A Commentary by John Stott
Paul makes it clear that the state’s authority is with a view to its ministry, Indeed, just as he has affirmed three times that the state has authority from God, so now he affirms three times that it has a ministry from God.
1). *For he is God’s servant to do you good* (4a).
2). *He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath, to bring punishment…* (4c).
3). *The authorities are God’s servants…*(6).
These are significant statements. If we are seeking to develop a balanced biblical understanding of the state, central to it will be the truths that the state’s authority and ministry are both given to it by God. Moreover, in writing about the ministry of the state, Paul twice uses the very same word which he has used elsewhere of the ministers of the church, namely *diakonoi* (although the third time he uses *leitourgoi*, a term which usually means ‘priests’ but could mean ‘public servants’). We have already had occasion to note, when considering the gifts of the Spirit, that *diakonia* is a generic term which can embrace a wide variety of ministries. Those who serve the state as legislators, civil servants, magistrates, police, social workers or tax-collectors are just as much ‘ministers of God’ as those who serve the church as pastors, teachers, evangelists or administrators.
What, then, is the ministry which God has entrusted to the state? It is concerned with good and evil, which is a recurring theme throughout Romans 12 and 13. Paul has already told us to detest what is evil and cling to what is good (12:9), to repay no-one evil for evil but rather to do public good (12:17), and not to be overcome with evil but to overcome evil with good (12:21). Now he depicts the role of the state in relation to good and evil. On the one hand, *do what is right (to agathon*, ‘good’) *and he will commend you* (3b), that is, you will have his approval. *For he is God’s servant to do you good (4a, to agathon* again). On the other hand, *if you do wrong (to kakon*, ‘evil’), *be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer* (the one who practices *to kakon*, ‘evil’. 4b).
Here, then, are the complementary ministries of the state and its accredited representatives. ‘He is God’s servant to do you good’ (4a) and ‘he is God’s servant…to bring punishment on the evildoer’ (4b). The same dual role is expressed in Peter’s first letter, that ‘governors…are sent by him [sc. the Emperor] to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right’ (1 Pet. 2:14). Thus the state’s functions are to promote and reward the good, and to restrain and punish the evil.
The restraint and punishment of evil are universally recognized as primary responsibilities of the state. Indeed (5), *it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment* (literally, ‘on account of God’s wrath’, i.e. in order to avoid it) *but also because of conscience* (i.e. from a conscientious recognition of the state’s God-given role). The apostle says nothing about what kind of sanctions and penalties the state may employ, but he would have almost certainly endorsed the principle of using ‘minimum necessary force’ in order to arrest criminals and bring them to justice. He also writes that the judge *does not bear the sword for nothing* (4). Since the word for ‘sword’ (*machaira*) has occurred earlier in the letter to indicate death (8:35), and since it was used of execution (e.g. Acts 12:2; Rev.13:10), it seems clear that Paul means it here as a symbol of capital punishment. ‘The sword was carried habitually, if not by, then before the higher magistrates, and symbolized the power of life and death which they had in their hands.’ God had justified this to Noah as affirming the unique value of the life of his image-bearers (Gn.9:6). The taking of human life in murder is such a heinous offence that it deserves the forfeiture of the murder’s life. Yet this does not seem to be mandatory, since God himself protected Cain, the first murderer, from being killed (Gn.4:13ff.). Because of its finality, the risk of an innocent person being executed in error, and the termination of the opportunity to respond to the gospel, many Christians believe that, at least whenever there are mitigating circumstances or any uncertainty, the death penalty should be commuted to a life sentence. Yet I think the state should retain its right to use ‘the sword’, in order to bear witness both to its solemn God-given authority and to the unique sanctity of human life.
Tomorrow: Romans 13:4-7. 2). The ministry of the state (continued).