Romans 13:5, “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”
The New Testament emphatically states that Christians are not of this world, that we do not belong to a kingdom that operates by the fallen standards of humanity and that we are not to love the world (John 18:36; 1 John 2:15). Were this the only teaching on the believer’s relationship to the world that we possessed, we might think that we are to completely disregard earthly institutions such as the secular government. However, the New Testament has far more to say about the world than that we are not to love its fallen ways of doing things. The fact that we are citizens of the heavenly kingdom, Paul has shown us, does not entail a refusal to obey the governing authorities. Instead, we are to submit ourselves to the earthly rulers when they do not forbid us from doing what God commands or do not command us to do what God forbids. We must do this because the Lord instituted these authorities to punish evil and protect the innocent (Rom. 13:4).
The Apostle Paul reiterates this point in today’s passage when he says that we “must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (v. 5). Here we find a twofold motivation for obeying the government. First, in obeying the authorities, we escape the Lord’s wrath. In other words, since the government carries out divine judgment when it uses the sword in accordance with its divinely granted function to punish evildoers (v. 4), we avoid its wrath when we obey the law. When our rulers rightly judge criminals, they are acting as God’s instruments, and if we break lawful rules that do not force us to sin, we rightly receive discipline at the hands of the Lord through the secular authorities.
Of course, the Lord does not want us to obey merely out of a desire to avoid punishment but also because it is the right thing to do. This is what Paul means when he tells us to obey the secular authorities “for the sake of conscience” (v. 5). In Scripture, conscience refers to that aspect of our personality that discerns right from wrong, that part of us that is to be rightly formed by divine revelation so that we do the right things for the right reasons (2:14-16). To obey for the sake of conscience means that we submit ourselves to the government because we recognize that God has appointed it to perform its specific vocation for the good of human society. Christians are to submit themselves to the governing authorities not merely because they fear punishment but because it is the will of the Lord that His people obey the authorities He has instituted.
Doing good for any reason is better than doing evil, but the Lord does not find our doing good pleasing unless we are doing it for the right reasons. Only those who have been transformed by the grace of God can do what is right for the right reasons. As Christians, we are called to have consciences trained by the Word of God, so that we might more and more seek to serve the Lord because it is right for us to do so and not only because we fear His discipline.