Living by Law and Light

I. God has taken vengeance out of our hands as individuals. Just as God takes perfect vengeance in the end according to his perfect knowledge of all things (12:19), so he has established government for vengeance in the present. 13:1-7

A. Verse one institutes our subjection to governmental power, affirms that God is the one behind every manifestation of power, and therefore the government that now rules is, in fact, ordained of God. Paul was not unaware that many governments are evil; he himself would die under the authority of this government. Jesus was crucified under the peculiar policy of Rome and the perverse personality of Pilate (John 18:39, 40; 19:5-16). But he knew his Bible well enough to see how God controlled even the heathen powers of the Old Testament to accomplish his will. They certainly neither knew nor intended their role in God’s plan, but Assyria and Babylon were God’s instruments to accomplish his own purpose. Read Nahum 3 and Habakkuk 1 and 2 to show God’s utter control of nations. Read Psalm 2 also and reflect on Christ’s lordship over all the nations.

B. Verse two: Resistance, therefore, to the ordained power is tantamount to resistance to God. Those that resist will incur judgment.

  1. This means that the government has a right to judge those that resist its laws and that God himself will hold responsible those that take their own authority to be superior to that of God’s ordained power.
  2. In times of great oppression and injustice arising from government, some systems might have within them other magisterial powers that can seek a redress of grievances and lead to a correction of wrong government. This verse, however, seems to leave no room for individual refusal to obey laws, pay taxes, submit to ordained authorities and policies.
  3. Peter’s refusal to obey a command in Acts 4:19 was not precisely a disobedience to the governing authorities, but a rejection of the demands of the Jewish authority structure (Acts 4:5-7. In his answer to them, however, he does establish a principle that would carry across all earthly authority. The government does not have authority to require disobedience to a revealed, universally applicable command of God.

C. Verses three and four: Rulers are established to strike fear and conformity into evil-doers. If one does evil he should fear the government for its task is to maintain order and punish or eliminate those elements of a society that perpetrate evil. According to Paul in 1 Timothy 2, we are to pray for governmental officials, “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” If we do wrong, we should expect the government to take action and punish us. He bears the sword, and he is a servant of God as an avenger carrying out the wrath of God on wrong-doers. In the last chapter we saw how God has reserved wrath to himself. He alone will administer this wrath at the final day of the judgment of all nations. Before that, Paul is crystal clear that government carries out the wrath of God for temporal evil.

D. Verse five – We want to obey the law not only to stay out of trouble but to honor what is right. The principle of obedience to law is reflective of the authority of God over his creatures and is, therefore, consistent with righteousness. Love of righteousness, not only fear of God’s wrath, should lead to obedience. This follows the pattern of salvation. There are many, in fact everyone, who desire to be free of divine wrath and, if aware sensibly of the truth about hell, would want to avoid such infliction as long as possible (Luke 8:31-33). Fear of hell, however, is not the same as evangelical repentance. Fear of hell is involved as a means, but fear and hatred of sin and love of righteousness constitute the saving responses to the gospel. For the Christian, therefore, conscience leads us to obedience, not just the fear of wrath.

E. Verses six and seven: Since the maintenance of order in a fallen world calls for intense observation and pervasive presence, some must give themselves to this full time “attending to this very thing.”

  1. Means of support are therefore necessary and so tribute and taxes are paid in order to support a system that is designed to encourage the good and restrain the evil. In addition, since the status of their position is not determined by their individual worth, but by the worth of safety, stability, and integrity of the whole society over which they govern, we honor them as serving a righteous cause in this fallen world.
  2. As holding these positions of responsibility, they are worthy of respect and honor. If we refuse this, or teach others to do so, we encourage a spirit of rebellion against God himself. We establish our own preferences as the final standard of judgment and of value and dishonor God himself. That officials represent the power of God means that our honor of them is a high duty undiminished by any reservations we might have about the personal capability of any specific individual.


II. The law that never ends and the debt that can never be diminished is love of neighbor. 13:8-10.

A. Paul now gives a command related specifically to Christians but that shows how gracious and benign and universally applicable God’s law is. While taxes may be paid when due and then not due again for a year, one can never discharge the debt of love for each other. There is never a moment when it does not apply and never a person to whom it does not apply. There is never a situation in which it does not apply. This law is natural and unassailable for it extends from the very nature of God having created us as one race, descended from one man, bound up with each other as persons made in the image of God. To love one’s neighbor is to love the power, wisdom, excellence and sovereignty of God in creation. Refusal to love our neighbor in preference for our own ascendancy is to put ourselves above God and his purpose in creation.

B. Just think of how orderly and undisturbed a society would be if we never considered breaking God’s law. The table of the ten commandments that leads to social stability and goodness and joy is the second table. The perpetuity is seen in Paul’s reference to it as still operative for righteousness in human society. If we loved our neighbors as ourselves, never did anything to our neighbor that we would consider an outrage or a violation of personal rights if done to us, and at the same time tried to promote the good and well-being of our neighbors, would there be crime? No, because, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.”

C. Obeying the commandments, therefore, (in particular the commandment to love one’s neighbor) not only is an expectation within the framework of God’s government over us, but is foundational to the laws that give human governments stability and allow us to live fruitful and peaceful lives.

D. Clearly, the Christian knows that the second table gains its relevance from the first table. If one does not acknowledge the existence, uniqueness, and supremacy of God, his incomprehensibility, his infinite holiness and the rightness of worshipping him, then one can hardly have proper respect for one’s neighbor. Government, however, does not have the rights over conscience to enforce a right relationship with God. It does have the authority and obligation, however, to maintain order and even encourage affable unity in society. The second table of the commandments is foundational to all laws and fundamental to a safe, just, and ordered society.


III. Another factor in the Christian’s life should inspire him to live with integrity, honor and righteousness as a means of encouraging goodness in society. We are children of light. Now that Christ has ascended, we are in the dawn of the Day that is to come and thus the traits of that day should overtake our lives. 13:11-14

A. Before conversion we were, as it were, asleep. We had no awareness of the moral light of God and were blind to the principles of righteousness that sustain a relationship between God and man. Now that the gospel has appeared, “the time has come for you to awake from sleep” (11). Now that God has waked us, we must become increasingly aware of all that the light exposes. “You once were darkness but now you are light in the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8). Each day is an advance toward the full dawn of Christ’s return to institute his own personal rule and to bring in “the new heaven and the new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13). That final deliverance from the rule of darkness and the continued presence of sin as a complicating factor in his kingdom will soon come and is nearer every day.

B. As children of light therefore, we should pursue the righteousness that will reign in the day of Christ, so we will not be caught unaware (cf. 2 Peter 3:13, 14). Those works of darkness that characterized our unregenerate state and that make necessary the continued operation of a government whose function is to take vengeance on the evil-doer should be cast aside. Our clothing and our battle vestments are all light. “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. . . . If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:5, 7). Also compare Ephesians 5:11-14. Light makes all things visible, exposes all things, reproves and removes the darkness. It is used metaphorically for the knowledge of revelation and the beauty of divine holiness. Paul tells us therefore, to live in the conscious presence of the knowledge of God and with the firm confidence that he will appear in the brightness of his holiness.

C. Putting on such a garment of knowledge and expectation will have a governing power in itself.

  1. Walking in the light of daytime with the growing consciousness that the day of the Lord speeds toward us with amazing velocity, pushes aside the works of darkness, the violations of his law. “The night is almost gone and the day is near” (12)
  2. That pressing back of the darkness received the energy of absolute certainty at the incarnation of Christ. “The true light who enlightens every man was coming into the world” (John 1:9). Since he is creator and all are made in his image, he enlightens every man. In his redemptive work he sends the Holy Spirit to give life and light. The absolute ignorance of God in our moral disposition now is impossible since Christ has come and has opened our eyes. By laying “aside the deeds of darkness,” we no longer abandon ourselves to the selfish and destructive pursuit of immediate sensual pleasure; nor do we seek personal ascendancy over others. We are awakened from our unconsciousness to divine truth and godliness and made awake to the truth of the gospel.

D. In this awakened state, in putting on “the armor of light,” we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” We embrace his righteousness as our only ground of right standing before God. We put on his death as the only means of forgiveness of sins. We follow his life as the only example of perfect righteousness and supreme love to God. We desire that the Spirit will hasten his work of conforming us to the image of Christ. We are eager that Christ soon be the first-born among many brethren. If such is the case, then we will not make provision for the works of the flesh to control us. The flesh drives us toward the kind of corruption and destructiveness that will manifest an unregenerate condition and justify God himself in taking vengeance on us. Those who do not walk as children of light demonstrate that they have not been delivered “from the domain of darkness” and, therefore, will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).


IV. Summary: God graciously places around us hedges that warn us of judgment to come. He places laws before us that inform us of the way of peace and stability and give us standards which if violated will bring judgment. The law of the state, the law of love, and the law of the new life all function to discipline us for good from here into eternity.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts