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What does it mean that the government does not bear the sword in vain (Romans 13:4)?

bear the sword in vain

In the first section of Romans 13, Paul discusses how believers in Christ should interact with government and governing authorities. In that context he makes the remarkable statement that the government “does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4, ESV).

Paul’s letter to the Romans is an explanation of the good news about righteousness. The opening section affirms the universal need for God’s righteousness and its expression in the gospel (Romans 1:1—3:20). After showing the comprehensive need for God’s righteousness, Paul explains how God provides righteousness for humanity—by belief in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21—4:25). Paul then explains the implications of that righteousness and what the new life that results from that righteousness looks like (Romans 5—8). Paul clarifies how God will keep His promises and is trustworthy (Romans 9—11). Finally, Paul outlines the responsibilities that believers have in putting that righteousness into practice (Romans 12—16). It is in that final section that Paul explains what righteousness looks like for believers in Christ with relation to government and governing authorities. Government is not to be taken lightly, Paul says, for government does not bear the sword in vain, that is, “they have the power to punish you” (Romans 13:4, NLT).

Paul challenges believers to be subject to the governing authorities because authority is put in place by God (Romans 13:1). Because God is the source of true authority, anyone who resists the authority that God institutes is opposing God and is justly condemned (Romans 13:2). Rulers who are stewarding God’s authority are not a cause for fear for those who are doing good (Romans 13:3); rather, those authorities are servants of God for good to those who do good—but to those who do evil government authority is a wrathful avenger (Romans 13:4). Being subject is wise both to avoid wrath and to ensure a clear conscience (Romans 13:5). Paul offers the example of paying taxes. It is appropriate to render tax to whom tax is due (Romans 13:6). Government does not bear the sword—the power to execute—in vain. That sword is entrusted to government by God.

In Genesis 9, as part of God’s covenant with Noah and all living things on the earth, God explains a new administration in which whoever sheds human blood will have their blood shed (Genesis 9:6). In this mandate God gives His own authority to humanity to mete out judgment for murder. In this He establishes human government.

The specific instructions in Genesis 9:6 underscore the value of human life (because humanity is made in the image and likeness of God) and the responsibility of humanity to ensure that human life is protected. It is fair to say that, if government is not guarding human life in this way, then it is not functioning as designed and it is not stewarding faithfully the sword God gave.

One day, the Messiah will reign as King, and on Him will be the government (Isaiah 9:6–7; Revelation 20:4–6). Until then, imperfect people will be leading governments and will imperfectly steward the authority and the sword that God gave. In light of those limitations, Peter instructs believers to honor authority and be subject to every human institution (1 Peter 2:13–14)—including kings and governors as those who have been sent by God. That is part of honoring all people and honoring the king (1 Peter 2:17).

Government does not bear the sword in vain, and leaders are accountable for what they do with that sword. Kings, governors, and other leaders ought to measure how they govern against the standards God provides in Scripture to ensure that they are leading well and are, in fact, praising those who do right and judging evildoers (1 Peter 2:14).

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What does it mean that the government does not bear the sword in vain (Romans 13:4)?
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This page last updated: June 28, 2023