Does Romans 13:1, 3-5 contradict Isaiah 5:20? By Jack Kettler
“For rulers are not a terror to good works, but the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” (Romans 13:1, 3-4)
“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20)
Romans 13:1, 3-4, teaches that believers submit to rulers who punish evil. Many times, rulers are promoters of evil deeds and often persecute the righteous. Did Hitler, for example, punish evil? Are believers unwittingly calling evil rulers who promote evil, good? If so, how can this contradiction be resolved? Is an individual who says the Hitler punished evil, when in reality, he punished good, fall under Isaiah’s woe?
A survey into the thoughts of various leaders in hopes to shed light on this dilemma:
An example of how one tyrant exploited what can be called the quiet submission view Romans 13:
“The Protestants haven’t the faintest conception of a church. You can do anything you like with them – they will submit. These pastors are used to cares and worries…
They learnt them from their squires….
They are insignificant little people, submissive as dogs, and they sweat with embarrassment when you talk to them. They have neither a religion that they can take seriously nor a great position to defend like Rome.” (1)
During the time of this tyrant, there was a small confessing Church, but for the most part, the vast majority of Christians remained in a quiet posture of submission, hoping things would eventually get better. In this historical case, things went rapidly from bad to worse as the Church of that day withdrew from culture and hunkered down, hoping they would not be noticed.
Historical quotations that are relevant to the submission of ungodly magistrates:
“Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments… I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience. Here I stand. God help me! Amen.” (2)
Martin Luther was a German professor of theology, composer, priest, Augustinian monk, and a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation. Luther was ordained to the priesthood in 1507. -Wikipedia
“The Lord, therefore, is King of kings. When He opens His sacred mouth, He alone is to be heard, instead of all and above all. We are subject to the men who rule over us but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against Him, let us not pay the least regard to it, nor be moved by all the dignity, which they possess as magistrates – a dignity to which no injury is done when it is subordinated to the special and truly supreme power of God.” (3)
“… [the Apostle] speaks here of the true, and, as it were, of the native duty of the magistrate, from which however they who hold power often degenerate.” (4)
John Calvin was a French theologian, pastor and reformer in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation. – Wikipedia
In Calvin, there is seen a distinction of the magistracy in general and individual magistrates. Calvin makes this distinction when he speaks of the “native duty of the magistrate.” Calvin makes it clear that “We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against Him, let us not pay the least regard to it, nor be moved by all the dignity they possess as magistrates.”
John Knox on Romans 13:
“First, the Apostle affirms that the powers are ordained of God [for the preservation of quiet and peaceable men, and for the punishment of malefactors; whereof it is plain that the ordinance of God] and the power given unto man is one thing, and the person clad with the power or with the authority is another; for God’s ordinance is the conservation of mankind, the punishment of vice, the maintaining of virtue, which is in itself holy, just, constant, stable, and perpetual. But men clad with the authority are commonly profane and unjust; yea, they are mutable and transitory, and subject to corruption, as God threateneth them by His Prophet David, saying: ‘I have said ye are gods, and every one of you the sons of the Most Highest; but ye shall die as men, and the princes shall fall like others.’ Here I am assured that persons, the soul and body of wicked princes, are threatened with death. I think that so ye will not affirm is the authority, the ordinance and the power, wherewith God endued such persons; for as I have said, as it is holy, so it is the permanent will of God. And now, my Lord, that the prince may be resisted and yet the ordinance of God not violated, it is evident; for the people resisted Saul when he had sworn by the living God that Jonathan should die….
“And now, my Lord, to answer to the place of the Apostle who affirms ‘that such as resists the power, resists the ordinance of God,’ I say that the power in that place is not to be understood of the unjust commandment of men, but of the just power wherewith God has armed His magistrates and lieutenants to punish sin and maintain virtue. As if any man should enterprise to take fromt he hands of a lawful judge a murderer, an adulterer or any malefactor that by God’s law deserved death, this same man resisted God’s ordinance, and procured to himself vengeance and damnation because that he stayed God’s sword to strike. But so it is not if that men in the fear of God oppone themselves to the fury and blind rage of princes; for so they resist not God, but the devil, who abuses the sword and authority of God.” (5)
John Knox was a Scottish minister, theologian, and writer who was a leader of the country’s Reformation. He was the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. – Wikipedia
Knox is likewise clear that an ungodly “prince may be resisted and yet the ordinance of God not violated.”
George Buchanan on Romans 13:
“Paul, then, is not concerned here with those who act as magistrates but with magistracy itself, that is, with the function and duty of those who are set over others; and he is not concerned with any particular type of magistracy, but with the form of every lawful magistracy. His argument is not with those who think that bad magistrates ought to be restrained, but with those who reject the authority of all magistrates….In order to refute their error Paul showed that magistracy is not only good but also sacred, the ordinance of God, indeed, expressly established to hold groups and communities of men together in such a way that the would recognise the blessings of God towards them and refrain from injuring one another.”
Buchanan goes on and says concerning the magistrate of Romans 13:
“But of a true and lawful magistrate, who is the earthly representative of the true God.” (6)
More from Buchanan on Romans 13:
“Paul wrote this in the very infancy of the church, when it was necessary not only to be above reproach, but also to avoid giving any opportunity for criticism to those looking even for unjust grounds for making accusations. Next, he wrote to men brought together into a single community from different races and indeed from the whole body of the Roman Empire.” (7)
George Buchanan was a Scottish historian and humanist scholar. According to historian Keith Brown, Buchanan was “the most profound intellectual sixteenth century Scotland produced.” His ideology of resistance to royal usurpation gained widespread acceptance during the Scottish Reformation. – Wikipedia
Buchanan also says regarding Romans 13 “Paul, then, is not concerned here with those who act as magistrates but with magistracy itself.” The idea that Paul is speaking of is how the magistracy should be, not how a magistrate may be.
The Westminster Confession of Faith on submission to the state:
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to His Word… So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.
Because the powers, which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. (8)
The confession is clear; the believer “shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical…”
As the progressive reign of Christ unfolds in history, believers must call magistrates to repentance.
“For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” (1 Corinthians 15:25)
How does 1 Corinthians 15:25 and Roman 13:1-7 work together?
That question can be answered by considering the book Messiah the Prince: Or, The Mediatorial Dominion of Jesus Christ by William Symington. Consider this description of Symington’s work:
“Often Christians focus on Jesus’ role as Prophet or Priest but leave unaddressed his role as King over all men and nations. William Symington, a 19th century Reformed Presbyterian, and Scottish pastor, wrote Messiah the Prince to examine the particular significance of Jesus Christ as King.
Revelation 1:5 says that Christ is the “prince of the kings of the earth.” What obligations does this place upon the civil magistrate? What obligations might this place upon the people who are governed, including those people who vote for their civil magistrate? Of what significance is the truth that the One who was the atoning sacrifice for His people (the Priest) and the one who spoke and taught the Word in its fullness (the Prophet) is also the Ruler of all (the King)? What might it mean when Jesus said, “Make all nations My disciples”?
Symington answers these questions is a way that will push some modern Christians past their comfort zone. He makes that case that Christ is reigning now and that all nations must answer to Him, and it is the Church’s responsibility to make that call on the nations, their governors and their governed.” – Description by Goodreads
According to Symington, it is the “Church’s responsibility to make that call on the nations, their governors and their governed.” How does this work out with the prevailing view of quiet submission to authorities’ view of Romans 13? In contrast to the quiet view, William Symington argues in his “Messiah the Prince…” that Christ is Head of the Church, and Lord of all creation, including civil governments. Symington makes the case that Christ’s authority encompasses all men and nations. Therefore, civil magistrates can be challenged, resisted, and called to repentance.
If Symington is correct, Christ is the King of the nations; all magistrates must bow before Him!
Paul essentially says in Romans 13, because the magistrate does good to you, and is a terror towards evil-doers, you owe them obedience. The obedience is conditioned upon three things that are inescapable in the text:
- For [because] rulers are not a terror to good works, but the evil. (verse 1)
- For [because] he is the minister of God to thee for good. (verse 3)
- For [because] he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. (verse 4)
Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance:
And, as, because, for
A primary particle; properly, assigning a reason (used in argument, explanation or intensification; often with other particles) — and, as, because (that), but, even, for, indeed, no doubt, seeing, then, therefore, verily, what, why, yet.
The participle “because” is a legitimate substitution in lieu of “for.”
If Paul did not condition his argument on the state’s prosecution of evil, why did he bring this subject into the argument?
If the Church is to make that call on the nations, the quiet submission view of Romans 13 must be false. The standard quiet submission view of Romans 13 cannot possibly be true because this would mean, according to that view, the government situation in pagan nations says they are fulfilling Paul’s description of a government that prosecutes evil. Therefore, Romans 13 must be telling us how civil government optimally should be, not how it is. If this is true, then there are limits upon the believer’s submission to wicked rulers. Obedience in Romans 13 is conditioned. John Knox made this clear in his tirade against tyrants. See The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.
Therefore, Romans 13:1, 3-4 tells us how a God-fearing government should work, not how many pro-homosexual, pro-child killing governments operate. Romans 13 sets forth the standard. It does not endorse governments that do evil or argue that a government doing evil is doing good. To believe that a government that promotes abortion on demand, sexual deviancy, theft and redistribution, and idol promotion (statism) does good is to believe in contradictions and fall under the condemnation of Isaiah’s woe.
Did Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot execute wrath against evil-doers, were they a terror against evil? To maintain so is to believe Scripture is contradictory. All that can be said is that even an evil government is better than complete anarchy or no government. However, in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, complete anarchy may have been better and is very different from contradictorily saying that an evil government is doing good and opposing evil when it is not.
Can the state be a false god?
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:3, 5-6)
To answer the above question, of course, the state can. Trust the government from the cradle to the grave is statist idolatry. Submitting children to forced indoctrination in government schools and forced vaccinations have always been exempt on the ground of a conscience submitted to Scripture. This exemption did not appear out thin air, battles had to be fought, and ungodly magistrates had to be opposed. The quiet submission view does not win battles.
In conclusion, consider William Symington’s thoughts on the limits of Romans 13:
“Without confounding all moral distinctions it is impossible to suppose that the lawfulness of a power depends solely on the fact of its existence. People say, if a government exists them it must be of God. The Bible says no such thing, and if the Bible did say such a thing, it would be contradicting its own principles of purity, equity and judgment?” – William Symington (9)
Symington is in agreement with the conclusion of this study, namely, that, wicked, unjust laws and statues can be resisted without doing violence to Romans 13.
John Knox’s position on Romans 13 was in agreement with Symington. Would Knox be kicked out of the Presbyterian Church today for his theology of resistance to tyrants?
To repeat Luther:
“Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments… I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience. Here I stand. God help me! Amen.”
Thankfully, Luther and Calvin were not quiet submission men! If they were, the Protestant Reformation and the American War for Independence would never have happened.
To back this up about the American War for Independence:
It is no wonder that King James I once said: “Presbyterianism agreeth with a monarchy like God with the Devil.” In England, the War for Independence was referred to as the “Presbyterian Rebellion.”
A Hessian captain (one of the 30,000 German mercenaries used by England) wrote in 1778, “Call this war by whatever name you may only call it not an American rebellion; it is nothing more or less than a Scots-Irish Presbyterian rebellion.”
In contrast, today, it appears that many evangelical leaders “are insignificant little people… and they sweat with embarrassment when you talk to them.”
We need more men like John Knox!
Are Romans 13:1, 3-4, and Isaiah 5:20 contradictory? If Paul’s argument in Romans 13 is qualified, then no. However, if it were maintained that the magistrate who does evil and does not execute wrath against evil-doers is still supposedly doing good, this would fall under Isaiah’s woe.
As seen from the quotes, like those of our forefathers in the faith of old, Christians today can resist unbiblical laws that violate Scripture.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)
- Adolf Hitler as quoted in Herman Rauschning, The Voice of Destruction, (London, 1940); cited in Joseph Carr, The Twisted Cross, (Huntington House Inc., 1985), p. 202.
- Martin Luther, quoted by Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), Volume VII, pp. 304-305.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989), Book IV, Chapter XX: 32.
- John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle to the Romans, (Baker Book House, reprinted 1993), pp. 478-479.
- John Knox as quoted In Roger Mason, ed., On Rebellion, pp. 191-92.
- Buchanan, A Dialogue on the Law of Kingship Among the Scots, ed. Roger Mason, p. 113.
- Buchanan, A Dialogue on the Law of Kingship Among the Scots, ed. Roger Mason, p. 121.
- Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XX: 2, 4.
- William Symington, as quoted in Unconditional Obedience to Government? By Ronald Hanko, Protestant Reformed Church
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more study:
William Symington, D.D., Messiah the Prince or The Mediatorial Dominion of Jesus Christ, (Edmonton, Canada, Still Waters Revival Books, Reprint Edition January 1990 from the 1884 edition) online addition https://www.covenanter.org/reformed/2017/8/15/messiah-the-prince-or-the-mediatorial-dominion-of-jesus-christ
BIBLICAL CIVIL GOVERNMENT VERSUS THE BEAST; AND, THE BASIS FOR CIVIL RESISTANCE By Greg Price, Copyright Oct., 1996 http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/bibcg_gp.htm
The Christian and Civil Government By Pastor John Weaver
The Christian and Civil Government, by Pastor John Weaver, is a theological treatise on Romans 13. It explains the Christian’s responsibility and relationship to civil government. It sets forth civil government as it has been ordained by God. Likewise it exposes corrupt, unbiblical and ungodly civil government. The book emphasizes obedience to God in the realm of civil government. The chapters include:
- The Institution of Government
- The Covenantal Nature of Government
- The Purpose of Government
- Are We Bound to Obey Government When Contrary to the Word of God?
- Is Usurped Authority Legitimate?
- The Degrees of Resistance to Tyranny
- The Pastor as Magistrate
- Statism is Idolatry
- A Friend of Christ or Caesar?
Although primarily a Biblical textbook on government, there are many historical facts and perspectives interwoven throughout The Christian and Civil Government. $11.00 Post Paid: Pastor John Weaver P. O. Box 394, Fitzgerald, Ga. 31750 This book is also available at Amazon.