The Kingdom of God of God, the State, Murder, Capital Punishment, War and Pacifism
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Sunday, May 17, 2009 - 6:00 p.m.  Sermon #: 1273
Pastor Don Horban

THE KINGDOM OF GOD, THE STATE, MURDER, CAPITOL PUNISHMENT, WAR, AND PACIFISM - Romans 13:1-7 - Here are verses that raise questions. Obviously Paul deals with the role of government in today’s fallen world. He says it is appointed by God. He says government has been divinely appointed to serve those who are good (4a) and to judge those who are wicked (4b) But it’s not quite that simple. There are issues packed into these verses like spray cans in airport luggage. What about capital punishment? Or pacifism? How shall we respond when our government calls us to go to war and to kill? What about the Christian’s responsibility to immoral, God defying government? Do we obey Caesar or God? Or both? Those are the things that we need to work through as we come to this most practical of texts.

1) ON THE WHOLE, THE SCRIPTURAL POSITION IS THAT CHRISTIANS OBEY THEIR GOVERNMENTAL AUTHORITIES, WITH VARY RARE EXCEPTIONS - Romans 13:1-2 - “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. [2] Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

Verse one contains the absolutes. First, obedience is required, not just from some persons, but from “every” person. So the call to obey our earthly authorities isn’t limited to authorities we agree with or voted for. Every person isn’t required to agree with government authorities. We are simply called to obey earthly authorities - “every” person. The second absolute is also in the opening verse. The reason every person is to obey his or her governmental authority is there is “no authority except from God” (2). This is quite important. The state - our earthly authorities - are not merely a human invention. If you look at the governmental authorities and see merely human politick and administrative red tape you will not see what God wants you to see.

2) GOVERNMENT MUST BE DISOBEYED WHEN IT COMPELS US TO TURN FROM THE LORDSHIP OF JESUS CHRIST - The wording of that point is very important. Christians must reject the authority of government when it compels their disobedience to Christ, not just when it does things or allows things that are against the cause of Christ. And this is an important distinction. Our government allows same sex marriage. But it doesn’t compel me to divorce my wife and marry a same sex spouse. My government allows abortions. It may even encourage them by funding them. But it doesn’t, to my knowledge, compel all women over thirty-five to abort their pre-born children.

When government allows for things that are clearly contrary to God’s Word Christians should voice concern and marshal protest. They should take all means available to advance truth and shine light. But when government compels disobedience to God’s authority Christians must reject earthly authority and willingly, without retaliation, take the consequences from the state. A great example of this is found in Acts 4:13-20. Here we have the governing authorities demanding the apostles to never speak of Jesus again. Clearly that is not an option for the Christian. Notice how they commit to disobey the government and yet submit to its judgment at the same time: 4:19-20 - “But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, [20] for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.’” They disobey their leaders but they also submit to their judgment at the same time. That’s the key.

3) THE PURPOSE OF GOVERNMENT IS TO SERVE THE GOOD AND PUNISH THE BAD - Romans 13:3-4 - “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, [4] 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.”

If earthly government is from God, what is it for? What should government do as a “servant of God”(4)? Paul outlines two things. First, government must “serve” those who are good. The apostle Peter outlines this from the Christian’s point of view in 1 Peter 2:11-17. See also Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Timothy 2:1-3 - “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, [2] for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. [3] This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior....”

But the purpose of earthly government isn’t just to serve the good. It’s also to punish the wicked. Paul’s strongest words on this point come in the last part of Romans 13, verse 4 - “....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.” The main point here is, whether the government is responding to good behavior or bad, we Christians always see God in it. In other words, we never look at earthly authorities as they are just in themselves.

4) ROMANS THIRTEEN MUST BE INTERPRETED WITHIN ITS SPECIFIC CONTEXT AS WE COMPARE IT WITH OTHER TEXTS - I want to briefly look at just two difficult issues and try to put them into the context of the Scriptures and our text from Romans specifically. The issues are capital punishment and our response to the leader’s call to arms and pacifism. Hard questions, these. But I think some sense can be made if we look carefully at Paul’s whole chain of thought in Romans 12 and 13.The subject of chapter thirteen only looks like a new subject. Paul is only continuing the thread of argument begun earlier:
Romans 12:18-19 - “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. [19] Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”

Looking carefully, we can see a couple of things. “Never avenge yourselves”(18) seems to fit in with the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount - Matthew 5:38-39 - “You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' [39] But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” So we know the Christian must never take revenge into his own hands. The New Testament is clear. When I am personally wronged, it is not up to me to strike back. A response of violence in the face of a personal violence suffered is not a Christian option. Jesus and Paul both say so.

But why am I not to take revenge into my own hands? Paul tells us in Romans 12:19 - “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” And how does God take vengeance on the wrong doer? Well, He will judge them all when Jesus comes again, so the Bible says. But that’s not all the Bible says. And that’s the theme Paul launches into in the very next section of his letter to the Romans - Romans 13:4b - “....But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he [the earthly authority] 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.”

So we see two streams of Biblical teaching on violence and revenge in this fallen world. First, as a Christian, I am personally never to take revenge into my own hands for a wrong suffered. That kind of response is totally inappropriate for one who has been redeemed solely by grace and pardoned as richly in the face of my own guilt, as I have been. It is up to God to punish wrongdoers in this world, not me.
And one of the ways God has decided to punish wrongdoers is to punish them right now and right here. Whether we are comfortable with it or not, He has given people the “sword” to execute justice and judgment. God uses government to take revenge on the wicked. Paul says so.

To what extent may the sword of judgment be used? That’s a hard call. But we are given some clues in the Biblical text - Genesis 9:5-6 - “And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. [6] Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” I know this verse gets somewhat overused in debates on capital punishment, but I chose it because it makes at least one point that lines up remarkably well with Paul’s words in Romans 13:4 - “....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.” And the parallel idea is that God uses man as the chosen instrument to mediate justice on the one who kills and sheds man’s blood. In other words, God has chosen to not take vengeance on those who shed human blood directly, but indirectly. He chooses mediated vengeance on those who take human life.

All of this means, to me, that at the very least, the Bible allows for capital punishment when a life has been taken. In other words, not all killing is forbidden in the Scriptures. In some cases it has been God’s plan, right from Genesis through Romans, to delegate the judicial use of the sword to take vengeance on wrongdoers. And also, such killing doesn’t fall under the prohibition against murder in the ten commandments, which deal with violence in terms of personal vengeance.

The other issue that gets much attention is that of war and pacifism. How shall we submit to authorities if called to bear arms? Is the killing of war the same as the killing of murder? And are both forbidden in the Scriptures? These too, are very difficult questions. And, it seems to me, some of the same points apply as with capital punishment.

It seems awkward to me to apply the command, “You shall not kill,” across the board to all killing. I say this because you find people like king Saul, in the Old Testament, punished by God specifically because he refused to kill all the enemies God commanded him to kill. And you find Jesus, reserving some of His highest words of praise for people who were engaged in full-time military service.

And that fact alone is highly significant. Jesus never hesitated to tell people - all sorts of people - that they needed to leave their old life behind if they wanted to follow Him. He told a woman she could no longer live with the man she lived with. He told crooked tax collectors they needed to repay those whom they had cheated. He even told a covetous rich man he needed to leave his riches behind if he wanted to follow in discipleship. But, in several encounters with military people, he never once told any of them they needed to leave the army to follow Him.

So you seem to have the same distinction between personal vengeance and violence - which is forbidden - and the role of the sword in the hands of the state in times of war that we saw with the issue of capital punishment by the state and murder by an individual. We know not all wars are justifiable. And I’m certainly not saying there couldn’t be times when the Christian, in good conscience, might not have to say, “No, this is not a legitimate cause to fight for, and I must not participate.” Only God knows the answer to those questions. All I’m trying to do at this point is mark out what I feel is the necessary distinction between personal vindictive acts of violence and murder - which are forbidden for the Christian - and the God appointed role of the state to use sword as His own vengeance on human wickedness.