[Sermon audio here.]
One of the greatest challenges 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 to all sorts of negative responses: such as rebellion, discouragement, depression, disillusionment, and so on. What are we to do when living in a land of lawlessness?
The Bible sets forth a number of layers of authority that govern our lives as Christians. While God is our ultimate King, he has nevertheless chosen to rule us, 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 the authority or we are under authority.
In addition to these earthly institutions, God also rules over us as members of his redemptive or heavenly kingdom, the church, but in a distinctly different way. It is God’s rule over us as citizens of heaven that matters most in this life.
Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 39 is an exposition of the 5th Commandment. It is about the obedience we owe to the various layers of authority that God imposes upon our lives. In HC 39, we confess that God’s requirement in the 5th Commandment is not just about the important duty of giving “all honor, love, and faithfulness to my father and mother.” It also consists of obligations to “all in authority over me,” which includes the State or civil government. This morning I would like to focus on what the Catechism teaches on submitting oneself to the State “with due obedience to all their good instruction and correction, and also bear patiently with their infirmities, since it is God’s will to given us by their hand.”
Again, it is easy to submit to just rulers. But what about corrupt presidents, political parties and kings?
This morning, the Holy Spirit will teach us that in the 5th Commandment God requires submission to the State because he has chosen to govern us by it. This applies even to wicked governments. Ultimately, we can submit patiently to them and forbear with them because their rule over us is temporary. It is for this life only. We can obey a wicked State because we have a hope beyond this life. In other words, what informs our obedience to authority today is the perspective of faith. Faith teaches us that wickedness and corruption will not have the final say in our lives, because we will live on into an eternity of sinless perfection. Faith also teaches that God is even permitting evil and corruption in this world for his glory and our good. Faith enables us to “see” that God rules over us as citizens of heaven through his Son, Jesus – the same Jesus who was crucified by a diabolical Roman State, but was also raised from the dead and is seated at the right hand of God in triumph over every power and principality in this present evil age.
The legitimacy and the nature and purpose 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 simply because governments often do a very imperfect job. Another stems from the idea that since we have been freed from the moral law for our justification, all laws – including civil laws – are no longer binding on us in this life. Yet another has to do with the peace-making words of Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount. Because Jesus calls believers to turn the cheek when wronged, some have concluded that the State, which uses force to ensure obedience, cannot be part of a Christian worldview.
No doubt Christians have in the past endorsed revolution and dismissed the State for very weighty moral reasons: for moral evils like racism and slavery. Nevertheless, church history should always be examined in light of God’s Word and never repeated without critical reflection. What ultimately matters is whether or not the Bible permits anarchy. Does Scripture in fact encourage a peaceful Christian alternative to civil government?
Let us consider for a moment what the Bible has to say about the nature of the State and its purpose. To begin with, it is clear that God has ordained the state. In Gen. 4 we discover the birth of something like the modern State when God provides protection for the criminal, Cain, after he killed his brother, Abel. A few chapters later, in Gen. 9, God provides in a more formal way a measure of justice, protection and order for all humankind in his covenant with Noah. In the Noahic covenant God promises to withhold judgment against the world because of sin, 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 for our sinful world to continue in a relatively peaceful and orderly way, God has ordained an authority structure governed by laws and enforcing these laws. This authority structure is what we know as the State today. And it necessarily involves God’s creatures judging one-another for good and bad behavior.
Remember that God has created us in his own image. This means that, like God, 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 one person violates another persons’ moral rights and dignity – particularly his right to life – that wrongdoer must receive punishment in proportion to his crime. And this is what the State does. It enforces proportionate justice against law-breakers. Its threat of punishment curbs wickedness in society and provides a measure of peace and order. This is so that human beings are able to prosper as best as they can as sinners living in a fallen world.
The NT confirms and elaborates upon this OT vision of the 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)
It should be clear, therefore, from passages like Gen. 9 and Rom. 13, and others like 1 Tim. 2:1-2 and Titus 3:1-2, that the State is a legitimate God-ordained institution. It is nevertheless distinct from the church. For example, and most obviously, the State has authority to enforce justice with force, while the church is a peaceful community that is marked by forgiveness and unconditional love.
So if the State has divine approval then what, more specifically, are some of the duties of submission that we owe to the State, seeing that we confess we should render “due obedience to all their good instruction and correction”?
Our duty as citizens of an earthly state
In most countries around the world today, the legal constitution that governs the people contains basic moral laws, which are there to ensure the relative preservation and flourishing of human life. In fact, at least most Western liberal democracies teach the moral virtues found in the Second Table of the Ten Commandments. This should come as no surprise if we believe that the moral law of God is written on every human heart or conscience (cf. Rom. 2:14-15).
For example, the constitutional law of South Africa promotes human dignity and the sanctity of life by forbidding rape and murder. Here we find instruction on the protection of the God-given rights of our neighbour. And there are endless ways in which we can put this instruction into practice by being loving and law-abiding citizens. We might do things like vote for legislation against pornography or set up a charitable trust to help battered wives and children. In addition to their instruction, State laws and their penalties also serve to curb our sinful lusts and passions as Christians, so that we do not add to the disorder and injustice of our communities.
As difficult as it may be to believe at times, at its best moments the State does indeed offer good instruction and correction. How is this possible? Because God ultimately rules the State and he bends the hearts of even the most wicked men and women to do his bidding.
Very well, but what about when civil government acts – as it all too often does – in a lawless way? Can we revolt? By no means! Rather, we confess that in such instances we must “bear patiently with their infirmities” or weaknesses, “since it is God’s will to govern us by their hand.” In other words, God expects obedience from us even when government is imperfect and corrupt. This is because he is content to use crooked sticks to accomplish his purposes in this world. We must understand that God’s purposes are greater than which political party is in power or how well they are doing their job from our perspective.
Consider for a moment the duty of humble submission that God expected from his OT people, Israel, living in exile under the pagan rule of the Babylonians. Now, Israel’s captors were certainly no worshippers of the Lord and at times they treated God’s people with plain contempt – to the extent that the Israelites looked upon their masters with fear and loathing. And yet, what does God command the Israelites to do in Jer. 29:7? He calls them to “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.”
Things are not that different in the NT. Like OT Israelites under Babylonian rule, Christians in the NT found themselves in a similar predicament under the iron fist of the Romans. What is more, the Apostle Peter, in 1 Peter 1-2, likens Christians to the Israelites in Babylon, when he calls them as exiles and sojourners in a land that is not their own.
Like the Israelites and the early Christians, we too often live under a government that is corrupt: one that often acts out of self-interest and frequently violates the dignity of humans made in God’s image. Often the State acts corruptly both in the laws it does not enforce as well as in the inhumane laws that it does.
This, however, is the same State that God commands us to submit to, bearing patiently with its infirmities. But this does not mean we have to just sit back and endure the misery until Christ returns. No, we are free to make use of the various appropriate social and political avenues available to us to help make our governments better. As responsible citizens and out of love for our neighbour, we should all be as informed and active as possible in voting for our government representatives and their public policy. We are free to write, campaign and lobby. We may also, even as Christians, run for political office. There are many ways in which we can help transform our world for the better as we strive for the common good of our society. And these things, like everything we do as Christians, must be done by faith to the glory of God!
Nevertheless, the sobering reality is that even our best efforts often produce relatively little or no change in the way our civil authorities govern us. However, even in the most horrific times, the State still remains legitimate because God has ordained it and has chosen to rule us by it. We are not to overthrow our governments and we are not to build a Christian alternative in its place.
This does not mean, however, that there might not come a time when we must disobey the laws of the land. God never expects us to obey the State when it commands us to act contrary to his moral law summed up in the Ten Commandments. There is a place for disobedience. For example, we must disobey the State if it calls us to murder our neighbor. We must disobey if the State commands us not to worship 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 channels that are available to us or we stand alone, and suffer the consequences – even if it means death. Let us remember, however, that the matter of disobeying our government is a weighty one, which requires much wisdom and prayer.
Patience and forbearance as heavenly citizens
Lord’s Day 39 is an exposition of the 5th Commandment. The 5th Commandment is an important and far-reaching part of God’s moral law that is binding upon us all. Of all the laws governing love to our neighbour, this one is arguably the most difficult to obey. It commands us to honor our parents. But, some parents abuse their children. It commands us to honor and patiently submit to the State. But some governments destroy people’s lives… Those in authority over us can make our lives very difficult this side of heaven.
So, how is obedience to wicked State possible?
Before answering this question, it is helpful to step back and consider that to this point in the sermon we have focused on our confession that we must obey the civil authorities because God has chosen to govern us through them. But there is more. God does not just rule us as earthly citizens. Remember that the Ten Commandments came to Israel after their great Exodus from the slavery in Egypt. In fact, Moses introduces the Decalogue in Exodus 20 by recalling this grand act of salvation for his people. And then, in the NT, the Exodus event is interpreted as an overarching salvation theme in the OT. Here, Israel’s Exodus is read through the lens of the coming of Jesus, who has accomplished the second and final Exodus sinners, which has brought God’s people into the Promised Land of heaven.
In other words, brothers, sisters and children, God also rules over us – he ultimately rules over us – as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. God’s rule over the world through the State has always served as the foundation for fulfilling his greater purpose of building his heavenly kingdom through the redemptive rule of Christ. The State is penultimate and provisional, while the Church is ultimate and eternal. Civil order and justice is a relative good, while salvation from sin is the ultimate good.
Beloved, God has revealed his ultimate rule and the reality of his eternal kingdom on the stage of human history by sending his only begotten Son. Jesus was born into this world and grew up a God-fearing Jew as well as a subject of the Roman Empire. He never committed a crime and not once did he violate God’s law. He submitted to every authority perfectly. He was no social-political revolutionary. And, yet, the civil government of his day put him to death for claiming to be God. This was the will of God, the Father.
The Father ruled over his Son through the iron fist of the Roman government by subjecting him to a life of suffering and death. Jesus had no place to lay his head. He was an exile and an outcast in this life. He was stripped of his dignity and his basic human rights. Yet, through it all, Jesus entrusted himself in humble obedience to the will of his heavenly Father. In the end, Christ endured the ultimate injustice at the hands of wicked men in order to satisfy God’s justice toward us for our sin. Jesus overcame sin, suffering and death, and the principalities and powers of this world in order to earn us a place in God’s eternal kingdom. Jesus has overthrown the most savage dictator so that we need not fear our ultimate undoing by any tyrant in this world.
It is this heavenly perspective of faith in Christ that enables us to patiently obey the civil authorities that rule over us today. By faith we can endure and remain steadfast even in the midst rape, pillaging and oppression, because like Jesus – and because of Jesus – our life of suffering will be followed by heavenly perfection and glory. By living out our new identity in Christ as heavenly citizens, we can submit to the most imperfect of civil governments. And like every act of obedience committed in this life, we do so unto the glory of God as he rules us according to his indestructible power and inscrutable wisdom in Christ. Amen.
Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service, 28 July 2013