The application of these principles to the case both of good and bad citizens.
Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Verses 3 and 4.
In these clauses Paul applies, and, in so doing, more fully illustrates, the doctrines previously taught in regard to the functions of the civil magistrate. He makes this application:
First, to the case of the upright and faithful citizen. And
1. Good conduct will secure certain advantages under such a government as he has described. V. 3, “Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same.” The first clause seems to be intended to meet an objection; an objection to this
effect: Civil government is armed with terror —it addresses itself to the fears of men— and, hence, it is inconsistent for a Christian to regard it at all. “Well,” says Paul, “Wilt thou not be afraid?” Dost thou wish not to be afraid? “Do that which is good,” and you need cherish no fear. The law, as armed with penal sanctions, “is not for the righteous man.” (I Timothy 1: 9.) Such, by the grace of God enlightening and guiding them, are a law to themselves, &c., hence may live, and do live, under just civil rule without fear, at least, without slavish fear —without any such fear as is adverse to unalloyed Christian peace.
And even more, “Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same.” It is not, of course, to be inferred, from this language, that civil government is instituted for the purpose of conferring rewards, in any gross form, upon even the best citizens: still good conduct secures praise; for by an upright, peaceable and Christian deportment, good citizens acquire reputation and influence, and in such a government as Paul describes, this class of citizens, and this only, would be admitted to places of power and trust. These are no mean rewards. It is no inconsiderable result of becoming conduct, that it attracts the favorable regard of the community, and opens the way to seats of more eminent influence.
2. This the Apostle proceeds to confirm. V. 4. “For he is the minister of God to thee for good.”
We have here a two-fold argument —one drawn from the relation which the magistrate bears to God, another from the end of his appointment.
(1.) The magistrate is God’s servant. “For he is the minister () of God;” and that in a sense, not materially different from that in which ministers are styled () “servants of Christ.” They are so, inasmuch as they administer a divinely appointed ecclesiastical constitution, and perform, in Christ’s name, duties which he has prescribed, and this for the attainment of ends clearly expressed in the laws pertaining to the church’s organization. So civil rulers; for they, also, are called to administer a divine institution for the promotion of the ends contemplated in the ordinance of civil society: the parallel holds in another most important particular. The servant of Christ is, necessarily, under law to Christ, not only as accountable to Him for the manner in which his service is performed, but as the very performance itself is regulated by laws which Christ, his Master, has enacted. So, with some limitations, we assert of the civil ruler. He is not, indeed, furnished with a complete code of laws, but he has sufficiently clear intimations,
particularly with the Bible before him, of the will of his master: he is to be “a terror, not to good works, but to the evil.” And now the parallel ought surely to hold in another respect. —Who will say that that man is a “servant of Christ.” even although he occupy the seat, and professes to act in that character, no matter how many acknowledge him, who disregards the law of Christ, perverts the gospel, and tramples on the rights of his people? What Protestant, for example, acknowledges the Pope of Rome as a “servant of Christ?” And yet he has his millions of votaries, and claims to be Christ’s vicegerent. He is “a servant of Christ,” who serves Christ. So it is in the case of civil rule. How can he be the servant of God, in administering civil rule, who either denies God’s supremacy, or perverts the ends of government, and, particularly, if he also employ his power against God, his law, his gospel, his church and his Son.*
But, to return. The magistrate is “God’s servant,” and hence, it must be the end and
* It is one objection to this that Cyrus is called God’s shepherd. (Isaiah 44: 28.) This refers merely to the fact that Cyrus was raised up for a particular purpose. The devil is, in the same providential sense, Christ’s servant.
design of his office to do God’s work. God is his Master, whose law, gospel, glory and kingdom the magistrate must seek to promote: as God is a praise to them that do well, so must the ruler be also, for he is called to act as his servant.
(2.) The magistrate is God’s servant for the good of God’s people. “The minister of God to thee for good.” “To thee!” To whom? To every citizen, certainly. The design of the appointment of civil rulers is, that they may be useful —that they may be employed in securing the rights, the liberty, the safety, the property, of every citizen. As previously remarked, “the civil authority extends its aegis over every person and every interest in the commonwealth.” Are we at liberty to exclude the Christian citizen? Assuredly not. Indeed, Paul seems to refer with peculiar emphasis to the godly. To them he addresses this epistle. By what right, then, does anyone undertake to say, that in this phrase Paul alludes only to the citizen, and that, merely in reference to his common social rights? Every rule of interpretation forbids this. We do not affirm that he means the church alone —not even the church directly— but we are assured that it is handling the word of God most unfairly, to exclude the church and the faithful in their character
as servants of Christ. And can we conceive it possible that God has set up such an institution, armed with such powers, and yet has done this, without any regard to the safety, the assistance of his own friends, the disciples of his Son, in that great work to which they have been especially and imperatively called? This is impossible: the thought is dishonoring to God. The magistrate is set up that he may guard the rights of every member of the community —protect the weak against the strong —restrain all violence— promote every good work, and so secure the welfare of the whole community; but surely, as God’s “servant,” he must have a special concern for the name, and cause, and kingdom of God, as these are, in a still higher sense, entrusted to the faithful, and exemplified in them.
But, is this all? Has the “minister of God” fulfilled his whole functions, when he merely secures the religious liberties of the faithful? He has not. He is a “minister for good.” As God’s servant to do his work, he must seek, by some positive acts, the “good” of the friends of God. He must be, in this sense, “a praise” to them that do well. He must give them encouragement and sustain them in their Christian efforts. In a word, he must copy the example of the patriarchs;
for, as we have already seen, this was required of them.
He must copy the example of godly rulers in
2. Paul applies the doctrine respecting the ends of government to the case of bad citizens. V.4. “But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid: for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
In these clauses we have the reverse picture of the action of a right civil government. The same general arrangement is followed—
1. The Apostle asserts that evil doers have reason to fear its power. “But, if thou do evil, be afraid.” This, no doubt, refers to such evil acts as strike directly at the authority of government, the peace of society and the property, the reputation, or the life of well disposed citizens. But, it embraces more. Unless we are prepared to limit it as neither the word of God nor the practice of enlightened nations warrants, it must be interpreted in a wider sense, so as to include acts committed
against the laws of morality —such as profanity, blasphemy, and open dishonor done to God and his Christ —to such as commit these the faithful ruler is a “terror;” they may justly fear him. This statement Paul,
2. In the second place, confirms: for (1.) The magistrate is invested with punitive power. “He beareth the sword.” This language is partially figurative. The “sword” is the emblem of the power of civil government to inflict pains and penalties. In this respect, civil authority stands in direct and striking contrast to ecclesiastical; for the latter has no other power than that which appeals to the understanding, the heart and the conscience: it can act by means of admonition, reproof, exhortation, and, in the last resort, can place the erroneous and the immoral outside the pale of the visible church. Civil authority sustains itself and enforces it enactments by penalties of a different sort, when necessary. It uses force, not as the only means of securing conformity to its decrees, for it also may use admonition and persuasion —but, as the last resort, when milder measures fail.
The “sword,” moreover, is an instrument of death —for, so far as this even may the magistrate go, in the punishment of signal crimes, either
against the State or its citizens. Still, we are not to infer that every crime is to be punished with this extreme penalty. Far from it. The “sword” here is, we repeat, an emblem, —the power of the sword comprehending every grade of penal infliction, from the smallest fine to the severest sort of punishment. Civil rulers are endowed with power to affix and execute suitable penal sanctions.
(2.) Rulers, such as Paul here intends, will, in this respect, do their duty. “He beareth not the sword in vain.” The righteous magistrate, who knows his place, and has a proper sense of the nature and functions of the magistracy, will not allow the transgressors of law to escape with impunity. He not only “bears the sword” —he is not only armed with a just authority— he will use the “sword:” it will not lie idly in the scabbard; he will exercise the power with which he has been invested. Faithful to his calling and to the great interests of social and moral order, the upright civil functionary, whether in a higher or an inferior station, will not permit God’s authority to be impugned, or the interests of society to suffer, from unrestrained lawlessness —from flagrant breaches of the peace — from rampant immorality— from gross, avowed and open hostility to the name and law of
God. To be indifferent to these, or to administer law partially, inflicting punishment upon the weak and unprotected, while the evil deeds of the elevated and strong are winked at, is a virtual abdication of power. Such may “bear the sword,” but they bear it “in vain.” They are no more rulers, as Paul speaks of them, than he is a soldier who neglects or refuses to draw his sword in the heat of conflict: they inspire no “terror;” evil is put under no salutary restraints, “evil” in its worst forms, at least. In short, the magistrate who can claim the subjection here enjoined is no idler; he acts, even in this, the most trying department of his office; for
(3.) “He is the minister of God.” So Paul has already, in the first clause of this verse, styled the magistrate, but in a different connection —in a different aspect of his functions. Then he considered him as engaged in ministering to the welfare of the good and honest, particularly Christian citizens —here as the minister of God in another aspect, and yet not in any materially different sense. God is good. He is a beneficial sovereign. He has established institutions among men for the good of man; and committed their administration to the hands of men. So far as they come up to the standards, these institutions,
in their actual operation, exercise a salutary influence over all who subject themselves to their sway and direction. But God is also just —a righteous law-giver. The divine government gives no countenance of sin: it is ever against it. And, hence, the Most High has invested all his institutions with some degree of restraining power; and has given them laws by which they are to be guided in the disciplinary or punitive department of their functions. In this sense, parents are “ministers of God,” in the training of their children —church officers in the exercise of discipline, and, now, we add, civil rulers in the inflictions of penal law. “Servants of God;” for they act by his authority, and are limited and directed by his supreme and sovereign enactments.
But why does Paul introduce this here? Partly to justify the penal administration of law, partly to gain due respect for the magistrate in this responsible and difficult part of his magistratical calling, and partly to confirm the preceding statement, that the magistracy of which he treats will not allow the wicked to pass unnoticed and unrebuked. How can he be, “for he is the minister of God” for good to man. He is also
(4.) “A revenger —to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” —a revenger, or more
properly, an “avenger:” for the vindication of law, in its excellence, authority and obligation, is not “revenge,” in the sense commonly affixed to that term. Nor does the word properly import this. When Paul speaks of the magistrate as an “avenger,” it is in view of the fact that the end of penal sanctions is eminently vindicatory. In this, the civil magistrate is the “minister of God” to whom “vengeance belongs” in its highest and most ample sense —for “He will repay.” He has, however, invested the magistrate with a portion, so to speak —a small portion, indeed —of His own ineffable supremacy and power, that he may employ it as His “servant” in the maintenance of the high claims of equity, truth, peace, and purity in the commonwealth; and, that, if called for, he may present before the eyes of the subject or the citizen, examples of the inflexible demands of that law which is “holy” and “just” as well as “good.”
If these views be correct, it appears to follow very plainly, that the “wrath” which the magistrate administers implies no passion of resentment in the mind of the ruler. This need have no place —in all ordinary cases ought to have none. Remembering the ultimate source of his power, the God-fearing judge or executive officer will calmly, and with no desire of personal vengeance,
apply to offenders the punishment which their crimes have merited.
The sum of this entire section is —that such magistrates as Paul here means will not be remiss, either in protecting, and fostering the good, or in punishing the bad. They may not, they will not, be perfect. Parents, the best, are not. Ecclesiastical rulers are not. Neither can we look for perfection in civil functionaries. But at these objects good rulers will aim.
1. It is evident that the Apostle enjoins subjection only to such governments as answer the ends of the institution of magistracy. Great injustice is done to this passage by regarding it in any other way than as a whole. Separate the first and second verses from the context, and they seem to inculcate a blind and complete submission to any authority that may happen to exist. Study the entire passage, and we learn just the contrary. —That the constitution and laws and magistrates here meant by the “higher” powers, are such as have for their object the well-being of society, and the glory of God, appears from the connection between the clauses we have now sought to explain, and the Apostle’s injunction to obedience. “Be subject —
for rulers are not a terror,” &c. Otherwise, we must
lay to Paul’s charge, and to the charge of the Spirit, by whom he was directed,
the singular assertion, that every government that can possibly exist is “a
praise to them that do well,” as
of their institution, and the sole business of their office, much less of princes who make an express contract with their people, and solemn oaths to preserve their rights and liberties, and afterwards break through all these ties to invade their happiness. Nor doth he mention anything of a passive submission in such cases; but plainly leaves nations to the dictates of common sense and the powerful law of self-preservation; and this under all forms of government equally.” “That governor who contradicts the character here laid down by Paul, who is not a terror to evil works, but to good; who is not a minister of good to the virtuous, but of vengeance to the wicked only; and who is not continually watching for the good and happiness of human society, is not the governor whom Paul means in this place, or to whom he here presseth obedience. Can anyone deny that governors are thus described in this place? or that those governors, which are here described, are the governors whom Paul here means? or that this description of his is the argument from whence he presseth subjection in point of conscience? and doth it not follow manifestly from hence, that the governor who contradicts all this description is not the governor here described, and, consequently, not the governor to whom he here presseth obedience? Had it been
Paul’s design to press obedience to the greatest tyrants and oppressors; or had he had in his eye any particular emperor, who was a monster, not only of villainy, but of public oppression (as some represent his sense;) nothing can be imagined more unaccountable than that he should give such a description of governors as to exclude those whom there was most occasion to mention, and that he should reason Christians into a conscientious subjection in such a manner, as cannot conclude for subjection to any but such governors as he describes in the foregoing words, and as come up to that sense of them in which they should be understood. And if anyone can prove that it is possible he should intend by governors those who are continually attending to the good of their subjects, not only such but also governors who are continually attending and watching to make their subjects miserable; and if anyone can show me the conclusiveness of this argument, rulers are by their office obliged to be a terror to evil works, and not to the good; therefore you are obliged in conscience to submit to them, when they are a terror to good works; then I will retract this sentence.”*
*Hoadly, pp. 9, 21, 22. It is but just to state that Hoadly does not directly extend the “good works” and the “evil” so far as we have done. With this exception, his exposition agrees with ours. As to the above principle, he goes as far as we do, utterly denying that the mere existence of a government entitles it to obedience.
2. Civil government should extend it protection to every class, and particularly to the more feeble. It should be a “praise” to all that do well —a terror to all that do ill. Indeed, nothing can be more certain than that the defense of the poor, of the weak, was one chief object in ordaining civil authority. Surely, it was never contemplated in the divine arrangements in reference to the exercise of civil rule, that it should become, in his name, the instrument of establishing and protecting violence and wrong —in defending the strong in their avaricious, cruel oppression of the destitute and the helpless. That civil rulers can prevent all wrong, we are far from affirming —but this they should aim at. If they do the reverse —if they throw their shield over him who deprives his fellow of his rights and liberties, or spoils him of his property —in short, if they sanction such systems as those of serfage and slavery, or even of political oppression, they are not the rulers here designated. And more than this, and still more plainly, if a government deliberately incorporate, among the principles of its constitution, such wrongs, how can
it be the ordinance of God for good —or its rulers “ministers of God for good,” as Paul here so emphatically styles them? The victims of the wrong may be few comparatively, —they may belong to despised races, but no matter —the government that gives its sanction, knowingly, to injustice —that tolerates so heinous a sin and crime, cannot claim a place among those here meant. It may be free, in other respects —it may allow unlimited scope to the plans and efforts of the favored class; it may be endowed with many attractive features; but if it be the patron of the enslavers of men —if they are crowned with its honors, while the subjects of their ambition, pride, avarice or cruelty, are cast out of the pale of law —and is not this the case even in this land? —such a government stands here condemned.
many, at least, of the existing governments of the world, have no claim to
conscientious acknowledgment. Try
power against everything good. It permits industry and common honesty, and will restrain the robber and the cheat. But, on the other hand, does it not forbid the free circulation of the scriptures? Does it not discountenance and prove itself “a terror” to pure religion? Does it not exert a power, professedly from God, to prevent the diffusion of genuine Christianity? As all know, this iniquitous government lays its hand upon education, upon the church, upon the Bible; it banishes missionaries, it builds up its highest barriers against efforts to bring it millions of ignorant and deluded subjects to the knowledge of “the truth as it is in Jesus.” And, still more, its great aim is to prevent free thought, free speech, and the free circulation of intelligence; and it labors, with all authority, to keep down the masses, and subject them to the control of a corrupt and pampered aristocracy. Were Paul —were Christ himself to appear among them, and teach as they taught, bonds, imprisonment and death would await them. In a word, is it the pious, the devout, the energetic Christian to whom this despotic power becomes “a praise?” Nothing of the kind.
How is it
republic, or empire, for its rejection of Christ, its hatred
of his people, its persecution of the faithful.* And so,
These considerations derive no little weight from the circumstance that is not mere “submission” that is here enjoined —it is active obedience and support. Whatever government Paul means —he demands that it be not merely an outward conformity to its will —but a hearty, conscientious acknowledgment of its claims. Now, surely, the Lord does not demand that we should recognize even these governments as his “ordinance” —give them an active homage, and pay them that reverence that is due to his “ministers!” Do not all the friends of liberty earnestly desire their downfall; and all the Christian friends of liberty pray for it? Paul meant no such government. It is ridiculous to attempt to apply his description to such conspiracies against God and man as the governments we have specified, and similar ones, are. They have no place to stand on in this passage —they are “found wanting” —they cannot claim the conscientious obedience of the subjects —they, enemies
*The present government is no exception. Protestants are not, indeed, put to death, but they are discountenanced, and the circulation of the Scriptures restrained.
of God and of man, can impress no sanction, which God will recognize, upon their enactments.
4. Civil government is instituted for the promotion of moral, as well as social order, among men. That one, and a leading end of civil government, is to guard the rights of the people; in other words, that it is designed, not for the rulers, but the ruled, none will, probably, be now disposed to question. It is not so generally admitted —by many it is expressly denied— that this institution of God has anything to do directly with morals or religion. Few are willing, indeed, to go so far as to dispute the existence of, at least, an indirect power in society to cherish the interests of morality —and, perhaps, it would be admitted that religion should receive more countenance than irreligion. But this passage proves more than this. It proves —we think it demonstrates— that there is a direct and specific obligation lying upon civil rulers to have an eye to everything that goes to promote the glory of God, the fountain of all power, and the author of civil rule. They are not only to refrain from everything that would interfere with pure religion and scriptural morality, but to promote well doing —to be “a praise to them that do well;” and “a terror” to all evil doers. Nor can it be fairly objected that this would issue
in persecution. It is to be remembered that the law of God is their rule, and that, in the exercise of their power, they must be limited by its prescriptions. Unless that law warrants persecution rulers cannot persecute; and, besides, it remains with the objector to show how the patronage of true religion, and the restrain of that which is dishonoring to God and hurtful to his kingdom, can be demonstrated persecution.
5. Civil rulers are under imperative obligations to recognize the divine supremacy, and that in their official character. Paul here styles them the “ministers of God” —God’s servants. The servant should know his master even among men. And still more should he who professes to wield an authority derived from God, in administering an “ordinance of God,” acknowledge, reverence and give due homage to his sovereign. This acknowledgement should be practical. It does not consist in a mere profession of belief in His being, or even in His providence. It implies the study of His will, and a constant aim and effort to please Him. The ruler, or the nation, that claims to be above all other authority, demanding an unquestioning obedience to mere human law —that denies the existence of a “higher law,” is in rebellion against God —is not a “servant,” in Paul’s sense. And
more than this, the acknowledgment must be direct, and in express terms —it must be an acknowledgment —among enlightened people— of the supremacy of the Most High; of his laws, as the Scriptures teach them. Further, still, this acknowledgment must be rendered, not to the God of the deist —but to the only true God —the Christian’s God —to God in Christ.
Does the refusal to acknowledge God invalidate the authority of a government as tyranny does? Why not? Surely, if God has ordained this institution for his glory —if he has put it under his law —if he has designed to exhibit in it something of his majesty, (“I said that ye are gods;” Psalm 82) it is difficult to see how a government that denies their maker and Lord of all —or withholds from him, from his law, and from his Son, even an acknowledgment, can claim his sanction upon its acts? Surely, God does not threaten with “damnation” those who refuse to bow their consciences before his enemies!*
6. It follows, indisputably, from the whole tenor of verses 3 and 4, that civil rulers should be God-fearing men. Every clause demonstrates this. If a ruler should be a “terror” to evil works,
*This subject, and kindred ones, will be taken up in a subsequent section.
and a “praise to them that do well” —if the magistrate is “a minister of God” —if he is under law to God in his official doings —if his duties are most onerous and responsible, involving the highest interests and dearest rights of the citizen —if his magistratical acts bear, with no little directness and force, upon the interests of morality and religion, surely, rulers should be men of principle, of integrity, of Christian character. There is, in fact, something monstrous in the idea of committing the administration of an eminent divine institution to the hands of the immoral and irreligious: and, if this be done by the vote of the people, can it be otherwise than offensive to the supreme moral Governor? On this point, also, we have the most explicit testimony of God himself: “Moreover, thou shalt provide out of the people able men —such as fear God— men of truth, hating covetousness.” (Exodus 18: 21) “He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.” (II Samuel 23: 3)
it be objected that these are Old Testament injunctions. The last is a general
statement; equally true —equally obligatory, in all ages. And, though the first
was a law addressed to
God in the matter to which it relates. No reason can be assigned why it should be regarded as now set aside. Surely, the clearer light which the New Testament sheds upon the things of God, does not diminish either the duty or the necessity of appointing to office none but such as may be expected to honor the supreme law and moral Governor —who will pay due regard to the heaven ordained ends, laws and relations of civil government. Moreover, this law is characterized by divine wisdom. How can it be hoped that the immoral or the irreligious will faithfully administer law? Will such men regard their oaths? The safety of the community demands that the power of legislating, and of judging, and of enforcing law, should be kept out of the hands of the personally ungodly and impure. And, finally, there is no little stress to be laid upon the matter of example. We again quote Hoadly: “To all other qualifications there must be joined a blameless example. The reason is, because everything that tends to promote religion and happiness in a society, is the concern of all who have authority in it. Now, it is with those who are to punish vice and protect virtue, just as it is with those who are to teach the practice of virtue, and the abhorrence of vice. It is an observation, easy
and obvious to everybody, that those who are the preachers of righteousness do no great service to the cause; but. perhaps, the contrary, if their examples, unhappily, contradict their precepts. And it is certainly the same with respect to those whose business it is to punish vice. If, whilst they punish it in inferiors, they themselves are known to be guilty of it, the correction, indeed, may make the offender avoid the light; but it will never make him in love with virtue. He will be apt to think he is punished only because he is poor, and not considerable enough to be in office himself; and may be hardened to vice, whilst he sees men making use of their authority in punishing others only, as it were, for a screen to their own greater indulgence.”
7. Government is endowed with the right of inflicting capital punishment. Of the ruler, it has been said, “He beareth the sword,” —an emblematic expression, but importing, also, literally, a power to take life in extreme cases.
8. The infliction of penal sanctions by national authorities is not solely for reformation, but, also, and even primarily, for the vindication of the law. It is not affirmed that the execution of law consists entirely in acts of a punitive character. It would be so, provided government had been established
with no other view than to protect the peaceable citizen. Such a notion is most derogatory to the magistrate and the government. The civil ruler would then be no more than a policeman, and government a system of police. Government has higher functions. It is a “praise” to them that do well. And, hence, it takes an interest in all that promotes a quiet, industrious and moral behavior —it provides for the education of the people —it ought to interest itself in the maintenance of pure religious observations.
But, after all, there will be the lawless and the vicious, who must be encountered and kept in awe by the display of the “terrors” of justice. For such characters, and for such ends, mainly, penal sanctions are annexed to law. They serve, indeed, a useful purpose in the case even of the orderly, for none are perfectly free from disturbing passions —but their main use is to alarm those who can be addressed through no other avenue than their fears. The language of the passage before us is most explicit —the magistrate is a “revenger to execute wrath.” By inflicting penalties, he exhibits the desert of transgression, and shows that law is, indeed, law —that it is no mere nerveless utterance of the supreme power, but a thing of life and of energy. Still, it needs, also, to be
remembered that this vengeance of the law is far from being mere vengeance —it has, even as exercised upon the offender himself, except in the case of capital punishment, a wholesome influence —and, in all cases, it serves as a admonition to others “that they may see, and fear, and do no more wickedly.”