God Rules Over All Civil Magistrates

Posted on January 12, 2015


There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!

I really appreciate the above quote from Dutch Reformer Abraham Kuyper as it sums up Christ’s reign – over everything. It’s similar to what Dr. RC Sproul has said:

There is no maverick molecule if God is sovereign.

Indeed, God is sovereign, and there are no maverick atoms in all the cosmos. There are no maverick beasts roaming the earth. There are no maverick people in all of the world. And, there are no maverick kingdoms ruling over the nations. In other words, there are no maverick governments.

God rules. Everything.

This is where I find theonomists to be so inconsistent. As Calvinists, they affirm the absolute sovereignty of God in all of creation and in all human affairs, including salvation, but when it comes to government or forming government, they act as if God is not in control and He needs our help to bring government under His subjection.

Ironically, theonomists forget that all governments are already under His subjection to do as He pleases – sometimes for good, sometimes for terror. It’s as if they think the kingdoms of this world are not under His rule unless and until they adopt the Mosaic law as their national constitution. This wrongly asserts the Mosaic law is mandated to pagan nations in the first place, and it wrongly assumes Christ is not already Lord of the nations (I trust theonomists don’t actually believe Jesus is not already Lord over the nations; their seeking to baptize nations with Mosaic law merely demonstrates their inconsistency).

No kingdom, empire, democracy, republic, dictatorship, monarchy or any form of any government has ever existed apart from the sovereign decree and purpose of God. Whether ancient Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome, France, Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Hitler’s Germany, the Ayatollah’s Iran, or the future kingdom of the Antichrist – none of these have raised themselves up. God did it, and He has ruled over each one, and each one has, is, and will fulfill His sovereign plans for redemptive history.

With the last article, The Law of Nature Is the Law of God as our foundation, we will now consider how God rules over the kingdoms of the earth.

God Establishes Every Kingdom

The state existed before the Mosaic law was given to Israel. After the Flood and some 800 years before God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, God began to separate the descendants of Noah’s sons into nations:

From these the coastland peoples spread in their lands, each with his own language, by their clans, in their nations. – Genesis 10:5

During this time, the first “mighty man”, Nimrod, built his kingdom, which would be the beginning of man seeking autonomous rule apart from God (Genesis 10:8-12). Even so, the Lord permitted Nimrod (who was “without law”, mind you (Romans 2:12-15)) and his descendants to “go their own way” rebelling against God (Acts 14:16).

Within the next few hundred years, God would call Abraham to the promised land of Canaan. Along the way, Abraham entered the land of Egypt and was confronted by Pharaoh, ruler of that nation. Reading through Genesis 13-14, we read of more kingdoms and their rulers, to include the wicked men of Sodom (who were “without law”) and their wicked king (Gen. 13:13; 14:22-24).  Then we come to Genesis 15, where God establishes His covenant with Abraham, and promises him the land that at that time belonged to other nations (v. 18-20). But let’s take a closer look at verses 13-16:

Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

Abram’s offspring would be the Israelites, who would sojourn in the land of Egypt (“a land that is not theirs”). Egypt, a nation (“without law”) that God established for His sovereign purpose, would oppress and enslave the Israelites for four hundred years. It was God’s plan that Egypt would enslave Israel, and as God promised, He brought judgment upon Egypt and saved His people from its captivity. Then notice why God would wait “four generations” before bringing the Israelites into the promised land, Canaan, the land of the Amorites. The Lord says “for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

Here we have three nations represented: Egypt, Israel, and the Amorites. God would set Israel apart for Himself as a holy people, to whom He would give “the Law” and the covenant promises. There is also Egypt, whom God would raise up as a mighty nation to demonstrate His power when He would rescue His people from under their rule. Then there are the Amorites, whose land God would give to His covenant people Israel, but not until the Amorites had completed their iniquity against the Lord. Note John Gill in his commentary on Genesis 15:16:

for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full…wicked people have a measure of iniquity to fill up, which is known of God; some are longer, some are quicker in filling it up, during which time God waits patiently and bears with them; but, when it is completed, he stays no longer, but takes vengeance on them…they were not arrived to that depth of wickedness they afterwards would and did, and which brought on their ruin, and so made way for the posterity of Abram to inherit their land…

God was allowing the Amorites (who were “without law”) to go their own way, that they would fill up the cup of God’s wrath for their iniquity (Psalm 75:7-8), and so be judged that Israel would inherit the land.

It is important to understand this history to help us have a biblical perspective of God’s dealings with nations, both then and now. My contention in this debate is discerning what is God’s purpose in human government and what it is not. If God purposed to redeem human government by an absolute and universal standard, He would have given all the nations a civil law, not just Israel (and it was just Israel – see Psalm 147:19-20 and Deuteronomy 4:7-8). (It’s also important to note that the Mosaic law did not serve to save Israel either.) He did not give all nations an absolute, universal judicial standard from which to govern, and in times past left them to go their own way (Acts 14:16).

Egypt and Canaan are just two examples that demonstrate God’s dealing with pagan kingdoms is not redemptive, but serves to fulfill His plans of providence and working all things according to the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11). All governments rule by divine appointment alone, some are more moral while others being exceedingly wicked. Still, both under God’s authority fulfilling His purposes, and no government rules without God empowering them to do so. This is not to say we should not seek to positively influence these nations and see our leaders come to saving faith (by praying for them and pointing them to Scripture), but I do mean to say it is an argument against theonomy and any perceived mandate to brings the nations under ancient Israel’s divine constitution.

Bearing the Sword

Let’s now focus our attention on God’s purpose for government. As has been explained, no government exists apart from divine appointment. Romans 13:1 makes this abundantly clear:

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.

Every single government that has ever existed and ever will exist will has been established by God. It’s purpose as ordained by God is to punish evil doers (Romans 13:4), and to commend those who do good (1 Peter 2:14). God has empowered the state alone to carry out judicial penalties against lawbreakers, which may come in the form of fines, imprisonment, or death. Citizens who obey the law of the land should expect to be commended by their governing authorities, which may come in the form of providing their citizens protection from lawbreakers.

The 1689 LBCF states in 24.1, Of the Civil Magistrate:

God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates to be under him, over the people, for his own glory and the public good; and to this end hath armed them with the power of the sword, for defence and encouragement of them that do good, and for the punishment of evil doers. (Romans 13:1-4)

Dr. Sam Walrdon notes in his Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (bold emphasis mine, paragraphs added):

The first and central point asserted in this paragraph is that civil magistrates are divinely appointed. They derive their authority from God. This strikes at the root of a fundamental modern error. A.A. Hodge properly remarks, ‘Some have supposed that the right of legitimate authority of human government has its foundation ultimately in “the consent of the governed”, “the will of the majority”, or in some imaginary “social compact” entered into by the forefathers of the race at the origin of social life. It is self-evident, however, that the divine will is the source of all government and the obligation to obey that will, resting upon all moral agents, the ultimate ground of all obligation to obey human governments.

As Hodge makes clear, we obey because God wills it, not because we have voluntarily committed ourselves to certain men to whom we have given authority. The Bible does not teach the social contract theory of government which many of us were taught in school. According to Romans 13:1-2 the Roman emperors were divinely ordained rulers even though they did not derive their authority from ‘the consent of the governed’. The theory that says that we obey our rulers because ultimately they obey us is neither true nor biblical (285).

I would also add, the theory that says we obey our rulers only if the law is Mosaic law (or what the theonomist would wrongly assert as “biblical law”) is neither true nor biblical. But that will be the topic of the next article when we take a look at Christian submission to the civil magistrate as opposed to lawless anarchy.

The legitimacy of government is not dependent upon any qualifier. No matter how far they fall short of or malign their intended purpose to protect the welfare of its citizens and punish criminals, the government is legitimate because its source is divine. John Calvin explains in Institutes of the Christian Religion (bold emphasis mine, paragraphs added):

But if we have respect to the word of God, it will lead us farther, and make us subject not only to the authority of those princes who honestly and faithfully perform their duty toward us, but all princes, by whatever means they have so become, although there is nothing they less perform than the duty of princes. For though the Lord declares that a ruler to maintain our safety is the highest gift of his beneficence, and prescribes to rulers themselves their proper sphere, he at the same time declares, that of whatever description they may be, they derive their power from none but him. Those, indeed, who rule for the public good, are true examples and specimens of his beneficence, while those who domineer unjustly and tyrannically are raised up by him to punish the people for their iniquity. Still all alike possess that sacred majesty with which he has invested lawful power. I will not proceed further without subjoining some distinct passages to this effect.

We need not labour to prove that an impious king is a mark of the Lord’s anger, since I presume no one will deny it, and that this is not less true of a king than of a robber who plunders your goods, an adulterer who defiles your bed, and an assassin who aims at your life, since all such calamities are classed by Scripture among the curses of God. But let us insist at greater length in proving what does not so easily fall in with the views of men, that even an individual of the worst character, one most unworthy of all honour, if invested with public authority, receives that illustrious divine power which the Lord has by his word devolved on the ministers of his justice and judgment, and that, accordingly, in so far as public obedience is concerned, he is to be held in the same honour and reverence as the best of kings (Book IV, Ch. 20, Para 25).

The Foundation of Rule for Government

Have you ever wondered why even “Bibleless” societies have a resemblance of order, and the norm is that there are not rampages of raping, murdering, stealing, arson, and other violations against  God’s image-bearers and their property? Why don’t we see absolute and universal lawlessness throughout all of these societies? Well, it’s not because of naturalism and moral relativism; it’s because man is made in the image of God and is not absolutely depraved, God has written His moral law to man’s heart, and He has established all government to restrain evil and punish criminals. Even under the most tyrannical regimes is a degree of law and order. Thus, Calvin could rightly say that “tyranny is better than anarchy.”

While there are some general principles for government that may be gleaned from the Mosaic law, none of the Mosaic law is mandated to Gentile governments. Zero. We can go to nearly a millennium before the Mosaic law was mandated to Israel, to find the very foundation to establish all civil law, Genesis 9:5-6:

And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.

That is the foundation of law and order in society. Dr. Wayne Grudem notes in Politics According to the Bible:

…God establishes the obligation to carry out the most severe punishment (the taking of a human life) in retribution for the most horrible crime (the murder of another human being). Once this principle is established, then the imposition of lesser penalties for lesser crimes is also validated, since if a government has the right to carry out the most severe kind of punishment, then it certainly has the right to carry out lesser punishments for lesser crimes as well (78).

Psalm 82:2-4 further gives us a principle for government:

How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

Grudem comments:

This statement emphasizes that (1) rulers must judge with fairness and righteousness, and not “show partiality” but judge only according to the law and the facts in the case; (2) they must pay special attention to defending “the weak and the fatherless” and by implication others who have little power to defend themselves; and (3) they are to use their power to stop “the wicked” from harming others, particularly those who are “weak” and “needy” (79).

Predictably, the theonomist will ask his tiresome “by what standard?” question (read about Combating the Theonomist Trap) By what standard does government rule and carry out justice, judging fairly and righteously? The theonomist wrongly points to the Mosaic law as his standard of “biblical law”, but as has been demonstrated in the last article and this current article, Gentiles are “without law” (eg Mosaic law). Therefore, the biblical standard does not equal the “Mosaic standard” as biblical law does not equal Mosaic law.

The biblical standard is biblical law according to what God has written to the heart of every man who has been made in the image of God (natural law). In whatever way Gentile governments do not rule justly according to what they know to be good, they will answer to the Sovereign Judge who put them in power (because they have sinned against the “moral” or natural law God has inscribed to their hearts). It is obvious from history that natural law is sufficient for civil order in pagan societies, though the special revelation of Scripture brings clarity to just governing principles that have been tainted by sin.


The reader may be wondering why it is I did not spend most of my time detailing the standards by which Gentile governments must rule. The reason I did not is because Scripture does not spend that much time on the subject. It is incorrect to demand the “civil law” of theocratic Israel to be the absolute, universal mandate to all nations, because God never mandated such. This theory is derived from a faulty view of God’s law and covenants. God alone “removes kings and sets up kings” (Daniel 2:21). He rules over each of them for our good and for His glory, regardless of how justly or tyrannically they may rule. It is not God’s purpose to redeem governments and subject them to a covenanted law He never established with them.

The laws imposed by governments that reflect the eternal moral law of God are obviously good. Regardless of these governments acknowledging these just laws are derived from a divine source, the fact they are imposed demonstrates men are ruling according to the law God has imposed on nature. However they veer away from just rule is the degree to which they are suppressing the truth in their unrighteousness, and they will answer to God for it. Still, those who rule ruthlessly do so only by divine will.

It is important to recognize while passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 describe the purpose of government, their primary subject is not a prescription for government, but rather a mandate to the Christian to humbly respond and submit to those in authority. As important as it might be for Christians to be a positive influence on societal affairs (to include the civil magistrate), it is of much greater importance to understand our duty of Christian submission. That is Paul’s emphasis, and it will be the topic of the next article.