“For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
Explanation and Commentary of Romans 13:4
If this was true at the time it was written, under a corrupt and oppressive Caesar, how much more for those who live in democratic countries today. Though not everyone does, many Christians enjoy governmental structures that have been knowingly or unknowingly influenced by Christ and his teaching.
But even back then, God called his people to understand that secular authority structures are part of his common grace for making the world a hospitable place for his children. Jesus laid the foundation for the separation of Church and state when he said, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mt 22:21).
Because the state has the power from God to punish criminals, we can obey Jesus and turn the other cheek (Mt 5:39), leaving vengeance to God (Ro 12:19). The government is usually the agent of God for this purpose. It is right for a man or woman who is totally free in Christ to submit to God by submitting to authority. However, this should not be done in a way that makes one man “head” over another (1 Cor 11:4).
Breaking Down the Key Parts of Romans 13:4
#1 “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.”
God is sovereign over even the worst of governments. Government itself is an invention of God and will last for an eternity (Isa 9:6). God intends for humans to live in societies together. Love for God is lived out as a love for your neighbor. Governments and their laws are part of the grace of God for caring for his creation.
#2 “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.”
Unfortunately, oppressive and corrupt governments may abuse their power, but even corrupt governments will punish wrongdoers. Paul tells his readers that they should fear the government when they break the laws that are just, because there is a “reason” for the sword that officials carry. That is why God has given them the sword for justice.
#3 They are God’s servants, agents of wrath, to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
God has wrath for sin and corruption. Even a corrupt governor can be an agent of that wrath. God used corrupt agents all throughout history. Nebuchadnezzar was considered the “Hammer of God” though he would be judged for his overzealous treatment of the Jews and for his arrogance. The hand of God, coupled with the free will of evil governors and kings is shown countless times in the Old Testament.
Expert Overview of Romans Ch. 5-16
Biblical Translations of Romans 13:4
For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong.
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.
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.
For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.