Those who have been justified by faith are obligated to be subject to human government. Actually the obligation applies to everyone, but the apostle here is concerned especially with believers. God established human government after the flood when He decreed, “Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed” (Gen_9:6). That decree gave authority to men to judge criminal matters and to punish offenders.
In every ordered society there must be authority and submission to that authority. Otherwise you have a state of anarchy, and you cannot survive indefinitely under anarchy. Any government is better than no government. So God has instituted human government, and no government exists apart from His will. This does not mean that He approves of all that human rulers do. He certainly does not approve of corruption, brutality, and tyranny! But the fact remains that the authorities that exist are appointed by God.
Believers can live victoriously in a democracy, a constitutional monarchy, or even a totalitarian regime. No earthly government is any better than the men who comprise it. That is why none of our governments is perfect. The only ideal government is a beneficent monarchy with the Lord Jesus Christ as King. It is helpful to remember that Paul wrote this section on subjection to human government when the infamous Nero was Emperor. Those were dark days for Christians. Nero blamed them for a fire which destroyed half the city of Rome (and which he himself may have ordered). He caused some believers to be immersed in tar, then ignited as living torches to provide illumination for his orgies. Others were sewn up in animal skins, then thrown to ferocious dogs to be torn to pieces.
And yet it still holds that anyone who disobeys or rebels against the government is disobeying and rebelling against what God has ordained. Whoever resists lawful authority earns and deserves punishment.
There is an exception, of course. A Christian is not required to obey if the government orders him to sin or to compromise his loyalty to Jesus Christ (Act_5:29). No government has a right to command a person's conscience. So there are times when a believer must, by obeying God, incur the wrath of man. In such cases he must be prepared to pay the penalty without undue complaint. Under no circumstances should he rebel against the government or join in an attempt to overthrow it.
As a rule, people who do what is right need not fear the authorities. It is only those who break the law who have to fear punishment. So if anyone wants to enjoy a life free from tickets, fines, trials, and imprisonments, the thing to do is to be a law-abiding citizen. Then he will win the approval of the authorities, not their censure.
The ruler, whether president, governor, mayor, or judge, is a minister of God in the sense that he is a servant and representative of the Lord. He may not know God personally, but he is still the Lord's man officially. Thus David repeatedly referred to the wicked King Saul as the Lord's anointed (1Sa_24:6, 1Sa_24:10; 1Sa_26:9, 1Sa_26:11, 1Sa_26:16, 1Sa_26:23). In spite of Saul's repeated attempts on David's life, the latter would not allow his men to harm the king. Why? Because Saul was the king, and as such he was the Lord's appointee.
As servants of God, rulers are expected to promote the good of the people—their security, tranquility, and general welfare. If any man insists on breaking the law, he can expect to pay for it, because the government has the authority to bring him to trial and punish him. In the expression he does not bear the sword in vain we have a strong statement concerning the power which God vests in the government. The sword is not just an innocuous symbol of power; a scepter would have served that purpose. The sword seems to speak of the ultimate power of the ruler—that is, to inflict capital punishment. So it will not do to say that capital punishment was for the OT era only and not for the New. Here is a statement in the NT that implies that the government has the authority to take the life of a capital offender. People argue against this by quoting Exo_20:13 in the KJV: “Thou shalt not kill.” But that commandment refers to murder, and capital punishment is not murder. The Hebrew word translated “kill” in the KJV specifically means “murder” and is so translated in the NKJV: “You shall not murder.” Capital punishment was prescribed in the OT law as the required punishment for certain serious offenses.
Again the apostle reminds us that the ruler is God's minister, but this time he adds, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. In other words, in addition to being a minister of God to us for good, he also serves God by dispensing punishment to those who break the law.
What this means is that we should be obedient subjects of the government for two reasons—the fear of punishment and the desire to maintain a good conscience.
We owe the government not only obedience but financial support by paying taxes. It is to our advantage to live in a society of law and order, with police and fire protection, so we must be willing to bear our share of the cost. Government officials are giving their time and talents in carrying out God's will for the maintenance of a stable society, so they are entitled to support.
The fact that believers are citizens of heaven (Phi_3:20) does not exempt them from responsibility to human government. They must pay whatever taxes are levied on their income, their real estate, and their personal property. They must pay required customs on merchandise being transported from one country to another. They must demonstrate a respectful fear of displeasing those who are charged with enforcing the laws. And they must show honor for the names and offices of all civil servants (even if they can't always respect their personal lives).
In this connection, Christians should never join in speaking in a derogatory way of the President or the Prime Minister. Even in the heat of a political campaign they should refuse to join in the verbal abuse that is heaped upon the head of state. It is written, “You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people” (Act_23:5).