John Brown: The Right Application of Romans 13:4

John Brown: The Right Application of Romans 13:4

From On the Absurdity of Authoritative Toleration of Gross Heresy, Blasphemy or Idolatry

Magistrates should not force people to believe, but they are called to restrain evil

Though the law of God does not allow magistrates any attempting to force men into the faith, profession or practice of the true religion, or of their punishing any thing relative to it (which is not an open and manifest violation of the law of God or plainly destructive to the welfare of the commonwealth), yet it requires them to restrain, and even seasonably and suitably to punish, blasphemy, idolatry, and like grosser corruptions and insults upon the true religion, when [those offenders] become openly notorious, and especially if [they] obstinately continue in [those practices], to the offence and hurt of others.

Scriptural support

  1. Such restraint and punishment are represented in Scripture as an eminent service done to God: Exod 32:4, 26, 29; 1 Sam 15:2-3; 1 Sam 18:22; Rev 17:14, 16; Rev 19:17-19; & Song 2:15, in which last text, the word rendered “take” ordinarily signifies an external and forcible taking. (Compare with 2 Sam 1:10; Judg 12:6; Judg 16:3, 21; Psa 139:9, Exod 4:4; Gen 25:26; & Gen 22:13.)
  2. The end [desired outcome] of God’s appointment of magistrates is the good of the subjects, Rom 13:4. Now such corruptions in religion impair that good, in preventing the spread and success of the gospel, which are exceedingly calculated [designed] to render men virtuous and happy, even in this life (1 Tim 4:8; 1 Pet 3:11-13, Titus 2:12). [Contrariwise, they are to discourage] the hurt of men’s morals, safety, estate, peace and liberty (Rom 1:21-32; Rom 16:18; 2 Pet 2:1-3, 10, 12-13, 16, 18-19; Jude 1:4, 8, 10-13, 16, 18-19; 2nd Tim 4:3-4; 2 Tim 3:1-9, 13, 2nd Tim 2:16-17; 2nd Tim 4:2-5, & 2nd Tim 6:3-4).
  3. Such restraint and punishment are represented in Scripture as a blessing to be prayed for (1 Tim 2: 1-2, 4), and as a blessing for which God ought to be thanked (Ezra 7:25-28, & Rev 11:15, 17).
  4. It is promised that such restraint and punishment should be produced by the effusion of the Holy Ghost upon the Christian church (Zech 12:10, 12, 14, with Zech 13:1-6), and that [such restraint] should tend to the advantage even of some seducers, who should be brought to account the inflictors their real friends (Zech 13:4-6).
  5. The scripture represents evil as removed, and good, both moral and civil, as obtained, by such restraints and punishments (Deut 17:2, 5, 7, 10; 1 Kgs 18:40-41; & 2 Chron 14:3-5) and wickedness and misery as overflowing a nation, when neglected (Eccl 8:11; Judg 17:4-6, 12; 1 Sam 2:12-29; 1 Sam 4; & Ezek 22:25-26, 30-31).
  6. When judges neglected such restraint and punishment, God raised up some [others] in an extraordinary way, to execute them [i.e., restraint & punishment]. Thus:
  • Elijah executed the slaying of the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:40);
  • Jehu executed the slaying of others (2 Kgs 10:5-25);
  • The Jews, under the direction of Jehoiada, slew Mattan the priest of Baal; and
  • Christ himself once and again [i.e., twice] drove the buyers and sellers out of the temple (John 2:13-19, cf. Matt 11:12).

Why ought not magistrates, who are his vicegerents [i.e., persons representative of God], imitate God’s conduct (Psa 82:1, 6; 2 Chron 19:6 & Rom 13:1-4)?

  1. The Scripture affords many approved instances of such restraint or punishment of gross corruptions in religion, as:
  • by Jacob (Gen 35:24),
  • by the judges in the time and country of Job (Job 31:26-28),
  • by Moses (Exod 32:4, 20, 22, 29),
  • by the rulers of the ten tribes (Josh 22:10-34),
  • by Asa, (2 Chron 15:12, 13, 15),
  • by Jehoshaphat (2 Chron 19:3-8),
  • by Josiah (2 Chron 34:4, 33 & 2 Kgs 23:5, 20),
  • by Nehemiah (Neh 10:20),
  • by Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 3:29),
  • by Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:26), and
  • by the Protestant destroyers of Antichrist, Rev 17:16.