For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,
This verse drips with irony. Can you feel it? This is the verse that causes a lot of people to insert Nero into their interpretation. It’s not entirely unwarranted, but at the same time caution is advised lest it be taken too far or we get the cart before the horse. We must be sure to draw out of the text what it plainly says first and then, where it is up to us to extrapolate interpretation and application, we can test our resulting interpretation and application by whether we are consistent concerning Nero, Hitler, Stalin, and the like.
First. What does this verse very clearly state? The following:
- Rulers exist to “terrorize” those who do wrong.
- Rulers do not terrorize good conduct.
- If you are someone who does what is right, you should not have to fear the government, but instead, you should receive his approval.
This verse always makes me laugh when a statist tries to tell me that Romans 13 doesn’t give any instructions to the governing authorities. “It’s only instructions to Christians,” they say. Um…. Have you read verse 3? (and 4, but we’ll get to that later).
This verse gives a clear statement of what the government ought to be. They ought to “terrorize” those who do wrong, and not terrorize those who do good.
We have several questions that begin to open up room for interpretation. What does “terror/terrorize” mean? What do “good conduct” and “bad” mean? What does approval mean?
Good/Bad Conduct. ἀγαθῷ and κακά are boolean polar opposites. Notice, however, that Paul uses κακά for evil and not αμαρτία, which is the word for sin. For this reason, I reject theonomy. The magistrate does not have the authority to enforce the full scope of God’s law. Nevertheless, I am theonomic in my approach here in the sense that I believe it *is* God’s standard that the governing authority is to enforce. So what is God’s standard good and evil in the context of civil law? Genesis 9:6 gives us the founding principle. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” This, extrapolated out to cover lesser offenses as well (Lex Talionis – Exodus 21-22), shows us that civil government is concerned with those evil acts which harm a victim. We will see more about this in verse 4. κακά refers to criminal acts and manner of life that harm victims. ἀγαθῷ would, therefore, be criminal acts and manner of life that live peacefully with victims. This is the non-aggression principle. Anyone who violates his neighbor’s life, liberty or property, is committing κακά. Anyone who refrains from this, living peacefully with his neighbor instead, commits ἀγαθῷ.
Terror/Approval. These are also presented as boolean polar opposites. Terror is fleshed out in the second half of the verse. Paul asks, “Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority?” Are you afraid of your government? The way good people can live without fear of government is to do ἀγαθῷ. Approval, then, is living in the absence of terror. Anytime the government reviews your behavior, you won’t have to be afraid because you have done right. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, right?
At least that’s the way it’s supposed to be, which brings us to our next question. Why do people always bring up Nero?
Because things in real life don’t seem to line up, right? Nero wasn’t quite the tyrant he would later be at the time Paul wrote Romans, but he was coming! How was the Roman church to interpret a statement like “Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad”
REALLY? Rulers never terrorize good conduct? Rulers always terrorize bad conduct? REALLY?
When Nero burned Christians in the colosseum, was he terrorizing good conduct or bad?
When Hitler gassed Jews and put people like Corrie ten Boom in concentration camps for protecting them, was he terrorizing good conduct or bad?
Was Paul mistaken? Did the Bible get something wrong??????
No, of course not. The Bible is the inspired Word of God who knows all things, always speaks the truth, is not the author of confusion, and is not a man that he should change or err.
So what are we to make of this? Irony. There’s an is/ought tension here. Paul is describing what the governing authority is supposed to be. This does not mean that rulers will never, in their sin, deviate from this standard. Our understanding of the fallen nature of man – of total depravity – should lead us to realize that they are likely to do so in some way or another.
The timing of this is no mistake. You can bet the Holy Spirit knew what was coming down the line, and he had Paul write this to the Christians for a purpose. This was meant to encourage them in their faithfulness even as they were to be subject to Nero. The clear implication is that Nero doesn’t measure up. How are Christians to respond in such a situation? They should do what is good and remember Romans 12:14:21
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Remember Romans 12. It’s not just a coincidence that it serves as the immediate context for Romans 13. Keeping it in mind will be critical as we proceed through the text.
What are we to make of all this? Rulers should be warned. Their authority is a trust from God which they ought to wield according to his standards. If they deviate, they will face judgment. “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way” – Psalm 2:12 “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord”.
Roman Christians could rest assured that even if Nero was a tyrant, he would not forever escape judgment. Indeed, God moved in AD 68 to remove Nero from power and life. Nero will stand before the judgment seat to receive his just reward.
Consider this verse in our context. We live in an era of democracy where people participate in their government. Consider that if, as in the USA, the government is “of by and for the people,”, that we – in a sense – act as the governing authority. This isn’t the Marxist idea that “we are the government,” but rather a recognition that the votes we cast and the politicians we elect have consequences. Laws come forth from our political action. Do our laws terrorize good conduct or bad? Consider this before you step into the ballot box.