The following is the order of worship and sermon from this past Sunday’s RCSS evening service (October 21, 2012):
Call to worship (Matt. 11:25-30)
Invocation and prayer of praise
Song of Praise: Psalm 16 (#692)
Corporate confession of Faith: Nicene Creed (p846)
Sing Doxology (#735)
Reading of the Law: 1 Peter 2:13-20
Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon: 1 Peter 2:21-25
Song of thanksgiving: Let all things now living (#125)
Prayer of illumination
Readings: Ex. 20:12; Rom. 13:1-7; Heidelberg Catechism LD 39
Sermon: Submission as unto God
Prayer for offering
Concluding song: Psalm 46:1 (#40)
Prayer of benediction
~ Sermon ~
Submission As Unto God
Exodus 10:12; Romans 13:1-7; Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 39
One of the most difficult things to endure in this life is to be subject to an unjust or corrupt government. The experience of living in a country where one’s basic human rights are constantly threatened can tempt us all sorts of negative responses: such retaliation, rebellion, cynicism, discouragement, depression, disillusionment, and so on. What are we as Christians to do when living in a place where the rule of law is not upheld?
The Bible speaks about a number of layers of authority that govern our lives as Christians. While God is our ultimate sovereign authority, he has nevertheless chosen to rule his creation through various social structures or institutions. In the first place and at the most fundamental level, God has instituted the family unit. We all have parents. God has also ordained the state or civil government. We are all citizens of some country in the world. Beyond, the family and the state, there are other areas in life – like school and business – where we are either superiors or inferiors. In addition to these, and most importantly, God rules over us as members of his redemptive kingdom, through his church. The church is distinct from other institutions or authorities in our lives: such as in the way it deals with lawbreakers and the message of salvation it preaches.
In the fifth commandment, in Ex. 20:12, Moses assumes these different layers of authority in our lives. He understands that God rules over us as Christians in ways common to all of humanity, like through the state, as well as in a way reserved for believers only, through his church. When God, in the fifth commandment, calls us to obey our parents, he also has in view other sources of authority, such as presidents, teachers, our bosses and church elders. This is the way the Heidelberg Catechism interprets the fifth commandment, which is what we will consider this evening. My particular focus will be our submission to the state. * God has ordained the state for our protection and our good. Our duty is to obey her. And yet, even when the state acts contrary to our good, God still calls us to obedience – because our citizenship is not ultimately on earth but in heaven. *
The duty of the state
Throughout history, Christians have called into question the legitimacy of the state or civil government. One of the reasons for this is that they often do a very imperfect job. Another stems from the idea that since we have been freed from the law for our justification, all laws – including civil laws – are no longer binding. Yet another has to do with Jesus’ words on the Sermon on the Mount. If Jesus calls us Christians to turn the other cheek when wronged, how then can we endorse the state that punishes wrongdoers?
Let us think together for a moment what the Bible has to say about the nature of the state and its purpose. For starters, it is clear that God has ordained the state. In Gen. 4, we find the birth of the state in God’s protection of the fugitive, Cain, after he killed his brother, Abel. A few chapters later, in Gen. 9, God extends this provision of justice and order to all humankind in his covenant with Noah. In the Noahic covenant, God promises to withhold judgment against the world for a time. During this time, he promises to uphold all people – believers and unbelievers alike – and to continue to bless them with dominion over the world. What we see in this covenant is that in order for our sinful world to continue in a relatively peaceful and orderly way, God has ordained a legal system in which his creatures judge each other. Remember, that God has made us in his own image. This means that not only are we moral beings, but we are also creatures of great value. God says in Gen. 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” In other words, if a person violates another persons’ moral rights and dignity – particularly his right to life – that wrongdoer must receive proportionate punishment for his crime. This is what the state does: it enforces strict justice against law-breakers. Its threat of retribution against criminals is what curbs wickedness in society and provides a measure of peace and order.
The NT confirms and elaborates upon the OT nature and purpose of the state. Perhaps the best known example comes from Paul’s words in Rom. 13, where he writes: “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… 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, 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…” (Romans 13:1-7 ESV)
I think at this point we can sharpen our understanding of the nature and purpose of the state by considering five ways in which it differs form the church. First, the state is an earthly institution with an expiration date, while the church is a community that will endure forever. Second, the state governs all people, while the church comprises only of believers and their children. Third, the state is concerned with ordinary cultural activities, while the church is concerned with special acts of public and private worship. Fourth, the state is concerned with preserving the natural order, the church is the only institution that can be identified with God’s redemptive kingdom of grace. And fifth, the way of life or ethic of the state is one of strict justice for wrongdoers, while the church is characterized by grace and mercy towards those who have broken God’s law. In other words, the state punishes while the church forgives.
The fact that the state has been ordained by God to punish wrongdoers with the sword is one reason why the state can never be identified with the church or Christ’s redemptive kingdom of non-violence and peace. Hence, we must affirm that the nature and purpose of the state is altogether distinct from that of the church.
With the nature and purpose of the state in mind, what then is our duty toward it as Christians?
Our duty as citizens of an earthly state
It should be quite clear from passages like Gen. 9 and Rom. 13 that since God has ordained the state for our good, we must submit to it and obey it. This does not mean we cannot use various appropriate civil channels to help make our governments better, and therefore easier to obey. We should all try and be as informed and active as possible in voting for our government representatives, and for the public policies they enforce. We are free to write, campaign and lobby. We may also, as Christians, run for political office. These are some important ways in which we can love our neighbor as we strive for the common good of our country.
Nevertheless, the reality is that even our best efforts at times produce little to no change in the way our civil authorities govern us. Throughout human history there are plenty of instances in which the state has not acted in the best interest of its people. And on occasion it has been outright hostile toward Christians. Things are no different in various places in the world today, especially on the continent of Africa. How, then, should we as Christians respond in the face of injustice and even persecution by wicked governments?
Let us begin to answer this question by being very clear on one thing. God never expects us to obey any human government that commands us to act contrary to his moral law. There is a place for disobedience. For example, we must disobey if the state calls us to murder our neighbor. We must disobey if the state prevents us from worshipping the one true God. In such cases, we must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). We must stand up to the government through the various legal outlets that may be available to us, or we stand alone. [p] We should then, by faith, be prepared to accept the terrible consequences that sometimes follow. No doubt, the matter of disobeying our civil authorities is a weighty one, which requires much wisdom and prayer.
Consider the duty of humble submission that God expected from his OT people, Israel, in exile in Babylon. Remember that at one point in history, Israel lived in the comfort and abundance of the Promised Land. But because of their unfaithfulness, God kicked them out of the Holy Land by the boot of the Babylonians, and they landed up under foreign rule. The Babylonian rulers were certainly no worshippers of God and at times they treated God’s people with plain contempt – to the extent that these exiles looked upon their masters with fear and loathing. And yet, what does the prophet Jeremiah tell the Israelites to do in Jer. 29:7: “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Like OT Israelites under Babylonian rule, Christians in the NT find themselves in a similar predicament. In fact, Peter, in 1 Peter 1-2, describes Christians as exiles and sojourners in a land that is not their own. Like the disciples and the Apostles, and many other Christians that we read about in the NT, we often have to submit to a government that is corrupt: one that acts out of self-interest and frequently violates the dignity of humans made in God’s image. Often the state does so both in the laws it does not enforce as well as the immoral laws that it does. What, then, is it about our identity as Christians that enables us to submit to masters that often act in the most wicked and outrageous ways? The short answer is: we are heavenly citizens through the work of Jesus.
Our perspective as citizens of a heavenly city
Brothers and sisters, we can submit to an ungodly government because Jesus suffered at the hands of the world’s dictators, tyrants and God-haters, in order to give us hope of a better life to come. Jesus suffered the ultimate injustice at the hands of wicked rulers. He was perfectly innocent. He committed no crime. And yet he was stripped of his dignity, his rights and ultimately his life. He had no home in this world, no place to lay his head. He was the exile and foreigner in this world of sin. Nevertheless, Jesus Christ never murmured or complained, but entrusted himself to the Father as he did the God’s will. Jesus suffered the greatest injustice in order to satisfy God’s justice, by atoning for our sins. [p] Remember, we are no better than the worst tyrant: we are all guilty of the most heinous crime possible in revolting against the holy God of the universe. And yet, God in his mercy, did not retaliate in judgment against us, but rather poured out his wrath upon his only begotten Son, so that we can be forgiven and made citizens of heaven. Jesus has given us a hope that transcends the guilt of sin and, therefore, this world of injustice as well.
It is our new identity in Jesus as heavenly citizens that motivates us, empowers us and provides the pattern for our humble submission to unjust authorities today. Like everything we do in this life, we are to submit to the state by faith in Jesus out of gratitude for what he has done for us. We do so because it is the will of our heavenly Father and it brings him glory. Remember Peter’s words in 1 Pet. 2:13: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution…”
Because we are people of faith, in Jesus, we are not left to our own strength and resources to obey, but we are indwelt by the power of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead; the Spirit that Christ has sent to us from another age; the Spirit of heaven, now indwells us and enables us to patiently submit, and even with joy and peace, in the midst of a world of hostile sinners.
Faith teaches us thankful obedience, faith teaches us the power of obedience in the Spirit, and faith also grounds us in the inescapable reality that we live in a world under governments that are corrupted by sin. Sin is no respecter of persons. It creates pain and suffering for all of us. We are all subject to the common curse, and therefore we can never expect heaven on earth. Because of the fall, we will never have a government that rules with perfect justice and equity. We cannot, therefore, put our ultimate trust or hope in them. For they, too, will pass away with the rest of this world.
Faith teaches us to follow Christ’s pattern of suffering in this world of sin. Just like Jesus, we too must suffer before glory; we too must endure the hostility of this world before we enter the final rest of God. We too might be put to death for our obedience to God.
Are you suffering at the hands of self-serving, greedy and godless rulers? Do you feel like a foreigner in your own country: vulnerable and unprotected? Are you anxious or depressed about your future as a result? Beloved, hope in Christ this evening; wait patiently upon him. For he promises that one day he will give us a better country, one made in heaven… Let us give thanks and praise to God that though we may find little compassion and justice in this world, we have nevertheless heard God’s Word of love and forgiveness this evening, which is our foretaste of Christ’s coming kingdom: where peace and justice will one day reign supreme, and all wrongs will be made right. Amen.
Simon Jooste, RCSS, Cape Town (October 21, 2012)