God’s Faithfulness to His People

Today is Reformation Day. Really it is a bit of misnomer, because the reformation of the church is not confined to one day of the year. There is a good reformation principle that the church should remember: semper reformanda. In English this phrase means “always reforming.” This principle teaches that when the church is made aware of sin it must always correct and address it. 

And yet though the church should always be reforming, remembering God’s care during the Protestant Reformation is healthy. This day  commemorates a season of  radical correction in a church that had become increasingly corrupt. And for that reason the church continues to celebrate and remember God’s work among His people.

His patient faithfulness. There is no reason, apart from His perfect plan that God should extend mercy to those who are in the church. All have sinned and fall short of His glory. On Reformation Day the church thanks the Lord for preserving His witness in the world so that His people can be called out of it.

The need for diligent watchfulness. There is no historical era where the church is exempt from corruption and sin. The church is responsible to guard Christ’s teaching and practice. When men corrupt those things, others must stand firm. That is true for the church in the 21st century as well.

So we thank God for His faithfulness and we pray for His strength to serve Him well in preserving the the witness of the church.

Part 3 » The Christian’s Relationship to the Civil Government: the Purpose of Its Power

“This whole discourse is concerning civil government; it is therefore to no purpose that they who would exercise dominion over consciences do hence attempt to establish their sacrilegious tyranny.”[1]

At the beginning of this series, I said this series was intended to help the Christian think through how to relate to the Civil Magistrate, or a national government. The mandates and shut-downs witnessed around the globe, have caused concern among Christians. To know how to rightly move forward requires an examination of the Bible’s teaching on the Civil Magistrate.

This installment examined the source of the government’s power. It showed how Romans 13:1-2 clearly establishes that the authority of the magistrate is derived from God himself. He gives it to whom He pleases. Historically this text has been used to assert the “divine right” of kings and governments. Proponents would say that, because God has given power to the government, its decisions cannot be challenged. But rather than give a carte blanche kind of power to governments, the Bible empowers them to a specific end.

There are some key descriptors about the civil magistrate in Romans 13 that help explain the specifics of their power. In verse 4, the magistrate is twice identified as God’s servant and once as an avenger who carries out God’s wrath. In all three cases the magistrate does not represent itself, but God. Identifying the magistrate as God’s servant gives a specific shape to its authority.

But Romans 13 says even more. By calling the civil magistrate God’s servant, it defines the scope of its work. The government is to be a servant “for your good” (v. 4). The Civil Magistrate is assigned a specific task as a servant of God: to establish what is good. Verse 3 talks about the task of the civil magistrate another way: the government is to be a terror to bad and approve of good conduct. Since the fall that kind of government has been necessary. Genesis 3 records Adam’s fall into sin, and the next account in Genesis 4 is of Cain slaying his brother Abel. From the moment of man’s corruption the world has needed protection from evildoers. Romans 13:3-4 identifies that task as the unique end to which God has empowered the government. The job of the civil magistrate is to approve the good and be a terror, or a deterrent, to the evil. The Westminster Confession of Faith says it this way:

“God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates, to be, under him, over the people, for his own glory, and the public good.” (WCF 23.1)

In the Bible, the task of the government is defined using theological terms. The magistrate is to approve the good, and be a terror to the bad. These words are theological terms. The government, or anyone, can only determine how to define “good” and “evil” by looking at the moral law. That means the Civil Magistrate has been empowered to affirm what agrees with God’s definition and to be a terror to what does not. God is the only one who can define what is good or evil regardless of whether His creation agrees.

The civil magistrate is a servant. Servants do not define their own tasks. The master sets the parameters and the servant does what the master wishes. If a master instructs a servant to have a hamburger ready for him at 5:30 p.m., and the servant brings a box of crackers at 8 p.m. instead, there will be trouble for the servant. And this is the point at which things get complicated. In our society, the government is doing much to make its own definitions. The instructions of the master have been forsaken and the servants are taking over. 1 Cor 6:9-10 defines evil as sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, theft, greed, drunkenness, reviling, and swindling. And yet western governments are promoting such things, not punishing them.

At this point, I can hear the rumblings in the background: Theocracy! People begin imagining a mandatory Christianity with fines for failure to attend church and the civil code for Israel literally applied. However, that is not the objective of this article. It is not an attempt to establish specific policy, but rather to look at responsibility. To what end is the magistrate empowered by God? The government is God’s servant, being constrained to His definition of goodness and evil. When evil is done government is to carry out God’s wrath on the evildoer and is given the sword to do so.

National governments are servants of God. They are either faithful or unfaithful ones, but they have no divine right to do whatever they like. They have a divine master and they must carry out His agenda. The next article will look at whether there are any other limits to the government’s power.

Geoff Gleason is pastor of Cliffwood Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia. His passion is to see the people of God grow in their faith, and those who are lost become numbered among the faithful. He has been married for 28 years and, usually, is the joyful father of 11 children ranging in age from 28 to 6, and two grandsons.

[1] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XIX (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2009), 482.

Part 2 » The Christian’s Relationship with the Government: The Source of Authority

“My travail is that both princes and subjects obey God. Think not, Madam, that wrong is done you, when you are willed to be subject to God.”[1]

There is much to consider when it comes to the power and authority of the government. Especially in western nations, there is consternation among Christians over recent mandates and requirements coming from the civil magistrate. As a result, there has been disagreement in churches and denominations about the extent of authority the magistrate may exercise. And then there is John Knox. Last article he is quoted as advocating for disobedience, even violent opposition to a civil magistrate who exceeds his bounds. In the quote above Knox is speaking to his queen, Mary, Queen of Scots. This time he asserts the limits of her power: she also is to be subject to God. Before there is too much excitement (either positive or negative) about these quotes, there are a series of questions that have to be answered. Before the Christian can affirm or deny Knox’s claims, there must be a clear and biblical understanding of the role and function of government. These questions and their answers make up the substance of this series of articles. The first question to be considered is, “What is the source of the civil government’s power?”

Chapter 23 of the Westminster Confession of Faith deals with government and is entitled “Of the Civil Magistrate”. The biblical texts regarding the establishment of the governing authorities cited in this confession are 1 Peter 2:13-14 and Romans 13:1-4. Reserving consideration only for the latter, in the opening verse of Romans 13 Christians are told “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Christians must allow the significance of those words to sink in. The Bible teaches here that good and bad princes are placed in their positions by God. There is no authority except from God, and those in authority are placed there by Him. Humanly speaking, rulers may assume power in a variety of ways. Monarchies and emperors do so by birth,  nations may conquer through war, deceitful men may claim power through intrigue and betrayal, and in democracies governments are chosen through the voting process. But behind all those secondary human causes sits God’s singular and divine providence. God decrees, and then carries it out by governing all His creatures and all their actions (see Westminster Shorter Catechism #11).

God’s will is done in the world, also in times when evil seems to have the upper hand. That was the case in Joseph’s life and he recognized it as such. In Gen 50:20 he tells his brothers: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” In that moment, Joseph recognizes that things appear differently to man than God. Man only has part of the picture and it can seem like evil will prevail. But God, seeing the entirety of His plan, accomplishes his will through secondary causes. When it comes to the governance of the societies of this world, He uses the civil magistrate. God may work through godly princes, but his plan is also accomplished when the wicked rule. Job understood that all things come from God’s hand: “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Cf. Job 2:10). When Satan entered Judas Iscariot’s heart and convinced him to betray Christ, that evil plan resulted in the final victory over sin and death. Those moments are not accidents which God did not foresee. So God gives authority to all rulers, whether they are good or evil. Recognizing that truth will eliminate the vast majority of calls for civil disobedience.

However, when the Bible says all governing authorities are instituted and appointed by God (Rom. 13:1-2), it is not saying that all authorities behave in a godly manner. It is simply recognizing government receives its status through God’s providence. Their position is God-ordained, regardless of the personal approval of its citizens when it comes to their political decisions or personality when lawfully made. To say all authority is instituted by God is not saying anything about the right direction or proper boundaries to the government’s power. What is the civil magistrate to do? For what purpose to it wield its authority? That is a question for the next article.

[1] John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 279.