Romans 13:5—Submission for the sake of conscience.
but also for the sake of conscience.
This verse states two reasons Christians must subject themselves to secular rulers. The first reason—to avoid God’s wrath—summarizes verses 3 and 4 where Paul warns against bad conduct that could bring down on oneself or on the church the ruler’s punishment. As discussed previously, Paul assumes the ruler is the unwitting agent or “servant” of God, who authorizes the ruler to punish evildoers for the benefit of society.
Paul’s emphasis here is on the second reason—“for the sake of conscience”—so this topic is the subject of my message.
What is the conscience?
In chapter 2, verse 15, Paul wrote about the conscience in unbelievers. It is the faculty by which people measure their conformity to God’s moral standards (tell the truth, do not steal, do not murder, do not commit adultery, obey parents, etc.). God has deposited in people’s hearts an awareness of his moral law, whether or not they know the source of that law. In people’s thoughts, their conscience “bears witness” how well they comply with the law God has written on their hearts, and they accuse or excuse themselves for their behavior.
Paul concluded in chapter 2 that everyone is guilty even by his or her own measure, let alone God’s holy standard, because no one faithfully and at all times complies with what he or she knows to be right.
Before we are saved, the conscience works well enough to condemn us, but it is a flawed faculty not sensitive to all that God requires of us. Human beings are fallen creatures who do what is right in their own eyes (Proverbs 21:2) without regard to what God says is right. When we respond to the gospel, our conscience comes alive. Through our study of God’s word, the indwelling Holy Spirit sensitizes our conscience for increasing awareness of God’s will and purpose.
What does Paul mean here?
Paul is saying that the redeemed conscience instructs us about both God’s intention for the state and the necessity that we submit to the state. Submission is a topic of profound importance in God’s kingdom, as Paul’s own life demonstrates. He repeatedly referred to himself as a slave of Christ (see 1:1) and devoted his life completely to God’s will and purpose, which for him was to preach the gospel. We must submit to God’s will in all instances, including to the institutions he has established. This is the instruction of our conscience.
Peter, in his first epistle, likewise refers to the conscience in a passage of instruction identical to Paul’s:
In sum, the fundamental reason we are to submit to secular authorities is that our conscience bears witness to the fact it is God’s will. God has instituted the state as part of his “providential ordering of the world for our good and his glory” (Douglas Moo).