What does Romans 13:5 mean?
ESV: Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
NIV: Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
NASB: Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for the sake of conscience.
CSB: Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience.
NLT: So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience.
KJV: Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
This verse is about our ultimate motivation as Christians for submitting to the human authorities in our lives, including those in government. Paul has written in the two previous verses that God uses those in government authority to express His wrath against people who do wrong. The kind of wrong Paul is describing is criminal activity that hurts other people: stealing, murder, etc. This is one way all leaders, even the ungodly, serve God's will: by restraining some kinds of evil on earth (2 Thessalonians 2:7). Even Christians ought to be afraid of government authorities when doing those kinds of wrong things.
Paul writes, though, that such fear of those in authority is not the only reason to obey the law. We should do so for the sake of conscience. By that, Paul means that we should be in submission to human authorities because we know, as Christians, that it is the right thing to do. It is God's will for our lives. In a general sense, it's part of the Christian sense of humility. We are not the ultimate authority, so we ought to be submissive to those in power over us.
It goes without saying that there are exceptions to the idea that government is a force for good. Paul was painfully aware of this himself. He spent much of his life in Roman prisons. He did so without attempting to harm or overthrow his captors—that's submission. However, Paul was not "obedient" to the ungodly parts of Roman law. He refused to stop preaching about Jesus, even when those in authority told him to. He understood that he was responsible to obey God first if it came to a choice between that and obeying human laws (Acts 5:27–29).
Paul chooses not to address that in this passage, however. Truthfully, that is the exception and not the rule. In the case of almost every law and human authority, submission is God's will for His children during our short time on this side of eternity. Submission and obedience are normally the same thing—but they are not always the same.
Romans 13:1–7 describes the responsibility for Christians to live in submission to the human authorities in government. The reason given is that every government leader has ultimately been established by God for His own purposes. Generally speaking, human government serves to rein in and punish those who do evil. Governments do this on God's behalf. Christians must pay their taxes to support this work God is doing. In addition, those in Christ owe respect and honor to the authorities that God has put in place. Other Scriptures, such as Acts 5:27–29, distinguish between ''submission'' and ''obedience.''
Romans 13 tackles three big areas that living-sacrifice Christians must address. First, since God puts every human authority in place to serve His purposes, Christians must submit to them; this idea comes with a particular context. Second, we must love our neighbors as ourselves. Third, we are called to live as people of the light and throw off works of darkness like drunkenness, sexual immorality, and jealousy. We are to take on the armor of light against the darkness and, in fact, take on Christ Himself instead of serving our own desires.
The prior chapter described the ideas of becoming a living sacrifice for Christ and being transformed by that relationship. In chapter 12, Paul gives certain applications of what this looks like for Christians who have received God's great mercy. Paul instructs believers to live in submission to human authorities in government because God has put them there for His purposes. Loving our neighbors as we love ourselves is the ongoing obligation of every Christian. Finally, we must throw off any works of darkness we have been taking part in and take defensive positions against the darkness in spiritual armor of light. The time has come to take on Christ and stop arranging our lives to serve our own desires.
The book of Romans is the New Testament's longest, most structured, and most detailed description of Christian theology. Paul lays out the core of the gospel message: salvation by grace alone through faith alone. His intent is to explain the good news of Jesus Christ in accurate and clear terms. As part of this effort, Paul addresses the conflicts between law and grace, between Jews and Gentiles, and between sin and righteousness. As is common in his writing, Paul closes out his letter with a series of practical applications.
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