August 30, 2022

Living as Faithful Citizens

Living as Faithful Citizens

Tim Nicholls

10 Minute Read

“Saya anak Malaysia” sings my son with joy as Merdeka approaches another year. Merdeka is a precious time for every Malaysian, an opportunity to pause from our everyday lives to thank God for the freedom and blessings he’s poured upon this land, and to commit the nation to his loving care. The flags and the songs are a reminder of the joy and happiness it is to be Malaysian, with its melting pot of diverse cultures, foods, peoples, and languages. No doubt this year, the celebrations will be bigger and more joyful than ever, as we emerge from three years of Covid-19 restrictions. Finally, we can gather in person to celebrate and to look forward to the future, as we consider how we may build this nation together.

As we celebrate Hari Kemerdekaan Yang Ke-65, what will it look like to live as faithful citizens of Malaysia? How would God have us live our lives for his glory in this place? We find some answers to these important questions in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

1. The Context: The Mercies of God (Romans 1-11)

Romans 13 comes after an important turning point in the book. In chapters 1-11, Paul has explained the gospel of God: how God has saved sinners from his judgement through Christ’s sacrificial death in our place (Rom. 3:21-26) and set forth all the blessings that result both now and in eternity. But from Romans 12 onwards, Paul shows how we are to respond to God’s mercies, offering our whole lives to God as a living sacrifice, worshipping God in all of life, all the time (Rom. 12:1-2). Romans 13 shows us that an important part of our life worship in response to the gospel, is our everyday submission to the authorities and our love for our neighbour.

2. The Command: Submit to the Governing Authorities (Romans 13:1-2)

Paul reminds us of the importance of submitting to the governing authorities.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

~ Romans 13:1-2

Here we’re reminded that God in his sovereignty has given us our rulers. No matter how we feel about our rulers or how imperfect they may be, an important part of Christian worship is to willingly submit to the authorities that God has appointed over us. Since God installs our rulers and commands us to obey them, submission to the ruling authorities is thus an expression of our submission to God.

Paul doesn’t put any qualifiers on our submission to governing authorities. In Paul’s day, the authorities were rarely favorable to Christians. It is likely that Paul wrote these verses during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero, who fiercely persecuted Christians, torturing and killing them. Despite this, Paul urged willing submission as part of our worship of God. Likewise, the apostle Peter gave similar command to the suffering Christians he addressed: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution… honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 2:13-17). Ultimately, our first obedience must always be to God. But we must not allow a dislike for certain policies or politicians to become an unwarranted excuse to withhold the submission to authorities to which we are called.

What does submit to the authorities look like? It means we will obey the law in our business practices, comply with health orders, observe copyright laws, obey the road rules, pay our taxes and much besides. We will gladly seek to obey the laws of the land. This willing submission will not simply mean obeying the letter of the law, at the same searching for loopholes and technicalities by which we can escape the law’s demands. We will obey with a willing heart, not only the letter of the law but the true spirit (or intention) of it.

3. The Reason: The Authorities are God’s Servants (3-7)

Why should we submit to the ruling authorities? In Romans 12:3-7, Paul explains that the ruling authorities are “God’s servants” (Rom. 13:4), “ministers of God” (Rom 13:6) appointed by God to do his will in bringing justice. Whether or not they recognize him, the authorities are agents and representatives, put in place to reward good conduct and to punish evil (Romans 13:3-4).

Ultimately, there will be a final judgement day, when we will all appear before the judgement seat of Christ to give account of our lives (2 Cor. 5:10). On that day, God will bring perfect justice. But not all judgement and punishment are reserved for the future. The governing authorities have been graciously appointed by God to execute his wrath now, to limit the damage we may do to one another in our sinful rebellion. Just as King Cyrus was the Lord’s “anointed” (Isaiah 45:1), appointed by him to fulfill his purposes, so even non-Christian rulers are to be viewed as servants of God, doing the will of God, to bring the justice of God.

Recognizing our rulers as God’s servants ought to change the way we think and relate to our rulers. For if they are servants of God, then how we treat them is a subset of how we are treating God. As God’s agents and representatives, we ought to relate to them with humility, respect, and willing obedience.

On this Merdeka Day, we ought to thank God for all the ways we see how our governing authorities faithfully fulfilling their God-given duty of bringing justice and peace. Of course, no government is perfect. After all, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). It is right for us to mourn over corruption and injustice when it occurs, and to advocate for true justice to be done. But the failures of some do not invalidate the rightful authority of our rulers, nor justify withholding respect. Knowing how prone we all are to weakness and sin, should move us to pray all the more for our leaders. Paul urges us to pray “for kings and all who are in high positions” that we may be able to lead “a peaceful and quiet life” that commends the gospel to those around us (1 Timothy 2:1-2). If you are not already, make it a habit to pray regularly for our Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Prime Minister, and all who serve with and under them that they may rule with justice, wisdom, and integrity.

Paul reminds us we should obey the governing authorities not simply to avoid being punished but “for the sake of conscience” (Romans 13:5). Godly conduct is never motivated only from fear of consequences but from love for the good. As Christians, we gladly submit to the governing authorities not simply because we are required to, but because with hearts changed by the gospel, we joyfully wish to pursue all that is good and right in God’s eyes.

This means we should gladly pay our taxes, giving our rulers what is due (Rom 13:6 cf. Mark 12:14-17). Rather than cheating on our taxes through dishonest declarations, we pay our taxes (and our samans!) promptly and on time. Paul writes:

Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

~ Romans 13:7

If we owe a saman or a student loan or some other debit, we are called to promptly pay it as part of our spiritual worship. But not only are we to give our rulers tax money, but the respect and honour we owe them in view of their God-given position of authority. No matter how disappointed we may be certain rulers or policies, part responding to God’s mercy in wholehearted worship is to give due respect to our leaders.

4. The Result: Fulfilment of the Law (Romans 13:8-10)

In Romans 13:8-10, Paul turns from the command to submit, and the reason to submit to the result of submission: the fulfilment of the law. Paul extends our duty to one another beyond simple obedience to the laws, to love for our neighbour.

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

~ Romans 13:8

Paul (like Jesus) summarizes the Ten Commandments with the command: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:9-10 cf. Matthew 22:34-40). Love “does no wrong to a neighbour” (Romans 13:10), but extends beyond that, to seeking the good of my neighbor in every circumstance. If we focus merely on rules, we may see a limit to what we owe those around us. We can ensure taxes are paid, and loans repaid, and respect shown. But we will never be able to exhaust our obligation to love those around us (Romans. 12:8). Being a faithful citizen means more than obeying the laws of the land. It means loving the people who live there, both those who are citizens, and the foreigners who dwell among them.

Being a faithful citizen means doing good to everyone and especially to fellow Christians, as we have opportunity (Gal. 6:10). It means giving generously to the poor, caring for the sick, accompanying the lonely, and comforting the broken. It means we will seek to meet not only physical needs but also spiritual needs as we share the good news of the gospel.

5. The Transforming Power of the Gospel

On this Merdeka Day as we celebrate the past and look forward to the future, what would you say is Malaysia’s greatest need? Good governance? Excellence in education? Economic development? Advances in our health system? Romans 13 shows us, that what Malaysia needs most is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. For only the gospel has the power to save sinners and make them right with God. Only the gospel has the power to transform our hearts, and indeed transform our society, as we respond to the mercies of God. For the gospel makes us people who gladly submit to authority. The gospel makes us people who genuinely love others, in response to the love we have received.

How ever you may feel about the present state of Malaysia – whether you are optimistic or pessimistic – the gospel ought to fill us with hope for the future. The gospel tells us that even now Christ our King rules in perfect justice and perfect love for his people. The gospel assures that one day Christ will return as the judge of the living and the dead, to execute God’s perfect justice. The gospel helps us look forward with hope to the day when Christ to ushers in the perfect Kingdom of God, where death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more (Revelation 21:4). When Jesus returns, corruption and injustice will be a thing of the past. We will live in everlasting joy under the perfect rule of the perfect king. As we wait for that day, we respond to God’s mercies, joyfully offering our lives in worship, submitting to the authorities, and loving our neighbour.

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Originally from Australia, Tim Nicholls came to know Christ as a child, before maturing in his faith during his university years. Tim now lives in Malaysia and serves as a Pastor at St George’s Anglican Church in Georgetown, Penang. Tim is married to Siew Mun and they have four children. Tim loves Malaysian food, the hot tropical weather, and is learning to speak BM and Mandarin! But most of all he loves Jesus, and is passionate about seeing people from all nations and all stages of life come to know Christ as their Lord and Saviour and joyfully live for his glory.

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