PMW 2020-095 by Jason Lisle (Biblical Science Institute)
Many people have the impression that the Church is God’s institution and that the government is not. Consequently, the Church must abide by the Bible in all matters, but the government must stay away from religious matters. After all, isn’t there a separation of Church and state? In reality, both the Church and the state are God’s institutions and both are morally obligated to abide by biblical principles. When a government functions in the way God has specified, it is a blessing to all the people. But a government that will not follow biblical principles inevitably becomes a tyrannical “beast” that oppresses its own citizens.
The Biblical Purpose of Government
In Romans 13:1 the Apostle Paul states, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” Since government is God’s idea, it is inherently good and right in principle. Paul continues, “Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.”
What is God’s purpose for government? Romans 13:4 states, “for it is a minister of God to you for good… an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” So, God’s purpose for government is to punish criminals, and this is for the good of society. Paul explains, “for it does not bear the sword for nothing” (Romans 13:4). In other words, God has authorized the government to use deadly force for certain capital crimes. Therefore, the state should have a well-armed police force for the protection of its citizens. And the state should have judges to ensure that people accused of a crime receive a fair trial (Deuteronomy 16:18). This also keeps the police in check since they too must follow the law lest they be punished.
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There is a very good reason why God has authorized the state to punish criminals. It restrains violence and wickedness in society for the protection of law-abiding citizens. And it does so in two ways. First, extremely violent crimes such as murder and rape incur the death penalty. This permanently prevents the criminal from any further acts of violence, thereby purging the evil (Deuteronomy 19:19). Second, it acts as a deterrent. Deuteronomy 19:20 states, “The rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you.”
There is another reason why God authorizes the state to punish criminals; it foreshadows justice. It is morally right for a law-breaker to be punished. We see this before our eyes when a criminal is rightly sentenced for his crime. Moreover, we understand that his punishment should fit the crime (Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:20). A person who has wronged his neighbor should pay according to the severity of the crime. This is right and good, and we benefit from seeing the state rightly uphold this principle.
However, the state can only provide a foretaste of justice because it does not fully accomplish justice. Sin is ultimately a crime against God (Psalm 51:4). It is treason against the King of kings. As such, any sin is worthy of death and eternal separation from God’s love (Romans 6:23). But God is both patient and gracious. He delays ultimate justice for our benefit. The unrepentant will receive full justice only on judgment day (Revelation 20:11-15). And for those who have repented of sin and trusted in Christ, God Himself paid the debt on the cross and justice was satisfied.
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So, the state does not accomplish full justice – God did not design it for that purpose. Nor can the state remove all evil. Only Christ can do that. Rather, the state exists to reduce wickedness and mitigate sin by punishing criminals for certain specified crimes. And it teaches us about justice.
The Limitations of the State
Note that God has not authorized the government to punish all sins. For example, coveting is a sin (Exodus 20:17), but the state is not authorized to punish those who commit it. Coveting is an internal sin of the heart and mind. And the state has no authority or capacity to evaluate such sin. In fact, if a government agent attempted to punish a person for something like coveting, the agent himself would be in sin because he is stealing vengeance from God (Romans 12:19). God reserves the right to repay for Himself, except for those specific crimes He has delegated to the state as His authorized servant (Romans 12:19; 13:4)….
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