Updated: Aug 22
Submitting to rulers as an antidote for our hearts.
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. –Titus 3:1-3
Fewer things are more grating to our modern ears than the call to submit to authority. None more so than submitting to the authority of political rulers. Elected officials are denounced on all sides as corrupt, inept, or some combination of the two. Impeachment is now routine in Washington. If this is our impression of government authority, what virtue is there in submitting to them?
It’s not by accident that the Apostle Paul lists submission to rulers and authorities in this list of moral commands. Since the garden, pride has been the perpetual problem in the heart of men. Pride provokes men to think they know better than their Creator (Genesis 3:6). Pride also leads men to falsely believe they can work to make themselves right before a holy God, as in the case of the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:17-31).
Pride corrupts man’s vertical relationship with God, but it also impairs his relationships with others. John Calvin, commenting on this passage, argues that our pride “would never accept to be ruled by anyone.” In other words, being the prideful sinners we are, none of us would ever voluntarily submit to any authority if not for God’s grace and sovereign decree.
Our sinful inclination is to compare ourselves with others in ways that benefit us. Calvin gives voice to many of our inner calculations: “Are we not all sons of Adam? Did we not all come out of Noah’s ark? Why should I submit to him? He ought to be inferior to me!”
“When we think this way about people,” Calvin says, “we always find good reasons to resist.” The remedy is remembering the purpose and divine origin of authority:
“Once, however, we fully understand Paul’s point–that rulership does not exist to suit men’s whims, that it derives from God, that sovereigns do not rule by chance but by God’s determination–once that is understood, unless we mean to make war on God we can only choose to live quietly.”
No one holds high political office apart from God’s sovereign will. His decree prompts our humble obedience. Likewise, all government authorities are responsible for ruling justly, punishing those who do evil and praising those who do good (1 Peter 2:14). Though some are called to rule while others are called to be ruled, all of us are answerable to the Almighty King of Heaven (Psalm 2).
Paul, however, gives another reason for humble submission. In v. 3, Paul reminds Titus and the other elders in Crete to be patient with sinners–even sinners in government–because “we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.”
True humility born from the “regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (v. 5) will recognize the same slavery to sin in others that once enchained our own hearts but not for the grace of God (Romans 6). We did not free ourselves but were ransomed by the costly love of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Just as God loved a people who did not love him, so too are Christians to love their enemies–even those who occupy high political office.
Obedience to God’s Word requires we love those in power by humbly and patiently submitting to their just authority while praying for their repentance when they err. This is all the more important when they actively scorn God’s will, as many in our government do today. For this will train our hearts in humility, put to death all remaining pride in our hearts, and prepare our souls for eternity in glory with our great God and King.
 All quotes from John Calvin come from his Sermons on Titus (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 2015).