Romans 13:1-10


In chapter 12 Paul had spoken to the Romans about Christians among Christians. In chapter 13 Paul speaks to Christians who are also dealing with the secular world. In verses 1-7 he speaks about the proper genuine obedience of the Christian toward all, including the worldling. These verses were recorded for all Christians of all ages. There is no special emphasis for the Romans living under a Nero. But these verses do include Nero too. Paul's teaching is the very same as that of Jesus. Jesus said: "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's."  (Matthew 22:21 in the NKJV.) And with reference to loving one's neighbor Jesus said to the lawyer: "Go and do likewise."  (Luke 10:37 in the NKJV.)

Both Jesus and Paul were reiterating Leviticus 19:18: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."  (NASB.) The Christian lives in a sinful world. He is surrounded by the depravity of natural man. The Christian has a great responsibility in such a world, the responsibility of obedience and love. Thus he lets his light shine among men. Thus he glorifies his Father in heaven.

Romans 13:1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

This verse is made up of three sentences: The first is a command; the second elucidates the first; and the third elucidates the second. The word "everyone" is translated "soul" by KJV and NKJV. RSV, NEB and NASB render it "person."  And TEV, NIV and AAT simply have "everyone." 

Bengel: He had said that their bodies should be presented to God, 12:1, assuming that the souls would be: now he wishes 'souls' to be subject to the magistrate.
Lenski: The use of 'souls' to designate a living person is common; of course, Paul is writing only to a Christian congregation.

Every Christian must subject himself to the existing government. "By God"  clearly shows the superiority of these powers.

Stoeckhardt: The higher powers refer not only to the magisterial office theoretically but to the government according to its concrete persons and members as the holders of the divinely-instituted office.
Arndt: The plural is used because the various persons constituting the government are meant.

This is followed by an explanatory clause "you see." The list lumps all of these in the singular number. This "authority" finds it source only in God. And Paul emphasizes this by a final clause. Paul again uses the plural number, reminding us of the many facets of government. All are to be obeyed.

The words denote constant and continuing action. There is no period in world history where this does not pertain.

Stoeckhardt: Every government on earth, though it be illegitimate, which has the power and exercises the functions of state, is government ordained by God.
Franzmann: The governing authority that confronts ME is His. 'God' occurs six times in these seven verses (five times in the Greek; the translators have, correctly, added 'God's' to 'wrath' in verse 5); and the idea of 'ordinance' or 'order' is expressed in five words, all having the same root form.
Lenski: 'By God' becomes emphatic because it is repeated. God's providence has arranged the existing governmental authorities; without his providential agency not one of them could exist.

Romans 13:2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

Since the "power" is from God it is God's "authority." And to resist means to line one's self against God Himself. The atheist or rebel may think he is opposing men alone. The Christian knows better.

Lenski: For the entire point in all that precedes is the fact that God is involved; and this is the important matter here.

It is clear that Paul is here not discussing what Christians should do if the laws of men conflict with the laws and will of God (Acts 5:29). This happens very rarely.

The fact that "rebels" is perfect tense shows that the individuals involved have deliberately made up their minds to oppose God. The pagan might think that it is to his advantage but the Christian knows better.

"Judgment" is translated "punishment" by NEB. Likewise Arndt. Four of our translations read "judgment" but perhaps that is too weak. Implicit in the text is the fact that this punishment comes from God.

Stoeckhardt: History teaches in many examples that rebels have plunged themselves into misfortune and have often had a terrible end.

Romans 13:3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.

This verse begins in Greek with an explanatory "you see."  Paul discusses not only the warning to the rebel but also the promise to the law-abiding citizen.  "Rulers" covers all aspects of the governmental process. Paul begins by saying what they are not "a cause of fear."  He personifies by using "not to the good (beneficial) deed but to the bad."  God sees to it that law-abiding citizens are rewarded but that resisters are punished.

For the next sentence we offer the rendering of NIV: "Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you." The Nestle text does not indicate that this is a question. Perhaps it is assumed that it is a question without punctuating thus.

"Do that which is good" means "do that which is beneficial."  The law-abiding citizen gets his commendation not from his deed but from the authority.

Arndt: The good work and evil work are personified. The rules are intended to promote what is good and to oppose what is evil. The second part of the verse may be paraphrased: 'You perhaps do not want to fear men. Very well, obey the laws and you do not have to fear men.' Instead of being compelled to entertain fear you will receive praise as a good citizen and subject.

Arndt is suggesting that perhaps we have no question in this verse.

Romans 13:4 For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

Again, an explanation. Government is to serve a good purpose for its citizens. That is what this verse is all about. But first a question. Who or what is the "servant"? Lenski and NASB say it is the authority. NASB reads this verse as follows:  "For it (the authority) is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil."  Note the word "who" in this translation. To be consistent NASB ought to read  "which" and not "who."  Lenski has virtually the same explanation.

Lenski: Paul calls THE AUTHORITY 'God's minister', for he refers to its exercise which accords with God's own arrangement.

That can hardly be. The other versions and commentaries understand "servant" as a ruler. They translate with "he."  KJV, NKJV and NASB translate "minister."  The others have "God's servant." 

Bengel: Paul uses the same words of the magistracy, as he uses elsewhere of the ministry of the Gospel.

That is true. Just as the pastor is God's minister (servant) of the church, so the ruler is God's minister of the state.

"For that which is beneficial."  People often think of their government in a negative way. God does not look at it that way.

The next sentence is a present general condition: "If ever you are doing what is evil, always be afraid."  This is axiomatic among men. Now he gives the reason. He does not bear the sword uselessly.

Franzmann: For Romans the sword was the instrument of execution and therefore the symbol of retributive justice.

All governments, also democracies, rule by force, the force of the sword.

Stoeckhardt: Executive power culminates in the power over life and death, in the power of punishment.

Then Paul explains what he means. Again he calls the ruler "God's minister."  He is an avenger for wrath to the person who practices evil.

Lenski: The word 'wrath' appears eleven times in Romans and in each instance it is God's wrath that is referred to.

When the government imposes a fine on an offender or imprisons someone or sends a criminal to the electric chair, in each case it is carrying out God's wrath on the person who does that which is dangerous, adverse or evil for the rest of society. A penalty inflicted on a person by the state is God's punishment, the evidence of God's wrath. If I break a law in traffic and therefore must pay a fine I must regard that as evidence of God's wrath. I cannot blame the government because the government is God's "minister," God's avenger.

Romans 13:5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

"Therefore" refers back to verses 3 and 4. Arndt and Lenski agree that a twofold necessity is introduced at this point. They are listed by the correlatives "not only--but also."  The subject is the middle voice infinitive "to subject one's self."  Paraphrased this would read: "To subject one's self is necessary for two reasons: Because of wrath and because of conscience."  The first denotes obedience to government simply because of fear of punishment. The second denotes a conscience enlightened by the Word of God, the conviction that one's attitude toward government is actually an attitude toward God.

The Christian citizen ought be desirous of pleasing God by obeying the laws of the state. The very fact that Paul gives two reasons for subjecting one's self clearly shows that Christians are still sinners whose obedience is pure and free from fear of punishment. A somber thought.

Romans 13:6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing.

An explanation, referring back to verse 5 and means: "since there is a moral necessity to obey the government."  In verse 7 the imperative stands first in the sentence. AAT translates: "That is also why you pay taxes."  The Christian with his correct view of government realizes that paying taxes is what God wills so that government can be carried on. Therefore the Christian ought not complain about taxes. (We do all too often.)

Franzmann: The word 'minister' has religious coloring; it was used of priests and Levites in the Greek Old Testament, and Paul uses it of his ministry as apostle to the Gentiles (15:16).
Stoeckhardt: These ministers are continually engaged in checking malice and protecting the pious.
Franzmann: Paul can assume that Jesus' word concerning taxes owed to Caesar (Matthew 22:21) is known and obeyed in the churches.

Romans 13:7 Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

The RSV reads this verse: "Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due."  "Tax" is a direct tax, like our income tax.  "Revenue" is an indirect tax, like our sales tax.

Stoeckhardt: The government is due fear because it bears the sword, and honor because it is the representative of God.

How easy it is to complain about taxes! How often don't people, even Christians, withhold fear and honor! Note carefully that these are things which we owe them. But more.

Stoeckhardt: But the obligation goes much farther. Christians should show honor and recognition to every fellow citizen who, because of his civil position or because of the service that he has rendered public welfare, deserves honor.

Furthermore, we are to obey gladly even if our government is tyrannical and unrighteous Read 1 Peter 2:13-15.

Arndt: 1) Governments are given by God; 2) they must be obeyed; 3) disobedience toward the government means disobedience toward God; 4) our conscience should make us obey the government, not merely fear of punishment; 5) the government has the right to punish; 6) its real purpose is to punish evildoers so that the law-abiding citizens can live in peace; 7) the government has the right to levy taxes.

Romans 13:8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.

The prohibition in the first part of this verse does not mean that we cannot borrow money but rather plainly says that love is our highest and constant debt toward one another. As Jesus stated in Matthew 22:21, we owe the government support, fear and honor and each other love, the selfless love which the Gospel brings with it.

Lenski: The obligation to love is new every morning. . . . The debt of love never ends. . . Love is the entire summation of the law, not a further part of it.
Franzmann: The Christians rise above the orders of this world, not by ignoring them but by doing more than they require. . . . For a man in Christ there is. . . a debt which never can be noted as 'paid in full', it is the debt of love.

Romans 13:9 The commandments, "Do not commit adultery,"   "Do not murder,"   "Do not steal,"   "Do not covet,"  and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." 

Another explanation. Notice that each begins with a "do not" followed by the future indicative. "You will not etc."  The Lord gives us no choice though, of course, the motivation is from the Gospel. Doing what the commandments say is an obligation, not a freedom. Paul covers all the other commandments by saying "whatever other." 

Paul quotes Leviticus 19:18. Paul taught precisely as did Jesus. Cf. Matthew 22:39.
Franzmann: When a man is led by the Spirit and is motivated by the Spirit's love, then his neighbor's marriage, his neighbor's life, his neighbor's goods are as precious in his eyes as his own.
Bengel: Paul reviews the commandments without observing their order.
Lenski: Paul is not stressing form, but inner and essential substance.

Romans 13:10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

"Love" is not essentially emotion and sentiment, though it affects the emotions. It is the selfless love of Christ, worked by faith in the Christ. Cf. Galatians 5:6.

Paul sums up with "therefore."  In both sentences of this verse "love" is subject. In the first sentence we are told what it will "not" do. How inclined we are to speak evil of or do harm to our neighbor!!

By stating the negative Paul throws the positive into bold relief. A person who does his neighbor no harm does him good. There is no third possibility. God has given everyone sinful neighbors who are precious in His sight. If a person's neighbor does him harm he does not cease to be his neighbor.

Bengel: Most duties are of a negative character; or at least, where no one is injured, positive duties are pleasantly and voluntarily performed.

It must be said constantly that a person's attitude toward his neighbor determines his attitude toward God. He can see his neighbor but cannot see God.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series A Epistle Texts, Sundays After Pentecost, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1984, pp. 62-65. Used with permission.

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