The design of the appointment of civil rulers, or of the institution of civil government.
“For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.” Verse 3.
This and the subsequent section furnish us with the key to the entire passage. Had the apostle merely enjoined subjection to civil authorities, as he does in the terms of the first and second, adding no explanations, giving no clue to the character of the power to which his injunction is designed to apply, it would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, from the passage itself, to have shown any limitations — we might have been compelled to resort mainly to other Scriptures for light as to the duty really, after all, enjoined. We might, indeed, have obtained some light from the term ( ) and from the phrase ( ) we could have evaded the advocate of “passive obedience and non-resistance,” but we would almost have despaired of convincing him. But with the apostle’s own explanations all is clear. He enjoins obedience, but he adds a reason drawn from the character of the power, and so limits, most clearly and conclusively, his own injunction: “for rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.”
1. Paul here defines a government set up and engaged in attending to its appropriate functions: “Rulers are not a terror,” &c. Hitherto, the subject has been government — civil government as a divine institution. Here, for the first time, we meet with a direct reference to magistrates actually employed in administering the affairs of the commonwealth, including, of course, legislators, judges, and executive officers. This change of phraseology is not without design. It is clearly intended to establish a distinction — a distinction existing in the very nature of the case between the institution of government and governors themselves. The institution of government is to be studied, governors are to be tried, or if the expression be more correct, the entire character and operations of government, as it actually exists, urges its claim upon the citizen and the Christian.
2. The governors to whom the injunction of Paul applies “are not a terror to good works.” To what does Paul here refer? to what class of “works?” Does this phrase mean no more, as Tholuck explains it, than such works as are the opposite of resistance and rebellion? Most certainly not. Such an interpretation puts an entirely new meaning upon the phrase “good works,” and would, moreover, fix upon the apostle the charge of expressing himself with an unaccountable obscurity and meagerness. Does it mean such “works” as industry, honesty, and the orderly discharge of common, social, and relative duties? No doubt these are included in it. But even this is a very defective interpretation. There must be added, at least, such things as come under the head of common morality. But we go farther. Paul here speaks, not as a mere heathen philosopher, but as a Christian minister, and an apostle of Christ. What then are “good works?” The answer is clear. They are such as the law of Christ demands: they are all the external results and fruits of the operations of the Spirit of Christ. Among these, as already intimated, will be found all that is comprehended under the name of morals; but they include much more — Sabbath sanctification, the public profession of the name and truth of Christ — His worship, and efforts to advance his kingdom and interest. Thus Ephesians 2:10. “Created in Christ Jesus unto good works.” II Timothy 3:17. “That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” I Timothy 3:1. “He that desireth the office of a bishop desireth a good work.” II Thessalonians 2:17. “Stablish you in every good work and work;” this good work being, in part, what is referred to elsewhere in addressing the Thessalonian church, that from them “the word of the Lord had sounded out.” Revelation 2:26. “And he that overcometh and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations;” and, finally, Revelation 14:13. “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord — that they may rest from their labors, and their works do follow them.”
It is not denied that, in most of these passages and similar ones, works of morality are meant; but in some, the immediate and only reference is to “works” peculiarly denominated religious, and in no instance can these be excluded. How can we imagine that Paul departed, in the passage before us, from the current meaning which every Christian attaches to this phrase.16 Now, to such “works” magistrates — those referred to by the apostle — will not be “a terror.” Against such as practice these, he will enact no laws. And does not the principle already taught, that magistracy is the “ordinance of God,” abundantly confirm this? It is, in fact, a most serious error, and one that has led to many others, that God has ordained any institution among men, or sanctions any, in which the promotion of his glory as the Supreme Law-giver, and the alone object of worship and religious homage, is not a chief end. “The Lord hath made all things for himself,” Job 16:27. And of every people, in a certain sense, does God say, as He said with a peculiar emphasis of ancient Israel, and says of the Church, “This people have I formed for myself, to show forth my praise.” This is expressly asserted of the family relation, Malachi 2:15. And as to government, who questions that among the patriarchs, all authority, including what we now term civil, was to be so employed? We cannot conceive of an intelligent and devout patriarch, or subject of patriarchal government, who would not regard the patriarchal authority as given for the glory of God, in the patronage of “good works” of a religious, as well as of a common moral character. And finally, God himself gave a government to his own chosen Israel, and in defining its powers and functions, leaves no doubt that all the “good works” to which this government was not to be “a terror,” were works such as have been specified above as those, in part, intended by Paul. In short, there is every reason — the phrase itself— the ends of the institution of government — its history and the direct teachings of the Most High in the institutes given to Israel — to believe that among the works here meant are those that come under the head of religion — religion in its exterior manifestations.
Now, to such, “rulers are not a terror.” Such rulers as Paul refers to will so legislate, so judge, so apply law, as that not only the upright and peaceable, but the fearers of God and the servants of Christ, will be subject to no hindrance, exposed to no danger from the civil arm, in their Christian profession and efforts: such rulers will so act as that Christ may be preached, his law defended, his authority maintained, his church propagated, without fear of offending “the powers that be.”
3. These rulers use their powers for the restraint of evil — “but a ‘terror to the evil.’” To ascertain the import of the term “evil,” we have only to institute a contrast between this clause and the preceding. “Good works” as such works as are appropriate to the honest, peaceable and moral. Of course, “evil works” are such as dishonesty, turbulence, theft, and all gross departures from morality.
“Good works” are such as honor Christ, the Sabbath, the Scriptures, and the name and supreme dignity of a Three-one God. “Evil” works are such as are adverse to all these — blasphemy, profanity, idolatry, and Sabbath violation. Can it be possible that an inspired apostle could use this term in any narrower sense, particularly in defining a divine ordinance?
To all these the rulers here meant are for a “terror.” They enact such laws, and so administer these enactments, as that all disorder, vice, and open disregard to God and religion may be discountenanced, and, when circumstances demand this, restrained.
Here, again, we may appeal to collateral sources of argument, to the uniform testimony of the Word of God, and to the examples of all enlightened nations. To the former we need only refer. From the patriarchal ages onward until the cannon of Old Testament revelation — none can doubt that divinely approved civil governments, and acts of civil rulers, are of this character — a “terror to evil works;” and in the New, so far as this aspect of national institutions is referred to, we have but the continuation of the same teachings. “The law,” says Paul — meaning, in part, at least, the law of God as established among the Jews— “is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners,” &c.; and “if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine.” (Timothy 1:9, 10) Nor has any Christian nation found itself able fully to reduce to practice any other theory. In words, many do, indeed, deny that acts injurious to morality even, and more, that acts hurtful to religion, can rightfully become subjects of cognizance by the magistrate; but just so far as Christian principle has made itself felt, either directly or by tradition, among any people, have they been obliged to conform to the apostle’s definition; very defectively it is true, in most instances, but still sufficiently to show that Christian sense and a regard for the general welfare of society, will not be satisfied without some acknowledgement of the principle. Hence, the laws by which the Sabbath is guarded — laws against shameful vices — laws against blasphemy and profanity — or to present the same fact in a more general and more striking form, where is the government that would think itself justifiable in guarding against the spread of acknowledged moral good, as they do of moral evil?
Nor does it weaken the force of our argument, drawn from the practice of nations, that the legislation to which we have referred is affirmed to be only an indirect way of answering what some call the only end of civil rule — the preservation of peace and of property. At all events, it is admitted to be necessary: and if necessary, there can be no question whatever that this sort of governmental action was contemplated in the institution itself. So far as our present purpose is concerned, this is enough; for Paul, certainly, did not intend to omit, in his definition of the function of rulers, a class of acts without which they cannot carry on a permanently wholesome administration of affairs.
On every ground, then, we maintain that Paul designs, in these phrases, to furnish us with a summary, but very comprehensive, view of the official character of such rulers as may lawfully claim our conscientious allegiance and subjection. They are such as render themselves “a terror” not to “good works,” in any sound sense, but “to the evil” in every sense in which outward acts are so. Such are the “powers” whom “God has ordained;” such he owns as his “ministers;” the resistance offered to these offends him. All this we will find amply confirmed by the Apostle himself when he proceeds, immediately, to apply the general statement to the different classes of citizens in the State, to the good and the bad.17
16 “For temporal princes — not to punish men for any works that are good in themselves (like those which the Christian religion enjoin towards God and man,”) & c. Guyse in loco.
17 Inferences will be deduced from this section, in connection with those of the subsequent section.