Romans 13: How Should Free People Live?

Romans 13:1-10

Because believing Christians have been freed from their bondage to sin and have become part of a new creation, they differ from non-Christians in their understanding of how the world works and what is expected of them. Likewise, their choices, motives, and behavior often differ from those of the people around them. Given these differences, how should live?

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Have you ever heard the phrase “culture shock?” Some describe it as being like a fish out of water. My son John describes it as the realization that everything you know is wrong.  It’s more than not knowing the language of a place, it’s also not knowing what to expect of others or what is expected of you. Things like where you drive (left side, right side, either side), how you dress, what you eat, and how you treat friends and strangers or speak with them, can differ markedly between nations, peoples, and languages. What works well for you here in Iowa can cause you problems elsewhere and what works well for people elsewhere can cause problems in Iowa. 

Because believing Christians are part of a new creation and differ from non-Christians in their understanding of how the world works and what is expected of them, their choices, motives, and behavior often differ from those of the people around them.

You see, although we live in this world, we have been called out of it so that we might have a home in the new heaven and earth that God is creating for those who love him. That’s why we sing “I’m but a stranger here, heaven is my home.”

At the time of the Exodus. God released the children of Israel from their slavery in Egypt to bring them to new homes in the promised land. There they would live under new laws with their own language and culture. The time in the wilderness was a time of transition from the old ways to the new.

In much the same way, we are in a period of transition from the culture around us to the culture of the kingdom of heaven. We have a new relationship with God, different hopes, new values, and new ways of behavior to learn. 

We are no longer slaves subject to sin, we have been freed by God. We are no longer mere flesh and blood, we live by the power of God’s Spirit. We live under the guidance of God’s Spirit rather than by seeking our own benefit or by a variety of rules and regulations.

Given these differences how should we live?

We begin by recognizing that we are here in this world to serve God rather than ourselves. In chapter 12, St. Paul urged us to remember the mercy we have received from God and to offer ourselves to him as living thank-offerings. He reminded us that we each have received different gifts from God that were to be used for the benefit of others. Put those gifts to work Paul says. Help the people in the church and work together with them to help those outside. Welcome strangers, feed the hungry, share the Gospel, pray for one another and encourage one another.

It should go without saying that we avoid being drawn into the sins of others, but since the Jesus and the apostles said it, I will say it, too. Don’t be deceived, not everything your neighbors think is good and right is good and right in God’s eyes and it’s God’s opinion that counts, not theirs.

Now, if we are free people and citizens of heaven what is our relationship to the earthly laws? Are we free to ignore them? 

Think back again to our world traveler suffering from culture shock. He may not understand the laws of the land he is visiting or agree with them, but if he does not obey them, he will likely bear the penalty for violating those laws. It some cases the punishment may be severe. So he is subject to those laws while he is in the land even though he is not a citizen.

Thus, when I visited Russia and China, I did my best both to follow their regulations and to comply with their norms of behavior. For example, when visiting in Hong Kong I wore a disposable mask because I had a sinus infection and had been in the area long enough to know that is what polite people did. In Russia, when I was sitting on the grass in a park to rest and an official person came by and asked me to get off the grass, I complied.

St. Paul says here in Romans, that our compliance with earthly laws isn’t just a matter of convenience, it is also God’s will. Earthly governments have been appointed by God, and whether they use their authority in a wise and godly matter or not, we are to obey them because their authority comes from God.

There is, however, a limit to this obedience. When we are required to do something that is contrary to God’s will, we must obey God rather than men. However, when we do, we should expect to suffer the consequences of our disobedience. Here we may take St. Paul himself as an example. Paul and the other apostles endured floggings, banishments, imprisonment, and death as they continued to preach the Gospel long after they had been told to stop.

Likewise, Paul says that since we live in this world, we are to pay our taxes, give respect to those make administer and judge our laws, and fulfill the general obligations that fall upon everyone who lives here. This is true even though our actual citizenship is in heaven.

As Paul continues with his letter, he tells his readers that the chief obligation they have toward everyone is love. The same is true for us. Love should guide our actions toward everyone. 

Here it is helpful to understand that when the Bible talks about love in this way it is not talking about feelings that come and go. Love is a way of acting rather than a way of feeling. It is seeking the good of others even when they deserve nothing good. Isn’t that how God loved us?

Such love begins with the family of God. Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And so, as believing Christians, we owe it to one another to seek good things for each other. We weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. We help one another, warn one another and speak the truth to one another in a way that builds up and encourages faithfulness to our God and the Lord Jesus. We share God’s Word, the Holy Supper, and pray with and for each other.

In addition, St. Paul echoes our Lord Jesus, when he encourages his readers also to love their neighbors and their enemies. We are to pray for them and do good to them even if they are persecuting us because of our faith in Christ and our obedience to the Gospel.

That is, after all, how God loved us. While we were still sinners Christ died for us.

Since such loves does only good to its neighbor and not harm, it fulfills the letter of the commandments. Jesus said, “The greatest commandment is this, ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might.’ This is the first and great commandment and the second is like it,’You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”

But, love does more than just avoiding harm to the neighbor. Refraining from adultery, slander, theft, violence, and covetousness, is a good start, but love does more. That’s why in his explanations of the commandments Luther stood them on their heads. For example, he says, “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.” Luther turns the commandment against murder over, asking what kind of good would Christian love do? One who loves in that way feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, heals the sick, and defends the defenseless whether they are friends or strangers, allies or enemies.

Finally, why should we live this way? We do all this because Christ loved us and gave himself up for us. We do all this because God has called us to himself and given us a small role to play in his great plan of redemption. We live in this way because we are God’s children and citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Amen.  

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