throw them in the lion’s den if they failed to do so. Haman, the wicked Haman in Persia, was the one who planned genocide against the people of Israel. As I mentioned earlier Herod king, Herod threw Peter into prison, and put James to death.
We see throughout the Scriptures that even though civil magistrates are called to do justice, they do so much that is evil. They are legitimate in the sense that they are appointed by God. But they so often fail in the jobs that they are are given. And so I want to conclude the second section by reflecting then about about what this means for us, and how we think about our governments, and about our political participation.
I guess the bottom line is this: that we Christians should not stake a whole lot on our governments as Psalm 146 says, we should put no confidence in princes. Yes, we may appeal to our magistrates for justice. We may vote. We may seek political office. Yes, we can do what we can to contribute to what is good in our political communities. But remember that our confidence never should lie in the rise and fall of political parties, in the rise and fall of particular rulers. We put no confidence in princes, and however patriotic we might be, and it’s okay to have certain feelings of patriotism towards our own nation, our own communities, at the same time the affection that we feel for our own countries should pale in comparison to the affection that we feel for Christ’s kingdom.
Our true citizenship is in heaven, Paul tells us in Philippians 3. That is where our affection, that’s where our confidence is to lie. And so we want to say with the author of the book of Hebrews, as he says in Hebrews 13:14, “…here we have no lasting city but we are awaiting the city that is to come”. That’s where our true affection is. That’s where our ultimate loyalties lie. That’s where our true hope is grounded. And so even though, we may be citizens of an earthly community, and be grateful for benefits that come with that. We recognize as 1 Peter 2:11 says, that we are sojourners and exiles here on earth. We keep that in mind that gives us perspective (all right).
Civil Governments Are Common
Let me move on to the third of these four characteristics of our civil governments, and political communities. The third word is common. Our civil governments and our political communities are meant to be common. What do I mean by that?
I mean that God when he ordains civil governments and political communities he ordains them for the benefit of all human beings in common. He does not ordain our civil governments to serve only some people, to serve only certain kinds of people, but all people the human race generally ,the human race universally. Now I think you can see this again in Romans 13. I keep coming back to Romans 13. Romans 13:1-7 is the New Testament text that gives us the most detail about what civil government is for, and how we should view our civil governments (even that is not that long of a text but it is useful).
There are a lot of important things in Romans 13:1-7, and one of the things we see in Romans 13 is that Paul commands every person to be subject to the governing authorities. That’s in Romans 13:1 and in that same verse, God says Paul says that “there is no authority except from God. So I think this is important to note Paul, what Paul says in Romans 13 is not for some people. It is for all people every single person has the obligations towards government that he describes there, and what he says about civil government there is for every civil government not just for some.
So Paul’s instructions are universal they are common for all of the human race. And so you note that when Paul gives instructions in Romans 13, it’s not for some people rather than others. It’s not for Jews as opposed to Gentiles, or vice versa. It’s not for Romans or Scythians or vice versa. It’s not for Christians, or pagans, or vice versa. It’s for all people the instructions are common to all. Magistrates, civil governments have the same responsibilities towards Christians, as far as non-Christians, towards Jews, as towards Gentiles.
And this if you take this seriously this has really important implications for how we think about the responsibilities of civil government. I think we can see again something similar when we go back to the Old Testament, and we consider how what the Old Testament says about gentile governments, about pagan governments of this day. Again clearly what I’m saying now, was not to be true of Old Testament Israel living under the mosaic law in the promised land. They were not there, that government was not common to all people. That government was only for Israelites, and for gentiles who converted to the true and living God. All other people were to be expelled or executed right. But what do we see when we look at the Old Testament, and examine what the Old Testament says about these gentile nations?
Well consider Israel’s experience when they went into exile in Babylon. Here was Israel living apart from their promised land. How were they to how are they to view the Babylonian government? Well we find that in Jeremiah 29 for example, the prophet Jeremiah tells these early exiles, he says basically, “..be involved in Babylonian life. Settle down there. Build homes, have families”. And he says “…pray for the peace of Babylon. Seek the peace of Babylon”. And [so they were to],the Israelites were to recognize that the Babylonian government was to serve them, as well as the native Babylonians. They could participate in the Babylonian government. And we see that actually taking place in the example of Daniel and his friends. You see Daniel recognized that the Babylonian government was ordained by God to be a common government. It was responsible to do justice not just for Babylonians, but for all people. And because of that Daniel and other Israelites could participate in that government. And also this is very another interesting point to notice about this.
Again, as we look as we think about those Old Covenant believers who participated in these gentile governments. Do you notice how even though they sometimes had positions of great power, that they didn’t try to turn those nations into New Israel’s, into holy communities? Right so for example, Joseph (here Joseph), he becomes second in command in Egypt. And yet he doesn’t try to turn Egypt into a holy land. (He didn’t) He didn’t try to get rid of false worship in Egypt. He didn’t try to make Egyptian government into one that served only people who worshiped the true god. That wasn’t Joseph knew. that wasn’t what he was called to do there. He was called to serve all the people including the Egyptian unbelievers, or think again about Daniel and the service that he rendered in Babylon. He had great power both under Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, and then later under Cyrus in Persia (I’m sorry under Darius in Persia). And it’s interesting as we think about Daniel’s actions, Daniel did not try to turn Babylon or later Persia into a new Jerusalem. He didn’t try to expel all idolaters from these places. He recognized that these governments were meant to serve all people by God’s ordination.
And so I think those are very interesting precedents to consider from the Old Testament. Now what does this mean for us as we think about our our participation in our governments today? About the way that we vote? Or for those who for those Christians who might have some position of government authority?
Seems to me that our conclusion is that we are not called to turn our societies into new Israel’s, into new holy lands. We are not to try to turn Manila, or Washington DC into new Jerusalem’s. No, we recognize that our governments today are meant to serve. They’re ordained by God to serve all people, all people within their midst, whether they profess the true religion or not. We are to see that they, that these people get justice. Christians are not to seek special privileges through our (through our) government (through our), through political means. We want the church to advance, we want the gospel to be preached, we want many people to be gathered in. But we do not use political means, we do not use the civil sword to try to bring that about. All that we ask is that we receive the same protection that others receive. That we can live in peace and do our work in peace the way other people can.
Now that’s not the way that so many Christians through history have viewed things. We know that through much of church history Christians have tried to use the sword to to get rid of people who worship other gods, or practice false religions. But I would suggest that this is (this is) not what we are to be doing. We should acknowledge that our governments are to be common and serve all people, to serve the cause of justice for all, to protect all people from harm.
Civil Governments Are Accountable
And that brings me to my fourth and final characteristic of civil government. So far we have legitimate and provisional. And we have just considered the idea of common. And to this I would add the idea of accountable. Our civil governments are not only to be common to all people, but they are accountable before God. And I think this idea of accountability is nice to add alongside, or to consider alongside the idea of common. I think there’s (there’s) the danger of misunderstanding, if I say our governments are meant to serve all people in common.
That might be misunderstood to think well our governments are just to be morally neutral. If they’re common to all people then they’re morally neutral right? No (wrong). Our governments are to serve all people without discriminating on the basis of ethnic background or religious profession, but they are accountable before God for doing justice, for punishing those who harm other people, and protecting those who live peacefully. So I want to turn back for a moment to Romans 13. (That’s where I’m beginning discussion for each of these characteristics).
Now remember as I noted earlier, Romans 13 speaks of God ordaining magistrates to administer justice. [It is] there to punish those who do evil, and to protect, or praise those who do what is good. Now I think about that is when Paul says that he’s not giving magistrates the authority to make up what is just, to invent their own conception of justice. No, they are to carry out God’s conception of justice. You notice in Romans 13, he says they are to administer justice as God’s servants, as God’s ministers, (they can’t) they don’t have the liberty to define what is just (to make that up). Rather, they are to administer to apply the justice of God himself.
So when magistrates do their work, they are either advancing, or they are resisting a divine commission. They are either doing justice, and therefore serving God, or they are promoting injustice, and resisting God. And of course, many magistrates are doing a combination of both, but they are accountable to God for how they conduct themselves. And now we might ask you know, how do I mean we might say, “Okay well, we understand how Christian magistrates would have a sense of what is just in God’s eyes but what about non-Christians? What about non-Christian magistrates? How do they even know what is just in God’s eyes?”
And here it’s important to say that every single person including civil magistrates they have a basic idea even if they’ve never read the Scriptures, even if they’ve never been trained in a Christian theology and ethics. They have a basic knowledge of what is just. In fact, it’s interesting that in the same epistle in which Paul gives these relatively detailed instructions about what civil magistrates are, and what they’re supposed to do. [In] Romans 13, at the beginning of that epistle, Paul describes how every single person is morally accountable to God.
And I’m thinking especially of the discussion in Romans 1:18-32. Although Paul also says some relevant things a little bit later in especially Romans 2:13-14 and 15. Paul says in the latter part of Romans 1, he says that all people know from the things that have been made from creation itself that there is a God and that they are accountable to him. They are all without excuse before God. The very last verse of Romans 1:32 says that all people know, that those who commit the sins, that Paul describes in Romans 1 deserve to die.
In other words, they know God’s righteous judgment. They know that God is righteous in carrying out judgment against those who sin, and so right from the beginning of Romans, Paul takes away any excuse from civil magistrates, or anyone else that they don’t know what is just (at least some basic level), and so when Paul gets to Romans 13, we see that Paul can speak of civil magistrates as accountable to God for how they carry out their responsibilities. And it makes sense then that we see throughout the Scriptures that God holds civil magistrates accountable. We sooner or later, we may not see it right away. It’s not as if God strikes magistrates down right away the first sin they commit. But God does hold every single magistrate accountable. And sometimes we see this in very dramatic ways.
We see in Genesis 19 how God brings down Sodom and Gomorrah, and the whole city (of course), that whole community, is brought down for its sins but I think it’s one thing that’s really interesting to see in the Old Testament is how in the many of the Old Testament prophets. The Prophets deliver these oracles against foreign nations against gentile nations, and condemn them for their sins. Sometimes the prophets address their kings specifically, and warn them that God is going to bring judgment against them. I mean these are kings that had never heard the law of Moses. They never read the Old Testament, and yet God said they are accountable. God is going to bring judgment against them for what (well some of those texts describe) egregious acts of injustice that these kings and nations have committed. And God is going to hold them responsible for those things. One of the things that we see in many of these oracles, these prophetic oracles is that God condemns these nations for mistreating his people, for committing injustices against Israel, and I want to conclude on this note. Because this is the last thing I’d like to say in offering you some encouragement.
As you think about your life under your government, your participation in your own political community, it’s important to remember that God will hold your civil government, as my civil government, all civil governments of this world, he will hold them accountable. He does hold them accountable. They will have to answer before God and they will have to answer before God especially for wrongs that they do to the church of Jesus Christ.
As Zechariah 2 says that [the] God’s people are the apple of his eye. God loves us and cares for us. And there are many occasions in which civil governments, they persecute the people of God. And even those of us who may have it pretty well I mean we, in the United States, you in the Philippines, we enjoy very great degrees of religious liberty for which we should be grateful. And yet there are always fears about whether these liberties might be taken away. How we might suffer at the hands of our governments. And yet we can be confident brothers and sisters that you and I, all of God’s people, we are the apple of his eye. And when those in power rise up against us, God sees. God knows. And God will hold our persecutors to account.
So I hope that this lecture has been of (I’ve helped you) understanding things theologically and morally. But I also hope that this last point is an encouragement to you, to have confidence that though things often don’t go very well politically, though we often live in certain fear of political events, what might transpire in the future. Don’t forget that God is the true ruler of all nations. And that he has his eye upon you his people. And that as powerful as civil magistrates may be, they are nothing in the eyes of God. May God continue to bless you, as you seek to serve him in all areas of your life.