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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Our good God gives the gift of government
Text:BC 36 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Calling

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 44

Psalm 82

Psalm 72:1,2,10

Hymn 1

Psalm 93

Scripture readings: Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17

Catechism lesson:  Belgic Confession article 36

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

For many of us, for most of our lives, the government has been relatively friendly to Christians.  We’ve been able to buy property, build our church buildings, share the gospel, establish Christian schools, freely publish books and articles, and more.  Though things are changing, we’ve had it good for a long time in this country.

It hasn’t always been this way for Christians.  Until the year 312, persecution was the story for many Christians in the Roman Empire.  We hear the many stories of Christians being thrown to the lions or even used as human torches.  That all changed in the year 312 when the Roman emperor Constantine suddenly became a Christian.  Finally, there wasn’t only tolerance for Christianity, but even support from the government.  Christianity even became the state religion.

Much later, during the time of the Reformation, persecution reared its ugly head again.  Our Belgic Confession was written in 1561.  At that point, the Low Countries (mostly present-day Belgium and the Netherlands) were under the control of the Spanish.  Philip II was the king of Spain and he was a devout Roman Catholic.  As a Roman Catholic king, he viewed it as his mission to eradicate heresy.  Under Philip II, the Low Countries became the epicentre for religious persecution in the days of the Reformation.  Hundreds of believers were martyred, including Guido de Bres, the author of our Belgic Confession.

Given the history of persecution in the apostolic and early church, it’s surprising the New Testament is so positive about government.  Given the history of persecution in the time of the Reformation, it’s surprising our Belgic Confession is so positive about government.  Well, maybe not so surprising when you consider that the Confession is just attempting to reflect what Scripture teaches.  As we’re entering into uncertain times in terms of how our government views us and treats us, it’s good that we learn from Scripture and from our Confession what God teaches us about government.  We’ll do that this afternoon with the help of article 36.  I’ve summarized the sermon with this theme:  Our good God gives the gift of government

We’ll learn about:

  1. The reason for government
  2. The responsibility of those who govern
  3. The responsibility of those governed

Article 36 begins at the beginning, back in Genesis.  Adam and Eve fell into sin and depravity has been the story of the human race ever since.  Sin and rebellion against God are everywhere.  In this fallen world, we see horrible things like murder, rape, and theft.  If God would just leave us to our devices, we’d soon destroy one another.  It would be the survival of the strongest. 

But God hasn’t allowed that to happen.  Because God is gracious, he has ordained government to restrain the lawlessness of humanity.  Because God is gracious, he has given government so there’d be good order in this world, so there can be human flourishing.  The ultimate reason for government is that our gracious God doesn’t want his creation completely spoiled by sin and its effects.  Because he loves us, he has given government to hold back the full effects of the fall into sin – the fall for which we human beings are responsible.

So a biblical perspective on government has to begin with God.  When the apostle Paul told the Roman church to “be subject to the governing authorities,” he right away grounded that command in God.  He said in Romans 13:1 that authority comes from God.  All authorities that exist have been instituted by God.  If you resist the authorities, if you rebel against them, you’re resisting what God has appointed and you deserve judgment.  That’s in Romans 13:2.

The God-given nature of government is even more strongly emphasized in verse 4.  The Holy Spirit says twice that the ruler is the servant of God.  The ruler may not recognize himself as such, but it’s the objective truth.  He’s been ordained by God and he serves God’s purposes whether he realizes it or not.  Similarly, Romans 13:6 says that “authorities are ministers of God.”  Ministers.  Paul uses the same word in Romans 15:16 to describe himself.  Apostles are ministers of God, and so are rulers, so is government.  They’re not ministers in the same way, but with both their origin and authority are divinely derived.  Apostles don’t have human authority, and neither do those ruling in government – they all have their authority from God.  God has graciously put them there to restrain human lawlessness and hold up good order.

Now it’s important to remember the context.  First, it’s important to remember the context of Romans 13 in the book of Romans.  The previous chapter is key here, especially the beginning.  Romans divides up into three parts:  chapters 1-3 is about our sinfulness, chapters 4-11 are all about the good news of what Jesus has done to address our sinfulness. We have been justified, declared righteous, only because of Christ has done.  Then you get chapter 12.  Chapter 12 begins with a “therefore.”  In response to the gospel of God’s free grace in Christ, we’re to offer our lives as living sacrifices to God.  So chapter 13 is part of how we do that.  It’s part of our sanctification, our growing in the Christian way of life.  So none of this is about human achievement or earning merit before God.  It’s all about how to respond to God’s free grace, to his salvation freely given in Christ.  So that’s the literary context; that helps us to frame these things in the right way.     

The historical context in which Romans 13 was written is also crucial.  It’s thought that Paul wrote Romans around AD 57.  Nero was the Roman emperor at that time.  He hated Christians.  He persecuted them.  In AD 64, there was an enormous fire in Rome.  It’s possible that it was set by Nero himself.  Some Roman historians think he did it to make room for some building projects he dreamed up.  But whether Nero set the fire himself or not, he blamed it on the Christians.  He had numerous Christians thrown to the beasts, crucified, or turned into human torches to light up the night sky around his palace.  Yet the Holy Spirit tells Christians, both through Paul and Peter, to honour this emperor as a minister of God.  As bad as he was, Nero had still been placed in his position of authority by God.  As bad as they may be, our current government leaders have been placed in their positions of authority by God.  They may not recognize it, but the Bible tells us that this is a fact.  It’s a fact that we have to recognize.  We have government and this particular government, because God has ordained it.  That doesn’t mean we can’t seek to have a different government through lawful processes like casting our ballots, but it does mean we see God’s hand in our present circumstances. 

And then we also thank him that we don’t live in a totally lawless society.  There are countries and regions of the world where there is no rule of law.  There are failed states, countries like Yemen.  There’s no functioning government.  Chaos reigns.  Would you want to live in a place like that?  When you look at Yemen, you ought to be broken-hearted for those people enduring that.  But you also ought to be thankful that you live in a country where we do have the rule of law.  Even with all its weaknesses, we have a functioning government.  There’s still much to be thankful for here.

What about the responsibility of those who govern?  That’s the second thing we want to learn about this afternoon.

The Holy Spirit describes the government’s calling in 1 Peter 2:14.  They’re to “punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”  There’s a law-enforcement responsibility, a justice responsibility.  According to Romans 13, rulers are meant to be a terror to bad conduct.  Those who do wrong should be afraid, because government bears the sword, and not in vain.  They’re permitted to use force to uphold justice and address criminality.  It says in Romans 13:4 that the government is “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”  God hates all injustice and wickedness.  He will judge it with a just judgment – one of the ways he does that already in this age is through the civil government.

I just want to come back to one element in 1 Peter 2:14 – the government is “to praise those who do good.”  That’s something that’s often overlooked.  A couple of years ago, I saw a news story from Canada about some police officers who were giving “tickets” to children who were wearing their helmets while riding their bikes.  I think the tickets were some kind of reward, a coupon for ice cream at McDonalds or something like that.  They were praising those children for doing the right thing, following the law.  Scripture would say that we need more of that kind of positive reinforcement from government, not only from police, but also from those in parliament.  They’re called to commend those who do good.

Article 36 of our confession mentions one other biblical responsibility of government.  God also wants those who govern to protect his church and its ministry.  This is why 1 Timothy 2:2 says we’re to pray for the government.  We’re to pray for them with the outcome “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”  We want to see the kingdom of Christ expanding, the gospel being preached far and wide, and God being honoured and served by all.  Now our current government offers that protection of the church to a certain degree.  Compared to countries like North Korea and China, we still have considerable protection and freedom.  But we know that there are some who wish it were otherwise, perhaps even some in government.  However, that doesn’t change what God calls them to do. God can call someone to do something and they might refuse.  They’re not allowed to refuse, and they’ll bear the consequences for refusing, but they still could do that.  Then we have to pray for them that they’d see their calling and follow what God says.  We also have to remind them of their calling, and make it clear that it doesn’t come from us, but from God, from the Bible. 

Now someone might say, “Well, they don’t recognize the authority of the Bible, so why should we quote the Bible to them and tell them what God says?  That seems pointless.”  But imagine the police arrest someone for some crime.  When he’s charged, the police tell him he’s charged with breaking such-and-such law of the criminal code.  He tells the police he doesn’t recognize the authority of the criminal code.  Does that change the fact that he’s charged?  Of course not.  He comes before the judge and is asked for his plea on the charge.  He says he doesn’t recognize the authority of the law.  The judge will say, “I’ll take that as a not guilty and we’ll proceed to trial.”  Throughout the trial, the accused refuses to acknowledge the law.  At the end he’s found guilty and sentenced, still refusing to recognize the law.  Did his failure to recognize the objective authority of the law change anything?  No, of course not.  The law is the law, whether you like it or not.  Similarly, God’s Word is God’s Word regardless of what anyone thinks about it.  It’s God’s Word regardless of whether someone recognizes it as such.  But those who do recognize it have a calling to tell those who don’t about their responsibilities with respect to it.  This is part of our broader calling to acknowledge God in all our ways, to bring him glory in everything. 

Here we’re already getting into our third point, about the responsibility of those who are governed.  Our responsibility with respect to government. 

One thing that strikes you right away in both Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 is the call to “be subject.”  Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities…”  1 Peter 2:13, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution…”  So our Belgic Confession echoes that when it says, “Moreover, everyone – no matter what quality, condition, or rank – ought to be subject to the civil officers.” 

What does the Holy Spirit mean when he tells us to be subject to our government?  It’s the opposite of resisting.  It means to voluntarily yield our will to the will of someone else.  We give up what we want or what we think is best, and agree to go with the other person.  Scripture uses this term for the relationship between wives and husbands in Ephesians 5, for the relationship of children to parents in Luke 2, and the relationship of church members to church leaders in 1 Peter 5.  In each instance, there’s authority and there are those under authority.  There’s someone who gives direction and someone who willingly yields to follow that direction.  So this is to be the case with us and the government as well.  We’re to willingly follow their lead.  We’re not to be like some of the Anabaptist groups from the sixteenth century who were rebellious and anti-government.  There were violent revolutionaries who overthrew the lawful government in places like Munster.  That’s completely contrary to what the Bible teaches about how Christians ought to relate to government.  We’re to be subject – like our Catechism says on the Fifth Commandment, to submit ourselves with due obedience and have patience with their weaknesses and shortcomings, since it is God’s will to govern us by their hand.    

Now of course there are limits to all earthly authority, and it’s no different with government.  In our Confession we say that we are to obey the government “in all things which do not disagree with the Word of God.”  If the government places something contrary to Scripture on us, we must obey God rather than human beings – as Peter and John told the Sanhedrin in Acts 4.

Let me give an example.  As we’ve seen, the government is responsible for good order in society, for public order.  As part of that, it’s good that there are building codes and fire codes to follow.  As a matter of justice, the government has a vested interest in making sure buildings are safe, especially in case there are things like fires or earthquakes.  So the government is within its rights to set a limit on the number of people who can be seated in buildings, including church buildings.  It would be irresponsible and lawless of us to ignore what the government has said, as if we think that we know better.  We’re called to give up our own opinions, and subject ourselves to the government.  They’re not asking us to do something that disagrees with Scripture.

But if the government were to try to regulate what we do in our worship services, that would be a completely different matter.  Let’s say the government were to forbid the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  They make a law saying that there shall be no more Christian Lord’s Supper celebrations at all anywhere at any time.  That actually happened in the days the Belgic Confession was written.  The government outlawed the Lord’s Supper.  What did the Reformed churches do?  They said, “We respect the government, but we respect God more.”  Christ had instituted the Lord’s Supper and they continued to celebrate it.  Were there consequences?  Yes, absolutely.  When Guido de Bres was hung by the Spanish, the charge against him was that he had celebrated the Lord’s Supper contrary to the order of the government.  He died for disobeying the government’s orders regarding worship.  Guido de Bres didn’t deliberately put himself in harm’s way.  When he celebrated the Lord’s Supper with the Reformed churches, it was done without public fanfare.  They didn’t provoke the government.  De Bres himself lived on the run, going from city to city.  He wore a disguise and used a pseudonym.  He was never an in-your-face revolutionary.  When de Bres disobeyed the government’s sinful command, he did it in a Christian way.  That sets a good example for all of us today too, should it come to a point where we have to obey God rather than human beings.    

Finally, Romans 13:7 teaches us that our calling is to pay our taxes.  Regardless of whether we think they’re fair.  Even if we do a lot of our work for cash, and you think you could get away without paying the tax on it.  The point is not what you can get away with – the point is:  what’s the right thing to do?  The right thing is to pay your taxes.  Pay them honestly, pay them fully.  A true Christian should never engage in tax fraud.  Because a true Christian knows that you can fool human beings, but you’ll never fool God.    

We’ve been talking a lot about what God expects from us in this sermon.  I’m sure all of us realize how often we fall short.  It’s so easy to develop a negative attitude towards government.  It’s so easy to become cynical and even bitter.  But this afternoon God confronts us with the sinfulness of such feelings.  If we’ve had them in the past, if we have them right now, God calls us to turn away from them and hate them.  And look to Jesus Christ and what he did on the cross to forgive those sinful attitudes about government.  God will forgive you, you can be sure because that’s what the gospel promises.  Then, as part of your repentance, resolve to now live as Christ’s disciple, following what God says in his Word.  As Peter says, “Honour everyone.  Love the brotherhood.  Fear God.  Honour the emperor.”  AMEN.            


O God on high,

We thank you for your good gift of government.  We see your grace in this gift.  Thank you that we still live in a country where there is the rule of law.  Thank you that we have a functioning government.  Thank you for the freedoms we continue to have in this land.  We do pray that we would continue to enjoy those freedoms.  We pray for those who govern us.  Please guide their hearts to do what is right and pleasing in your sight.  Guide them to be wise in the laws they make.  We pray that you would frustrate any plans they have for making foolish or wicked laws.  We pray, Father, that you would help us to honour and respect those who rule, even when we disagree with them.  Please forgive us through Christ for every time we’ve been cynical or bitter towards our government.  Please help us with your Holy Spirit to have the heart of Christ with respect to them.  Help us to be good Christian citizens who show that we’re also disciples of Jesus.                                                          

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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