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Rutherford on Romans 13 and the Logic of Resistance

I’m reading through Lex Rex and plan to interact with it fully when I’m done. One of the best strengths of the book is the rigorous logic by which he refutes the “royalists” (those who affirm the divine right of kings to absolute power). By the same rigorous logic his own position also falls, as I’ll demonstrate in the future. Rutherford, representing the Scottish reformed view, is important for people to understand as a stepping stone. Most people have this limbo view where they deny any absolute divine right to rulers, but they simultaneously deny any right to resistance. Rutherford shows you have to pick one or the other.


  • Resistance to God-ordained authority is opposition to God.
  • God does not ordain anyone to tyranny.
  • Therefore resistance to tyranny is not opposition to God.

2. All power is God’s, (1 Chron. xxix. 11; Matt. vi. 13; Psal. lxii. 11; lxviii. 35; Dan. ii. 37,) and that absolute power to tyrannise, is not from God. 1. Because, if this moral power to sin be from God, it being formally wickedness, God must be the author of sin. 2. Whatever moral power is from God, the exercises of that power, and the acts thereof, must be from God, and so these acts must be morally good and just; for if the moral power be of God, as the author, so must the acts be. Now, the acts of a tyrannical power are acts of sinful injustice and oppression, and cannot be from God…

It is no power which is not lawful power. The royalists say, power of tyranny, in so far as it may be resisted, and is punishable by men, is not from God. But what is the other part of the distinction? It must be, that tyrannical power is simpliciter from God, or in itself it is from God; but as it is punishable or restrainable by subjects, it is not from God…

When the magistrate doth anything by violence, and without law, in so far doing against his office, he is not a magistrate. Then, say I, that power by which he doth, is not of God. None doth, then, resist the ordinance of God who resist the king in tyrannous acts. If the power, as it cannot be punished by the subject nor restrained, be from God, therefore the tyrannical power itself, and without this accident — that it can be punished by men — it must be from God also. But the conclusion is absurd, and denied by royalists. I prove the connection: If the king have such a power above all restraint, the power itself, to wit, king David’s power to kill innocent Uriah, and deflower Bathsheba, without the accident of being restrained or punished by men, it is either from God or not from God. If it be from God, it must be a power against the sixth and seventh commandments, which God gave to David, and not to any subject; and so David lied when he confessed this sin, and this sin cannot be pardoned because it was no sin: and kings, because kings, are under no tie of duties of mercy, and truth, and justice to their subjects, contrary to that which God’s law requireth of all judges (Deut. i. 15-17; xvii. 15-20; 2 Chron. xix. 6, 7; Rom. xiii. 3, 4): if this power be from God, as it is unrestrainable and unpunishable by the subject, it is not from God at all; for how can God give a power to do ill, that is unpunishable by men, and not give that power to do ill? It is inconceivable; for in this very thing that God giveth to David — a power to murder the innocent — with this respect, that it shall be punishable by God only, and not by men, God must give it as a sinful power to do ill, which must be a power of dispensation, to sin, and so not to be punished by either God or man, which is contrary to his revealed will in his word.

If such a power as not restrainable by man be from God by way of permission, as a power to sin in devils and men is, then it is no royal power, nor any ordinance of God; and to resist this power, is not to resist the ordinance of God.

Lex Rex, Question 22

Published in Brandon Adams

  • Some more quotes from chapter 28.

    A tyrant, without a title, may be resisted by any private man. Quia licet vim vi repellere, because we may repel violence by violence; yea, he may be killed…

    For the lawfulness of resistance in the matter of the king’s unjust invasion of life and religion, we offer these arguments.

    Arg. 1. — That power which is obliged to command and rule justly and religiously for the good of the subjects, and is only set over the people on these conditions, and not absolutely, cannot tie the people to subjection without resistance, when the power is abused to the destruction of laws, religion, and the subjects. But all power of the law is thus obliged, (Rom. xiii. 4; Deut. xvii. 18-20; 2 Chron. xix. 6; Ps. cxxxii. 11, 12; lxxxix. 30, 31; 2 Sam. vii. 12; Jer. xvii. 24, 25,) and hath, and may be, abused by kings, to the destruction of laws, religion, and subjects. The proposition is clear. 1. For the powers that tie us to subjection only are of God. 2. Because to resist them, is to resist the ordinance of God. 3. Because they are not a terror to good works, but to evil. 4. Because they are God’s ministers for our good, but abused powers are not of God, but of men, or not ordinances of God; they are a terror to good works, not to evil; they are not God’s ministers for our good.

    Arg. 2. — That power which is contrary to law, and is evil and tyrannical, can tie none to subjection, but is a mere tyrannical power and unlawful; and if it tie not to subjection, it may lawfuly be resisted. But the power of the king, abused to the destruction of laws, religion, and subjects, is a power contrary to law, evil, and tyrannical, and tyeth no man to subjection: wickedness by no imaginable reason can oblige any man. Obligation to suffer of wicked men falleth under no commandment of God, except in our Saviour. A passion, as such, is not formally commanded, I mean a physical passion, such as to be killed. God hath not said to me in any moral law, Be thou killed, tortured, beheaded; but only, Be thou patient, if God deliver thee to wicked men’s hands, to suffer these things.