The Purpose of Government

God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’ ”

- Genesis 1:28

Republicanism, despotism, socialism, democracy, communism, monarchy—these are just a few of the governing philosophies that have been implemented in human history. All of them have different understandings of the role of the consent of the governed, individual freedoms, and other such things. But all governments, no matter the guiding philosophy, have one thing in common: the legal use of force. Simply put, a government may exercise force in ways that are often illegal for individuals. Of course, that does not mean governments are always morally correct in their use of force. It is possible for something to be permitted in the laws of fallen people that is actually forbidden by God’s law. Nevertheless, a basic principle of government is the legal use of force.

This foundational aspect actually predates the existence of human governance. God Himself evidences it, though what is “legal” for God to do and what is morally right for Him to do always coincide perfectly. The principle of the legal use of force is established by God’s holy character, for He has the right to deal with unholiness by force. We see this reflected in the first mention of divine government in relation to humanity when the Lord threatens to bring death upon Adam and Eve should they eat the forbidden fruit (Gen. 2:15–17). After the fall, the prerogative of the legal use of force by the divine government is also seen in the Lord’s placing the angel with the flaming sword to protect the garden of Eden (3:24). Since the fall, the legal use of force has also been granted to government for the purpose of punishing lawbreakers. For instance, the Mosaic law contains prescribed punishments for those who break the commandments.

The fall has made necessary the use of force to deal with those who break the law because of the presence of sin, but that does not mean there was no human government before Adam sinned. There is a principle of human government inherent to the created order, for we read in Genesis 1:28 that human beings have been given the authority to subdue the earth for the glory of God. Such a task would have required certain rules and guidelines to be established even apart from the fall so that men and women could cooperate most effectively to fulfill God’s plan. Government is not merely a necessary evil introduced to deal with the consequences of sin. It is part of the Lord’s plan for His original, very good creation.

Coram Deo

God intended government to help us fulfill the task given to all people, so we should not view the existence of government in itself as a necessary evil. In particular, government is a blessing as long as it sticks to the tasks that God has given it and does not try to take additional power for itself. Good citizens work to prevent the government from doing things it has not been appointed to do.

Passages for Further Study

Genesis 9:1–7; 41:37–57
Nehemiah 5:1–13
Romans 13:4a

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