The Institution and Function of the Civil Government

The Institution and Function of the Civil Government

The subject we explore in this article is the civil government. A wide range of perspectives on government exists both in the world and in the church. Many are quite negative. It is important for Reformed young people to have a biblically informed perspective on government. To help us do so, let’s answer two questions: What is government? And what is its role and function?

The Institution of Civil Government

The first thing to understand about civil government is that God ordained it. God is the author of this institution. God appoints certain persons to occupy positions of authority and to exercise rule over the citizens within their territory.

Government is not man’s invention, which he can keep or get rid of as he pleases. People debate exactly when God instituted government. Did it begin with Adam’s headship in Eden, or did it originate in God’s command to Noah to execute murderers (Gen. 9:6)? Either way, the fact remains: God ordained government. Romans 13:1 states this clearly: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” The expression “powers that be” or “authorities that be” refers to the civil government. The apostle teaches that the institution of government itself, in whatever form it takes, is ordained by God. Furthermore, the apostle teaches that the present government—that is, the current system and rulers—is ordained by God. In Paul’s day, that was the imperial regime of emperor Nero. For us, the powers that be are the Trump administration. The bottom line is this: government is God’s institution. Therefore, every Christian must acknowledge that the government he lives under is put in place by God.

Second, God has given civil government real authority to rule. God puts civil rulers into office and gives them authority to do the work of their offices. Civil rulers are God’s representatives. They rule with God’s own authority. This authority consists of the right to make laws and require citizens to obey. God also gives the magistrate power to enforce laws and impose penalties upon lawbreakers. This power is called the sword power. In Romans 13:4 the apostle says of the power of the magistrate, “He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” The government has the authority to wield the sword, to use physical coercion to enforce its laws, maintain order, and protect its citizens and its realm.

The God-Given Role of Civil Government

               Now let’s look more closely at the God-given role of government. What are the responsibilities and duties of civil rulers?

First, the civil government has duties toward God. They are, after all, God’s ministers (Rom. 13:4, 6). A minister is a servant. Servants have duties to perform in the master’s service. They often fail to do this. A truly Christian ruler is truly rare. Often civil rulers are unbelievers. They disregard God’s word and rule according to their own philosophies and sinful desires. Yet this reality doesn’t negate their duty. They remain God’s servants, whether obedient or disobedient. Jehovah sovereignly controls them and providentially employs them to accomplish his purposes. “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will” (Prov. 21:1).

Second, the civil government has God-given duties toward its citizens. Romans 13:4 makes this clear: “For he is the minister of God to thee for good.” Civil rulers are God’s servants. Yes, God has given them authority, but God commands them to use that authority to minister to their citizens.

The chief duty of the civil government is to uphold law and order in society. Government’s function is to restrain the outward expression of man’s wickedness by punishing lawbreakers and evildoers. This is the teaching of Romans 13:4, which designates the magistrate as “the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Article 36 of the Belgic Confession describes this duty as governing “by certain laws and policies” so that “the dissoluteness of men might be restrained, and all things carried on among them with good order and decency.” For this task God has “invested the magistracy with the sword, for the punishment of evil doers.”

The wickedness and lawlessness of men must be restrained by force—the force of law backed up with the sword! If sinful man were given free rein to act on all the depraved desires of his heart without fear of punishment, the outcome would be rampant murder, robbery, and such gross sins. A secure and orderly society would be impossible. God has instituted the civil magistrate to curtail man’s sinful behavior. The government makes laws to keep good order and security in society. The government is called to punish lawbreakers. This includes the death penalty for murder and other grievous offenses. The civil magistrate must make itself “a terror” to evildoers in order to deter them from evil doing.  The state must execute wrath upon lawbreakers. That is its duty. God himself executes his vengeance on the evildoer through the civil government.

To be clear, the government cannot make men righteous. There is no common grace operating through government to improve the depraved nature of man. Civil law works as a muzzle on a rabid dog. A muzzle doesn’t make the dog any less vicious, but it does forcefully prevent the dog from biting. Civil law puts a muzzle on the rabid wickedness of men. The threat of punishment restrains the most destructive outward expressions of man’s sinfulness. But it cannot restrain the heart. To be effective, the government must use the sword. The government that refuses to punish evildoers disobeys God and fails to serve the well-being of its citizens.

While there is no common grace at work through the government, God does have a gracious purpose for his church. God uses the government to create a stable environment in which the church may worship, preach the gospel, and be gathered from out of the world. For that we must be thankful!

A second duty of the civil government is protecting and promoting the common good of its citizens. We find this stated in 1 Peter 2:14, which states that government is ordained “for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.” Article 36 of the Belgic Confession explains this duty as “the praise of them that do well” and “to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state.”

The main way the government protects its citizens is by maintaining law and order. It protects citizens by punishing lawbreakers within the realm. But the government must also protect its citizens from outside threats. God has given the government the authority to declare and wage war in defense of its realm and people. Furthermore, it is the government’s duty to protect the freedom of its citizens, to provide security for their lives and property, and to establish policies that are conducive to the common good. The government must uphold justice and promote the welfare of its law-abiding citizens. It is not the duty of the government to promote the true church and persecute the false. It has neither the competency nor the calling to do that. Rather, its duty is to protect the liberty of the church so that believers can live peaceably and in all godliness. In this way, the government has “regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state.”

Reformed Christians should be thankful for civil government. Although government offices are often filled by unbelievers, and although civil rulers often govern contrary to God’s word, nevertheless, the powers that be are ordained of God. These powers are God’s ministers to us for good. Jehovah himself uses them for the good of his church in the world. Let this be our biblically informed perspective on the magistrate!


Originally published November 2020, Vol 79 No 11