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Sermons on National Subjects, 27 - THE SOURCE OF LAW

By Charles Kingsley


      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.--ROMANS xiii. 1.

      In this chapter, which we read for the second lesson for this afternoon's service, St. Paul gives good advice to the Romans, and equally good advice to us.

      Of course what he says must be equally good for us, and for all people, at all times, in all countries, as long as time shall last; because St. Paul spoke by the Spirit of God, who is God eternal, and therefore cannot change His mind, but lays down, by the mouth of His apostles and prophets, the everlasting laws of right and wrong, which are always equally good for all.

      But there is something in this lesson which makes it especially useful to us; because we English are in some very important matters very like the Romans to whom St. Paul wrote; though in others, thanks to Almighty God, we are still very unlike them.

      Now, these old Romans, as I have often told you, had risen to be the greatest and mightiest people in the world, and to conquer many foreign countries, and set up colonies of Romans in them, very much as the English have done in India, and North America, and Australia: so that the little country of Italy, with its one great city of Rome, was mistress of vast lands far beyond the seas, ten times as large as itself, just as this little England is.

      But it is not so much this which I have to speak to you about now, as how this Rome became so great; for it was at first nothing but a poor little country town, without money, armies, trade, or any of those things which shallow-minded people fancy are the great strength of a nation. True, all those things are good; but they are useless and hurtful--and, what is more, they cannot be got--without something better than them; something which you cannot see nor handle; something spiritual, which is the life and heart of a country or nation, and without which it can never become great. This the old Romans had; and it made them become great. This we English have had for now fifteen hundred years; even when our forefathers were heathens, like the Romans, before we came into this good land of England, while we were poor and simple people, living in the barren moors of Germany, and the snowy mountains of Norway; even then we had this wonderful charm, by which nations are sure to become great and powerful at last; and in proportion as we have remembered and acted upon it, we English have thriven and spread; and whenever we have forgotten it and broken it, we have fallen into distress, and poverty, and shame, over the whole land.

      Now, what is this wonderful charm which made the old Romans and we English great, which is stronger than money, and armies, and trade, and all the things which we can see and handle?

      St. Paul tells us in the text: "Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. For there is no power but of God. The powers that be are ordained of God."

      To respect the law; to believe that God wills men to live according to law; and that He will teach men right and good laws; that magistrates who enforce the laws are God's ministers, God's officers and servants; that to break the laws is to sin against God;--that is the charm which worked such wonders, and will work them to the end of time.

      So you see it was a very proper thing for St. Paul, when he wrote to these Romans after they became Christians, to speak to them as he does in this chapter. They might have fancied, and many did fancy, that because they were Jesus Christ's servants now, they need not obey their heathen rulers and laws any more. But St. Paul says: "No; Jesus Christ's being King of Kings, is only the strongest possible reason for your obeying these heathen rulers. For if He is King of all the earth, He is King of Rome also, and of all her colonies; and therefore you may be sure that He would not leave these Roman rulers, and laws here if He did not think it right and fitting. If Jesus Christ is Lord of lords He is Lord of these Roman rulers, and they are His ministers and stewards; and you must obey them, and pay taxes to them for conscience's sake, as unto the Lord, and not unto man."

      So you see that St. Paul gave these Roman Christians no new commandment on these matters; nothing different from what their old heathen forefathers had believed. For the law which he mentions in verse 9, "Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal," etc., had been for centuries past part of the old Roman law, as well as of Moses' law.

      Those old heathen Romans believed, and rightly, that all law and order came from the great God of gods, whom they called in their tongue Jupiter, that is, the Heavenly Father. They believed that He would bless those who kept the laws; who kept their oaths and agreements, and the laws about government, about marriage, about property, about inheritance; and that He would surely punish those who broke the laws, who defrauded their neighbours of their rights, who swore falsely against their neighbour, or broke their agreements, who were unfaithful to their wives and husbands, or in any way offended against justice between man and man. And they believed too, and rightly, that as long as they kept the laws, and lived justly and orderly by them, the great Heavenly Father would protect and prosper their town of Rome, and make it grow great and powerful, because they were living as He would have men live; not doing each what was right in the sight of his own eyes, but conquering their own selfish wills and private fancies, for the sake of their neighbour's good, and the good of his country, that they might all help and trust each other, as fellow-citizens of one nation.

      Only St. Paul had told them: Your forefathers were right in fancying that law and right came from the great God of gods: but they knew hardly anything, or rather, in time they forgot almost everything, about that Heavenly Father. In their ignorance they mixed up the belief in the one great almighty and good God, which dwells in the hearts of all men, with filthy fables and superstitions till they came to fancy that there were many gods and not one, and that these many gods were sinful, foul, proud, and cruel, as fallen men. But you have been brought back to the knowledge of the one true, and righteous, and loving God, which your forefathers lost. He has revealed and shown Himself, and what He is like, in His Son Jesus Christ. He is love, and wisdom, and justice, and order itself; and, therefore, you must be sure, even more sure than your old heathen forefathers, that He cares for a nation being at peace and unity within itself, governed by wise laws, doing justice between man and man, and keeping order throughout all its business, that every man may do his work and enjoy his wages without hindrance, or confusion, or fear, or robbery and oppression from those who are stronger than he.

      And so St. Paul says to them: "You must believe that power and law come from God, far more firmly and clearly than ever your heathen forefathers did."

      Now that St. Paul was right in this we may see from the Old Testament. In the first lesson for this afternoon's service, we read how Jeremiah was sent with the most awful warnings to the king, and the queen, and the crown prince of his country. And why? Because they had broken the laws; because, in a word, they had been unfaithful stewards and ministers of the Lord God, who had given them their power and kingdom, and would demand a strict account of all which He had committed to their charge. But in the same book of the prophet Jeremiah we read more than this; we read exactly what St. Paul says about the heathen Roman governors: for the Lord God, who is the Lord Jesus Christ, sent Jeremiah with a message to all the heathen kings round about, to tell them that He was their Lord and Master, that He had given them their power, heathens as they were, because it seemed fit to Him, and that now, for their sins, He was going to deliver them over into the hand of another heathen, His servant Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon; and that whosoever would not serve Nebuchadnezzar, the Lord God would punish him with sword, and famine, and pestilence till he had consumed them. And the first four chapters of the book of Daniel, noble and wonderful as they are, seem to me to have been put into the Bible simply to teach us this one thing, that heathen rulers, as well as Christians, are the Lord's servants, and that their power is ordained by God. For these chapters are entirely made up of the history, how God, by His prophet Daniel, taught the heathen king Nebuchadnezzar that he was God's minister and steward. And the latter part of the book of Daniel is the account of his teaching the same thing to another heathen, Cyrus the great and good king of Persia. And here St. Paul teaches the Christian Romans just the same thing about their heathen governors and heathen laws, that they are the ministers and the ordinance of God.

      Now, our own English forefathers, as I said before, believed this same thing; and if I had time, I could show you, I think, plainly enough from God's dealings with England, how He has blest and prospered us whensoever we have acted up to it. But whether we have believed it or not, there is enough in our English laws, and in our English Prayer Book too, to witness for it and remind us of it.

      The very title which we give the Queen, "Queen by the grace of God;" the solemn prayers for her when she is crowned and anointed, not in her own palace, or in the House of Parliament, but in the Church of God at Westminster; the prayers which we have just offered up for the Queen, for the government, and for the magistrates--these are all so many signs and tokens to us that they are God's stewards, called to do God's work, and that we must pray for God's grace to help them to fulfil their calling. And are not those ten commandments which stand in every church, a witness of the same thing? They are the very root of all law whatsoever. And more, the solemn oath which a witness takes in the court of justice, what is it but a sign of the same thing, that our forefathers, who appointed these forms, believed that law and justice were holy things, and that he who goes into a court of law goes into the presence of God Himself, and confesses, when he promises to speak the truth, so help him God, that God is the protector and the avenger of law and justice?

      But some people, and especially young and light-hearted persons, are ready to say: "Obey the powers that be, whosoever they may be, good or bad, and believe that to break their laws is to sin against God? We might as well be slaves at once. A man has a right to his own opinion; and if he does not think a law good, how can he be bound to obey it?"

      You will often hear such words as those when you go out into the world, into great towns, where men meet together much. Let me give you, young people, a little advice about that beforehand; for, fine as it sounds, it is hollow and false at root.

      If you wish to be really free, and to do what you like, like what is right; and do that, says St. Paul, and then the law will not interfere with you: "For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil." And then he sums up what doing right is, in one short sentence: "Love thy neighbour as thyself; for love is the fulfilling of the law." All that the laws want to make you do, is to behave like men who do love their neighbours as themselves, and therefore do them no harm--to behave like men who are ready to give up their own private wills and pleasures, and even their own private property, if wanted, for the good of their neighbours and their country. Therefore the law calls on you to pay rates and taxes, which are to be spent for the good of the nation at large. And if you love your neighbour as yourself, and have the good of everyone round you at heart, you will no more grudge paying rates and taxes for their benefit than you will grudge spending money to support and educate your own children. And so you will be free, free to do what you like, because you like, from the fear and love of God, to do those right things which the law is set to make you do.

      But some may say: "That is not what we mean by being free. We mean having a share in choosing Members of Parliament, and so in making the laws and governing the country. When people can do that the country is a free country."

      Well, my friends, and it is a strange thing, or rather not a strange thing, if we will but study our Bibles, that a country cannot be free in that way, unless the people of it do really believe that the powers that be are ordained of God. Instead of that faith making the old Romans slavish, or careless what laws were made, or how they were governed, as some fancy it would make a people, they were as free a people, and freer almost than we English now. They chose their own magistrates, and they made their own laws, and prospered by so doing. And why? Because they believed that laws came from God; and, therefore, they not only obeyed the laws when they were made, but they had heart and spirit to help to make them, because they trusted that The Heavenly Father, who loved justice, would teach them to be just, and that The God who protected laws and punished law-breakers, would put into their minds how to make the laws well; and so they were not afraid to govern themselves, because they believed that God would enable them to govern themselves well, and therefore they were free. And so far from their having a slavish spirit in them, they were the most bold and independent people of the whole earth. Their soldiers conquered almost every nation against whom they fought, because they always obeyed their officers dutifully and faithfully, believing that it was their duty to God to obey, and to die, if need was, for their country. Old history is full of tales, which will never be forgotten, I trust, till the world's end, of the noble deeds of their men, ay, and even of their women, who counted their own lives worthless in comparison with the good of their country, and died in torments rather than break the laws, or do what they knew would injure the people to whom they belonged.

      And so with us English. For hundreds of years we have been growing more and more free, and more and more well-governed, simply because we have been acting on St. Paul's doctrine--obeying the powers that be, because they are ordained by God. It is the Englishman's respect for law, as a sacred thing, which he dare not break, which has made him, sooner or later, respected and powerful wherever he goes to settle in foreign lands; because foreigners can trust us to be just, and to keep our promises, and to abide by the laws which we have laid down. It is the English respect for law, as a sacred thing, which has made our armies among the bravest and the most successful on earth; because they know how to obey their officers, and are therefore able to fight and to endure as men should do. And as long as we hold to that belief we shall prosper at home and abroad, and become more and more free, and more and more strong; because we shall be united, helping each other, trusting each other, knowing what to expect of each other, because we all honour and obey the same laws.

      And, on the other hand, have we not close to us, in France, a fearful sign and proof from God that without the fear of God no people can be free? Three times in the last sixty years have the French risen up against evil rulers, and driven them out. And have they been the better for it? They are at this very moment in utter slavery to a ruler more lawless than ever oppressed them before. And why? Because they did not believe that law came from God, and that the powers that be are ordained by Him. Therefore, whenever they were oppressed, they did not try to right themselves by lawful ways, according to the old English God-fearing custom, but to break down the old law by riot and bloodshed, and then to set up new laws of their own. But those new laws would never stand. They made them, but they would not obey them when they were made, and they could not make others obey them; because they had no real reverence for law, and did not believe that law came from God, or that His Spirit would give them understanding to make good laws. They talked loud about the power and rights of the people, and that whatever the people willed was right: but they said nothing about the power and rights of the Lord God; they forgot that it is only what God has willed from everlasting that is right; and so they made laws in the strength of their own hearts, according to what was right in the sight of their own eyes, to please themselves. How could they respect the laws, when the laws were only copies of their own selfish fancies? So, because they made them to please themselves, they soon broke them to please themselves. And so came more lawlessness and riot, and confusion worse confounded, till, of course, the strongest, and cunningest, and most shameless got the upper hand; and they were plunged, poor creatures! into the same pit of misery out of which they had been trying to deliver themselves in their own strength, for a sign and an example that the Lord is King, and not man at all, and that the fear of the Lord is the only beginning of wisdom.

      And very much the same sad fate had happened to the Romans a little before St. Paul's time. They gave up their ancient respect for law; they broke the laws, and ran into all kinds of violence, and riot, and filthy sin; and therefore God took away their freedom from them, because they were not fit for it, and delivered them over into the hand of one cruel tyrant after another; and perhaps the cruellest of them all was the man who was emperor of Rome in St. Paul's time. Therefore it was that St. Paul says to them: Love each other, and obey the laws, "knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep."

      As much as to say: "Your souls have fallen asleep; you have been in a dark night, not seeing that God would avenge you of all these sins of yours; that God's eye was on them: you have fallen asleep and forgotten your forefathers' belief, that God loves law, and order, and justice, and will punish those who break through them. But now the Lord Jesus, the light of the world, is come to awaken you, and to open your eyes to see the truth about this, and to show you that you are in God's kingdom, and that God commands you to repent, and to obey Him, and do justly and righteously. Therefore awake out of your sleep; give up the works of darkness, those mean and wicked habits which were contrary to the good old laws of your forefathers, and which you were at heart ashamed of, and tried to hide even while you indulged in them. Open your eyes, and see that God is near you, your Judge, your King, seeing through and through your souls, keen and sharp to discern the secret thoughts and intents of the heart, so that all things are naked and open in the sight of Him with whom we have to do."

      And so I may say to you, my friends, it is high time for us to awake out of sleep. The people in England, religious as well as others, have fallen asleep of late years too much about this matter. They have forgotten that God is King, that magistrates are God's ministers. They talk as if laws were meant to be only the device of man's will, to serve men's private interests and selfishness; and therefore they have lost very much of their respect for law, and their care to make good laws for the future. And it is high time for us, while all the nations of Europe are tottering and crumbling round us, to awake out of sleep on this matter. We must open our eyes and see where we are. For we are in God's kingdom. God's Bible, God's churches, God's commandments, and all the solemn old law forms of England witness to us that God is King, set in the throne which judges right; that order and justice, fellow-feeling and public spirit, are His gifts, His likeness, on which He looks down with loving care and protection; and that if we forget that, and begin to fancy that law stands merely by the will of the many, or by the will of the stronger, or even by the will of the wiser--by any will of man in short; we shall end by neither being able to make just laws any more, nor to obey those which we have, by the blessing of God, already.

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