(Rom. 13:1-6 ESV) 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. 3 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. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.
Paul declares that the government has been instituted by God to punish bad or wrong conduct. Indeed, the government’s punishment of these behaviors is a form of “God’s wrath” (vv. 4-5), which takes us back to chapter 1. Interestingly, Paul sees the pagan Roman government as an instrument of God’s wrath against sin — revealing the will of God to even pagans without special revelation (the Bible, prophecy, etc.)
Now, in Rom 1, God’s goal was to show the dehumanizing result of worshiping idols rather than God. God’s wrath is shown through the self-destructive behavior of godless people. But in Rom 13, God’s wrath is revealed by the punishment meted out against such behaviors by the government. That is, the fact that even a pagan government finds these behaviors criminal should point the world back toward God.
But contrary to much modern thought, Paul characterizes the criminal justice system as God’s “avenger.” The punishment is not designed to change culture but to punish sin. We normally think of God handling punishment of sin solely in the afterlife — through hell. But here Paul says is presently punishing sinners through a pagan government. It’s a remarkable passage!
John Howard Yoder offers some helpful insight —
Christians are told (12:19) never to exercise vengeance but to leave it to God and to wrath. Then the authorities are recognized (13:4) as executing the particular function which the Christian was to leave to God. It is inconceivable that these two verses, using such similar language, should be meant to be read independently of one another. This makes it clear that the function exercised by government is not the function to be exercised by Christians. … But within the sustained reasoning of one passage, with the same words being used in the midst of the same text, certainly it is a most likely interpretation that the “vengeance” or “wrath” that is recognized as being within providential control [through government in chapter 13] is the same as that which Christians are told not to exercise.
John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, Second Edition., (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 198.
So, it seems to me, that Paul’s point in Rom 1:18 ff is that the failure to worship God is the source of all sin and the reason for all of God’s wrath.
According to Romans 1, humanity’s fundamental sin is its failure to honor God. Other sins are listed as examples of that to which “God gave [people] up” who, “though they knew God, did not honor him as God or give him thanks” (so v. 21), or who “did not see fit to recognize God” (so v. 28). For Paul no less than for his later interpreters, then, the crucial criterion for assessing human goodness is whether God is given due worship; it makes no sense to assess the moral value of individual deeds done by those who fail in their most fundamental duty. To quote the Gospels: “Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit” (Matt 7:17–18). From such a perspective, it is entirely reasonable to grant, on one level, the propriety of particular deeds done by untransformed human beings while at the same time denying their capacity to do what, on a deeper level, is truly good.
Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme, (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 48–49.
In Rom 13:4-5, Paul declares the government to be God’s avenger to exercise God’s wrath against sin — but the government cannot replace faith in Jesus. Only believers can truly do good because only believers can act motivated by faith — and there is nothing the government can do to change this.
Hence, the government’s role is severely limited. It cannot make people good. Only God does this, through his Spirit. The government cannot compel worship of God. The government can’t transform or regenerate people. The government can only punish sin — and then as an avenger, not as a reconciler.
So God turns the godless over to sins, including murder, to show that the godless are living an inhuman, debased, unnatural existence that can only be remedied through faith in Jesus. The government, as God’s avenging agent, accomplishes at least two good things in God’s system:
- Government protects us from anarchy. Even bad governments provide an environment that’s better than no government at all — and a society protected from anarchy is a better environment for the flourishing of the Kingdom.
- Government labels certain conduct as criminal — utterly unacceptable in society — and yet society continues to engage in exactly the conduct that it declares immoral — showing the inability of man to save himself and so the futility of failing to worship God. Even pagan Rome passed laws and punished wrongdoers — all while celebrating the sins being committed against its own laws.
Rome does not carry the sword in vain, and yet murder was often celebrated by these same Romans. The Wikipedia article on “proscription” gives a sense of Roman celebration of murder —
Proscription of 82 BC
An early instance of mass proscription took place in 82 BC, when Lucius Cornelius Sulla was appointed dictator rei publicae constituendae (“Dictator for the Reconstitution of the Republic”). Sulla proceeded to have the Senate draw up a list of those he considered enemies of the state and published the list in the Roman Forum. Any man whose name appeared on the list was ipso facto stripped of his citizenship and excluded from all protection under law; reward money was given to any informer who gave information leading to the death of a proscribed man, and any person who killed a proscribed man was entitled to keep part of his estate (the remainder went to the state). No person could inherit money or property from proscribed men, nor could any woman married to a proscribed man remarry after his death. Many victims of proscription were decapitated and their heads were displayed on spears in the Forum. …
Proscription of 43 BC
Proscription was revived by the Second Triumvirate of Octavian (later known as Augustus), Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, and Mark Antony, in November 43 BC, again resorted to proscription to eliminate political enemies and replenish the Treasury. Some of the proscribed enemies of the state were stripped of their property but protected from death by their relatives in the Triumvirate (e.g., Lucius Julius Caesar and Lepidus’ brother). Most were not so lucky; amongst the most prominent men to suffer death were the orator Cicero, his younger brother Quintus Tullius Cicero (one of Julius Caesar’s legates) and Marcus Favonius.
So the Romans outlawed murder and used murder as a means of taxation and ridding the world of political enemies — all with the approval of the Senate. Hence, even though Roman law condemned murder, it didn’t change a culture in which human life was cheap. The persistence of murder as a means of paying for government wars should have demonstrated to even a pagan that their worldview was totally messed up — and there was something fundamentally inhuman at the core of their worldview. They were worshiping at the wrong altar.