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Romans 13: With Good, We Overcome Evil

An outline of romans 12 - 13 illustrating a chiastic structure with an emphasis on overcoming evil with good.
One chiasm outline of Romans 12 – 13

Connecting Romans 12 – 13: Overcoming evil with good

The scripture was not originally divided into chapters and verses. The book of Romans is a letter, one paragraph flowing into the next. So it is quite possible that the beginning of chapter 13 is an extension of the previous paragraph. Paul is talking about the problem of evil in Romans 12:9-21. Look at these three statements:

Hate Evil: Don’t repay it! Don’t be overcome by it!

  1. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
  2. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 
  3. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

What to do about evil (wrongdoing)

Then Paul says, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities …  They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

We live out the gospel message by loving our enemies. After all, that is the essence of our salvation — while we were God’s enemies, He sent His son to die, reconciling us to Himself (Rom 5:10). We honor His gift of grace when we, in turn, offer grace to others, especially our enemies.

And we trust the institution of government that God has established, as well as God Himself, to deal with the wicked. The scripture says never to avenge ourselves, but leave it to God’s wrath.

He is the one who sits on the earth’s horizon;
its inhabitants are like grasshoppers before him.
He is the one who stretches out the sky like a thin curtain,
and spreads it out like a pitched tent.
He is the one who reduces rulers to nothing;
he makes the earth’s leaders insignificant.
Indeed, they are barely planted;
yes, they are barely sown;
yes, they barely take root in the earth,
and then he blows on them, causing them to dry up,
and the wind carries them away like straw.

Isaiah 40:22-24 NET

Romans 13 and submission to authority

But Romans 13:1-7 raises the question of our obedience to the governing authorities over us. Commentators suggest that the words in this context do not imply blind obedience to the government but submission to the concept of hierarchy, acknowledging that each of us lives under the authority of another.

We can use a few Biblical examples and principles to interpret this passage, especially when considering the question of civil disobedience.

Biblical examples of civil disobedience

We have several examples in Scripture of civil disobedience where the ruling government compelled God-fearing men and women to go against His law:

  • In Egypt, Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill the male babies in the day of Moses’ birth, but they lied to Pharaoh and saved the babies.
  • In Babylon, Daniel respectfully asked not to eat the rich food of the palace and negotiated a healthier diet for the captives and himself.
  • Daniel openly prayed to God in Babylon even after the decree that no one could pray to anyone except the king for thirty days.
  • Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego refused to bow down to a statue of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon.
  • In Jerusalem, the disciples were told not to preach in Jesus’ name, but they said they could not help speaking about what they had seen and heard.

Note there is no New Testament scripture that teaches us to overthrow governments. Paul, for example, lived and served God in pagan cities. He never addressed changing the laws or trying to impose Christian law on the land in general. Instead, he taught us to tend to our own salvation, serve one another in love, and strive for unity in the church.

Principles related to civil disobedience

The principles that are clearly stated in scripture that guide our thinking about Romans 13:1 – 7 include the following:

  • The ultimate moral law is to love God with all of our hearts and our neighbors as Christ has loved us (Matt 22:36-40, Eph 5:2).
  • There is no Christian government, only governments established by God. This is a bold statement from Paul since Nero was likely the emperor when Paul was writing this letter. Nero was a wicked man. (Rom 13:1).
  • Since our citizenship is in heaven, we are exiles no matter in which earthly country we live (Phil 3:20).
  • We are to pray for all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful lives. We are told in scripture to mind our own business and lead a quiet life (1 Tim 2:2; 1 Thes 4:11).
  • Scriptural examples suggest that we actively engage with laws that compel sin but are not called to protest laws that allow sin.
  • Joseph, Daniel, and Esther are examples of God-called leadership in pagan countries. Even in Babylonian exile, God instructed the citizens of Jerusalem to seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which He carried them and to pray for that city. He told them that as the city of exile flourishes, so will they (Jeremiah 29).

The government that God establishes is His servant. We are called to submit to its authority, especially as the government is acting in ways appropriate for a government to act, rewarding the good and punishing the wrong.

The Central Thought: Overcoming evil with good

So how can we overcome evil with good?

  1. Following the verse, “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good,” the Apostle Paul lists ways to cling to what is good:
    • Be devoted to one another in mutual affection; excel at showing respect to one another.
    • Serve the Lord enthusiastically
    • Be cheerfully expectant, trusting in the goodness and promises of God
    • Practice patience in suffering
    • Pray continually, even pray for your enemies that God will bless them
    • Pursue hospitality
  2. Note the similarity to the Beatitudes in Romans 12:14 – 19
    • Bless and pray for our enemies
    • In the event of evil, act honorably, nobly, doing what is good and right
    • Remember that Jesus did not speak up to defend himself; when they insulted him, he was quiet. Hostility, wanting to avenge, is incompatible with the example Jesus gave us
    • Practice love that is sensitive to others, kind, and harmonious
  3. Seek to do good to our enemies, serving them in love and compassion

“To return evil for good is devilish;
to return good for good is human;
to return good for evil is divine.”

Alfred Plummer

Paul re-emphasizes that love is the fulfillment of the law of God. Love is the central theme of the Mosaic law. Genuine love for others compels us to uphold the commandments that outline our responsibilities to other people.

And we do so because our final redemption is near! Paul brings us back to his beginning statement in Romans 12, urging us to present ourselves as a living sacrifice, and in this final phrase, clothing ourselves with Christ! We renounce conformity to the world’s standards to walk worthy of God’s great calling on our lives!

Hymn of Praise

I’m set apart for Jesus,
To be a king and priest;
His life in me increases,
Upon his love I feast.
From evil separated,
Made holy by his blood,
My all is consecrated
Unto the living God.

I’m set apart for Jesus,
His goodness I have seen,
He makes my heart his altar,
He keeps his temple clean.
Our union none can sever,
Together every hour,
His life is mine for ever
With resurrection power.

I’m set apart for Jesus,
With him to ever stay,
My spirit he releases,
He drives my foes away.
He gives full strength for trial
And shields when darts are hurled;
With him and self-denial
I overcome the world.

William J. Pearson
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