A Study of the Book of Romans Chapter 13: “Get Spiritually Woke”

Dr. Jerry A. Collins


There are two (unequal) halves to the book of Romans. Chapters 1–11 are theological. Chapters 12–16 are practical. But Paul’s point is: practical living must be based on theological thinking. In chapter 12, we are told that we are to transform our minds based on those theological considerations of chapters 1–11 and the gifts we have been given to serve the body of Christ. Having done that, we can now relate to the society around us in a godly manner. That’s chapter 13.  



Verse 1: The theme of the first paragraph is the first statement in verse 1—Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. Then Paul gives the reason for that. Interestingly, it is not for practical benefit. It is not for the good of people. It is not for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is not for world peace. It is not for the future of the human race. It’s because: there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. By extension we must say also that, in America, our elected officials are in reality “appointed” by God. Regardless of our party affiliation, or our political views, Christians need to take this fact seriously. God still rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses (Daniel 4:25; cf. 4:17, 32).

That leads Paul to four logical reasons as to why we should be in submission to our government.

Verse 2: (1) Who ever resists [with attitude to range in battle against; to oppose] authority has opposed [with action to set oneself against; to withstand] the ordinance of God. Resistance to earthly authority is resistance to God Himself. That is to say that to resist the authority of the Emperor is to resist the Emperor, or to resist the authority of the governor is to resist the governor, and so on. But behind the Emperor or the governor is the ordinance of God Himself who “appointed” these human authorities. Since these could have no authority at all apart from God granting it to them (v 1), resistance to their authority is resistance to God. It is His ordinance, not man’s, that is being flouted. To resist is to carry on by setting oneself against governing authority. However, we may disagree. We may advocate for change in laws and govt. We may utilize protocol given to us as citizens for alternatives.

PT— What Paul is stating is the basic principle that is generally true. His statement in no way authorizes an earthly official to command direct disobedience to God. If that happens, Peter and the other apostles demonstrated the Biblical approach. We ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). What is implicit in such a statement is that the human command went counter to a divine command. It was the divine command that had to take precedence.

—However, unless the law runs counter to a direct divine command, there is no Biblical authorization to disobey it. On the contrary, this passage commands obedience. Moreover, Paul warns that the failure to submit to this authority entails consequences.

(2) They who have opposed [with action to set oneself against; to withstand] will receive condemnation upon themselves. Paul does not make specific whether the judgment will come from the authority itself or from God who is behind the authority. Under Israelite Law there was no incarceration. There was compensation, or retribution, or reparation as judgment. Capital punishment was also the prerogative here as well. In our country incarceration has also become the judgment of choice. Nevertheless, the thought of retribution from the authority itself is uppermost, as the following verse makes clear.

Verse 3: (3) For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. The Roman believers could avoid such fear if they did what was good. In fact, they could expect to receive praise from the earthly authority for such behavior. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same. Paul was well aware of potential exceptions to these words. He had complained formally that Roman officials beat him, an uncondemned Roman (Acts 16:37ff). Shortly after writing Romans, Paul appealed to Caesar for legal recourse (Acts 25:11). Paul’s willingness to claim his rights as a Roman citizen are well known. But he is giving again the basic principle that is generally true. All things being equal, good citizens have nothing to fear from government (which usually has its hands full with the other type of citizens). In terms of have ]ing] praise from the same maybe at best that might mean it leaves you alone.

Verse 4: For it is a minister of God to you for good. God’s “agent” was intended to produce what was good for the people, not evil. Paul has in mind the good order and societal tranquility which was a major function of government. In fact, this is the very reason we are to pray for our governing authorities so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity (1 Timothy 2:2). But if in fact the Christians did what is evil, they should indeed be afraid, since the government had the power of the sword for it does not bear the sword for nothing. The words, does not bear the sword in vain, remind the Christian readers that this power of the sword was no empty threat, but a reality in the government’s dealings with evildoers.

For it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. This leads to the point that the Emperor was God’s servant not simply to produce what was good, but also to punish evildoers. Thus governing authorities are an avenger to bring wrath on the person who did wrong. Here his words are a salutary warning that resistance to constituted authority would once again bring a believer within the range of God’s wrath, this time as conveyed through governmental authorities.

PT— But what if the government is bad, unfair, cruel, or immoral? The interesting thing is, Paul does not make distinctions between good and bad governments. Actually, the Roman government of Paul’s day was all those things. We do have biblical examples of resisting authority when that authority commands us to do something which would result in our disobeying God. That’s civil disobedience, and it is appropriate only when our government commands us to disobey the Word of God.

There are some biblical examples of civil disobedience:

(1) Daniel’s friends, who refused to worship the statue of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3:16-18, and

(2) Peter and John, who refused to obey authorities who said stop preaching the Gospel in Acts 4:18-20.

Also, (3) Jesus constantly violated the Pharisees’ laws about the Sabbath, and ignored the

(4) Sadducees’ authority over the Temple. But, unless it violated what God was doing or what God said was right, the heroes of the Bible kept the law of the land, even when it came from a bad government.

Verse 5: (4) Therefore, it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. Obedience to the imperial government was necessary and was constrained not merely by a fear about the wrath Paul has just mentioned, but by conscience itself. “Conscience” refers to the believer’s knowledge of God’s will and purposes. If the authorities that exist are established by God (v 1) and the person who resists those authorities resists the ordinance of God (v 2), then a good conscience toward both God and men will naturally urge submission also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men (Acts 24:16).

Verse 6: Paul’s previous comments about submission were general. No doubt he mainly had in mind obedience to Roman laws as a whole. But now he turns specifically to the issue of taxes. Paul applies government submission in one of the most practical and troubling areas–paying taxes. For because of this you also pay taxes. Yes, and the deadline for doing so is just around the corner isn’t it? Taxes have been unavoidable since governing authority has existed. But the same reason for general submission applied to taxes. For rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. The point is: pay [your] taxes, for rulers are servants of God. To refuse to give these ministers their taxes, whether done overtly or covertly, was to refuse to give them what belonged to God.

Verse 7: concludes this section with the basic principle: Render to all what is due them. The four illustrations which follow—tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor, are probably meant to be rendered to government or governing officials. The point is, Paul did not make his civil contribution by taking on government, reforming government, bringing in the right leadership or campaigning for Christian laws. He ignored the civil government except in this one comment – be in submission to it. His priority was to make disciples and prepare them for their eternal life.



Verse 8: So the conclusion, then, is: Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. There are basically two commands in this paragraph: Owe nothing to anyone, and Love your neighbor as yourself. The First command: Owe nothing to anyone has received a lot of attention.

Application—The question is: “Does it make all lending/borrowing sinful?” In Israel when you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not enter his house to take his pledge. You shall remain outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you (Deuteronomy 24:10-11). In the gospels Jesus said, give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you (Matthew 5:42). These two passages would seem to favor lending/borrowing is allowed for charitable reasons only. There are several Old Testament passages comparable to Deuteronomy 24, but they all have to do with lending to the poor. The idea is, the lender was to consider the loan a gift in that he was not to demand it back if it caused the borrower hardship. But the borrower was to consider himself responsible to pay it back. Borrowing was Israel’s welfare system. What we should not do is justify debt. The command for charitable lending keeps us from closing the door on all lending/borrowing. But the Bible is full of warnings against going into debt, co-signing for a loan, and lending to take advantage of others.

PT—The other problem is we need to live somewhere and, in 21st century America. It’s almost impossible to have a job and care for a family without a house and a car. And both cost more than most people can just go out and pay cash for. So we have to live the most biblical way we can in our world. We must not be of it, but we need to live in it. We, therefore, have to interpret the idea of owe nothing to anyone as prohibiting going into financial debt. Then we must apply that in our day, in such a way that we provide for our families without living in luxury—that is living beyond our needs, and that’s something you have to figure out in light of your accountability to God. But the goal is always to be debt-free.

—Paul now proceeds to urge the payment of all debts, except the one debt that can never be fully paid: except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. Whatever one owes to anyone should be paid. But after that is done, one still owes love to one another. Paul is talking about someone who loves another and is pointing out that when one treats another person with love he is doing what the law requires. In so far as he treats a person that way, he has fulfilled the law as regards that person.

Verses 9-10: So here the definition of loving your neighbor is doing what is in your own best self-interest, for your neighbor. For this, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet”. They can therefore be summed up by the second of the two great commandments of the law, and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The command is to love your neighbor as yourself. And loving your neighbor the way you love yourself is the fulfillment of the law. Loving your neighbor as we love ourselves looks like love does no wrong to a neighbor. So the fulfillment of the Law is to do what is in your own self-interest, for others. The assumption is that you love yourself. You will always do what you believe is in your own best self-interest. So, whatever that is, do it for your neighbor.



Verse 11: Love, then, is to be motivated by the realization that our final destiny is not far away. Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep. Paul draws upon a familiar eschatological image, namely, that of the sleeper who is abruptly awakened by the unexpected arrival of prophesied events (Matt 24:43-44; Luke 21:36; Mark 13:35-36; 1 Thess 5:4-7). We must be ready to meet the Lord and to give an account of our stewardship to Him (cf. 14:10; Phil. 3:20; 1 Thess. 5:6; 1 Cor. 15:34). It is possible for us to go through our lives as believers lethargic and insensible, but such a condition is not wise in view of what lies ahead of us. Actually, the time to awaken has already arrived.for now, salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. This is not referring to salvation as a present reality, but our future hope—our eternal destiny. Biblically the current time is the last days. We are living in the last days before Jesus returns. It is 11:59 PM. The new day is about to begin. That is the time we are living in. Do you think about that often? “It is high time to awake out of sleep” means that since we are in the last days, it is important that we are morally awake. The term today is “woke.” Today if you are WOKE, you are “…conscious of racial discrimination in society and other forms of oppression and injustice. In mainstream use, woke can also more generally describe someone or something as being ‘with it.’”

Biblically being woke, or awake, is more than that. It is being watchful for Christ’s soon return. The consummation of this deliverance is accomplished at the coming of the Lord. And since His coming is nearer than it was when we entered this process (i.e., when we believed), the passage of time means that this consummation is closer than ever.

Verse 12: In fact, the night is almost gone. The night refers to the time (still going on) when God is not yet bringing every act into judgment during this present era of spiritual darkness. And the day is near. The day is the new era of Gods kingdom when God shines the light of the revelation of His holiness on His creation and brings about judgment, condemnation to some, and salvation to others. The night represents our earthly life plagued by spiritual darkness and danger. This life will eventually end—indeed he says we must live it as if it is nearly gone. The reason is because the day is near. When Jesus returns a new day will dawn. We live in between times.

Christians should therefore “get dressed” for the arrival of the day. Therefore, let us lay aside the deeds of darkness. The Christian should not be caught wearing “night clothes,”. Instead he should dress himself in “day clothes,” or in an outfit that is suited for the arrival of the day. At the coming of the Lord to bring us our final deliverance, the Christian ought to be fully identifiable as a “soldier” of the light. And put on the armor of light. He should have laid aside the kind of conduct (the works) that characterizes people who belong to this era of moral darkness. In short, to be ready for the arrival of the conquering King (Rev 19:11-16). The command to put on the armor of light is to arm ourselves with the revelation of God in the Scriptures. Paul called these new clothes armor because we are still at war with sin and the forces of evil.

Verse 13: defines let us behave properly as in the day, that is, as belonging to the era of God’s kingdom, with a six-item “grocery list” of prohibitions. The six prohibitions are: not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. This is the default position of the era of spiritual darkness and blindness. This is so because they have no default eternal perspective to check these sinful indulgences. 

Verse 14: The two commands are put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Christians should “wear” Jesus Christ their Lord. If Jesus Christ is manifest in a believer’s conduct that this is the essence of true Christian experience. But this positive undertaking (“wearing” their Lord) was to be accompanied by a negative undertaking. Make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts. The Christian must not spend time thinking about how he could or would facilitate the sinful desires of his flesh. His mental and moral focus should be on Jesus Christ. The present verse can be said to be Christian living in a nutshell. Such living does not center on our worthless fleshly desires, but on the Son of God Himself.


So What?

·         The chief orientation of our lives must be putting on the Lord Jesus Christ in our practical Christian living.

·         The orientation looks like submitting to governing authority, loving one another, and preparation for our eternal life to come.