Archive Authors Civic Polity E.J. Hutchinson Natural Law Nota Bene

The Final Cause of Civil Government in Romans 13:3-4

“[F]or the present we’re stuck with the world as it is. And if they couldn’t agree on a way to make an act of war impossible, then it is better to have some provisions for coping with the consequences than to have no provisions.”

“Yes and no. Yes, if it’s in anticipation of one’s own. And especially no if the provision to soften the consequences are criminal too.”

The visitor shrugged. “Like euthanasia? I’m sorry, Father, I feel that the laws of society are what makes something a crime or not a crime. I’m aware that you don’t agree. And there can be bad laws, ill-conceived, true. But in this case, I think we have a good law. If I thought I had such a thing as a soul, and that there was an angry God in Heaven, I might agree with you.”–A Canticle for Leibowitz, p. 295

Πᾶσα ψυχὴ ἐξουσίαις ὑπερεχούσαις ὑποτασσέσθω, οὐ γὰρ ἔστιν ἐξουσία εἰ μὴ ὑπὸ θεοῦ, αἱ δὲ [a]οὖσαι [b]ὑπὸ θεοῦ τεταγμέναι εἰσίν. 2 ὥστε ὁ ἀντιτασσόμενος τῇ ἐξουσίᾳ τῇ τοῦ θεοῦ διαταγῇ ἀνθέστηκεν, οἱ δὲ ἀνθεστηκότες ἑαυτοῖς κρίμα λήμψονται. 3 οἱ γὰρ ἄρχοντες οὐκ εἰσὶν φόβος [c]τῷ ἀγαθῷ ἔργῳ ἀλλὰ [d]τῷ κακῷ. θέλεις δὲ μὴ φοβεῖσθαι τὴν ἐξουσίαν; τὸ ἀγαθὸν ποίει, καὶ ἕξεις ἔπαινον ἐξ αὐτῆς· 4 θεοῦ γὰρ διάκονός ἐστιν σοὶ εἰς τὸ ἀγαθόν. ἐὰν δὲ τὸ κακὸν ποιῇς, φοβοῦ· οὐ γὰρ εἰκῇ τὴν μάχαιραν φορεῖ· θεοῦ γὰρ διάκονός ἐστιν, ἔκδικος εἰς ὀργὴν τῷ τὸ κακὸν πράσσοντι.

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

There aren’t many passages in the New Testament that speak directly to political order. I have cited above four verses of what is perhaps the most famous, the first part of the thirteenth chapter of Romans. I’d like to focus in this post on vv. 3-4–what is, for me, something of an interpretive crux. Specifically, are these verses descriptive or prescriptive? Are they simply declarative, or are they imperatival, telling us what magistrates ought to do?

It is of course the case that the verbs pertinent to this question are all in the indicative mood (εἰσὶν, “they are,” v. 3; ἕξεις, “you will have, v. 4; ἐστιν, “he is,” v. 4); but is this dispositive for the question? After all, the verbs in the Ten Commandments (LXX) are indicative as well, but semantically the Ten Words are commands for all that.

Admittedly, Paul is writing here with a great deal of brevity; and, admittedly, it seems fairly straightforward on the syntactical level on a first reading. So let us assume, arguendo, that these verses are what they prima facie appear to be in syntactical terms: declarations. But we should be clear about what this means. If these verses are read as “straight” indicatives, they would seem to indicate that whatever the magistrate does is good by definition. Rulers execute wrath only on the evil. If you do what is good, you will have his praise. He is the minister of God. Period.

This leaves, as far as I can parse it, two options. The absolute “goodness” of the magistrate’s actions and his consistency in rewarding the good and punishing the evil might obtain because all magistrates are perfectly just in terms of the moral law and therefore always do as God prescribes. Given sin, it is safe to rule this out as a possibility.  Secondly, these characteristics of magistratical action might obtain because might makes right: possession of power merely would make the actions of magistrates just, rather than power exercised in accordance with some other standard.1

To many modern readers, this perhaps smacks of something post-Nietzschean, but such a belief of course goes back much farther in time; it is wonderfully illustrated by the character Thrasymachus in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic. 

THRASYMACHUS: Listen, then. I say justice is nothing other than what is advantageous for the stronger….That, Socrates, is what I say justice is, the same in all cities: what is advantageous for the established rule. Since the established rule is surely stronger, anyone who does the rational calculation correctly will conclude that the just is the same everywhere–what is advantageous for the stronger. (Republic 1.338c, 338e-339a, tr. C.D.C. Reeve)

Is this an acceptable gloss on the meaning of Romans 13:3-4? There are, I would submit, at least two major objections to it.

First, the natural human intuition for a moral justice cries out against it, an intuition that I will assert without argument to be shared universally, contra Thrasymachus. That is, the law of nature opposes such an idea of “justice” as power merely, as whatever a ruler happens to do.

Second, there are a number of biblical examples of rulers who are clearly demarcated as acting unjustly, or ruling wickedly, or what have you. Compare, for instance, Pharaoh in Exodus, David and Uriah the Hittite, Solomon’s introduction of pagan worship near the end of his life (and most of 1 and 2 Kings, for that matter), Nebuchadnezzar, and so on, culminating in Christ’s crucifixion under the Sanhedrin and the Roman magistrate Pontius Pilate. In addition to these examples, consider the apostolic declarations in Acts 4:19 and 5:29. Clearly, Scripture does not teach that whatever magistrates do is right simply by virtue of them doing it. Rulers are not always a terror to evil works rather than to good ones.

If both general and special revelation oppose what we might call the Thrasymachian reading of Romans 13:3-4, what is the alternative?

The alternative is to read these verses teleologically, as giving the final cause of civil government, the end for which it is ordained. Vv. 1-2 state that God is the efficient cause of government; vv. 3-4 give its purpose: “he is the minister of God to thee for good.”2

This is the view found, for instance, in Philipp Melanchthon’s commentary on Romans. He claims that v. 4 gives a defintion of the the magistrate, and claims it is superior to Aristotle’s definition.(“The magistrate is the guardian of the laws [custos legum].” Why?

Paulus enim addidit efficientem causam, scilicet quod sit institutus a Deo. Et in causa finali addit illustrem particulam: Tibi ad bonum, ubi discernit tyrannum a vero magistratu.

For Paul has added the efficient cause, namely that [the magistrate] has been instituted by God. And in the matter of the final cause, he adds a noteworthy clause: “for you for good,” in which he distinguishes the tyrant from the true magistrate.3

Peter Martyr Vermigli says something similar in his Commentary on Romans, though he also thinks that this is what magistrates actually do for the most part:

But whilest we live here still in the world, and have our conversation here amongst evil men, both the magistrate is necessary, and we ought utterly to obey him in those thinges which are not repugnaunt unto piety. And forasmuch as the magistrate is to this end appoynted to punish wicked workes, and to advaunce good, thereby we may understand, that they which resist him may two maner of wayes be accused: either for that their owne conscience accuseth them of evill actes by them committed which they would not have punished: or for that they are negligent followers of justice, whereunto they can not abide to be pricked forward. But they complaine that they which are magestrates are men corrupt, cruell, and violent: and that theyr whole travaile is, that every man should have either nothing at all, or else very little. But these men ought to consider, that Paul here entreateth of the thing it self, and not of the abuse: and speaketh of that which happeneth for the most part, and not of that which happeneth seldome. As touching the first, that may not to be imputed as a fault to the thing, which commeth of the abuse thereof. As if a wicked man should perversly abuse either the minde, or the eyes, or the eares or the rest of the pwers of the soule, yet should it not thereof follow, that the ends of all these things are not most excellent: unles peradventure we will say that God is the author of evill things. And as touching power it may be abused as well by them which exercise it as by them which ought to obey it. (p. 10)4

He goes on to claim that even tyrannies retain “many offices of justice and of equity.” Both aspects (final cause and tyrannical justice) are found as well in John Calvin’s commentary on Romans :

Let us then continue to honor the good appointment of God, which may be easily done, provided we impute to ourselves whatever evil may accompany it. Hence he teaches us here the end for which magistrates are instituted by the Lord; the happy effects of which would always appear, were not so noble and salutary an institution marred through our fault. At the same time, princes do never so far abuse their power, by harassing the good and innocent, that they do not retain in their tyranny some kind of just government: there can then be no tyranny which does not in some respects assist in consolidating the society of men.

Whether one agrees with the latter claim or not (the justice of tyrannies), my only purpose here is to note the teleological aspect of the exegesis of both men.

In the nineteenth century, another exponent of this view is Charles Hodge in his own Commentary on Romans:

Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shall have praise of the same. That is, government is not an evil to be feared, except by evil doers. As the magistrates are appointed for the punishment of evil, the way to avoid suffering from their authority is not to resist it, but to do that which is good. Paul is speaking of the legitimate design of government, not the abuse of power by wicked men.

VERSE 4. For he is the minister of God for thee for good, &c. This whole verse is but an amplification of the preceding. ‘Government is a benevolent institution of God, designed for the benefit of men; and, therefore, should be respected and obeyed. As it has, however, the rightful authority to punish, it is to be feared by those that do evil.’ For good, i.e., to secure or promote your welfare. Magistrates or rulers are not appointed for their own honour or advantage, but for the benefit of society, and, therefore, while those in subjection are on this account to obey them, they themselves are taught, what those in power are apt to forget, that they are the servants of the people as well as the servants of God, and that the welfare of the society is the only legitimate object which they as rulers are at liberty to pursue.

If natural law and Scripture move us toward the exegesis of Romans 13:3-4 adopted above, this raises some obvious questions with which Christians have long struggled but which I will not pursue here: what is the responsibility and/or obligation of Christians when the civil government does not fulfill its telos? If the magistrate is a minister of God and is derelict in his duty, is there recourse to remove him, as a derelict minister in the church might be defrocked? Does an unjust government forfeit its right to rule? If not, what is the so-called “private citizen” to do? Obey and suffer, as Calvin says in Institutes 4.20? What about the later tradition of Calvinist resistance theory?5 Though these questions do not admit of any easy answers, their complexities are worth giving some attention to, especially with the help provided by our fathers in the faith across the political-theological spectrum.


  1. I recently discussed this same theme briefly through the lens of Niels Hemmingsen here.
  2. The classical Aristotelian tradition distinguishes between four types of causality, material, formal, efficient, and final. So Aristotle, Metaphysics 5.1013a: “‘Cause’ means: (a) in one sense, that as the result of whose presence something comes into being—e.g. the bronze of a statue and the silver of a cup, and the classes4 which contain these; (b) in another sense, the form or pattern; that is, the essential formula and the classes which contain it—e.g. the ratio 2:1 and number in general is the cause of the octave—and the parts of the formula.(c) The source of the first beginning of change or rest; e.g. the man who plans is a cause, and the father is the cause of the child, and in general that which produces is the cause of that which is produced, and that which changes of that which is changed. (d) The same as ‘end’; i.e. the final cause; e.g., as the ‘end’ of walking is health.For why does a man walk? ‘To be healthy,’ we say, and by saying this we consider that we have supplied the cause.”
  3. The translation is my own.
  4. I have cited the archaic English translation found in Kingdon’s volume on Vermigli’s political thought.
  5. On this, see, e.g., Andrew Fulford’s recent Convivium paper.

4 replies on “The Final Cause of Civil Government in Romans 13:3-4”

Hi David,

No, you’re not missing anything–I just linked to give a general idea of its theme. Audio of the paper should be available in the not too terribly distant future, I believe; but Andrew can correct me if I’m wrong about that.


Hi Louis,

I wouldn’t dispute that they are unwitting servants of God, as indeed all things serve his sovereign purpose. Thanks for the link to your paper. I look forward to having a look at it.


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