Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (ESV)
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Tuesday of Pentecost 11
11 August 2015
Power needs to be kept on a leash. We struggle with this in our society. We don't like to be restrained. We prefer to be able to do just whatever we want, even to the detriment of others. The damage created by this mentality can be quite devastating as we can see in the riots that occurred in Baltimore, Maryland and Ferguson, Missouri. Rioters bused in from elsewhere in Ferguson reveled in a night of looting, which was excused by the racial animus inherent in the system. This was a classic case of two wrongs don't make a right.
Politicians and law enforcement leaders struggled to respond appropriately to the violence and destruction caused by the rioters. Why was this? Why was this social temper tantrum permitted to go on for several days? Why was this unreasonable force not met with reasonable force? In part, I believe that politicians and law enforcement officers were hamstrung by the idea that kindness and a false restraint on their part would diminish the rage and violence of the rioters. Instead of quelling the rage, it merely gave permission to those who desired a night of looting and burning.
From the perspective of Luther's doctrine of the two kingdoms or two governments, it is government's God-given task to restrain evil and to stop such outbursts with restraining force. There just are some people who need to be restrained. Indeed, all of us at various times - whether we are Christian or not - need such restraint. The first use of the law threatens punishment and retribution against those who permit their wickedness to run amok to the detriment of society and community. Please let me be clear: I do not mean that the restraint applied by civil government should itself be unrestrained. The rule of law applies as much to government and its servants as it does to private citizens (even more so!). However, the law requires the unruly to be restrained for the safety of others. When government fails to do this it is failing in its primary task; the reason it actually exists and is constituted. When it fails to restrain, it is usurping the authority of God's other government; the government of the church with its primary task of preaching the gospel. The church gives away God's gifts to God's people, suffers their abuse, and proclaims divine mercy upon the wicked, as her Lord did. Her weapon is the gospel, not the law. The law is in the hands of the other government to the restraint of evildoers (1Ti 1:8-11
), and especially us when we do external evil.
Both governments are God's. But they must not be confused or intermingled. And even though there may be mitigation on the basis of law in worldly governance, no such mitigation is possible in the governance of the church, because all is forgiven through the merit of Christ. The governor of a state may well consider mitigating circumstances when he commutes the sentence of an evildoer; but this is a thing of the law, even if it is called mercy, it is only named "mercy" improperly. The Christian mercy is never given on the basis of anything other than the work and merit of Christ and never because of the person to whom it is given. This is mercy properly speaking.
"God has ordained two governments: the spiritual, by which the Holy Spirit produces Christians and righteous people under Christ; and the temporal, which restrains the un-Christian and wicked so that-no thanks to them-they are obliged to keep still and to maintain an outward peace. Thus does St. Paul interpret the temporal sword in Romans, when he says it is not a terror to good conduct but to bad (Rm 13:3
). And Peter says it is for the punishment of the wicked (1Pt 2:14
"If anyone attempted to rule the world by the gospel and to abolish all temporal law and sword on the plea that all are baptized and Christian, and that, according to the gospel, there shall be among them no law or sword, or need for either, pray tell me, friend, what would he be doing? He would be letting loose the ropes and chains on the savage wild beasts and letting them bite and mangle everyone, meanwhile insisting that they were harmless, tame, and gentle creatures; but I would have the proof in my wounds. Just so would the wicked, under the name of Christian, abuse evangelical freedom, carry on their rascality, and insist that they were Christians subject neither to law nor sword, as some are already raving and ranting."
Martin Luther, Temporal Authority: to What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, 1
Almighty God, You have constituted government for the restraint of the evildoer and for the praise of those who do well. Grant wisdom to those who govern that they might use the tools of the law to bring external peace and safety to the people whom they govern. Help us to honor legitimate government according to the commands that You have given us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
For President Matthew Harrison and his family, as they recover from a house fire, that they would have a peace that surpasses all human understanding
For all those who are in prison, that they might be remembered in constant prayer
For the many guests and visitors at Memorial Lutheran Church on Sunday, that they would be comforted by the gospel which was proclaimed there and strengthened in their faith
Art: Dürer, Albrecht The Adoration of the Trinity (1515)
© Scott R. Murray, 2015