God is in charge and he has a plan. I doubt that any bible believing Christian would dispute that statement. But does that mean that everything that ever happens is what God wants and is according to his plan?
I remember at school we studied the book of Mark and when we came to the betrayal of Jesus, the teacher said that she had some sympathy for Judas, because ‘someone had to be Judas.’ The implication is that it was in God’s plan and that because of this Judas was not really responsible for his actions, he just had to play out his pre-written part. You can see where this can lead. Some well meaning Christians take this to an extreme place: if God has a plan to rescue mankind then was it part of his plan that man should sin, and if man should sin perhaps that makes God the author of sin. This shocking idea, indeed this blasphemous idea is held by some Christians today, others (attempt a) solution to the dilemma by stating that God will work everything to his Glory and that if we don’t understand it now, that’s because we don’t have infinite capability to understand the eternal God. Calling on this excuse to explain this conundrum is just that, an excuse, an excuse that neither solves the problem nor gives glory to God.
What’s this got to do with the 13th chapter of Romans? Read on.
- Giving allegiance to governments
A couple of weeks ago Andy Murray won the Wimbledon Men’s singles title for the second time. Amongst the spectators was none other than the recently resigned Prime Minister, David Cameron. In Murray’s winner’s speech he referred to the presence of David Cameron and this elicited a booing from the crowd. It’s fashionable to show disrespect to our political leaders. Paul will show in this first part of Romans 13 that such an attitude is quite wrong because governing authorities are established by God. It’s this very idea that raises the question in the introductory paragraph above. If God establishes the governing authorities then surely he must bear some responsibility for their actions? David Cameron we might just find acceptable (even if the Centre court crowd at Wimbledon didn’t) but what about Saddam Hussain? Vladimir Putin? Or how about Kim Jong-un? That doesn’t sit quite so easily with us – which brings us back to the question: just what is God responsible for as he establishes governing authorities?
As mentioned above, I think the prevailing view in the church today goes something like this: God is sovereign, he is the author of absolutely everything, nothing is done on this earth that is outside of his plan and purpose, but somehow, by some mechanism he is not responsible for sin or the evil actions of men or demons. The conundrum gets thrown into the “can’t-be-understood-by-man, but-God-in-his-infinite-wisdom-can-reconcile-the-irreconcilable” category of eternal mysteries. This is a pretty useless response to the problem and actually resolves nothing – a sort of ostrich response! So some Christians reach a resolution by saying that God really is responsible for everything (sin, evil, the whole lot) so let’s just accept that and get on with it. The first solution is illogical and borderline blasphemous and the second actually is blasphemous! You may at this point be thinking that this really doesn’t matter much, but it does. If you have just committed a sinful act you may be very tempted to acknowledge that it’s wrong but somehow it’s ‘in God’s plan’ so is at least excusable or you may feel that since God is the author of everything then it’s entirely OK to sin, - you are just acting out your pre-written part and in any case God’s plan will take care of everything. So you see this is not some sort of academic debate of the angels-dancing-on-pin-head variety, it’s of significant practical importance.
What’s of some note is that this issue doesn’t seem to have bothered the bible writers at all! As far as I can see it hasn’t ever occurred to them as a problem to be addressed. If this is the case, the problem seems a (relatively) new one that has come about by some false pre-conceived notions brought by otherwise well meaning Christians.
The answer to the dilemma is simplicity itself and the answer is in the bible. After God created Adam and Eve and placed them in a garden on the earth, he summarised his creation by stating that it was ‘very good.’ At that time God did something remarkable with his two created beings (which I think is closely related to the fact that they were created in God’s own image): he gave Adam and Eve authority to rule and to make decisions with moral consequences. Here’s Genesis 1: ‘26 Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ And Genesis 2: 15: ‘The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die."’ So you see two important ideas, first a delegated authority to rule the creation and second a choice of obedience or disobedience that had moral consequences. What they did with that delegated authority and responsibility was up to them, but there would be a reckoning for their actions. Adam and Eve were not created as automatons acting out parts in God’s play.
So who then is the author of sin? Who bears responsibility for sinful actions? Who? Not God! But those to whom God delegates his authority. I find it both surprising and disquieting that this simple truth is lost to so many believers, it’s screaming from the pages of God’s word! It’s all about how we as human beings fail to do what is right and bear moral responsibility for what we do. Didn’t God foresee what would happen? Of course he did, but foresight does not confer on him responsibility. I once observed a friend head down a path of self destruction, I could foresee the outcome, I warned the person to change course but the warnings went unheeded with predictable and foreseeable results. Did my foresight of the outcome make me responsible? Obviously not. But doesn’t God plan out our lives before us - for sure he does. Doesn’t that mean whatever happens is according to his will? Paul notes in Ephesians 2:10 that God prepares good works in advance for us to do. He doesn’t prepare bad works for us to do and sadly I think it’s entirely possible for the good works God prepares for us to be left undone by our own wilful decisions. What was God’s plan for Adam and Eve? To take care of the garden, to rule the creation and to be obedient. Their failure was their own decision for which they bear moral responsibility. The remarkable thing is that God acted according to his nature to initiate a rescue plan after Adam and Eve failed to do what was right.
Now back to Romans 13. Paul says in verse 1: ‘13Everyone 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 is pretty amazing: God has put in place the governing authorities and he has delegated authority to them, and it’s a significant authority. Verse 4b says ‘They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.’ Why would God do such a thing? It’s for our good: verse 4a: ‘the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.’ It seems that given the sinfulness of mankind that some sort of authority is essential to make life tolerable, and we should be thankful for this. In 2011 the most dreadful thing took place on the streets of our country. Word went around the internet that the police were standing back from riots that started in Tottenham. Many otherwise law abiding young people took to the streets and soon took advantage of the police’s soft response to violence and disorder. Before long the most awful disorder took place: relatively near where we live, the John Lewis department store in Croydon was emptied of anything of value that could be moved. Mercifully the governing authorities realised their mistake, police tactics were rapidly adjusted and a zero tolerance approach was adopted. We can and ought to thank God for his appointment of governing authorities. As Paul puts it they are ‘God’s servant for your good.’ Now do the governing authorities always get it right? Absolutely not. Does this make God responsible for their every action? Absolutely not! Those involved in governing bear moral responsibility for their actions.
This raises another question. If the governing authorities get it wrong and if we don’t like their policies, how ought we to respond? Jesus lived under the governing authority of an invading power: the Roman Empire. I think there can be little doubt that the Roman government was not without flaws! When asked about paying taxes however Jesus was clear – yes pay taxes. Likewise Paul gives some very clear instructions on how we are to respond to governing authorities: verse 6, ‘This is why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.’
It’s fashionable to be disrespectful to governing authorities (just ask David Cameron on his Wimbledon experience) and just yesterday (18th July 2016) it was reported that the French President’s appearance in Nice to pay respect to the dead after the dreadful deaths of more than 80 people at the hands of an Islamic terrorist was greeted with boos. That’s wrong says Paul, the French government are there for the good of the French people – without their efforts (imperfect as they doubtless are) many more people would suffer. But be warned, if you do wrong, governing authorities have a God-given delegated authority to be ‘agents of wrath to bring punishment to the wrongdoer.’ In view of this, Paul says that we are to submit to them not only because we may be punished but also as a matter of conscience. Just remember that the next time you get a parking fine or have to fill out your tax return! Give thanks to God! They are there for our good; respect and honour are due.
You may be thinking that there are times when governing authorities overstep their role and oppress people rather than supporting them. It seems obvious that if governments attempt to prevent believers being faithful to God then we must respect God above the government – but we are a far distance from that in our country and I think it notable that Paul doesn’t deal with this issue here in Romans in which conditions for believers were probably much more difficult than we experience in the UK today.
Before we move on I think all of this we ought to pray for those in authority. Paul says this very thing in his first letter to Timothy (chapter 2, verse 2), he says pray ‘for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.’ I think we have been blessed in our country with some excellent leaders who have created conditions for us to live peaceful and quiet lives: David Cameron was for sure a decent man and it seems Theresa May will approach her onerous duties with good sense of morality, decency and capability. We must respect, honour and pray for her.
Just after I wrote the words above (travelling on the train) I walked from Victoria Station to my place of work in Aldwych, as I crossed the road at Whitehall I walked right past Dr Liam Fox the newly appointed Secretary of State for International Trade. He was half way across the road waiting at the pedestrian lights and I was facing him, we sort of acknowledged each other in that very British sort of way. I had the words of Romans 13 printed on a sheet of paper in my brief case and debated in my mind whether to get it out and give it to him as we faced each other across the road. But the moment passed and I chickened out! It turned out that Liam Fox was on his way to Downing Street for the first meeting of Theresa May’s cabinet. I arrived at work somewhat frustrated at my lack of guts, so decided to e-mail him the first 5 verses of Romans 13; this I did thanking him for his God-given role and ensuring him of my wishes for success and wisdom. I received a short but pleasant reply from his secretary promising to send on my e-mail. We do indeed need to pray for our politicians and leaders in their God-given roles.
2. How to live
Perhaps unpaid taxes was on Paul’s mind as he changed thoughts to more personal matters: ‘Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt of love to one another.’ In many ways the bible is a complex book, it plumbs the depths of eternal themes, but in many ways it is a very simple book – one that seems accessible to people of every grade of intellect. I remember as a very young child acknowledging the sense of the Genesis story: it is perfectly understandable to a child, it makes sense of the world – and is good for us too because it’s the truth. Perhaps we need the input of fewer theologians and more simplicity in our approach to, and reading of God’s word.
There are many ways in which we can interact with one another, and the Old Testament Law describes in great detail how the nation God had chosen ought to work as a community. But Paul simplifies this with these wonderful words: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself, love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.’ The first highway code was issued in 1931. Deaths in the roads in the UK were a huge problem (deaths proportionately on the roads compared to today were about 30 x higher). Traffic rules were needed. The opening sentence in the 1931 Highway code has these words: ‘Always be careful and considerate to others.’ I think they’re effectively saying that the entire highway code can be summed up in four words: be considerate to others. Likewise the law is summed up in 5 words: love your neighbour as youself.
Today is the hottest day of the year (so far): mid 30s deg C. A crowded train and sweltering heat is a bad combination! As my train drew into Clapham junction this evening both the platform and the train were packed beyond capacity – it was rather nice to hear what I can only call ‘considerate banter’ amongst the longsuffering passengers; love really does no harm to a neighbour even when they’re pressed up against you in a hot overcrowded train. Churches need to learn this simplicity too: shouldn’t we talk less about rules and act more with love?
3. Don’t fritter your time away
All of this practical talk forces us to acknowledge that what we do is bound by time. It seems that there is always a deadline. If my company set me a task but set me no deadline I’m afraid to say that there’s a fair chance that the task will never be completed – it may not ever be started! Deadlines and timelines help us focus on getting stuff done. As believers we operate under time constraint. Paul says ‘the hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.’ The clock is ticking and the deadline is approaching. So just how are we to behave and act under these circumstances? Paul says it’s time to put to one side the ‘deeds of darkness.’ Paul indicates that night time is a time associated with wrong doing: ‘Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.’
It seems that Paul is suggesting that under the present ‘night time’ circumstances we have to put up with less than perfect human government, albeit governments appointed by God for our good. But the night time will not last forever, daylight is coming. Surely Paul is thinking of the time when the Lord Jesus Christ will come to set up his perfect governmental system – and the question is, are you preparing yourself for it? Are you ready? To be ready is to ‘clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.’