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Reformed Interpretation of Romans 13   Leave a comment

The writings of the Protestant reformers resound with the principle of the primacy of the Scripture-bound conscience over human tradition. None of these men interpreted Romans 13:1-7 in the way that it is currently interpreted.

John Calvin advocated a similar position as Luther. In Institutes of the Christian Religion, which was written primarily as a rebuttal of the anabaptist anarchist tendency to declare all civil government to be incompatible with Christian liberty, he exhorted Christians to submit to the authorities who had been placed by God over them with the following qualifications:

“But in that obedience which we hold to be due to the commands of rulers, we must always make the exception, nay, must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with obedience to Him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject, to whose decrees their commands must yield, to whose majesty their sceptres must bow. And, indeed, how preposterous were it, in pleasing men, to incur the offense of Him for whose sake you obey men!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.”

At a later time, Calvin wrote a commentary on Romans 13:1-7 that more directly addresses the proper submittal to the legitimate rule of the magistrate:

The reason why we ought to be subject to magistrates is, because they are constituted by God’s ordination…. [T]yrannies and unjust exercise of power, as they are full of disorder, are not an ordained government; yet the right of government is ordained by God for the well being of mankind…. [T]hey are the means which he designedly appoints for the preservation of legitimate order…….[Paul] 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.

Being Baptist in polity, I naturally looked toward the Westminister Confession of Faith to see what that says on the subject:

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…….[B]ecause 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 pretence 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….

It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honour their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience sake.

The Reformers regarded obedience to the civil magistrate to be required when the magistrate was exercising legitimate authority, but allowed for rejection of that authority when the exercise of it became tyrannical or violated morality. It was a “middle ground” approach between Erasmus’ earlier position which required unqualified submission and the anabaptist position which advocated rebellion against all forms of “wordly” authority.

Neither extreme is the godly position and in the “third way” of the Reformers Christians will find choices to prove that the Christian life was never meant to be one of easy choices.




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