“To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his own blood and made us a kingdom and priests to God his Father—to him be the glory and the power forever. Amen! Look, he is coming with clouds, and every eye will see him, including those who pierced him. And all the nations of the earth will mourn because of him.” But “Grace to you and peace from him who is, who was, and who is coming…from Jesus Christ…the ruler of the kings of the earth.” (Rev 1:4-7)
Such is John’s way of speaking in Revelation. Such is the case with Christ – he is the king, ruler of all; his reign a governance of grace, a kingdom abounding with undeserved love to sinners; that will be realized as all-mighty, majestic, just and true. But he is a king of this kind – one previously pierced, crowned with thorns, who waged war against sin and devil and the death both bring. And not the blood of armies or servants, of sacrifice, nor even saints – not by these did he free us, but by shedding his own blood in death. And by him we know: “This is love- not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” A love so great that we’ve heard Paul say, “What will separate us from the love of Christ?” Trouble? Persecution? Danger? “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Christ reigns and “nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God” under his rule. (Ro 8:35-38)
For you, the citizens of the kingdom of God’s grace, this is the rarified air, the heights and promise of Christ’s glory, the promontory for your outlook of hope. And it is exactly for people who are in this world, citizens of other kingdoms, whether of China or America, Wisconsin or New York, Jainsville or Brookfield … The confidence of Christ’s glorious reign speaks to his own who are citizens here and it says, “Pay your taxes…” on-time and in full.
That’s Romans 13. God’s grace in Christ is out of this world, but Paul writes to you who are in it. And in ch.12 he’s just said, we are not “to conform to the pattern of this world, but [to] be transformed” (Ro 12:2) to know and do God’s will. Which Paul gives to us, servants of Christ who are citizens here. He tells us How To Be A Citizen of Two Kingdoms.
It’s simple, actually. In America, by way of rights and freedoms and history, perhaps we think of our relation to government as fairly complex, nuanced, tiered… But it’s not, really. Paul’s rather straightforward. Look at what he says in v.1 – “Everyone must…” – a blanket statement, universal, but especially you and me the believers; “Everyone must submit themselves…” We should read a willingness there. Born out of the love and transformation in which we reveled in ch.12 – by faith and seeking to do God’s will, we recognize that it’s right to arrange ourselves under those in authority; we submit to them. And who are they? The governing authorities here are those we elect: our mayor or governor or president of whichever party of whatever faith they be, the police officer who pulls us over and writes a ticket, the county clerk who demands payment for records, and many others. No matter, really, because Paul laser-focuses on one thing: they’re “God-established”. And in v.2 he calls them – whoever they are, whichever country of the world, at whatever time in history – the ones “God has instituted” and “God’s servants”. To be super-clear and rather universal, Paul says, “there is no authority except that which God has established.” Which reflects the truth we rely on and trust, that God is governing and guiding world history, here: he does it through government.
And we should acknowledge – as children of our time and place – what a blessing this has been for us. Government “is God’s servant to do you good.” God’s servant to pursue what is right in God’s sight. And that we’ve seen, generally, haven’t we? Haven’t we seen roads we can drive and regulations that guide businesses, rules that deter crime and police forces that keep the peace? In fact, in the main, it’s been pretty easy, hasn’t it, to respect authority, to submit to government, to see it’s good for us? Haven’t we experienced just what Paul prayed for with Timothy, that by kings and presidents and mayors, “we [have lived] quiet and peaceful [lives] in all godliness and dignity”? I think so. Generally, we have not feared, we have enjoyed. What thanks we owe our God for this!
We don’t always give thanks for it though. When we speak of government there is the weight of authority that our sinful natures despise even when it’s exercised well. Sometimes we see it all as burden – a tax we don’t want to pay for a program we don’t like; or a speed limit that’s too limiting for our limited time; or a person whose politics we’re tempted to despise. And perhaps we don’t pay or we speed or we speak ill of them. Perhaps we justify it by our freedoms here. But sin isn’t justified in God’s sight. He says, “he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” And I don’t think he just means jail for rioters or fines for tax evasion. He means punishment for sin and the danger of hell-fire for guilt unpaid in unbelieving hearts. For any kind of disrespect that stems from fear, for words online that tempt rebellion if things don’t go our way, for hate and selfishness that defies authority, we must repent.
And we have every reason and encouragement so to do! Here in Romans we have been given the confidence of the love of God in Christ, that he has paid the world’s sin-guilt, won a not-guilty verdict – it is a fact. And it is yours by faith. Jesus’ rule declares that your sins, they are forgiven; that you are members of his kingdom of grace and are free and clear to serve in ways that glorify God. We serve in this kingdom by paying what we owe – taxes, or revenue, or respect, or honor – to each as God has ordained and because God has ordained them. And we trust God’s ordination.
While we submit to government and generally obey, our trust in God and allegiance to his Word means that we cannot obey if we are commanded to break God’s commands. That may mean like Daniel of old we face the lion’s teeth, or with Shadrach and Co. we stand in the flames of persecution, or with Paul we face the sword of state punishment – and be delivered or die. Or like saints throughout the ages, we might have to flee to where God’s will can be done. In good times or bad, no matter, our trust is that the almighty ruler who loves us will exercise his authority, rule this world, and bring judgment against sin, finally. We, friends, submit to the authority of governors or princes or police, but our trust ultimately is that God’s authority reigns. When our hearts worry, the justice of God that has brought us his love, is our comfort.
And perhaps especially for times like these… I remember weeks ago when I went to vote in the primaries. I got to the door and saw a sign, “Under the order of the governor, masks are to be worn inside buildings at all times.” Six feet away on the inner door of the vestibule I found another, “By state law, masks are not required to vote.” It’s a strange time, isn’t it? This week the Attorney General of the US said he might pursue criminal charges against a mayor of a major city for her actions. Friday a Supreme Court justice died and probably will be replaced. Shortly we’ll have a presidential election – seems one of the most contested and divisive we’ve ever seen. Surely we each have strident thoughts, fears, hopes. We might disagree about what is right even. It’s a time of controversy. Certainly, we pay what we owe so that there isn’t anything left wrongly undone – tax, obedience, respect, honor. But perhaps Paul has the transition just right into vv.8-10 – to leave us thinking about what is most important and absolutely agreeable. That, while we seek to faithfully live and leave no obligations left unfulfilled, we recognize that for this controversial and crazy life with one another we have an ongoing debt that we’ll be paying until Jesus comes back…
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another…” Paul’s not saying, “Don’t have a mortgage.” Paul’s saying, “Keep those obligations you’re called to keep…don’t leave ‘em owing. Because you’re already in debt… a debt you’ll never repay, a responsibility that needs no complications.” Do you remember how you were bought at a price to be God’s own? Bought with the blood of God’s Son? Alive because of his death? It set you free. As though you were gifted a multi-million dollar beachside estate. You could never buy it yourself. You can’t really pay it back because you owe nothing – it’s all been paid; and yet, in another, you owe everything for where you are to the one who gave it. You aren’t intended to pay back God’s saving love – you cannot. But you are called to stand within its beautiful boundaries and marvel at what God has made and to love what he loves so that others might too. For such a time as this when there are so many complications, let this be the only debt you keep on paying – to love – in purity that gives confidence with one another, in selflessness that offers what others need, in contentment with God’s good gifts, in kind words typed and spoken, born of good assumptions about friends and neighbors and enemies too. Fulfill, pay back, keep on…with one another, just as you have been, just as you would be… love.
It turns out, then, that being a citizen of two kingdoms is as simple as this: what you receive in the one, you give in the other. May God bless your citizenships in his kingdom of grace as you submit to those who govern – to pay what you owe out of the riches you have received from the king of all things. To Jesus Christ our Lord who loves us be glory and honor as we love one another.