Romans 13 Commentary

Paul’s letter to the Romans, Section 5: Day to day Christian life—things to do, Romans 12-16

Romans 13. Authority, godly love, godly behavior, put on armor and Christ


Paul gives the general principle that people are to submit to governing authorities. God has established authorities in life, and his authority in the political sphere works out through the governing power. Paul does not mention exceptions, such as if a law is contrary to Scripture or to the Constitution of a nation or to the accepted common law. The established authority is directed to promote good and to punish evil. Paul gives two reasons for why we submit to governing authorities: fear of punishment if one disobeys, and to motivate correct submission by appealing to conscience. Taxes are paid to make it possible for the authority to punish evil and promote good (Romans 13.1-7). Along with owing submission to governing powers, believers owe love to one another. Love fulfills God’s moral standard for the way people are to treat one another (Romans 13.8-10). Paul then makes a logical and expected conclusion to his instructions about political authority and love. Since our anticipated salvation is closer than it was when we believed, we should behave properly—we are people of light, not darkness. To do this we need to put on the character of the Lord Jesus Christ, and not allow our flesh to dominate us (Romans 13.11-14).


Romans Main Lessons to Remember

Romans 13, Authority, godly love, godly behavior, put on armor and Christ

  1. Romans 13:1-7. God delegates authority to certain people and God designed this authority to punish evil doers and promote good. Rulers and people
  2. Romans 13:8-10. Believers owe love to each other and those who love do no harm and also fulfill God’s moral standard to each other. Individual
  3. Romans 13:11-14. Our anticipated salvation is closer than it was when we believed and we should behave properly by putting on the character of our Lord Jesus Christ.


  1. Romans 13:1-7. God delegates authority to certain people and God designed this authority to punish evil doers and promote good. This passage deals with the principle of governmental authority. It does not address exceptions, though Paul would agree with Peter (Acts 4.19-20; 5.29) and Jesus (Mark 12.17). There are two main understandings of this passage.
    • Passive acceptance of all authority except when against the Bible statements. One interprets this as no resistance to the governing authorities. When the government is bad, when rights are removed, when liberty is trampled on the Christians can speak out but raise no force against the governing authorities. They apply Romans 8.28. They speak out or emigrate if they can.
    • General principle to punish evil and promote good. The second interpretation is that Paul is speaking of the general principle without the possible exceptions. The church should not lead in a revolt. But when the governing authorities no longer punish the bad and reward the good behavior, believers can speak out and even join in revolt. Both Romans 13.1-4 and 1 Peter 2.13-14 say that authority is to punish the bad and praise the good. When this does not happen what do you do?
    • Now the question, what is the governing authority? In the USA that is the US Constitution. The President takes an oath to uphold it.
    1. Romans 13.1. ἐξουσίαις ὑπερεχούσαις refers to the governing authorities in the empire. See 1 Peter 2.13 for Peter’s similar comments. God has established authority for the benefit of creation. Authority is built into creation. All authority comes from God. See Mark 12.17 for the authority of God and authority delegated to people. Divine institutions and laws for civilization are examples of God established authority for mankind. In Romans 13 human authority is in mind. Henry Alford wrote, “It, in all matters lawful, we are bound to obey. But even the parental power does not extend to things unlawful. If the civil power commands us to violate the law of God, we must obey God before man. If it commands us to disobey the common laws of humanity, or the sacred institutions of our country, our obedience is due to the higher and more general law, rather than to the lower and particular. These distinctions must be drawn by the wisdom granted to Christians in the varying circumstances of human affairs: they are all only subordinate portions of the great duty of obedience to law. To obtain, by lawful means, the removal or alteration of an unjust or unreasonable law, is another part of this duty: for all authorities among men must be in accord with the highest authority, the moral sense. But even where law is hard and unreasonable, not disobedience, but legitimate protest, is the duty of the Christian.” (Alford, Henry. Alford’s Greek Testament: An Exegetical and Critical Commentary. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Guardian Press, 1976. Print) (2.26.17)
    2. Romans 13.2. We are not to resist duly designated authority. The state does not possess absolute authority. FF Bruce has said that the state must be resisted when it demands allegiance due God. There is judgment, probably by the government authority, to those who oppose rightful authority. Paul wrote before the Neronian persecutions. Had he written after, he would have written the same, but may have given more details on exceptions. Paul does not command

passive obedience to everything the state says or does. The authority is given for order in the state but there are limits. See Mark 12.17 and Acts 4.19-20; 5.29; Exodus 1.15-22. See more quotes in Romans appendix.

    1. Romans 13.3. τῷ ἀγαθῷ ἔργῳ ἀλλὰ τῷ κακῷ. The normal case is that rulers do not punish good behavior. They punish bad behavior, called evil (κακός social and moral evil). This is not sin in general, but violations of the order the ruler or magistrate is to administer. The magistrates are to punish illegal immoral behavior. To do what is good refers to the moral good. The general rule is that the authority, if a moral authority, will commend those who do the moral good.
    2. Romans 13.4. The authority, here a ruler or a law, is God’s minister or servant for good. The word minister is διάκονος, a servant, agent, assistant, intermediary, messenger, courier. It is also our word deacon. It is used for servants of Christ (2 Corinthians 6.4; Ephesians 3.7; 6.21; 1 Timothy 4.6 and many others). Note that the ruler is God’s servant. He must Answer to God, whether he thinks so or not. He is to carry out God’s will. He is not free to do anything he wants. And he is the servant to you, for the benefit of the audience of this book. For good indicates his purpose. There are different options for meaning, but this best understanding is that the ruler is God’s servant so that those under his authority may do good, that is serve God (ἀγαθός agathos). See Romans 13.3 in context; also 1 Timothy 2.2.5.
    3. Romans 13.5. Paul gives two reasons for subjection to ruling authority: wrath which is fear of punishment from the authority, and one’s conscience. Law breakers face arrest and fine and punishment. The conscience is the rule book which tells you right and wrong. See doctrine of conscience.
      • The conscience is the place where standards of right and wrong are stored in a person’s soul and spirit. The word is συνειδησις suneidesis (Strong #4893). The idea is knowledge with oneself. Paul, in Acts 23:1; 24:16 and Romans 9:1; 13.5, illustrates the value of a conscience. Romans 1:19; 2:1,14-15 indicates the conscience is a basis for God’s judgment.
      • The conscience operates on what it is aware of and so needs to be educated. Spiritual growth builds the conscience. (1 Cor 10.25; 1 Tim 1.5).
      • The conscience provides the standard for right and wrong thinking and acting. It feeds the thinking (Rom 2.15; 9.1; 13.5; 2 Cor 1.12; 1 Pet 3.16).
    4. Romans 13.6. Since rulers are God’s servants (λειτουργός, administrative or religious servant) they need to be paid to carry out their job. Taxes are the payment to run the government. Taxes φόρος, the tribute a subject people pay to a conqueror, even a rent (Luke 20.22; 23.2).
    5. Romans 13.7. Taxes φόρος, Custom (τέλος) Toll tax, an indirect tax, fear (φόβος), honor (τιμή). Respect authority and pay for it.
  1. Romans 13:8-10. Believers owe love to each other and those who love do no harm and also fulfill God’s moral standard to each other.
    1. Romans 13.8. Believers owe love to each other. Love is ἀγαπάω, pres act impv 2pl. This is godly love. This is not primarily addressing money matters. It is not saying cut up you credit cards. The point is that we owe love to all believers. See Matthew 22.36-40. *Note on interest and usury. The OT law prohibited charging interest on loans to Israelites. They could charge interest to Gentiles (Exodus 22.25; Deuteronomy 23.19-20; Leviticus 25.35; Ezekiel 18.8; Psalm 15.5; Nehemiah 5.1-13). Jesus in parable said that charging fair interest in good. Your money works for you. It is not clear that this is in reference to charging Gentiles or Israelites, but is probably to Gentiles (Matthew 25.27; Luke 19.23). Also note that John Calvin reversed the stigma against charging interest when it was a good and fair investment. To him money was put to work. Previously the Roman Catholic church prohibited charging interest.
    2. Romans 13.9. Paul illustrates from the Old Testament Law: adultery, murder, stealing, coveting. These acts are sin, not love. We are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. See Leviticus 19.18, Matthew 22.36-40. The passages that quote Lev 19.18 all refer to the Mosaic Law (Mt 19.18-19; 22.39; Mk 12.29-34; Lk 10.25-37; Rom 13.9-10; Gal 5.14; Jms 2.8-11; Matthew 5.43 is partial quote or allusion). The Law of Moses is the broad background and frame of reference for the NT commands. The Mosaic Law states how Israel, the priest nation, should live with God and people. The ML commands legal justice so that the nation can live in freedom and responsibility to fulfill her national priesthood. The fact that you do not rob your neighbor, or commit adultery, or murder, or covet means that others are protected from your interference in their freedom and legal rights. When they are protected they are free to carry out their God given responsibility.
    3. Romans 13.10. Love summarizes and fulfills the law.
  2. Romans 13:11-14. Our anticipated salvation is closer than it was when we believed and we should behave properly by putting on the character of our Lord Jesus Christ.

11 Καὶ τοῦτο εἰδότες τὸν καιρόν, ὅτι ὥρα ⸂ἤδη ὑμᾶς⸃ ἐξ ὕπνου ἐγερθῆναι, νῦν γὰρ ἐγγύτερον ἡμῶν ἡ σωτηρία ἢ ὅτε ἐπιστεύσαμεν. 12 ἡ νὺξ προέκοψεν, ἡ δὲ ἡμέρα ἤγγικεν. ⸀ἀποθώμεθα οὖν τὰ ἔργα τοῦ σκότους, ⸂ἐνδυσώμεθα [δὲ]⸃ τὰ ⸁ὅπλα τοῦ φωτός*. 13 ὡς ἐν ἡμέρᾳ εὐσχημόνως περιπατήσωμεν*, μὴ κώμοις καὶ μέθαις, μὴ κοίταις καὶ ἀσελγείαις, μὴ ⸂ἔριδι καὶ ζήλῳ⸃*, 14 ἀλλʼ ἐνδύσασθε ⸂τὸν κύριον Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν⸃ καὶ τῆς σαρκὸς πρόνοιαν μὴ ποιεῖσθε ⸄εἰς ἐπιθυμίας.

    1. Romans 13.11. Spiritual wake up because the time of Christ’s return (our salvation) is near. Some are spiritually asleep. Wake up and live the Christian life. Why, because we know that our salvation is now nearer (Phil. 3:20; 1 Thess. 5:6; 1 Cor. 15:34). Spiritual wakeup. See 1 Thessalonians 5.6-11 for spiritual wakeup. Since we wake up in daylight we need to be alert.Daylight is the time to be awake, alert, and active and you believers are a part of God’s kingdom of spiritual light (not a part of Satan’s kingdom of spiritual darkness) stay spiritually awake, alert, and active while you can.
    2. Romans 13.12. Night refers to the time of Satan’s kingdom and day is the nearness of Christ’ s return. Charges them to put off sin, and put on God’s armor. The verbs are to put off clothes and put on clothes. Both verbs are aorist middle subjunctive 1 pl. See Ephesians 5.11-14; 6.10-20. Deeds of darkness refers to Satan, his kingdom, and sin (1 Corinthians 4.5; 2 Corinthians 4.6; 6.14; Ephesians 5.8, 11; 6.12; Colossians 1.13; 1 Thessalonians 5.4-5; 2 Peter 2.4; 1 John 1.5-6; 2.8,9,11). Sin in the Bible is associated with darkness (John 3.19 and others).
    3. Romans 13.13. How to live, aorist act subjunctive. How not to live. Paul gives a list of sins.
    4. Romans 13.14. Put on, ἐνδύω aor midd impv 2 pl. To put on clothes, the overall command. Make is present middle imperative for the working out of the results. To put on the Lord Jesus Christ is to put on his character. See Galatians 4.19; Ephesians 4.13-14; 2 Peter 1.4.
  1. Summary
    1. God is the ultimate authority and source of authority. He sets up authorities and removes authority. This does not mean God wants each each ruler. He allows.
    2. Rulers serve God and are to promote good and punish evil.
    3. We owe godly love to all Christians and even non-believers.
    4. We are to gain Christ likeness.

Romans Main Lessons to Remember

Romans 13, Authority, godly love, godly behavior, put on armor and Christ

  1. God designed the principle of authority for the benefit of creation. Every authority governs by God’s placement or permission. This passage sets the principle of submission to authority, and omits exceptions. We are to obey governing authorities. But if there is a conflict between human authority and God’s authority, Peter and others said that we must obey God rather than man (Exodus 1.15-22; Daniel 3.8-18; 6.1-28; Acts 4.19-20; 5.27-29; Romans 13.1-2).
  2. Romans 13 gives three fundamental statements about authority: 1. The ruling authority is God’s servant, whether the ruler recognizes it or not; 2. The governing authority is supposed to punish evil behavior and promote good behavior; 3. We obey rightful authority because it is the right thing to do (conscience sake) and because disobedience can bring punishment (brings wrath, Romans 13.3-5).
  3. Jesus taught that there are two areas of obligation—to God and to Caesar (Matthew 22.15-22; Mark 12.13-17; Luke 20.19-26). We owe obedience and taxes to “Caesar.” God wants us to pay taxes because taxes pay the governing authorities to work. We owe godly love to our neighbor because godly love to our neighbor fulfills God’s moral laws for society which protect and bless society, and reflects God’s love to people (Romans 13.6-10).
  4. The return of Jesus Christ for his church and then to finalize human history is now closer than when we believed the gospel. Therefore, Paul emphasizes six things to do: wake up to Christian living, put off sinful deeds and habits, put on the spiritual armor for protection, behave properly, put on the character of the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not put yourself in situations where you might sin. We can summarize all six as keep spiritually alert and become more Christ-like (Romans 13.11-14).

Select doctrines

  1. Authority
  2. Godly love
  3. Love neighbor as yourself
  4. Spiritual growth
  5. Spiritual maturity